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There is nothing more important for the development of the spiritual life of the Christian than regular, systematic Bible study. It is as true in the spiritual life as it is in the physical life that health depends upon what we eat and how much we eat. The soul’s proper food is found in one book, the Bible. Of course, a true minister of the gospel will feed us on the Word of God, but that is not enough. He feeds us but one or two days in the week, and we need to be fed every day. Furthermore, it will not do to depend upon being fed by others. We must learn to feed ourselves. If we study the Bible for ourselves as we ought to study it, we shall be in a large measure independent of human teachers. Even if we are so unfortunate as to have for our minister a man who is himself ignorant of the truth of God we shall still be safe from harm.
We live in a day in which false doctrine abounds on every hand and the only Christian who is safe from being led into error is the one who studies his Bible for himself daily. The Apostle Paul warned the elders of the church in Ephesus that the time was soon coming when grievous wolves should enter in among them not sparing the flock and when of their own selves men should arise speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them, but he told them how to be safe even in such perilous times as these. He said, “I commend you to God and to the Word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among them which are sanctified.” Through meditation on the Word of God’s grace, they would be safe even in the midst of abounding error on the part of the leaders in the church (Acts 20:29–32). Writing later to the Bishop of the church in Ephesus, Paul said, “But evil men and impostors shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived (2 Tim. 3:13, r.v.) but he goes on to tell Bishop Timothy how he and his fellow believers could be safe even in such times of increasing peril as were coming. That way was through the study of the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make wise unto salvation (2 Tim. 3:14, 15). “All scripture,” he adds, “is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” That is to say, through the study of the Bible one will be sound in doctrine, will be led to see his sins and put them away, will find discipline in the righteous life and attain unto complete equipment for all good works. Our spiritual health, our growth, our strength, our victory over sin, our soundness in doctrine, our joy and peace in Christ, our cleansing from inward and outward sin, our fitness for service, all depend upon the study of the Word of God. The one who neglects his Bible is bound to make a failure of the Christian life. The one who studies his Bible in the right spirit and by a true method is bound to make a success of the Christian life.
This brings us face to face with the question, “What is the right way to study the Bible?”
- First of all, we should study it daily (Acts 17:11). This is of prime importance. No matter how good the methods of Bible study that one follows may be, no matter how much time one may put into Bible study now and then, the best results can only be secured when one makes it a matter of principle never to let a single day go by without earnest Bible study. This is the only safe course. Any day that is allowed to pass without faithful Bible study is a day thrown open to the advent into our hearts and lives of error or of sin. The writer has been a Christian for more than a quarter of a century and yet to-day he would not dare to allow even a single day to pass over his head without listening to the voice of God as it speaks to him through the pages of His Book. It is at this point that many fall away. They grow careless and let a day pass, or even several days pass, without going alone with God and letting Him speak to them through His Word. Mr. Moody once wisely said, “In prayer we talk to God. In Bible study, God talks to us, and we had better let God do most of the talking.”
A regular time should be set apart each day for the study of the Bible. I do not think it is well as a rule to say that we shall study so many chapters in a day, for that leads to undue haste and skimming and thoughtlessness, but it is well to set apart a certain length of time each day for Bible study. Some can give more time to Bible study than others, but no one ought to give less than fifteen minutes a day. I set the time so low in order that no one may be discouraged at the outset. If a young Christian should set out to give an hour or two hours a day to Bible study, there is a strong probability that he would not keep to the resolution and he might become discouraged. Yet I know of many very busy people who have given the first hour of every day for years to Bible study and some who have given even two hours a day. The late Earl Cairns, Lord Chancellor of England, was one of the busiest men of his day, but Lady Cairns told me a few months ago that no matter how late he reached home at night he always arose at the same early hour for prayer and Bible study. She said, “We would sometimes get home from Parliament at two o’clock in the morning, but Lord Cairns would always arise at the same early hour to pray and study the Bible.” Lord Cairns is reported as saying, “If I have had any success in life, I attribute it to the habit of giving the first two hours of each day to Bible study and prayer.”
It is important that one choose the right time for this study. Wherever it is possible, the best time for this study is immediately after arising in the morning. The worst time of all is the last thing at night. Of course, it is well to give a little while just before we retire to Bible reading, in order that God’s voice may be the last to which we listen, but the bulk of our Bible study should be done at an hour when our minds are clearest and strongest. Whatever time is set apart for Bible study should be kept sacredly for that purpose.
