How the Believer and Unbeliever Critically Differ in their Study of the Bible

“I mull over the text, I pray. I meditate and exegete. I talk to my Bible, and ask questions of the text. I take notes. I think. I sweat. And then God gives me what he wants me to have.”—Warren Wiersbe

Like many things in the Christian life, the preparation and delivery of a sermon is neither solely the work of the Holy Spirit nor is it solely the work of the preacher. The former leads to mysticism and poorly prepared sermons that are more heat than light and the latter leads to sermons that are devoid of the power of God.

In order to gain a better grasp of how the Holy Spirit acts within the preparation of biblical exposition we must first recognize that any study of the text which seeks to be accurate and God empowered is a work of the Spirit which carries along the expositor in his study as much as in his delivery.

A Preliminary Distinction

Before we can launch into the working of the Spirit in the study of the Scripture by a regenerate Christian, we must understand how it is that an unbeliever can accurately study any given text and still accurately understand what the text is saying to a certain extent. By examining how this is possible, we will be able to better understand how the Christian expositor is different and how his resultant study will yield spiritual fruit. To accomplish this, it is helpful to distinguish between comprehension of a biblical text and apprehension of the Word of God.

Comprehension

Comprehension as I am using it here is the ability to gain a knowledge of the text of Scripture through the technical sciences and application of hermeneutical principles. Comprehension allows for the accurate observation of such elements as grammar, syntax, and other exegetical and linguistic features of the text, i.e. the unbelieving exegete is not prevented by the noetic effects of sin from recognizing the verb forms of a biblical passage. He may gain additional insights regarding the biblical text from his knowledge of archaeology, background, culture and a multitude of other disciplines. 

However, it must be acknowledged that the unregenerate exegete cannot come to the text in a purely “scientific” way because his presuppositions will taint his methodology and will not allow for the Bible’s claim to be the voice of God. His comprehension will be flawed and be limited as he or she seeks to understand the fact of the text in light of their intended meaning.

Apprehension

Different from a raw knowledge of the facts of a text’s features and most basic meaning is what can perhaps be referred to as “apprehension.” Apprehension would include in addition to the comprehension of the text the additional aspect of the reception of the meaning of the Word of God in heart and conscience and communicates the intention of the passage and the desired response of the Holy Spirit to those that hear the message “with ears to hear.” This apprehension may include the preacher as well as those who hear the message. Paul wrote about this reception of the Word in 1Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV) 

The contrast between the understanding of the biblical text by the unbeliever and the believer is most markedly different in the comparison of these two aspects—comprehension and apprehension. 

The inability of unredeemed men to comprehend the meaning of Scripture nor can they hear the revelation of God in any form is expressed in such passages as:

  • Romans 1:18–20—They are “truth suppressors” and cannot grasp what God has made plain, yet they are without excuse.
  • 1Cor 1:18-25; 2:14—The Word of God is “folly” (Gk. moros) to the world’s wise men. Not only are they foolishness to the natural person, but they are incapable of understanding them. 
  • Eph 4:17-19—Unbelievers are marked as living “in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding…”

This suppression, mocking and darkened understanding affects some comprehension and prohibits apprehension of the Word of God when it is studied by the unbeliever, no matter his depth of knowledge in biblical studies.

Biblical Examples of Comprehension without Apprehension

  • The murderous Jews who searched the Scriptures but could not accept Jesus as the Christ—John 5:18, 39-47
  • The indifferent chief priests and scribes who had no apparent desire to seek the Christ-child in spite of knowing some were seeking his birthplace—Matt 2:1-6
  • The ignorant, yet searching Ethiopian who studied the prophet Isaiah but could not find Christ on his own—Acts 8:26-30

The missing element that links Comprehension and joins exegesis to the heart is the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination.

