Unless we actually use it, the Bible is no better than any other book on our shelves. So how can we properly use it? What principles and methods of study do we follow? What tools are available to help our understanding?
Having considered the proper mindset for approaching the Bible, let's proceed to delving into it.
For too many people the Bible is largely a decorative or forgotten item sitting on a shelf gathering dust. Of course, you can never even begin to understand the Bible without actually reading what it says (or having it read to you if you are unable to for some reason).
Moreover, it's not enough to just read excerpts scattered here and there. As large as the Bible is, there's a lot of ground to cover. We must read a great deal—and carefully consider and study what we read.
In the words of the apostle Paul, "Study earnestly to present yourself approved to God, a workman that does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth" (2 Timothy 2:15, Modern King James Version). "Rightly dividing" can also be literally translated as "cutting straight" (Analytical-Literal Translation). The idea is to keep right to the line—to adhere exactly to the Bible's teachings. The New American Standard Bible has "accurately handling." Again, that requires a lot of reading and study. The word "workman" here implies considerable and careful effort.
How, then, do we go about this important task? And how are we to properly understand what we read?
The Bible explains what it means
The Bible contains a huge amount of information—presented in many different ways. Sometimes the material is straightforward historical narrative. Sometimes it's poetry. Sometimes it's meant to be taken literally. Sometimes it uses figurative language, employing metaphors and symbols.
One vital key we must come to understand is that the Bible interprets itself. We must be careful not to force our own interpretations onto it.
Regrettably, many approach the Bible with preconceived notions and attempt to inject these into Scripture—wrongly reading meaning into the text instead of honestly deriving the meaning out of it.
Related to this is the mistake many make of drawing conclusions from just one or a few verses in isolation. Remember that the Bible is a package deal—and we must think of it in that way in discerning what any part of it has to tell us.
In letting the Bible interpret itself, we must always do two things: consider the context and look at all the scriptures on a subject. Let's see why these are important.
Consider the context
Keeping in mind the context of the examples and teachings in the Bible can help us avoid misunderstandings. In fact, most misunderstandings of Scripture come from taking verses out of their context. Reading in context simply means to carefully consider the verses before and after the text being studied. "Out of context" means trying to understand the verses with little or no regard for the surrounding subject matter.
Studying the context includes analyzing the verses within the framework of the paragraph, chapter and book, and in a larger sense the entirety of the author's writings and the Bible as a whole.
For example, we read in Genesis 3:4 that "you will not surely die." From this verse people could infer that man already possesses immortality, that the soul already has eternal life. But such an interpretation would contradict other plain scriptures (compare 1 Timothy 6:14-16; Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:53). Yet the context of the paragraph explains that it was Satan the devil, in the form of a serpent, who told this lie, saying that man would not die. The correct teaching was related by God a few verses earlier: "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:16-17).
We see that it's not enough to quote an isolated scripture; we must keep in mind its setting. In this case the point is resolved by reviewing the entire passage. We can avoid much confusion by applying this important context principle.
Sometimes only by reading whole chapters can we correctly understand the subject. For example, some quote Mark 7:18-19 to argue that meats the Bible declares unfit for human consumption in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 may now be eaten. Christ asked: "Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from the outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?"
Yet the context of the chapter reveals the true meaning: "Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, 'Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?'" (Mark 7:5).
The question was not whether particular foods should be eaten, but the manner in which His disciples were eating. The Pharisees were criticizing them for eating without going through the meticulous handwashing ritual the Pharisees carried out before eating. Christ answered: "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do" (Mark 7:8).
In Matthew 15 the same incident is mentioned, but in more detail: "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies [all are violations of the Ten Commandments and thus sin]. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man" (verses 19-20).
Taking Christ's exhortation in context, we see that all misunderstanding is cleared up. Jesus was not repealing God-given laws; He was stating that tiny amounts of dirt that might come from handling food with ritually unwashed hands will be eliminated through the body's digestive process.
At other times it is necessary to consider the context of the book itself. A prime example is Paul's use of the word law in Romans. Sometimes he used the term negatively to mean the legalistic concept of law as a means to earn salvation, which he rejected: "What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law" (Romans 9:30-32).
Yet in other places Paul used law in a positive way: "Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good. Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not!" (Romans 7:12-13). Here we see in the same book the word used in an entirely different way in a different context. It is a mistake to generalize on what the word means when taken out of its proper context. We should be able to see, then, that first considering the context throughout the Scriptures will help avoid many wrong interpretations.
