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Teaching The Bible – An Interview with Ajith Fernando

Cross References And Word Studies

August 2009

The Bibles that many serious Bible students use have cross references. What do we do with them? Do they help or hinder Bible study? I think they can do both.

When we approach a Biblical text, we do so with the belief that that the whole Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit. But this view of inspiration is very different, for example, to that in Islam, which believes that Muhammad was so totally controlled by God that his personality did not significantly influence to the formation of the Qur’an. We believe that God inspired the biblical writers to give us infallible writings but that he did so through their unique personalities. This makes for one of the most exciting aspects of Bible study—to discover features of the personality of a biblical writer and how that influenced what he wrote. In other words, the Bible is 100% divine and 100% human.

The language of each biblical author has unique characteristics. So one author may generally use a word in a certain way and another author may use the same word in a very different way. Sometimes the same author uses the same word differently in different places. Many years ago, I was having a discussion with some Christadelphians, who deny the deity of Christ. They did a word study of the Greek word logos using Strong’s Concordance. They came up with the conclusion that logos in John 1 does not mean what we mean. Logos is the common word meaning, “word,” that occurs over 300 times in the New Testament. The particular meaning it takes depends on the context in which it appears. So logos takes different meanings in different places in John. This is an illustration of why the context is so important. In John 1 it is clear from the context that the Word spoken of in verses 1-18 is God himself.

The above example points to the danger of word studies. That is, studying the way a word is used in different places and coming to conclusions about what is taught in the Bible by the use of that word. Word study, however, can be very helpful if it is done with reference to the context in which the word appears, each time it is used in the Bible. This is the way the good Bible dictionaries and lexicons study words. Word studies can tell us about different ways a word is used in the Bible. When studying a text they can give us some direction on how to look for the meaning that a word takes in the passage that we are studying.

Early in my pilgrimage as a Bible student, I remember doing a word study on the Greek word prōtotokos, which is usually translated “firstborn.” Some who deny the deity of Christ use texts in which this word is used for Jesus as evidence that Jesus also had a beginning just like us (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:6). But when you see the way this word is used in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) and the NT you realise that sometimes the word has the idea of pre-eminence. For example, Colossians 1:18 refers to Jesus as the firstborn (prōtotokos) from the dead, but we know that he was not the first person to rise from the dead. Lazarus and the widows son at Nain rose before he did. There the word is used with the idea of pre-eminence. This is the meaning it takes in Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:6 also.

These same principles apply to the use of cross references. By using cross references—that is, using one text to interpret another—we could end up with a very different interpretation to what the author originally intended. Actually, this could be an instance of laziness and disrespect for a text. Without grappling with the text to find its meaning we are going elsewhere to a text of which we know the meaning and we are imposing that meaning on the text we are studying. When God wants to teach us something new, we are going to something old. If we keep doing this, we can miss out on some of the teachings in the Bible. We don’t hear what the passage we are studying says because we hear so loudly what another passage is saying. We must, then, not let other passages direct our interpretation of a given text.

However, there are times when cross references enrich Bible study. Cross references may point us to a truth in the Bible, which makes us ask, “Is this similar to what the author is saying in the text we are studying?” This does not direct our interpretation. It only gives us an idea that may be worth pursuing.

The nouns, paraklētos and paraklēsis and the verb parakaleō sometimes refer to helping (John 16:7), sometimes to encouraging or comforting (Phil. 2:1), sometimes to interceding (1 John 2:1) and sometimes to exhorting (Acts 2:40). Sometimes it is difficult to choose what is meant. So when the ministry of Barnabas in Antioch is described in Acts (Acts 11:23) which some translations interpret his work as encouraging while others interpret it as exhorting. All this shows how important it is for us to look at the context.

I think the greatest value of cross references is that it adds to our understanding of a theme that is found in the text we are studying. Once we have carefully studied a text and come to a conclusion regarding its meaning, we can look at cross references to see what more we can learn about this topic, not about this text. This is the main purpose for which I use cross references. I usually go to cross references after I have completed my basic study of a text. In addition to the cross references we get in our reference Bibles, I recommend an excellent resource The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge by R. A. Torrey (Hendrickson). This resource is also found in several of the popular Bible software programmes.




What A Relevant Book The Bible Is!

Written in November 2005
Ajith Fernando

             Some of you know that I am trying to write a commentary on Deuteronomy. I am presently working on the Ten Commandments. When working on the command not to murder I decided to compile a list, from the murder stories and comments about murder recorded in the Bible, of the things that trigger murderous intentions in people. I was thrilled to see again how wonderfully relevant the Bible is. Here’s my list:

In the first murder Cain’s jealousy that God accepted his brother Abel’s sacrifice, and not his, led him to kill Abel (Gen. 4:1-16).

