A Better Bible Study Method, Book Two
Who Says So?
"Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth
to err from the words of knowledge" (Prv 19:27).
"Unjust in the Least"
The five case studies have shown the benefits of using a method of assessing truth on biblical issues that is in accord with the counsel of God's word. The real test, however, comes when biblical correction confronts us on a subject or a practice which is near and dear to us, for then the temptation is to take offense at the truth.
When people are confronted with evidence that calls into question something they thought was true, they can avoid dealing with those facts by giving themselves an excuse to ignore them. Sometimes people do this is by declaring a subject to be a minor issue or a secondary matter, while saying they prefer to focus on major issues or more important matters. But is it really okay to ignore God's word on issues we deem to be minor?
In Luke 16:1-13 when he spoke "unto his disciples," Jesus tied the concept of faithfulness to the little things with these words, "he that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much" (v 10). In calling his disciple's attention to things men consider "the least," Jesus did not stop there. Jesus gave no wiggle room for those who are tempted to downplay things they deem to be the little things or minor issues –for he also said, "he that is unjust in the least is also unjust in much," and that does not suggest it is okay for men to disregard God's word on issues they consider to be minor or irrelevant.
Integrity is rooted in consistency. A consistent respect for the truth begins with a willingness to submit to the authority of scripture on every issue. This cannot change simply because we think something is a minor issue. Some will act as if they can be faithful in 'the majors' while they ignore what scripture says on issues which they deem to be 'the minors.' However, the words of Jesus indicate being unfaithful to the truth in little matters means it is also occurring on larger issues.
When we are challenged by something in scripture, do we honor God if we brush aside the matter and say it is not a 'major' issue? Instead of looking for an excuse to ignore details in scripture when they are contrary to something we believe, we need to strive to be consistent in our regard for the authority of God's word.
The Authority of Scripture
James 2:10-11 emphasizes the unity and the authority of God's word:
"For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he [God] that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law."
Why is a person "guilty of all" if they "offend in one point" only? Sadly, those who misunderstand this idea will often use the term 'sin is sin' (which falsely implies all sins are equally bad), because they assume this verse justifies simplistically lumping together all offenses against God or others. But it does not. Rather, the passage actually highlights this principle: God's word comes from God.
James 2:11 has this line of reasoning: "he that said" 'x' "said also" 'y'. "He" must refer to God because it was "God" (Ex 20:1) who said "thou shalt not kill" (Ex 20:13) and "thou shalt not commit adultery" (Ex 20:14). Thus, the 'he who said this also said that' line of reasoning tells us a man who ignores what God said in one area of the law is "guilty of all" because he has shown disrespect for the authority behind the law. God stands behind every word of God, so an offense on any point is an act against the authority of God. This is the focus of the passage.
Although the verses in James explicitly mention the "law", the same logic would apply to anything else God has said. What God said in "the whole law" has the same authority as any other words of God because they come from the same source. Since God is the source of God's word, we must be consistent in our regard for scripture if we truly want to honor God.
"God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets" (Heb 1:1) and "all scripture is given by inspiration of God" (2 Tm 3:16) are just two of the verses that tell us God is the source of scripture. Those verses also let us know the authority of God's word is not diminished when it is faithfully communicated through the mouth or pen of a man (because the source of the words is not the messenger, it is God).
The Integrity of Our Method
Jesus told the Jews of his day, "For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me" (Fourth gospel 5:46). What does this tell us about the Jews? It proves they were deceived. How so? Did the Jews of that day think they believed Moses? Surely, they did. But thinking they believed Moses did not make it so. People can think they know the truth when they do not. To be deceived is to believe a thing is true when it is not. The words of Jesus show the problem with the Jews was they did not believe Moses. Undoubtedly, they were convinced they did believe Moses. Yet, scripture proved they had deceived themselves (because their belief was not consistent with the word of God).
In the passage in question, Jesus went on to say they could not believe his words because they did not believe the words of scripture: "But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?" (Fourth gospel 5:47) Here we see showing respect for all of God's word is critical. When people ignore God's word in one area, the problem is not limited to one issue.
"A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Cor 5:6, Gal 5:9). We find this principle stated twice in scripture, but the lesson it teaches is seen in many other passages, including James 2:10-11. The moment someone disregards what scripture says on one topic, then they have given themselves permission to do so on any topic. Thereafter, they are not under the authority of God's word; they have put themselves over it (because any authority scripture has comes from them, since they decide when it matters and when it can be ignored).
