As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have often been counseled not just to read the scriptures daily but to search, ponder, and study them. While it is true that we can gain some knowledge of the gospel just by reading the scriptures a few minutes each day, to gain deeper insight into the teachings of the gospel takes study, which involves reading as well as searching and pondering the scriptures.
However, surprising as it may seem, there is very little instruction on how to do this effectively. Instead, members of the Church are simply encouraged to find their own method of study that suits their personal style of learning. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, there are some techniques anyone can use that will enhance whatever way they choose to study the scriptures.
The first task to understanding the scriptures is to understand what the scriptures are. When asked to define what is scripture, most people answer by saying it's the word of God. Whereas this is true, it's an over simplified answer. To understand why, let's begin by looking at each book within the Bible.
The book of Genesis tells the story of mankind from the time of Adam down to the patriarch, Jacob, covering a period of 2,300 years. However, this book is not a history of the entire world. It is specifically a history of a particular lineage, from Adam, to Seth, to Enos, on down to Noah, then to Abraham, Isaac, and finally Jacob and his twelve sons.
The book of Exodus is the story of Moses, from his birth to his death. The book of Joshua is a story of the life of Joshua from the time he became the leader of the Israelite people until his death. The book of Judges is a history of the Israelite nation during the time they were ruled by judges. First and Second Samuel is a story of the prophet Samuel, from his birth to his death. First and Second Kings as well as First and Second Chronicles, chronicles the story of Israel when they were ruled by their first three kings, Saul, David, and Solomon.
The books of Ruth, Ester, Job, Jonah, and Daniel are all stories about the lives of these people. In the New Testament, the four gospels are stories about the life of Jesus, from His birth to His death. The book of Acts is a story about the acts of some of the apostles after the death of Christ. The Book of Mormon, from beginning to end, is a story about the lineage of one man named Lehi and his descendants. Thus, what we find is that nearly two-thirds of the scriptures are stories about certain historical people.
The word "history" is a contraction of the words "his story." Thus, when we read the scriptures we are often reading ancient history. The question this raises is: If the Bible is the word of God, then why is there so much history contained in it? The answer is that people are the same today as they were 6,000 years ago. When we study history, going from our current time all the way back to the Egyptian dynasties, we see that human nature and personality has remained constant. In every age of man, people have been greedy, selfish, and jealous as well as kind, heroic, and adventuresome. In fact, human nature is so constant that we have been able to classify it as a science. We called it psychology. That is why it has often been said that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.
The reason why the scriptures contain so much history is because the stories it tells illustrates human behavior and what has resulted from that behavior. If we don't learn from observing the mistakes of others then we are doomed to making the same mistakes ourselves. At the same time, we learn how and why people became righteous and enjoyed the blessings of God, thereby learning how we too may enjoy those same blessings. Thus, studying history is like studying a road map. It shows us the safest way to get from where we are to where we want to be and how to avoid all the pitfalls along the way. On the other hand, not studying history is like taking a long journey without doing any planning. If our final destination is to live with God in heaven for all eternity then studying the lives of both the wicked and the righteous gives us a clearer picture of what we need to do to get there.
But the scriptures also contains such books as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezra, Habbakkuk, Micah, Haggai, Malachi, the letters of Paul and many other books that can be classified as "sermons." A sermon is a lecture or discourse that is meant to exhort, admonish, teach, and persuade us to live as God wants us to behave. While history teaches many of these same lessons in story form, sermons make the same points more directly without the aid of extensive illustrations. As we read the Book of Mormon what we find is a combination of both history and sermons intermingled with one another.
The only exception to all of this is the Doctrine and Covenants. This book is more like personal instructions from God on what He wants the church to do and know. In effect, it is the organizational handbook of instructions for how the church is to operate. It contains such information as when and how the church was to be organized, what offices are to be in it, what the duties are of those officers, the purpose and need for temples, etc. It also gives personal commandments to certain individuals such as Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdry, Newel K. Whitney, Edward Partridge, and others whom God instructed to perform certain tasks.