  • Lamech killed a young man as an act of revenge for wounding him (Gen. 4:23).
  • Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi killed the men of Shechem because one of them had defiled their sister Dinah (Gen. 34:1-31). Absalom killed his half brother Amnon for the same reason—he defiled Abslalom’s sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13). These were cases of defending the family honour which had been offended.
  • Pharaoh ordered that the male children of the Israelites should be killed for national security, so that their growing population could be kept in check (Exod. 1:8-22).
  • Moses killed an Egyptian out of rage when “he saw an Egyptian was beating a Hebrew, one of his people” (Exod. 2:11-12). Here it was ethnic loyalty confronting injustice to ones own people.
  • Ehud, seeking freedom from oppression killed Eglon, king of Moab, who had oppressed the Jews for 18 long years (Judg. 3:12-26).
  • Abimelech killed seventy people from a Royal family who were a threat to his royal ambitions (Judg. 9:5-56).
  • Joab stabbed Abner to avenge the death of his brother (2 Sam. 3:24-27).
  • David had the Uriah the Hittite killed because of his lustful desires for his wife Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11).
  • Ahab was a rich king whose greed for a land, a vineyard belonging to Naboth, caused his wife Jezebel to have Naboth killed so that he could acquire the vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-29).
  • Proverbs talks of the greed of robbers who kill in order to get material things of the people they kill (Prov. 1:10-19).
  • Herod the Great killed boys in the Bethlehem area because he feared a threat to his rule through a child who been born there (Matt. 2:13-18).
  • Herodias had Herod the tetrarch behead the bold prophet John the Baptist because he disapproved of the adulterous relationship between them (Matt. 14:3-12). It was a case of wicked people angry at being confronted by righteous servants of God.

What an amazing list this is! Almost every conceivable trigger for murder is found in this list of murders. It shows what a relevant book the Bible is!

The only kind of murderer found today which I did not see in the Bible was the psychotic serial killer. This may have been because such are usually found in highly individualistic cultures where the family unit is not so binding and where it is possible for a person to become so separate from the rest of society that he or she could act in such a highly individualistic way. That was not the culture of societies in biblical times.

If the Bible is such a relevant book, why is it that church in this generation is using it so little? Why is it that people are reaching the Bible less and that expository preaching so scarce in the church today? I think there are several reasons. Let me state three.

  • Our generation is reading less and less. So people are reading the Bible less. In our fast moving culture, preachers are finding less and less time to study the Word to prepare expository messages. And I fear that when the children are asking for bread they are giving them stones (Matt. 7:9)! Christians are too busy to spend time in unhurried study of the Word. If you are too busy to read the Bible you are just too busy. That is suicidal from an eternal perspective. Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8:36).
  • The Bible teaches some embarrassingly difficult things which people today prefer to avoid bringing up. The Bible has become an uncomfortable book to many. For example, the Bible says that unrepentant adulterers will go to hell (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Those who take the Bible seriously would be wicked if they do not warn people of this. But adultery is so commonplace today that most Christians would fear being ostracised if they started doing that. Then how about the challenge of proclaiming in this pluralistic age that the Christian gospel is absolutely unique and the only way to salvation? How about the command to give servants a Sabbath rest every week (Deut. 5:14)? How about the statement that God hates bribery (Deut. 10:17) and lying lips (Prov. 12:22)? How about the teaching that if we treat people differently because of class, caste, or race we violate God’s order of creation? Indeed the Bible condemns many of today’s commonly accepted practices!
  • Our generation has greatly lowered the value it assigns to objective truth. This is a feature of post-modern people who have been described as being “instinctually stimulated.” Ours is a generation that places higher value on feeling than thinking. But what pleasures it is missing? Reading the Bible is one of the most delightful things one could do. There is amazing security, freshness, joy, peace, life, revival, comfort, guidance, correction and learning, that come from sitting at the feet of God and listening to him speak through the Word. David says that God’s word is “more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10). In my ESV Bible the psalmists use the word “delight” twelve times to describe their attitude to the Word.

How we long to see Christians experience what David said he desired from the word: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psa. 119:18). We need to rediscover the joy of truth. Evangelists for the gospel have had a treasured place in church history. Today we need to go one step back and have a new kind of evangelist who will open the way for people to think that such bodies of truth as gospels are worth considering. We need evangelists for truth who will show that truth is still a vitally important and attractive value.

Technology And Preaching

Two Posts on LinkedIn

Technology could be a help or a hindrance to good preaching. One of the biggest problems in the church is that our leaders are technicians when they should primarily be thinkers, theologians–that is, with everything they do coming from reflecting on the teaching of the scriptures. For example the great John Stott who was in every way a great theologian of the Christian life applied to contemporary life was not computer savvy. I use technology a lot. But I try to make it something that helps me do technical work (e.g. exegesis) faster and more efficiently than before so that I will be freed to give extra time for thinking, meditating, applying etc etc. Of course the other kinds of technology like PowerPoint become helpful aids to communication–that is another topic.

I also use Logos which is very helpful. But I use it as my reference (2nd) software. For primary study I use BibleWorks–which is more helpful for uninfluenced study of the text. I find Louw and Nida and The New Internataional Dictionaries of New Testament Theology and of OT Theology and Exegesis (NIDNTT and NIDOTTE)–both available through LOGOS–to be more helpful than Kittel which is a bit dated in its methodology of word study as it predates the semantic revolution in biblical Studies.

