By Branon S. Howse
Bible study. It’s the key to having a right understanding of God and, consequently, to having a right relationship with Him.
People often ask how they can learn to study the Bible, as if I should be able to give them a lesson in one sentence. While the subject is certainly more complicated than a single sentence can summarize, there actually is a simple starting point that consists of just one word.
The one word about Bible study that will correctly set up virtually everything else you do to explore Scripture is context. Studying the Word of God in its context is the single most valuable thing a student of the Bible can do to come up with a correct understanding of biblical teaching. One of my previous books, Twisted Scripture, Twisted Theology, examines a variety of important scripture passages that are commonly misconstrued, and the one thing that all the selections have in common is that the scripture in question has been taken out of context. As a result, people have drawn wrong conclusions about some of the most critical teachings in the Bible. That makes this a crucial topic. If we expect people to contend for the Faith, the starting point is to study the Bible accurately and assimilate a Christian worldview.
Preaching Out of Context
I’m amazed at the range of scriptures that are ripped out of context and made to apply to some sort of theological position. At times, this is done by people who are well meaning but poorly trained—often pastors. When poor theology is preached from the pulpit, it is especially difficult to set right because people assume their pastors know how to appropriately explain the Bible. We can hope that many of this type of preacher would be open to correction if the right understanding is pointed out. Not everyone, though, teaches aberrant doctrines by mistake.
Much of the teaching on “Christian” television such as TBN or Daystar is actually not Christian at all. Hearers believe it, though, because they don’t know how to study the Bible for themselves. They assume, instead, that the folks on TV know what they’re talking about and are worthy to be accepted. Too often, the reality is that they don’t. Some have even developed a vested interest in their wrong doctrine. Many are false converts and have become wolves among the sheep. You can protect yourself from people like this, though, if you learn how to study the Bible in context. That’s actually what happened to me.
Before I discovered how to study Scripture in its proper context, I would take in most anything a preacher spoke and assume it was correct. After learning the importance of context, I often sat in a service and wondered, Wait a minute. That’s not what this text is saying at all. I realized this a number of years ago, of course, and at the time, I shared the discovery with a younger friend of mine. No one had ever taught him how to study the Bible, but when I showed him, he started reviewing sermons like I did. At times, he would find me after a service and say, “That wasn’t what the text was saying at all.” We were both stunned at how often preachers take scripture out of context, and frankly, I still am. That’s one reason every layman should know how to study the Bible in context.
How-To’s of Bible Study
Once you understand the importance of context to the proper understanding of Scripture, there are a number of helpful guidelines as to how to make sure you have the context right. I’ve explained them below.
1) Read the text you’re studying several times, and read the scripture sections before and after that text.
Whether a letter, historical narrative, or any other type of Bible passage, the start of understanding context is to know what happens before and after the segment under study. Often, you’ll need to ignore the chapter and verse numbers to make sure you read enough scripture to grasp the situation at hand. While Scripture itself is inspired by God, the placement of chapter and verse numbers is not. They’re helpful for finding passages in the larger Bible, but in some places, they get in the way of the flow of a narrative if you don’t pay close attention. For instance, in the Acts 7 and 8 story about the stoning of Stephen and early persecution of the Church, the chapter division between 7 and 8 might lead you to think the subject changes at that point. But it doesn’t. That means if you stop reading at the end of chapter 7, you’ll miss some important insights from the story.
This issue doesn’t occur only between contiguous chapters. The key to understanding context is to read enough verses before and after the section you’re studying to grasp the set-up for your section.
A good way to study a particular book of the Bible is to read it through every day for 30 days. If you’re studying a short book such as 1 John, reading it all the way through is very do-able. For a larger book such as John’s Gospel, you might divide it into thirds and read a third of it each day for 30 days, and then move on to the other sections for 30 days each.
This approach assures that you become extremely familiar with the scripture portion and can see the context of the entire book. Then, as you break it down and outline it, your understanding increases significantly. You’ll find that what you learned in the first chapter of the book affects how you understand the meaning or importance of something you find several chapters later. The theology in a book of the Bible begins to be clear.
