The first three rules of Bible study

You may have heard the story about the guy who wanted to hear from God. So he opened his Bible at random, put his finger down on the page and looked to see what it said. He was surprised to read, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” He thought maybe he had done something wrong, so he tried again. This time he saw, “You go and do the same thing”! Alright, the third time must be the charm so he made one more attempt. But now the verse next to his finger read, “What you’re going to do, do quickly.”

Do you know what the first three rules of real estate are? Location, location, location, right? Well, there are some necessary do’s and don’ts for studying the Bible too. What are the first three rules of Bible study? Context, context, context. The most common mistake people make in using the Bible is taking a statement out of context.

We all understand the concept of taking something out of context, don’t we? Imagine if you were looking at a DVD cover at the video store (if you still go to the video store), and on the cover you saw: “. . . this film is a colossal success, more effective than any other this year. Words cannot express how I feel about this latest effort . . .” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But what if we replace the context they left out: “If this director was attempting to make the most immature, gross-out movie imaginable, then this film is a colossal success, more effective than any other this year. Words cannot express how I feel about this latest effort. It’s really that bad!” Kind of changes the meaning, doesn’t it?

Can people do this with the Bible? Unfortunately, it happens all too often. Years ago, I was flipping through the TV channels and came upon Frederick K. Price. I’d always thought it a shame he had fallen for the prosperity gospel because he’s quite gifted as a preacher. This particular day I enjoyed listening to him for awhile, and then I heard him say: “The Word says that Jesus left us an example that we should follow in his steps. That’s why I drive a Rolls Royce. I’m following in Jesus’ steps!”

Now setting aside the silly and baseless claim that Jesus was wealthy during his life on earth, something still nagged at me about the passage to which Price was referring. I finally had to go look it up for myself. It’s from 1 Peter 2:21 (emphasis added):

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

Not only did the passage Price referred to not teach that Christ had left us an example of material wealth that we should follow, it was specifically speaking of suffering for doing good as Christ had! (This was a great reminder to me to always check people’s sources.)

You may have heard people say, ‘you can make the Bible say anything you want.’ This is true, you can make the Bible say anything you want if you take it out of context. Of course, you can twist any book to mean anything, not just the Bible. But if you interpret Scripture according to the accepted standards of biblical interpretation, you’re stuck with what the biblical writers actually wrote. This is why context is so essential.

Part of the problem is that we’re used to quoting verses, little snippets of the text. While memorizing verses can be a wonderful way to retain Scripture, it can also enable us to emphasize one brief statement but be completely ignorant of the surrounding context. This is actually a lot more common than people realize. Let me show you some examples:

  • When you hear, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him,” what do you think of? Many Christians think of heaven or eternity because that’s how we’re used to this reference being used. But is this what the passage is talking about? Read the next words (1 Corinthians 2:10): “But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit.” While it is true that we can’t imagine everything God has in store for us in eternity, that’s not what this passage is speaking of. It’s referring to things that God has already revealed to us. (What is the passage talking about? Check it out in context for yourself.)
  • How many times have you heard someone say, ‘Well, we’re having church right now because the Bible says wherever two or three are gathered together, Christ is right there with them’? But is this verse (Matthew 18:20) an encouragement that even two or three can ‘have church’ because Jesus is with them? No, the context of this statement is Jesus’ teaching on church discipline. He’s letting the disciples know that if the whole church has to confront a sinning member, that he is right there with them as they do what’s necessary for the church and for the individual.
  • What about this one: “It’s like the Bible says, ‘God owns the cattle on a thousand hills'”? Does this mean that we as Christians will never go hungry, never be in want? Is this what the passage quoted is referring to? Read some of the surrounding context (Psalm 50:9-12):

But I do not need the bulls from your barns
or the goats from your pens.
For all the animals of the forest are mine,
and I own the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird on the mountains,
and all the animals of the field are mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for all the world is mine and everything in it.

Is the main point here to encourage us that God will always provide for us? No, it’s to put sacrifice to God back into right perspective for the people of Israel. They had to realize that God didn’t need their sacrifices. Everything belongs to him already. Of course, it’s true that if everything belongs to God, then he has no lack of resources to draw from when he does provide for us. But we must be careful not to misuse the Scriptures and take them out of context. Sometimes we’ll just be using the wrong text to support a belief that is still true and biblical (as with the three examples immediately above). This is like using the wrong tool for a job when the right tool is back in the tool chest.