Often times, while giving these instructions, the Lord also provides additional gospel information that is not found in any other scriptures, such as the many degrees of glory, who goes to which kingdom, the eternal nature of the priesthood, answers to gospel questions, and many other interesting and important facts relating to the kingdom of God.
This, then, is what is contained in the scriptures, but the real question we're trying to discover is, how do we effectively study all of this information?
Despite the many different ways to do this, there are four techniques that can be used with any method of study that will help enhance and broaden our understanding of the gospel.
The first technique is to ask questions. Every parent has been subjected to the endless questions of their children - "Why is the sky blue?" "Why don't the clouds fall to the ground?" "Why do birds fly?" etc. From the time we can speak to the time we die, asking questions is the way we learn. And the most powerful of all questions is to ask "why." Thus, instead of simply reading the scriptures and then moving on to other daily activities, we should take time to ask questions of what we have just read.
Perhaps we can illustrate this principle by picking a scripture and applying this technique.
In the first book of Nephi, chapter 1, verse 1 we read, "I, NEPHI, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days."
Most people would read this verse, see nothing much to ponder about, and then quickly move on to reading the next verse. But, if we stop and think about it, there are many questions we can ask. However, for the sake of this discussion we'll limit our questions to just the first eight words - I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents.
The most obvious question is WHY did Nephi start his narrative by making mention of the character of his parents? In other words, he could have started his story many different ways but why did he choose to begin it by telling us how good his parents were?
This becomes a more profound question when we ask yet another question - WHEN did Nephi make this record? Most people think he wrote it beginning in 600 B.C., but that's not correct. He did not write his story as he went along. Instead, he wrote his "memoirs" when he was near the end of his life. HOW do we know this? Because of the way he wrote it. If he wrote it as he went along, he would have said, "It's been two weeks since we left Jerusalemů Today my father asked Lamen, Lemuel, and me to go back to Jerusalem to get the brass plates from Laban." Instead, what we see is a well thought out narrative that reflects back on what had happened to Nephi and his family over his lifetime.
That leads us to ask another question - HOW old was Nephi when he wrote his story? According to the dating found in our current Book of Mormon, he wrote his record somewhere between 559 and 545 B.C. If we take the average of these dates, that gives us 550 B.C., which is fifty years after Nephi left Jerusalem. We also know that Nephi was a young man in 600 B.C., so, if we say he was 20 years old when he left Jerusalem then he was somewhere around 70 years old when he wrote his story.
We also learn from the Book of Mormon that Lehi died somewhere between 588 and 570 B.C. If we again take the average of these dates, we could estimate that Lehi died somewhere around 579 B.C. That means he had been dead for nearly twenty-nine years when Nephi began writing his story and yet, the very first thing Nephi mentions in his narrative is how good his parents were. WHY did he do that?
There are many answers that could be given to this question, but we should be more interested in learning the truth than in coming up with just a plausible explanation. For example, to the question of what is the moon made of, it could be said it is made of Swiss cheese. Why? Because when we look at the moon through a telescope, we see round, dark circles that look like holes. Since the color of the moon is yellow then it logically follows that it is made of Swiss cheese, which is also yellow and has holes in it. Yet, as logical as this answer may sound, we know that it's not the truth.
When we look out at the horizon of the earth it looks flat. That is an observable fact. Therefore, the only conclusion is that the earth IS flat and if we go too far we will reach the end and fall off. From all observable appearances, the earth seems firm and immovable, and we can observe with our eyes that the sun and stars move across the sky. The obvious conclusion is that it is the sun and stars that move while the earth stands still. Not too long ago this is what people used to believe. However, even though that answer may have seemed scientifically correct at the time it was not the truth.
In the same way, when it comes to studying the Bible there are some who offer answers to biblical questions that are not based on truth. For example, many Christians are taught that God created the world and the entire universe in six twenty-four hour days. To explain why science shows that the world is billions of years old, some biblical apologists answer that God deliberately created the earth to look that old.