- We should study the Bible systematically. Much time is frittered away in random study of the Bible. The same amount of time put into systematic study would yield far larger results. Have a definite place where you are studying and have a definite plan of study. A good way for a young Christian to begin the study of the Bible is to read the Gospel of John. When you have read it through once, begin and read it again until you have gone over the Gospel five times. Then read the Gospel of Luke five times in the same way; then read the Acts of the Apostles five times, then 1 Thessalonians five times, then 1 John five times, then Romans five times, then Ephesians five times.
By this time you will be ready to take up a more thorough method of Bible study. A good method is to begin at Genesis and read the Bible through chapter by chapter. Read each chapter through several times and then answer the following questions on the chapter:
(1) What is the principal subject of the chapter? (State the principal contents of the chapter in a single phrase or sentence.)
(2) What is the truth most clearly taught and most emphasized in the chapter?
(3) What is the best lesson?
(4) What is the best verse?
(5) Who are the principal people mentioned?
(6) What does the chapter teach about Jesus Christ? Go through the entire Bible in this way.
Another and more thorough method of Bible chapter study, which cannot be applied to every chapter in the Bible, but which will yield excellent results when applied to some of the more important chapters of the Bible, is as follows:
(1) Read the chapter for to-day’s study five times, reading it aloud at least once. Each new reading will bring out some new point.
(2) Divide the chapter into its natural divisions and find headings for each division that describes in the most striking way the contents of that division. For example, suppose the chapter studied is 1 John 5. You might divide it in this way: First division, verses 1–3, The Believer’s Noble Parentage. Second division, verses 4, 5, The Believer’s Glorious Victory. Third division, verses 6–10, The Believer’s Sure Ground of Faith. Fourth division, verses 11, 12, The Believer’s Priceless Possession. Fifth division, verse 13, The Believer’s Blessed Assurance. Sixth division, verses 14, 15, The Believer’s Unquestioning Confidence. Seventh division, verses 16, 17, The Believer’s Great Power and Responsibility. Eighth division, verses 18, 19, The Believer’s Perfect Security. Ninth division, verse 20, The Believer’s Precious Knowledge. Tenth division, verse 21, The Believer’s Constant Duty.
(3) Note the important differences between the Authorized Version and the Revised.
(4) Write down the leading facts of the chapter in their proper order.
(5) Make a note of the persons mentioned in the chapter and of any light thrown upon their character.
(6) Note the principal lessons of the chapter. It would be well to classify these. For instance lessons about God; lessons about Christ, lessons about the Holy Spirit, etc.
(7) Find the central truth of the chapter.
(8) The key verse of the chapter, if there is one.
(9) The best verse in the chapter. Mark it and memorize it.
(10) Write down what new truth you have learned from the chapter.
(11) Write down what truth already known has come to you with new power.
(12) What definite thing have you resolved to do as a result of studying this chapter. It would be well to study in this way, all the chapters in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts; the first eight chapters of Romans; 1 Cor. 12, 13 and 15; first six chapters of 2 Corinthians; all the chapters in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, First Thessalonians and First Epistle of John. It would be well at times to vary this by taking up other methods of study for a time.
Another profitable method of Bible study is the topical method. This was Mr. Moody’s favourite method of study. Take up the great topics of which the Bible teaches such as, the Holy Spirit, Prayer, the Blood of Christ, Sin, Judgment, Grace, Justification, the New Birth, Sanctification, Faith, Repentance, the Character of Christ, the Resurrection of Christ, the Ascension of Christ, the Second Coming of Christ, Assurance, Love of God, Love (to God, to Christ, to Christians, to all men), Heaven, Hell. Get a Bible text-book and go through the Bible on each one of these topics. (Other methods of Bible study, and more thorough methods for the advanced student, will be found in the author’s book “How to Study the Bible for Greatest Profit.”)
- We should study the Bible comprehensively—the whole Bible. Many who read their Bibles make the great mistake of confining all their reading to certain portions of the Bible that they enjoy, and in this way they get no knowledge of the Bible as a whole. They miss altogether many of the most important phases of Bible truth. Begin and go through the Bible again and again—a certain portion each day from the Old Testament and a portion from the New Testament. Read carefully at least one Psalm every day.
It is well oftentimes to read a whole book of the Bible through at a single sitting. Of course, with a few books of the Bible this would take one or two hours, but with most of the books of the Bible it can be done in a few minutes. With the shorter books of the Bible they should be read through again and again at a single sitting.
