Each individual Christian needs to study the truth for himself. We must remember that false doctrines will arise and prosper (2 Peter 2:1-3). We cannot always trust the preacher to see through the error and teach against it; sometimes preachers introduce errors (2 Timothy 3:1-9; 4:2-4). Though elders are supposed to protect the church from error, sometimes they lead others astray (Acts 20:28-31).
The remedy for error, whether from false teachers inside or outside of the church, remains the same—the truth. Some will believe a lie because they do not love the truth but enjoy unrighteousness, 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12. Paul warned Timothy about false teachers and told him to hold to the truth of the scriptures, 2 Timothy 3:13-17. In order to follow false teachers, one must turn away from the truth, 2 Timothy 4:4. Though Paul warned that some elders would lead some Christians into false doctrines, but God would save those who follow His word, Acts 20:32.
Truth is the antidote to error. If we are poisoned, the antidote will be useless if it remains in the bottle. We must ingest the antidote so it can combat the poison. Likewise, if we do not ingest God’s word, we will not be able to combat error.
How do we learn the truth and make it part of our lives? We must read and meditate on God’s word daily. Not only will God’s word insulate us from error, it will enrich our lives for we will grow in our knowledge of God, learn how to better live our lives, become better spouses, parents, and children, and see our heavenly hope vividly.
We should follow the advice of Paul to Timothy in regards to study. Paul told the young preacher Timothy to “give attention to reading, exhortation, and doctrine,” 1 Timothy 4:13.
We must spend time reading the Bible to learn the stories and to become familiar with the overall Bible message. Reading helps us learn the narrative and see how the whole Bible story fits together. Reading is especially important for new Christians. Often we will find something in our reading that will turn into a more in depth study.
Exhortation is encouragement. We can encourage others with the encouragement that we receive from God’s word, 2 Corinthians 1:4. We should spend time reading passages that encourage us to continue in what is good. We can read about Bible characters that did not give up even in the midst of terrible opposition or suffering. We can also read about bad examples and avoid the decisions they made. The encouragement that the epistle writers gave to individuals and churches can motivate us to live righteously. The writers encouraged them to remain faithful and to be busy about God’s work. Of course, reading about our Savior is exhorting for it reminds us about His wonderful love, profound teaching, and eternal promises. When God’s word exhorts you, use it to exhort others.
Doctrine means the teaching that we must follow. Doctrine only comes from God’s word, 2 Timothy 3:16. It requires more study and mental effort than simple reading or reading for exhortation. We must consider what the entire Bible says about a particular issue—both directly and in principle—and draw valid conclusions. We must know why we do the things we do in personal service and public worship. Remember, we cannot leave this study to the preacher or the elders. We must know the truth so we can discern error.
In addition to the methods of determining authority from the first series of lessons, there are some additional principles offered here to help us read wisely and learn doctrine as taught in God’s word:
- Pray to God for wisdom, James 1:5.
- Be diligent, not lazy, 2 Timothy 2:15.
- Be patient; some things are difficult to understand and might require a lot of time to learn, 2 Peter 3:16.
- Be logical. God’s word does not oppose logic but embraces it, Acts 26:25.
- Use common sense. Jesus spoke to the people in their common language not some hidden code. We can understand His word, Ephesians 5:17; 1 John 5:20.
- Keep it simple. Since the Bible was written for the common person, do not look for hidden messages or other mystical meaning. Look for the plain and simple message.
- Read in context. Words and sentences have meaning within a broader context. Do not try to force a word or passage to mean something not intended by the author. Look at surrounding passages for understanding.
- Read in historical and cultural context. The Bible events occurred in history so look at the historical and cultural setting and what impact it might have on interpretation.
- Handle illustrations and idioms wisely. Sometimes writers use figures of speech, metaphors, and similes to illustrate points. Do not make too much of symbols or apply them in ways in which the author did not intend.
- Let scripture interpret scripture. This is probably the most important reminder. Use clear passages to illuminate confusing passages. You will find that the more scriptures you learn, the easier it is to understand unfamiliar passages.