Unfiltered Fridays: Serious Bible Study Isn’t for Sissies

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 doing it.

I realize that saying serious Bible study is work takes the pleasure out of it for some people. But presuming that one has 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 a deep comprehension of this thing we call the word of God? If you do, here are some points of advice.

1. 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, 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 and what he did, is doing, and will do—not you. You’ll never appreciate God’s story if all you focus on when you study Scripture is your problems. Comprehending the former can go a long way toward addressing the latter, 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.

2. 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 can 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, or what the Urim and Thummim were, 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.

3. The Spirit’s guidance wasn’t intended to serve as a cheat sheet

If you’ve watched a baseball or football game in television at some point this century 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 kid sitting next to you in high school that lets you cheat off their exam.

Rather than substitute the Spirit for personal effort, ask the Spirit for insight to expose flawed thinking (your own and whoever 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.

***

Agree? Disagree? Want to qualify? Sound off in the comments, like and share with your friends, and check by every Friday for more unfiltered insight from Dr. Michael Heiser.

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Michael S. Heiser
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22 comments
  • God bless all:

    Interesting article. I just hope Mr. Heiser realizes that the way he looks at things may not be the same way other person sees it.

    “Ultimately, Scripture is about God and what he did, is doing, and will do—not you. You’ll never appreciate God’s story if all you focus on when you study Scripture is your problems. Comprehending the former can go a long way toward addressing the latter, but the reverse will never be true. Serious Bible study that transcends self-therapy is about mastering the inspired text.”

    I agree with the first part in the above quote, but I am not sure what it means “Serious Bible study that transcends self-therapy is about mastering the inspired text”

    Mastering the inspired text? The devil knows the Bible better than any of us. Does that means that he masters it? He knows well what it means and what is the correct interpretation, but he uses that knowledge to try to twist it and make humans fail.

    What is the purpose of studying the Bible? most Christians would say that as rule of belief and practice, it is to know what to believe and what to practice.

    And what is the main point of the Bible: it is a love letter directly sent to me (and every other believer) to know that unless we repent (metanoia) and accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we will end up in the lake of fire which was not created for humans.

    If this cannot be construed as shedding light for the ultimate self therapy (we needing to seek for Jesus Christ and to get the Holy Spirit to be able to live victorious life), I do not know what else it can be taken as.

    My very personal eternal destiny is at stake, I do notice that is very personal with very dire consequences to my soul should I ignore it. And it is not only about me, it is about any other human in the planet. The Bible has the ultimate and real self therapy: repent and love and accept Jesus Christ.

    God knows we are self-centered, and through the reading and understanding the Bible and with the help of His Spirit, is the only way we can transcend that and become useful to every good deed prepared for us to walk in, and to radiate Christlikeness as living epistles that we are of Christ.

    Then we have this other sentence:

    “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.”

    In theory while this is true, there are exceptions and some very notable:If David did kill Goliath with a sling, he never practiced with that particular objective in mind, it was God’s Spirit that made the throw successful, no matter how much practice and knowing the rules (of ancient warfare), would have let David do so, so quickly and efficiently without God.

    Did Daniel trained in some special knowledge before thrown to the fiery furnace? I do not think so, and any training or knowledge, would not have given him success in surviving if he had not had total trust in the Lord and a godly life that made him all more valuable to God so God intervene to save.

    I am very sure that many of the theological tenets that you hold so dearly are utterly wrong.
    As Mr. Sawyer mentions in his book The Survivor’s guide to theology, only God is the fully orthodox being in the universe, everybody else has but a poor contextual understanding of what the Bible message is truly about.
    And I say this respectfully, even with all your rules, correct attitude to Bible study, letting the worldview of the original writers get in your head, etc, I am pretty sure you must have some of the message wrong.

    And we will found out for sure the true message, the right thrust of the Bible and the right application, when we meet Christ face to face and we will understand all without asking Him anything.

    From all your unfiltered Fridays articles this is the one that has baffled me the most, I really do not understand what you tried to say, I just maybe did not get your message.

    Blessings.

    • You don’t understand what Mike is telling us here because all you are interested in is preaching your own brand of theology. You aren’t interested in learning anything new.

      • God bless all:

        Dave Lewis:

        I would like to know from your perspective what is that brand of theology?

        You seem to imply that something can be learned from all of the article so:

        Maybe you can explain to me what does self therapy has to do with Spiritual Buzz?

        And what exactly is the meaning of “Mastering the inspired text?

