Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bible 101, Question #7: The Word of God in the Church of God

Here we are - the last post of yet another series. When I initially planned this series I intended on six posts:

 1. Is the Bible the inspired Word of God? If so, what are the implications for its inerrancy and authority?

2. What texts should be considered Scripture?

 3. Why are there differences in translations?

4. What is the purpose of reading and studying the Bible?

5. How should I approach reading the Bible?

6. What are some basic principles for interpreting Scripture?

However, as is often the case, God showed me that the plan was incomplete. He had more to teach us -- to teach me -- about His Word. I hope you've learned as much as I have through this study. But I ask you to bear with me for one more lesson - one that I wasn't expecting to learn, but has turned out to be the most significant lesson of my personal study.

The Bible is not just for your personal growth
Maybe this is an "aha!" moment for some of you, as it was for me, but God didn't give His word to individual believers. He gave it to the community of believers. Whether the commandments imparted to Moses on Mount Sinai for the believers below, the words given to the prophets that became the Old Testament, or the words inspired to the apostles for the new church ... God's Word was inspired in the context of community. We lose a lot of this in modern English, because our plural for "you" is "you" (unless you are Texan like me, then you get to use "y'all"). The King James Version captures the difference in many cases with the old plural form "ye". As you read the New Testament you will see many of the teachings we often take as personal in our individualistic culture are, in fact, plural - for the church! Examples abound but I will just give one - 2 Peter 1:1-11. The "you's" are plural - something you don't have to know Greek to know, as you see references to the church sprinkled throughout.
2 Peter 1:1-11 NIV 1 Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours: 2 Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. 3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. 10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Rather than pulling out a personal to-do list from this passage ("OK, I have faith, now I need to be good. OK, now let me grow in knowledge..."), this passage gives corporate encouragement and guidance for how the church should be characterized, and how the church can be characterized. Now, it is true that individual believers should have faith, be known for goodness and self-control, and persevere. But Peter's implication is that we will do that together. The Holy Spirit in each of us individually works in a unique way corporately.

In light of this series focus on the Word of God, then, what does that look like where the Bible is concerned? It's always been easy for me to understand corporate worship, prayer, and mission. But God has taught me the past few years about the word of God in a corporate context, taking me beyond my personal Bible study into a deeper understanding of His purposes for the word of God in the church of God. I won't even attempt a comprehensive look at this subject; instead I want to focus on two main areas where His word functions within His church.

Probably the most obvious way we see His Word in most evangelical churches today is in the sermon. Preaching is unique from all other methods of studying the Bible that I discussed in the last post. While I can learn a lot from in-depth study, Bible reading, and even listening to the Bible, there are specific benefits from preaching that I continually need throughout my Christian life:
Romans 10:14-17 ESV 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?" 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
We can't take verse 17 out of its context: Paul is speaking of the proclamation of the Gospel. In the overall context he is talking about those who have not heard the Gospel; a broad look at the full context of Scripture assures us that the Gospel is relevant not only for unbelievers but for Christians as well. Faith is birthed through the proclamation of the Gospel, but the continued proclamation of the truth of the Gospel to believers strengthens that faith and yields joy, as John so beautifully puts it:
1 John 1:1-4 ESV 1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-- 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us-- 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Luke 8:18 gives a profound warning. In the context of the lesson of lighting a lamp so it can be seen, Jesus gives this caution: Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them." This is given in the context of proclaiming truth. Jesus warns us to be careful how we listen to truth, because what we do with the truth we have is connected with receiving more truth.

