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How to Study Your Bible: Closing the Gaps

Written by: MacArthur Jr., John    Posted on: 04/10/2003

Category: Christian Living

Source: CCN

GC 90-158

                                          "How to Study Your Bible: Closing the Gaps"

                                                      Selected Scripture

              I want you to open your Bible as we discuss this matter of how to get the most out of God's Word and turn to 2 Timothy               chapter 2 verse 15. I apologize in some ways because normally on a Sunday morning and evening we take a passage of               scripture and we work through that passage in an expository fashion, but this is a very special series, not so much like               preaching and more like a classroom, as we're talking about principles of Bible study. By virtue of the subject we are forced               to deal with some technical things and some things that are not necessarily related to a text of Scripture, but are so essential               and so foundational that they will prepare you to study all the passages of Scripture. So if you'll indulge me a little bit to be               the teacher rather than the preacher today and give you a lesson on Bible study, you'll be well served and so will I.

              In 2 Timothy 2:15 we have just a starting point biblically that gives us the mandate for this necessity of Bible study. It says,               "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the               word of truth." Not to handle the word of truth is to bring shame upon yourself. When you're dealing with the word you're               dealing with the word of the living God. When you're dealing with God you're dealing with one who is true and in whom               there is no untruth...God who cannot lie has spoken. In the Bible God has spoken. He has spoken so as to be understood. It               is incumbent upon us that we rightly divide the truth, that we handle accurately the word that God has spoken. Nothing is               more disconcerting to me, nothing is more distressing or disturbing to me than mishandling of Scripture. In fact that's               somewhat of a passion for me. I grieve in my heart when I hear the Word of God being mishandled, misrepresented,               passages being used to teach things they don't teach, scripture being used to teach doctrine it does not teach.               Misrepresenting the Word of God is serious, it is a serious sin of the caliber of inept, unbiblical worship. None of us would               want to be guilty of worshiping God in a manner that is unsuited to Him. God wants to be worshiped and He wants to be               worshiped in spirit and in truth. God wants to be worshiped from the heart. He wants to be worshiped for the God who He               is. He wants to be rightly understood. He wants to be exalted for His attributes as they are. And we want to worship the               true God as He is in the way that He has called us to worship in the Scripture. And we don't want to tamper with worshiping               God in a trivial way or a trite way because we understand the seriousness of that. And the same should be true with how we               handle the Scripture since God has exalted the Word even to His name, Psalm 138:2. How we handle the Scripture is               equally concerning to us. And if we do not handle it accurately, we ought to be ashamed. There's a measure of shame               involved in mishandling Scripture. Now you're liable to say because it's a fairly common perspective that handling the               Scripture accurately is not an easy thing. Good men disagree. A lot of Bible teachers disagree. Preachers disagree. Writers               disagree. If it's...if it's so important that we handle it accurately and if it's a matter of shame when we don't, why is it that               there is so much disagreement? Well there are a number of reasons for that. One is because of inadequate study, inadequate               preparation. Another is because of presuppositions. Some people have already been front loaded with viewpoints to which               they conform the Scripture rather than letting the Scripture speak for itself. Another is a failure to deal with issues in one life               that clear the path for understanding of Scripture, laying aside sin and other things that clutter the mind. I think another               reason that there's difference in Scripture is because some people decide they're going to follow certain heroes. They follow               certain traditions, certain theological heroes, certain writers and they stay in line with them. They tend to impose that upon               various texts of Scripture because of their being enamored with a certain writer of a certain period of time, even a               contemporary one. There are a number of reasons why there is difference. There are differences to be had and we               understand this on issues of Scripture that are somewhat peripheral, that are not dealt with extensively in Scripture or clearly               in Scripture. There are some matters of scripture we just don't have a lot of information on and we have to take what we               have and do the best we can with it. But after having said all of that I remind you that there is a mainstream, there is a main               pipeline of truth down the very center of the Word of God, down the center of Christian history that's unwavering and               undeviating and we stand in that great tradition. We want to interpret the Word of God as its always been interpreted by               faithful, godly interpreters. And the great truth of the Christian faith is that there has always been a true understanding of               Scripture in all the history of the church, even in all the history of Israel. During the time of Israel's wanderings and sin and               wavering and defection and apostasy there were always those Jews who were faithful to the truth of Scripture who               understood it rightly. And there were always prophets who stood up and gave the right interpretation and priests who               