Look at all the scriptures on the subject
Also vital to understanding is taking the time to look up all the related verses on a subject before coming to a conclusion. The apostle Paul set an admirable example in this regard when he taught certain truths about Jesus by referring to many passages in the Bible of his day—the Hebrew Scriptures or what we know as the Old Testament:
"So when they had appointed him a day, many came to him at his lodging, to whom he explained and solemnly testified of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus from both the Law of Moses and the Prophets, from morning till evening" (Acts 28:23). To prove his point, Paul carefully expounded the scriptures that dealt with Christ as the Messiah.
We see from Paul's example that to properly understand a subject, we must take all related scriptures into account. This is the principle of "comparing spiritual things with spiritual" (1 Corinthians 2:13). The spiritual nature of the Bible is described in Ephesians 6:17 as "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."
Comparing various verses on the same subject can clarify our understanding of biblical teachings. Often we will find that different verses complement each other, with each verse telling part of the story.
For example, many people believe, based on John 3:16—"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life"—that simply believing in Jesus is all we need to do to inherit eternal life.
But is this the whole story? Clearly not, for James 2:19 tells us that "even the demons believe—and tremble!" Certainly more than simple belief is required. We must look at other scriptures to understand more fully what God expects—and requires—of us.
Certainly salvation is God's wonderful gift to us. But gifts can have conditions. And the Bible shows in several places that God sets certain conditions for receiving salvation. Some conditions enable us to receive that gift, and other conditions disqualify us from receiving it.
Since Jesus is the author of our salvation, let's examine a few of His statements that tell us what we must do to receive the gift of eternal life in God's Kingdom.
In Matthew 7:21 Jesus says, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven." Christ made it clear that merely acknowledging Him as Lord and Master—saying "Lord, Lord"—is not sufficient. To inherit the Kingdom, we must do something. We must do the will of the Father, as He clearly stated. Our conviction that He is our Savior must be more than just a warm, comforting thought or intellectual concept. Jesus warns that simply calling on His name or recognizing Him as "Lord" is not enough.
At one point a wealthy young man asked Jesus how he could receive eternal life. "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" the man asked (Matthew 19:16). Christ's reply, in verse 17, might shock some who think obedience to God's law is unnecessary. Jesus responded, "If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments."
Jesus didn't answer that nothing is required other than believing in Him. He told the young man that he must obey the commandments of God to receive the gift of eternal life.
Jesus gave another condition for God's gift of eternal life in Mark 16:16: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned." Water baptism—by full immersion—is a symbolic act representing the death of our old self and the beginning of a new life of serving God and striving to avoid sin (Romans 6:1-23).
Baptism is also followed by the laying on of hands by God's ministry, which allows us to receive God's Holy Spirit and truly belong to Him (see Acts 8:17; Romans 8:9). Unless we surrender our lives to God through baptism and the laying on of hands to receive His Spirit as instructed, we fail to meet His requirements for receiving His gift of salvation.
In Matthew 10:22 Jesus listed another condition we must meet to receive God's gift of salvation: "He who endures to the end will be saved." We can lose out on salvation if we fail to endure to the end (see also Hebrews 2:1-3; 6:4-8; 10:26-31). Once we have committed ourselves to obeying God and surrendering ourselves to Him, we must stay the course to the end and not look back (Luke 9:62; 1 Corinthians 9:27).
We see from this example that we need to look at far more than one isolated verse to understand the Bible's teaching on a subject. Only by looking at all the relevant scriptures do we get a full and complete picture.
With this important consideration—carefully comparing all related passages before determining what is meant on a particular subject—we can avoid confusion and error. This simple principle alone also resolves most situations where people assume the Bible contradicts itself. The Bible does not contradict itself; its writers complement each other.
Gaining an overview
For the broad overview necessary to understand the Bible in its particular verses, it is crucial that we read through it—topic by topic as well as book by book.
A topical approach to reading Scripture will help us to see all that God's Word has to say on a given subject. Effectively studying this way requires other study tools such as a concordance or a topical index. We will address these and other Bible helps momentarily.
Book-by-book reading is rather straightforward. A great deal of Scripture is presented simply as a story. The beginning of the first book, Genesis, gives us an account of God's creation of the heavens and the earth and all physical life, including mankind. It proceeds with the story of the first man and woman and follows their descendants down to the time of a great worldwide flood.
