Attack of the Cult-Callers:

It’s happened over and over again throughout my ten-year-tenure in ministry.  Once again, someone has called us, indirectly, a “cult”.

So, as is my custom, I thought I’d provide a little Biblical advice on how to identify and deal with heretical doctrine.  First, I googled, “Cults-R-Us”, but couldn’t find anything valuable. Then I googled, “How do I know if I’m in a cult” and found some good resources—and some that base their understanding of cults on what they like, enjoy or feel… “tradition”, if you will.

And there’s the rub.  There’s only one definitive source of information on God and what He’s after… it’s called the Bible.  Ironically, basing your opinion regarding the discernment of a cult on anything other than what God says is a great way to become… well… a cult .

So, as you do your own research, be sure and check absolutely everything you read against it for yourself.

To get us started, let’s take a general look from a generally respected source, “Christianity on the Offense”, by Dan Story.

What Is a Cult?

First, let’s define what is meant by the word cult. According to Dr. Charles S. Braden, “A cult … is any religious group which differs significantly in some one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as the normative expressions of religion in our total culture.” Historically in Western civilization, the “normative expression of religion” has been Christianity. Thus Christians identify a cult more precisely as a group “which surrounds a leader or a group of teachings which either denies or misinterprets essential biblical doctrine.” James Sire added this observation:

Totally non-Christian movements like the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna) and Transcendental Meditation (TM) are often not thought of as cults because they originate in another religious tradition. Still, their leaders often quote the Christian Scriptures as if they supported their own doctrine. So for this reason, I will not emphasize their distinction from the Christian-oriented cults.

To Christians, a cult can be defined as a perversion of biblical Christianity.

A characteristic of many cults is their claim to be Christian or a fuller revelation of Christianity. This is what makes them so dangerous and why I’m mentioning them in this book at all. Many Christians are seduced into a cult by mistakenly believing that they represent just another Christian denomination. And many non-Christians join a cult thinking they are becoming Christians. This confusion is made more hazardous because cults frequently use Christian words and terminology, redefined to convey an altogether different meaning than the Christian understanding. Thus a cult member can speak of Christ, the Holy Spirit, faith, and sin but mean something entirely different from the orthodox Christian understanding. This is nowhere more evident than in Christian Science.

In her book Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures, founder Mary Baker Eddy included a glossary of more than a hundred biblical words whose meanings she presumptuously and unjustifiably altered. These new definitions took on “spiritual” rather than literal meanings, which Eddy declared better reflected their “original meaning.” For example, Angels: “God’s thoughts passing to man”; Baptism: “Purification by Spirit; submergence in Spirit”; Death: “An illusion, the lie of life in matter; the unreal and untrue”; Father: “Eternal Life; the one Mind; the divine Principle, commonly called God”; Jesus: “The highest human corporeal concept of the divine idea”; Mother: “God; divine and eternal Principle; Life, Truth, and Love.”

Logic demands that only one among competing religions can reflect divine revelation. They may all be false (including Christianity), but no more than one can be right. This same logic applies to the cults. Regardless of whether a particular cult claims to be Christian or even agrees with many Christian beliefs, if it does not adhere to essential Christian doctrines, it can’t be Christian. This is exactly what all cults do. Here are a few examples.

Jesus

The most significant departure from Christianity that all cults are guilty of is rejecting Jesus Christ as God. No cult confesses Jesus as the Son of God, the second person in the triune Godhead, eternally coequal in essence, power, and authority with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Jesus of the cults is far removed from the holy Son of God revealed in Scripture. Members of the Unification Church, for example, view Jesus as a man whom people not only can equal, but also can surpass. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Jesus is a unique, but still created, lesser god. To the Mormons, Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer. Christian Science speaks of Jesus as a human being who demonstrated “Christness” or the “divine idea,” but He is not the resurrected Son of God.

