Study No. 8: Studying a Bible book

Holy Bible  Many Christians have never experienced the joy and blessing that comes from the study of a whole book of Scripture, not even a short book like one of the single-chapter epistles of the New Testament, or a psalm, which is, of course, a complete literary entity like a book.  If that is true of you, you can have no idea what you have been missing.  Such exposure to God’s  Word can be immensely enriching.

Not only so, but it is much less time-consuming than you may think to do the initial reading.  There is a video recording of a man reading right through the Gospel of Mark which runs for 105 minutes, and of course reading quietly to oneself takes a much shorter time.  So then in an hour or so you can read all that Mark intended to communicate about the life and work of Jesus.  The Epistle to the Ephesians was John Calvin’s favourite epistle.  It is a profound book, but it is also comparatively short.  Even if you are a slow reader, you can probably read it through in well under half an hour, the length of time taken by many of the shorter television programmes.  Of course some of the larger books of the Old Testament are rather more daunting, but you won’t be starting with them.

I can testify that a year or so after I was converted I was encouraged to read and study the Epistle to the Ephesians and that it revolutionised my conception of the gospel and of the Christian life.   I began to see what an immense thing God had done in the giving of his Son to live, to die and to rise again, and that everything that exists and everything that has happened or ever will happen takes its meaning from those events.  This in itself can be very liberating, as it can free us from preoccupation with ourselves.

How should you go about the study of a Bible book?  This study will focus on a number of important matters.

1. The importance of direct Bible study

When people are converted to Christ, it is usual for them to be advised to read a passage from the Bible every day.  Often they are also recommended to use a series of books or booklets with devotional comments related to the passages they are reading.

Now this is very good advice.  In a sense, it is an extension of pulpit preaching, for, whether it is expository (opening up and applying the meaning of a passage, long or short) or topical (taking up a theme and considering and applying it to the hearers in the light of what the Bible teaches), good preaching will consist of comment on, and illustration and application of biblical teaching.  To make this kind of Bible use the foundation of your daily devotions and to carry on with this throughout life is to establish a very sound basis for Christian living.   Sadly, it seems from statistical surveys that this type of regular devotional discipline is much less common than it was.   No wonder so many Christians are weak in the faith and are sometimes difficult to distinguish from non-Christians in terms of their outlook and life-style!

Now this course is really intended chiefly for people who are following that kind of devotional discipline already and who are prepared for a further challenge.  I would not suggest for one moment that you give up this regular practice, but I want to encourage you to do something more: to engage in Bible study at a deeper level, and to start by the study of a whole book of the Bible.

I love good Bible commentaries.  Nevertheless, I strongly recommend you not to begin your study of a Bible book by reading through a commentary on it.  Instead, start with the Bible text itself.  Do this even in your daily devotional reading; reflect prayerfully on the passage before you turn to the particular devotional aid you are using.  Why?  For two reasons.

First of all, the Bible is literature.  There are both appropriate and inappropriate ways of approaching the study of any subject, and the study of literature is not like the study, for instance, of a scientific subject.

I once interviewed a medical doctor who had just begun a theological course.  He was a clever, well-educated man, yet he confessed he was finding study of the Bible difficult.  He was perplexed by the difference between the methods used in the sciences he had already studied and the biblical study being undertaken in the college.  What perplexed him most was the emphasis on direct study of the text.  He pointed out that in science and technology one person’s work builds on that of others (you don’t have to re-discover DNA or re-invent the wheel) and that, to begin with at least a scientist will take earlier work for granted, even if he may question some of it at a later stage.

In dealing with literature, however, that is not the right way.  Literature is one of the humanities, and in the humanities, for example in music or art as well as literature, you should let the material of the subject make a direct impact on you first of all.  It is almost as if the composer, artist or author is coming into direct contact with you.  You see, their work is  not entirely distinct from them, but rather is an expression of their personalities.  To encounter their work can be not only a meeting of minds but also of hearts.

