A preacher must so study the Word that he will be able to bring forth things both new and old, with the old in a new setting.
I once heard a college student give a sermon on an old subject, "The Inspiration of the Bible," but it was as fresh as a morning-glory, rich from his own experience. There are new approaches to old subjects it we will dig beneath the surface and look for them. A sermon is a message, not a series of stories and anecdotes. It may be illustrated by stories to bring out the flavor of its message. But a sermon, consisting merely of a series of stories and incidents, will soon fade away as a flower in the hot sun after it has been picked, if it does not contain a central message. The people need a message with a central theme that will remain fresh in their thinking while they are passing through the furnace of trial.
One of the most revealing statements in all the Bible was made by Christ to His disciples when He said, "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now" (John 16:12). Jesus had to use parables because the people could not understand the things He had to say. So the record reads, "And with many such parables spake He the word unto them,. . . and when they were alone, He expounded all things to His disciples" (Mark 4:33, 34). But even they did not always understand the lessons from the parables that Jesus wished them to get. If only they could have grasped some of the profound things that were in His mind and which He longed to impart to them, but they were incapable of receiving them. They were still babes in the Word.
Paul rebuked the Corinthians for being babes and carnal, so that he was not able to present strong meat to them. He wrote, "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat" (1 Cor. 3: 1, 2). A baby is a charming thing as long as it is the age of a baby. But when a child approaches the age of ten or more and is still a baby, it is a monstrosity and evokes one's pity rather than admiration. A babe in Christ must grow or it will be a hindrance to the church. It will require the care and energy that should be expended in seeking the salvation of those outside the fold. Therefore, we must build up our people by giving them strong doctrine and not just the milk of the Word.
It is our responsibility as ministers to lead the flock into a deeper study of the Word that they may grow up in Christ and be strong men and women and share in the finishing of the work of God on the earth. In Hebrews 6:1-3 Paul urges such advancement in study on his own people, linking it with progress toward perfection.
But how can we lead the flock into green pastures of study unless we know the way and set the example? Sheep well fed will produce an abundance of good wool; church members led and inspired to feed on God's Word will grow and become soul winners. Shallow thinking and study makes for shallow sermons, and shallow sermons make for shallow Christians. Unfortunately, the program of some of our ministers is so filled up with this campaign and that activity and in "serving tables" that they have little time, if any, for some really independent study of the Word of God. We must look to the future and conclude what the results of this type of ministry will do to our church. Should the program of the ministry be so filled up with the business of the church that they have no time for filling or feeding their own soul?
The cause of God needs men of intellect, men of thought, men well versed in the Scriptures, to meet the inflowing title of opposition.... It is not enough for our ministers to have a superficial knowledge of the truth—Testimonies, vol, 4, p. 415.
We need men with thoroughly developed minds. Thorough Bible study will do this.
If the Bible were studied as it should be, men would become strong-minded and intellectual. The subjects treated upon in the Word of God, the dignified simplicity of its utterances, the grand and noble themes which it presents to the mind, are calculated to develop faculties in man which cannot he otherwise developed.—The Review and Herald, May 13, 1890. (Italics supplied.)
We should remember that we will be held accountable by God for the development of our mental talents. In Testimonies to Ministers, page 194, we read:
Our ministers will have to render to God an account for the rusting of the talents He has given to improve by exercise. They might have done tenfold more work intelligently had they cared to become intellectual giants. Their whole experience in their high calling is cheapened because they are content to remain where they are. Their efforts to acquire knowledge will not in the least hinder their spiritual growth if they will study with right motives and proper aims.
Paul, in speaking of the depths of God's Word and plan, says, "God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. . . . Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual [suiting spiritual things to spiritual men]" (1 Cor. 2:10-13).
Prerequisites for Bible Study
But how can we discover some of these great truths? In other words, How can we get the most out of our Bible? What method can we use to accomplish this? There are three broad ways of study, each of which must be combined with the other to accomplish results. First, it is absolutely essential to study backgrounds if one wishes to understand all that is involved in the various texts of Scripture. In fact, it is impossible to completely understand the theological or spiritual concept of some of these truths without a knowledge of the background. Take, for instance, Colossians 2:8 where Paul speaks of "philosophy and vain deceit, . . . after the rudiments [elements] of the world." To what does Paul have reference? Again, in verse 15 he speaks of "having spoiled principalities and powers." To what is he referring here? Yes, we may make a shallow interpretation, but are we presenting the truth? Without a background knowledge of Gnosticism verse 18 remains only an enigma with such expressions as "voluntary humility," "worshipping of angels," et cetera, not understood. Further, to understand prophecy a background in history, geography, and archeology is an essential prerequisite. A minister must be a student in these various fields if he would be a true interpreter of Scripture and lead his people into a deep perspective of truth.
The second method is by a careful analysis of the context. Many texts are frequently taken completely out of their context, and as a result a different intent is (riven to the text than the author intended.
