SOME think it strange that we should expect to find anything new in a Book that was completed nearly nineteen hundred years ago. Others doubt that it is possible to attain the heights reached by Bible students in the past. Some are persuaded that the days of great expository preaching ended in the first decades of this twentieth century. We subscribe to none of these views. We believe that in the mine of Scripture there still lie rich veins of precious thought that when tapped will yield a spiritual wealth to equal and even surpass any discovered by our forefathers.
Just as strongly are we convinced that this belief stands no chance of being confirmed unless we give serious attention to our methods of Bible study. An intermittent, casual, routine reading of the Book will never uncover the treasures that lie waiting to be revealed. We may accidentally come across a few jewels that lie close to the surface, but the inexhaustible lodes will remain untouched until we learn to dig more deeply, more systematically, more unremittingly. How bitter will be our regret if we find that we have been passing over untold wealth just because we did not stop long enough to discover it!
And this is not a purely personal mat--ter. It involves the welfare of the church, for the church today languishes from a dearth of mighty preachers, and mighty preachers are lacking because there are too few earnest students of the Word. The age of great preachers has not ended: it is merely marking time, awaiting the rise of ministers who will study as the pulpit giants studied in the days gone by. Look at any of the princely preachers of the past and you will find they were primarily students of God's Oracles, and their pre-eminence at the desk was firmly based on their pre-eminence in the study. Think of Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, Wesley, White field, Spurgeon, Jowett, McClaren, and now Billy Graham. All of these men were saturated with the Word of God, and owed their pulpit power to their mastery of that Word.
We need our modern counterparts of such men. The church that is blessed with a Bible-inspired preacher will not long remain empty. Human nature still responds to oratory, and he whose eloquence stems from deep study of the Bible will never lack an audience, even in this twentieth century. Let us, then, as present or as embryo preachers, resolve that our ministry will be built upon a profound knowledge and application of the Scriptures.
The foundation of all true Bible knowledge and understanding of that knowledge is personal study of the Bible. An attempt to expound the Scriptures without a background of personal study will lead to shallow, artificial, insincere exposition, and our teaching will be no better than sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. On the other hand, study for our own edification will just as surely enable us to help others. Our own respect for, and application to, the Word will permeate our personalities and, unbeknown to ourselves, inspire those with whom we live and work.
How shall we pursue such study?
Our first suggestion concerns an elementary but essential operation, namely, that of reading the Bible. While attention to any part of the Book can bring benefit, much will be missed if specific study is not carried out against a background of regular reading of the whole volume. Such exercise gradually gives us a mastery of the Bible's contents: we become familiar with its whole story, we fit together its component parts, we begin to grasp its unified philosophy, we amass a wealth of spiritual counsel on which we can draw at will, and our speech and writing become colored with what we have so assiduously read. '
The Bible is a gem with so many facets that it is not possible to view all of its beauties at the same time. We therefore need to read the same portion several times in order to grasp its literary, historical, theological, humanitarian, and personal implications. Perhaps that is why Campbell Morgan declared that he never presumed to expound the message of any book of the Bible until he had read that book fifty times!
Of course, mere reading is not enough. Perusal of page after page can become so mechanical that we hardly know what we read. This danger is inherent in the Bible Year Plan, which may become an annual marathon unless we accompany our incessant reading with more leisurely contemplation of God's message.
We should agree, then, that initial reading lays only the foundation for genuine study. Our survey of the whole Book directs attention to verses, chapters, books, and themes that awaken our theological interest. While reading, make a note of such passages and use those notes as the starting point for real study as distinct from reading. Choose one of these newly discovered texts, explore its potentialities, savor its essence, extract its sweetness, make it yield its secrets. When that is being done, then we are engaged in study!
This, we should realize, is necessarily a slow task. In Bible study, the race is rarely to the swift: indeed, speed is often fatal to study. Quality is of much greater value than quantity when it comes to understanding God's Word. So let us be prepared to go slowly, to dawdle in green pastures and linger beside still waters; there will then be a chance of coming face to face with the thought that the Spirit intended us to find in the verses we read.
We shall waste much valuable time if we attempt this hyper-spiritual task in our own mental strength. "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: . . . neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14). We should, therefore, condition our study with prayer—before, during, and after our concentration on any particular theme. Our best study may well be done on our knees, with the Bible open before us, so that while reading we can talk to the Lord about the passage and can hear Him explain its meaning to us. Thus we shall come to think His thoughts after Him.