It then relates the beginnings of civilization in Babylon and focuses in on a great man of faith, Abraham; his son Isaac; Isaac's son Jacob or Israel; and Israel's children. The next book, Exodus, takes up the story of the deliverance of the descendants of Israel from Egyptian slavery. And on the story goes from there—following the history of the nation of Israel. The New Testament gives us the story of Jesus Christ in the four Gospel accounts and the early years of His Church in the book of Acts.
Of course, some books require more depth of study to understand—such as those giving the legal requirements of the law of Moses; those that are poetic, including collections of songs (Psalms) and of wise sayings (Proverbs); and those that prophesy events to follow (some already fulfilled and some still to be fulfilled in the future).
The New Testament gives us epistles or letters of exhortation and doctrinal instruction that Christ's apostles wrote to individuals or various congregations of the Church. These can be somewhat complex in places, especially where the passage of time has obscured the exact issues being addressed.
In any case, reading through the whole Bible will ensure that you see all that the Bible says on any and every given topic. In a topical study you may miss relevant passages. But in reading through the entire Bible you miss nothing—except what you forget, of course. And as you certainly will forget some things, it's important to read the Bible again and again—in its parts and as a whole—to familiarize yourself with its content. This is a lifelong endeavor.
Different translations and other Bible helps
Can we understand all aspects of Scripture from the Bible alone? Certainly a good grasp of the Bible is possible through applying the keys discussed earlier. However, our understanding can be enhanced by taking advantage of the work of scholars who have studied culture, language, history and archaeology as they relate to biblical events and characters.
We live 2,000 to 3,500 years removed from the time the Scriptures were originally written. The Bible's authors wrote in the languages and settings of their times. Culture and language were different from today's culture and language. Since the original languages of Scripture (Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic) are so different from our modern languages, Bible helps are useful to enable us to better grasp the Scriptures as they were written and understood.
Remember again Paul's instruction in 2 Timothy 2:15 to be a diligent workman in handling Scripture. As a craftsman makes use of a tool kit, we can use proper tools to help us better understand the Bible.
Besides often quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures, on occasion the apostles quoted other sources to drive their points home. For example, Paul used a quote from a Sicilian poet, Aratus, to convey to the Athenian philosophers a principle about God (see Acts 17:28). Likewise, the apostle Jude quoted from a prophecy of the early patriarch Enoch not found in the Bible (Jude 14-15). Besides the Scriptures themselves, these men sometimes quoted other sources to help the brethren in their understanding of the Word of God.
What are some of the biblical tools at our disposal? Here are a few.
Other Bible versions: The most helpful tool for Bible study is, not surprisingly, a Bible—or, more properly, several Bible versions, among which you can compare wording.
People will often seek to find the translation that is most accurate, most literal or easiest to read. However, no single translation fits all these requirements. More than 60 English versions of the Bible are available. We can divide them into three broad types: word-for-word, meaning-to-meaning (also called thought-for-thought) and paraphrased. Usually a particular Bible version will explain, on its introductory pages, which approach was used in preparing it.
The word-for-word versions most accurately follow the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. Generally speaking, the King James Version and its modern counterpart, the New King James Version, are word-for-word translations. They are readily found in most bookstores or on the Internet.
How trustworthy is the King James or the New King James Bible we have today? Other manuscripts discovered since the King James Version was translated show it to be extremely reliable. For example, when the King James Version is compared with the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, "the King James Bible is 98.33 percent pure" (Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, 1974, p. 263).
In the New Testament the sheer bulk of thousands of texts (4,500 Greek manuscripts) means that many minor variations among the manuscripts will be found. The King James Version, for example, is based on the majority of the authoritative Greek texts.
About 98 percent of the known Greek manuscripts agree with the basic text of the King James Bible. Even the variations that do exist rarely affect the basic meaning in the remaining 2 percent of those manuscripts. The text of Scripture has been preserved and transmitted over the centuries remarkably well.
The Old Testament books are equally trustworthy. Although a few textual errors are to be found in some of the manuscripts used in translating the King James Bible, comparisons with other Bible versions can easily clarify most problems.
As an expert on textual criticism remarked: "If any book from ancient times has descended to us without substantial loss or alteration, it is the Bible. The Bible is the best-attested book from the ancient world! This has prompted Sir Frederic Kenyon to say: 'The number of manuscripts of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it in the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other ancient book in the world'" (Neil Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, 1963, p. 120).
