Modern Christianity has a number of taboo subjects; and the subject of 'Study' is possibly even more taboo that those that are readily acknowledged as taboo. Whilst it is generally known that it is unwise for a minister to preach upon giving, women, discipline or decency it is at least openly acknowledged that these subjects are being avoided. The very openness with which these subjects have been excluded provokes the curious to investigate what the teaching is that is being avoided. However in almost twenty years of church attendance I don't recall the issue of private Bible study having ever been mentioned. Whilst it is frequently enjoined that we should be people of the word and that we should follow its' teaching the method by which we are supposed to absorb that teaching is usually left unmentioned.
There are subjects related to study that are deemed suitable for polite conversation. We are told that scripture is inspired and efficacious. We are willing to stress the necessity of scriptural learning for children and accept that it is necessary for salvation. It will even occasionally be mentioned that scripture memorization can assist in the pursuit of holiness and in defending against the evil one. Many of the more conservative churches will even stress the need for sound doctrine and the need to discuss it. Very correctly the preaching of the Word is seen as vital. Yet the subject of personal, deep study is assiduously avoided.
The verse of scripture that most directly discusses studying is probably 2 Ti 2:15 "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." It is interesting that even upon this verse four of the eleven commentators in the Power Bible completely ignore the subject of study and JFB merely notes that the underlying Greek really means 'be earnest' or 'diligent'. I suspect that it is this literal rendering of the Greek that explains why the subject is so fervently avoided. The Greek spoudazo is variously rendered 'diligent', 'labor' or 'endeavor'. None of these are particularly compatible with modern Western culture.
The verse above also hints at another reason for the unpopularity of study. It states that we should study to be approved unto God. Study is not a visible ministry, it is not glamorous and it is usually not even recognized. In fact in many parts of our culture academic pursuit may be viewed as legalistic, a-spiritual or even 'un-cool'. Of course as believers we should be striving for God's approval and not men's; but that does not come naturally to us.
The verse promises that a consequence of diligent labor is that we will be workmen that need not be ashamed. I find it encouraging that 'workmanlike' behavior receives divine sanction. We are often tempted to believe that the target for which we should strive is inspiration. And in some very real sense we do need inspiration to preach and teach appropriately. However, inspiration is solely in the gift and mandate of the Spirit it is not something we can conjure. Our target and mandate is to put in a creditable workmanlike effort. I like John Wesley's comment that we will not be ashamed because we lack faithfulness or skill. Whilst some are given tangible gift we are all able to faithfully pursue scriptural knowledge.
From the commentators perspective the most controversial clause is that it should teach us to rightly divide the word of truth. There are three main schools of thought. Wesley suggests that the meaning is that scripture can be divided into pieces and that it is important that the preachers preaches a little of each piece of scripture. This is almost the spiritual equivalent of food groups. Dr Van Mildert of the British Family Bible is similar in viewing it as correctly joining together the different pieces of scripture. JFB and Poole view it not so much as dividing evening within the scripture as ensuring that the scripture is equally or effectively divided amongst the hearers; likened to a father dividing bread amongst his children. PNTC and Robertson take the literal rendering of the Greek as to cut a straight line and suggest the meaning is that scripture should not be bent or twisted.
I believe that the third interpretation is the closest; however I also suspect the first two have an element of truth. In fact I think that if the first clause, 'be diligent' is taken sufficiently seriously then the latter two will become more readily apparent. Anyone that applies themselves earnestly and repeatedly to a task becomes not only better able to perform the task but also better able to judge when a task has been performed well.
Whilst the fact that we are commanded to study ought to be sufficient motivation it is the case that scripture also promises benefits to those that earnestly apply themselves. The first psalm states that meditation in the law of God is the root of true happiness. It also promises permanence and fruitfulness. However it also hints at a benefit that is not immediately obvious; it states that the man will delight in the law of the Lord. The picture is not of someone painstakingly applying himself to some onerous task. On the contrary it suggests that genuine pleasure is derived from the task. Psalm 119:103 suggests that the word of God should be sweet to the taste.
I suggest that biblical study or the lack thereof, is actually a cyclic phenomenon. If you study the Word you develop a taste for it and it becomes relatively easy to study more. If your tastes have been developed in alternative areas then facing biblical study becomes harder. This is particularly pernicious as some of the areas that we tend to develop only need to be developed, or developed so fully because of the lack of scriptural study. An area that comes readily to mind is churchmanship. We spend a lot of time discussing contentious issues that are only contentious because we haven't all spent the time discovering the biblical answers.
There is another reason for biblical study that is sufficiently important to warrant a separate paragraph; that is assurance. 2Pe 1:10 exhorts us to diligence to make our calling and election sure. This verse bothers many people because some feel it suggests that our salvation is tenuous. I actually think that is the opposite to the meaning of the verse. I believe that there are a set of preconditions for someone to receive salvation and that the Bible clearly lays those out. Once they have been met then our salvation rests one hundred percent upon the promises of God and is therefore entirely secure. Anyone that has taken the trouble to understand these points and commit them to memory can walk in full assurance of faith; and is in a position to share that confidence with others.
In fact the issue of difficult passages is probably an extremely good application of this verse. When confronted with a passage that does not appear to support what we believe we can walk away from it; or dig in until we are satisfied. Fear tends to force us to take the former route; but we have then walked away with less confidence in our Bible and possibly our God. If instead we dig in and keep digging until we are confident of a resolution then our faith has been built. Incidentally the same applies if a preacher says something that bothers us; we are allowed, even mandated, to check what has been said against Holy writ.
It is frequently noted that Bible study should be a particular hallmark of the church leader. It is probably no coincidence that the majority of the best verses on study and teaching appear in the Pastoral Epistles. Certainly we are specifically told that a reason for holding fast to good doctrine is the ability to contradict false doctrine which is clearly the role of an elder. In fact a qualification of an elder is an ability to teach and those whose particular ministry is the Word are to be deemed worth of double honor. However we are also told that it is entirely right for people to desire the office of elder and Paul certainly implies that the longer they have been known the more useful they are. I suggest therefore that scriptural study is of benefit for all although lack of it in a church leader is grounds for disqualification.
This essay started from an almost cynical position of asserting that study is not really an acceptable subject for modern Christians. It then dissected some of the reasons for this but then showed that irrespective of our logic; study is mandated for the believer. The effects of scriptural study were then considered and it was further suggested that once study has started the process of studying would become easier. From a more defensive position it was then noted that many of the concerns of contemporary Christianity may be due to lack of diligent study. Finally it was noted that study was a necessary component of Christian leadership.
Notwithstanding: if you read this essay and agree with it, and move on then I have failed. If you check each of the references for yourself, consider which ones I have missed and then form your own conclusion then this composition may have benefited the reader as much as it did the writer.
Note: An overview of some useful study tools is available here.