The First Rule


The first rule is that we must personally search the scriptures. This rule is based upon the fact that we understand the Bible far deeper and with more clarity if we personally spend time meditating and wrestling with it than if we passively hear or read what someone else teaches. Also, personal investigation of the Bible results in an abiding confidence in and courageous commitment to what we learn, while an education supported by a second-hand knowledge of the Bible results in a shallow grasp of its contents and a loyalty based largely upon emotion rather than reason.

When another person tells us what they have learned, it may be polite to listen, but it is not right to accept it as fact without a good reason. We must be critical of anything that we have not checked ourselves personally. That is, we must embrace as true only those things which we have verified are so from a first-hand search of the Bible.

Acceptance of Bible interpretation without personal investigation is a problem that is common to all men, but it can be a stubborn problem among Christians because they are taught to be submissive to authority, obedient and humble. Additionally, Christians tend to be trusting of those leaders and teachers who appear to know something of the Bible.

However, Christians ought to have a chip on their shoulders when men offer them explanations about Bible passages. They have no obligation to, and in fact they must not, take what other men say about the Bible at face value, no matter how reasonable they may seem, no matter how faithful those men have been in the past. The explanations of men must be compared to those things that they know are true because they have personally learned them from the Bible.

It is true that God gives some men the gift to be teachers in order to lead others into truth. But that does not give someone the excuse to neglect personally examining those things he hears. For if a teacher has the ability to explain difficult verses because he has the gift of understanding, the listener must still have a personal understanding of enough rudimentary truths in the Bible so that he will know if the explanations that he hears ring true or not. In other words, God will give all true believers the ability to recognize truth and error in what they hear (John 10:4,5,27). But that ability is developed and strengthened through nurturing and cultivating a habit of personally studying God's Word, a requirement for all of God's people.

Biblical Support for the First Rule

The biblical support for this rule is found in Acts 17:11. Notice in Acts 17:11 that the people to whom Paul brought the Gospel were Jews. They were people who were taught from childhood to think a certain way about the Bible. There was a certain common Jewish view of things in the Bible, much of it based upon tradition and the ideas of men. If anyone would have unquestioningly accepted the consensus of opinion about Biblical things, it would have been them. Amazingly, however, the Jews in Thessalonica had developed a habit of listening critically and not accepting anything that they had not checked out personally. It wasn't that they were comparing the message of Paul to the Jewish view of the Bible. Rather they were looking at the Bible honestly, for what it says. They "searched the scriptures daily," with the result that "many of them believed." That is, they were given the grace to properly study the Bible, arrive at the correct conclusion, then receive and trust Paul's message for the truth that is was.

Illustrating the Rule: a Peril

Not understanding a part of the Bible is a problem, but that lack of understanding can be resolved by God's grace and proper Bible study methods. Unfortunately, there exists a problem that is far greater, it is so dangerous that it is better to call it a peril rather than a problem. What is that problem? It is that the some meanings of some verses are taught by so many men for so long, and consequently are so familiar, that people assume what is taught is true without bothering to personal verify if the things taught are so. I call that problem the peril of familiarity or the peril of assumption. Let me illustrate the problem by means of the following true story.

There once was a little girl who was learning the alphabet. She really enjoyed learning her letters. In fact she grew fond of some of the letters. As children often do, she had her favorite colors, her favorite toys and her favorite letters. One of her favorites was the letter that comes between k and p. She loved the letter LNMO. You know, a b c d e f g, h i j k lmno p. It was a great disappointment to her when someone told her the correct way to say the alphabet. In fact, she didn't believe it at first. She had said it many times for her mom and dad and was praised for her efforts. She never thought to ask about the correct way because she thought all the time that she was saying it correctly.

This little story show the peril of thinking we understand when all along we do not understand at all. Unfortunately this is this a danger that is very common in Bible study. As I said before, I call it a peril rather than a problem. Incorrectly understanding something is a problem. But, if that misunderstanding is not recognized, it is a great peril because it persists and does its evil work unimpeded. In fact, when people continue to think they understand a verse but really do not, they are unwitting accomplices and promoters of wrong understanding because they perpetuate wrong doctrines and wrong behavior. There is no greater barrier to people's right understanding than thinking they know when they do not, because when people think they correctly understand, they will not be willing to receive any further instruction or correction. Their misplaced confidence discourages further self-study in a passage. When people think they understand something correctly, but really do not, they destroy understanding. Only when they are given the grace to recognize their misunderstanding of a verse, will they see their view as a problem to resolve and make the effort to arrive at the correct understanding. It may be that the verse is too hard to figure out, at least at that time. But if a person is aware that his view is possibly incorrect, he is challenged to continue to search the scriptures, and he is protected from the peril of continuing to think and live a lie.

This peril is especially pernicious in the case of those Bible passages that are most familiar to Christians. There are passages which are so frequently used that everyone assumes the common views of those passages are correct. Unfortunately, the common views many times are wrong. But people are comfortable and satisfied with the accepted understandings of many Bible passages so their wrong interpretations persist, unchallenged and uncorrected. Not only that, the mistaken interpretations poison their thinking about other Bible verses, as they try to reconcile their wrong ideas with what other verses are saying.

So in summary, we can either think we know because we have been taught about the Bible by somebody, or we can really know because we have learned about the Bible by our own personal search of the scriptures. The first rule is we must be taught of God rather than men.