I enjoyed a television programme about a great fifteenth-century painting.  I learned much about the artist and his painting methods, and the presenter focused on some of the painting’s details before telling us the history of the painting from its origin to the present day.  I wished though that we had been able first of all to take a good look at it for a few minutes for it to make its impact on us, before all the detail was given.

A professional artist told me of visiting the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow when he was a child.  He looked at Rembrandt’s picture, “A Man in Armour“, and said to himself, “That;s not a picture of a man in armour; that is a man in armour.”  That experience made him an artist himself.  Both the artist and his subject had deeply impacted him.  That happens to many of us when we read the story of Jesus in the Gospels.

There is however a second, a higher reason for the direct approach.  The Bible is the Word of God, and in his Word God himself addresses you.  This is what we mean by saying it is, not simply that it was, the Word of God.

This is specially stressed in the Epistle to the Hebrews.  The writer was fully persuaded of the contemporary relevance of Old Testament Scripture and of the need to hear it as the living voice of God.  Although he often uses the past tense, not inappropriately because the Old Testament was written centuries before his time, he also often uses the present.   So, at times he introduces Scripture with the words, “he says” (Heb. 1:7, 8; 2:12-13; 5:6; 10:16-17).  In  Hebrews 12:5, in introducing a quotation from the Book of Proverbs, he uses the present tense, saying, “You have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons.”  This is a special emphasis of chapters 3 and 4, where his main point is that the words of warning in Psalm 95, with their use of the word “today”, were of contemporary relevance and therefore needed immediate attention, urgent believing and obedient action.

I suggest you read Hebrews, chapters 3 and 4, through now.

If it was true for the First Century Christians that the Old Testament was a book in which they heard the living Word of God, it is true for us in relation to the entire Bible.  The Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture when it was written is also active to apply it to you right now.

Somebody may query this, suggesting that the New Testament books were only intended for the leaders of the churches and that only such leaders should interpret them today.  There is clear evidence, however, that some of the epistles were intended to be read aloud in meetings of the church (Colossians 4:16).  Philippians 1:1 shows this letter was intended for the whole Philippian church, not just for the overseers and deacons.  Certainly the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were addressed to men to whom Paul had delegated particular responsibilities in the churches in Ephesus and Crete, but the principles he taught them were valid for all the churches.

First Corinthians virtually settles the issue.  It deals with some very sensitive matters, but its addressees are the most comprehensive in the New Testament, for Paul writes to “the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2).  If you are a Christian, that includes you.

This does not mean we are meant to go it alone in our study of Scripture or that church leaders, theologians and biblical scholars have no function in the communication of God’s Word to his people.  In Study No. 2 we were noting that there is an important place for the ministry of the Word through those God has called to preach and teach it.   Not only so, but some pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11) have written commentaries on the biblical text and other Christian literature.  So do use the commentaries but at the second stage of your study, not the first.

One possible exception to this is Biblical Introduction.  This deals with matters like the authorship, date and purpose of the book and what can be known about its first readers.  It is  good to read a brief introduction early in your study of the book, perhaps after your first reading of it, as it is helpful to know about the first readers and why the author wrote them this kind of book.  Evangelical ministers are usually well equipped to give advice as to books suitable for this purpose.  When you have done this reading and, hopefully, benefited from it, put the commentaries away until you have done some basic study of the Bible book itself.

How often should I read a Bible book through?  A lot depends on the time available.  You can read it with profit until you find you are no longer seeing much that is new in it.  In a rich book like Ephesians or Romans or the Gospel of John that could be a very long time!  When that time comes, you have certainly not exhausted its meaning (for Scripture is inexhaustible) but your mind has reached its limit for the present time.   Dr G. Campbell Morgan, a well-known Bible teacher of an earlier generation, said that he never started to write a commentary on a Bible book until he had read the book through thirty times!  Of course you are not writing a commentary, so be stimulated but not discouraged by this.

You will never have finished your study of any Bible book.  As you become more and more familiar with the Bible, you will find that many a passage throws new light on another.  A college principal was once interviewing a new student who had transferred from another college, to help him select his courses.  He recommended several Bible book courses.  “Oh, I don`t need those,” said the student. “You see, I have done Bible; I am here for theology.”  No comment!

