How should we approach the study of the scriptures?
The heart and conscience are addressed. “Every scripture is divinely inspired, and profitable for teaching, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be complete, fully fitted for every good work” 2 Timothy 3:16,17.
The scriptures are the expression of the mind of God, hence they are to be approached in that way. The bible is an account of God’s moral dealings with mankind. It is not therefore a history book, although it contains history.
The desire to become like Christ is paramount, I believe. Our motive should not be just to have a store of knowledge, but to practically honour the name of Christ in our lives. In John 7:17, “If any one desire to practise his will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is of God…” Notice that he says “desire to practise”; not just to know the will of God, but to practise it. The Lord also tells us that those who ask shall receive.
Revelation, or divine unfolding
The things of God must be revealed to us. Simon Peter’s acknowledgement that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” was something that had been revealed to him by the Father. See Matthew 16:17. Paul writes to Timothy “to think of what I say and the Lord will give thee understanding in all things”, 2 Timothy 2:7. The Lord speaks of the Holy Spirit – “he shall teach you all things”, John 14:26 and “he shall guide you into all the truth”, John 16:13. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are therefore all spoken of as giving us understanding.
“How sweet are thy words unto my taste” – Psalm 119:103.
The Bereans in Acts 17:11 “were more noble…receiving the word with all readiness of mind, daily searching the scriptures if these things were so”. Do I let scripture shape my thoughts, or do I take my ideas to scripture and look for a verse to justify them? The devil can quote scripture (Luke 4:10-11) but it was used in a way that did not lead to subjection to God.
A “dispensation” refers to God’s way of administering, or dealing with, those whom he particularly calls, in any given period or epoch. With an understanding of the ways of God with mankind over the millennia, we obtain a clearer picture of the mind and will of God for us. A lack of this understanding can lead to the mixture of law and grace, and to confusion in what constitutes conduct and practice appropriate to Christianity.
These periods have been broadly described as follows:
Innocence - until the fall and exclusion from Eden; Conscience – that period ending with the flood; Government - given to man (Noah); Promise – given to Abraham; Law – given by Moses; Grace – introduced by Jesus Christ; the Kingdom – the millennial reign of Christ when righteousness reigns. Finally we are told of the “day of God” or the eternal “day” when righteousness dwells (permeates) rather than reigns, and God shall “be all in all” – see 1 Corinthians 15:28. This last is not really a dispensation. The above subject cannot be dealt with in this brief article but it is vital to the understanding of God’s mind for us now. Each successive period brought out a fuller revelation of his mind. The law never revealed God’s love as it has been now; nor was God revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit until now. The difference between an earthly calling or hope and a heavenly one (as is the church’s) is also understood when we see God’s ways in the distinct periods. Prophecy also becomes easier to understand.
This period of grace, the time of the calling out of persons from among the nations to form the church united to Christ in glory, is not foretold in Old Testament prophecy. Paul tells us that it was hidden from previous generations but has now been revealed – see Ephesians 3:1-6, and Colossians 1:26-27. The church was the subject of mystery - a secret – rather than a subject of prophecy. The period from the death of Christ until the church is raptured is not the subject of prophetic timekeeping. Hence the Lord says in Acts 1:7: “It is not yours to know times and seasons…” It can be said that the prophetic clock has been stopped for this period. Prophecies relating to Israel and God’s government of the earth will take effect after the church is gone.
The other important thing to remember is that prophecies often have a near-term partial fulfillment and a final one in a coming time. The wise men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. This was a token of what will happen during the reign of Christ for a thousand years when Isaiah tells us that (60:6) the nations shall bring gold and incense.
Difficult Passages of Scripture
Don’t let what you don’t know confuse what you do know. (Those who do crossword puzzles will be aware of this strategy!) If one portion seems to contradict another, hold to the one you are sure about, and look for help on the other. Pray for understanding and it will come. It will not be a voice out of heaven, but as you read or speak with others - perhaps on another subject - your answer will come. It may take time. Scripture does not contradict itself, although to the casual reader it may appear to. The Lord Jesus himself said in John 10:35: “the scripture cannot be broken”.
Be accurate in reading. We can be very superficial.
Three wise men? There may have been 13 or 30! Pictures show them near the manger, but Herod slew all the boys under two years of age. The Child Jesus was more likely to have been at least 18 months old. Even Herod would not have antagonised more Jews than necessary.