Comprehension and the Work of the Preacher

“Exegetical imprecision is the mother of liberal theology. When pastors can no longer articulate and defend doctrine by a reasonable and careful appeal to the original meaning of Biblical texts, they will tend to become closed-minded traditionalists who clutch their inherited ideas, or open-ended pluralists who don’t put much stock in doctrinal formulations. In both cases the succeeding generations will be theologically impoverished and susceptible to error.”—John Piper

It is necessary to state that the necessity of Holy Spirit working through the believer for the comprehension of the biblical text does not guarantee that the interpretation of the text is the correct one. Many passages in the Bible have been a matter of debate by believers and Christian scholars for centuries. Simply because the Holy Spirit is present does not automatically mean that serious exegetical study is not required, nor that such study guarantees the outcome of that study.

However, without Spirit dependent exegesis and the careful application of hermeneutical principles, the correct understanding of any given passage of Scripture will not be able to correctly interpret the passage as the Holy Spirit intended it to the original audience then applied to the present audience being addressed.

Accuracy with the biblical text assures that the message of the Scripture is understood accurately, but the work of the Holy Spirit is not complete. He must still work to bring about the apprehension of the message he intends.

Apprehension and the Work of the Preacher

Beyond the need for proper hermeneutical principles and accurate exegesis, there is the necessity of the work of God’s Spirit. As Paul reminded the church in Corinth:

“and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:4–5, ESV)

Accompanying the words of the message there must be the Spirit and his power. A sermon that is empowered by God himself must be more than simply an accurate message, although it cannot be less. The inerrant Word will only successfully penetrate the heart when the Spirit acts.

I. Howard Marshall is correct when he writes:

“Once the sense of the text has been understood, there is the task of seeing what it has to say to a particular audience, be it the probable readers of a book or a congregation listening to a sermon. The sense of Scripture is something that can be determined with a measure of objectivity as something that is fixed; it is what the original writer intended his original readers to learn from what he wrote. The application of this to new sets of readers in new situations can be very varied. It is here that the expositor particularly feels his dependence upon the Spirit in the task of making Scripture speak again in the new situation. In a sense he is trying to repeat what the original authors had to do—to speak forth God’s Word in a way that would grip their audiences; receiving Scripture as God’s Word, he now has the task of speaking it forth so as to grip his audience. If the original authors were dependent upon the inspiration of the Spirit to do so, how much more is the modern expositor thrown back upon the guidance and illumination of the Spirit in his task?”

Conclusion

The illuminating work of the Holy Spirit refers to the Spirit-given ability to understand the Word of God as it is studied or as one considers its implications for life. Paul referred to the inability of the natural mind to understand the spiritual mind of God in 1 Corinthians: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). It is not that the unbeliever is not able to understand the bare words and thoughts of the Bible, but he cannot understand their spiritual meaning or their application to his own soul. This is best illustrated in the account of Nicodemus in John 3. Although he was a preeminent teacher of Israel, Nicodemus could not conceive of the new birth, even though Jesus condescended to teach him these things in natural pictures, relating the new birth to a human birth.

Jonathan Edwards related this to the unregenerate man having some sense of what is being referred to, but being incapable of having a total understanding of the matters of Scripture:

“The natural man discerns nothing of it (agreeable to 1 Cor. ii.14) and conceives of it no more than a man without the sense of tasting can conceive of the sweet taste of honey, or a man without the sense of hearing can conceive of the melody of a tune, or a man born blind can have a notion of the beauty of the rainbow.”

Although every believer has the ability to understand the Word of God because he has the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), the remaining effects of sin nature impede thinking and understanding. Thus, a preacher needs to be continually renewing his mind with the Word of God (Rom 12:2), asking God for clarity and understanding as he searches the Scriptures to glean its truths and apply them to his life and the lives of his hearers. 

The Pastor in His Study

The effect of illumination on the heart in preaching is two-fold. Illumination must occur as the pastor prays over Scriptures and wrestles with the text that is to be preached to his congregation. The doctrine of illumination is not meant to be pitted against the need for careful study and preparation. Millard Erickson has written that, 

“…illumination by the Holy Spirit helps the Scripture reader or hearer understand the Bible and creates the conviction that it is true and is the Word of God. This, however, should not be regarded as a substitute for the use of hermeneutical methods. These methods play a complementary, not competitive role.”

