Comprehensive Study Techniques
"The Whole Counsel of God"
by Dave Brown
The scriptural basis for this article comes primarily from the word "every" in the following response of Jesus to Satan when Satan was trying Jesus to turn the stones into bread. Matthew 4:4: "But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God."
Jesus knew, for example, that the Sadducees, who taught error about life after physical death, could cherry-pick certain verses to convince others of their pet doctrine (e.g., Eccl. 9:10); this despite the fact that there is strong evidence of life after death in other verses of that same book (e.g., Eccl. 12.7). It should be no surprise that Satan and those who serve his cause would take verses out of context and misuse them to upset the faith of the weak. Read Jesus' entire temptation in Matthew 4 and see how Satan attempted to do just that.
The apostle Paul also indicated the necessity for a comprehensive view of God's word in his sermon to the elders at Ephesus; Acts 20:27: "For I shrank not from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God."
The bible is not like an encyclopedia or a rule book -- all of the information on a given topic is not in one place. It would not be nearly as effective in communicating God's truth if this were the case. If we believe that the bible is God's will for mankind today, then we have to believe that He revealed it in such a way that it would be as effective as possible in communicating to us.
So then, how can we get the whole picture? This depends on our objective. Questions: (1) Are we trying to learn everything that we can from the bible?, or (2) Are we trying to resolve some particular issue or learning more about a single topic? The approach will be different depending upon our answer to these questions. Let's consider them individually.
Increasing Our Knowledge in General. Whether you are just starting out or are someone who has studied the bible in depth throughout the years, you can learn from a comprehensive approach to the bible. We recommend that you begin with the New Testament, since this is the dispensation of God's word that we are under today. We are not marginalizing the importance of Old Testament study -- a knowledge of the Old Testament is critical to a full understanding of the New Testament. However, it is a matter of priorities with our time, especially for those who are just staring out.
Begin your study of the New Testament with one of the gospels, and then systematically proceed through the book of Acts, the epistles and finally on to the book of Revelation. This will start with the milk (in general), and get more into the meat as you go along. There will be a few places where you may need help. For these we recommend that you seek assistance from someone that you trust who is honest and faithful to God's word. Be sure that they have total confidence that the bible is the word of God, and that they have studied it faithfully over the years. In the absence of such help, or to augment it, we would recommend a good commentary. A good rule when using a commentary is to never trust it for your initial impression. Always read the verse and the context first for yourself, and come to some conclusion as to what is being stated. Do not let the commentary lead you -- use it only for reference purposes. Remember, "let God be found true, but every man a liar" (Rom. 3:4), whether it be a preacher or a commentary. The final authority is God's word.
Try to understand each verse, and feel confident that you understand it, before going on to the next verse. Do not read it over lightly and think that you understand it. It it essential, not that you just hear it, but that you listen to it intently. It is the mind of God. Let it into your heart. Meditate upon it. Give it time.
You might only be able to study one chapter a day this way -- perhaps not even that. Set your course for the long term. A month from now you will begin to recognize your progress. A year from now you will have a good feel for the entire New Testament, and this will be excellent background for continuing on, At that point you might consider some Old Testament books or perhaps another one of the gospels. We will not be concerned about that right now, since we are convinced once you get there you will know where to go from there.
One way to retain knowledge of where things are in the New Testament is to assign a subject to each chapter. This can be facilitated by the subject headings at the top of each page in most bibles. Don't be afraid to mark your bible up. Later you can leaf through these chapters and try to recall the chapter subjects before you turn the page to them, You will soon know where most of the key subjects are in the New Testament so that you can easily turn to them when they are needed. It helps to stick with the same bible when teaching so to make it easier to remember where various subjects and key verses are.
Particular Issues or Topics. How can we study a particular issue comprehensively? It is not difficult with some of the tools that we have available to us today. For example, a concordance can easily generate most of the passages that deal with a given subject. You will need to come up with a good list of keywords on the subject. Certain computer packages and tools available on the Internet lend themselves to this. We must be careful in our attempt to be comprehensive that we consider all of the alternatives. For example, if doing a topical study on baptism, it would be necessary to enter the words baptize, baptized, baptizes, baptizing, baptism, etc. (bapt will get them all in some systems). Compile a list of all of the concordance references, and if you have a bible that has cross references, you might add the referenced verses to the list. The objective is to find every possible reference to and anything related to your subject, in order to find all that the the bible says on that subject. As you go through this list of passages patterns will become clear, and a preponderance of scriptural evidence will emerge to produce the full truth on this topic. Do not accept anyone else's conclusion until you do the complete study yourself.
Once a basic knowledge of the New Testament has been attained using the comprehensive approach discussed above for "Increasing Our Knowledge in General," it will be possible to rapidly scan through the New Testament looking for anything related to the topic. This approach has the advantage of not relying on any set of key words, since sometimes some aspect of a subject will be mentioned without referencing a keyword. However, we recommend that both methods be applied -- start with the concordance and follow up with your own scan of the entire New Testament. It does not take long to do.
A great blessing to scanning in this way is that you will pick up a lot of knowledge of biblical subjects that are not directly related to the topic. And, every time you scan the bible in this way you will further reinforce your knowledge of where everything is.
Will you find contradictions? There are no contradictions in the bible, but there are many passages that might seem to contradict. While the Holy Spirit inspired it all, great latitude was given to the writers, and often the same topic will appear where the authors had different objectives. Consider who is being written to, their backgrounds, the problem being addressed and perhaps the local meanings being given to certain words. If we do this it is usually not very hard to harmonize verses or passages that on the surface seem to contradict.
In summary, the objective is to master all that the bible says on any given subject so that we are not led astray by those who would take verses out of context. The techniques presented here are consistent with the statements made by our Lord and the apostle Paul to consider all that God has said in drawing our conclusions. But there may be other methods that facilitate comprehensive bible study as well. The technique is not important; what is important is that we avail ourselves of the entire bible, and that we consider the "whole counsel of God" when drawing conclusions on any biblical topic.
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