Sometimes a superficial truth is deduced from the text rather than the truth of spiritual depth the writer presented. Let us note two examples. One text very often misapplied is 1 Corinthians 2:9. By not noting the context this is generally applied to the new earth. Possibly it may have a secondary remote application to the new earth, but this is not the way Paul uses it if the context of the whole chapter and book is considered. Paul is applying this quotation from Isaiah to the present life, to the great and wonderful mysteries of His Word and the plan of salvation which God has revealed to those who study it. And the writer was amazed when he first discovered that Isaiah also uses it in the same way Paul does, and not about the new earth. Yes, contexts are important.
Then there is the beautiful illustration given by Christ in John 12:24 where He speaks of the corn of wheat falling into the ground to die, that it might bring forth fruit. When first read this seems an isolated disconnected thought and is often interpreted as such. But again note the context. The discussion with Jesus by Philip and Andrew had a worldly conception of glory, and Jesus had a heavenly. The heavenly, which is the way He would glorify Himself—and it is also our true glory—is to give one's self to be completely sacrificed that others might have life. It is selflessness versus selfishness, heavenly glory versus earthly. Of this we "all have ... come short" (Rom. 3:23). This was the way He intended to glorify Himself to the Greeks, the Gentile world. Philip and Andrew hoped He would do it their way. Without the context this thought is lost.
The third method is a direct study of the Word for its content. Now, there are three ways of doing this. Let us note each one separately with particular emphasis on the last of the three.
The first way is by reading the Bible through rapidly for general Biblical knowledge and background. Unfortunately, this is all that many do and then take a sort of spiritual pride in the number of times he or she may have accomplished it. There is certainly some merit and blessing in reading the Bible through each year provided this is not the ultimate of Bible study, because it will not make us Bible students nor help us in our task of feeding the flock. "Great truths that have lain unheeded and unseen since the day of Pentecost, are to shine from God's word in their native purity."—Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 473. For these we must dig deep. They are not found by surface reading.
A second way is a study of the Word by topics. For this an exhaustive concordance, such as Young's or Strong's, is an essential tool. No minister can be a real student of the Word of God without a concordance. This way of study is an excellent method. But in using this plan thoroughness is necessary. Observe every verse that deals with the topic under consideration. However, due caution must be used that texts are not taken out of their true context and false applications made. While I was canvassing during my academy days I once met a lay preacher who tried to see how much I knew of the Bible. His statements illustrate the point in mind. When I showed him Bible Readings for the Home Circle and how it provided answers from the Bible to our questions, he made the remark that one could prove anything from the Bible. He said, "I can even prove from the Bible that it is wrong to split wood." When I expressed doubt he said, "Doesn't the Bible say, 'What . . . God hath joined together, let not man put asunder?'" This may sound amusing and naive, yet we must be cautious that we do not do likewise in endeavoring to prove our point. Truth does not need that kind of forced assistance. The concordance topical method, with proper care, is the only way you can find the true over-all teaching of the Bible on a given subject and thus give it a balanced presentation. It is well to do this also with the writings of Ellen G. White.
Meditate on the Word
A third way of Bible study, which is the most important of all, and a way that will give the greatest spiritual satisfaction to one's own soul, is to meditate on a small portion. Note the following:
Let the student take one verse, and concentrate the mind on ascertaining the thought that God has put into that verse for him, and then dwell upon the thought until it becomes his own. One passage thus studied until its significance is clear is of more value than the perusal of many chapters with no definite purpose in view and no positive instruction gained.
One of the chief causes of mental inefficiency and moral weakness is the lack of concentration for worthy ends. We pride ourselves on the wide distribution of literature; but the multiplication of books, even books that in themselves are not harmful, may be a positive evil. With the immense tide of printed matter constantly pouring from the press, old and young form the habit of reading hastily and superficially, and the mind loses its power of connected and vigorous thought.—Education, p. 189.
This meditating on a small portion seems to be a lost art among us in the mad rush of our modern world. But God says, "Be still, and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10), and "Commune with your own heart . . . , and be still" (Ps. 4:4).
As ministers to our flocks we must not be secondhand vendors. We must dig beneath the surface for ourselves. I once sat on the rostrum with another minister as he presented the message for the day. He had a few brief notes for his introduction, but for the major part of his sermon he paged through one of our 50-cent books and presented the material. That was what the flock received as fodder that day. It was not his own. It was secondhand at best. Brethren, have we lost the art of study and sermon preparation? These are absolutely necessary if we want our sermons to contain a message that will really come from our hearts and reach the hearts of our hearers.