Illumination also occurs as the pastor stands in the pulpit and preaches the Word to the congregation. The words that are spoken, though they have illumined the heart and mind of the pastor in his study, will fall dead if the hearts and minds of the congregation are not also illumined by the Spirit to hear and understand. It is here that one sees most clearly the interrelatedness of the Spirit and His Word working through the Spirit-filled man of God.

John MacArthur, well known for his dedication to diligently present the Word of God, describes the necessity of illumination:

“What is our responsibility? The answer is in Ps. 119:130; “The unfolding of Thy words gives light.” God’s words are unfolded to us first by discovery. Through diligent Bible study, we unfold or unwrap God’s truth. We discover that meditation with a view to applying the truth deepens its impact. Discovery and meditation combined bring the brightest light of illumination to our hearts.”

Recognizing that the Word of God energizes the preacher and the hearer does not give pastors the right to become lazy. The Spirit most frequently works through means rather than directly in applying His Word to the human mind. Believers have been commanded to love the Lord God with their whole being, and that includes the mind (Matt 22:37). Erickson writes that even though the Spirit gives an inner testimony of the truthfulness of His Word:

“He [the Holy Spirit] creates certainty of the divine nature of Scripture by providing evidences that reason can evaluate. He also gives understanding of the text through the exegete’s work of interpretation. Even Calvin, with his strong emphasis on the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, called attention to the indicia of the credibility of the Scripture, and in his commentaries used the best of classical scholarship to get at the meaning of the Bible. Thus, the exegete and the apologist will use the very best methods and data, but will do so with a reiterated prayer for the Holy Spirit to work through these means.”

The Use and Abuse of Quotes in Your Sermon

Illustrations have been described as windows that add light into the sermon in order to illuminate abstract truths. If that is true, and I believe it is, then quotes are a good tool to have in your sermon arsenal. Except when they aren’t. Quotes can be used effectively, and they can be abused in the worst way. I want to point out the proper and improper uses of quotes in a sermon.

Good Uses of Quotes

Here are 6 reasons to use a good quote would be appropriate:

  1. Artistry: The writer says something more beautifully than you can say it yourself.
  2. Clarity: The writer makes the point clearer than you can.
  3. Impact: The writer says something in a powerful way to make your point.
  4. Pithiness: The writer says something in a memorable and “catchy” way.
  5. Depth: The writer says something with a profundity that you can’t seem to say yourself.
  6. Interesting: The writer says something that draws interest or excites the imagination.

Poor Uses of Quotes

Here are 8 reason you ought to think twice before using that quote in your next sermon:

  1. Quotes that are too good not to share, even though they have nothing to do with the main idea of your sermon. Just because you like it, don’t squeeze it in.
  2. Quotes that are not short and to the point. Two page quotes from a Puritan in old English aren’t helpful unless you are trying to help someone fall asleep.
  3. Quotes that are only an interest to a very specific audience. Just because you love reading Wallace’s Greek Grammar doesn’t mean you should quote from it.
  4. Quotes that you have to explain after you read it. It’s like a joke–if you have to explain it, it’s not funny.
  5. Quotes that can be stated in your own words easily.
  6. Quotes that are meant to carry a sense of authority, i.e., “The great theologian so-and-so says…” The Scripture should be our authority. Quotes of men may bring clarity, but they should not bear the weight of authority to prove our point.
  7. Quotes that you cannot verify or find the source. If we proclaim the truth, we shouldn’t be using quotes that may be false.
  8. Quotes that are shocking and controversial. This isn’t because they don’t work, but because they do. This type of quote might just derail your sermon if your audience does not recover from the shocking quote bomb you let loose.