Bible Relevance

The Bible has been described as a book that speaks to every situation. We can certainly attest that from our experience through a protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. After a terrible riot had engulfed our land and triggered the war, I was struck by the fact that the Bible records that when the first Christians encountered persecution, their initial reaction was to reflect on the sovereignty of God over history. Even when situations seemed hopeless and deeply saddening, I could never get away from this message that the Bible presents: though human history may be moving in depressing directions the Lord of the universe has not abandoned this world. He is working out his purposes. If so, our biggest challenge is to align ourselves with his will without getting discouraged and losing hope. This enables us to be agents of hope and healing among wounded people.

But how about the people deeply wounded by the violence in the land. Is what the Bible says true, that it is possible and necessary to forgive enemies and that God sovereignly works through their pain to achieve something good for them? That too I have seen. People who have every reason to be consumed by bitterness and depression have instead become examples of joy and love resulting in some remarkably anomalous situations. A Christian worker held for fifteen months in prison on suspicion of being a terrorist but without charges ends up caring for and counselling a prison official who is discouraged over the situation in his home. Two widows whose husbands were martyred refuse to leave their field of ministry and continue to share the love of Christ with the people there. When I went to console a Christian friend who had lost all his belongings after his house was set on fire by people of my race, I find him consoling me because of my sorrow over what had happened.

Everyone accepts the fact that righteousness and love are the answer to our fractured world. But few believe it is possible to practice this way. The Bible not only prescribes this way of living; experience has proved that it is indeed possible to follow this way.

“Discrepancies” In The Bible And Confident Ministry Of The Word

(Ajith Fernando)

During the past forty years I have seen more and more instances of evangelical biblical scholars reporting an apparent discrepancy in the Bible as a discrepancy and just leaving it at that without making any more comments or clarifications. Some would make an outright statement that it is indeed an error. Others would place two contradicting texts, e.g. in two different Gospels or in Acts and an Epistle, side by side and announce the discrepancy without making any effort to resolve it.

In the past the effort to harmonise apparent discrepancies was carried out with earnest rigour. This is still done by among some highly esteemed scholars. I think of two books demonstrating the historical reliability of the New Testament by Craig Blomberg,[1] and Don Carson’s commentaries on Matthew and John.[2] I believe the task of resolving such problems is a cause still worth devoting oneself to.

Yet, we must remember that this is not an easy task. Some problems are difficult to solve. Therefore when scholars find possible resolutions to difficult questions that have baffled the church for some time they should be careful about presenting them as dogmatic affirmations. Rather these resolutions could be presented as possible ways to resolve the problem that are worthy of serious consideration by Bible students. The history of scholarship is replete with examples of assured “resolutions” to contradictions which were later proved to be wrong.

If no credible resolution is available to the problem, I would remain agnostic on the issue. I am not willing to discredit the affirmations in a biblical text by stating that they are wrong or were not actually said by the person whom the Bible claims said it. I would concede that our knowledge is incomplete and that we will await the results of further study towards a resolution to the problem. We do not have to solve every problem that we encounter in the Bible. Doesn’t the Bible say that our knowledge on earth is incomplete and that we will see fully only when we get to heaven (1 Cor. 13:12)? I believe the Bible is entirely trustworthy; but I do not extend that confidence to all our interpretations of the Bible. Scholarship will seek to resolve problems, but until a resolution is found we will humbly accept our limitations and redouble our attempts to find a resolution.

History is also replete with examples of discoveries which resulted in the rejection of the scholarly consensus that discounted the accuracy of a biblical text. The story of the conversion of archaeologist Sir William Ramsey to orthodox Christianity as a result of archaeological discoveries is possibly the best known example of this. As the Bible came from the period he was studying, he consulted the New Testament not expecting it to give a historically reliable account. When he met with a name in Acts that seemed to go against the scholarly consensus he concluded that Luke had got it wrong. But further investigation showed him that, contrary to the prevailing consensus among scholars, Luke was right! This opened the door to him looking at the Bible in a more positive light and to his becoming a committed Christian. Subsequently, Ramsay wrote ten books on Paul and Luke between 1893 and 1915.[3]

A more recent example is how John A. T. Robinson revised his dating of the Gospels after studying the Dead Sea Scrolls. I studied his writings in the mid-1970s for my Th.M. thesis. He affirmed his belief that all people will be saved in the end (universalism) even though the statements Christ in the Gospels clearly contradicted that belief. He defended his universalistic ideas by asserting that the Gospels were written after AD 120 or so. He said that Jesus did not really say the things attributed to him in the Gospels. The Gospels were written so many years after Jesus lived that what we find there are not the statements of Jesus but what Christians in the second century believed, which they attributed to Jesus. In this way he was able dispose of statements attributed to Jesus which clearly contradicted his universalist convictions. However, his study of the Dead Sea Scrolls made him change his views. Shortly before his death, he published two books that dated the Four Gospels, including John, before the Fall of Jerusalem in 70AD![4] I do not, however, know if that led him to revise his theology!

So I am not willing to assert that something stated in the Bible is historically wrong. This is why I assent to the doctrinal statement that Scripture is “without error in all that it affirms.” Historical affirmations should be included in the list of these affirmations that are without error, if the author intended that we take that material to be historically accurate. Of course, this means that if someone makes an error in a speech, the author will accurately record that error, as we see with the speeches of Job’s friends.