Leaven has a permeating effect on dough. This pictures what occurs whenever a person takes a pick and choose approach to scripture on any issue. If we are not consistent in our respect for God's word, then our method of assessing truth will produce inconsistent results.
An Ongoing Effect
Jesus' statement, "had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me" (Fourth gospel 5:46) highlights a truth we need to ponder. The Jews' failure to believe Jesus was rooted in their failure to believe Moses and this indicates disregarding scripture in one area has an ongoing detrimental effect.
When we fail to respect God's word in one area, we show disrespect for God, who is the authority behind it all. Believing or not believing the words of Moses has an effect which is not limited to only that part of scripture, as Jesus noted when he went on to say, "But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?" (Fourth gospel 5:47). This principle also applies to other prophets besides Moses, as we see in this verse: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." (Lk 16:31).
In addition, in this statement Jesus let us know the word of God is the standard by which people will be judged:
"He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day. For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak." (Fourth gospel 12:48-49).
What did the words of Moses and the prophets have in common with the words of Jesus? The authority of God was the unifying factor.
Those who do not believe the word of God that came via Moses or the prophets, will not believe Jesus' words, for the source of the words (God) is the same in both cases. This is why those who love the truth must exercise a consistent respect for the authority of scripture.
The following words were written to Timothy, but they also offer good counsel to every believer: "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tm 2:15). [The word "study" translates a Greek word that is more often translated as "be diligent," "give diligence," and "do thy diligence" (cf. 2 Tm 4:9 & 21, Titus 3:12, 2 Pt 1:10, 3:14). Therefore, the Greek lets us know "rightly dividing the word of truth" involves a diligence that goes beyond the idea of 'study' which is promoted today.]
How can a person confirm they have rightly divided the word of truth? A formal education cannot guarantee a person will not be deceived. "The chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people sought to destroy" Jesus (Lk 19:47). "The Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves" (Lk 7:30). Jesus told his disciples to beware of "the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees" (Mt 16:12), so this proves being counted among the educated elite is not the same as being "approved unto God."
Saul of Tarsus, Be Ashamed
Jesus warned his disciples, "the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service" (Fourth gospel 16:2). Jesus was talking about men like Saul of Tarsus.
Saul was a member of the educated elite, "a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee" (Phl 3:5), but he was not taught the truth of God's word. He learned to think like his teachers (a method of discerning between truth and error which is fundamentally flawed).
We can learn a lot about how to "be not deceived" by considering Saul of Tarsus before he received his wake-up call on the road to Damascus. No doubt Saul thought he knew God's word, but he was using a wrong measure of truth.
When people use their current beliefs as their measure of truth, it will not help them see when they are in error. Saul likely felt very assured because he agreed with highly regarded religious scholars. Yet, this false measure could only help to keep him in bondage to deception.
At that time Saul was in ignorance. He himself later said he had been "a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief" (1 Tm 1:13). Surely, he could have recited the words of scripture. So, what can explain his ignorance at that point? Did the words of scripture confuse Saul and cause him to be in ignorance and unbelief? Or was he blind to the truth in scripture because he put confidence in man and learned the teachings of men which make void the word of God?
Saul of Tarsus had not been "rightly dividing the word of truth" prior to his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road. He was wrongly dividing God's word. He needed "to be ashamed" of his false beliefs and of the method of assessing truth which led him to think he was doing good when he was doing just the opposite. Yet, after he learned the truth on the Damascus road, Saul did not dig in his heels and continue to resist the truth (as was the case with the religious leaders who knew Jesus had risen from the dead and still would not repent).
Deception Inside of the Church
Those in the church can also be deceived and the verses warning believers to "be not deceived" (cf. Lk 21:8, 1 Cor 6:9, 15:33, Gal 6:7) along with other passages make this clear. The opening words of Galatians 3, "O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth" is just one of the many places where the writers of the New Testament dealt with errors among believers.
In our day, the tolerance of error is fostered when people value unity above truth and those who contend for truth are said to be 'divisive'. Tolerating falsehood was a problem that brought a strong rebuke to the church in Corinth. They tolerated those who held contrary ideas on the resurrection, which earned the church this reprimand: "If Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Cor 15:12) Contrary ideas cannot both be true, so when believers agree to tolerate falsehood, they are not fostering a love of the truth [more on this later].
When the people in Elijah's day worshiped both the Lord and Baal, he did not call for tolerance. Rather, he offered this rebuke: "How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him" (1 Kgs 18:21). Keep in mind Elijah's rebuke of those who were "between two opinions" as we consider a rebuke to the church from Jesus himself.