Because the Bible is God’s Word, with a message for you, be prayerful in your reading.  Pray that the Holy Spirit who gave the Word to its writers, will guide you in your understanding of it.

2 Some basic facts

There are a few things you should know before you begin Bible book study.

The first is that you should ignore the chapter and verse divisions.  They were incorporated for the convenience of reference long after the books were written.  The chapter divisions, the work of Archbishop Stephen Langton in the thirteenth century, are generally helpful and normally follow the logic of each book fairly well, but there are exceptions.   Many modern translations have a paragraph system and this can be very useful indeed, but again is not  infallible.

Note too that some long Old Testament books have been divided in half but should be studied as units.  So you should treat 1 and 2 Samuel as one book, as also the two Books of Kings and the two books of Chronicles.   Ezra and Nehemiah also were originally one book.

Most modern translations show the ancient division of the Book of Psalms into five books.  I will make some special comments on this later.

3. The importance of emphasis

Every good teacher stresses what is most important, so we should notice not only what Scripture says but what it emphasises, as Scripture’s emphasis is God’s emphasis.  Heresies often start by treating some peripheral truth as if it were central before moving into outright error.  Also imbalance in Christian thinking and living may be corrected by taking note of what is emphasised in Scripture.  In study1 we saw that the whole parable of the sower in Mark 4:1-20 stresses the need for paying attention to God’s Word.   Now there are all sorts of ways in which a Bible author may give emphasis.

It may be by the repetition of a word or phrase in particular passages .  Readers are often intrigued by the longevity of Methuselah and others referred to in Genesis 5.  Fascinated by this, we may miss something of great importance which is emphasised by repetition.  The reference to each man concludes with the words, “and he died”.  This seems to be the writer’s main point.  No matter how long you live, you cannot escape death.[1]   You will see that Paul indicated this in Romans 5:12-14, when he pointed out that death reigned from Adam to Moses.   Perhaps he wrote this on the basis of a study of Genesis 5.

In Joshua 24, the word “I” is frequent in verses 2 to 13 in reference to God, and it is then replaced by “serve” in verses 14 to 27.  So the reader is reminded that all Israel had was due to God’s gracious activity and that the proper response on their part was service.  This conveys a message to Christian readers too, for God has acted even more wonderfully for us in Christ and because of this we too are called to service.

Sometimes there is a key word or phrase.  The reader of 1 Corinthians discovers that the Corinthians have written to Paul and that much of his letter is a reply to the various issues they raise.  We can identify these when Paul says, “Now concerning …”  In the first two chapters of his Epistle to the Galatians, Paul uses the word “gospel” very often.   As we read on, it becomes clear that in chapters 3 and 4 he is exploring the gospel theologically and in chapters 5 and 6 ethically.

Sometimes there is a key passage in a book, the theme of which is echoed time and again as the book proceeds.  This kind of feature is not always apparent on a first reading, but it becomes evident after it has been read several times.

Judges, chapter 2, is a major key to the emphasis of the book.   Its theme of rebellion, judgement, repentance and salvation comes time and again in the stories of the various judges, showing both the fickleness of the people and the amazing patience of the Lord.  Incidentally, this same theme is taken up in Psalm 106, although the writer applies it also to the wilderness wanderings and ends with a plea to the Lord to deliver the people from the nations.  Could he have been influenced by reading Judges?  If so, this shows that later generations (like us) may learn lessons from what God’s earlier dealings.

John 1:1-18 is widely regarded as the prologue to the Gospel of John, and this need not be disputed.  Repeated reading of the book, however, reveals that in some ways the whole first chapter is an introduction, for it contains many titles and descriptions of Jesus which are important for the rest of the book, such as life, light, Christ, Son of God, Son of Man.  This shows that the book is a disclosure of the identity, nature and vocation of Jesus, and that we are to concentrate on what it reveals of him.

Ephesians 1:3-14 is an immensely rich passage, in which “in Christ” and cognate expressions such as “in him” frequently occur.  Many of its words and ideas recur later and we are clearly intended to keep bearing in mind that our redemption, our inheritance, and so on, are all ours because we are in Christ.