We must, however, remember that our approaches to writing history may be different to those in biblical times. Therefore if a passage is presented by the author as historical we must ask, “What kind of history-writing is this?” The author’s style of history-writing may be different to what we usually consider as the way history should be written. Furthermore, the personality and the writing-style of the author will influence the way he records an event. So two authors may record the same event differently, from two different perspectives. We see this a lot in the Gospels. That does not mean that one is wrong and the other is right.

Does the fact that we cannot solve some problems result in a lack of confidence in the Bible? If that were so, our preaching and teaching would also betray a lack of confidence, rendering our ministry of the Word ineffective and unable to foster faith in our hearers. There is a lot of preaching today where preachers timidly suggest things to their audiences without any authority or conviction. This can breed spiritual death in the church.

Our uncertainties are about a few texts which do not change the teachings of the faith that the church has believed in for twenty centuries. They represent a few issues which keep us alert, humble and conscientious students of the Word who continue grappling for solutions to problems. It seems to be God’s way to leave a few things unexplained so that we can grapple with those and grow deeper in our faith through the grappling.

Yet we can minister with confidence and authority. Our ministry is mandated by the Great Commission of the Lord of the universe which begins with the words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples…, teaching them…” (Matt. 28:18-19a). God has spoken a Word to us through the Bible and we have been commissioned by Christ to go and preach it. So we study it and work on communicating it effectively to our people. The Great Commission in Matthew concluded with the words, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20). This is made possible through the operation of the Holy Spirit. So we wait on the Lord in prayer and make sure that we go with the presence and anointing of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit ignites our Word so that we speak with authority and power.

This authority and power, however, is not intrinsic to us. We are just humble servants of the Lord and his Word through whom the Spirit works. So we humbly yearn for his fullness and leave aside any hindrances to the fullness of the Spirit, like unbelief, cynicism, pride, selfish ambition, the desire for prominence and praise, and all other kinds of sin. Then when we faithfully preach the Word, the Spirit ignites us and our words and makes us agents of his transforming work in the lives of people.

No uncertainly here! We preach with confidence because we believe God and his Word, and because the Spirit ignites us and our words!

[1] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Leicester and Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987); and The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Leicester and Downer’s Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001).

[2] D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” Expositors Bible Commentary: Revised, Vol. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,  ); and The Gospel According to John: The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans and Leicester: Apollos, 1991).

[3] I have related this story in my NIV Application Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), pp. 24-26. Ramsay relates his story in William M. Ramsay, W. The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979 reprint of 1915 ed.), chapter 3.

[4] John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament ; The Priority of John

Does God Specially Speak from the Bible?

February 2009

 Ajith Fernando

Sometimes we hear people say, “God spoke to me clearly from his Word.” Can we really hear the voice of God today? When we read the Bible we are open to hearing from God, and he can use this receptivity to communicate a message to us. Sometimes when he does so the text we are reading becomes a springboard for God to get a hold of us. After all, the Bible presents God as one who communicates with his children. There is nothing to say that he has stopped doing that. What we hear from God may not be exactly what the author of that text originally intended, though the rest of Scripture should not contradict it.

The day that I left for USA for my studies, was actually the day I left home for good. I was in USA for four-and-a-half years. I did not go home once during that time. Phone calls were very expensive in those days, so I did not call even once during the entire period. Leaving home was very tough on me and on my mother. That morning, during my mother’s time with God, she happened to read Psalm 4. Verse 3 said, “But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.” It was a word of great comfort to her which enabled her to release me to go to Seminary, and then to ministry. I believe she could legitimately claim that God spoke to her from that text.

Today some people are using the term rhema to describe such messages from texts. When a special message comes from God though a text of Scripture, they call it a “Rhema Word.” The Greek word rhēma appears sixty-eight times in the New Testament and means “that which is spoken; declaration, saying, speech, word.”[1] There is some justification for the use of rhema for such messages. Often rhēma has the same meaning as the other common Greek word for “word,” logos. But sometimes there is a distinction. A scholarly dictionary states, “Whereas logos often designates the Christian proclamation as a whole, rhēma usually relates to individual words and utterances.”[2] After quoting this, Mounce cites Matthew 4:4: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word [rhēmati] that comes from the mouth of God.”[3] So rhēma can be used to mean a word from God, and one is welcome to use it as a technical term for a special word to an individual or group. However, the Bible does not require that we use it with such a meaning.

We need to be careful about overdependence on special messages that come to us when we are in touch with God through the Bible. These sudden messages are equivalent to the author of a book of instructions giving us a special hint to help us along the way. It would be an insult to the writer of the instruction book to depend solely on those special hints without reading the clear instructions given in the book. This is especially true when it comes to the Bible, which is God’s complete and sufficient revelation to us to guide us in all matters of faith and practice. So God may speak to us through a text, but we should not view that as the message God intended when giving us that text. Respect for and devotion to God would drive us to look for what God originally intended.