Any person or religious organization that denies Jesus as the Son of God as revealed in the Bible is forever separated from Christianity (2 Cor. 11:4, 13; Gal. 1:8). All cults reject the Jesus of Scripture. On this evidence alone, no cult belongs in the Christian family. If Jesus is who He claims to be (fully God and fully human—1 John 2:22), the cults are wrong and are not Christian.

The Bible

Another area in which the cults deviate from Christianity concerns their view of Scripture. Most Christian cults claim to accept the Bible as authoritative, but not exclusively so, and only in accordance with their own interpretation. Observed Sire:

Many cults claim to have a high regard for [Scripture]. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, claim the Bible as their sole authority. The Mormons place it first in their list of Scriptures. The Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon also gives it an authoritative position, as does Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science. Even the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation, and other writers in the Eastern traditions quote favorably from the Bible.

Their interpretations, of course, are based on their own presuppositions and religious views. Also, the major cults, such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists, have other “holy” books or writings that serve as an interpretive framework for the Bible. The cults reject both the inerrancy of Scripture as well as its singular and absolute authority.

Source of Authority

A third significant way in which the cults deviate from orthodox Christianity is their tendency to unite around and focus upon an individual or organization that becomes the ultimate source of authority. The authority and power held by these individuals is said to be supernatural in origin. Thus Mary Baker Eddy can claim that her interpretations of Scripture are the “absolute conclusions … [of] divine revelation, reason, and demonstration.”

Cult members are often fanatical in their loyalty—sometimes giving all of their money to the organization and even forsaking family and friends. The cults in turn demand complete obedience and submission, with the threat of damnation for failure to comply. Thus devotees frequently come under the complete control of their leaders in all areas of life.

Changes in Doctrine

A fourth characteristic of the cults that is quite different from Christianity is this. Doctrinal issues are frequently capricious and subject to change. Unlike Christianity, whose essential teachings are universal and absolute and have not been subject to modification among orthodox Christians through two millenniums, cultic doctrines change according to the need of the moment. New revelation freely supersedes old revelation. The Book of Mormon, for example, has “required almost four thousand alterations from its original publication in 1830.” Some of these alterations have been significant. Mormonism’s rejection of polygamy and their more recent dispensation of religious equality to African Americans reflect major and far-reaching doctrinal changes. Apparently, the gods of Mormonism (there are many of them) have a hard time making up their minds!  Story, D. (1998). Christianity on the offense : Responding to the beliefs and assumptions of spiritual seekers (117–120). Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

Having set the stage, a bit, let’s look directly at scripture.

  1. Be careful!  Judging the condition of another’s soul is God’s job, not ours.  This is exactly the type of judging that we are compelled not to do.  So, in our eagerness to point to that which is different and cry, “cult”, remember that the essence of the charge is that the people you’re pointing at are practicing heresy and are not “Christian” and not “followers or disciples of Christ” (Acts 11:26).  If you point that finger in error, in effect attempting so sow seeds of discord among believers, you’re in quite a bit of trouble with God, yourself (Titus 3:8-11).
  2. Be thorough.  Let’s be a little quicker to listen and a little slower to run our mouths and get excited about what we see (James 1:19).  Jesus told us how to “judge the tree” (Matthew 7:16).  Let’s not forget that, in order to examine the fruit of a tree, one must be standing close enough to see it, smell it, touch it and taste it.
  3. Be after what God’s after.  The point is simple—restoration.  Discovering a cult or someone practicing heresy provides opportunity for protection of more than those hearing false doctrine.  It provides opportunity for the protection of the ones who are deceived and sharing it.  There’s quite the reward for turning people who are deceived back to God (James 5:19-23).  Even if there weren’t, it’s what’s expected of anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).
Anything Good that you read here came from God.  feel free to use and share it!
The Bible, can you trust it?

To prove that a document is authentic from a legal-historical perspective, we must know that what we read today, is what was written in the first place and that it is accurately recorded. Below are six areas that can be verified.

  1. The number of independent manuscripts available for comparison.
    These may be compared for differences caused by error or change.