Sometimes there is a key idea.  In writing Second Corinthians Paul was clearly thinking much about Christian service, for the book gives many figurative descriptions of a servant of Christ, such as  “the aroma of Christ” (2:15) “ministers of a new covenant” (3:6) and many others you can find for yourself.  Why not read the book through now with this in view?  Many of these descriptions are both challenging and encouraging.

Somebody unfamiliar with typewriters or computers may be puzzled by the order of their keys.  They know that “qwerty” is not a proper English word and that “asdfg” and “zxcvb” cannot even be pronounced, let alone understood.  Yet there is a reason for this feature of such machines.  It is not just an arrangement but a design.  It is rather like this with the Book of Psalms

Readers of that book often tend to view it as a collection of completely unconnected pieces of literature, and therefore as somewhat like a collection of small Bible books.  Certainly each psalm is important in its own right, but it is now increasingly being recognised that there is significance in the order of the psalms.  Certain words and phrases occur in it fairly often.  For instance, the command, “Praise the Lord!”[2] and similar encouragements to praise him are of frequent occurrence, more and more as the book proceeds towards its close, so that praise directed to God must be important.    

The Bible is God’s Word, but it is written by human beings for human beings and many normal literary techniques are employed in it.  This applies to ways of giving emphasis.  For instance, the writer or speaker will sometimes make explicit reference to the importance of what is being said, as in Matthew 22:40 (“all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”) and 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.  There may be a call to pay special attention.  We are not surprised that Deuteronomy 6:4 was always the first Scripture taught by Jewish mothers to their children, for the introductory words, “Hear, O Israel!” mark it out as important.  Jesus often prefixed important statements by the word “truly”, repeated as “truly, truly” in the Gospel of John.

The introduction and conclusion of a book are worth special attention, for writers often indicate matters of special importance at such points.  Readers of Ecclesiastes often find it puzzling, but it becomes much clearer when we read its conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14, for this is its main interpretative key.  Here the writer indicates the main points he wanted to make, and all else should be looked at in the light of this conclusion.  This will suggest to us that a verse like 1:2 (‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless ! Everything is meaningless!’) is a view from the perspective of life “under heaven”,[3]  and that 7:16-17 must be ironic.  These otherwise difficult items come into clearer perspective when we have read the conclusion.

Matthew’s genealogical introduction (Matthew 1:1-17) often puzzles modern readers for whom this is just a list of names.  Matthew was emphasising the Jewishness of Jesus and particularly his descent from David and Abraham (Matt.1:1), figures of considerable historical and theological importance, one the father of the kingly line which came to its consummation in Jesus the Messianic King and the other the father of the Jewish race, both of whom received great covenant promises from God.  The conclusion too is important as a call to the disciples to go out and proclaim not just the sovereignty of Jesus over Israel but his lordship over and his relevance for the whole world.  Yes, he was Jewish, but his salvation is now to be proclaimed to all.

Writers often indicate the importance of particular subject-matter bythe allocation of space they give it.  The Old Testament contains much historical material but the events concerning the beginnings of the nation, the Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness wanderings and the conquest of the land, are given much space, as a study of the Pentateuch (the first five books) and the Book of Joshua, reveals.

We would be somewhat surprised if a biographer gave  a third of the whole volume to the last week of the subject’s life.  That, however, is what the Gospel writers do.  John even goes beyond a third.  This is a most unusual but not totally unique feature, but what is so noticeable in the Gospels is that every one of them does this.  This highlights for us the great importance of the passion, the cross and the resurrection, harmonising with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “for what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  Jesus came to teach, to heal, and to cast out demons, and to show God’s love in a multitude of ways, but supremely he came to die and to rise again from the dead, for these are the events that in God’s gracious plan secured our salvation.

Important teaching is often given in an impressive setting.  Exodus chapters 19 and 20 place the giving of the Ten Commandments in a most striking background, God’s awesome revelation of himself to Moses and Israel on Mount Sinai.  No wonder the Jews always viewed them as particularly important!  Also when they were read to a new generation, the tribes were gathered between the twin peaks of Ebal and Gerizim in the heart of Canaan (Joshua 8:30-35), a setting perhaps reminding them of the original revelation given on a mountain.

