How to Read the Bible Carefully (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

How to Read the Bible Carefully from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

Do you remember your very first Bible? Mine was a gift from my grandfather. I must have been six or seven years old. It had a hard red cover. It was small, had very thin pages and tiny script. But that didn’t matter because it was unreadable anyway. On the occasions I tried, I had absolutely no idea what I was reading. It was a closed book. King James could keep his Bible. At senior school, I encountered the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in RE lessons, but I was more interested in the line drawings and maps than the text itself.

At University, when I became a Christian, the Bible really came to life. And I wanted a copy just like the guy who led me to Christ. It didn’t do much for my spelling because it was the New American Standard Bible (NASB) but at least it had a readable font, the sentences went right across the page like a real book and it had cross references that kept me occupied for hours. This was around the time of Woodstock and the fashion in Christian circles was to cut off the hard cover of your Bible and glue on a piece of off cut leather. So we could walk around campus, bare foot, carrying the kind of Bible John the Baptist must have had. I thought it would be cool to underline passages that spoke to me and I also used a highlight pen. The only problem was it bled through to the other side and pretty soon I was underlining most of the text.

Then I discovered my pastor had a wide margin, loose leaf Bible, so he could add his notes and make it look like he was preaching straight from the Bible. So I wanted one too. I bought my very own loose leaf Bible and added my notes in the margins and on extra pages. But I gave up because my writing wasn’t that good and there wasn’t enough room anyway.

Eventually I upgraded to an all leather New International Study Bible (NIV) and decided not to write anything in it. And that’s been my companion for the last 25 years. If you don’t own a Study Bible and you are serious about growing in Christ, I recommend you invest in one. I’d go for the TNIV or the ESV Study Bible. The Life Application Study Bible is also good. And if you want a Bible for daily devotions, go for the One Year Bible which provides you with an OT, NT, Psalm and Proverb for each day, and you can read the whole Bible in a year.

In this series on the Privileges of Church Membership, today we are thinking about how to read the Bible carefully. This morning I want us to answer 3 questions:

1. Why should I read the Bible carefully?

2. How can I read the Bible carefully?

3. What will reading the Bible carefully achieve?

[You can download a study outline here]

1. Why should I read the Bible Carefully?

In Deuteronomy 8 Moses reminds God’s people, “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)

What does it mean to ‘live by every word that comes from the mouth of God’?  Jesus quotes this verse not only to refute the devil in Matthew 4:4 but also remind us we can have our physical needs – food, clothing, friendship, security – but to live life as fully as God intends, we must feed on His word daily too. In Psalm 119 King David tells us why he read God’s word carefully: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” (Psalm 119:105). This is why we need to be intentional in our daily reading of the Bible.

The Bible is not a collection of fables, myths, or even people’s ideas about God. Through the Holy Spirit, God revealed Himself fully and finally in Scripture. His messengers wrote down the maker’s instructions. This process is known as ‘inspiration’.  They wrote from their own personal, historical, and cultural contexts. Although they used their own minds, talents, language, and style, they wrote precisely what God wanted them to. Peter describes the process,

“For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God, as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Peter 1:21)

The image is of a ship being blown along by the wind. This is consistent with the promise made to the Apostles: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26).

Paul explains this in his letter to Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

That expression “God breathed” = ‘theo pneustos’.  It is very significant that this is the only time the word is used in the whole Bible. So we must read the Bible carefully because it is God’s inspired and infallible word. Here’s another reason to read the Bible carefully. Because this book is supernatural. Sooner or later we discover it is not so much us reading the Bible as God reading us through the Bible. Hebrews says…

“The word of God is living and active sharper than any two edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

That’s why Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”  That’s also why JB Philips said that translating the Scriptures was like rewiring a house with the electricity still on – occasionally it gives you a shock. Why should I read the Bible carefully? Because it is God’s living and active Word. Our daily food, a light to guide us. It is literally God breathed. It is unique, authoritative, infallible. Lets answer our second question:

2. How can I read the Bible carefully?

Paul instructed Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”  (2 Timothy 2:14-15)

How can we correctly handle the word of truth? With all five fingers. We need to Hear, Read, Study, Memorize and Meditate on the Bible. We need to hear Gods Word, we need to read it, study it, memorize key verses and meditate on passages.  We need to take time to dwell on passages and use them in praise and prayer. I’d like to introduce you to a simple Bible study method which will help you handle the Bible correctly. It will revolutionise your reading and transform your study of Scripture. Instead of being dependent on sermons or Christian books to tell you what the Bible means, you can discover the rich treasures that lie just below the surface by digging into the text for yourself. This approach to Bible reading and study can be summed up in three words: Observation, Interpretation and Application. Observation is about asking “What does the text say?” Interpretation is asking “What does the text mean?” And, Application is asking “How does the text apply to me?” Please turn with me to 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and lets do some digging.

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

2.1 Observation (What does the text say?)

Observing what a passage actually says is often rushed or neglected in our enthusiasm to apply it. But if we don’t know how to discover the facts in a passage then our interpretation will be suspect and we’ll wrongly apply the teaching. Here are some helpful clues.

1. Look for the Purpose of the Passage
What is the primary purpose? The ‘big idea’?

2. Look for the Content of the Passage
What are the major truths being presented?  Who is involved?  What is happening?  Where?  When?  What are the consequences?  What are the key words?