What does that mean in the context of listening to a sermon? Assuming your pastor is preaching from Scripture and has a high view of the word of God, not denying any essential doctrines, you can approach each sermon knowing that he has been seeking God and that God wants to speak through him to your church. He might even have a personal word for you! Here are some tips I've learned over the years to maximize my ability to hear from God through my pastor's sermons:
  • Expect to hear a word from God. Going into the sermon with the expectation that God has something to say to me is the single most important step I take to "listen well."
  • Stay in the Word during the week. My ability to discern what God is saying is enhanced to the degree that I'm in the word personally. Often the sermon serves to reinforce something God is already teaching me.
  • Take my pastor seriously. God has given him a huge job. He is responsible to God to give an account for my soul (Hebrews 13:17) and faces a more severe judgment because he teaches the word (James 3:1). Therefore, when he says "Read over this chapter this upcoming week", I need to read the chapter. When he says "Take this to the Lord in prayer", I need to pray about it. These are not just sermon fillers. These are important steps in the care of my soul
  • Know my learning style. It's a simple thing, but knowing my learning style has greatly enhanced my understanding of Scripture. I'm a tactile learner, which means I have to write it down! I take notes during the sermon, then I come home and put a sermon summary on Facebook (part of communicating it to others, as we discussed in the last lesson). I may never open those notes again, but the act of writing cements it in my brain. You have your own learning style. Find away to connect it to the sermon. If it's auditory - you can learn just by focusing on the individual words. Visual learners might try picturing the story. Kinesthetic learners, who often have to be fidgeting or moving to learn, might consider volunteering to be an usher or greeter - these people often stand through much of a service and therefore have an excuse to move around. The ideas are endless. The key is to understand yourself and seek God's wisdom for how that can impact your ability to get the most from the message.
  • Stay focused on the main thing. Your pastor might say some things that distract you. Maybe he tells corny jokes. Perhaps his story about the day his dog treed a squirrel means nothing to you. With all due respect, give the guy a break. He is teaching a hard passage of Scripture (they are all hard in some way!) to a group of people ranging from unbelievers to seasoned saints who have heard the passage dozens or hundreds of times. There are founding members of your church alongside newcomers. He is trying to break it down for the maximum benefit of everyone involved, trusting the Holy Spirit to do something with what probably feels to him like loaves and fishes. Often God is working on him even while he is preaching the sermon. Laugh at the jokes, latch on to the illustrations that help you, make note of questions that arise about his teaching and follow up later, and most importantly ...
  • Pray for your pastor. During the week, pray for the message. During the message, pray for the message. After the message, pray for the message. Through it all, pray for the messenger. You get the idea! As you pray for him, you will be more connected to what's happening on Sunday morning. If you notice that he consistently starts rubbing his eyes, pray about that. Make note of the Sunday he doesn't rub his eyes at all and thank God for answered prayer. BE ENGAGED!!
Relationships Between Believers
Another key way that God's word works uniquely through the church, in a way it does not work from a solely personal perspective, is the relationship between believers. Hebrews 10:24-25 gives the classic purpose of gathering with other believers: And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. When we are in relationship with other believers, particularly in the local church where we meet together, we have regular opportunities to strengthen and encourage each other. It's said so much we often overlook its truth: When you have a bad week, you need the church. When you have a good week, the church needs you.

Every believer has one or more spiritual gifts (Romans 12) that always operate within the bounds of Scripture. The more we interact with each other, the more opportunity we have to exercise those gifts and see others exercise their gifts!

Finally, Scripture even tells us that our conversation should be laced with the words of God, as "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" become a way that the word of Christ dwells richly within us and we impart wisdom and admonishment to each other. (Colossian 3:16).

There is so much more that I could say on this topic, and on the word of God in general. My prayer is that this series has sparked your interest to go deeper into His Word and its riches. May we join Paul in praying "that the word of the Lord spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was among you." (2 Thess. 3:1).

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bible 101, Question 6: Principles for In-Depth Bible Study

Assuming you have been with me through this series, you know why I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the Bibles we hold in our hands are accurate texts of the words God inspired, that the differences in translations should not trouble us, and that the Bible should have a place of priority in the life of a believer. The last post covered some ways to start making the Bible prominent in your life. In this post I want to zero in on one of those suggestions: In-depth Bible study.

What is in-depth Bible study?
When I use the phrase "in-depth Bible study" I'm not referring to a particular method or style. In-depth Bible study is any form of detailed Bible study that requires you to look seriously at the text and spend significant time understanding what it says (observation), what it means (interpretation), what it means in your life (application), and how to communicate it to others (proclamation). This can be guided, with a workbook or a teacher, or it can just be you and the Bible. The key to in-depth Bible study is that the Bible itself, not commentaries or other resources, always remains central. In-depth Bible study honors the inspired text of the Bible by making it the primary textbook. There are a number of excellent "How to study your Bible" books out there; rather than re-invent the wheel I am just going to touch on each of these four elements in an overview fashion to get you started and encourage you to follow the Holy Spirit's leading from there.

The first step is to pick a book to study. For simplicity I am going to refer to the book of Philemon as an example. This is a one-chapter book that is rich in treasures when we take time to dig them out. Don't rush it - you will complete this study over several days or even a couple of weeks. The more time you allow for study, the deeper you can go into the words of the Word. OK - grab a Bible, pray for spiritual insight, and let's get started!

Observation - what it says
Observation always comes first. You absolutely cannot understand accurately what a text means if you don't know what it says. So let's turn to Philemon (the book right before Hebrews) and follow the first step of observation: Read the text. Right now, read the book of Philemon at least once. (If you have a study Bible, resist the urge to look at its notes.) Before you are finished with observation, you will want to read it multiple times, possibly in different translations. I always like to read out loud, especially the letters since they were written to be read aloud. And often my final step in the reading phase of observation is to listen to the text read aloud (many Bible apps have audio versions). This is the one step of the process you can't really overdo. My pastor spoke Sunday of one pastor who reads the text 30 times before preparing a sermon.