This may prove to be an uncomfortable activity. We are so shackled by preconceived opinions, so loaded with others' concepts, that it is difficult to get an uncluttered view of any theme, and we may despair of ever reaching the pure thought breathed out by God to His servants the prophets. Repeated study of the Word will overcome this difficulty. We must read, reread, and read again. We must meditate until our understanding penetrates the inner meaning of our selected passage. We shall then arrive at the core of religious knowledge and know that we have really grasped the divine intent. Such procedure is demanding, it calls for discipline, it may even be embarrassing as it leads us to revise loosely held ideas, undigested concepts, and unthoughtful thoughts. But it will be rewarding, for it will guide us into all truth.
What Shall We Study?
The novice is often bewildered by the wealth of choice that confronts him. Sixty-six books! Where shall he begin?
His personal reading should already have pinpointed certain areas that promise a crop of deeper thoughts, but he may still need specific suggestions as to books that will most easily yield sermon topics. One of the most accessible is undoubtedly the book of Psalms which thousands of ministers have found to be an inexhaustible homiletic storehouse. The one hundred and fifty poems are primarily a record of man's spiritual relation with God, but in dealing with this theme, the poets give us a brilliant portrait of the Almighty Himself. One cannot but marvel that such insights were experienced by men who lived amid the crudities of Near-Eastern life in the early part of the first millennium B.C. It is unlikely that we shall surpass their understanding of the Most High until we stand before the Eternal. Beyond doubt, then, it will be profitable to undertake a systematic study of these lyrics, either in numerical order or according to personal preference, making a list of the whole and keeping a record of progress until we have covered the whole book. In this way we can consider man's relationship to his Maker, the psalmist's revelation of God, a righteous man's attitude to sin, acceptance of sorrow, religion and nature, the art of praise, and an almost endless list of stimulating topics.
If there is one valid objection to a concentration on the Psalms, it is this: They are pre-Christian, they were composed in partial darkness before "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God" had shone "in the face of Jesus Christ." But this limitation can easily be counterbalanced by a simultaneous study of the Gospels. It does not take long to read the four accounts, but since we need to start with one of them, we shall do well to choose the shortest—the Gospel according to St. Mark. This is also usually regarded as the simplest, but that is a rather superficial view, based largely on its literary form, and ignoring the fact that the four accounts tell the same basic story and confront their readers with the same supernatural Man, the Man Christ Jesus. A diligent study, based on repeated reading of the Evangels, will construct in our minds a harmony of the Gospels and a thorough acquaintance with all recorded details of the life of our Lord. What better knowledge can a Christian acquire?
And what then? After this basic study of the Old and New Testaments, to which of their pages shall we turn? One of the richest repositories of religious thought is the corpus of Paul's letters, written by the mastermind of Christendom after he had prayerfully meditated on the mysteries associated with the Incarnation. In the consequent thirteen or fourteen letters he presents the student with the widest possible range of practical theological thought, from the relative simplicities of Philemon and Titus, through the increasing depths of Thessalonians and Philippians, to the complexities of Ephesians and Romans. Where is the preacher who has exhausted the "unsearchable riches" of this pastoral correspondence?
When we have reveled in such study we have only skipped over a small portion of the wide theological world that awaits our exploration, for every page of the Bible is a map to lead us into delectable new regions where we may find abundant spiritual food waiting to be gathered by the diligent student. Therefore let us read, read, and read again with the prayer in our heart that the Author of Scripture will open our eyes that we may behold wonderful things out of His law.
When and Where Shall We Study?
The French have a word for it—Chacun a son gout, that is, "Every man to his taste." We differ in our physical natures: one man is at his best in the wee sma' hours, another begins to wake up around 10:00 P.M., while others can only efficiently function in the middle of the day. Let us not, then, lay down Draconian laws for one another. Let every man discover the routine that suits him best, and let him faithfully adhere to a sensible program of study. Much theory written on this matter has little hope of ever being put into practice since it is divorced from reality, but that need not discourage us, for we can each choose our own time and make and keep our own resolutions in this respect. Whatever time we do dedicate to study, however, let it be regular, unhurried, quiet, and honestly used and filled with disciplined mental activity. The lazy man will rarely produce soul-stirring material! In addition, let us keep clear of any complex concerning the ideal time for study: let us be ready to utilize all available time while traveling or while waiting to meet an appointment.
While we all have twenty-four hours at our disposal and a certain liberty in their use, we do not all possess the well-furnished study with which a few are blessed. Yet every student needs a study, even if it consist of nothing more than a corner in a family room. He needs his desk or table with a reasonably (but not too-) comfortable chair, and a place where he can keep the books of which he has immediate need. There is great value in having the necessary reference books at one's finger tips, for one is more likely to consult the book that lies ready to hand. See to it, then, that the Bible in several languages and in different versions, together with one or two commentaries and Bible dictionaries, are within reach. Under such conditions, an hour of concentrated study can yield most satisfying results.
(To be concluded)