They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.Acts 2:42 NIV
This verse describes life in the church immediately after Pentecost. And I believe we can learn much about the early success of the church from this passage. This body of believers devoted themselves to four things: Bible study (the apostle’s teaching), spending time together (fellowship), worship (breaking of bread), and prayer. The first four articles in this discipleship series will look at these four habits of the early church, starting with Bible study.
What Is the Bible?
A Sacred Library
The Bible is a collection of writings produced by a variety of human authors. It was written over a period of time that spanned centuries. And it includes a variety of different genres of literature. The Bible can properly be considered a library of texts, divided into two major categories. The Old Testament is composed of the sacred writings of Judaism. And The New Testament contains the sacred texts of Christianity.
There is debate as to who wrote some of it. As well as when the different books were actually composed. But who the human authors were, and when they wrote, are of secondary importance. What matters is that the human authors wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And thus, the primary author is God himself.
What is meant by saying that the Bible is inspired by God? Inspiration is a word that the Apostle Paul used to describe the Bible. In 2 Timothy 3:16, he said that “all Scripture is inspired by God.” Many translations use the term God-breathed rather than inspiration. And that is probably more descriptive of what is meant by inspiration. The Scripture that we have is God-breathed. It is God’s words, given to us through human authors.
There is some debate as to just what role the human authors played in this process. Did they take simple dictation, writing down what they heard? Or did God give them his message and allow them to phrase it in their own words? I believe the latter is true, but there are certainly many who hold to some variation of the first. But I do not believe it matters. The Bible is God’s word, given to us, to help us grow in our faith. What role the human authors played is not important.
We also say that the Bible is authoritative in all matters of faith and practice. What this means is that the Bible is our final authority concerning what we believe and how we live our lives as believers. The Bible does not regulate every detail of our lives. Nor does it contain answers to every question we might have. But it does serve as a guide.
It is important that our lives and beliefs conform to what the Bible teaches. There are a variety of ways that people have interpreted some portions of the Scripture over the years. And it can sometimes be challenging to know which is right. But you can, and should, always compare your beliefs against the Scripture. And if you find they do not agree, then change your beliefs accordingly.
Some will claim that the Bible is outdated and cannot serve as a reliable guide for life in the 21st century. But there is a great danger that comes with dismissing the Bible like that. It replaces the Bible as the ultimate authority for our faith and practice with whatever cultural standards happen to be in effect at some specific time and place. By rejecting the ultimate authority of the Bible, we end up adrift with nothing solid to which to anchor our faith.
Why Should We Study the Bible?
The Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God. But what value does it have for me? Why should a believer spend any time in these old texts that are oftentimes nearly incomprehensible? I can give you a few good reasons why there is value in reading and studying the Bible.
We Are Told To
To be clear, nowhere does the Scripture specifically tell us to read the Bible. At no time during the period of time covered by the biblical writings was there anything like what today we call the Bible. It was being written and read during much of that time. But it was not collected into a consolidated collection until long after all of its pieces had been written. And reading it would have had additional challenges. Literacy was not universal. And books had to be hand-copied, a slow and labor-intensive process. So most people did not have access to books.
But the books and letters that make up the Bible were intended to be read. And that reading was often done publically. In 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul instructed Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture. At the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians (Col 4:16), he told them that after his letter had been read to them, to share it with the church of Laodicea and have their letter read to them. And, in Revelation 1:3, the one who reads aloud the words written there would be blessed, as would those who heard those words read.
So the witness of the early church was that the Scripture was read. And that they were instructed to read it. How much more should we read it now, since we have such easy access to it?
For Intellectual Knowledge
While it may not be the best reason for reading the Bible, reading for intellectual understanding is a valid reason. And one that is encouraged. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us that we should “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” How can one give a rational reason for the beliefs they hold if they have not studied their faith and the source of those beliefs?
Invest time in getting to know what the Bible has to say. It is often not easy to read. But if you read it carefully and prayerfully, the Holy Spirit will help you in your quest for understanding. The steps that follow are dependent on having this intellectual knowledge. So don’t skip over this.
For Relational Knowledge
God reveals himself most clearly to us in the pages of the Bible. So it follows that the more you come to understand the Bible, the more you can come to understand God. And that understanding will help you in the development of a personal relationship with him. Knowing about someone and really knowing that person are two distinct things. But the more I know about a person, the better I can know them. And that is true of God as well.
Developing a relationship with God is really a two-way affair. I seek to get to know him better. And to better understand what he wants of me. In Psalm 119:11, the psalmist expressed that he had hidden God’s word deep within in order not to sin against God. Use the Bible to gain knowledge about God. And then use that knowledge to draw closer to him as a child to his Father.
For Effective Service
The passage mentioned above, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, goes beyond expressing the inspiration of the Scripture and provides the reason God has given it to us. The Scripture “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Bible is a tool that God uses to help me to grow as a believer and in partnership with him.
