What is Bible Study? Why do believers struggle with Bible Study, or in-depth study of the word in a small group setting? How is this related to the Gospel and Salvation? I continue to examine my thoughts on this subject and maybe I can be of some encouragement along the way.
Let’s start with a simple definition of our western idea of Study from a standard dictionary…
“Study is the devotion of time and attention to acquiring knowledge on a subject.”
So, if we were to apply this definition to the study of the Bible, we would have something like Bible Study is the devotion of time and attention to the Bible to acquire knowledge on the subject. Essentially, we relate the study of the Bible to the same category as going to school to study a subject so we can fill ourselves with lots of facts and eventually have mastery of the subject in hand.
How would someone in a a Jewish world view the study of the Bible? They would consider study as the highest form of worship. Most study of the scripture was also done in community or in family. Why? Most likely because it was part of their core understanding of what God desired as laid out in Deut 6:4-9…
““Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4–9, ESV)
At myjewishlearning.com there is a short article that is an excerpt from a book by Rabbi Harold Kushner which speaks of it this way…
“Jews worship God through study. The central moments of a Sabbath morning service are dedicated to reading aloud not merely a brief passage from the Bible but several chapters of the Torah, so that in the course of the year, the entire Five Books of Moses will have been studied aloud…….Why this emphasis on study? One of my seminary professors used to say, “When I pray, I speak to God. When I study Torah, I keep quiet and let God speak to me.” ……By immersing ourselves in Torah, we transport ourselves back to Sinai, to the presence of God…..When we exercise our minds and consciences by studying God’s word on how a person should live, when we occupy our thoughts with questions of how to carry out God’s will rather than with matters of finance, fashion, or sports, we feel that we are developing our uniquely human aspect.”
Maybe part of the problem is that the study of the words of God is no longer based on a biblical model and that we look at learning the Bible as an activity that the church needs to do for our children just like school. We are just to busy to have to bother with teaching our children the word of God. Sure, we have recognized this problem, but instead of returning to a biblical model, we develop nice western techniques or programs to try and remedy the problem with more fact learning and fancy ways of motivation with something that is labeled new and shiny. Why don’t we just challenge the body to live out what scripture teaches and hold each other accountable to it.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, I still wonder if 2 Timothy 3:1-7 is playing out more and more in our culture today?
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:1–7, ESV)
To me, it sure does sound a lot like our culture today. Lots of learning, lots of knowledge, but what is the “knowledge of the truth” that people can’t arrive at? Could it be related to what Jesus prayed in His high priestly prayer in John 17?
“And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3, ESV)
The word here for know is “ginosko” and is a very broad term. In general use, it is a word that could mean intelligent comprehension and also emphasizes understanding. It is also a word that means the act of embracing every part of ourselves in seeing, hearing, and the investigation of people as well as things. It was also a term of intimacy to the level of sexual intercourse. Knowledge of God also meant an acknowledgement of his grace, power, and demand, not just as an intellectual exercise but in action and relationship. John uses the word in such a way as to drive us towards a deep personal relationship with the Father and the Son.
What distracts people from the deep relationship with the Father and son? I have heard many reasons and excuses and even blame, but could it be driven by what Paul said, that people would be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God”? I think about how much time people are willing to devote to pleasure and then give God about 5 minutes in the morning, a few hours on the weekend, and maybe some thought in the evening. Yet, we can play a video game all night long, watch hours and hours of sporting shows, binge watch a favorite series on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, or anything else but find pleasure in God. I am not saying that those things are bad, but that our proportion of time devoted to them vs. God is out of balance.
These problems are not just something of modern culture, even Paul had to encourage Timothy in his day…
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:12–17, ESV)
Then right after this amazing verse about the importance of Scripture in his life Paul says this…
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1–5, ESV)
This is why discipleship, a command given by Jesus to his followers, is so important. But even this simple command has been blurred. Discipleship seems to now be a much broader idea that brings together the Gospel message and Salvation as a major part of the process. But is that what we see in scripture? I do believe that all these things can happen very close together, but they are usually separate parts and functions of the body of Christ.
