Should we study the Bible?

The New Testament was not canonized until during the 3rd Century A.D.. According to F.F. Bruce, “The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa — at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 — but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.” (The Canon of the New Testament. FF Bruce)

Thus, before the canonization of the New Testament, hand-copied versions of the letters and the gospels were being circulated among the believers living in the various cities. The question I would like to ask here is: What did the early believers do with the portions of Scripture that they possessed?  Certainly, they read it to one another in public readings of the Scripture.

In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul explicitly tells Timothy to read the Scripture publically in the early church: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”

We see elsewhere that he did not want the reading limited to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, but those connected with the dispensation of Christ as well (thereby putting those writings on par with the inspired texts of the Old Testament):

Colossians 4:16 And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.

1 Thessalonians 5:27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.

We then see this patten continued into the liturgy of the primitive church.[1] Second Clement, an early Christian sermon, says, “So then, brothers and sisters, after the God of truth I am reading to you this appeal to pay attention to the things that have been written in order that you may save yourselves and also the one who is reading among you” (19.1).

Justin Martyr in the 150′s said that on Sundays, “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.” (1 Apology, 67).

The late 2d century Christian theologian Tertullian said, “We meet together in order to read the sacred texts.” He continues, “With the holy words we feed our faith, we arouse our hope, we confirm our confidence” (Apology 39). In another place he stresses why the public Scripture reading is so important: “The church unites the Law and the Prophets in one volume with the writings of evangelists and apostles, from which she drinks in her faith.” [2]

Clement of Alexandria (c. 182-202) talks of early Christians in their worship, “always giving thanks in all things to God through righteous hearing and divine reading.” (Miscellanies 6.14.113.3)

Later, Theodore of Mopsuestia in the late 4th century said, “All of us, having come to faith in Christ the Lord from the nations, received the Scriptures from them and now enjoy them, reading them aloud in the churches and keeping them at home.” (Commentary on the Twelve Prophets)  [3]

So it appears evident that throughout the first five centuries of the church, the Scriptures were, in accordance with the command of Paul, regularly read in the church’s public worship.

But apart from reading it, they also put into practice what was taught by the apostles, both in person and through the epistles they wrote. This is seen in the book of Acts, where the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)

The teachings of the apostles did not, however, go unchallenged. At the same time, when the apostles were teaching divinely revealed truths, false teachers were going about propagating “a different gospel” (2 Cor 11:4) and aberrations of the truth (such as Gnosticism). These false teachers were quite successful in luring believers away from the Way. The believes that remained faithful were not spared either; they had to wrestle with a different enemy, a more subtle one at that.

This enemy was revealed to us by the writer of Hebrews. We are warned about the “deceitfulness of sin” which will produce in us “an evil, unbelieving heart,” leading us “to depart from the living God” (Heb 3:12, 13). But this, as you know, does not happen overnight but over time. It begins with disobedience, as seen from verses 16-18: “For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?”

How do we guard ourselves from this? I would like to suggest two things here:

1. Stop discussing.

One of the habits of the early believers was that they loved to meet to have theological debates. This was something they had picked up from the Greeks, who were “fond of good talk and relished debate and argument” [4]. The church did not escape the imposing influence of the Greeks. As late as the first century A.D., St. Paul was welcomed by the Athenians because they “liked to spend all their time telling and listening to the latest new thing.” (Acts 17:21) 

During that time, the apostles were not the only teachers in the church. There were many others who had arisen and had gain popularity among the believers. Each of them, probably, had their own interpretation of the Scripture. Intrigued by all this, the believers became engrossed with the discussion of doctrine. And it was their incessant discussions that caused them not to be able to move on to maturity. Because of this, the writer of Hebrews issued a call for the believers to “move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity” (Heb 6:1 NIV). The New King James Bible correctly rendered it as: “leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection”. So you see, “perfection” is our goal; and any thing that does not take us closer to it should be critically re-evaluated and stopped, if necessary.

In discussing the “elementary teachings about Christ”, the early believers were unwittingly laying again (and again) the foundation. How many times must the foundation (of a building, for example) be laid before construction can proceed? Interestingly, this is what modern believers are doing as well. How often have you heard (or said it yourself) Christians talk about the need to revisit the “basics”? This constant discussion and sharing of views was what led to the spiritual immaturity of the early believers; and the same is producing immaturity in modern Christians as well.

Today, there are countless Bible study groups and Bible Study programs and methods. Has all this been translated into a higher degree of holiness and godliness in the Church. Sadly, we have to admit that it hasn’t. It has, instead, cause our heads to be puffed up – often with pride.

This is not to say that theological accuracy is unimportant because it is. We must protect and preserve the integrity of the Word of God through the correct treatment and interpretation of it. But is this the job of every believer?

In the whole of the New Testament, I have only found one exhortation (by Paul) to “study” the Scriptures; and it was given to Timothy. Timothy was Paul’s apprentice. He was being trained to be an apostle like Paul. It is understandable that Timothy should know the Scriptures well. But as far as the understanding of the Scripture was concern, Timothy was not to exercise his discretion. He was to “hold the pattern of sound words” (which he had heard from Paul) and teach it to “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 1:13 and 2:2). A faithful man (or woman) is one who not hears the Word, but does it also (James 1:23, 25). In the early church, the believers did not study the Bible the way we are doing now. Their focus was not on knowing the Word, but on living it out in their daily lives. In this sense, Paul and Timothy (and the other apostles as well) were obeying the commandment of Christ: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

2. Meet regularly to stir up one another.

With each one having their own opinion about what the Scriptures means, the early believers saw little need to meet together other than for the purpose of discussion and debate. About this, the writer of Hebrews had this to say: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Heb 10:24-25). By this, the writer of Hebrews was not necessarily suggesting a weekly meeting (something we are very accustomed to). In fact, what he was suggesting was something more regular: a daily exhorting of one another (Heb 3:13). This is indispensable considering that as we progress in the last days and towards the End, life will not get easier but harder. Our faith will be put to the most severe tests. This will the time that we will need one another.

In the end, what will help you emerge out of the trials and tribulations that are to come victorious will not be your theological prowess but your endurance of faith.

[1] See Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak vol 1, 3d ed (Abilene Christian University Press, 1999), 80-81; Idem., Early Christians Speak, vol 2 (ACU Press, 2002), 8;

[2] David Bercot, Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, (Hendrickson, 1998), 606

[3] Fathers of the Church 108; trans. Richard C. Hill; Washington, D. C.: Catholic University Press, 2004, 289.

[4] a History of Ancient Greece. The Greek Genius by Robert Guisepi (1998)

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