Scripture Reading: Acts 8:26–35
Have you ever felt that way? The way the Ethiopian eunuch felt as he was reading the Bible? He had his Bible open to Isaiah 53. He read it. But he couldn’t understand it!
Has that ever happened to you? You’re around the dinner table. After eating, your father opens the Bible and reads a passage. Then he asks some questions. Is it the case that you’ve ever said, “I don’t know what it means”? Or you’re in Young People’s Society. After reading the scripture passage, your young people’s leader begins to ask questions about the passage. Maybe you feel stumped. Is it the case that you’ve ever said or thought, “I don’t know what it means. It means what it says!”? That’s something we all can relate to because it’s happened to all of us at one point or another in our lives.
But we don’t want that to happen! We want to open the Bible in school and at home and in the Bible society, and we want to understand what it means. After all, these are the holy scriptures we’re talking about: the revelation of God unto us in Jesus Christ our savior! Herein is contained truth. You know no truth at all unless you know Jesus, for Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The Holy Spirit says concerning scripture, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The Bible, as the object of our study, is from beginning to end the revelation of our Savior and the work he set out to do and accomplish to save us from our sins and bring us to glory. Therefore how important is the Bible! And how needful it is for us to understand it!
The theme for this article is “A Crash Course on How to Study the Bible.” It’s not easy. It takes work. But with time and diligent study, and through much prayer, God will give you that deeper understanding of the Bible that you so crave. We take our cue from this history of the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8.
Please keep in mind, the list that follows on how to study the Bible is by no means exhaustive. It is simple. It is basic. It is designed so that you may take this list and go to any passage of the Bible and apply it, and by God’s grace study the Bible and profit from it.
- READ the Bible.
In the first place, and probably the most important; something so simple, and yet so profound; something that’s so easy to do, and yet at times it becomes a chore to do it; this is so very important in your study of the Bible—you have to READ the Bible! That’s what the Ethiopian eunuch was doing. He was reading the Bible. You will not be able to study the Bible, let alone understand it, if you do not read the Bible.
There are no excuses here for any of us. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like to read. You must read the Bible! I am not only referring to the time you read the Bible as a family around the dinner table; not only referring to the reading of the Bible in church twice every Sunday. Yes, those times of scripture reading are important. But I have in mind when it’s just you sitting down and reading the Bible whenever that has to be, whether in the morning before you go to school, at night before you go to bed, or better yet, even multiple times throughout the day. But YOU have to set aside time every single day and read the Bible and have your own personal devotions.
You may not say, “But I don’t have time.” I suppose the Ethiopian eunuch could have said that too. “I don’t have time to read the Bible. I’m a man of great authority! I have so many responsibilities being in charge of all the queen’s finances, and I’ve got to get back to Ethiopia and get back to work.” I daresay the Ethiopian eunuch was much busier than any of us are. Yet what was the case for him? He found the time. He made the time to stop and take a break from his labor. He rested for a bit and read the Bible even in the midst of his busy schedule.
How do you study the Bible? First, you’ve got to read the Bible.
- A Desire to Understand
Second, when you read the Bible, you have to desire to understand what you read. It doesn’t do you any good if you read the Bible not exerting yourself to understand it and lacking the desire to comprehend the words you read.
Sometimes that happens to us. Have you ever opened a book and started reading a paragraph or two, maybe an entire page, then suddenly come to the realization, “I have no clue what I just read!”? Perhaps you were tired. Maybe your mind was elsewhere. One thing is certain—your desire to understand what you were reading was lacking. And for all the words you read, it simply never processed in your brain. Why? Because you got off on the wrong foot. You didn’t have the desire to understand. Similarly, when you read the Bible, you have to desire to understand what you read.
Isn’t that true with the Ethiopian eunuch? When he was reading Isaiah 53 he was thinking about the words he read. You can see him sitting in his chariot, and his mind was working! He was pondering the word of God. He was trying to understand it. And for that matter, that was the concern of Philip too. Philip approaches him and says, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” Philip was very concerned that the man was not only reading but understanding what he was reading. That ought to be our approach to the Bible: reading, but reading with knowledge and understanding.
- Asking The Right Questions
In the third place, closely connected with the desire to understand what you read, in order to study the Bible profitably, you have to ask the right questions about the passage.