So, let’s take a few moments to just look at a ideas that bring these pieces together. First let’s think about the Gospel. In its simplest form it is essentially good news. But what is that good news. I really like the concluding definition found in the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary…
The gospel in the NT can be summarized as the message about the kingdom of God established in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, who is enthroned as Lord of all. This good news describes events to which all Scripture points and declares that all principalities and powers are defeated once and for all by Jesus the Messiah. Finally, all of humanity will be judged according to their reception or rejection of this good news.
This is an excellent high-level definition of what the Gospel is, and the final sentence that humanity will be judged against their reception or rejection of this good news is vital to our understanding of Discipleship. Also note that the good news is found in the scriptures.
That brings us to the next piece of the puzzle, what does it mean for a person to be saved? Let’s start with a simple definition, I really like this synopsis from the Lexham Theological Wordbook…
In both Testaments, then, salvation deals with deliverance from danger and a restoration to wholeness and prosperity. It involves victory from forces that threaten wholeness and prosperity, such as enemies and sickness. The NT emphasizes the work of Jesus as the one who saves people from sin and death, but it is clear that salvation is holistic and involves the well-being of the whole person.
Paul was a master at this process and even modified his message to the audience he was communicating with…
Consequently, the meaning of salvation tends to vary depending on how the problem is perceived. For example, if the threat is a guilty verdict on the day of judgment, then salvation entails forgiveness and justification. Where Paul describes people being enslaved to sin, the idea of salvation involves redemption or ransom. If the emphasis is on alienation from God, then reconciliation or adoption is the relevant sense of salvation. When the problem is impurity or defilement, a person is saved by being sanctified.
So, when it comes to the gospel and to salvation, I think what Paul says in Romans 10 brings it all together…
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. 
There are those who are sent out to preach the good news of the Kingdom and of Jesus and his work at the cross. It is the word that is spoken that God uses to reveal His Son to the hearts of those who hear the message. They then have a choice to either accept or reject that message. This is not a magic prayer or incantation, it is a genuine well thought out desire to believe the message of scripture and devote ones self to a life of submission to our King. Those who accept the message are the ones that we are called to make disciples of. We disciple the person that has committed to a life of following Jesus. This could be done by the same person, or it may be that God uses many different people to accomplish these things…
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:5–9, ESV)
So, how is all this related to the study of scripture?
Mark Dever in his Discipleship book (Part of the 9Marks of a healthy church series) said this about Bible study in light of Discipleship…
“God’s Word is the seed that ultimately bears fruit, even if we don’t see it in the short term. Sow the word now. Sow with your spouse and kids, sow with other members of the church. And trust that God’s word does not return void”
Discipleship is the process of transmitting the knowledge (this is not intellectual) of God and His word through every moment in life. It’s a dynamic relationship that applies Deut 6:6-7 in our families which includes the family of God.
Scripture seems to play a role in all of the process we have examined above. The word of God goes forth and is heralded, then that Good News is either accepted or rejected. Finally those who have chosen to follow Jesus are discipled by mature believers that can help them move towards a life that mimics that of our Lord.
Paul and his relationship to Timothy is a great example of this discipleship relationship. I imagine that Paul taught Timothy both by example, and also by teaching him as they walked, lied down, and rose up each day. Timothy would have also been present on the Sabbath with Paul as they would discuss and wrestle with scripture and its understanding in the light of Jesus the messiah with the community.
I personally think discipleship is best accomplished in a small group setting, Jesus provided the example, he lived the life of a teacher who made disciples that have gone out and changed the world.
Scripture is the character and will of God. Jesus was scripture embodied and lived out before us, and discipleship is moving people to follow that example.
Let’s not let the study of the breathed-out words of God become an institutional exercise that becomes a burden in our lives, but instead let us find delight in the fellowship of His word both in personal meditation, but more so in community and individual discipling.
 Mathis, D. (2003). Gospel. In C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler (Eds.), Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (p. 673). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.
 Morrison, M. D. (2016). Salvation. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Kushner, Harold. “Torah Study as Worship.” My Jewish Learning, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/torah-study-as-worship/.