take no one's word for God's Word

"The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds." -Acts 17:10-13 (ESV)

If last year was all about understanding the joy of the Lord, I’d have to say this year has been about doctrine and correct use of Scripture. I think I’ve grown a lot in my understanding of the Bible this year (with, of course, infinite room for growth) and how to listen when Scripture is used inappropriately or out of context.

This didn’t "just happen.” It came from plenty of study, some public but much private, and even visiting several churches. It’s on my mind so much and I'm learning so much that I’ve honestly had some trouble collecting my thoughts to write. I even had a dream recently about trying to correct someone and help them understand how to study the Bible. Because I constantly hear misquoted and misused Scripture, I'm genuinely concerned about things many of us are taught and believe without checking, then teach others wrongly so the error continues person to person on down the generations.

I also become very concerned when those who claim to be believers say things like, "Oh, well that's not exactly what it means, but God can use it." God is not the author of confusion, and we aren't allowed to excuse ourselves from confusing others. We are accountable to the Lord for presenting His message correctly. We need to repent and ask the Lord for His wisdom, correcting ourselves in humility.

I know sometimes when a person feels this way they can also fall into several errors, which I pray to avoid. I don’t want to be angry in correction or prideful in knowledge. Right or wrong, I don't want to "agitate." (Hold accountable, yes. Stir up trouble, no.) This isn't about "being right," it's about honoring God. And I know that I, too, have been guilty of Scriptural misunderstanding and explanation because I didn't do enough study myself. That simply has to stop.

Look at James 3:1-18. Proper teaching and use of words in all settings isn't just a suggestion.

My prayer is that I can glorify the Lord in helping others grow in Him and their understanding of His words, even as I grow in my understanding and ability to explain. My prayer is for His wisdom in understanding the text, not overlaying other ideas or ways I really wish God worked. I want to know Him for who He is as He is, and I want to know exactly what God is communicating, not trusting various interpretations of God's plan.

That said, here are some things to do during your own study which have helped tremendously as I move past simply being taught and dig into the Bible for myself.

1) Textual Context - We love to make fortune cookie sized quotes out of rich Bible passages and stick them on signs and t-shirts. Some of Proverbs is written in that style, but for most of the Bible, which is written as a flow of thought through an entire document or letter, it's possible to miss the point of the passage altogether. Brief quotes come in handy for memorization, and, explained properly, help in sharing and teaching. But proper explanation is key, because hearing something out of context can cause it to take on an entirely different meaning in our minds (and this happens far too often with Scripture).

Be sure to always read the passages surrounding the portion of Scripture you're studying. If that means reading a whole book, do it. I really appreciate the clickable Scripture references on this site that allow you to go see what else is surrounding that portion of Scripture. Use them. And remember, the numbering system was created later to help you find things easier, not for isolation.

Try this with everyone's favorite, John 3:16. To get the context of that verse, you should read from John 3:1-21. Find out who is talking, who is being spoken too and what is being said. Even look for time references. (I'll give it away, it's "night.") Read quotes in their entirety.

2) Historical Context - While God's plan encompasses all of human history, past, present and future, the Bible was written by certain people to certain people at certain points in time. To fully understand the concepts presented, we need to know those facts as much as possible and how that audience was likely to understand what was being said.

Commentaries and study Bibles can be useful for historical information, but be careful when these become more opinion based than fact based. (We recommend the ESV Study Bible as one that tends toward a fairly balanced presentation.)

For instance, in John 3:1-21, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus who was a member of the Sanhedrin, one who is supposed to know Scripture (our Old Testament) well enough to teach. Therefore he has a different perspective than many people of that time, and Jesus speaks to Him differently. Obviously much more can be said on this verse, but this fact alone should improve our perspective of why Jesus says the things He says here.

3) Original Language - Alright, so you can't read Greek. Or Hebrew. Or any of the other languages of the Bible. Maybe you can barely make out some of the older translations. But remember, all of our modern versions are just that—translated. And our words, in any language, take on different meanings as time goes on and dialects change or die.

So what was being said in the original languages? Well, if I just described you, Bible Hub has a great resource to help you with that question. Their Bible Lexicon includes Greek and Hebrew so you can view passages to see what the words are in those languages.

To get you started, check out John 3:16 all broken down in Greek. You can click on the numbers in the Strong's column for definitions and other word options. I also have a note in my Bible stating that, "For God so loved the world," might be translated, "For this is how God loved the world."

And, hey, watch out getting all caught up on individual words in English or any translation. I've heard of all kinds of study methods that ask people to focus on individual words. Sometimes every little one. Not only does this cause you to lose sight of vital context, but sometimes because we have to use different styles of phraseology to communicate in translations, people get stuck on words that aren't in the original phrase. Definitions are important. Context is crucial.

4) Scripture vs. Scripture - Another question is, how does this Scripture align with other portions of Scripture? Remember, the Bible tells a single story. It's God's story of redemption. It's all pointing to Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross for the sins of those who believe in Him. Don't forget this, regardless of what you're reading.

My biggest caution would be against overlaying ideas that aren't necessarily there onto the text, especially when your idea is contrary to other portions of Scripture. And definitely don't try to force other Scriptures to fit your conjecture. The steps above should help with a large part of that problem. But the tendency remains, and sometimes one has to retrain the brain to understand the proper meaning of a passage rather than what we've been told or even convinced ourselves is true.

Helpful in this pursuit can be cross references, provided in most larger Bibles. I looked at a few for John 3:16, and it pointed me to passages such as Romans 5:8 and Ephesians 2:4. (Tip: Don't forget context in looking at the cross references too!)

So all of this is basic and vital to having an informed, Biblical comprehension. Don't just sit back and wait for a preacher or anyone else to do this for you. Know the Bible yourself. A true believer should find an ever increasing desire to know what the Lord is saying, so studying the Bible should become natural in your life as you grow in Him. And pray each time you read, always asking the Lord to reveal His truth alone.

By the way, in my own study of John 3:16 and surrounding, this is what I am learning:
  • “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (ESV)
God's love for the world meant He took action and sent Jesus to die for the sins of not everyone, but those who believe in Him. This is clear in verse 15 as well. We see several places in Scripture that not everyone will be saved. If that were true, no one would be in hell or "perish." But having heard others claim this means Christ's death is "for all," I looked up the background of "world" and "whoever" (sometimes translated "whosoever.") Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a Jew, and is making the point again, as do many other places in Scripture, that it is not only the Jews who can be saved, but Gentiles as well. The "whoever" emphasizes people from any nation that God calls who truly trust in Jesus and will be saved through His blood. This would have been a bit of a shock for the Jews, who claimed some exclusivity as God's chosen race. (Chosen to share who God was with the rest of the world, and even have the Messiah born through them as a Jew, but that's a further study.)

That's just a little of what I'm learning from this passage as I study using all the devices listed above. It's amazing, bringing out so much more of what God is doing in restoring His creation. In His perfect justice, He gets all the glory in both His wrath and love. Praise Him for His mercy extended through the blood of Christ to those who believe.

And that is where your study should always lead you in the end, the praise of God's glory. Worship Him.