Studying the Bible, a Plan and some Guidelines
When we study God’s word it’s good to have a plan and a good understanding of the make-up of the Bible. Otherwise, it may seem like hieroglyphics. Actually, only 3 major questions need to be asked about what we’re reading. When we get a good handle on these, Scripture will become much more alive for us.
First major question:
“To whom does the Bible speak?” Easy answer: everyone. But not so fast. Certain parts of the Bible are specially designed to speak to certain groups or even certain individuals.
In sending out the 12 apostles, for instance, the Lord said, “Be not anxious how or what ye shall speak: for it will be given to you in that hour what ye shall speak.” (Matt. 10:19) This scripture applied to the Apostles, and to them alone. Obviously, if every member of this site depended on the Lord to put words in his mouth whenever he spoke he would be seriously disappointed.
Others single out special groups of believers, or non-believers. In his letter to the Collossians and Ephesians, Paul sent some of his God-given instructions to husbands and to wives, some to fathers, some to children, some to masters, and some to servants. In the town of Miletus Paul delivered an address to the Elders at the church of Ephesus, which contains special instructions for elders of churches. In writing to Timothy, he spoke to preachers when he said, “Preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and teaching (2 Timothy 4:2). Still other passages have a broad application to all Christians.
It should be clear by now that the Bible student must begin the study with the question: ”To whom was this passage of the book written?” This question becomes even more vital when one considers the fact that God has had three major dispensations, or time periods where the rules differed, in His dealing with men.
First there was the Patriarchal Dispensation. This period lasted for about 2500 (?) years, beginning with Adam and ending with the giving of the Mosaic law on Mt. Sinai. During this time there was no church, no temple, and no written system of religious laws. God spoke directly to the heads of the families in visions and dreams, and thru angels.
The second period was the Mosaic Dispensation. This period lasted about 1500 years, beginning with Moses and ending when Christ died on the cross. During this period was the tabernacle or temple as the center of worship. There also was an elaborate system of religious laws, with the ten commandments at their center. To carry out the elaborate systems of sacrifices there was a carefully regulated priesthood. This is called the period of “Moonlight.”
The third period is the Christian Dispensation. It began with Christ’s death and the beginning of the church and has already lasted more than 2000 years. It will continue in effect until Christ returns to announce the end of time and the judgment. The temple gave way to the church in the Christian age and the law of Moses was replaced by the greater law of liberty, the law of Christ.This is the period of God’s full and complete revelation, also called the “sunlight”.
Their meaning for us today
Sometimes when a person hears of the three dispensations for the first time, he finds it difficult to understand how these facts relate to him. What all of this means is that people who live “this side of the cross” are under the rules and regulations of neither the Patriarchal nor the Mosaic Age. We are under the jurisdiction of the law of Christ. Can we be sure this is true? Read Matt. 17: 1-5 where Peter wanted to build 3 tabernacles, one for Jesus, one for Elijah an one for Moses. And “behold, a voice out of the cloud said This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him.” This incident plainly shows the superiority of Christ over Moses, the Old Testament Law giver, and Elijah, one of the chief Old Testament prophets. The voice of God declared that now men must hear Christ, the Divine Son of God and not go by the previous set of laws.
Some of Moses’ law, the 10 commandments, for example- in a deeper and richer form are also part of the law of Christ, but we obey the laws Christ gave, rather than Moses’ laws. This does not mean the Old Testament is meaningless for Christians, but merely that Christians are not under the commands and ordinances of the former dispensations. The events of the former dispensations are to be studied by Christians for in them is much encouragement toward faith and trust in God. A reading of the Old Testament is necessary for an understanding of the New. “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” . This point of view, clearly taught in the scriptures themselves, makes it possible for a man in the 21st century to understand the Bible. Otherwise, he flounders among the three dispensations, not knowing what to do with much of what he reads.
Also, such books as the Psalms furnish Christians great inspiration toward deeper Spirituality. The books of prophesy also give evidence of the inspiration of the Bible and the Divinity of Christ. Christians must keep the Old Testament, and read it, and study it thoroughly. But Christians are not under the laws of these past ages.
The Second Major Question
The second question a serious Bible student musk ask is “Who Is Speaking”? Different people speak throughout the scriptures, and some are messengers of God. Some are not. For example, when Job lost all his possessions (Job 2) his wife advised him “Renounce God and die” (real nice lady, eh?) Obviously, this was not the Biblical message. One must go on, and read Jobs next statement to get the message: “Thou He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”
Sometimes the advice of the devil is included in the scriptures, as in Genesis (Gen. 3) where he tempts eve. The whole human race was plunged into sin because the two believed the half-truths of the devil. Another example is iIn Acts 15 where the Judaizing teachers present their incorrect doctrine.
The careful student of the Bible doesn’t “Pick and choose” scriptures, picking a sentence here, and another there, and combining them indiscriminately. In doing so it is quite easy to make the Bible say what the lord did not intend for it to say at all. A humorous example of this is combining 3 passages, Matt 27:5, Luke 10:37, and John 13:27. You end up with this (not something I”d preach!) “And Judas went out and hanged himself/Go thou and do likewise/and what thou doest, do quickly” The result is hardly he word of God. In order to be honest in the use of the scriptures one must study the context that proceeds and follows any given verse.
Sometimes the paragraph will be enough to read to be sure your interpretation is true. Sometimes, you will need to read the entire chapter, and sometimes you’ll have to familiarize yourself with the theme of the entire book. Just be sure you’ve read enough to fully understand the message by it’s context, and not just have an out-of-context quotation which is essentially different from the real meaning of the Lord.
Of course, this point doesn’t mean there’s a difference in the authority of the various Inspired speakers of the Bible. When God guides a man his message is not his own but God’s. The Holy Spirit is directing his words, so that it’s not the speakers own message, but God’s. He is merely God’s instrument.
Third Major Question
One more vital question needs to be asked. “What is the design or purpose of the passage?” Some passages are narrative. They simply tell an instructive, inspiring story of some relationship of God and man. Such a story is the one of Joseph.
Other passages are Prophesy. These foretell events that were to come to pass long after the prophesy was made. The Old Testament abounds in such passages. They often serve to show that God was instructing the writers to write of things they could not possibly have known. The book of Daniel is such a prophesy. Isaiah’s foretelling of the coming of Jesus is another. They are great encouragements to faith.
Still other passages in the Bible are commands. These are direct instructions from God and must be obeyed. “Thou shall not kill (commit murder). Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20: 13-15) These are obviously commands to be obeyed.
Sometimes the Bible speaks Literally and sometimes Figuratively. For example, Jesus referred to himself as a door, as a way, as a shepherd, as the water of life, and in a number of other illustrative ways. The reader would be mistaken to take him literally when he does.
Let us make the Bible our guide. Let us strive to know what the Bible teaches. Then, let us do what the Bible says, for there is no reward for those who stop short of the doing! “Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only” James 1:22.
Revised from material written by: Dr Batsell Barrett Baxter.