Ellen G. White in the book The Ministry of Healing, page 441, highly recommends the careful study of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John for its great and vital truth, "I am the bread of life." In verse 56 Jesus says, "He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him." Read the chapter and get its full message. The Jews couldn't understand how this could be. They were literalists. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" they said (verse 52). The disciples also stumbled over this statement and then Jesus explained His meaning. "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life" (verse 63). It is His word we are to eat. Now, there are a number of words for "eat" in the Greek of the New Testament, but the one chosen here is the word TQcUyco (trogo), which basically had the meaning "to eat raw vegetable, opposite to eating dressed food" (LIDDELL and SCOTT, Lexicon). We are to eat the Word—undressed and unprepared by others—so that God may speak to us through it and we may truly be "the messengers of the Lord of hosts." Too many are content to read (not study) sermons prepared by some of our good preachers instead of studying for themselves. Thus that which may have been meant for a suggestion and thereby a blessing has become a synthetic sermon and, at least from one angle, a curse. For "my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge."
Knowledge of Original Language an Asset
Sometimes in this close study of the Word which we are admonished to do, even a word may greatly affect the meaning of the text. Here is where one of the Bible student's great tools gives invaluable assistance. This tool is a knowlege of the language in which the Bible was written. It is a well-known fact that no language can be fully translated into another language with its various shades of meaning without losing much of its original intent. Thus no minister can afford not to make use of this tool. Unfortunately, even though Greek is studied by every theological student in college, it is scarcely used afterward. However, with a little continued study and usage every minister could become quite proficient in its use. Do not let us neglect this tool. As ministers of the Word we should prize every means of making the Word of God clearer to our listeners.
Let us note one of many verses where a proper understanding of just one little word changes the entire meaning. In Hebrews 12:2 we read: "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." The little word "for" in English has many meanings. A look in any dictionary will reveal a variety of these. But what does it mean here? As far as the English is concerned the usual interpretation is "because of." But really, was there no higher motive for Christ's sacrifice than His own joy? Did God have to hold some reward before His Son to cause Him to make the choice? Was not His choice based on something much deeper than that? Here is where the original comes to the Bible student's assistance. For nearly every one of the meanings of the word "for" in the Greek original has a separate preposition. Therefore the original intent is clear.
If the author had intended it to read "because of," he would have used the preposition &á (die), and if he meant it to have the idea "instead of," he would use etvn (anti). If "in behalf of" he would use (huper), and so on. Each idea has a distinct preposition. Now, what does the author use here? Here it reads civul (anti), which in the first century had the connotation "instead of." The thought of the text then according to the original is "who, instead of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross." Like Moses, He chose "rather to suffer affliction with the people of God," than to enjoy what the world had to offer. When the devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of this world if He would bow down and worship him, it was a real temptation. All the joys of this world were set before Him. He was in all points tempted like as we are, but He said, No. He chose to endure the cross for us, not simply for a reward but because it was the right thing to do, and nothing could swerve Him from right. How much more the text means when the original meaning is understood.
What riches await the student who prizes and makes use of this tool—the original language. Jesus will stand out much more clearly and the light of truth will shine more brightly. It was while studying the Bible in the original language that long-hidden truths were discovered by men like Martin Luther, Calvin, and others, and thus the spark of the Reformation was kindled. Says a church historian:
Every true progress in church history is conditioned by a new and deeper study of the Scriptures, which has 'first, second, third, infinite draughts.' While the Humanists went back to the ancient classics and revived the spirit of Greek and Roman paganism, the Reformers went back to the sacred Scriptures in the original languages and revived the spirit of apostolic Christianity.—PHILIP SCHAFF, History of the Christian Church, vol. 6, sec. 6, par. 3.
Regarding Zwingli, Dr. Newman writes:
In 1513 he felt the necessity of a knowledge of Greek for the sure understanding of the New Testament, and applied himself industriously to the study of this language. He always regarded this study as one of the most important steps in his preparation for the career of a reformer. New light seemed to him thence to dawn upon the sacred word.—AutF.Rr NEWMAN, A Manual of Church History, vol. 1, p. 127.
The same can be said for perhaps each one of the Reformers. We, too, are in need of a great reformation and revival among us in these perilous days of spiritual lethargy. It will come when we make more earnest study of the living Word and apply it to our lives.
Our people have been regarded as too insignificant to be worthy of notice, but a change will come. The movements are now being made. The Christian world is now making movements which will necessarily bring the commandment-keeping people of God to notice. .
Every position of our faith will be searched into and if we are not thorough Bible students, established, strengthened, settled, the wisdom of the world's great men will be too much for US.—ELLEN G. WHITE letter 65, 1886.
May God help every minister to be a man of mental and spiritual stature, leading his people on into green pastures and by the still waters, because he himself has obtained strength from the living water and the bread that came down from heaven. As shepherds we must first partake if we are to feed the flock and prepare them for heavenly citizenship. Am I searching? Am I studying? Or have I been so busy here and there that my own fountain has run dry? Each one of us should prayerfully consider these questions, for someday we will stand alone before Him to answer for the flock over which He has made us shepherds.