        The Urim and thummin was used before to get to the heart of the matter.
        Now we have the Bible instead of that, and the message is very clear about the future: if we do not repent and bear good fruit we will end up in the lake of fire.

        If you get that right and have metanoia and show you bear good fruit, then you can get into all the other details of the Bible, but if you do not get right with God first, all the detailed and clear thinking will not be of any good.

        Finally God knows that 99% of His sheep are not Scholars, so He gives them the guidance of the Holy Spirit to get that the heart of the matter is to repent and accept Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

        It is simple, it is effective, most Christians have agreed, you and Dr. Heiser seem to want to put that very critical truth in second or third place, and to me that seems as an attempt to put souls’ eternal destiny as secondary.

        Maybe you can explain your position to see if in reality you agree with leaving the main message of the Bible to the side to look at details that are not of that importance for salvation.

        Faith is another key component, Dr. Heiser seems to say that if you have faith, but do not have human preparedness, things will not workout.
        My point is that there are certain circumstances that regardless of the level of preparation that you have, without God’s intervention (through faith) no successful action can come.

        What is your position on that?

        Blessings.

        • I don’t have any interest in engaging in a debate with you. You obviously already know it all.

          • I am not into polemics either, but I am surprised that you consider me into a brand of theology that you have not described to be able to assent or refute.

            If I want to know about your perspective is because maybe there is something valuable that I have not looked at.

            I think I have been respectful, and politely asked for clarification before forming any opinion, as there is not enough information to have a clue of what is going through your mind.

            kind regards.

  • For anyone interested in the context of the Danker quote referenced by Michael… it is part of the final sentence in Danker’s review of ‘Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament: A Supplement to the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains’ by Eugene A. Nida and Johannes P. Louw, in the ‘Journal of Biblical Literature,’ Volume 113, Number 3 (Autumn, 1994), pages 532-533. Referring to the need for change in the nature, content and format of lexicons – while acknowledging the limitations of BAGD (1979, second edition), now BDAG (2000, third edition), and seeing the Louw and Nida work as leading the way – Danker maked his famous statement: “Change spells pain, but, to paraphrase geriatricians on challenges facing the elderly, scholars’ tasks are ‘not for sissies.’”

    • God bless all:

      Thank you for clarifying some of the deep contextual reality behind the article.

      As I said before, 99% of God’s true sheep are not scholars.

      if the title would have been “Serious Bible Study (at the scholarly level) is not for sissies” I would have understood that the intended audience was other than the plain and simple sheep, and I would have probably reacted differently.

      My apologies for not having caught that critical information.

      I would still like to know Dave’s opinions on my questions.

      Thanks and blessings.

      • “God’s true sheep” sounds like you are a member of a cult. Why don’t you tell us what church you identify with?

        • God’s true sheep are in all religious and ethnic groups.

          Any group that says that they are the only ones going to heaven might not be in conformance with reality.

          I believe that true sheep can be in the Catholic, Lds, JW, Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, Charismatic,etc.

          Each person walks in the light they are given, and God can only hold them responsible for that light.

          Now if they come in contact with a particular truth that sheds more light (e.g. that any group has but a poor contextual understanding of the Bible message, and any group affirming that their theology is Absolute Truth at the same level than the Bible, [seriously out of conformance with reality]), and deny it then they may incur in fault.

          You mentioned that I have a particular brand of Theology, and I want to know what that is from your point of view.

          I would also like to know your particular brand of theology, maybe I can learn something valuable from it.
          From the way you express, I have no objective evidence to tell what theology brand you adhere to, that is why before labelling you in any way I prefer that you share with us your beliefs, and why do you brand me as an anti-learning, proselytizing type.

          But since you do not share with me either, and just accuse, I wonder what kind of spirit are you operating from.

          Who do you serve?

          Were in the time of Jesus all true sheep? I do not think so, the people with the most faith did not seem to be Jews, even Samaritans believed more, true sheep are all over the place, and they are God’s, not of any particular religious organization.

          Blessings to all true believers.