The accuracy of a version is obviously of utmost importance. Although the King James Version contains some mistakes (see "Are There Mistakes in the King James Version of the Bible?" beginning on page 26), to establish sound doctrines the first choice of versions should be a more literal edition such as the New King James Version.
What about the meaning-to-meaning versions? Because grammar, syntax and thought patterns differ between languages, cultures and time periods, word-for-word translations at times can be awkward and have difficulty expressing the original author's thought and intent. For this reason meaning-to-meaning or thought-for-thought versions can be valuable in putting the Scriptures into more understandable wording.
For example, the New King James Version of Hebrews 2:17-18, describing why Jesus Christ came to live among mankind as a flesh-and-blood human being, reads:
"Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted."
The New International Version, a meaning-to-meaning translation, has: "For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted."
The latter explains the point more clearly for most readers today, although the former is a more direct translation of the original language. So, when the text is not clear, many times a modern meaning-to-meaning translation can help. The Revised English Bible, Good News Bible and New Living Translation are other popular meaning-to-meaning translations.
A meaning-to-meaning translation is also helpful in conveying the point of ancient figures of speech—idioms—that would not make sense to us in modern language. Consider the modern American idiom "kick the bucket." This phrase may not be around centuries from now and someone translating it then might need to use the word "die" instead—a meaning-to-meaning rendering rather than a literal one. Ancient Hebrew and Greek had such expressions as well, and in such cases a meaning-to-meaning translation is very helpful.
In general, meaning-to-meaning versions use more up-to-date language and thus are easier to understand—although, again, they are not the best choice for establishing doctrine because they at times involve some interpretation of what the original writers intended to say.
Paraphrased Bibles, such as The Living Bible or The Message, also can be useful. Their goal is to make the Bible even easier to read in modern language. We should be cautious in working with these, however, because the authors exercised considerable "poetic license" in interpreting biblical terms and passages according to their own personal religious ideas.
Paraphrased versions can be consulted to better grasp the story flow but should not be used to establish doctrine. They should be considered inadequate sources for accurately determining the meaning of any text.
Which version of the Bible should you buy? The King James Version, although both accurate and popular, is increasingly difficult to understand simply because the English language has evolved considerably over the 400 years since its publication.
The meanings of some of its words have changed over time. Many readers find the archaic language distracting and difficult to follow. For this reason material produced by the United Church of God, publisher of this booklet, most often uses the New King James Version. This version, while retaining much of the beauty of the original King James wording, is more readable and is still usually faithful to the original text.
Modern translations like those mentioned above are helpful for comparing and clarifying the meaning. Many people find a parallel Bible, which contains two or more versions side by side on the same pages, to be helpful. Another type of Bible useful for simply reading and helping understand the story flow is a chronological Bible, which arranges scriptural passages according to time order—though this same arrangement makes it difficult to use for topical or other types of study.
Regardless of the Bible version you choose, the most important factor is that you actually use it. A Bible should be considered an investment in which a little more expense up front will pay off in the long run. Consider buying a version with wide margins that will allow you to add notes from your personal study over the coming years (more on this in a moment). Although more expensive, a higher-quality leather-bound Bible will last years longer than a hardbound or paperback volume and should become a lifelong companion.
Many Bible versions are now available as part of Bible software packages or for free viewing on various Internet sites. With these, you can compare between different versions nearly instantaneously.
Word study and topical helps: In importance, certainly the first basic Bible help is a means to search for specific Bible words, phrases or verses. For example, a concordance is a compilation of many or all of the verses pertaining to a specific word as it is used throughout the Bible. Each word appears in alphabetical order, starting where it is first used, followed by many or all of the verses with that word in it, until its last use in the Bible.
By looking for a particular word, you can quickly locate nearly any verse in the Bible. Because a concordance lists every use of a given word, it is extremely helpful for compiling, examining and comparing all the scriptures on a given topic, enabling you to gain an overall view of nearly any subject.
The three most popular printed concordances are Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, Young's Analytical Concordance and Cruden's Complete Concordance. Cruden's is smaller, less expensive and easier to use. Strong's and Young's are massive books, but give brief explanations of the original Hebrew and Greek words and so are suitable for more detailed study. Although most concordances are compiled from the King James Version of the Bible, others based on other versions are available.