How to Use Bible Commentaries More Effectively

Commentaries are a huge blessing to those who study the Bible. From them we can glean from the years of hard study of thousands of Christians who have come before us. Their knowledge of culture, language, grammar, background information, and theology can fill out our understanding of the biblical writers. For pastors, Bible students, and scholars, Bible commentaries act as a check on their own study, allowing them to see if they are coming to similar conclusions as those who have studied the same passage. This helps to make sure that our own conclusions aren’t going off in a direction that might lead to error, or even worse. But there are a wide variety of commentaries out there, and it is often difficult even for those trained in seminary to know which to use and when to use it. I thought it would be helpful to describe each type of commentary commonly available, how it is helpful, and then what order I use commentaries to best help me develop my sermons and Bible studies.

Like a lot of Christians, my first experiences with Bible commentaries were mixed. Some seemed to be written in a foreign language, even when they were written in English. They were so complicated and hard to understand that they were frustrating and useless to me. Others were understandable, but they often read like sermons. This made them enjoyable to read, but they often skipped over large portions or failed to explain the one verse I was needing help with!

Later, after attending seminary, I learned that there are different categories of commentaries for different purposes. And I learned an incredibly important lesson: commentaries should be used after I have done my own study. The temptation can be to take a great teacher’s study and sermon outline from their commentary and teach or preach it as if it was my own. Not only is that unethical, it robs you of the blessing of encountering the Word for yourself when you do the hard work of studying.

To help myself, I came up with a simple system of when to read the types of commentaries I use in a specific order. I’ll give you that system a little later, but first I think it would be helpful for me to lay out some of the different types of commentaries out there. This will help you know what you already own, their strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully it will give you a better idea of what you should buy the next time you purchase a new commentary.

Types of Commentaries [1]

  1. Devotional-These commentaries are written for the average Christian and are heavy with application. They are broad in scope, meaning they cover a lot of Bible in a little space. Often, they are a short book written to cover a whole Bible book. Warren Wiersbe’s “Be” series and J. Vernon McGee’s Thru the Bible Commentaries are of this kind.
  2. Expositional-These commentaries are based upon the preaching of a particular pastor’s sermons. They may or may not be heavily edited, but they often include coverage of a preaching portion: illustrations, application, and explanation of the text. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series and James Montgomery Boice’s commentaries are good examples of this type.
  3. Exegetical– These commentaries rely upon the original languages of the biblical text, and aid the Bible student in understanding the significance of the language, grammar, and syntax. Additionally, the exegetical commentary will give large sections of study to introductory matters, translational issues, contextual matters, and interpretive challenges. Although useful without the knowledge of biblical languages, they are most helpful to those who have a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. The Hendriksen New Testament Commentary set and Word Biblical Commentaries are representative of this type of commentary.
  4. Critical/Technical– As far as traditional commentaries go, these are the most specialized. These commentaries deal with original languages, biblical manuscripts, and many other issues that are important to biblical scholars. Many (although not all) of the contributors to these commentaries are theologically liberal, and they are usually very expensive, although they often contain gold when the student knows how to use them profitably. Some examples of these commentaries would include the International Critical Commentary (ICC) series and Hermeneia Commentaries.
  5. Background-Normally biblical background information is included in most commentaries, but there are some commentaries that focus on this aspect in a commentary format (using book, chapters, and verses divisions). An example would be the IVP Bible Background Commentary.

So, how do I choose which commentary to use first, and does it really matter?

My System for Choosing Which Commentary To Use First

After I have studied the passage for myself, I usually will have several questions and observations about the text. But because of my study, I will have a good general understanding of the main idea. If this is the case, I will choose commentaries from the above categories and read them in this order:

  1. Critical/Technical
  2. Exegetical
  3. Background
  4. Expositional
  5. Devotional

I may not read any commentaries in categories 4 and 5 (Expositional and Devotional) every time. I’ll explain in a moment why.

The reason I begin with the harder and more technical commentaries and move toward the easier and more popular ones is because when I turn to my commentaries I am still wrestling with the text and any unanswered questions. I want to find the answers for myself from my work with the language, grammar, and syntax. If I move too fast to the expositional commentaries, I will be tempted to adopt the interpretation of the writer. And since they are human, they might be wrong. Until I have answered these questions for myself and my interaction with the biblical text, I need help with exegesis before moving on to interpretation.