There are 5,309 in Greek; more than 10,000 copies in Latin; more than 4,000 in Slavic; more than 2,000 in Ethiopic and many copies in other translations. The New Testament has more manuscripts than the number for the next ten best ancient documents combined. (There are more than 24,600 manuscripts)

  1. The time lag between when the events actually took place, and the earlieset recorded copies.
    Less elapsed time generally means more accuracy of the recording of the events.

The New Testament was written between 40 and 100 AD. with the earliest copy being around 125 AD. Compare this to the earliest copy of Julius Caesar at 900 years or Plato at 1,300 years after they lived.

  1. The number of early translations rendered in the same language available for comparison.
    The larger the number, the more likely we have an accurate understanding of the usage of early words.

An astonishing number of early translations of the New Testament have been found, in a number of languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Ethiopic, Slavic, Armenian, Syriac Pashetta, Bohairic, Arabic, Old Latin, Anglo Saxon, Gothic, Sogdian, Old Syriac, Persian and Frankish.

  1. Any factual discrepancies in the manuscripts.

Using standard legal-historical methodology applied to all documents from antiquity, the New Testament is considered more than 98.33 % accurate. In the tiny fraction of material possibly inaccurate, any debate about various sections of wording does not influence any major belief, doctrine or fact in the Bible. Today’s rendering of The New Testament is considered ten times more accurate than the best translation of the Iliad, which has the second largest number of classical manuscripts.

  1. References to the manuscript or events found in other documents.
    Quotes in other documents referencing our manuscript provide evidence of originality.

The entire New Testament, with the exception of 11 sentences, have been found quoted in other ancient documents dated prior to the year 450 AD. For example, Origen who lived between 185 and 253 AD has more than 18,000 recorded quotes in his writings from the New Testament.

  1. Internal contradictions or External evidence disproving recorded facts.

The question is, “Is it true?”  Does evidence exist externally, such as archaeological finds, that contradict the Bible? Do internal contradictions exist which diminish the integrity of the Bible?

The Bible is full of geographical, historical, political and social customs and yet not one recorded event or fact has been proven false by archaeology. Even while Jesus walked the earth, men attempted to prove that His miracles were fake, or false. Now, as then, His integrity in this area, as in all others, stands completely unblemished. The same is true when the Apostles preached. No authorities ever proved the miracles recorded as false.

What Does The Bible Say About Itself?

Does the Bible say it is God’s word?

  • 2 Peter 1:21 “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
  • 2 Timothy 3:14-17 “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
  • Romans 16:25-26 “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God,”

How did God inspire the writers?

God Spoke:

  • The giving of the Ten Commandments (Ex.20:1)
  • The voice of God to Old Testament Prophets “Thus says the Lord” Ex.4:12,
  • (Other examples include Abraham Gen.18; Lot Gen. 19. Dreams: Dan.7:1f, Num.12:6 Visions: Is.1:1, Ez.1:1, 8:3, 11:24, 43:3 Voice: 1 Sam.3:4 Miracles: Jonah 1:1, 4:6f)

God communicated through Prophets in the Old Testament and during Jesus’ Day, and He communicates through Prophets, now.

  • 1 Peter 1:10-12 “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”
  • 2 Peter 1:20-21 “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
  • Revelations 1:1-2 “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw – that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.”
  • 1 Corinthians 14:3 “On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”
  • 1 Corinthians 14:1 “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”

Eyewitnesses accounts

  • 2 Peter 1:16 “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.”
  • Luke 2:51 “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.”
  • 1 John 1:1-3 “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”

Research into the Facts

  • Luke 1:4 “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

Jesus is the Word of God in the Flesh

  • John 1:1-3, 14 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made….The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
  • Hebrews 1:1-3 “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”

Directly Inspired by God

  • Exodus 24:4 “Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said.”
  • Jeremiah 1:9 “Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.”
  • 2 Peter 3:15-16 “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”
  • 1 Corinthians 2:12-13 “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.”
  • 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
  • 1 Timothy 5:18 “For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” (This is a quotation from Luke’s Gospel.)