People about to die usually talk to their loved ones about things they regard as important.  The disciples were sure to recognise the special importance of the teaching Jesus gave them in the Upper Room, which is recorded in John, chapters 13 to 16, for he gave it just before his death.   In passages like Matthew 5:1;  17:1-8;  28:16-20;  Mark 16:15-20 and  Acts 1:6-11; 9:1-9, the importance of what is said is underlined by its setting.  The great encounter of John with the risen Lord recorded in Revelation 1 is important as the setting for the whole book.

Sometimes a strong expression of emotion occurs.  So, for instance, God addresses the last, wicked king ofJudah through Ezekiel and says this about his dynasty: “A ruin, a ruin, I will make it a ruin! It will not be restored until he comes to whom it rightfully belongs; to him I will give it” (Ezekiel 21:27).  Nobody could miss the importance of that.  Here is a strong assertion  too of the coming of the rightful king, whom we know from the New Testament is our Lord Jesus Christ.

In this connection, notice also the repetition of a name.  This alerts the person addressed to the urgency of what is being said, and the depth of feeling in the heart of the speaker.  It is worth studying this in the life of Jesus.  We sense his emotion when he said, “Simon, Simon” (Luke 22:31) and “O Jerusalem,Jerusalem” (Matt. 23:37), both utterances of deep concern, and most of all, in a cry out of his profoundest agony, “My God, my God” (Mark 15:34).  Can you find more in the record of his words?  Try looking about two-fifths of the way through the Gospel of Luke.  Acts 9 shows us that this feature was true of his post-resurrection words also.

Do not come to a conclusion about the emphasis of a book prematurely.  In reading 1 John 4, “God is love”, given first of all in verse 8, is repeated in verse 16.  Because of this, many have concluded that “God is love” is meant to be a complete statement about God`s moral nature.  But this is to disregard another statement, equally but differently emphasised, when John says, “This is the message we have heard from him: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). This summary statement occurs right at the beginning of the epistle, as if to designate its theme. So we see that that “God is light” and “God is love” were both equally important to John, with neither excluding the other.  Theologically, this is very important.

Go through the Epistle to the Hebrews, noticing how many past servants of God and important institutions of Israel’s worship-life are mentioned, and then the many occasions when Jesus is said to be “better”.  This word virtually sums up the epistle’s theological teaching and shows that the readers should confirm their absolute commitment to Jesus as God’s better Person effecting a better relationship with God, .

There are also grammatical devices which impart emphasis, which do not always come out in English translation. Perhaps the most important is the emphatic personal pronoun, which occurs in the “I am” sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John, for in the Greek the “I” is consistently emphasised.  When he said “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), this may well have reminded spiritually attentive hearers of Ezekiel 34:11-20, where a similar emphasis occurs, especially as in both passages there is a contrast between the Lord and the false shepherds.  Moreover, each occurrence was a reminder of the great name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3.

In Philippians 4:4, Paul actually draws attention to an emphasis he is making, when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: Rejoice!”

4. The importance of detail

We may be reading the Bible in too cursory a manner, missing important and illuminating details.Bible marking is not without its value, but when we come again to a passage we have marked, we tend to concentrate on the marked sections and we can miss other points in the passage.  If you want to mark a Bible, it is better to reserve one copy for this purpose but to do the actual study from another.

In Genesis 22, God instructs Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a burnt-offering.  I had read this chapter many times before I noticed that Abraham cut the wood for the burnt offering before he left Beersheba(v. 3).  An unimportant detail?  No, for the journey Abraham was undertaking was close to fifty miles and there would have been many opportunities for collecting the wood on the way, perhaps even at the place of sacrifice itself.  Why do it now?  We are not told, but it may be a sign of his resolution. All that was possible was done before he left home.  If this is the case, this teaches us something important, the need for our commitment to God’s will to be decisive, especially if it is not easy.

