As we use the word "love" in everyday speech, it has an extremely flexible meaning. I say that I love God. I say that I love my wife. But I also say that I love chocolate, and mountains, and Fridays. Other things I love include a road without potholes and a pen that does not skip . But do I love a pen in the same way that I love my wife? Certainly not. My love for her is deep and multidimensional, capable of enduring regardless of circumstances. But my feeling for a good pen would barely register on a meter of emotion. At its absolute peak it is no more than a mild approval. If the pen suddenly fails to please me, I stop loving it, and without a moment's sadness I throw it away.
Here then is the difficulty when Scripture teaches us to love the Word of God (Psa. 119:97, 127). What kind of love does it mean? Recognizing that we speak of love rather loosely, the Holy Spirit has given us an extended definition of the love we should cultivate for the Bible. This definition appears in the middle of the Bible, in the Bible's longest chapter, Psalm 119. There in just the first fifty verses we find a full description of what accompanies a true love for God's Word. According to the psalmist, to love the Word of God means that we
- praise the author (v. 7),
- yearn after it with great longing (v. 20),
- seek wondrous things in it (v. 18),
- meditate upon it (v. 15),
- remember it (v. 16),
- obtain moral guidance from it (v. 9),
- seek counsel from it (v. 24),
- use it to gain strength (v. 28),
- use it as comfort in affliction (v. 50),
- use it to answer an adversary (v. 42),
- forsake the ways of lying (v. 29),
- forsake covetousness (v. 36),
- reject vanities (v. 37),
- keep its commandments (v. 4),
- make it the foundation of hope (v. 43),
- declare it without fear to others (v. 46).
Test your love of God’s Word by going through Psalm 119 and marking each verse that truly describes yourself.
Studying God's Word with Profit
Yet however much you love the Bible, studying it cannot yield all the benefits that God intended unless you proceed with an understanding of the following six principles.
1. God intentionally put difficulties in the Bible. These difficulties include a broad assortment of texts that, when viewed superficially, appear incredible or false. No doubt you have heard the question, "Where did Cain get his wife?" Like all other questions that arise from doubting the Bible, this has a fully satisfying answer. Cain married his sister or niece. When the human race was genetically perfect, such inbreeding had no drawbacks. But to many readers of the account in Genesis, its failure to identify his wife seems like an insoluble problem.
The many difficulties in Scripture serve a purpose that Scripture itself reveals (Matt. 13:11–17). Jesus says that His parables are constructed so that only a certain kind of hearer—a hearer who knows Him by faith—will discern their meaning. Anyone else, having a heart which has waxed gross through sin, will see nothing profound in them, nothing to shake him out of his complacent choice of self-destruction. Indeed, he may actually view the impenetrability of the parables as proof that he can safely dismiss everything Jesus taught.
All difficulties in the Bible have the same twofold purpose as Jesus’ parables. They reserve truth for the chosen and furnish the proud an excuse for unbelief. Men come to the Bible with either of two biases. Either, through a work of the Holy Spirit, they desire to believe, or, because of the innate perversity of the human heart, they desire not to believe. It is God’s will to allow every man his preference. Therefore, He has not designed the Bible to be so undeniably divine that men have no choice but to believe. To believe something supported by overwhelming evidence is, as it were, to believe under coercion, but God does not wish to force us into believing His Word and accepting His authority. Rather, He wants us, as we exercise our own free will, to seek a relationship with Him. He wants our belief to be motivated by faith resting on love.
If you discover a difficulty while reading the Bible, you should adopt the following strategy:
- Regard it as a test of your faith. Believe from the outset that the Bible is true despite what seems like a difficulty.
- Without wavering in faith, ask God to explain the difficulty. If you approach Him with a meek rather than a demanding spirit—if your question is not an ultimatum that He must satisfy or else lose your confidence—He will be happy to give you an answer. He said to Abraham, His friend (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8; James 2:23), "Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do?" (Gen. 18:17). He may not give you an answer right away. He may first require you to persevere in digging for truth, but eventually, probably in this life but perhaps not until the life to come, He will show you how the difficulty can be resolved.
2. To understand the Bible is impossible without the aid of the Holy Spirit. The Bible itself affirms this principle (John 14:26; 1 Cor. 2:12; 1 John 2:27). The work of the Holy Spirit that unveils Scripture for the reader and gives him understanding is called enlightenment or illumination. To receive the benefit of illumination, a believer should, when he comes to Scripture, openly confess His dependence on the Holy Spirit and seek His aid. The same believer should clear aside all hurdles of sin and unbelief that stand in the way of understanding.