  • I believe God has, for whatever reason, chosen to give me the spiritual gift of insight, which may be a form of one of the named spiritual gifts of knowledge, wisdom, or prophesy. The ESV Study Bible study notes for 1 Corinthians 12:10 prophesy say in part “as used by Paul in 1 Corinthians refers generally to speech that reports something that God spontaneously brings to mind or “reveals” to the speaker but which is spoken in merely human words, not the words of God. Therefore it can have mistakes and must be tested or evaluated.” Whatever the correct term is, this is the gift I experience as the Holy Spirit works in me and through me.
    In Ephesians 4:30 Paul instructs us to not grieve the Holy Spirit who has sealed us, in context by falsehood, acts of anger, stealing instead of “but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”, and talk that tears people down. If I don’t put in long hours working hard studying the Bible, myself not another, so that I may have something to share with anyone in need.”, then I am grieving the Holy Spirit, who will not work through me to produce deep spiritual insight, the fruit of studying the Holy Living Word. If I did not commit myself to serious Bible study, it would be because I did not care about having something to share with anyone in need, and instead, like a thief, only wanted to get what the church had to offer without being a contributing member. That would be a lifestyle the Holy Spirit would not support me in.
    Modern American culture is based on hyper-individualism. So many people either come to church thinking “What does this congregation have to offer me compared to the others?”, like American consumerism, or even worse say “I had some bad experiences with the Church, and I don’t see how the Church benefits me, so I will just live as a Christian without being part of the Church.” We have allowed ourselves to be deceived. How can we be a child of God without being part of the family of God. The Bible knows no such Saints of Individualism. We cannot expect the Holy Spirit to work through us for the glory of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ if we have these attitudes and practices.

    • God bless you Gerryt Watson:

      Great to know that you have the blessing of having spiritual discernment.

      I think all believers should ask for it, as it would make Christian life much easier. (and the works of darkness more difficult to get into the way of believers).

      I agree with almost all that you say, except in one part:

      Should I be a member of a Church that blatantly does not follow very clear Bible commands?

      Do you know that there is going to be a huge apostasy in the Church, and we need more spiritual discernment to precisely avoid being a part of the works of darkness that may try to infiltrate the Church to teach falsehood as part of an occult agenda to set up the Antichrist?

      I am very glad that you have spoken your mind, and I celebrate most everything you said, just ask the Holy Spirit to give you more illumination into the coming apostasy and the infiltration in the church to try to set up a system to try to get people to adore the Antichrist, which by the way the “true sheep will not adore, because their names are in the book of life and will not be deceived”.

      Blessings.

  • The post was not directed at your 1% and I question your comment labeling the 99% as plain and simple. Understanding the word in a deeper way and committing to grasping the text in context is what the article is all about. As “plain and simple” sheep I understand the message presented because I do it daily.

    • Well, sorry if I misunderstood you then.

      Logos, faithlife, and all related effort was created to close the huge gap between excellent Scholar work, and the common believer.

      I think it is an extraordinary effort, that 100% should come from God.

      Now just think about it, outside the industrialised world, most people do not have the same intellectual culture of deep disciplined systematic and organized thought, to evaluate, develop and communicate right doctrine.

      I agree fully that a detailed and focused mental effort to understand and apply the Bible is important.

      But there are a wide amount of different topics, concepts, etc. The Thompson Chain reference Bible alone has over 4000 topics.

      If you say to me that deep study in all 4000 is important for the salvation of the soul, I will totally disagree with you.

      God’s salvation main thrust is simple: repent, believe, baptize, bear good fruit worthy of the calling, etc.

      If that could be stressed on the less fortunate people, so that at least they could improve sharply their odds of being saved, I would after that not have any problem of helping them develop critical skill to go and dig deep into all 4000+ themes in the Bible, once they have been saved.

      To me teaching someone that does not know about Christ, about the Urim and Thummin, about the unclean state of women in their period, will not help them as much as if you tell them about:

      There is a serious problem with sin, Jesus came to solve that problem, and that solution is given free to all, one has to just believe, and accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and one must baptize and procure to live a godly life (with the help of the Holy Spirit) worthy of the calling Jesus made.

      Subsequent christian perfection is done ideally in community, that actually are doers of the Word, and not big mouth preachers of it, but their actions do not match the principles they say they uphold.

      Would I like to see every believer have as much knowledge and insight as the best Scholars, yes, but I would also like to see their faith in action in which all kind of good fruit is produced: individual and collective.

      When I say plain and simple, is that most believers are not associated with an academic institution working there professionally to further knowledge, and do deep research.

      You may disagree with me, but then why God calls us Sheep in the Bible, (some of the most “unable” creatures), if we were all that awesome, we could have been called dolphins, or elephants, or some of the more intelligent ones.

      Very few of the 12 Apostles were scholars, most were plain and simple sheep, with lots of faith and love. The Holy Spirit then gave them awesome insight into the details of the Kingdom of God.

      I do not say plain and simple in a demeaning manner, (I myself consider me plain and simple believer), but is a reality that has to be taken into account to properly communicate right doctrine and to encourage orthopraxis.