moved by that right interpretation to bring the people to God. We want to be in line with that...that main flow of truth of true               understanding of Scripture when we study the Word of God...understanding there are some things that are too mysterious               for us to grasp because they're supernatural by nature and we are natural, understanding there are some things that are               inscrutable, that is impossible for us with the kind of mind we have to unravel, to sort out. There are some things for which               little information is given and therefore we really can't understand an exact interpretation. But when it comes to the main               thrust and the main flow of Scripture, the sweep of Scripture, that can be grasped and in general the Word of God can be               taken at face value and understood by us as believers. Now in order to do that, in order to get the most out of God's Word,               in order to really understand what God meant by what He said we have to close some gaps. And I want to talk about that               this morning. I want to talk about the way we do that in the study of Scripture. We talked already about reading the Bible.               And that's where you have to start, reading so that you become familiar with the text of Scripture. I'll promise you one thing,               you'll never know what the Bible says unless you read it. And when you read it repeatedly, as we talked about, a repetitious               reading plan, you'll begin to plant the Word in your heart. It will begin to sort of explain itself because you start by knowing               what it says. But there are some gaps in understanding what it means by what it says that have to be closed. Once you've               read the Word of God and you've put it in your heart and you're reading it and memorizing it and making it your own, it's               going to come alive to you in many ways but there are still some gaps that have to be closed. And the gaps are related to an               ancient document. We're dealing with an ancient document. This book is a very old book. It goes back to the patriarchal               period, the time of Moses when he's writing about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. It goes all the way back to the time               of Job which may have been written even before Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy which we call the               Pentateuch. It's a very old document written over a period of 1500 plus years by 40 plus writers cradled in that marvelous               place called Israel, both Old and New Testament come from there. But it is ancient. It was completed, as you obviously               know, in the first century A.D., that's 2,000 years ago, and so we have a very old document. That creates some gaps for us.               If we're going to understand the Bible we have to close those gaps. Gap number one is a language gap. The Bible was not               written in English. The Bible was written in the Old Testament in Hebrew and some passages in Aramaic which was more of               a sort of the common street language, even spoken during the time of Jesus among the Jews. But predominantly, of course,               far and away written in Hebrew and a few passages in Aramaic. The New Testament written in Greek which was the               language of the Roman Empire which had extended itself through the Middle East and into the land of Israel at that time. So               we have a problem here because not only was the Old Testament written in Hebrew, but it was written in a kind of Hebrew               that isn't spoken today...that has changed as language does. And the New Testament written in the Greek language that is               different than the Greek of today. It's even called koine Greek which means common Greek and it was different than               sophisticated sort of uncommon or literary Greek even in the time it was written and both of those are different from Greek               today. So we have to close this language gap. That's very important because we have to understand the speech of the               people and how they spoke and how they wrote if we're going to understand what they meant. That's why when young men               go to seminary we teach them Greek and Hebrew. Now we know that going to seminary for three years or four years, or in               the case of some eight years, nine years, just depends, going through all of that time and learning Greek and Hebrew isn't               necessarily going to make you in just that brief course the primary source on the significance of the language. But it is very               important to understand the Greek and the Hebrew language because there are a number of things that are helped when you               do that. You can, for example, use all the Hebrew study tools, you can use lexicons and dictionaries and all of that. And you               can also read certain commentaries that refer to the Hebrew words and you know what they're talking about. And you also               know if you know Greek and Hebrew that when somebody refers to the Greek or the Hebrew you can sort of double               check on them and find out if they're right. If you don't know those languages you're sort of at the mercy of the writer you               select to believe because you can't really verify it. So knowing the language is very important. Somebody has to know the               language. If you as a Bible student don't know it, you have to have somebody who does know it informing you about it.               