According to a 2008 "Adventist Review" article, “Still ‘People of the Book’?,” many Adventists are not doing so great in the area of personal Bible study. The article cites a 2001 world survey which found that “less than half of Adventist church members around the world are involved in daily Bible study and prayer." I doubt that there has been any serious improvement in the past decade.
It appears many of our members have fallen into the same condition as did the original audience of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God” (Heb. 5:12; Scripture references are from the ESV). These individuals were at a stage in their Christian walk in which they should have been able to understand truth for themselves and teach it to others, but in actuality they themselves still needed instruction. After diagnosing the Hebrews’ problem, the author introduced a metaphor to enrich the description: “You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:12-14).
Milk of the Word
The metaphor of an infant receiving milk is quite appropriate for describing this condition. A little child receives nourishment, not directly from solid food, but indirectly—only after the food has been processed through someone else (its mother). In the same way, the Hebrew Christians were not receiving their spiritual nourishment directly from God. They were relying on human teachers and were receiving only “the basic principles of the oracles of God.” In other words, they were receiving spiritual sustenance, but only secondhand.
Now there’s inherently nothing wrong with milk. In fact, it is a necessity for those in the initial stages of life. Likewise, those who recently “have been born again” (1 Pet. 1:23) and are “newborn infants” in a spiritual sense should “long for the pure spiritual milk” (1 Pet. 2:2). It is proper for those who have been recently converted to begin with the basic principles of Scripture, and it is wise for them to start by learning from others. But just as it would be ridiculous for a teenager to still be dependent on his mother’s milk, it is not God’s plan that believers should continue to gain their nourishment from others.
Unfortunately, however, far too many Adventists are content to remain at the infant stage of their Christian walk. Many of those who fill the pews each week gather their sole spiritual sustenance from what their pastor imparts to them. And even among those who attempt a daily devotional life, how many limit themselves to reading one short page from a devotional book—still getting their only nourishment secondhand? Or how many skim over a few Psalms in the morning before hurrying off to the rest of their day, thus feeling that they have “put in their time” with God?
Not Just for Theologians
Thankfully, Scripture also records positive examples of those who went beyond the infancy stage in their experience with God’s Word. One particular group that is commended is the Berean Jews. According to Acts 17, Paul and Silas had to escape to Berea after a less-than-friendly response from the Jews of Thessalonica. What they then found in Berea was encouraging: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (verse 11). The basis for the description of these Jews as “noble” is their approach to Scripture. They examined the Scriptures for themselves to determine whether the claims of Paul and Silas were true. Ellen White corroborates this testimony of the importance of personally examining Scripture: “We should not take the testimony of any man as to what the Scriptures teach, but should study the words of God for ourselves” (Steps to Christ, 89).
But is it really possible for just anyone to engage in a deep study of God’s word for himself or herself? Isn’t that the job of scholars and theologians? While recognizing that scholarly study can lead to increased insights regarding many texts (see "Steps to Christ," 91: “careful research”), it is also imperative to realize that one does not have to be a scholar to gain a deep understanding of the majority of Scripture. Ellen White made this quite clear: “The Bible was not written for the scholar alone; on the contrary, it was designed for the common people” (Steps to Christ 89).
First Corinthians 2 (which offers a contrast to yet another passage about “infants” and “milk” in chapter 3) explains why this is the case: “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” (1 Cor. 2:14). In other words, because the Bible is a spiritual book, only a Spirit-directed person can truly understand it. The implication of this statement is that a converted layperson, honestly and earnestly seeking to understand truth, will attain to a depth of understanding that an unbelieving scholar, studying the Bible merely as an academic exercise, will never reach.
Making It a Reality
Although this concept of being taught directly by God is a simple one, studying Scripture seems overwhelming to many people. I suspect that a major reason why so great a number of Adventists do not engage in a personal study of Scripture is that they simply do not know how. If people could see that it’s not complicated, perhaps they would make the commitment to dig deeply in Scripture. I discovered personally that once I learned just a few key principles, Scripture really came alive. Here are seven quick tips that I have found helpful when studying God’s Word:
- Always begin with prayer. We need to realize that without illumination from the Holy Spirit, we are liable to misinterpret Scripture. Our prayer should be, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18). Ellen White concurs: “Never should the Bible be studied without prayer. Before opening its pages we should ask for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, and it will be given” (Steps to Christ 91).
- Read the passage (and its context) several times. This enables you to get an overview—to understand the “big idea” of the passage. At this stage jot down observations and note “key” words (often these words are repeated several times in the passage). It is often helpful to read at different speeds—ranging from a quick skimming to a slow, careful reading.
- Compare Scripture with Scripture. Use a concordance and cross-references to find other Scriptures that help illumine the meaning of the passage you are studying. Many Bibles have a good number of cross-references in the center column, but the best resource I have found is a book called the "Treasury of Scripture Knowledge." It contains over 500,000 cross-references in one volume. You can access it online. Once you have found other Scriptures that shed light on the passage under consideration, then go back to that passage and thoughtfully apply the concepts from those other Scriptures.
- Memorize. One benefit of memorization is that the very process of fixing the text in your mind forces you to pay closer attention to it than you might have otherwise. Also, having a variety of Scriptures stored in your mind is helpful later on when studying other passages.
- Take good notes. These notes will be vital for remembering how you arrived at certain conclusions and will prove invaluable for reference in future study. Keep in mind that the data is more important than the conclusions.
- Apply what you learn to your own life and share it with others. The purpose of Bible study is not just to gain more head knowledge. God wants us to study His Word because it will transform our lives as well as the lives of those around us. Also, sharing what you learn with others is the surest way to prevent yourself from forgetting it.
- Remember: the more you study the easier it gets. Don’t be discouraged if personal Bible study seems challenging at first. The knowledge you gain from studying one passage will be of great benefit in studying another. Before long the Bible will become a familiar book.
Making the commitment to engage in a deep study of God’s Word may not be easy, but in the end it will be rewarding. The prophet Jeremiah exclaimed, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer. 15:16). This same joy can be ours when we receive spiritual sustenance…not secondhand, but directly from the Source.