- Study the Bible attentively. Do not hurry. One of the worst faults in Bible study is haste and heedlessness. The Bible only does good by the truth that it contains. It has no magic power. It is better to read one verse attentively than to read a dozen chapters thoughtlessly. Sometimes you will read a verse that takes hold of you. Don’t hurry on. Linger and ponder that verse. As you read, mark in your Bible what impresses you most. One does not need an elaborate system of Bible marking, simply mark what impresses you. Meditate upon what you mark. God pronounces that man blessed who “meditates” in God’s law day and night (Ps. 1:2). It is wonderful how a verse of Scripture will open if one reads it over and over again and again, paying attention to each word as he reads it, trying to get its exact meaning and its full meaning. Memorize the passages that impress you most (Ps. 119:11, r. v.). When you memorize a passage of Scripture, memorize its location as well as its words. Fix in your mind chapter and verse where the words are found. A busy but spiritually-minded man who was hurrying to catch a train once said to me, “Tell me in a word how to study my Bible.” I replied, “Thoughtfully.”
- Study your Bible comparatively. That is compare Scripture with Scripture. The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. Wherever you find a difficult passage in the Bible, there is always some passage elsewhere that explains its meaning. The best book to use in this comparison of Scripture with Scripture is “The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge.” On every verse in the Bible this book gives a large number of references. It is well to take up some book of the Bible and go through that book verse by verse, looking up carefully and studying every reference given in “The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge.” This is a very fruitful method of Bible study. It is also well in studying the Bible by chapters to look up the references on the more important verses in the chapter. One will get more light on passages of Scripture by looking up the references given in “The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge,” than in any other way I know.
- Study your Bible believingly. The Apostle Paul in writing to the Christians in Thessalonica says, “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing because, when ye received the Word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the Word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). Happy is the one who receives the Word of God as these believers in Thessalonica received it, who receives it as what it really is, the Word of God. In such a one it “works effectually.” The Bible is the Word of God and we get the most out of any book by studying it as what it really is. It is often said that we should study the Bible just as we study any other book. That principle contains a truth, but it also contains a great error. The Bible, it is true, is a book as other books are books, the same laws of grammatical and literary construction hold here as in other books, but the Bible is a unique book. It is what no other book is, the Word of God. This can be easily proven to any candid man. The Bible ought then to be studied as no other book is. It should be studied as the Word of God. This involves five things:
(1) A greater eagerness and more careful and candid study to find out just what it teaches than is bestowed upon all other books. It is important to know the mind of man. It is absolutely essential to know the mind of God. The place to discover the mind of God is the Bible. This is the book in which God reveals His mind.
(2) A prompt and unquestioning acceptance of, and submission to its teachings when definitely ascertained. These teachings may appear to us unreasonable or impossible, nevertheless we should accept them. If this book is the Word of God, how foolish it is to submit its teachings to the criticism of our finite reasoning. A little boy who discredits his wise father’s statements simply because to his infant mind they appear unreasonable, is not a philosopher, but a fool. But the greatest of human thinkers is only an infant compared with the infinite God. And to discredit God’s statements found in His Word because they appear unreasonable to our infantile minds is not to act the part of the philosopher, but the part of a fool. When we are once satisfied that the Bible is the Word of God, its clear teachings must be for us the end of all controversy and discussion.
(3) Absolute reliance upon all its promises in all their length and breadth and depth and height. The one who studies the Bible as the Word of God will say of any promise, no matter how vast and beyond belief it appears, “God who cannot lie has promised this, so I will claim it for myself.” Mark the promise you thus claim. Look each day for some new promise from your infinite Father. He has put “His riches in glory” at your disposal (Phil. 4:19). I know of no better way to grow rich spiritually than to search daily for promises, and when you find them appropriate them to yourself.