Done reading? OK, let's go to step two. Look for key words and ideas. Having spent so much time in the text, you should be able to see recurring themes. What words, phrases, or ideas occur over and over? Find a way to note these - you can mark them in unique colors in your Bible, or make a list in a notebook. Somehow though, you want to be able to record what key ideas occur in the passage. In Philemon I noted words like love, appeal, slave, refresh, and useful. Some of these might not occur a lot, but in a very short book even one or two significant verses can make a theme important.

Once you have your key words, you want to start looking at significant transitions in the text. The "connecting words" of Scripture are big clues here. Words like "therefore", "so", "but", "for" signal potential shifts in thought or logical connections. These transitions will bring you to an outline of the text. Since paragraphs and verses are man-made, not inspired, don't feel like your outline has to correlate to the paragraphs in your Bible. It can even be helpful to do this initial observation on a printout of the Bible verses with no paragraph markings. In Philemon, I notice two major sections: verses 1-7, and verses 8-25. Within those sections are five paragraphs: verses 1-3; verses 4-7; verses 8-20; verses 21-22; and verses 23-24. How does that line up with what you observed? Don't worry about filling in paragraph descriptions or any outline details - that will come.

By the time you complete these three steps -- multiple read-throughs; key words and ideas; and an outline -- you will have a good idea of some basic questions to answer. Through your observation, answer the following questions:
What type of literature is it? Differences in genre will significantly affect the interpretation of the text. Some of the common Biblical genres include historical; biographical; poetry; proverbs; prophecy; epistles (letter); or a combination of genres.
WHO are the important characters in the book? Think not only of the author but of individuals featured prominently in the text of the book.
Where does this occur? Are there any geographical references?
When does this occur? What about timeframe? This will rarely be an exact year, but you will often see references to other events with words like "before" or "after" or "during".
What is the purpose of the book? Does the author state a reason for writing?

These are just a few questions. You can come up with your own. This of "who, what, when, where, why, how" to get you started asking questions of the text. Record all your answers and note where in the text you find them. In Philemon, you probably noted that this is a letter, written by Paul and Timothy to Philemon, Apphia, Archipus, and the church in their home (verses 1-2). The purpose of the book is stated in verse 9 - to make an appeal on behalf of Onesimus, who was formerly a slave but whom Paul is sending back with this letter asking Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in the Lord (v 16).  I won't give away all the answers, but that should be enough to give you the idea.

By the time you finish with observation you will have done a good day's or week's work! You might feel you are done because you will have a solid stack of notes. But this is where the fun really begins!

Interpretation - what it means
Once you understand the author's purpose in writing the book and have a solid foundation for what it says, you are ready to begin to interpret what it means. Think of observation like flying over a forest to get a broad look at the trees and flora. Now, in interpretation, we are going to land the plane and start looking at individual leaves, bark, grasses, etc. Ready? Keep in prayer, grab your Bible and notebook, and let the fun begin!

Taking your outline divisions one segment at a time, begin to focus on the individual words. Make a list of your key words and phrases and begin to list out what is said about each one. Pay special attention to what you learn about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Let the words draw out their meaning for you. Keep a separate page of questions that you need to find answers to. As you study a section, fill in the outline with a sentence stating the main point of that section of text.

As you seek to interpret the meaning of a text, there are a few key principles of Biblical interpretation to keep before you. It is easy to do "eisegesis" - that means to read something INTO the text. Anyone can make the Bible say anything they want it to, if they ignore the context. But "exegesis" - drawing out from the text what it says, without preconceived interpretations - is a lot harder. These principles of exegesis help you in your task:

1. Context rules! Always keep a verse in the context of the section you are in, the chapter you are in, the larger book you are in, and the larger body of that author's work, as well as the entire Bible. You want to ensure that you understand who the author was writing to, what the problem seems to be, what the historical or cultural context is, etc. If you spent ample time in observation, you will have a decent idea of the context before you do any interpretation.

2. Compare Scripture to Scripture. Always let God's word interpret God's word. For example John 15:7 says "ask whatever you wish and it shall be done for you." This verse has been sorely mishandled by people who failed to bring into their teaching other things in scripture about prayer. 1 John 5:14 tells us we have to ask in accordance with God's will, and James 4:3 says our motivation has to be right. Using a basic concordance will allow you to easily look at other passages about the subject you are considering.

3. Scripture will never contradict Scripture. Sometimes you will come across some hard things in the Bible. However, knowing that the Bible is the fully inspired word of God and that His truth is eternal, we know that He will not contradict Himself. Therefore, any apparent contradiction is a misunderstanding on our part, not a contradiction on the Bible's part.