Science says that dinosaurs once roamed the earth millions of years ago before the existence of human life and that they were all killed off from the impact of an asteroid. Biblical apologists answer that the dinosaurs were created on the fifth day of creation 6,000 years ago and that they were destroyed by the flood. While these answers may sound reasonable and logical to some, there is no evidence to support such a theory. Even so, millions of Christians accept it as fact.
This brings us to the second technique of studying the scriptures. Obviously, when we ask a question it's for the purpose of finding an answer but it needs to be the right answer. However, often, the answers we seek may not be readily apparent or we may not be sure that we have found the correct one. Thus, the second technique to understanding the scriptures is to search for the truth. If we don't know what the truth is then we must keep looking until we find it. If we think we know the answer then we need to find evidence to support it.
When we want to find treasure, nearly all the time we find it buried beneath the surface of the ground. Very rarely do we find true treasure sitting out in the open. Therefore, to find treasure, we have to go digging for it. When we simply read the scriptures it's like skimming the surface of the ground and thinking we're going to find great spiritual wisdom. On the other hand, searching the scriptures is like digging below the surface and seeking to uncover something valuable. And the deeper we dig the more we find.
Many times when searching for physical treasure it involves doing a great deal of digging before ever finding anything of worth. While the scriptures contain hidden treasures of knowledge, wisdom, and great insight in almost every verse it sometimes takes a lot of digging to find it. This is why we can go back and re-read the same scripture many times and keep finding new meanings and discovering deeper truths. When looking for physical treasure we use a shovel, but when searching for spiritual treasure we use the inspiration of the Holy Ghost who brings things to our mind as we ponder the answer to various questions we ask.
Using our illustration of Nephi's first eight words we could say that the reason why he mentions the character of his parents is that he had a tremendous respect and admiration for them. While that sounds logical, the next question we need to ask is: what evidence is there to support such an answer? To find this evidence we need to search the scriptures looking for instances where Nephi demonstrates an attitude of deep love, respect, and admirations for his parents. And, we also need to look for evidence that he did not feel that way.
As we read Nephi's account we find many instances where he speaks highly of his father. When his older brothers, Lamen and Lemuel, often complained about their father's words, Nephi treated them as through they were from God. For example, we are all familiar with Nephi's statement when he said to his father, "I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them" (1 Nephi 3:7). However, it wasn't God who told Nephi to go get the brass plates from Laban, it was his father, who claimed this is what God had told him to do. Even so, Nephi believed his father so much that he behaved as though it was God who had talked directly to him.
While they were traveling in the wilderness Nephi broke his steel bow which caused even his father, Lehi, to murmur. This troubled Nephi and he set about making a bow out of wood and then went to his father to ask where he should go to hunt for food (1 Nephi 16:18-23). When they came to the American continent, Lehi gave a patriarchal blessing to each of his children and, nearly thirty years later Nephi took the time to write much of what his father said, including a lengthy discourse on the need for opposition in all things (2 Nephi 2). And there are many other examples that show the love, respect, and admiration Nephi had for his father. Thus we see there is ample evidence to support our conclusion that Nephi began his record by speaking about his parents because he had great affection and admiration for them.
The next question we can ask is: WHAT can we learn from this? Since human nature doesn't change, we can ask: HOW can we apply this in our own life? Thus, we see that by asking a question or a series of questions and searching for the correct answer we have taken eight words from one seemingly inconsequential verse and have pulled out all sorts of information that was hidden within it. But to find this information we had to go digging for it. And we can find even more gospel truths if we apply these same two techniques to the remaining words of that first verse in 1 Nephi.
The third technique is to read the scriptures in context.
The word "context" means to look at the big picture. Each verse of scripture is a part of a general theme or thought that the author is trying to make. Therefore, when reading a verse of scripture we need to see how it fits in with the point that is being made. This is no different than looking at one piece of a 1,000 piece puzzle. When we look at that one piece by itself it doesn't tell us very much and we can imagine it to be almost anything we want. But, when we see that piece in the entire picture, then we truly understand what it is.