Reminded by the Holy Spirit

  • John 14:26 “But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
  • Acts 4:8 “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…”
  • I Cor.2:10 “but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.”

What is the purpose of Scripture?

  • John 20:30-31 “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
  • 1 John 1:3 “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”
  • Hebrews 4:12 “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’
  • 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

SUMMARY OF WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED

  • The Bible as we have it today is virtually identical to the manuscripts penned by the original authors when they were inspired by God to write it.
  • We have no evidence that what we read is not true and any possible variations in Bible readings do not affect any major Christian belief.

Anything Good that you read here came from God.  feel free to use and share it!

How to Study the Bible

According to John MacAuthur, Jr., we should observe three basic principles for Bible Study…

  • Observation
  • Interpretation
  • Application.

While you may find the following material a bit lengthy, it’s incredibly valuable and helpful to all who wish to follow God.

Observation

Observation is the initial step in Bible study. An interpreter must avoid the temptation to jump immediately into interpreting the specific elements of a passage. Traina defines observation as

essentially awareness … the general function of observation is to enable one to become saturated with the particulars of a passage so that one is thoroughly conscious of their existence and of the need for their explanation. Observation is the means by which the data of a passage become part of the mentality of the student. It supplies the raw materials upon which the mind may operate in the interpretive process.4

Observation includes a broad awareness of the terms, structure, and literary form of the passage.

Observation should be careful. Traina relates the following story to illustrate the importance of exactness in observation:

Sir William Osler, the eminent physician, always sought to impress upon young medical students the importance of observing details. While stressing this point in a lecture before a student group he indicated a bottle on his desk. “This bottle contains a sample for analysis,” he announced. “It’s possible by testing it to determine the disease from which the patient suffers.” Suiting actions to words, he dipped a finger into the fluid and then into his mouth. “Now,” he continued, “I am going to pass this bottle around. Each of you taste the contents as I did and see if you can diagnose the case.” As the bottle was passed from row to row, each student gingerly poked his finger in and bravely sampled the contents. Osler then retrieved the bottle. “Gentlemen,” he said, “Now you will understand what I mean when I speak about details. Had you been observant you would have seen that I put my index finger into the bottle but my middle finger into my mouth.”5

Observation also needs to be systematic. Martin Luther likened his Bible study to gathering apples: “First I shake the whole tree, that the ripest may fall. Then I climb the tree and shake each limb, and then each branch and then each twig, and then I look under each leaf.”6

Observation must also be persistent. To repeat, extended time in observation is a must for an expositor. He must resist the temptation to plunge immediately into commentaries and other study helps. Nothing can replace firsthand observation. At the risk of seeming to violate my own guideline of keeping illustrations short, I offer the following lengthy story about the great nineteenth-century scientist Louis Agassiz and how he taught one of his students an unforgettable lesson about the importance of observation. The principles it teaches can be applied to our Bible study.

The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz

By the Student

It was more than fifteen years ago that I entered the laboratory of Professor Agassiz, and told him I had enrolled my name in the scientific school as a student of natural history. He asked me a few questions about my object in coming, my antecedents generally, the mode in which I afterwards proposed to use the knowledge I might acquire, and finally, whether I wished to study any special branch. To the latter I replied that while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.

“When do you wish to begin?” he asked.

“Now,” I replied.

This seemed to please him, and with an energetic “Very well,” he reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.

“Take this fish,” said he, “and look at it; we call it a Haemulon [pronounced Hem-yuµ lon]; by and by I will ask what you have seen.”

With that he left me, but in a moment returned with explicit instructions as to the care of the object entrusted to me.

“No man is fit to be a naturalist,” said he, “who does not know how to take care of specimens.”