That's where commentaries come in to be of help to you and study materials and Vine's Dictionary of New Testament               Words and Dictionary of Old Testament Words and those kinds of things that help you to come to grips with what the               words mean. Vine's I mention because it starts with English and then goes back to the Greek and back to the Hebrew. So               one who doesn't know Greek or Hebrew can use it. But you've got to get in touch with the words to find out what they               mean because that is the heart and soul of communication. A second gap that has to be closed is the culture gap. That deals               not with the speech but with the customs. Speech is connected to custom. Speech is idiomatic. I mean our speech is               idiomatic. When I listen to the idioms of today, I don't even know what young people are talking about. I mean, I hear               conversations and I haven't got a clue what they're talking about because language continues to accumulate idioms. We're               familiar with certain idioms. You know, we say to people when we meet them, "How are you?" I don't know...that is about               as silly a statement if you just take it at face value, "How are you?" Well how are I am? I am because my mother was and               my father was then I were. What do you mean how are you, what does that mean? If you said to someone are you               well...they could answer that either yes or no. If you said to someone are you happy...they could answer that but how are               you seems to me to be an idiom that somebody must have thought at some point meant something which is sort of lost to us.               Another idiom we use is "hi", what does that mean? Hi...I don't know what that means but that's an idiom. We develop               those in language. Well as you deal with ancient language you're dealing with an idiomatic language, you're dealing with               expressions that are reflective of culture and knowing culture is absolutely crucial. You can't even recreate the scenery. You               can't recreate the scenery biblically unless you know the culture, that's very, very important unless you know the               background. Understanding many things about culture, Jewish culture, Greek culture very, very important in interpreting the               Scripture. The culture of the mystery religions, the culture of the Pharisees, the culture of the Sadducees, the Romans, the               whole situation there, the culture around Israel, the polytheism, the polytheism meaning the many god pagans, the culture of               Baal worship, all of that stuff that surrounds the biblical data is part of understanding the framework in which language exists               and in which stories are told. Thirdly the geographical gap, the geography gap. Very important to understand something               about that. It's not quite as compelling as the others but it is compelling to some degree to be able to identify the scenery               itself, the actual scenery that's going on. For example, Jesus is saying look at the fields for they're white unto harvest. What's               going on there? What does He mean by that? Well there's a marvelous scene there as the grain has reached a certain level at               that time of the year in that part of the world and on the backside of the grain comes the people from the towns in their white               garb and they look like white heads on the growing grain and appear to be a harvest and Jesus uses that as a metaphor for               the need to harvest the souls of those people. So there's something about the agrarian geography, something about the fact               that the hillsides of Palestine were used for vineyards and the fields were used for grain and something about understanding               what it means to go up to Jerusalem and go down to Jericho and it's something about geography...very, very important. You               understand much about the culture of the Bible, you understand much about the geography of the Bible, and then you're               going to get to understanding the fourth point which is the history, the plot itself. You have to close those gaps. Now let's               talk about those...those four gaps...the language gap, that gives you the speech; the culture gap gives you the customs and               the idioms; the geography gaps creates the scenery, the actual scenario around it; and the history gap is the plot, what's               going on historically around that. What is the context of history. I have found through the years that spending a maximum of               time on these matters is crucial to all effective Bible understanding. People often ask me, "How long does it take me to put a               sermon together?" Well, the truth of the matter is to actually put down an outline and to write down some notes and to bring               them up here and present them to you I might spend an hour doing that. But it could take me 30 hours to do what I just               described to you as closing those four gaps because once those gaps are closed and you now have a living scene, you               understand the language, you understand the culture customs that have formed the language, you've created the scene and               you've got the plot, then the passage just kind of falls off the tree. It becomes very apparent what it means when you've               reconstructed all of that. And frankly, that's the fun, that's the exhilaration of Bible study for me is recreating that current               scene to which the passage speaks which makes it alive. Now let's talk about that. Let's talk about language, first of all. As I               said, there are two basic languages, Hebrew and Greek. Hebrew is the more easy language to learn, even though you would               be sort of put off by Hebrew because you look at the characters of Hebrew and they seem more different than the character               of Greek, the characters of Greek. Hebrew is actually an easier language, it's not nearly as complex, it's much more               concrete. But you come to Greek and Greek is very, very complex. In fact there is not one regular verb in the Greek               language that follows the regular formula for varying cases and all of that varying endings and so on, there's no one single               Greek verb in the entire language that us uniformly regular. Which means that all your doing is memorizing irregular parts and               every verb has a myriad of forms. Every time you change any of the grammar in the sentence the form of the verb changes.               