3. What is the Literary Form

  • Is this teaching, narrative, poetry, parables?
  • Are the terms used literal or figurative?
  • Is the passage characterised by joy, thanksgiving, concern, humility, zeal or despair?

4. Look for contrasts, comparisons and illustrations

  • The connective work “but” often introduces contrast.
  • Is another passage quoted or an illustration used?

5. Look for the logical relationships or progression

  • Make note of any “cause and effect” relationships.
  • Observe key connective words – i.e. “because”, “for”, “in order that”, “therefore” and “if”.
  • Take special notice of lists of items to see if there are any differences or developments.

Write down what you discover. Why not just make mental observations?  Because writing requires more discipline and concentration.

We tend to be rather superficial in our thinking unless we force ourselves to write down our thoughts. We can also study the same passage later and build on our study.

Practical Application

You should have been given an outline and inside is a page with three columns. Write down in the left-hand column under the heading ‘Observation’ as many facts you can observe as possible in one minute.

2.2 Interpretation (What does it mean?)

This is often the most difficult part in Bible study. Ask God to give you wisdom and let His Spirit teach you.

The Key is asking Questions

When we begin to concentrate on a passage, the normal action of the mind is to pick up key words and ideas and begin to question their meaning.  The sad fact is we often give up at this point because we have more questions than answers. We don’t realise that in the very process of questioning the mind is just warming up.

Concentrate on Four Basic Questions

1. What is the meaning?
What does this word or phrase mean? A dictionary can help, or the notes in a Study Bible will explain them.

2. What are the implications?
What is implied in the use of these words? Ask ‘why’?

3. What is the significance?
Why are these words used, and in this way?

4. What are the relationships?
How are the ideas related in the verse or passage?
How are the verses related? How does this teaching relate to other passages of Scripture? Following cross-references can be very helpful here.

Practical Application

In the middle column entitled “Understanding” write down some answers to these four basic questions (take 2 minutes).  We have considered the first two steps in reading the Bible carefully: Observation & Interpretation.

2.3 Application (How does it apply to me?)

This is an essential part of the Bible study.  If you stop before application you will be in danger of passing on unlived truths.  God’s Word was intended to be applied.

Common Mistakes made in Application

  • We tend to apply the Bible to other people – “I wish he/she could read this!”
  • We apply only in areas we are already strong and practising.
  • We rationalise our own actions and our behaviour remains unchanged.  (Like a “motor-boat” Christian who says, “Yes I know, but, but, but, but”).

Principles of Application

  • The application must be in line with contemporary needs, priorities and challenges.
  • It must be in harmony with the rest of Scriptures.
  • The application must be specific enough for action.

Remember the acrostic: SPACE. Are there any

Sins to confess?

Promises to claim?

Actions to practice?

Commands to obey?

Examples to follow?

Practical Application

In the right hand column “Application”, prayerfully consider the observations and interpretations you have already made in 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and write down anything you believe God would have you apply personally today. We have considered two questions:

1. Why should I read the Bible carefully?

2. How can I read the Bible carefully?

3. What will reading the Bible carefully achieve?

Hearing, reading, studying, memorizing and meditating on God’s word are all utterly useless if we fail to put them into practice. We must become “doers of the word.” This is the hardest step of all, because doesn’t mind you going to Bible studies as long as you don’t do anything about it. Without implementation, our Bible study is worthless. Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24).

Jesus also promised God’s blessing comes from obeying the truth. He said, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17).  Another reason we avoid personal application is that it can be difficult or even painful. “The truth will set you free, but first it may make you miserable!” says Rick Warren. God’s Word exposes our motives, points out our faults, rebukes our sin, and expects us to change. It’s human nature to resist change, so applying God’s Word is hard work. This is why it is so important to discuss what you are learning with other people. I cannot overstate the value of being a part of a small Bible study discussion group. We always learn from one another, truths we would never learn on our own. Other people will help you see insights you would miss and help you apply God’s truth in a practical way.

The best way to become a “doer of the Word” is to write out an action step as a result of your study of God’s Word. Develop the habit of writing down exactly what you intend to do. This action step should be:

  • personal (involving you),
  • practical (something you can do), and
  • provable (with a deadline to do it).

Every application will involve either your relationship to God, your relationship to others, or your personal character. We have discovered that all scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting and for training, for what?  What’s the point? “So that God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”. (2 Timothy 3:17). In other words, the Word of God equips us for work.  The better we know the Bible, the better we will serve Him and please Him.  Is that your desire?  Then make a decision today, make a covenant with God.  As we await the return of the Lord Jesus, lets devote the rest of your life to observing, interpreting and applying the Scriptures.

Let me close with a final word on translations. Three ministers were discussing the pros and cons of various Bible translations. The first minister said he preferred the English Standard Version because it comes closest to the original Greek and Hebrew text. The second minister said his favourite was the Living Bible paraphrase because his congregation was young and could relate to it most easily. The third minister sat silently. Finally he said, “I guess when it comes to translations I like my Dad’s the best. He put the Word of God into practice every day. It was the most convincing translation I’ve ever seen.”
Lets Pray.

With grateful thanks to Rick Warren for material taken from Chapter 24 ‘Transformed by Truth’ of his book, The Purpose Driven Life, used in the closing paragraphs.

[You can download a study outline here]