I was to keep the fish before me in a tin tray, and occasionally moisten the surface with alcohol from the jar, always taking care to replace the stopper tightly. Those were not the days of ground glass stoppers, and elegantly shaped exhibition jars; all the old students will recall the huge, neckless glass bottles with their leaky, wax-besmeared corks half eaten by insects and begrimed with cellar dust. Entomology was a cleaner science than ichthyology, but the example of the professor, who had unhesitatingly plunged to the bottom of the jar to produce the fish, was infectious; and though this alcohol had “a very ancient and fishlike smell,” I really dared not show any aversion within these sacred precincts, and treated the alcohol as though it were pure water. Still I was conscious of a passing feeling of disappointment, for gazing at a fish did not commend itself to an ardent entomologist. My friends at home, too, were annoyed, when they discovered that no amount of eau de cologne would drown the perfume which haunted me like a shadow.

In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the professor, who had, however, left the museum; and when I returned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upper apartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as if to resuscitate it from a fainting-fit, and looked with anxiety for a return of the normal, sloppy appearance. This little excitement over, nothing was to be done but return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half an hour passed, an hour, another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face—ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarters’ view—just as ghastly. I was in despair; at an early hour I concluded that lunch was necessary; so, with infinite relief, the fish was carefully replaced in the jar, and for an hour I was free.

On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the museum, but had gone and would not return for several hours. My fellow students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish; it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp its teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.

“That is right,” said he; “a pencil is one of the best of eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet and your bottle corked.”

With these encouraging words he added,—

“Well, what is it like?”

He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me: the fringed gill—arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshy lips, and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fin, and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment,—

“You have not looked very carefully; why,” he continued, more earnestly, “you haven’t seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!” and he left me to my misery.

I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the professor’s criticism had been. The afternoon passed quickly, and when, towards its close, the professor inquired,—

“Do you see it yet?”

“No,” I replied, “I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.”

“That is next best,” he said earnestly, “but I won’t hear you now; put away your fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish.”

This was disconcerting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying, without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be; but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.

The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw.

“Do you perhaps mean,” I asked, “that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?”

His thoroughly pleased, “Of course, of course!” repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. After he had discoursed most happily and enthusiastically—as he always did—upon the importance of this point, I ventured to ask what I should do next.

“Oh, look at your fish!” he said, and left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned and heard my new catalogue.

“That is good; that is good!” he repeated, “but that is not all; go on.” And so, for three long days, he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. “Look, look, look,” was his repeated injunction.

This was the best entomological lesson I ever had—a lesson whose influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the professor has left to me, as he has left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part.

A year afterward, some of us were amusing ourselves with chalking outlandish beasts upon the museum black board. We drew prancing star-fishes; frogs in mortal combat; hydra-headed worms; stately craw-fishes, standing on their tails, bearing aloft umbrellas; and grotesque fishes, with gaping mouths and staring eyes. The professor came in shortly after, and was as amused as any, at our experiments. He looked at the fishes.

“Haemulons, every one of them,” he said. “Mr. ______ drew them.”

True; and to this day, if I attempt a fish, I can draw nothing but Haemulons.

The fourth day, a second fish of the same group was placed beside the first, and I was bidden to point out the resemblances and differences between the two; another and another followed, until the entire family lay before me, and a whole legion of jars covered the table and surrounding shelves; the odor had become a pleasant perfume; and even now, the sight of an old, six-inch, worm-eaten cork brings fragrant memories!

The whole group of Haemulons was thus brought in review; and, whether engaged upon the dissection of the internal organs, the preparation and examination of the bony framework, or the description of the various parts, Agassiz’s training in the method of observing facts and their orderly arrangement was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them.

“Facts are stupid things,” he would say, “until brought into connection with some general law.”