The scriptures are the same way and this is especially true of the epistles found in our New Testament. Each one was written to combat some false teaching, practice, or problem that was occurring among the believers in Christ at the time of its writing. Therefore, to better understand the meaning of each verse of scripture we need to understand its relationship to the purpose of why the letter was written. When we quote just one verse without looking at the verses that come before and after it, with the intent of seeing how it fits into the point that is being made, we can make that one verse mean anything we want.
We can illustrate this principle by way of an example. Suppose we heard that someone had made the comment that it is good to know Satan. That statement by itself could be interpreted many different ways but to know what the person making that comment meant we'd have to hear how they used it. In this example the full context would be: "Adam and Eve fell because, in their innocence, they were easily deceived by Satan. However, because of that fall we have come to know both good and evil and we have been given the choice to choose one over the other. Therefore, to keep from being deceived it is good to know Satan and how he works so that we can make an intelligent decision on whether to follow his ways or not." When read in context, the meaning of "it is good to know Satan" becomes very clear.
Unfortunately, many people don't do this when reading the scriptures. A good example of this is John 4:24 which says, "God is a spirit." Nearly all Christians quote this verse as proof that God has no body, parts or form. However, that quote is just one half of one sentence in a story that is twenty-six verses long. When looking at this quote we need to ask the question: Why did Jesus make this comment and what was the point He was trying to make? To find the answer to this question, we need to read all twenty-six verses. (For an explanation of this scripture read, "The Spirit of God" and "In Spirit and In Truth" )
Protestant Christians also quote Isaiah 64:6 that says "we are all as unclean things, and all of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" as biblical proof that there is nothing we can do to please God and that God considers even our best efforts to do good as being wholly unrighteous. Yet, when this statement is read in context we find that is not what Isaiah meant by those words. (see "Filthy Rags" )
Unfortunately, even members of the LDS faith make this same mistake. We often quote 1 Nephi 19:23 which reads, "I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning" and say that it means we're supposed to apply the scriptures to our current situation and see how it can help us live our lives better. While that is good advice, that is not what Nephi meant when we he made that statement. To truly understand what he meant we need to read that verse in the context of the entire chapter. When we do, we'll find that he had a very different meaning to his comment than what most LDS members think.
The LDS church teaches the need to perform baptism for the death and, as biblical proof, many members point to Paul's words where he said, "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:29). What many LDS members fail to do is read this verse in context to see how it fits into the point Paul is trying to make. However, most Protestants don't read it in context either, and therefore offer the explanation that Paul is making reference to a heathen practice rather than saying it is a Christian doctrine. But, when we read this verse in context, we find that not only is the Protestant answer incorrect but we also come to realize how significant the need is for baptizing the dead. But when LDS members don't read this verse in context they miss out on the importance that Paul is placing on that ordinance.
The fourth technique is to rephrase the scriptures in our own words.
It is common, even among adults, for us to read the scriptures and, when we're done, be unable to tell someone what we've just read. When we read anything, it is important that we do so to understand what we're reading. If that doesn't happen then there isn't much different between reading and not reading at all. And, even when we already know the story we're reading, we often don't understand it as well as we think.
The way to overcome this problem is that, once we've read a verse or a chapter, to put the scriptures down and then try to retell what we've just read in our own words. Then, once we've done that, we need to go back and re-read that scripture again to make sure we've rephrased it accurately. It is not uncommon for people to misunderstand what a scripture is saying but when we try to accurately restate it in our own words, double checking our accuracy, it is amazing how much clearer the scriptures become in our own mind.
Sometimes we may not be sure what a particular word or verse means. In that case it can be helpful to consult several other translations or commentaries to see what the general consensus of interpretation is among biblical scholars. This would also include checking the Joseph Smith translation.
By using these four simple techniques - ask questions, search for the truth, read in context, and rephrase what we read - we will gain much more from our study of the scriptures.