If you have Bible software or can access online Bibles on the Internet, word searches in any available version are a snap—eliminating the time-consuming task of flipping back and forth in a massive concordance.
Other word-study tools are also available. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance often includes a lexicon in the back—a dictionary of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek words used in the Bible. You can also obtain expository dictionaries that offer more detailed analysis of biblical words. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words is a good starting point.
Another invaluable tool for looking up all the Bible has to say on particular subjects is a topical Bible, such as Nave's Topical Bible, in which verses are listed by subject rather than individual words. Or you can simply use a topical index like Where to Find It in the Bible: The Ultimate A to Z Resource by Ken Anderson. Helpful topical indexes are also printed in some Bibles, such as The New Open Bible.
Bible encyclopedias or dictionaries: Next in importance is a Bible encyclopedia or dictionary. This kind of reference explains a given subject or what a word meant in Bible times. Be prepared for an enormous variety, from simple one-volume editions to works containing four, five or a dozen or more volumes. For a start, a current one-volume dictionary or short encyclopedia written by conservative authors should provide good, basic meanings for biblical words and subjects. The New Bible Dictionary and Unger's Bible Dictionary are such works.
Be aware, however, that many such works exhibit the author's bias when discussing theological issues, so they are often not a reliable guide in doctrinal matters. Conservative authors tend to be more accurate because they generally believe the Bible is divinely inspired and thus trust what it says. Some other authors treat the Bible as just a combination of historical and mythological ethnic literature.
Bible commentaries and study Bibles: A commentary is another potentially valuable Bible help. It's just what the name implies: The writer comments on the verses covered in that particular volume.
The contents vary greatly, from one-volume to multiple-volume works, some by one author and some by several. Keep in mind the backgrounds and biases of the authors. They can range from conservative scholars who believe in the inspiration of the Bible to liberal theologians who regard much of Scripture as uninspired and mere human literature. Naturally, their comments vary considerably from those of the conservative authors and frequently contradict them.
For this reason we should never establish biblical doctrine by what these authors write in these Bible helps. Only by "comparing spiritual things with spiritual" (1 Corinthians 2:13) can true doctrine be established. We should never put men's writings on the same level as Scripture. Bible helps are just that—limited resources to help us understand the ancient setting of the Scriptures through geography, language, culture and history.
Many recent study Bibles now have commentary printed along with the scriptural text, providing immediate access to further information during Bible reading. As with any commentary, we must be circumspect in evaluating this material.
Just as with Bible versions and helps, many commentaries are also available as computer software or over the Internet. As mentioned, such electronic material generally offers more thorough and faster study and searching abilities than is possible with traditional printed materials.
Computer software packages usually include a host of Bible helps. Such products generally include several versions of the Bible, dictionaries, concordances, atlases and commentaries—virtually entire Bible reference libraries—at prices only a small fraction of what you would pay for the printed versions. In fact, several good packages are now available for free. The disadvantage of the free packages is that the included Bible helps are usually older works for which the copyright has expired, so some of the content may be quite dated.
You can find software Bible helps through Internet searches, in Bible bookstores and advertised in many religious magazines. They save quite a bit of money and space if you have the necessary computer hardware available to you.
All the biblical keys and helps in the world are no substitute for the guidance of qualified teachers in our quest for Bible truths. A faithful servant of God can help us tremendously in properly understanding the Scriptures.
Notice what happened in the book of Acts when God sent Christ's disciple Philip to meet an official from the royal court of Ethiopia:
"So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, 'Do you understand what you are reading?'
"And he said, 'How can I, unless someone guides me?'" (Acts 8:30-31).
Philip then explained the passage the Ethiopian was reading as a prophecy of Jesus—after which the Ethiopian was baptized (verses 32-39).
Clearly, then, seeking help from God's servants in trying to understand His Word is a biblical model.
As Paul asks: "And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!'" (Romans 10:14-15).
Christ said He would build His Church, "and the gates of Hades [the grave, or death] shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). He instructed His followers: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations . . . teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Note here that the Church has the responsibility to teach God's truth from Scripture. But that also means that all of us individually have a responsibility to hear and heed what the Church teaches.
And just what is the Church? The Bible describes it not as a building or physical organization, but as people led by God's Spirit. Fellowship with these people can help us learn these spiritual truths spoken of by Jesus Christ.
God tells us to "test all things; hold fast what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). We have a part to do, but He has provided His Church, which is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). He has provided faithful teachers in His Church to teach God's Word without distorting it.