Besides we cannot be a hundred percent sure whether the “word” we get is actually a message from God. While we should regard the plain statements of Scripture as fully inspired by God and absolutely necessary for our faith and life, these special messages that come to us through the reading do not carry such authority. This is because we can be mistaken. If it is a word of comfort and it accords with the rest of Scripture, as was the case of the message my mother got from Psalm 4:3, we can assert that this is in keeping with God’s purpose for us without hesitation.

But if it is matter of guidance, we should be more careful about being hundred percent sure that certain specifics are from God. You may have heard of the story of a person who opened his Bible and asked God to speak to him through the passage he turned to. He first turned the passage which said that Judas hanged himself. Next his eyes alighted upon the statement, “Go and do likewise.” Then he read the statement, “What you are doing, do quickly.” Now, he should not take that to mean that God was telling him to commit suicide soon! But if he was deeply depressed and somewhat suicidal, he may come up with such a conclusion.

People in love often ask God for a word from God, open the Scriptures and get just the “word” they needed to legitimise their relationship. But here they could be simply reading into the Scriptures the message they wanted to hear. I think some of the so-called messages people say they received from God are actually interpretations and applications of texts that are the product of wishful thinking rather than of divine guidance. A boy told a girl that God showed him from the Word that she was the one he was to married. The troubled girl responded by saying that she had received no such message from God and did not intend to pursue the relationship.

Yet sometimes these “words” are from God. Seeing that we are in a receptive state to hear from him, he could use a text to impress upon our minds a certain message he wants to give us. My YFC leader, Sam Sherrard, was in the USA shortly before I left for the USA for my studies. He feared that I will fall in love with an American girl and either stay on in USA or change the course of my ministry because of that (my ministry has been with the poor and it would have been difficult to ask an American to adjust to the lifestyle my ministry led me to). He knew I was praying about a Christian girl in Sri Lanka at that time (We do not date in our culture). So he wrote to me asking whether to write to her parents about this. I grappled with God over this for several days and finally told God that I am going to write back to Sam with my decision on a certain day. The night before that day I spent a lot of time in prayer and after doing my studies went to bed at about mid-night. But I could not sleep. After tossing and turning in bed for about four hours I decided to have my devotions.

My reading for that day was Leviticus 8-10 about the dedication of Aaron and his Sons and the Tabernacle. Included in this passage is the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were killed for offering “unauthorised fire before the Lord” (Lev. 10:1). I could not find out what made this fire unauthorised so I checked a commentary. There I read that the problem was that they had made the right offering, but it was at the wrong time. Suddenly, like a flash, the thought came to me, “You had earlier felt that God did not want you to get committed to a girl before leaving the country. Are you now trying to do the right thing—enter into a committed relationship—at the wrong time?” I decided that this was a word from God, and with tears I wrote to Sam saying I do not think this proposal is from God.

I came home four-and-a-half years later and found that this girl was still single and later I found that unbeknown to me she had been praying about me for almost ten years. We have been happily married for thirty-two years! Later I realised that the message from Leviticus 10 was quite specific. She was the right person, but it was the wrong time.

However, because we cannot be a hundred percent sure that such messages are from God, it is necessary for us to seek advice about this from some people we trust in the body of Christ. We need to make sure that this message does not contradict the rest of scripture. If we feel that God gave us a message that would make us take revenge, or not do our job well, or marry an unbeliever, we can immediately conclude that the thought was not a message from God because it contradicts the clear teaching of the Bible.

Let me add one more thing. Often God brings a text of the Bible up from our memories in order to minister specifically to us. Regular reading of the Bible and, even more powerfully, memorisation of Scripture results in the Word being stored in our hearts. Psalm 199:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Often the Bible asks us to get the Word into our hearts (Deut. 6:6; 11:18; Col. 3:16). In times of need, this word of God hidden in the heart can resurface to minister to us.

Early in my ministry, a person whom I thought I was very committed and had helped sacrificially, made some devastating accusations against me. Essentially, he said that I was not practicing what I preach about caring for people. For about two days after that conversation, I felt so numb and hurt that I could not say much when I tried to pray. I tried to read the Bible, but nothing went in. But I kept my time with God knowing that even though I could not say much to God he would be there with me. Little by little passages of Scripture that I knew began to minister to me. They had surfaced from my memory and God  had spoken specifically to me through them.

Don’t wait till a crisis comes to read the Word so as to be ministered to by God. Sometimes in a crisis, we may not have the opportunity or the mood to read and digest what the Bible says. We need to have hidden the Word in our hearts for use during such emergency situations.

One of the best ways to hide the Word in our hearts is to memorise Scripture. One of the regrets I have about my Christian life is that I did not do sufficient memorisation during my younger days. It is much harder to memorise when you get to my age! Let me urge younger readers to regard Scripture memorisation as great boost to your life. Find ways in which you are going to memorise Scripture. The Topical Memory System produced by the Navigators is a popular and helpful tool. I have found it helpful to memorise longer passages rather than just one verse because I can then follow the trend of the authors thoughts.

God still speaks to us, and he does so most often through the Bible.

[1] William D. Mounce, Editor, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 1264.

[2] The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), p. 1121.