2) Answer the questions who, when, where, and why as you study the text.
To know who wrote a particular scripture is important to a full understanding. For most books of the Bible, we know who wrote them. For the Gospel of John, for instance, the evidence is overwhelming that John wrote it. While he never refers to himself by name, he talks about himself as the “other disciple”—the disciple whom Jesus loved. On the other hand, we don’t really know who wrote the book of Hebrews. Some scholars have made good guesses, but we don’t really know. And there are other books for which there is no secret about authorship. Many books in the New Testament are written by the Apostle Paul, and no one disputes that. Ultimately, of course, God wrote all of the Scriptures as He inspired men to write—whether the Old or New Testament.
So how does knowing the writer help interpret the scripture? Since Paul wrote so much of the New Testament, let’s consider the implications of his authorship. Before his conversion he was known as Saul, the persecutor of the Church. He went into the houses of believers, dragged out the men and women, and threw them into prison. He was “wreaking havoc on the Church.” He’s also the one who approved and encouraged the stoning of Stephen, the Church’s first martyr. We know his status in the event because “by laying their coats at his feet,” the historical context tells us Paul was in charge of the event. He was the one prosecuting Stephen and condoning his murder.
So when you read the book of Philippians, you know it was written by a former persecutor of the Church. Then to know when he wrote it could even seem a bit ironic. The former persecutor of the Church is himself writing the Philippian letter from a prison because he’s been incarcerated for preaching the Gospel. Philippians is a prison epistle.
Knowing this brings greater meaning to Paul’s statement, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). He’s enduring severe persecution, and yet is confident of his ability to endure because of Christ’s power. Knowing that also makes clear what this verse does not mean.
Too many people use it as an encouragement to succeed in some way of their own choosing—become a great athlete, make a million dollars, become the valedictorian of their class. Those are common ways this verse is applied out of context. It’s used as a self-help or motivational saying. Yet in the original language, the real sense of the scripture is “I can endure all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And that makes much more sense when you know what Paul is going through at the time he wrote it. Paul is saying that he can endure persecution. This is not about achieving some sort of worldly success through Christ. Paul wrote Philippians to encourage other Christians that they, too, can endure in the face of trials, tribulations, and persecution.
Similarly, every book of Scripture has a theme. The book itself sometimes specifies the theme if you know where to find it. In the Gospel of John, for example, you’ll find the theme in John 20:30-31:
And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (emphasis mine)
What is the purpose of the John’s Gospel? To know “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in His name.” This book was written so people would believe that Jesus is Messiah (another word for Christ), the Son of God, and that they would thereby gain eternal life.
Understanding the purpose of the Gospel of John, then, sheds light on why he also wrote his first epistle. In 1 John 5:13, we find the theme of that book: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” He wrote his Gospel so people would come to believe, and he wrote the epistle so believers would have the assurance of eternal life. He also offers in 1 John a way to know whether or not you have eternal life. In chapter 5, he outlines the characteristics of a true Christian.
3) Study the cultural and historical background of the text.
Without grasping the significance of Paul’s imprisonment, much of the text doesn’t make sense to us. Too many people, though, try to “Americanize” what they read in Scripture. You absolutely will not understand a passage correctly if you approach it thinking, “Well, in America, this means this to us; therefore, the scripture must be saying. . . .”
We must know things like whether the book was written to Jews or Gentiles. If it’s written to Jews, what did the passage mean to the first century Jews? For instance, when Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born of the water and of the Spirit,” people today might wonder what it means to be “born of the water.” They could conclude that it refers to natural childbirth—a woman’s water breaks and a child is born. But that’s not what Jesus is referencing. He’s talking about Jewish ceremonial washing. Knowing of this custom of the Jews helps us understand what is going on in the context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.
To use another culture-critical example, look at John 10:1-5:
[quote] Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. [end quote]
Jesus uses an illustration that refers to the herding of sheep.