I suggest that you read through Genesis 22 now.

Sometimes somebody else’s eyes may reveal items of importance you have missed.  This is part of the value of group Bible study.

The New Testament writers paid close attention to the Old Testament.  In Hebrews 7, for instance, we can see how carefully the writer had studied Genesis 14 and particularly Psalm 110.  He had seen significance in all sorts of detail when he looked at these passages in the light of Christ.

We have already considered Genesis 22, but I wonder whether you spotted something this same great author seems to have noticed?  You may conclude from Hebrews 11:17-19 that he had picked up from Abraham’s words to his servants in Genesis 22:5 (“We will worship and then we will come back to you”, italics mine), that Abraham believed God could even raise Isaac from the dead to fulfil his solemn promise concerning him.  The writer wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit, but you and I, without that special inspiration, should have noticed this in Genesis 22, for it is plainly there if we have eyes to see it.

At times a New Testament writer went further still, for example in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 we can see that Paul inferred from Exodus 34:27-35 that under the veil Moses was wearing over his face the radiance of God’s glory was fading.  We are not apostles, writing under inspiration, so we need to ask ourselves whether the conclusions we are drawing from passages of Scripture are clearly warranted.  Preachers, in particular, are not fond of the word “perhaps”, and this is understandable as we deal in the great certainties of Scripture, but occasionally it is appropriate.

Notice words and phrases and ideas which run through the Bible, or at least through a number of its books.


5. The importance of literary context

We cannot over-stress the importance of the literary context of a passage.  As far as Bible study is concerned, context is a many-sided principle, for we may be thinking of the context of the writers, or of the original readers, or of ourselves in our own day, or of those to whom we are seeking to communicate the Word of God.  All these contexts are important, particularly for those who are preachers or teachers of the Word.  The most basic context however is the literary one, the context of the writers.  This is true of all literature and all speech.  Politicians often complain of being quoted “out of context”, and if they are right, their complaint is valid.  To give close attention to the context of a passage has value both in enriching our understanding of the passage itself and excluding erroneous interpretations..

Genesis 12:1-9 is important.  It records promises God made to Abraham which were precious to the Jews but are also theologically important for the Christian faith, as John 8, Romans 4 and Galatians 3 and 4 clearly show.  God tells Abraham to leave his home for another country and he clearly has a gracious purpose in that journey.  Its context is illuminating, for the previous chapter records the story of the Tower of Babel and the scattering of the people, so setting a journey prompted by the grace of God in the context of journeys resulting from his judgement.  There is too a parallel there for us, as God has called us to be pilgrims in a broken society where, sadly, so many people are moving away from, not in line with, the gracious purpose of God in Christ.

All Christians love Isaiah 53 and its moving presentation of the sacrificial suffering of the Servant of the Lord, whom the New Testament identifies as Jesus.  How illuminating however is it to read Isaiah 53:1 in the light of 51:9!  Here, in a passage where the prophet has turned to prayer (51:9-11), he thinks about the way God redeemed Israel from Egypt and, longing for a similar revelation of God’s power in his day, he says, “Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days gone by, as in generations of old.”

In the Old Testament, “arm of the Lord”, is often a figurative reference to God’s power.  God loves that kind of prayer, and he answered it in a most astonishing way, for in Isaiah 53:1, less than two chapters later, we read, “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?”  This question is so apt, for, in an Old Testament context, it is quite astounding that God’s power should be revealed in a man experiencing such suffering.  Yet as the New Testament shows us so clearly, it was true.

Romans 8 reaches a glorious climax in verses 31 to 39, especially in the final two verses, where Paul declares, “For I am convinced that neither death  nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  But the opening of chapter 9 is a complete contrast.  Referring to the unbelieving Jews, Paul says, “I have great sorrow and anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers” (Rom 9:2-3).  This shows that the joyful confidence of Romans 8 is not a brash, unfeeling triumphalism, for alongside it is deep concern for those who do not know Christ.  These two emotions can co-exist in our hearts too.