[3] Mounce, Editor, Expository Dictionary, 803

Inductive Bible Study

August 2009

I have just returned from a three-month Sabbatical in North America. During this time I had further confirmation of a growing sense that Inductive Bible Study is going out of fashion in formal theological education. Below is a reflection about this.

(Ajith Fernando)


I was once teaching a week-long course to some first generation Christians active in Christian ministry on how to study the Bible and use it in ministry. I found that many of my students were latching on to an inspiring thought from the passages we were studying, forgetting the context in which that thought appears and ultimately missing out on the message of the passage. So I had to keep asking them over and over again questions like, “What does the passage really say?” “Why does Paul say that?” It was a desperate battle. At one time I was so concerned that I sent SMS text messages to about 20 people asking them to pray that somehow God will break through and help them to learn how to read and study the Bible. I think the basic problem was that they have not really learned to read!

The battle went on for the whole week until I believe God’s Spirit broke through to them. I am confident that those who persevere in using what they learned will develop skills for a lifetime of thrilling study of the Word. By the end of the course many of the students told me that they had never realised that there is so much to get from the Scriptures. The Bible says that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). I tried to explain to my students that by not looking at what the author, who was inspired by the Holy Spirit, intended to say we are actually showing disrespect to God who inspired the author to write what he did in the passage. We are making a personal decision that one particular statement which grabs our attention is what we must focus on rather than looking at the passage which God inspired and the message it conveys.

One of the students in this class asked me how one can read the difficult passages in the prophets without giving up out of boredom. As I thought about it, I realised that these passages are boring to some because there aren’t many of the “inspiring” thoughts in those passages which grab their attention and they latch on to. Instead, what we have is a message from God, burning in the prophet’s mind, which he wants to communicate to his audience. If we look for that message, we will find many very helpful insights into the mind of God. Even studying the prophets is not boring if you look for the overall message the prophet is seeking to communicate.

Having said this we must agree that there are times when God does grab us with a personal message from a single spot in a larger passage. But that is an exception to the rule. The God who inspired all of Scripture can send us a message through a little portion of the passage if he wants to. But he usually works through the message he wanted the biblical writer to convey. That is the message we must labour to discover.

The best way I know of getting at the main thrust of a passage and gleaning things we would otherwise miss is inductive Bible study. This is the method I use almost everyday when I read the Bible. I will be eternally grateful to God for giving me the opportunity of studying under two great advocates of Inductive Bible study—Robert A. Traina at Asbury Seminary and Daniel P. Fuller who was my Masters degree mentor at Fuller Seminary.

I can describe inductive study using two statements.

  • Sitting with the attitude of a child: “I want to learn what God, my Father, has caused to be written in this passage to make me strong and grow.”
  • Looking with the skill of a detective—I do not want to miss any evidence in my search for what this passage really says, what it means, implies and tells me regarding my behaviour.

Usually inductive Bible study is divided into three steps: Observation, interpretation and application.

One of the many benefits of inductive study is that you begin to relish Bible study. Oletta Wald called her classic book on the topic, The Joy of Discovery. Despite all the talk about Postmoderns not being interested in objective truth—inductive study to find who is guilty of a crime is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the west. Mystery TV programmes and books continue to be immensely popular. The world still finds thrill in the discovery of truth.

Discovering biblical truth does not only give the short term thrill that the solving of a mystery gives—it is gives life, it feeds the eternal joy that God has given us, it helps us to be moulded to what we were made to be—individuals conformed to the image of Christ. When we are what we were made to be, we have the shalom that God giveshis peace, his wholeness and his health. The basic thirst of life is gone as we drink of the living water. The basic hunger of life is gone as we taste and see that the Lord is good and feed on the Bread of life. But discovery of this water and bread has given rise to a new thirst, a new hunger—a hunger and a thirst for righteousness and for more of God. Getting this becomes a supreme ambition in life—with every discovery bringing more joy! And the surest source of discovering these things is the Bible.

This is a day of study Bibles and resources for every conceivable kind of person and every conceivable need in Bible study. A bookstore manager gave me a statistic of how many different editions of the English Bible there are about ten years ago—it was a few thousand. I was shocked then by the number, and I know that a any more have been released since then! All these studies can obscure the message of the Bible. It can hinder us from digging into the text and experiencing the excitement of grapping with God’s Word. I believe many of these Bible study resources are very helpful. I am happy to say that the commentary section is my favourite section of my library. But other books must never take us away from looking at what the Bible says. This is the great value of inductive Bible study—it gets us into the text.

God used A. W. Tozer to place so many urgently needed truths before the church that he was called a twentieth century prophet. In the 1940s he published a few thoughts about studying the Bible which are much more urgently needed today than when he first wrote them. “To get to the root I recommend a plain text Bible and diligent application of two knees on the floor. Beware of too many footnotes.” He argued that it “is a dangerous and costly practice to consult men every time we reach” a passage that is difficult to understand. By far “the best rule is: Go to God first about the meaning of the text.”[1]

A Special Note:

Greek and Hebrew study is not essential for inductive study but it greatly enhances it. I’ve always maintained that the most influential Bible teacher in my life is my mother, who may never even have attended any class on how to study the Bible. Certainly, she does not know any Greek or Hebrew. But I believe a knowledge of the original languages really helps those who are going to teach the Word of God to God’s people.

