Understandest Thou What Thou Readeth?
Written by Randy L. Mabe
Sunday, 22 February 2009 19:18


Acts 8:30

It is a pleasure to work with this good congregation again to promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The vision of the elders is borne by the diligence of your efforts in conjunction with your preacher. You are to be commended and highly praised.

The question assigned me is found in the context of Acts 8:26-39. This text is read at every baptism at the Boulevard Church of Christ in Las Vegas. This is done for the clarity of its content and to fix the minds of everyone on the event at hand. It is powerful for the candidate to fully realize that he/she is doing exactly what people did in the first century to become a Christian. The question, Understandest thou what thou readest?, defines the basis for the decision to be baptized, understanding the knowledge gained in the study of the Bible. In most every case that candidate has been guided, helped, instructed in the Word of God to arrive at this knowledge and understanding. It is the time to ask more questions and get more instruction if there is any doubt on the part of the candidate. They are encouraged in knowing that they are following this Bible example of conversion without any addition or subtraction. Their joy is full and they realize that it is good to rejoice in the Lord as the Ethiopian did in the long ago.

Preachers and teachers are always trying to improve methods that will quickly and efficiently bring understanding to a student as they acquire knowledge through the study of God’s Word. It is my observation over many years in this search that nothing replaces making a diligent effort in a direct study of God’s Word. This is God’s command, Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2Tim.2:15 ). The American Standard Version 1901 says to give diligence. Many people read many books about the Bible, commentaries on the Bible and rarely get around to reading and studying the Bible! The Ethiopian was reading the text of the Bible. He was reading from the prophet Isaiah, known to us as chapter 53.

We can see that reading the Bible does not automatically ensure an understanding of the text read. The Bible has some difficult, and easy, material to learn. The Apostle Peter makes this plain: And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:15-16). The Ethiopian was confused concerning the person the text centered upon. This is a primary consideration to understanding any text. We don’t know for sure why the Ethiopian was confused. Sometimes it is hard for us to understand why he would be confused when the text is so plain to us. Remember it is plain to us because we have studied it! Placing ourselves in the Ethiopian’s time frame helps us to understand his dilemma. He had no knowledge, of which we know, that Jesus had established His church. He was traveling to Jerusalem to worship under Judaism. The Book of Isaiah chapter 53 is written in the prophetic future tense which appears to us as the past tense in our language. In the Greek it is written in the perfect tense indicating a completed action. But it is speaking of one to come in the future to the time of Isaiah’s writing. Yet Jesus had come in fulfillment to Isaiah’s writing from the Ethiopian’s time reference. Thus the Ethiopian asks who the text is about, Isaiah or someone else? Philip becomes the Ethiopian’s guide to understanding the passage at hand. He is a good guide in that he started at the very text that had the Ethiopian confused and continued the study to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of the same text. He is a good instructor in that he used the opportunity to continue the study of Jesus so the Ethiopian could choose to become a Christian, thus saving his soul.

I have refined a study guide to help me and others as we study the Bible. It will help us to understand what we read. At the very least it will clarify the real questions that we need to ask a guide when we fail to understand. These few points will enhance anyone’s study of the Bible. The points in this guide will enable you to approach the Bible with confidence. Remember that God said we shall know the truth (John 8:32).

The first point is to approach a text as if it were your first time to read it. We have many factors that influence our Bible study, some for the good and some that hinder us. A preconceived view may hinder you from seeing the truth that is actually in the text. It is also possible that we have been taught wrong. The Bible will teach us correctly. We must exercise ourselves to exegete, read out of the text what exists in the text. We must never eisegete, read into the text what we think exists in the text. Allow the Bible to speak without undue filtering through our accepted beliefs. Peter missed one of the main points of the sermon he preached on Pentecost in Acts 2 for this very reason. He preached that this was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2. He quoted the prophecy that whosoever called upon the name of the Lord would be saved. Yet his Jewish heritage filtered the message to say, to him, that whosoever of the Jews that called upon the Lord would be saved. He has to be shown a vision three times in the future and be sent to the Gentiles to preach this same message before he realizes that the Gospel is for all, just like he preached on Pentecost (Acts 10:1-17, 34)! Notice that God’s Word did not change because Peter did not assess it correctly. Peter had to change to a correct assessment and understanding of what God said.