(4) Obedience. Be a doer of the Word and not a hearer, only deceiving your own soul (James 1:22). Nothing goes farther to help one understand the Bible than the purpose to obey it. Jesus said, “If any man willeth to do His will, he shall know of the teaching” (John 7:17 r. v.). The surrendered will means the clear eye. If our eye is single (that is, our will is absolutely surrendered to God) our whole body shall be full of light. But if our eye be evil (that is, if we are trying to serve two masters and are not absolutely surrendered to one Master, God) our whole body shall be full of darkness (Matt. 6:22–24). Many a passage that looks obscure to you now would become as clear as day if you were willing to obey in all things what the Bible teaches. Each commandment discovered in the Bible that is really intended as a commandment to us should be obeyed instantly. It is remarkable how soon one loses his relish for the Bible and how soon the mind becomes obscured to its teachings when we disobey the Bible at any point. Many a time I have known persons who have loved their Bibles and have been useful in God’s service and clear in their views of the truth who have come to something in the Bible that they were unwilling to obey, some sacrifice was demanded that they were unwilling to make, and their love for the Bible has rapidly waned, their faith in the Bible began to weaken, and soon they were drifting farther and farther away from clear views of the truth. Nothing clears the mind like obedience; nothing darkens the mind like disobedience. To obey a truth you see prepares you to see other truths. To disobey a truth you see darkens your mind to all truths.
Cultivate prompt, exact, unquestioning, joyous obedience to every command that it is evident from its context applies to you. Be on the lookout for new orders from your King. Blessing lies in the direction of obedience to them. God’s commands are but sign-boards that mark the road to present success and blessedness, and to eternal glory.
(5) Studying the Bible as the Word of God involves studying it as His own voice speaking directly to you. When you open the Bible to study, realize that you have come into the very presence of God and that now He is going to speak to you. Realize that it is God who is talking to you as much as if you saw Him standing there. Say to yourself, “God is now going to speak to me.” Nothing goes farther to give a freshness and gladness to Bible study than the realization that as you read, God is actually talking to you. In this way Bible study becomes personal companionship with God Himself. That was a wonderful privilege that Mary had one day, of sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to His voice, but if we will study the Bible as the Word of God and as if we were in God’s very presence, then we shall enjoy the privilege of sitting at the feet of God and having Him talk to us every day. How often what would otherwise be a mere mechanical performance of a duty would become a wonderfully joyous privilege if one would say as he opens the Bible, “Now God, my Father, is going to speak to me.” Oftentimes it helps us to a realization of the presence of God to read the Bible on our knees. The Bible became in some measure a new book to me when I took to reading it on my knees.
- Study the Bible prayerfully. God, who is the author of the Bible, is willing to act as interpreter of it. He does so when you ask Him to. The one who prays with earnestness and faith the Psalmist’s prayer, “Open Thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law” (Ps. 119:18) will get his eyes opened to see new beauties and wonders in the Word of God that he never dreamed of before. Be very definite about this. Each time you open the Bible to study it, even though it is but for a few minutes, ask God to give you an open and discerning eye, and expect Him to do it. Every time you come to a difficulty in the Bible, lay it before God and ask an explanation and expect it. How often we think as we puzzle over hard passages, “Oh, if I only had some great Bible teacher here to explain this to me!” God is always present. He understands the Bible better than any human teacher. Take your difficulty to Him and ask Him to explain it. Jesus said, “When He the Spirit of Truth is come, He shall guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13, r. v.). It is the privilege of the humblest believer in Christ to have the Holy Spirit for his guide in his study of the Word. I have known many very humble people, people with almost no education, who got more out of their Bible study than most of the great theological teachers that I have known; simply because they had learned that it was their privilege to have the Holy Spirit for their teacher as they studied the Bible. Commentaries on the Bible are oftentimes of great value, but one will learn more of real value from the Bible by having the Holy Spirit for his teacher when he studies his Bible than he will from all the commentaries that were ever published.
- Improve spare moments for Bible study. In almost every man’s life many minutes each day are lost, while waiting for meals, riding on trains, going from place to place in street-cars and so forth. Carry a pocket Bible or Testament with you and save these golden moments by putting them to the very best use, listening to the voice of God.
- Store away the Scripture in your mind and heart. It will keep you from sin (Ps. 119:11, r. v.); from false doctrine (Acts 20:29, 30, 32; 2 Tim. 3:13–15). It will fill your heart with joy (Jer. 15:16); and peace (Ps. 85:8). It will give you victory over the evil one (1 John 2:14); it will give you power in prayer (John 15:7); it will make you wiser than the aged and your enemies (Ps. 119:98, 100, 130); it will make you “complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17, r. v.). Try it. Do not memorize at random but memorize Scripture in a connected way; memorize texts bearing on various subjects in proper order; memorize by chapter and verse that you may know where to put your finger on the text if anyone disputes it. You should have a good Bible for your study. One of the best is “The Oxford Two Version Bible, Workers’ Edition.”