As I spend time in the Bible and come to better understand God and what he is doing, it helps me to better understand my place in his kingdom. It helps me to better understand the importance of growing in my faith as well as serving him. I can see how God has used others, and how he might use me. And I am challenged to be a disciple of Jesus, following him as he leads me.
I will seldom find specific answers to the areas of service God has equipped me for within the pages of the Bible. But the Bible will equip me to be able to discern the equipping and leading of the Holy Spirit. The better I know the Bible, the better equipped I will be to effectively follow and serve.
Some Tips for Effective Bible Study
There are a number of ways that you can spend time with the Bible. And all of them have value. The most important thing you can do is just to open it and read it. But there are a few ways that will increase the value you get out of your reading.
Have a Consistent Reading Plan
Maybe the best thing you can do is to have a consistent plan for reading your Bible. Any of it you read is good. But the more of it you read on a consistent basis, the better it will be for your growth. If you are new to Bible reading, I would recommend starting with the New Testament. Read a gospel and then a few of the other books. Repeat that until you have read through the New Testament.
Don’t stop once you have read through the New Testament. Read it again. And again. In fact, you should never stop reading it. But you will want to eventually start reading the Old Testament as well. Some of it can be very challenging to understand, repetitive, and very strange. As you read it, it is helpful to learn about the culture that produced it and what it was trying to communicate to them.
A study Bible can be helpful as you read. But it is important to recognize that the notes in a study Bible are not inspired Scripture. They can give you insight into what the Bible is saying, but those notes are not infallible. It would also be helpful to find a reading plan that you can follow. There is a multitude of plans available. The best one is the one you will use. I am currently using one called the M’Cheyne Reading Plan. This plan reads the New Testament and Psalms twice a year and the Old Testament once, reading from multiple places each day.
In-depth Study of a Passage
Once you have become familiar with the Bible as a whole, it can be profitable to study a specific passage, or even a book, more in-depth. Slowly read the passage under study several times, trying to understand what the author was saying. Take advantage of any study tools you have available such as a commentary. Developing a library for Bible study used to be an expensive and time-consuming process. But, while you can still buy reference materials in a printed format, many of them are readily available online for a reasonable price. See below for a more detailed description of resources for your study.
Recognizing the Cultural Differences
An obstacle in understanding the Scripture is the cultural differences between the original audience and yourself. It is easy, and common, to view the Bible as written in whatever culture we live in today. But that is far from the truth. The Bible was written at a time when modern technology and medicine were unheard of. Transportation was limited, and most people grew up, lived, and died in the same general location. The individuality that we pride ourselves on today did not exist then. The family or clan was at the heart of life. There was little understanding of how the world worked. It was all under the control of God, or the gods.
Understanding the original culture can help us to make better sense of much of what the Bible is saying. It is worth investing in a study Bible that will help you to understand the culture. I use the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible in my Olive Tree app for this purpose. But there are other options available.
Be Careful of Context
It is hard to overstate the importance of context. Even though your study might be with a small passage, do not forget the context it is found in. That includes the immediate context of the passage, both before and after. It also includes the context of the book the passage is found in and the message of the Bible as a whole.
Failing to consider the context your passage is in can lead to a skewed understanding. It is important that what you learn from the passage under study be in harmony with the Scripture as a whole. If you find that a passage seems to say something to you that is at odds with what you find elsewhere, the problem lies in your understanding, not in the Scripture itself. If you cannot reconcile what you are reading with the rest of the Scripture, you may need to put it down for a while and come back later. Don’t be afraid to admit ignorance. It can be a very good and healthy position to take.
Greek and Hebrew
The Bible was not written in English, or whatever other language you might speak. The vast majority of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, with a very small part written in Aramaic. And the New Testament was written in Greek. And the Hebrew and Greek used to write the Bible are different than what is spoken today. Most of us today are not familiar with these languages. As a result, we are very dependent on the work of translators who work hard to produce reliable translations in modern languages.
While the translators do an admirable job, there are nuances of the languages that are hard, if not impossible, to translate adequately. Ideally, we would all learn biblical Hebrew and Greek so that we could read the Scripture in its original languages. But that is not feasible for most of us. Instead, it is helpful to have Greek and Hebrew dictionaries available that can give us more precise definitions of words as well as the different ways they are translated.
Online tools can make this very easy. I use the NIV Word Study Bible in Olive Tree. With that tool, I can click on any word in the English text and find the Hebrew or Greek word that it translates as well as a definition for the word, the different ways it is translated, and where else in the Scripture it can be found. What used to be a difficult task has become very easy.
As you study, take notes on what you are learning. What that note-taking will look like will depend on you and the tools you have available to you. Over the years, I have written notes in the margin of Bibles, in notebooks, and now in my online tools. Where you take your notes, and how extensive they are is not as important as just taking them. Writing something down helps to solidify the thought. And it can force you to think a bit more deeply than if you are just thinking about it.