4. Let clear Scriptures shine light on unclear Scriptures. Don't base doctrine on a random, obscure verse. Everything important in Scripture is repeated multiple times, sometimes hundreds of times. In almost 19 years of in-depth study I have found that when I stay focused on what is clear, over time God sheds light on unclear things. He knows I cannot handle it all at once!

5. Look first for the clear, literal, plain meaning of Scripture. Understanding the purpose of Scripture is for God to reveal Himself to us, we can assume that He inspired it in a way that is understandable! Don't fall for distracting teachings that complicate the simple words of God. Take it at face value, as the straightforward words of God, within the bounds of the genre. Does that mean there is nothing figurative? Of course not! Figures of speech are to be interpreted as such, just as poetic language is to be factored in. God doesn't literally have wings, for example, though Psalm 91:4 mentions Him covering the psalmist with his wings. But interpreting Scripture by Scripture, we can look at Jesus' words in Luke 13:34 and realize that God uses a similar image to speak of His desire to gather and protect His children just as a bird gathers and protects her young.

6. Look for the author's intended meaning of the passage. This is closely related to the idea of context. In the author's day, what was the purpose of this passage?

7. Utilize appropriate resources, such as word study tools and commentaries, only after doing your own research. There is definitely a place for study tools! I have word study books, concordances, books, and other resources that help me. Taking your understanding back to these sources is a good way to make sure you are not way off base. You don't even have to have a lot of resources! Just visit Blue Letter Bible and click on "Tools" next to any verse. You'll get a popup menu of word study tools, commentaries, sermons, etc. Use these with discernment, and only after doing your own interpretation, and you will be amazed at how much you've learned!

Those are just a handful of Bible study principles to get you started. For more indepth study on how to study the Bible, check out some of the books in the Bibliography.

Application - What does it mean to me?
Once you understand what the Word says and what it means, you can begin personal application. Again, questions are key to drawing out more than general points. Stay in prayer and ask God to show you what to do with the light He's given you in His word. Ask if there is a truth to be believed, a command to be obeyed, a warning to heed, a change to make. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that "All Scripture is inspired by god and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." Application is incredibly personal, but any application truly guided by God will teach you, reprove you (revealing areas that don't line up with Scripture), correct you, and/or train you in righteousness.

In Philemon, one of my personal applications was a truth to be believed, from verse 3: We live in a context of grace and peace! Another was from verse 6: The more I understand what has been put in me for Christ's sake, the more effective I am in my faith. This gives me motivation to stay in the word to understand what He has equipped me to become! And from Paul's example in verses 8-10 I learn that a Godly leader will appeal to love instead of issuing a command when possible. You get the idea!

Proclamation - How can I communicate this to others?
This final step completes the circle of revelation. You see, God didn't give us His word for us to horde to ourselves. He wants us to be part of His great task of telling the nations of the glory of Jesus! So anything we understand in the word of God is meant not only to transform us personally, but to strengthen us corporately and impact the world in our circles of influence. We'll talk more about the corporate aspect of the word of God in the next (and final) post of the series, but for now I just want to put out the idea that your Bible study isn't complete until you have somehow shared it with someone else.

At the most basic this would be praying for God to give you a chance to share a verse or a truth with someone. It doesn't even have to be a "chapter and verse" quote. Speaking truth into a situation is powerful, even if the person doesn't know the source. But it does open a door when you share something and the other person asks where you got that idea, or why you believe that to be true.

Other ways to communicate Scripture to others abound. In our social media-centered world, you can be a voice of truth sharing your daily Bible study insights. You can disciple a believer younger in the Lord. If God seems to have so gifted you, you can help out in your church teaching children's church or women's/men's studies (under the authority of your pastor, of course). The most important thing to remember is to keep your eyes and heart open to how God would have you share with others the truth He has taught you!

There you have it - some basic steps in the four-step process of in-depth Bible study. However you approach it, understanding these four steps will strengthen your study. Please see the resources below if you want to go deeper!

Select Bibliography
Arthur, Kay. How to Study Your Bible. Harvest House, 1994.

Fee, Gordon, and Stuart, Douglas. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Zondervan, 1993.

Graham, Mary Creswell. Inductive Bible Study Explained. Printout provided by William Carey International University for students in graduate program.

Morey, Earl Wesley. Search the Scriptures. Agape Ministry, 1993.

Piper, John. Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Original Meaning of Scriptural Texts. Desiring God Ministries, 199.

The International Inductive Study Bible, Harvest House, 1992.

Wald, Oletta. The Joy of Discovery in Bible Study. Augburg, 1975.