3. Every passage must be understood as serving the two main purposes of the Bible—to reveal Christ and promote godly living. The whole Bible from start to finish, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, speaks of Christ (John 5:39). And the whole Bible from start to finish, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, is a moral guidebook, telling us how to walk with God each day (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
A wonderful text for illustrating this principle is Genesis 22. Besides presenting some of the clearest pictures of Christ in the Old Testament, it also gives us some of the principles we especially need to shape our lives according to God's will.
God required Abraham to demonstrate obedience by fulfilling a difficult command. He told Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him on a mountain in the land of Moriah. Despite the task he was setting out to perform, Abraham left immediately—on the very next morning. He assured his servants that he and the boy would return. There is no contradiction here. Abraham was confident that God would raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:17-19). In three ways the rest of the story provides pictures of Christ.
- On the way to the place of sacrifice, Isaac asked why they were taking no animal. Abraham’s reply in verse 8 is extremely important.
And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.What did Abraham mean by the lamb that will be provided? He was not expecting to be delivered from the requirement to kill his son. Besides, the animal that God later gave as a substitute for Isaac was not a lamb. The word lamb in verse 8 is seh, indeed referring to a young sheep. But the word "ram" in verse 13 is ayil, referring to a mature horned male. Lest we miss the difference, the text tells us that the ram’s horns were caught in a thicket. Therefore, Abraham’s utterance in verse 8 is not a prophecy of what God would do that day on the mountain. Abraham was thinking of Isaac himself as like a young lamb. The statement answers the boy’s question by informing him that he would be the sacrifice. The word order in Hebrew clarifies the meaning. Abraham said,
God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering, my son."My son" comes last. The meaning must have sunk in as they walked along because when they arrived, Isaac submitted willingly. No doubt he shared his father’s confidence that he would be raised from the dead.
The test of Abraham’s obedience did not end in Isaac's tragic death, however. At the moment Abraham reached for the knife to slay his son, God stopped him and provided a substitute. So, if Isaac himself never became a sacrifice, Abraham’s statement in verse 8 is not a true prophecy unless it refers to another lamb—indeed, the Lamb of God (John 1:29). Reconsider his statement. In a cryptic manner, by joining the concepts "himself" and "lamb," it suggests that the Lamb will be God Himself. Even more specifically, by allowing us to view "my son" as Abraham either speaking for himself or quoting God, the statement suggests that the lamb will be God's Son.
- The chapter continues with more glimpses of Christ. The second is in verse 14. After the sacrifice, Abraham calls the place Jehovah-jirah, which means, "In the mount of Jehovah, it will be provided." Doubtless he was referring to the provision he foresaw in verse 8; namely, the Lamb who would be God's Son. The name Abraham chose for the site gave rise to a saying probably in Moses' day, "In the mount of the Lord it will be seen." "Seen," like "provide" in verse 8 and "jireh" in verse 14, is a form of the word raah. The basic meaning is "see," but in the sense "look out" or "find out" it can also in some contexts mean "provide." The prophecy was fulfilled when Christ hung on a cross for all to see on the hill called Calvary. (Is any death more of a spectacle than crucifixion?) The Jews in fact believed that the place of Abraham's sacrifice was the hill in Jerusalem called Mount Moriah, where the Temple was built (2 Chron. 3:1). This is not inconsistent with indicators in the text, but perhaps the place was Calvary itself.
- Another glimpse of Christ is in verse 18. Previously, Abraham was told that the world would be blessed through him (Gen. 12:3). Now he is told exactly how this would happen. It would happen through his "seed." Note that in reference to this seed, verse 17 uses the pronoun "his," singular masculine like the word for seed itself. So it is one man. Galatians 3:16 tells us that the seed promised to Abraham was Christ.
We now understand why God emphasized throughout Abraham’s trial of obedience that the requirement was to give "his only son" (vv. 2, 12, 16). In reward, he would be the father of One who comes to bless the whole world. This coming One would be Christ, also an only Son appointed to die. The point is that what Abraham was asked to do for God was no less than what God was willing to do for Abraham and for all mankind.
Genesis 22 is not only rich in foretastes of Christ; it is also a treasury of moral guidance. Two moral lessons in particular stand out.
- God demanded no less of Abraham than sacrifice of his beloved son. He demanded no less of Isaac than submission to a sacrificial death. Thus, in this story, the Bible reveals for the first time that God’s purpose for His children is to bring them to a place of total surrender to God through total sacrifice of self.
- Both Abraham and Isaac were outstanding examples of obedience. Without delay, Abraham moved to complete the heart-wrenching task of sacrificing his son. Then, when his father's intentions became obvious, Isaac did not resist. He was old enough to carry the wood, so he was old enough to break away from an aged father (Abraham was well over 100 years old). Yet at the place of sacrifice, he let his father bind him to the altar. The outcome was not sorrow and loss, however. God heaped tremendous blessings upon them both. Thus, in this story, the Bible reveals for the first time how richly God will reward those who choose to obey Him. The great moral lesson He expects to understand is that obedience to His will is the secret to winning His bountiful favor.