The next point is to stake out a complete text for your study and write it down at the top of your study page. Many times people are confused in their Bible reading because they read incomplete thoughts, portions of texts. It would be like Mom cooking using only portions of the recipe. Read thoroughly to define the beginning and the end of the text that you want to study. Then study this text as a whole, the sum of its parts. When you write the complete text at the top of the page you can then organize this study with others in a notebook in Biblical order. If sometime future you have questions about the same text, we do forget, you can quickly reference the study you have made instead of having to repeat this study process in its entirety.

The next step in this study process is to ascertain who is speaking in the text. Remember that God is the author of the Bible. An inspired writer has written the book your text is in. Yet the one speaking in the text may be someone else and not inspired. Understanding who the speaker is will help you understand the text. Write this information on your study paper.

Next find out the recipient of the message. Who is being addressed? It may be a single person, or a group of people, or many groups of people each distinct from the others. Write down each one addressed in the text and a statement of fact about each one. This will give a broader base of understanding how they receive this message and their response to it.

Now you need to consider the circumstance that led to this discussion. Sometimes you can find this information within your text. Other times you must go the greater context, reading before or after the verses contained in your immediate text. It may be that you need to read a couple of chapters or, in the case of smaller books, the entire book. When the stage is properly set in your mind in which the discussion takes place you will readily see influences bearing on the text that casual readers almost always miss. These will promote greater understanding of your text. Be sure and write the result of each point on your study paper. This will help you reflect upon all the information at a glance. It keeps all points fresh in your mind so that you can reason properly.

The next two steps are very important. You must be very honest with yourself at this point. Accept the fact that you are ignorant at this point. This means that there are things you do not know. If you cover this fact with pride you will remain ignorant. You will overcome ignorance only by recognizing what you do not know and by setting out to find the answers. Read the entire text and make a list of every word of which you do not know the meaning on your study paper. Write down every word about which you have any doubt.

In like manner, read the entire text again and make a list of every phrase that you do not fully understand. This may be due to the usage such a long time ago, the manner of wording, or a variety of reasons. Be very honest in this assessment.

Now return to your list of words of which you did not fully know the meaning. You will now look these words up in a dictionary and write down the meaning on your study paper. Use a modern dictionary only if that is all the resource you have. This will prove to be inadequate in many cases. This is due to the attributes of a living language. Words in English will change meaning in time. In the 1600’s the word prevent actually had as its primary meaning the thought ‘to precede’. The modern dictionary will define prevent, to keep from happening. See the difference this makes in the text of First Thessalonians 4:15! You need to buy, borrow or check out of the church library a Bible dictionary. These deal with Bible words in their correct time frame and original language to clearly set forth the correct definitions. It is also the case that our English words are broader in definition than in other languages. Our word love covers a lot of definitions depending on the context in which it is used. I love my wife, children and dog in different ways but I will use the same word for each. The Greek language has a word for each kind of love under consideration. A Bible dictionary will sometimes tell you which is the proper word and its definition that has been translated in your specific verse. You can even learn to use an analytical lexicon in the original language that will get even more specific and give more information that will bear on the text. The point is to find the proper definitions of the words that you did not know and write them down on your study page. It is much easier to do this work one time and save it in an organized way!

You can probably guess the next step. Go back to your list of phrases of which you did not fully know the meaning. Now you will find help in understanding these in a variety of sources. The first will be to use a Bible concordance to try and find other occurrences of these words or similar phrases. They will help you to understand the usage in your immediate context. Computer Bible programs are excellent tools for this kind of search. In just seconds all occurrences can be before you ready for your investigation. These programs also contain many reference works, commentaries, dictionaries, lexicons for your immediate use. Then you may consult commentaries on the Bible. Beware! Remember that commentaries are only what uninspired men think the passages mean. You will often find disagreements on the same verse or phrase in different commentaries. The key is to consult many commentaries on your verse and phrase. You are looking for insight as to the usage and meaning. You are not wanting any one commentator to explain the phrase fully. You will be the one to decide that matter by the evidence you have gleaned in this process. This is to be your faith! It is also helpful to read your phrase in many English translations of the Bible. Do not be afraid to use them all in comparative study! The New International Version and others make very poor translations for your main study Bible, but they are useful in a comparative study to give ideas in shades of meaning and a different perspective to consider in your study. Write down all pertinent information on your study paper.

The time has now come to complete your inductive method of study. You have gathered the evidence that you need to understand the passage. Now you can analyze all this evidence. Keep that evidence that is in keeping with the context and discard the evidence that disagrees with the context. An important rule to remember is that the context determines usage. Place the definitions of the words in place of the words in the text. The proper definition will not drastically change the meaning of the sentence or thought in which it is found. The same is true for the phrases you investigated. Let the context determine usage. Analyze thought by thought, line by line, phrase by phrase and word by word.