The danger is that you start asking the wrong questions: questions that may be somewhat relevant to the passage, but questions that really only distract and lead you away from the true meaning of the passage. For example, consider Job 40 and 41. In these two chapters God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind. God teaches Job, and us, of two great creatures—behemoth and leviathan. Usually the question we ask right away is, “What is the identity of these two creatures?” Some of the answers (or shall I say, speculations) you might hear are as follows. Behemoth—“It’s an elephant! No, it’s a hippopotamus! No, it’s definitely a brontosaurus!” With regard to leviathan, “A blue whale! No, it was a giant crocodile! No, it was some ancient sea creature!” Now, there is a place for that kind of a question and discussion. But my point is this: if that’s the only kind of question you ask about Job 40 and 41, “What kind of creatures are these?” then you’re missing the whole point! The right questions would be, “What is God’s purpose in speaking about these great creatures? Why would God so impress upon Job so many details about these creatures?” If you want to get at the meaning of a passage, you have to ask the right questions.
Consider the Ethiopian eunuch. He didn’t get sidetracked with wrong questions. He asked a good question. “Philip, who is the prophet Isaiah speaking of? ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.’ Is the prophet speaking this of himself, or of another?” That’s a good question! It gets to the heart of the passage.
And you can never go wrong when you ask questions that have to do with Jesus. “What does this passage teach me about Jesus? What does it teach me about his obedience, about his suffering, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, his coming again on the clouds of glory? What does this passage teach concerning a particular blessing of salvation Jesus merited for me on the cross?” The key to profitable Bible study is to ask the right questions.
- Compare Scripture with Scripture.
In the fourth place, in order to study the Bible you need to go to other places in scripture. Compare scripture with scripture.
That’s what Philip did with the eunuch in Acts 8:35. “Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.” Notice, he began at the same scripture (Isaiah 53), implying that Philip also went to other passages of scripture: went to other passages in Isaiah that spake of the Messiah, then perhaps went to Moses, then went to the psalms and to the other prophets. What Philip did was the same thing Jesus did with the travelers to Emmaus. “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Philip did the same thing. He went to many other places in scripture to help explain and interpret Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian eunuch.
This means that when you’re having a difficult time understanding a passage, go to other passages that shed some light on the one you’re studying. That’s what we call comparing scripture with scripture. Let scripture interpret itself. Don’t try to come up with some unique and novel understanding of a text. But always ask yourself, “Does what I think this passage teaches fit with the rest of scripture? Does it fit with the teaching of the rest of the Bible?”
To help you compare scripture with scripture, it’s very helpful to have a Bible with cross-referencing. The cross-references will point you to parallel passages, to other passages where the same word is used, to passages where the same doctrine is taught. If you don’t already have a Bible with cross –references, I would advise you to invest in one that does. In order to study the Bible, you must compare scripture with scripture.
- Get Help.
So you’ve performed steps one through four, and yet you’re still having difficulty understanding a passage. Now is the time you get help! That’s what the Ethiopian eunuch did. He read the Bible and tried to understand it. He was asking the right questions. But he still had a hard time of it. God sent Philip to help him in his study. And Philip explained what the passage meant and made clear its meaning.
When you’re having difficulty ascertaining the meaning of a passage, don’t be hesitant to seek help. You may seek the help of commentaries. What did John Calvin have to say about this passage? What did Rev. Herman Hoeksema write about this verse? You can ask your minister. Ask your elders. You can search in old volumes of The Standard Bearer or Beacon Lights for commentaries on particular verses. The Spirit of God has worked in the church of the past, and we do wrong if we would not stand on the shoulders of others. The Ethiopian eunuch received help in his study of the Bible, and so may we.
However, don’t get this one out of order. I have this listed at number five. Do not put this at number two, so that first you read the Bible and then instantly resort to the commentary without even bothering to try to understand it for yourself. That’s when somebody reads a passage and says, “Well, I read it. Now is the time for me to get help, and somebody else must tell me what it means.” That’s the wrong order!
I think that happens too often in our circles, where there isn’t enough critical thinking taking place first, and a person says, “Just give me the answer! Just tell me what the passage means!” And nowadays we have study Bibles—study Bibles with the Bible on the top half of the page and a commentary on the bottom half. Yes, they are very good and worthwhile commentaries. But do you see what the temptation is? The temptation is that I read the Bible passage on the top of the page, and I go right down to the commentary without even thinking about it for myself first.
So when you’re studying the Bible, there comes a time and a place when you may seek help. But don’t seek that help too quickly and without doing some of the hard work yourself first.
Last, in order to study the Bible, you need to pray. I have this listed at the end, but it’s something that has to happen at the beginning too. Really, it ought to be interspersed throughout all your studying of the Bible. If you will ever be a serious student of scripture, you must be a man, a woman, of prayer. You have to acknowledge before God that unless God reveals the scriptures unto you, you will know nothing. Therefore pray unto God that he will open your mind, that he will open the scriptures, that you may be given the Holy Spirit, and that the Spirit would lead you in your study of God’s word.
A crash course on how to study the Bible. A few simple, basic steps we learn right here from Acts 8. Follow these steps and discover from God’s word treasures both old and new.
Originally published in September 2019 Vol 78 No 9