One of the greatest values of learning the original languages is that of getting a feel of the background from which the eternal Word came. You sense the atmosphere of scripture and that helps you interpret more accurately. Recent advances in the study of semantics (relating to the meaning of language) are helping us to be careful in not coming to unnecessary conclusions when we study the Bible, especially using the original languages. The most helpful book I have read on this is D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies (Baker).

You can see that I do not agree with those who say that, with the multiplicity of translations and all the commentaries and other resources available today, we can do away with the study of the original languages in seminaries. Those who lead God’s people into understanding God’s Word would be greatly helped if they get a feel of how the Bible was written originally by studying the original languages. It is hard work, and today with all the resources we have to access information quickly, studying what the original language says seems to be very counter-cultural. But our Seminaries are primarily not in the business of producing technicians who know how to handle available resources. They are in the business of nurturing men and women of the Word—people who can not only access resources but also who can think biblically, people who have a close relationship with the greatest wealth there is in the world—the Word of God. It is worth going through rigorous study in order to become more skilled in handling such a great treasure.


Another NOTE: I have Struck Gold! Colour pencils are great friends of inductive study, as they help you highlight the different themes that appear in a passage. For years I have been looking for a good colour pencil marker which will not damage or seep through Bible paper. Christian Book Distributors (christianbook.com) sell a four-colour set that is quite expensive and does not write or erase easily. The American company Crayola is now selling “Twistables Colored Pencils.” There are 12 or 20 different colours in a set. They have a point that can be retracted by twisting. And the colours can be easily erased. You often revise your interpretations in inductive Bible study and erasing is done often! I have been having fun marking up my Bible and my Deuteronomy manuscript! Try it, you’ll like it! If you can’t get this colour pencils and a pencil sharpener will do the job for you!

[1] From Lyle Dorsett, A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer (Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), p. 100.

Laziness about Objective Truth

February 2009

A few days ago, I went back to my study of Deuteronomy (for two writing projects) after a long break. As soon as I approached the text, applications leaped out which I was tempted to pursue without really studying the text. It took an effort to resist pursuing those applications and, instead, to go back to the text to discover what the whole passage teaches. I realised that I was having to fight a battle most readers of the Bible today encounter—a battle to let God speak to us through the Bible.

Studying the text carefully is an expression of devotion to God. God is supreme and the Lord of our lives. He has spoken and, if this is so, we must carefully find out what exactly is meant by what is in the Word. Indeed God sometimes “zaps” us with a message triggered by something in the Word before we do any serious study. This is because when we give time to be close to the Word we become receptive to hearing from God. God speaks to us in many ways, and this is one of them. These sudden messages are equivalent to the author of a book of instructions giving us a special hint to help us along the way. It would be an insult to the writer of the instruction book to depend solely on those special hints without reading the clear instructions given in the book. This is especially true when it comes to the Bible, which is God’s complete and sufficient revelation to us to guide us in all matters of faith and practice.

We must look into the text carefully to find out what the inspired author of God’s Word meant when he wrote the words of the text. This is especially true when we read passages we regard as uninspiring. They may be uninspiring to us, but they are part of what Paul calls “all Scripture” that is inspired by God and therefore “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

When we study the Bible, we—the subjects—are humbly looking for truth that is outside ourselves (objective truth) given to us by God and recorded in the Bible.



I can think of two cultural factors today that make the pursuit of objective truth in the Bible difficult.

Living in a Technological World: Ours is a technological generation that has produced many skilled technicians. Many people today are comfortable with dealing with the data found in computers. Grappling with truth is harder for the technology-conditioned busybodies of our generation. We give immediate answers to messages we receive. That is what text messages, e-mail or electronic chatting has done to us. That is often very helpful, but the downside is that people have become too impatient to give time for carefully thought-through reflections. We are so busy with all our e-mail etc. that we have no time to devote to such deep thinking. There is a lot more communication happening between people thanks to the internet. And that is good. But has that reduced people’s ability to grapple with truth?

I am not saying that we should not use computers. I can say that computer technology has transformed my Bible study. I do most of my Bible study on the computer these days. The technology of computers can help speed up our technical study so that we can give extra time to get at the heart of a text and then meditate on it

But the very thing that speeds our study may hinder us from slowing down to give time to grappling what a text means and what it means in the context in which it is found. Because of the speed of technology a lot of effort may be required to slow down to think. The speed of technology may make it difficult to get us to stop and ask the six great questions of inductive Bible study: who? what? when? where? how? and so what? Ours is a generation which is lazy about objective truth. We cannot stop long enough to grapple with the meaning of a text that someone else has written. Today’s world may produce many technicians but fail to nurture thinkers. Because Christianity is a truth-based religion, developing mature Christians in today’s world is going to be a huge challenge!

