One of my favorite scholarly quotations about the hard work of seriously engaging the biblical text—what we popularly call Bible study—is that of the renowned Greek lexicographer, Frederick W. Danker (the “D” in BDAG). Danker famously said that “scholars’ tasks are not for sissies.” He was right, and I’m grateful he was willing to say what needed to be said.
The truth about serious Bible study is that it isn’t easy. It takes sustained time and effort, often measured in days, weeks, and months, to really grasp what a passage means (or probably means) and why. If Bible study doesn’t seem like work to you, you aren’t really doing it.
I realize that saying serious Bible study is work takes the pleasure out of it for some people. But presuming that you have to choose between enjoying the study of Scripture and attaining a more advanced grasp of it is a fallacy. People who are really good at anything or have a deep comprehension of a subject enjoy their mastery because they put in the work. Whether it’s mastering an instrument, becoming a chef, or fielding countless ground balls in practice, people at the top of any given field only reached that station after thousands of hours of effort. People who make those sorts of sacrifices when it comes to the study of Scripture have counted the cost. They decided that the exertion wasn’t going to deter them. They weren’t sissies.
Do you really want to know more about Scripture than satisfies most? Do you really want deep comprehension of this thing we call the Word of God? If you do, here are some points of advice.
The goal of Bible study isn’t to get a spiritual buzz
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Any student of Scripture who really believes the Bible is God’s message to humanity will be emotionally moved from time to time at the wonder of why and how God maintains a loving interest in us. That’s normal for someone who really understands the spiritual implications of Scripture. So I’m not suggesting emotional responses are antithetical to serious engagement with the Bible.
What I am suggesting, though, is that if you’re doing Bible study to feel a particular way, or get some spiritual high, then your Bible study is too self-focused.
Nowhere are we taught in the Bible to “search the Scriptures to feel a certain way.” Ultimately, Scripture is about God—what he did, what he is doing, and what he will do—not about you. You’ll never appreciate God’s story if your story—and solving your problems—is what you focus on when you study Scripture. Comprehending God’s story can go a long way toward addressing your problems, but the reverse will never be true. Serious Bible study that transcends self-therapy is about mastering the inspired text. You either want that or you don’t. If you do, you’ll be willing to put in the time and be willing to constantly reevaluate your work and your thinking.
Paying attention to detail and thinking clearly are not antithetical to loving Jesus
Early in my own spiritual journey, I was consumed with knowing Scripture. I’d ask questions, listen to answers, and then follow up with more questions. Sometimes it irritated people. I recall several instances in church or home Bible studies where I was scolded about obsessing over the Bible. After all, I was told, the real point of Bible study was learning about Jesus and how to follow him.
I disagreed then and I still do. The answer to why women who had their periods were considered unclean (Lev 15:19–24), or what the Urim and Thummim were (Exod 28:30), or why some English translations of John 5 don’t include verse 4 in the chapter have nothing to do with Jesus. The fact that they’re in the Bible means they’re just as inspired as any passage that is about Jesus.
Bible study is about learning what this thing we say is inspired actually means. Knowing what all its parts mean will give us a deeper appreciation for the salvation history of God’s people, and the character of God. Jesus is the core component of all that, but there’s a lot more to those things than the story of his life, death, and resurrection, his parables, and the Sermon on the Mount. If that was all God wanted us to know, he’d have given us only the four gospels. It’s pretty evident he had more in mind.
The Spirit’s guidance wasn’t intended to serve as a cheat sheet
If you’ve watched a baseball or football game on American television at some point, you no doubt have seen players either ask God for success or thank him for it. Athletes today regularly do things like point to the heavens after crossing home plate or finding themselves in the end zone. Some will bow in a short prayer. It’s a nice sentiment and, for many, a testimony that transcends a token gesture.
But let’s be honest. Unless that football player gets in shape and memorizes the playbook, all the pointing to heaven in the world isn’t going to lead to success. You can say a short prayer on the mound or in the batter’s box, but unless you can hit the curveball, you’re going to fail—perhaps spectacularly.
It’s the same in Bible study. All too often people who sincerely want the feeling of knowing Scripture aren’t willing to put in the time it takes to get there. Instead, they’ll take short cuts and then expect the Spirit to take up the slack. The assumption seems to be that the promise of the Spirit to guide us into truth means he’ll excuse a lack of effort and give us the answers we need. The third person of the Trinity isn’t the boy sitting next to you in high school that lets you cheat off his exam.
Rather than substitute the Spirit for personal effort, ask the Spirit for insight to expose flawed thinking (your own and that of whomever you’re reading) when you’re engaged in Bible study. The more of God’s Word you’ve devoted attention to, the more the Spirit has to work with.
This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.
Dr. Michael S. Heiser is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.
His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now available.
He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.