Paul instructed Titus: "The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you . . . Since an overseer [elder] is entrusted with God's work, he must be blameless . . . He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it" (Titus 1:5-9, NIV).
Christ forewarned that deceivers would use His name and claim to represent Him: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits . . . Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:15-16, 22-23).
A minister must faithfully teach and obey God's laws. As Scripture states: "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isaiah 8:20).
We need to consider how the Bible describes God's Church and His ministers so we can discern who they are.
One major characteristic of the Church is that it is obedient to God's laws (not perfectly yet, but striving to obey with Christ's help). The people of God are pictured in Revelation 14:12 as "those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus."
Furthermore, God's Church, as described in Scripture, is not a large and popular organization or denomination. Christ said of those who would make up His Church, "Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). They are also described as following a narrow and difficult way of life that few are willing to follow in this present evil age (Matthew 7:13-14).
The apostle James warned his readers throughout the ages not to succumb to the world's values when its values are not in harmony with God's commandments: "Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4).
As a consequence of not following the ways of this world—which is in reality Satan's world (2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 John 5:19)—the Church will ultimately be persecuted and forced to flee before the return of Jesus Christ (Revelation 12:13-17). (You can learn much more in our free booklet The Church Jesus Built . )
Again, such descriptions should help us in identifying members of God's Church. May God help you in your quest to understand the Scriptures and, through the indicators He has given, find His faithful and obedient followers.
To learn more about the United Church of God, publisher of this booklet, request your free copy of This Is the United Church of God . To help you in your studies of God's Word, we offer The Good News magazine and many booklets covering virtually all the foundational doctrines of the Bible—all free of charge.
Moreover, we also offer our free Bible Study Course Lessons and online Bible Reading Program , which is designed to help you read the Bible over a few years with detailed scriptural commentary and explanation. Our Web site also offers many printed, audio and video sermons and commentaries covering hundreds of biblical subjects, teachings and personalities. We also have ministers around the world available for counseling or just to answer any questions you may have. Feel free to contact us . We are glad to be of help.
Become a student of the Word
The followers of Jesus were known as His disciples—essentially His students —a common way of designating the followers of a rabbinic teacher of that day. As already noted, the Church was given the commission of proclaiming Christ's gospel to all nations and making more disciples of those who would respond (Matthew 28:19-20).
Thus, we today are to be disciples, students of God the Father and Jesus Christ. Our principal textbook in our lifelong course of study is God's revelation to us, the Holy Bible.
Just as in any class of learning, it will be helpful at times to take notes to keep track of information—perhaps even to jot down notes and highlight words right in our textbook.
The Bible looks formidable, with its hundreds of pages of small print. However, the Bible is a book intended to be used. To familiarize yourself with key verses, it can be helpful to mark your Bible to help you more easily find particular passages. The methods used by students of the Bible range from one color to elaborate color keys, arrows, notes and brackets and the underlining of words, phrases and sentences.
Anyone who goes through the process of marking his Bible will appreciate the need for simplicity. After a while a Bible can end up looking like a messy coloring book. A few guidelines will help you avoid overmarking your Bible.
Use colors to highlight only important words or phrases. Be sure to select a pen or marker that will not run, smear or bleed through the page. When underlining phrases, use a straight edge, such as a ruler, bookmark or index card. With a proper mark, an important word or phrase should instantly let you know what the subject matter is.
Marking your Bible will help you get a feel of where you are in a particular page. It will save much time trying to locate key scriptures.
Many computerized Bible study programs will allow you to type your own notes (or import them from other electronic text files) and attach them to specific verses, letting you create your own personal commentaries and studies. This method allows a virtually unlimited amount of space for your personal notes and comments while keeping them neat and orderly. Such electronic notes can later be edited, expanded or deleted much more easily than handwritten notes in a printed Bible.
Once you have studied into a particular subject, do what a good student in any class would do— review what you've covered. Look back over any notes you've taken. Take time to meditate on the subject— to think it over—so it can settle into your brain. Come back to it a little later for further meditation and review to better fix it in your long-term memory.
Strive to put energy into actually reading and studying God's Word. As a general life principle the Bible tells us, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might" (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Wouldn't that especially apply to delving into the Bible itself? Of course!
So with the right, humble approach, strive to become a dedicated student of the Word of God. Your understanding will grow by leaps and bounds. It is then a matter of applying what you learn—as we will look at next.