Since I don’t know a lot about sheep, I studied sheep-raising before I taught John 10 on my radio and television program. And I had to make sure I knew about shepherding in the first century. The way we care for sheep in America, New Zealand, or Great Britain today is not the way shepherds cared for sheep in first-century Israel.
What did Jesus mean when He called Himself “the door of the sheep”? Although it sounds strange to modern American readers, His listeners (and the ones to whom John wrote the Gospel) knew right away what He meant. Let me show you by examining the context. Look at the rest of the passage, John 10:7-22, and note, in particular, the contextual clue we find in the last verse quoted below:
[quote] Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
Therefore, My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it [up] again. This command I have received from My Father.”
Therefore there was a division again among the Jews because of these sayings. And many of them said, “He has a demon and is mad. Why do you listen to Him?”
Others said, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. [end quote]
Jesus says He has sheep “not of this fold” which some people take out of context to mean, for instance, Catholics and Protestants, and they come up with a wrongly ecumenical theology, supposedly supported by this passage.
One of the most fascinating cues about context in this passage is the final statement about the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem. Jesus offered this teaching while in Jerusalem for the feast. Given that there are many sheep sacrificed during the feast, there would be sheepfolds—pens—to hold them while waiting. He may well have been standing within sight of sheepfolds, and they would have been a clear object lesson to Jesus’ listeners.
The door into an ancient sheepfold was narrow, and at night a shepherd would sit by the doorway to make sure the sheep stayed in and thieves and predators stayed out. Typically, the sheepfold was surrounded by a high wall which would be nearly impossible for a fox or a wolf to get over. However, a thief might attempt to climb over. So, in speaking of thieves, Jesus is referring to false teachers. The narrow door corresponds to Jesus’ teaching elsewhere such as:
- John 14:6—“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
- Matthew 7:13-14—“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Jesus is standing by the doorway, and no one gets in except through Him.
The idea that Jesus’ sheep know His voice is likewise fascinating. I’ve found some remarkable YouTube videos of “A Shepherd Calls His Sheep” and “Will a Sheep Listen to a Stranger?” The videos demonstrate the trust sheep have in a voice they know. In one, a shepherd tells a visitor to his flock exactly what to say and how to speak to his flock to get them to follow. When the person tries it, the sheep don’t even look up from their grazing. A second person tries with the same result, and likewise a third. The sheep never take notice. Finally, the shepherd speaks, using the same word, seemingly the same sound with the same pitch and tone. Immediately, the sheep look up from the grass and rush toward their keeper. They know the unique voice of their shepherd as surely, so Jesus says, as His true followers recognize and respond to His voice. Jesus’ sheep will not follow a false teacher. See how knowing the context amplifies the meaning of the passage?
Knowing about sheep and shepherds helps in a number of ways. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus is always mindful of His sheep, never sleeping. He stays in the doorway, interceding for us. He even gives His life for us as a shepherd would for his sheep, if need be. This fact about Jesus separates Christianity from all other religions. False teachers do not care for the sheep and certainly would not die for them. Did the Mormon god come to earth? No. Supposedly he sent a son who was Lucifer’s half-brother. What about Allah? No. He’s certainly never offered any self-sacrifice on our behalf. He doesn’t lay down his life for anyone but is happy to have people do that for him. So the understanding of a shepherd highlights the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in a world of false religions.
4) Outline the text you’re studying.
Some verses make a specific, theological point while others simply provide information that explains the context. By outlining the text, you can discern which way a verse functions. You might have a clear point for verses 1 and 2 in a chapter but not verse 3. It may simply offer additional information that fits with one of the earlier points. Then you pick up with verse 4, and add another point. Perhaps then the next couple of verses add to that point. You don’t have to force verses to make a point. Let the outline speak for the scripture to draw out the important ideas.
5) Use scripture to interpret scripture by cross-referencing the text you’re studying.
