I was talking with a colleague yesterday about some of the issues in my last post…working for God not necessarily equaling intimacy with Christ. She talked about how her Theology studies had often seemed distant and experimental, and noticed that preparing a Bible study seemed like work.
- reading or finding the text
- checking other versions
- following cross-references
- researching commentaries
- researching cultural influences on the text
- researching back-stories on the characters
- boiling it town to teaching points
- preparing resources/handouts
She realized that this was a completely different activity than her daily reading, not nearly as fulfilling and exhaustingly academic. This got us wondering if we had the right idea. Where does scriptural insight come from? If Christ is the Word (see John 1), doesn’t he wish to speak to us? Won’t the Spirit lead us to truths through his word if we listen.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6
Please don’t get me wrong, Commentaries aren’t dangerous. If I find a challenging passage, I’m the first to look up John Calvin or Matthew Henry’s thoughts on the topic or to look up the notes at the bottom. I’ve heard these stressed as non-scriptural notes, and I’ve heard a Study Bible called a “cheater Bible” joking that it alone has “All God’s answers in one book”. Where did the insights of the great quoted masters come from? We’re long past the days when we thought only the elite could talk to God. We just have to realize that if we were to read every commentary and volume ever written on John 3:16, the Spirit would poke us in the ribs and remind us that He still has words just for you left unsaid. He’s that deep and unsearchable.
Oh the Depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways. (Romans 11:33 NIV)
Can you discover the depths of God? Can you discover the limits of the Almighty? They are High as the Heavens, what can you do? Deeper than Sheol, what can you know. (Romans 11:33 NIV)
That second verse isn’t saying don’t bother looking for God…just dive in head first and don’t expect to hit the bottom.
I’m no expert in Bible study, I just know what works for me. I’m going to propose a few ideas I’ve found and heard and hope that some of you can add to in your comments. Also, I don’t offer this as a “method”, but as suggestions.
This one should be obvious, but sometimes we forget it. If you don’t believe me, read 1st Thessalonians 5:17 then James 1:22. Read them again, read it again….and this brings us to the next idea.
Re-read the verse. Re-read the Chapter. Read it and stress different words. Read it with the clauses, and without the clauses. Read it out loud. Read it upside down (well, you get the idea). This is never time wasted.
If you come to the end of a chapter or story, don’t make the mistake of stopping cold. I learned recently that even the parables can be understood more deeply if you dare to keep reading. The chapter numbers and section titles were added much later for our convenience. Did you know that “cutting out a sinful eye and approaching people about accountability are in the same chapter. Why do we laugh off Matthew 18:9 as an exaggeration, yet try to follow 18:16 as a prescription.
English speakers have an unbelievable wealth of translations and study Bibles. There are Bibles with notes for women, golfers, students, pastors, maybe even Motorcycle repairmen (or is that Zen :). There are Bibles translated to extract the literal words from the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. There are Bibles trying to recapture the poetic styles of the original languages. Each time you pick up a different translation, you’re reading God’s love letter to the world guided by the spirit and seen through the eyes and emphases of that translator.
This shouldn’t be a surprise that different versions speak more strongly to different people. Even the gospels were written to different audiences.
- Matthew was written with details specific for the Jews waiting for the Messaiah.
- Mark was written for the Romans, often containing information that was needed to explain Jewish customs.
- Luke was written as a detailed account to all people.
- John was written to the Gentiles, to us, so that we would know that Jesus was God.
Please understand, I’m not saying that you should give up your beloved KJV or NIV. I like both of those, and sometimes use them. I just ask you to open your eyes and dare to hear the words expressed differently.
When was the last time you were “shocked” by scripture?
Working with Bible translation, this is sort of a passion, so it might get a little long-winded. Food for thought: Here’s my experience with several Bible versions:
New International Version is my old standard. Like many of you with the KJV, most of the verses I’ve memorized are from the NIV, so it’s comforting. I have a thinline NIV, and this is the Bible I carry around when I travel. This is often one of the best and beloved for working with a Group. Anytime you’re with English speakers, you’re bound to find more than a few NIVs in the group. It’s clear and easy to read aloud, and those with other common versions will follow along with no problem.
This is the Holman Christian Standard Bible. This is my study Bible. HCSB is a 2004 translation (the standard NIV is from 1978) and it speaks to me like no other. It’s a re-translation from the original texts, and though the New Testament often sounds like NIV, it really shines is in the psalms. I’ve found it to be a beautifully crafted balance of textual precision and smooth flow. I’d have to say this is the one that speaks most clearly to me, and I use this for my daily Bible reading. It’s hard to describe why it seems so natural, but this is the version that I don’t get caught up in the words, and it clearly speaks to my heart. Thanks to Jim Luedtke for suggesting the Study Bible at Montreat, it’s been a blessing.
The Amplified Bible isn’t one that you would often read out loud, as it tends to have some of the longest verses. When those hard-to-translate words show up, the Amplified Bible shines. Most Bibles translate the Greek makaros in Matthew 5 as “blessed” or “happy”, which are both valid and useful translations. The Amplified Bible doesn’t skimp and adds parenthetical explanations of the sense to unlock it…
Blessed (happy, to be envied, and spiritually prosperous–with life-joy and satisfaction in God’s favor and salvation, regardless of their outward conditions) are the poor in spirit (the humble, who rate themselves insignificant), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven! (Matthew 5:3 AMP)
They take it even further in the following verses:
Blessed and enviably happy [with a happiness produced by the experience of God’s favor and especially conditioned by the revelation of His matchless grace] are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted! (Matthew 5:4 AMP)
Blessed and fortunate and happy and spiritually prosperous (in that state in which the born-again child of God enjoys His favor and salvation) are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (uprightness and right standing with God), for they shall be completely satisfied! (Matthew 5:6 AMP)
This one gets a lot of flack as it’s a paraphrase rather than a translation, but I challenge you to re-read the verses you know best in this version. Many times the subtleties that were hidden in your standard version will jump out in your face and shock you. You’ll find yourself asking…is that what Christ really meant? I’ll admit that sometimes Peterson goes a bit far, but surprise by scripture will get you digging deeper. I like to use the message, especially in audiobook form, when I’m in the mood to read a whole book or several. You can cover a lot of ground in 20 minutes, and have plenty to chew on for the rest of the day.
King James Version and Good News Bible:
Maybe it’s a little shocking to put these together in the same section, but that’s sort of my point. They were written for different people groups. KJV, with it’s higher language, has always expressed the majesty of God. A quick read of Psalm 23 will show you the value of this translation. If you understand the precise vocabulary, this will get you a long way. On the other hand, this is very hard for non-native English speakers. Several missionaries have heard Cameroonian churches using King James language and Bible, and the poor congregation leaves the sanctuary “confounded” or “erred in spirit”. The Good News Bible is written in simple English, avoiding the complex clauses and phrases that would confuse an early reader. For those that do not yet have a Bible in their own heart language, this is an accessible, though still not ideal, means of accessing God’s word.
I’ve had the opportunity to study French, and this has greatly increased the depth of my Bible study. Similar to the message, you’ll read a verse and all of the sudden, you’re shocked by a word. I remember reading Romans 7:23 about sin warring on our heart, and the French word for “war” stood out. “Guerre” was a word that I’d always associated in French with World War 2, and not with the little things going on in my heart. I stopped cold reading this, and I was reminded of the severity of sin. If you have the chance to read the Bible in another language, I dare you. You’ll be surprised at the new old things that will jump out at you. This also goes for the original languages…Bible word studies in Greek or Hebrew (even in translation) will get you even further into the text.