Philippians  2:7 has been much debated.  Quite literally, the words translated in the NIV as “made himself nothing” mean “emptied himself”.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some influential theories were based on this.  It was often said it meant that when he became man, God’s Son gave up some of his divine attributes, and there was much discussion as to which attributes these were.  Whole Christologies (theological interpretations of the person of Jesus) were founded on this verse so interpreted.

In fact the context does not support this.  Paul is illustrating a moral point, calling the Philippians to humility, from what he says about Christ, so we would not expect a passage about the surrender of attributes (whatever that can possibly mean), but rather about taking a lowly place.  In fact what follows shows this very clearly, especially in the phrase “taking the form of a servant” (literally, “a bond-servant”).

In the next chapter, in Philippians 3:4-11, Paul shows that becoming a Christian for him meant that much he had treasured in the past was set aside, but that the gain for him was enormous.  The passage is clear enough, challenging enough and encouraging enough in itself, but it is very illuminating to read it in the light of Philippians  2:5-11.  Paul’s experience was a sharing to some extent in the humiliation of Christ.  Here then we see how passages in neighbouring chapters may illuminate each other.

Erroneous interpretation frequently violates the context.  Satan’s temptation of Christ is the supreme example.  At this point, read Matthew 4: 1-11, followed by Psalm 91.

Each time he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus answered him from Scripture.  There is an important lesson for us in this.  But in the temptation Matthew places second, Satan actually answered from Scripture.  At first, this may be somewhat disconcerting, but what then can we learn from this?   That every passage of Scripture should be understood in line with its context.

What then was the context of Psalm 91:11 and 12, the passage Satan quoted?  Its immediate context is the whole psalm, which is entirely focused on God.  The psalmist says of the one to whom he makes his promise, “Because he loves me … I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name” (verse 14).  If we love him, we take our instructions from him, not from Satan.  Also Psalms 1 and 2 are introductory to the whole Psalter, and Psalm 1 shows the importance of walking in the ways of the Lord, and that it is the one who does that who is assured  that “the LORD watches over the way of the righteous”, a very similar promise to that in Psalm 91.  This is, of course, reinforced when we set the passage in the widest literary context of all, the whole Bible.

Satan showed he did not like contextual interpretation, because he did not go on as far in the psalm as verse 13, which contains God’s promise, “You will tread upon the lion and the cobra, you will trample the great lion and the serpent.”  In the light of Genesis 3:15 (the first great promise in the Bible) the word “serpent” would have an unpleasant ring for him, for there God promises Eve that her seed would crush the serpent’s head!  Jesus was the Seed of David and the Seed of Abraham (Matthew 1:1, Romans 1:3; Galatians3:16), but he was also the Seed of Eve.

6. The importance of total engagement in the study

When something is really important to us, we give our whole being to it.  Consider a great work of art.  Bach was a composer with a great mind, but can you imagine that he composed his St. Matthew Passion without any feeling, any emotion?  If it often evokes deep emotion in the listener, could the composer himself have been immune to this?  John Constable had a great feeling for the East Anglian countryside that appears in so many of his paintings, but he needed to think through matters of composition, perspective and so on.  We may see a great building as an aesthetic wonder, but if the architect knows nothing about structural engineering all its beauty may be lost in a catastrophic collapse.

Proper appreciation of a work of art requires in us a degree of identification with the artist.  As we have already noted, such works should be allowed to make a direct impression on us.  After that the more we can learn about the artists and their lives, what motivated them, and the conditions of their work, the better. All these can aid deeper appreciation.   We may admire Michaelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel even more when we know he painted them in most uncomfortable conditions from a specially constructed platform.

Such identification is even more important with the Bible.  If you are to open your whole being to the Word of God, this will involve not only your mind but your imagination, which is a wonderful gift of God, even though it can be badly misused, as can all our faculties. Bring all you know of the passage’s background all you know of human nature, whether unredeemed or redeemed, to bear on your reading.

One reason why the psalms are so greatly loved by Christians is that we can often identify with the psalmist in his expression of his feelings, for the psalms address real situations met by real people, and we are real people too.

Read Psalm 77 now.