After I have successfully understood the hardest ideas in the text, I move to the next level of commentaries. The expositional commentaries will help me understand how another pastor has preached and outlined the text I am studying, and a devotional commentary will show me how it has been illustrated and applied. If I understand the text well enough, application and illustration may begin to form easily for me and I won’t need to look at the devotional or expositional commentaries I have.

So, why not flip the order? Because I consider it “cheating” for me, since I will be given an explanation, outline, illustrations, and applications of a passage that I did not myself discover for myself. Additionally and most importantly, I am not trusting the Bible and the Spirit to inform my study, but instead am giving another human author a great amount of influence in my understanding of the Bible. When I teach the Bible, I want to have the confidence to say, “Thus says the Lord” because I have done the hard labor of study. If I cheat and simply read the fruit of someone else’s study, then I am not truly being a biblical expositor; I am simply a parrot.

But there is one exception to my rule when I will actually begin with either an expositional commentary or a devotional commentary. That is when I have studied the text in-depth for myself and I am left completely without a clue as to how I would preach or teach this particular text. I may understand the words, sentences, and paragraphs, but how I can teach this particular passage has stumped me. At this point, I will choose a faithful devotional or expositional commentary and read the section I am studying. This will usually help me see how the author taught it and clarifies for me the main idea to teach. At this point, I stop reading and begin going through the list as I gave it above, beginning with the more technical commentaries and moving down the list.

I don’t necessarily think that this method is the only way of using commentaries, but it works for me and helps guard my heart against taking the route which might cause me to shortcut my study. What about you? How have you used commentaries that have helped your study? What are your favorites and why? If you have any followup questions about how I use commentaries, let me know. I’d love to help.

Footnote:

[1] I’ve added the Amazon.com links to each of these commentary series’ to help you identify them. I have done this for reference only and don’t necessarily endorse everything in them. Also, I don’t gain anything from you purchasing a book through the link. Shop around, you might find great deals elsewhere. More money saved means more money for books!

Premillennialism and Consistency in Hermeneutics-Walvoord

The debate between premillenarians and other millenarians hangs to a large extent upon the principles of interpretation of Scripture which each group employs. This is commonly recognized by all parties. The amillenarian Albertus Pieters states, “The question whether the Old Testament prophecies concerning the people of God must be interpreted in their ordinary sense, as other Scriptures are interpreted, or can properly be applied to the Christian Church, is called the question of spiritualization of prophecy. This is one of the major problems in biblical interpretation, and confronts everyone who makes a serious study of the Word of God. It is one of the chief keys to the difference of John Walvoordopinion between Premillenarians and the mass of Christian scholars. The former reject such spiritualization, the latter employ it; and as long as there is no agreement on this point the debate is interminable and fruitless.”3 In principles of interpretation the crux of the controversy is revealed.

The premillennial position is that the Bible should be interpreted in its ordinary grammatical and historical meaning in all areas of theology unless contextual or theological reasons make it clear that this was not intended by the writer. Amillenarians use the literal method in theology as a whole but spiritualize Scripture whenever its literal meaning would lead to the premillennial viewpoint. This is obviously a rather subjective principle and open to manipulation by the interpreter to sustain almost any system of theology. The conservative amillenarian claims to confine spiritualization to the field of prophecy and interpret other Scriptural revelation literally. Thus a conservative amillenarian would accept literally passages teaching the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the resurrection of Christ, and similar doctrines. They would denounce as heretics anyone who would tamper with these fundamental doctrines—as Origen, the father of amillenarianism, most certainly did. Conservative amillenarians would, however, feel perfectly justified in proceeding to spiritualize passages speaking of a future righteous government on earth, of Israel’s regathering to Palestine, and of Christ reigning literally upon the earth for a thousand years. Their justification is that these doctrines are absurd and impossible and that therefore they must be spiritualized. The wish is father of the interpretation, therefore, and amillennial interpretation of Scripture abundantly illustrates this.

-You can read the whole journal article at http://walvoord.com/article/150