The words, "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches" show up seven times in the Book of Revelation (Rv 2:7, 11, 17 & 29, 3:6, 13 & 22), so followers of Jesus should ponder what was said to the churches. For now, though, notice what Jesus said to "the angel of the church of the Laodiceans" (Rv 3:14):
"thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked" (Rv 3:17).
If people think they are "rich" and "have need of nothing" when their actual condition is "poor, and blind, and naked," clearly their beliefs are not a model for others to follow. Jesus' rebuke was not directed to pagans or unbelievers; it was to the church! This should act as a shot across the bow to warn us not to assume our view, our church's view, or beliefs in the so-called 'early church' are necessarily correct.
Escaping the Bonds of Deception
As was noted earlier, the words "ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (Fourth gospel 8:32) were directed to people who "believed on" Jesus and would "continue in" his word (Fourth gospel 8:31). So a consistent respect for God's word is set forth as a condition for those who want to "know the truth" and be set free by it. Since "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Prv 1:7), "the fear of the Lord" must be the foundation of our efforts to find the truth.
Jesus rebuked the scholars of his day for "making the word of God of none effect through your tradition" (Mk 7:13), and their failure to show a consistent respect for God's word was at the root of the problem. Those men passed along their beliefs, instead of bearing witness to God's word and upholding it as the standard of truth.
Encouraging people to trust the teachings of men goes against the counsel of God's word. Thus, it is a telltale sign when one has to cite the teachings of men in order to make their case.
Those who have let the teachings of men serve as the foundation for their beliefs may think the statement, "in the multitude of counsellors there is safety" (Prv 11:14, 24:6) defends the practice of looking to the opinions of men when one wants to learn the truth on biblical issues. Yet those words cannot possibly be encouraging people to think they can avoid being deceived by believing ideas which are espoused by a large quantity of people.
If people trusted the multitude of religious experts and educated men to tell them what to make of Jesus, would that have helped them to discover the truth about Jesus? No. Rather, the teachings of those men prejudiced people against Jesus and caused many to be blind to the truth. Popularity is not a proper measure of truth. So those who think the quantity of people who hold a belief is a good indicator of whether or not that idea is true are using a false balance. Moreover, a multitude of common, everyday people can also be wrong.
When Jesus asked his disciples to tell him who people said he was, they told him, "John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others say, that one of the old prophets is risen again" (Lk 9:19). When people hold opposing views on a matter, would their counsel offer "safety" if they constituted a multitude? At one point in Paul's ministry "the multitude of the people followed after, crying, Away with him." But their unity and their number did not mean their words were wise. Also, we read in Exodus 23:2, "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil." So, one cannot say going along with the crowd is encouraged by scripture.
Safety in Numbers?
Groupthink and the wisdom of this world tells people 'there is safety in numbers.' Being aligned with a large number of people can provide a degree of security in some situations. It is a fallacy, however, to take this as a universal principle. Still, because of this kind of thinking, many do assume following a multitude of people is the best way to avoid error on intellectual issues even though scripture indicates this is not a wise practice.
Verses have already been cited in this regard, but consider two other passages. Acts 14:4 says, "the multitude of the city was divided: and part held with the Jews, and part with the apostles." Another passage also reports a dispute which occurred among some people who were listening to Jesus teach: "There was much murmuring among the people concerning him: for some said, He is a good man: others said, Nay; but he deceiveth the people" (Fourth gospel 7:12). Would those who stood with the majority in those disputes be more likely to be correct?
If we think the number of people who hold a belief is an indication of whether or not the belief is true, then we are using a wrong standard. If a multitude of people believe something, all it does is prove those people think the idea is true. There are large groups of people who believe false ideas, so their numbers cannot mean those beliefs are worthy of consideration.
If people believe something, that does not make it true. If they reject an idea, that does not make it false. Acceptance by a person or group is not what makes something true. Citing the number of people who say 'x' is true in order to convince others to believe the idea, is not a God-honoring way to make an argument.
When we make a case on a biblical issue using a measure of truth which is not compatible with the counsel found in scripture, then we are asking others to rely on a false measure. People are taught to rely on an unbiblical method when they are led to believe an idea is likely true if a large number of people believe it. The majority is not always wrong, but they are not always right either.
It Gets Better with Age?
When people are deciding whether something is true or worthy of consideration, another factor they often look to is time. If an idea 'has been around for a long time' or it 'was written about long ago'