The last step is to deduce the proper meaning of your text through your analyzing of the evidence gathered in all the steps. You will do this by writing the text in your own words and comparing it to the Biblical text. Write an expanded version of your text in your own words. Use all the information that provides clarity to you concerning this text in your expanded version. This could make your expanded version quite long but that is acceptable. Remember you are providing clarity for yourself on this text not only for the present time but also the future. Compare your finished expanded version to the Biblical text. They must agree. Remember it is the Bible that is correct – always. If there is disharmony between your expanded text and the Bible it is your text that is incorrect. If your expanded version is in agreement with the evidence and the Biblical text but disagrees with your previous belief on the text – accept the truth you have discovered regardless of who taught you before. God is right.

I did not promise you an easy way of effective Bible study. In fact I know of none. But I have provided you an effective way of Bible study. Yes, it takes great effort. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it is fruitful. You may have many years to study the Bible. Using this process and keeping the results in an organized notebook will become a treasure that you can pass to your family as an inheritance worth more than silver and gold. Just think of the great benefit if every person compiled such a notebook during their life of study and left it to others on their passing into eternity. God’s Word does not change nor pass away. Our studies through the generations can be a great dialogue upon the scriptures though many already be dead. Their thoughts, studies and works could live on. These books would stand as living memorials as to the perceived importance of the Bible in daily living and the deep study of the Bible as of the utmost importance to our education and welfare to the coming generations. I read recently of a man who now is 80 years old. His obligation in the family has been to stand his watch protecting the family fruit cake. That fruit cake was made by a known ancestor 125 years ago! Every member of the family that was chosen to protect and deliver the fruit cake to successive generations have held their office in high esteem. Their names have been recorded and their service commended in that the fruit cake is preserved. This man will now choose another to protect and deliver this fruit cake to the generation to come future as he will soon die. Family members anxiously await his decision as to the person that will get this great honor. There may even be some politics involved, who knows? One thing is for certain: This fruit cake is important to this family! How much greater would it be to pass down the family Bible and a great notebook of study notes on all of its passages by many generations now past. This treasure would show the Bible to be important to the family and demand others study and record evidence in this great study book. Yet the Bible is the real treasure. It demands that you study to show yourself approved before God. Get started now. Remember to be as wise as the Ethiopian to recognize when you need someone to guide you. Choose someone qualified by a respect for and great knowledge of the Bible. God will provide for you as he did the Ethiopian. Remember to pray for wisdom to utilize the knowledge you gain in Bible study. James 1:5 says that He will provide this to you abundantly. He will not mock you overcoming your ignorance. He will sustain you in your efforts. God is not willing that any should perish (2 Pet.3:9). God wants all men, you, to come to a working, saving knowledge of the truth (1 Tim.2:4).

Elders, you are charged with feeding the flock of God. Do you provide a library at the church building for your members to use? Many hungry Bible students cannot individually afford reference books and tools they would happily use if provided them. A well stocked and maintained church library is invaluable to these students. A computer with a good Bible research program installed would open up new worlds of study for some students. An internet connection gives access to such great websites as www.oabs.org and www.christiancourier.com. Debates, lectureships, Bible Schools, Magazines, articles, gospel meetings all archived for on-demand use at the click of a button. A good supply of appropriate commentaries, concordances, lexicons, cultural background studies, Christian evidence books, video tapes, audio tapes and such like would potentially strengthen your congregation by leaps and bounds. This would lessen your work as people studied and lived the Christian life with confidence. Problems would decrease, evangelism would increase. This has been a magnificent asset to our congregation. It would be to yours. We are so fortunate to live in our age when we have so many great reference resources and so much time in which to use them. To have been educated to read and reason making us ready to study these works. It is a shame to not provide them for all to have access. These resources are not readily available in our public libraries. What is provided may not be the best selection of material for young Bible students to use. Stocking your own library in the church building would give you control to provide proper materials in a location central to all members.

Let us all be encouraged to read, study and obey the Bible all our lives. We will be called on to answer questions for others, let us be ready (1 Pet.3:15). We will be called upon to defend the faith, let us be ready (Jude 3; Eph.6:13-18). We will be called upon to give answer at judgment, let us be ready (Mat.25:31-46).

Randy L. Mabe

4000 W. Oakey Boulevard

Las Vegas, Nevada