Living in Post-modern Times: Ours is a post-modern generation that is revolting against the idea that we were tyrannised by things like the objective rules in the Bible, scientific laws, productivity, and the efficiency orientation of the modern era. The complaint is that our individual selves were sacrificed because individuals were viewed as cogs in a vast machine of productivity or slaves to rules dictated by a distant God and his representative, the church. There is a great quest for “self-actualisation” today: achieving ones fullest potential. And the measures for this are human—from within ourselves—not divine. People don’t look to the Word of God to ask what is an authentic life. Now authenticity is measured not by whether a thing is true but by how it makes us feel. Experience is king. Ours has been called an instinctually stimulated generation. Nike tells us: “Just do it;” and Sprite tells us:  “Obey your thirst.”

Culturally, then, this generation does not like the idea of submitting to objective truth. Our focus is on experience. So even when Christians study the Bible, the questions generally asked are, “What does this passage tell you personally?” and “How does this make you feel?” Missing is the childlike faith and devotion to God that humbly sits under the Word and asks, “What is God teaching here?” That somehow seems to be less authentic. An important feature of post-modern hermeneutics is that it is reader-centered rather than writer-centered. This approach could have permeated into our approaches to reading too. When we read the Bible, we are in danger of focusing on ourselves rather than on what the writer intended to communicate.

We need evangelists for truth today who show the glory of truth and the beauty of the ways of God. The psalmists say so often that the Law, that is, the word of God, is a source of delight. Many Christians think of the teachings of the Word as things that bind us. Jesus said that the Truth sets us free (John 8:32). Society tells us that the truth restricts our freedom.


So this is an area where Christianity must be counter cultural. We will adapt our methods and use means that connect with people in order that we may reach them with the gospel. However, we will not jettison key features of the gospel in order to win an audience. We will labour instead to show people that those features of the gospel, which repel them—like truth—are indeed keys to an authentic life. This is why I said we need evangelists for truth. If people are to accept the gospel—at the heart of which is the fact the Jesus is the truth—they must accept that truth is necessary for an authentic life.

In light of what I have said here, is it any wonder that expository preaching has gone out of fashion? It takes far too much time to follow the steps that are needed for good Bible exposition. We must carefully study a biblical text to find out what it teaches, then we must find out how that applies in today’s world, and then we must choose ways to present these truths in an attractive, convincing, penetrative manner, so that lives are changed by it. We see that today we have big churches that have wonderfully creative music, drama etc (which fit in better with today’s technological and experience orientation) followed by insipid, low quality preaching. The result is malnourished Christians.

May we labour to be good servants of truth in a world that has lost the sense of the glory of truth. This surely is a key aspect of devotion to the God who gave us the Bible. May God use us to help people discover the most authentic and fulfilling experiences that only come along with the grounding of the sure foundation of God’s truth. It is only through this freedom and experience grounded in eternal realities that one could achieve the fullest “self-actualisation.”

Two Wonderful Truths from the Psalms

(July 2005)

I sometimes use Dennis F. Kinlaw’s devotional book, THIS DAY WITH THE MASTER (Nappance, IN: Francis Asbury Press, 2002), when I want a change from my usual devotional routine. This is a wonderful book which is both deeply devotional and solidly scripture-based. Today I discovered two wonderful truths from the Psalms (from the reading for August 8).

First, we can “find a psalm for every human situation. For moments of difficulty, moments of exultation, moments of tragedy, and moments of praise: there is a psalm that corresponds to each personal story.” How wonderful that the Bible faces up to the harsh realities of life unashamedly and frankly and mentions the struggles the biblical figures went through. This is particularly true of the laments which over a third of the psalms in the book of Psalms are. I have come to the conviction that lamenting is one of the most important features of the biblical lifestyle, because they help us “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3).

Lament, of course, opens the door to God’s comfort. And God’s comfort is so wonderful that when we look back at the pain what we see most is the goodness of God and not the severity of the pain. And Kinlaw’s second point relates to that. “Many times the psalmists give their conclusion at the beginning.” After the conclusion is given “the reader must work through the psalm to see what the situation was that brought the psalmist to the answer” (see Psalm 73). This is also true of 2 Corinthians where Paul is in raptures over the glory of the ministry but where the background is one of severe pain. The conclusion was the dominant thought, not the pain which resulted in their arriving at that conclusion.

The first and last word is with God and not with pain. In fact this is why we are not afraid to face pain squarely and open ourselves to lament. We know deep down that God will comfort, that he will turn this to good, and that the end of the process of lament we initiate will be joy!

These past two years or so, many of my e-mail reflections have focussed on pain. These reflections are primarily intended for young Christian workers, and I have stressed this issue of pain for two reasons. Firstly, I think many Christians are running away from their call because of the pain they encounter. I want to encourage people to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph. 6:10) so that they can battle on without giving up knowing that the end will be good and joyful.

Secondly, there is this terrible tragedy of the unhappy Christian leader. Many Christian leaders today do not know the joy of the Lord which is what gives them the strength (Neh. 8:10) to bear pain victoriously. They are bitter and angry with the church, with individuals and sometimes even with God. The result is a terrible advertisement for Christianity. I believe we must develop the discipline of grappling with pain until the joy of the Lord shines through. The assurance that this will indeed happen is what gives us the strength to launch into this battle.

Whatever your problems may be, dear friend, do not let Satan deprive you of that which makes you a truly contented millionaire: the joy of the Lord!