Another advantage of note-taking is that it allows you to track your growing understanding of the Scripture. I no longer have the notes I took 50 years ago. But I do have a few notebooks from 30-40 years ago. And I have found that my understanding has grown substantially.
You may never share your notes with anyone else. I certainly never did until recently. But I have found that if I am writing something that others will see, I tend to be more precise and clear in my wording. Even if your notes will never be seen by anyone other than you, take the time to develop your thoughts clearly and fully. For most of us, myself included, that is hard to do. But it is so very helpful in growing ever deeper in the Word.
In-depth Study of a Topic
Much of what was written about the in-depth study of a passage is applicable here as well. The primary difference is that the scope of your study is broader. You are trying to understand what the Bible has to say about faith, hope, love, heaven, salvation, and a host of other topics.
A concordance can be an invaluable tool for this study. Look up all of the places where the word you are studying is found, as well as any variations of it. Choose those that are relevant to the topic you are studying. And then study them together, looking to reach a conceptual framework about what they have to say. You may find that there are outliers that you cannot currently fit into the framework you have developed. Set them aside for now and revisit them over time. But if you cannot reach a conclusion that is supported by the vast majority of the passages under study, you should be careful not to draw too strong of a conclusion.
Resources for Study
What do you need for Bible study? The only thing you really need is a Bible. Ideally, a Bible that you can easily read.
Once you have a good Bible that you regularly read, you can look into a concordance and a Bible dictionary. A concordance will help you to identify where words are found throughout the Bible, as well as help you to locate a passage whose reference you do not remember. And a dictionary can help you in understanding the more common words that are used in the Bible. There is a variety of both of these that are available. You should pick one that uses the same translation as the Bible you are studying. The KJV and the NIV have the most choices, while other translations have a more limited selection.
Commentaries can also prove useful. They provide an explanation of the Scripture from the perspective of a person who has invested much time and effort in studying the Scripture. Commentaries are not inspired and do not have the authority of the Scripture. But they can give insight into what it is saying. Commentaries will range from single-volume commentaries on the whole Bible to single books or parts of biblical books. Commentaries can be an expensive investment, so care should be taken if you choose to buy one. Check the reviews on it first. And don’t buy more than you will use.
Over the many years I have studied the Bible, I have collected a bookcase full of references and other tools. And they have been helpful in my study. But there is some effort needed to find the right book and search through it for what I am looking for. And I found that oftentimes I did not bother.
But in recent years, I have started using digital resources more and more. And now I seldom pull a book from the shelf. At the click of a mouse button or touch of a finger, I can easily view a variety of dictionaries, concordances, and commentaries. And I find myself doing that more and more. I find that even my daily reading has been enhanced by the ability to easily do a bit of easy research here and there.
The two digital resources I use and can recommend are the Olive Tree Bible app and Bible Gateway. Olive Tree is an actual app that you can install on a desktop, tablet, or phone. There are some free resources, including Bible translations available. Others are available at a modest fee. And others that can be expensive. I use it to take notes that are shared across my devices and have a number of tools that enhance my study. A major advantage of an app like this is that wherever I am, I have my Bible and library with me.
Bible Gateway is an online website that includes many translations and a few free resources. You can also subscribe, for a modest fee, to their extensive library of resources. There are other apps and websites that do much the same thing. But these are the two I actually use and can recommend.
Some Questions to Think About
- Why is the inspiration of the Scripture significant?
- How can I tell if what I hear people saying about some aspect of Christianity is valid or not?
- Why should a believer spend time reading and studying the Bible?
- Where are you at in your reading and studying of the Bible?
- What can you do to make your study more helpful to you as a disciple of Jesus?
You are welcome to respond to these questions in the comment section below. If you do, be sure to check the “Notify me” checkbox just above the Post Comment button so you can get any feedback. Note that all comments are moderated. Only respectful comments relevant to the topic will be posted.
- Bible Study – Discipleship 101
- Spending Time Together – Discipleship 102
- Worshipping Together – Discipleship 103
- Drawing Near in Prayer – Discipleship 104
- Understanding Who God Is – Doctrine 201
- What Is Humanity – Doctrine 202
- What Is Sin? – Doctrine 203
- Jesus: Our Savior – Doctrine 204
- Gifted to Serve: Discipleship 301
- Meditation, Solitude, and Fasting: Discipleship 302
- What Is the Bible? – Doctrine 401
- The Nature and Work of the Holy Spirit: Doctrine 402
- What Is Jesus’ Church?: Doctrine 403
- Creation and Providence – Doctrine 404
Other Articles Related to the Bible
I have written a number of other articles about the Bible and Bible study. This link will lead you to a list of them. Hopefully, you will find additional useful information and encouragement in them.