(At least these examples are actually quoting the Bible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone exclaim: “Well, it’s like the Good Book says, ‘God helps those who help themselves’ ” [which isn’t from the Good Book—it’s from Benjamin Franklin], or “The Bible says, ‘To thine own self be true’ ” [which isn’t the Bible, it’s Shakespeare—and not even from one of his more intelligent characters!].)

Other times we can misuse a text and end up with a completely erroneous belief. Philippians 4:13 says, “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” If we take this statement by itself, with no context, what does it mean? Are there no qualifications, no clarifications? Does this mean it doesn’t matter if I haven’t done any of my Physics studies and the final exam is tomorrow—I know I can get a good grade because ‘I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength’? Can it mean I don’t have to bother with studying the passage I’m supposed to teach on Sunday because ‘I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength’? (Two real examples, by the way.) Read the preceding context:

How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.

What is it that Paul is able to do through Christ who gives him strength? Be content with what he has, live with plenty or little, a full stomach or empty. Some translations make this even more clear by saying, “I can do all this through Christ, who gives me strength.”

How can we keep from making these kinds of mistakes with the Bible? First, if you haven’t actually read a verse in context yourself, don’t try to use it to make a point. This is known as ‘proof-texting.’ It’s using an isolated verse—or even a whole list of them—to make a claim sound biblical. Get in the habit of checking out the verses people use to support their claims. When someone says, “Well, the Bible says . . . ” Ask them: “Where?” and then look it up and see if the Bible is actually saying what they say it’s saying!

Next, get out of the habit of thinking in isolated Bible verses. Many Christians don’t realize that the chapter and verse numbers were added to the Bible centuries after it was written; they’re not part of the original text. They are very helpful in allowing us to find specific places in the Bible quickly and efficiently (this is especially nice when we’re studying with other people), but this is pretty much the extent of their purpose. What they don’t do well is divide up chunks of thought. Some of us are accustomed to Bible studies where we read one verse and discuss it, and then read another verse and discuss it. The problem with this method of Bible study is that it often dissects the flow of thought in the passage to the point where it’s indecipherable. You’re not clearly seeing the forest or the trees!

When we write, we usually don’t write individual, isolated statements. We write in paragraphs and extended sections that develop our thoughts. The biblical writers did the same thing. If we want to really grasp what the Bible is saying, we need to focus on whole paragraphs or groups of paragraphs to understand what the main points are. So when you’re reading the Bible (or quoting the Bible), don’t think in verses—think in paragraphs.

Remember this old saying: A text without a context is a pretext. What are the first three rules of studying the Bible? Context, context, context. Hopefully, I haven’t scared you too badly with any of the examples above. (We’ve all made our mistakes studying the Bible.) All I’m really urging you to do is to simply observe what the Bible is actually saying. Take the time to read the text carefully. Always remember to check the surrounding context of a passage, and you’ll be well on your way to truly understanding the Scriptures.

How to study the Bible series:

Which Bible version should I use?

The first three rules of Bible study [see above]

Why do we have to “study” the Bible?

Where are we?: Getting a feel for the bigger story

You’ve got mail: Opening the letters to the churches

Building bridges: Cultural differences in the letters to the churches

Following the story: God and his people, part 1

The heart of the story: Jesus

Following the story: God and his people, part 2

Acting on Acts: How do we apply Acts to the church today?

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law

The psalms: Prayers to God that speak to us

Walking with the wise: Learning from the Bible’s poetic wisdom

The prophets: God’s messengers, calling his people back

Revelation: The story comes full circle

8 thoughts on “The first three rules of Bible study

  1. We have been fooled so many times over the years by people quoting the Bible out of context. Your article will be very useful to me, as I try not to fool other people by doing the same thing.

  2. Pingback: » The first three rules of Bible study | exploring the faith Church Leadership

  3. Richard, that’s a helpful word, and exactly the practice we’re seeking to avoid.

    For those who are unfamiliar with this word, exegesis is drawing the meaning from the text. Eisegesis is reading meaning into the text. As you might guess, we don’t want to fall into the error of eisegesis. This is why it’s so important that we first observe what the text is actually saying. There have been many times during Bible studies when someone has claimed the Bible was saying something that the rest of us didn’t see at all, and we come to discover it was because of the person’s assumptions about what the passage means. The people in these studies have become accustomed to hearing: “Wait a minute. What does the text actually say?” It’s so easy for us to read a familiar passage and think, ‘okay, I know what this means.’ But we have to carefully observe what the Scripture says before we can accurately know what it means.

  4. Here’s what the Bible has to say about procrastination.

    This is the day! What? Yes, even now.

    Don’t take my word for it, lest you fall into the error of eisegesis!

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