Examples of the Application of this First Rule.

First, we shall try to understand the phrase, "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," found in Romans 3:23.

This verse is often illustrated with the picture of a man who shoots an arrow at a target and misses the mark. The implication of the illustration is that people try in their sinful way to do what God says, but just cannot do it and so come up short. This is a wrong way to think of Romans 3:23.

People do indeed lack the glory of God, as this verse states. But the verse would be more correctly illustrated with the picture of a man who deliberately turns around and faces the opposite way from the target. In fact, man in his perverseness breaks the bow and arrow, having no desire to even think of hitting the target. That is the message of Romans 3:10-18.

Romans 3:23 is not a comment on man's ineffective efforts to achieve the standard of God's glorious righteousness. Outside of Christ, man does not even want to obey God. It takes the grace of God to turn man around so that he faces God's righteousness and then seeks the glory of God.

Secondly, we shall try to understand the phrase, "Fathers provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged" found in Colossians 3:21.

This verse commonly is taught to mean "fathers do not make your children angry because your discipline gets out of hand. Do not punish your children so harshly that you break their spirits as well as their wills." However, that is not a correct way to think about this verse.

The word erethizo translated "provoke" is used only 2 times in the Bible. It is used here and in II Corinthians 9:2 to mean create a zeal by example. Furthermore, the words "to anger" are in italics in our English Bible to highlight the fact that they are not found in this verse at all, but are inserted by the translators, probably in reaction to the word "provoke." Therefore, we can more accurately understand this verse to say, "Fathers, do not, by your example, create a desire for sin in your children, for that will lead to their lack of interest in the things of the Lord. They will be discouraged from living obediently."

Deep in their hearts, children know the right way to act as God's creatures. They recognize the virtues that come from God in the behavior of their parents and recognize when their parents fail to live up to their responsibilities. Children respond to the authority God has delegated to parents. Children usually want to please their parents and, even if only in an outward way, readily follow the spiritual leadership of their parents. It is the job of parents to encourage their children to walk obediently to God and to discourage a life of sin.

Thirdly we shall try to understand the phrase, "for judgment must begin at the house of the Lord," found in I Peter 4:17.

I Peter 4:17 is totally misunderstood by most teachers. I Peter 4:17 is commonly understood to refer to God's judgment upon the church. However, a careful analysis of this verse results in a surprising conclusion. It is not a prediction that judgment will begin upon the corporate churches, as for example near the end of time. It is true from other scriptures that corporate churches are judged by God for their sin, but that is not the message of I Peter 4:17 at all. The message concerns the role and experience of individual true believers. This can be shown in two ways. One from the immediate context and another from a careful analysis of the words in the verse.

First of all, let us look at the context of verse 17, in particular, to whom the verse is addressed. The focus of verse 15 is upon a collection of people who are "partakers of Christ's suffering" (verse 13). People "partake of Christ's suffering" when Jesus suffered on their behalf in payment for their sins. Also, people "partake of Christ's suffering" when they suffer for bearing Christ's name in the world. In addition to that, verse 14 states they are people upon whom "the spirit of glory and God" rests. These verses show that true believers are in view.

The message of the context is, in the words of verse 15, "let none of you suffer as a murderer, or ..." That is, they must not suffer for the wrong reason. They must not suffer for actions that are similar to an unbeliever's. They must not live as an unbeliever. As a complement to that, according to verse 16, is that when they suffer for the right reason, God is glorified. Verse 17 continues the focus upon believers that is part of the preceding verses. Notice the connecting word "for" that begins verse 17. That is, the message of verses 14-16 continues into verse 17.

The judgment mentioned in verse 17 concerns "the house of God." As it turns out, the word "house" refers to those people who really are the house, that is true believers, as we read in Hebrews 3:6, "But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end." In support of that understanding of "the house," verse 17 goes on to state, "if it first begin at us," in which the word "us" includes Peter and other believers to whom he wrote. In fact, the verse ends with the words "them that obey not the gospel of God," as a contrast to the "us" who do obey the gospel. Therefore, the first idea to get straight is that I Peter 4:17 is directed to true believers, and not the corporate church that is a mixture of believers and unbelievers, or a totally apostate church, with few if any saved members.

Furthermore, the word "at" in the phrase "at the house of God" is really the word (apo) that means "away from." It always means "away from" without exception. The judgment is not directed toward (pros) the house, as if it were the target of the judgment. The judgment is not placed upon (epi) the house, as if the house must bear the judgment. The judgment issues away from the house into the world. Therefore the second idea to get straight is the I Peter 4:17 tells us judgment goes away from the house of God, away from true believers, because it is "the time" for that to happen. In addition to that, the phrase "if it first began at us" also uses the word "away from" (a different form of apo) for the word "at," with the proper meaning of, "but if first away from us."

Putting all of this together, we can come up with the following understanding of I Peter 4:17. The time is now, and has been for a while already, that judgment goes away from the believers out into the world. When does this happen? As this passage itself tells us in verse 11, "if any man speak, let him speak the oracles of God." In other words, it is because true believers bring a message of judgment, in faithful obedience to God, that the "fiery trial" comes to them (verse 12), inasmuch as the unbelievers hate that message and persecute anyone who brings it. Verse 17 continues to ask, "if that message first comes out of us to the world, what will happen to those people who do not obey the Gospel message that comes out of "us?" The answer, of course, is that they will be judged.

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