4. The Bible contains mysteries that God expects us to explore. The Bible, being a work of God, is rich and deep. Everywhere within its wide compass, the reader finds windows to profound mysteries. The tendency of a modern reader, under the influence of the idea that the only safe truth is simple truth, is to bypass these windows, averting his eyes lest he glimpse something beyond. To excuse his incuriosity, he may quote Scripture, such as Deuteronomy 29:29.
The fallacy in this excuse is that a window is not secret. It is there to look through. Perhaps the greatest mystery of prophetic revelation is the riddle of the seventy weeks in Daniel 9. Yet notice the angel's opening words when he introduces the riddle, "Understand the matter, and consider the vision" (v. 23). Again, he says "Know therefore and understand" (v. 25). It is a fair generalization that whenever the Bible views its own mysteries, it declares them transparent to a reader endowed with wisdom (Prov. 1:5-6; Dan. 12:9-10; Rev. 13:18).
Bible students in days gone by did not hesitate to delve into the mysteries of the Bible. I have whole shelves of old books that tackle the hardest questions. An outstanding Christian author from the nineteenth century was Andrew Jukes, who wrote such works as The Names of God in Holy Scripture, The Law of the Offerings, and Four Views of Christ. He commented,
God's Word is His work as much as creation; and it is its infinite depth and breadth, and the diverse and manifold ends and aims of all we find in it, which make it what it is, inexhaustible. To look, therefore, on the mere surface of the Bible, is one thing; to look into it quite another; for each part may have many purposes. The very words which, in one dispensation and to one people, conveyed a literal command, to be obeyed literally, may, in another age and dispensation, supply a type of some part of God's work or purpose; while in the selfsame passage the humble believer of every age may find matter of comfort or warning, according to his need (1).
Still, there are some readers of the Bible who suppose that the only meaning to be found is the meaning sitting on the surface. They regard any attempt to dig deeper as reading too much into the text. But the same God who wrote the Bible also packed all the key numerical concepts of mathematics into the small equation e iπ = -1 and all the design specifications of the human body into a single tiny molecule of DNA. Could there be less to find in the Bible than in a particle of matter?
5. Holiness and faith are prerequisites for comprehending the mysteries of the Bible. This principle rests both on precept and example.
- Precept. Several texts say clearly that God has secrets which he shares only with the righteous (Prov. 3:32; Psa. 25:14).
- Example. The most outstanding Biblical example of a man who gained access to divine secrets is Daniel. Daniel was a man who sought the approval of God alone, and to gain that approval he was willing to adopt a lifestyle of rigorous separation from all the defiling practices of the world. For example, he refused to violate God's law by eating the king's food (Dan. 1:8). We might think that he was making a fuss over a little thing. It was merely a question of what he would have for supper. Yet he refused to eat the king's food even though the scruple he would surrender by such compromise with the world was relatively minor, and even though the cost of obeying his conscience might be his own life.
In reward for his courageous refusal to compromise with the world, God gave Daniel dreams and visions revealing progressively more of Himself and of His program for the future history of nations and empires. The book that Daniel wrote is divided down the middle into two parts. The first six chapters include all the famous stories about Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. The last six present Daniel's prophetic visions. The prophecies these furnish are among the most specific and wide-ranging in the Bible.
- They provide an overview of Jewish experience during the next several centuries after Daniel’s time—in other words, from about 530 BC to about 165 BC.
- They tell when to expect the first coming of Christ.
- They display the parade of empires that will dominate Israel from Daniel’s time until the close of the age in which we live.
- They survey key events during the Tribulation, the final period of the present age.
6. Regular devotions do not justify neglect of systematic Bible study. Bible reading in daily devotions can be limited to a few verses. But a few verses per day do not meet the soul's need for nourishment by the Word of God. If you want enough strength to meet all the difficulties of life, you must be familiar with the whole Bible, and you must know large portions by heart. Therefore, in each day, you should set aside time for Bible memorization as well as for reading and studying long passages.
Many Christians follow a reading program that takes them through the Bible every year. The daily requirement is three or four chapters. If you can accomplish only one chapter per day, you will still make good progress. You will complete the Bible in three to four years. Another approach to Bible reading is to sit down occasionally and read ten or twenty chapters.
The quickest way to increase your knowledge of Scripture is to teach it. Before you can teach others, you must teach yourself first, and the pressure to appear knowledgeable will probably drive you to deeper and more diligent study than you would ever have undertaken otherwise. You will learn more than your students. But lesson preparation, however worthwhile, should not be viewed as a substitute for a program of regular Bible reading.