See how troubled the psalmist is as he faces some unspecified problem, how he prays, how he ponders God’s past dealings with him, and then the agonized questions he asks. Does this ring a bell in your own experience?  Then see the enormous change of tone that comes in the second half of the psalm, and the way he is brought out of this depression into almost ecstatic remembrance of the great deeds of God for his people.  Then remind yourself that God has acted more wonderfully still in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Our concerns may not disappear but such remembering will give us a new perspective as we see everything in the light of the great and gracious deeds of God.

We need to read both attentively and sensitively.  There is an outstanding example of the value of this in Job.  The great moment of drama comes at the start of Job 38, when the LORD speaks to Job out of the storm.  Now storms do not always arrive suddenly; the skies usually darken first of all, and even animals sense something is about to happen.  Elihu was speaking to Job and in chapter 36 he begins to talk about God’s greatness, first in verse 5, then more fully in verses 22 to 26.  At verse 27 he suddenly starts to speak about God`s activity in relation to storms.  At first he seems to be speaking generally, then, from the start of chapter 37, in a vivid, imaginative way, but the reader may think he still has storms in general in mind.  All is extremely vivid, but then, at the start of chapter 38, God speaks out of the storm, and the reader realises that Job and she or he, the reader, were being prepared by Elihu’s speech for this great revelation.

I have sometimes wished that theological colleges could spare a whole room in order to construct a large relief map of the Holy Land on a table, with the contours and gradients, the rivers and lakes, and the main towns, accurately shown so that the students could simply go in and spend some time looking at it.  This could do wonders for the imagination in reading many of the stories of the Bible.  If you had access to such a map, when reading of journeys you would appreciate the geographical features the travellers encountered, the hills they had to climb, the rivers they needed to cross, the towns and villages they would go through.  The next best thing is to be found in the maps situated at the back of many Bibles.  Time spent simply looking at them and learning Holy Land geography can be well spent.[4]

Lest however Bible study should be viewed just as an intellectual treat or an emotional “trip”, it is important for the Bible text to be allowed to issue its challenge to our wills, to commitment and action.  Sometimes this will be in terms of a direct command issued on a matter of Christian discipleship to one of the New Testament churches, which is clearly relevant to us if we too are disciples of Christ.  Sometimes it will be because we see an ideal portrayed and we know we fall short of this, particularly of course when we are confronted by Jesus himself.  In all kinds of ways, the Holy Spirit uses the Scriptures he has inspired to make their impact on us today and, if we respond to that impact, to change us.

One of the “in-words” in educational theory these days is “transformative”, and especially in theological education.  The purpose of education is not just to inform but to transform, to change and develop us as people, not by “brain-washing” but with the fully informed co-operation of our wills.  Sometimes this can produce quite radical transformation.  Nothing can be more deeply transformative than the Bible if we read it with total openness to all it conveys, and the transformation will be the work of the Holy Spirit.

Remember the Parable of the Sower!

Remember especially the words of Mark 4:3, “Listen! See!”

7. The supreme importance of seeing Christ as the great Theme of Scripture 

Although all the principles of Bible study outlined above are important and none can be set aside, the supreme conviction of Christians about the Bible is that Christ is its great Theme.  The chief God-given function of the Bible is to enable us to see that Christ is the heart and centre of all God’s purposes and to minister him to us in the context of that most important insight.  All the principles we have been looking at so far are to enable us to see him more and more clearly in the Book of God, and seeing him to become transformed more and more into his likeness (2 Cor 3:18).

Does this mean he is the Theme of each Bible book?  It is better to say that each Bible book makes its own distinctive contribution to this central Theme, lest we find ourselves imposing a Christological theme on a book in an unnatural or forced way.  I will offer some suggestions about this later.

This is so important that it should form the climax of our study, therefore we will deal with it at the end of the book.

[1]This is what makes Enoch such a striking exception.

[2]Hallelujah in the Hebrew.

[3]See Ecclesiastes 2:1-3.

[4]If you can spare the time to do this really thoroughly, you would find George Adam Smith’s great book, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land  really helpful. The political landscape changes but not the physical, so that the age of this book does not matter too much.


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