      Blessings.

    • I agree with your comment, “Understanding the word in a deeper way and committing to grasping the text in context is what the article is all about.” I’m not entirely sure from where Mr. Ramos (the individual that attempted to argue with…or perhaps in a way refute the article, as well every comment posted) is coming. However, it appears that its from way out there in left field at about the 675 foot mark, across the street, down a few blocks, on the corner of Las Vegas BLVD and Flamingo Road.

      I say this because getting a better grasp of the text in context, prevents one from grasping a text out of context and reading something into the verse that is not there. Cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons do this constantly in an attempt to provide a proof text to back up their false doctrine.

      I am not sure if it is the same for you, but constantly staying in the Word, reading, studying, getting a better grasp of the text in context, reflecting on it, etc. keeps me sharp and prepared to follow the words written in 1 Peter 3:15. Not to mention if I hear something taught, or preached that disagrees with the Bible’s teaching it immediately sends up a red flag. I am trying to instill that in my children as well. Christians do not exercise faith without reason, but faith with reason. Jesus said in Matthew 22:37 “…’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ ” (ESV).

      Anyways, James long story short I agree with the words you wrote in your post. Sorry for rambling on…I guess now I will wait for Mr. Ramos’ retort to my reply (it should be a fantastic one.) Have a blessed day.

      Drew

  • I read this article (and the comments), just after reading a page by a very popular Christian teacher (who has led numerous believers into becoming “Torah Observant”) using numerous Bible verses to challenge the view that the earth is a globe revolving around the sun in favor of a flat or concave earth. In addition, this teacher (sometimes it’s like driving past a train wreck… it’s hard to look away) describes all you need to understand scripture is 5th grade reading English.

    It’s teachers like this that make me think the Catholics during the Reformation were correct… scripture is too powerful and dangerous to let just anybody teach from it.

  • Just make sure that in seeking to master the text, we allow it to master us.

    “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness”

    “How long, O naive ones, will you love being simple-minded? … Turn to my rebuke, Behold, I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you.”

    All your heart, all your soul and all your mind. If you are capable of digging deeper, and truer into the text than you currently do – do it. Not because Heiser or I said so, but because Jesus told you to 🙂

    Regards.

  • Internet troll:
    In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory,[1] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[2] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.[3]

    This sense of the word troll and its associated verb trolling are associated with Internet discourse, and that seem to fit in this instance. And if it fits, the troll will respond..

  • This should be posted on every discussion group:

    Please DO NOT Feed the Trolls. Trolls will only stay when they are fed or given attention. So please don’t pet, respond to, or feed trolls. Doing so only results in their prolonged stay.

  • And there it is, Hamilton: the fellowship and/or the church of “right doctrine” claims your allegiance; whatever “right” doctrine means. You indeed have identified yourself as plain and simple.

  • Mr. Ramos,

    In all do respect, your replies remind me of most “Christians” I know. To put it simply, you remind me of a person who meets an individual they feel can benefit them. They love what this person can do for them. However, they really don’t care to get to know the other person.

    I am not a scholar, but I have a love for the Word of God because it tells me about the lover of my soul.

    The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is like a beautiful love story. The deeper I can get into the Word, the closer I feel toward my Lord and Savior. He speaks to us. He warns us. He draws us to Himself by His Spirit. He leads us little by little out of darkness and into the light of His Being and His kingdom. The more I seek after Him, the more He opens my eyes to see.

    If you are willing to settle only for simple basics, so be it. That is your choice. However, it makes me wonder why you would visit a site like Dr. Heiser’s. Either you visit just to find fault or perhaps you really do have a desire to know more about the lover of your soul, His kingdom and the depths of His written Word. I hope the latter is true.

    Just as a reminder, consider the following:

    Matthew 22:36-40
    “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

    Matthew 6:33
    But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

    If you can believe Christ for salvation, can you believe these words as well? And if you do believe these Words, how can you do what they say apart from getting to know God the Father and Jesus (Yehoshua) Christ in the pages if His written Word. The Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth – if we are willing.

  • Number two and three resonate with me. Asked people I respected(and their knowledge of the word) a lot of weird-off the wall questions). Number three really was born from my experiences-saved as a young teen and seemed like could not find anyone to help me learn how to understand the scriptures on my own until after high school on my own-putting in a lot of work in study to understand the scriptures. There is no magical formula or pill you can take to instantly understand the scriptures but only through faithful reading and studying over time.

Written by Michael S. Heiser
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