We went through this exercise above when we compared the John 10 passage about the narrow door with John 14:6 and Matthew 7:13-14. Using scripture to interpret scripture is called hermeneutics. This is not to say that you should not look to other resources for help. There is a place for that. However, you should do your own in-depth study first, so someone else’s study does not overshadow your own. Another interpretation—even that of a respected scholar—may be incorrect.
The John 10 passage provides a clear example of how this can happen. As we’ve seen, Jesus is speaking in this passage about Himself as the door and the Good Shepherd. Yet when I opened what I thought was a solid commentary on the passage one time, I found that the writer, who is now deceased, claimed this: “John 10:1 isn’t Jesus talking about Himself; it’s simply Jesus talking about pastors or shepherds—what it means to be a pastor or a shepherd.” The inaccuracy of the writer’s statement becomes clear by studying the text for yourself.
The danger of consulting a commentary or other outside resource first is that you will likely give the writer the benefit of the doubt and give considerable weight to his or her opinion of the text. When the time comes to check outside sources, I generally do not rely on just one, either. Although they’re not the only outside sources I use, my preferred choices are Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, The Moody Handbook for Theology, and John MacArthur’s New Testament Commentaries.
Finding consensus from these helps. If one says, for instance, that Jesus is not talking about Himself in John 10 but six or seven say He is, it further bolsters the confidence I have in my own study. We also have to allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate Scripture for us.
6) Who is being corrected, condemned, encouraged, edified, or equipped, and how?
The writer has a purpose for his readers. They may have strayed, and he needs to tell them to “straighten out.” Perhaps the readers are going through tough times or persecution and need encouragement. Knowing the author’s intent for writing helps clarify the meaning of a passage.
7) Study trusted Bible commentaries.
As you might guess, I place commentary study near the end of the list because you should do this as a last step in Scripture study. Sometimes, though, commentaries are the only source from which you can get complete information on the historical and cultural background of a passage. I encourage you to rely on them mostly for this sort of background and not for Scripture interpretation.
Commentaries also help with interpreting the meaning of the original Hebrew or Greek words being used in the text. Most good commentary writers are also language scholars and can add a lot to your understanding through their explanations of word usage. Software can be extremely helpful in this regard, and much of it is free. You can even find resources online with recordings that tell you how to pronounce Greek or Hebrew words.
You can search for particular words such as the word believe. Perhaps you want to know what John 20:31 means when it says the purpose of the book is so “that you may believe.” Is that an intellectual belief? Even the demons believe, so we know that can’t be correct. Your word search will tell you that the underlying Greek word is pisteuo and what it means. The term refers to a belief unto salvation such as described in 2 Corinthians 7:9-11, which produces godly sorrow. A pisteuo belief is one which a person is whole-heartedly convinced of and committed to. Yet there are teachers in the Church who don’t bother to check out such important factors as the meaning of original words.
Most pastors will tell you they did not learn the majority of what they know from seminary—certainly not from today’s seminaries. Many teach church growth, marketing, big business, self-promotion and not a lot of what I share in this book. That’s why “pastors” don’t know how to study the Bible and as a result, don’t know how to preach the Word accurately. Many lay people are better at Bible study than their pastors because they have spent time learning to do it.
Just as sitting in a garage doesn’t make you a car, neither does sitting in seminary mean you’re a good theologian. As I describe in Religious Trojan Horse, one pastor reveals that he read thousands of pages in seminary about church growth, marketing, and promotion. By contrast, he counted only a few hundred pages of required reading on preaching, Scripture study, and prayer. It’s an indication that many seminary students study man-centered marketing ideas. Even though the Church isn’t a business, seminaries bring into curriculum the management concepts of business guru Peter Drucker—thanks largely to Rick Warren and Fuller Theological Seminary.
Graduates with Doctor of Ministry degrees know less about Scripture study than many astute laymen. I have heard many D. Min. pastors take Scripture out of context in their teaching, missing the most fundamental way to make sure they are teaching the Bible accurately.
