Have you ever been in a Bible class where every verse – sometimes every word or phrase – became a topic to be studied and discussed? The words of the text reminded the teacher and the class of other places in the Bible where a similar thought, word, or phrase was also used. Sometimes the verse reminded a member of how this would be a perfect passage to show a friend his error. The result? The entire study is focused on bolstering one’s position on doctrinal issues or helping better one’s life. The class feels really relevant, but the actual message of the text itself was never seen. It is an “encyclopedic” study of the Bible. Every verse appears to be independent from the author’s intent.
When I was visiting one such study, 2 Corinthians 4:4 was the beginning text. The teacher read, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving.” He asked who the god of this world was, and then spent the next 20 minutes going to a multitude of texts about the devil and his works. Once that was finished, he turned to the word, “blinded.” Another ten minutes were spent on other passages that referred to people who were deceived and blinded to God’s message. The same was done with the word, “unbelieving,” which continued until the close of class. Did anyone know how 2 Corinthians 4:4 fit the message of Paul’s letter? No. Did anyone even know Paul’s purpose in writing the letter? No.
The Danger of Word by Word, Phrase by Phrase Study
The foremost problem is that God’s purpose and message is completely missed. Though the scribes and Pharisees were considered to be knowledgeable, Jesus repeatedly rebuked them for their lack of knowledge. After all, the Pharisees couldn’t even correctly figure out when the Sabbath was being violated! Why? Jesus’ answer was, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matt. 12:7). The full quote from Hosea is:
“What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away…For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:4, 6).
Israel and Judah thought it would be easy to come back to the Lord after years of idolatry. Their attitude was to restore external, ritual forms of law-keeping in order to ensure a restoration of physical blessings. Weekly fasts, sacrifices, tithes, and Sabbath-keeping ought to do the trick, right? What God desired was faithful love that was produced by a deep knowledge of him (like in a marriage – the foundational message of Hosea). If they had the knowledge of God, they would have known that the Sabbath command wasn’t an arbitrary command to test covenant faithfulness. God was giving them the blessing they never had in Egypt. God was sharing his rest with them and giving them a day to share this rest with others – setting the weak free from their burdens (cf. Isaiah 58). But since they were poor Bible students they actually condemned Jesus for doing good on the Sabbath. There is only one way we can obtain the knowledge of God so that we have faithful love for him: read and understand the Spirit’s words which have come from the Spirit searching even the “deep things of God,” and revealing those “things” in “words taught by the Spirit,” not words “taught by human wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:10-13). In other words, the Spirit is revealing God’s mind. In every text we need to ask, “How is the Holy Spirit revealing God’s mind here?”
Why has this style of Bible study and teaching become a part of many Christian’s lives?
It is primarily a result of being so focused on doctrinal errors concerning subjects such as salvation, worship, and the nature of the church, that for many people the only purpose for Bible study is to solve these and other issues. This approach led to a type of proof-texting that plucked verses out of their context, which is exactly how the Pharisees misappropriated the Sabbath command. Our priority in Bible study must be to know God so that we are drawn to love him (John 6:44-45). When the knowledge of God is the first priority, being careful to keep his commandments will be the natural outcome (Ezek. 36:25-27; John 14:15). The person who loves God will keep his commandments. The person who only cares about keeping commandments, will miss the purpose and design of his commandments and never learn to love him. And yes, I’m talking about a deep, emotional love that is based on who God is and what he’s doing in the world. How else do we understand David’s words, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:1-2)? David did not come to that passion for God just because he knew God’s rules.
Overly Enamored with Application?
Obviously, present-day applications are a necessary part of study. But there are two key principles that must be remembered when seeking applications. First, applications lose their power and sense when they are not driven by the original meaning of the text. Sometimes we can read texts first looking for modern relevance – homiletics before exegesis. This can lead us to missing the the original message of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures are always relevant, but we must seek God’s application, not our own. The Bible shouldn’t be read as chicken soup for the soul. The Bible is God-centered literature that is meant to be meditated on day by day for a lifetime; it is not disconnected, pithy sayings to get us through the day. Whether, in preaching, Bible classes, or personal study, first be diligent to know God’s original message to the original readers. Only then will applications be rooted in the wisdom of God.
Second, every text reveals principles about God and about ourselves. The scripture reveals the glory of God (2 Cor. 3:18) and “the thoughts and intents of our heart” (Heb. 4:12). Seeing the glory of God and my own failed heart is an application in itself. The more clearly we see God’s glory, the more we will be drawn to him and love him. The more we love him, the more we will reflect his glory and become like him. No one will need to tell me to love him, it will be a natural outcome of seeing him and knowing him. It is like commanding me to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Sorry, it’s not my fruit, it is the Spirit’s fruit. The more I know God, the more the fruit is a natural result.
Bible study that starts with God truly makes sense of God’s commands and makes obeying God a pleasure and a joy!