We don't have that in English. We say a verb and it's a verb. I ran is I ran, all we can say I was running, there's a few forms,               but the Greek language would change the word "ran" into fifteen different forms depending upon how it was used in the               structure of the sentence. So it's a tremendous amount of memorization. People who take Greek memorize and memorize               and memorize and memorize so that you have all of that information in your mind so that you can read. And eventually as               you do that long enough, it sort of becomes familiar to you. But that gets you in touch with the speech. Now let me tell you               something very basic to understand. When God wrote the Word He put His message in words. The message is in the               words. They must be understood. And it must be understood that the original words were Hebrew and Greek and the better               understanding we have of the meaning of those original words, the better we will understand the passage. For the most part               you can be happy to know that the translators of the scripture have accurately translated those words. Scripture in the               English language has been poured over and poured over and poured over and poured over for centuries really and refined               and refined so that what we have is an accurate representation of the Greek and the Hebrew but without the nuances,               without the rich nuances that can be brought to bear by a careful study of language. And so what I do in studying the               Scripture is come into touch with that. You deal with accidence...that's with a "ce" rather than a "ts" at the end...that means               the form of the word, what case is it in, what gender is it in, is it singular, is it plural, is it aorist, is it imperfect, is it perfect...all               those things. We have a problem today, you know, trying to deal with people to teach them a language because they don't               know the...they don't know the principle parts of English. In the Master's Seminary, for example, we take only bright               students, only students that can do very, very difficult graduate level work. They have to make a real sacrifice academically               to do well in seminary. It takes the best and the brightest of guys to do it. One out of four young men that apply to the               Master's Seminary can pass the basic English exam and they all come out of university backgrounds. They don't know their               own language. They know how to talk it, but they don't understand how their language is constructed, they don't understand               how its built. And so when you try to teach them another language they don't know how to learn a language unless you give               them a Berlitz tape, you know, and say you learn Hebrew by learning these little phrases. You can't do that. So it's very               challenging. You have to learn the form of words and that's a great challenge. I remember as a college freshman, I went               away, I was determined I was doing to know the New Testament, so as a freshman in college I took five units of               Greek...every day I took Greek, five days a week, the whole year, my whole first year. That's a lot of Greek for an               eighteen-year-old kid. That's an awful lot of memorization, an awful lot of study, and I took Greek all through my four years               of college and took a minor in Greek and then I went into seminary and took Greek for three more years so I kept taking               Greek and Greek and Greek and when I got to the end I still don't think I had memorized everything there was to               memorize...very complicated. But we have tremendous tools today to help us get to those matters to help us understand the               words and the forms of the words. Then there's lexicography in addition to what we call accidence, which is the form of               words, and lexicography is the meaning of words. Now you're going to talk about what do these words mean, that gets you               into the whole background of words, very rich. Then syntax...s-y-n-t-a-x...which is the relationship of words and you're               getting in to how the words all connect up. That's very important. That is a gap that has to be closed. To give you a little               illustration of how I do this and I've been doing this now ever since I've been preaching and teaching the Word of God, this               is the normal thing for me, this is kind of what I do, this is sort of my trade. I start out with an eight and a half by fourteen               pad and I go to the passage and I get the original language part of the passage in the original language that I'm going to               preach on and I just work through that whole thing until I understand the words, I understand the meaning of the words, the               forms of the words, you know, if I have to parse them or lay them out or show what case they're in or whatever it is in the               case of substantives, nouns and adjectives. And then what that all scribbling all over the place, those notes are not for public               view, occasionally they leak around, but I just chicken scratch all that out. And then I get into the meaning of those words               and I look up the meaning of the words and I go to various source material to find the nuances of meaning. And then I work               on antecedents and relationships and begin to connect those words with the passage itself. And then I've got a whole...a               whole understanding of what the passage basically is saying, the actual words are now clear to me, very important, trying to               understand in the original what is the richest understanding I can have of that passage. That's working with language and               that's the first process I do. I start with the original language so that I can come to grips with that. Now not all of you, of               course, are going to be able to do that because you don't know the language. But look, there's so much material out there to               help you, there's so many good things that will get you in touch

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