At the end of eight months, it was almost with reluctance that I left these friends and turned to insects; but what I had gained by this outside experience has been of greater value than years of later investigation in my favorite groups.7

The same kind of prolonged pondering of the Scriptures will eventually pay even longer dividends, stretching into eternity.[1]

Interpretation

Proper interpretation… is largely concerned with bridging the gaps that exist between the Bible writers and the present day. At least four such gaps exist:

  1. The language gap. The Bible was written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Therefore, to interpret it correctly, one needs to understand the original languages. English-based word studies, such as Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words and Colin Brown’s The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology are helpful for those who do not know Greek.8 Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words and R. Laird Harris et al., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (which is keyed to Strong’s Concordance) are useful for those who know no Hebrew or Aramaic. Commentaries are also a good source for word studies. Of course, no substitute is comparable to working in the original languages for those who know Greek and/or Hebrew.
  2. The cultural gap. The cultural setting in which each part of the Bible was written is very different from our twentieth-century western culture. To interpret each part properly, one must understand the culture of its time. For example, understanding the Old Testament requires a knowledge of ancient Judaism and pagan culture, just as comprehending first-century Jewish culture is important in interpreting the Gospels. A comprehension of first-century Greek and Roman culture helps the interpreter grasp the New Testament Epistles correctly.

The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim is an excellent source of background material on the Jewish culture of Jesus’s day. The Daily Study Bible Series by William Barclay, although theologically blurred, is a very helpful source of information on the cultural background of the Gospels and the Epistles. Barclay’s theology is suspect in many areas, but he provides good insights into the culture of the first-century world.

  1. The geographical gap. Understanding the geography of Bible lands is sometimes essential in unlocking the meaning of a passage. In 1 Thess. 1:8, for example, Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth.” The amazing part of that statement is that Paul had left Thessalonica only a short time before writing 1 Thessalonians. How had their testimony spread so rapidly through the surrounding area? A study of the geography of the region reveals that one of the major highways of the Roman Empire, the Ignatian Highway, ran right through Thessalonica. Thus, travelers along the Ignatian Highway could rapidly spread the Thessalonians’ testimony far and wide.

A good Bible atlas, such as The Macmillan Bible Atlas or the Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands, is indispensable in understanding Bible geography.

  1. The historical gap. Knowing the historical setting of a passage often helps immeasurably to understand its meaning. A major effort of research to develop the historical background of a passage often is the major key to its interpretation. For example, understanding the history of Pilate’s relationship with the Jewish leaders helps explain why he gave in to their demands to crucify Jesus, though he had pronounced Jesus innocent. Pilate had already antagonized the Jews by some of his policies, and they had reported him to Caesar. Pilate feared that another complaint might get him into serious trouble with the Emperor. He was in no position to refuse their demands.

Bible encyclopedias, such as The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible or the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, contain helpful articles on matters of historical interest. New Testament History by F. F. Bruce and The Bible as History by Werner Keller are also helpful. Books on biblical archaeology are important sources for historical information as well.[2]

Application

After observation and interpretation comes application. Bible study is not complete until the truth discovered is applied to life situations. Application answers the question, “How does this truth relate to me?” The following questions will help apply the truths discovered in Bible study:9

  1. Are there examples to follow?
  2. Are there commands to obey?
  3. Are there errors to avoid?
  4. Are there sins to forsake?
  5. Are there promises to claim?
  6. Are there new thoughts about God?
  7. Are there principles to live by?

Meditation is an important, final step in the process.10 Meditation entails focusing the mind on one subject, involving reason, imagination, and emotions. It is a natural overflow of the discovery process in Bible study. Concentrated meditation on the truths of God’s Word weaves those truths into the fabric of our lives. Perhaps, Paul had this meditative process in view when he told Timothy to be “constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6).

Excellent Bible study skills are the foundation upon which good expository sermons are built. The expository preacher is, by definition, a skilled Bible student. He interprets Scripture accurately, applies its truths in his own life, and then proclaims them to his congregation. [3]

 

[1]MacArthur, J. (1997, c1992). Rediscovering expository preaching (211). Dallas: Word Pub.

[2]MacArthur, J. (1997, c1992). Rediscovering expository preaching (215). Dallas: Word Pub.

[3]MacArthur, J. (1997, c1992). Rediscovering expository preaching (217). Dallas: Word Pub.

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