In my book Twisted Scripture, Twisted Theology, I look at a problematic interpretation issue in Acts 2:38. The verse says, “Therefore Peter said to them [the people listening to his sermon], ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.’” Some people use this verse as evidence that baptism is required for sins to be forgiven. It’s called the doctrine of baptismal regeneration—baptism itself saves you. Yet that interpretation is clearly wrong if you understand the original Greek in this passage. You see, Greek is a very precise language. For instance, Greek includes several different terms for the word love, whereas English has just one (overused) word. We say things like, “I love football” or “I love ice cream.” Greek, though, distinguishes between various kinds of “love.” There are different words for romantic, sexual love, brotherly or friendly love, and divine love.
English is often less precise, and that is the case in the Acts 2 passage. A translation that draws out the meaning of the Greek would be something like “because of, or on the occasion of the remission of sins, be baptized.” The scripture here does not say to be baptized in order to have the remission of sins; it says to be baptized because of your faith and trust in Christ, because of the remission of sins you have received through faith and repentance. This interpretation passes the scripture-interprets-scripture approach when compared with the clear teaching in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” If baptism saves us, then it becomes a work that we do as part of our salvation, an idea that contradicts the Ephesians passage.
So, it’s important to get to the original language. I could give many examples, but one other that bears pointing out here is another often misused passage in Acts 2. During this same sermon, Peter says in Acts 2:17 that “‘it shall come to pass in the last days,’ says God, ‘that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams.’” People e-mail me all the time to argue that this shows I shouldn’t be opposed to the idea that people today have visions and dreams.
My argument is that, because the canon is closed, God does not communicate through visions and dreams, and in fact, the Bible says that false prophets are dreamers of dreams. You can see this from the context of Acts 2:17. The passage tells when dreams and visions will happen again: “in the last days.” That’s when old men will dream dreams, and younger men will have visions. The scripture even tells a sign of when this will come to pass: “The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord” (Acts 2:20).
And what is the great and awesome day of the Lord? It is the judgment of God on the earth at the Second Coming. It happens at the end of the Tribulation, but we’re not to that point in history yet.
We know we’re not there because Scripture gives us specific signs of the Tribulation: Jerusalem has a temple (it doesn’t now); an antichrist is in power (there’s not one); the world operates on a one-world economy (we’re getting there but haven’t arrived yet); we have a one-world religion (not right now); there’s a Great Apostasy (which hasn’t come about). So if we’re not yet in those end times, the prophecy about people having dreams and visions is not ready to be fulfilled.
In addition, it’s important to know who the dreams and visions come to: “your sons and daughters.” Given the context of who Peter is addressing, these are children of the House of David. They are the 144,000 Jewish evangelists promised in Revelation 14:1. These Jewish believers will go all over the world preaching and proclaiming the Gospel.
8) Summarize the knowledge and wisdom gained from the text and make appropriate applications.
Although some theologians never want to teach application, correct application of a text is crucial. It reveals our shortcomings and keeps us humble. People who are merely filled with theological knowledge become prideful. But when you apply what you’ve gleaned from a text, you realize that you don’t measure up. You also see what is and is not true about teachings on various scripture passages. In the Acts 2 example above, for instance, we know not to read ourselves into the prophecy about dreams and visions.
The proper approach to application begins with exegesis which means drawing the correct meaning out of the text. By contrast, eisegesis happens when a person overlays the text with a preconceived opinion of what it means. Recently, I also heard another waggish term I like very much. Mike Abendroth, pastor of Bethlehem Bible Church in Massachusetts, said that some people engage in narcigesis by which people think everything they read in the Bible is directed specifically at them personally. Sometimes a passage does point to us, but it is presumptuous to assume all scriptures do. At times, we need to die to self and pick up the cross, and application puts things like persecution into perspective so we can continue to contend for the Faith.
No matter how much you may respect a given scholar or theologian, there is no perfect theologian. That’s why we all have to know how to study Scripture for ourselves to come to grips with its truth. You will never find a theologian or pastor from whom you can be confident all teaching is correct, and what’s better, the more you study Scripture for yourself, the more you will fall in love with the Word of God.
Copyright 2015 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.