A more serious example of inaccuracy is the way 1 Corinthians 11:27 is often read. The word “unworthily”, an adverb describing how some were taking the Lord’s Supper, is often read as if it was “unworthy”. People use it and the following verse to describe the qualification to partake of the supper. Worthiness to partake of the supper was not the issue. As members of the assembly [church] of God at Corinth they were all entitled to partake at that point. Worthiness to break bread with others is a vital concern, but guidance for that in our times is found elsewhere in the New Testament. It was “how” they were conducting themselves that was the issue, not who was qualified to partake of it.
A good translation of scripture is also important. Many modern translations are dangerous. The King James Version has been blessed, although it has some errors. However, the truth of God can still be discerned despite the ecclesiastical bias of translators. As an example, in Romans 3:31 where the question of faith and law is discussed, the KJV reads: “we establish the law”, whereas “we establish law” is the correct rendering. A student of scripture would know from the remainder of Romans and the whole letter to the Galations that a Christian is no longer under the law as a principle of life, but that we respect the principle of law, as in regulation and order. The Darby translation is more accurate.
Example, and the Holy Spirit’s Teaching
The Holy Spirit teaches by example and by positive guidance rather than merely the direct approach of the law, as in “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not”. By nature we love a direct instruction or command. It saves thinking or exercising the conscience. Hence sects abound with rules. Rules pose a challenge to human nature, as to how to get around them! This happens when the concern is to meet the letter rather than the spirit of the thing. What is meant by “the Spirit of God teaching by example”? Here is an instance. The apostles are never recorded to have healed one another. Further, Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:20, “Trophimus I left behind in Miletus sick” and to Timothy himself he prescribes “a little wine on account of thy stomach and thy frequent illnesses” in 1 Timothy 5:23. What lessons are contained in these verses, without formal statement of precepts! The Spirit did not put verses there as padding or just for story value. Be assured these comments are there for our instruction.
We are also reminded that the writings of the Old Testament were written for our instruction, Romans 15:4. These scriptures afford a great treasury of moral and typical teaching. A type is an example, a model, a figure. For example, the law forbad the wearing of a garment of mixed materials – Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11. We are not obliged to forsake our poly-cotton garments but it does teach us that our lives should be not be governed by mixed motives or principles. As an example, Jonathon the son of King Saul, was attached to David – “the soul of Jonathon was knit with the soul of David” (see I Samuel 18:1) – but he remained in the court of his father, rather than associate himself with David in rejection. This is an example of mixed motives. In our language, he wanted Christ and recognition in the world. In this case David was a type of Christ in rejection. Paul tells us that Israel’s history happened as types of us - see 1 Corinthians 10:6 and 11.
Application of Scripture
Can I do what I like because it is not expressly forbidden? This proposition betrays an attitude of insubjection to the Lord.
Where do we finish if we adopt this principle? Firstly, if I say that scripture does not forbid something, I must know every verse in the Bible! As was stated above, the Holy Spirit mostly gives us positive directions by example. Scripture has the answers, it is complete.
One example that shows how scripture has the answer can be seen in the way the Lord met the Sadducees on the truth of the resurrection, which they refused. When he answered them in Matthew 22:29, he denounced them with “Ye err, not knowing the scriptures nor the power of God”. In the same account in Luke 20: 37-38, he says: “But that the dead rise, even Moses shewed in the section of the bush, when he called the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob…”. Would you or I have been able to deduce the truth of resurrection from that passage? Someone might say that there is no instruction telling us that cremation is wrong. Why does scripture tell us in Acts 8:9 that “righteous men buried Stephen”, and that the Lord Jesus was buried, as were the patriarchs, Moses, etc? When burning is mentioned it is in a bad sense. It was practised by idolators.
We need to see that Christ is the object of scripture. Those who focus on one part of the truth of God, invariably go astray in that very thing. I believe it is due to the fact that the attention is focused on something other than the Lord. To learn about the Sabbath, don’t go to the Seventh Day Adventists; to learn about the kingdom, avoid the Jehovah’s Witnesses teaching - and so on. The Holy Spirit gathers us to Christ, not to a set of doctrines.
........... And finally…
Psalm 119:99, “I have more understanding than all my teachers; for thy testimonies are my meditation”. This came out beautifully when Jesus was twelve years of age sitting in the temple with the elders.
Take time to weigh things over. Look at all scriptures connected with the subject. Some people submit a shopping list of demands upon God because a verse states “Ask and ye shall receive”. They ignore other verses that show that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
The study of scripture should engage the heart and conscience rather than be a mere academic exercise of the mind.
Why should we concern ourselves about “the deep things of God”? Another has well said: The mysteries of God are all of the highest practical value, in either strengthening for service, comforting under trial, or enlarging our praise.