What is biblical literacy?

“Apollos…was mighty in the Scriptures.”

Acts 18:24 (NASB)

“Wow, she sure knows her Bible.”

Perhaps you’ve said that about someone, or heard it said. What was it that triggered that response? Was it the command of details about the Bible? Was it a demonstration of extended memorization? Was it the ability to bring additional passages to bear on the discussion? It could have been any, or all, of these.

The fact is, Christians tend to admire someone who can prove themselves knowledgeable in the Bible. Furthermore, many wish that they themselves were more so. If biblical literacy is to be valued and pursued, it would be helpful to determine what it means to be literate in the Scripture.

Far too many Christians are happy with just a cursory knowledge of the Bible. This is more than sad; it can be dangerous. Since there are so many worldviews and doctrines vying for our attention, it would be easy to fall into error without a working knowledge of Scripture.

Often, we are satisfied to find a verse-of-the-day and pop it like a vitamin pill and then spend the rest of the day thinking worldly thoughts. And we wonder why we are weak and ineffective.

On the other hand, our goal for biblical literacy is to go deeper. Whether you go to a Bible college or seminary, attend instructional workshops and classes at your church, or engage in personal study on your own, you should be seeking to dive into the text of Scripture with a mind to understanding the deep truths found therein. This may not be easy, but it’s easily the most rewarding. As John Piper has said in reference to reading, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.”

Apollos, a man of the Word

In Acts 18:24, we are introduced to a Jewish believer named Apollos. He is described as “eloquent” and “competent” in the Scriptures (ESV). The word for “competent” in the ESV is perhaps better rendered “mighty,” as in the NASB, or powerful in handling the Word. In other words, he knew his stuff, and furthermore, he was effective in communicating to both believers and scoffers alike.

I believe he is a model of a biblically literate man. We can glean several characteristics about what it means to “know” the Bible through the text that follows.

Skill

In verse 25, we read that Apollos had been instructed in the way of the Lord. This shows us the value of training and both formal and informal education. A student of the Bible must be willing to submit to this training.

Sometimes this means that you must learn new skills in order to dig deep. First, a student of the Bible must be well-versed in language and grammar. As a written document, the Bible opens its truths to those willing to examine the meanings of words and the relationships between phrases and clauses. Linking words such as “for” and “therefore” are the unsung heroes of biblical literacy. Grammar is important.

Secondly, learning to understand literary forms such as poetry and extended metaphor will also enrich your study. You can hardly read the Psalms or Revelation without an appreciation of figurative language. You read and study an epistle differently than you do an historical book.

Finally, having an understanding of the basic tenets of logic and argument will help you draw sound conclusions and avoid errors in reasoning in your study. One unfortunate unintended consequence of dividing the Bible into chapters and verses (verses have only been commonly used for about 500 years) is that we often think of the verses in a vacuum outside of their context, and we lose sight of the overall argument being made. Worse, we may misuse a verse to make it say what it doesn’t. Dan Brendsei wrote, “Scripture is not just a collection of energy packets; it’s a five-course meal. It’s not just a bunch of pearls on a string; it’s a chain strong enough to pull you out of any trial.” In order to obtain a full grasp of a passage of Scripture, you must be able to follow the argument in the “chain” of verses and derive sound logical conclusions.

Accuracy

We also read in verse 25 about Apollos, “being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus (emphasis added).” Perhaps nothing is more basic to biblical literacy than the ability to understand the Bible correctly. Paul instructed his young disciple Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). He contrasts this accurate handling of the Word with the warning to “avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (v.16).

Interestingly enough, we are told in subsequent verses in Acts 18, that Apollos himself was limited in his knowledge – he only knew the baptism of John – and needed further instruction from Priscilla and Aquilla in order to fill out his understanding. But even before that correction, he was described as an accurate teacher. Further truth, or in our case, learning more and more of the Bible and comparing Scripture with Scripture, will make our knowledge correct.

Reason and Synthesis

Apollos, after correction from Priscilla and Aquila, was of great help to the believers. In verse 28 we read that he “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.” This follows one of the recurring themes in the book of Acts, namely the need to prove to the Jews first that Jesus of Nazareth, whom everyone then knew about, was in fact the promised Messiah (Greek word, Christ), something the Jewish leadership opposed. Apollos was able to do this by “showing by the Scriptures.” Now, there’s not one solitary, handy verse in the Old Testament that could do this. Apollos would have to show, passage by passage, line by line, what the prophecies concerning the Messiah were, what he would be do, how he would have to suffer, and then he would have to demonstrate how Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of those prophecies. This would be extremely encouraging and helpful to young believers who were in danger of skepticism.

This is what is known in education circles as synthesis, the act of putting parts together to form a whole. Just as in Bloom’s Taxonomy, this is one of the higher order thinking skills. Comparing Scripture with Scripture is not only helpful in our accurate understanding of the passages, it also enables us to formulate a theology and a creed according to that understanding.

Boiling it down to a statement

So, what can we say about this question, what does it mean to know the Bible? If we take these entities of skill, accuracy, and synthesis, let’s say this –

A biblically literate person is able to apply the skills of language, literature, and logic to passages of the Bible, comparing one with another, so that the reader is able to accurately determine the meaning of a passage and to grasp its place in the greater story that God is telling.

Biblical literacy is not becoming a “Bible nerd,” but it is a means by which you may grow in godliness as you grow in the knowledge of our Lord.

The set heart of Ezra


The return of the Jews from captivity

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.”

Ezra 7:10

The Old Testament book of Ezra chronicles the return of Jews to their homeland in Canaan from Babylonian captivity, the first group under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 538 BC, and then later a second group under Ezra the scribe. Ezra in particular called the people, who had lived under secular Babylonian culture for over 70 years, to a renewal of holiness and submission to God’s law.

Ezra was described as “skilled in the Law of Moses” (7:6). And his heart for the people is told to us in 7:10 – “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” What Ezra was returning to accomplish for the Lord and his people consumed him. He set his heart on this. There are three infinitives here to tell us what captured his soul, and what ought to capture ours.

1 To study

It was Ezra’s devotion, first of all, to study the law of the Lord. As a scribe, this was to be expected, to not only reverently copy the manuscripts by hand but to become utterly versed in their content. By the time of Jesus, the scribes (along with the Pharisees and Sadducees) were highly thought of in Israel. And though our Lord regularly railed against the hypocrisy of these groups, Ezra rather supplies us with a noble example.

We live in a time that needs more Ezras, men and women who are not afraid to do the hard work of studying the Bible, who are willing to go deep and tackle theological issues. Unfortunately, our time is more characterized Amos’ prophecy – “’Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘when I will send a famine on the land— not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD'” (Amos 8:11). Has there ever been a time of more opportunity to study God’s Word and less actual biblical understanding?

2 To practice

Ezra’s second passion was to put the truth of God into practice. Indeed, to know God’s word and not obey it was the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. But Ezra, as an early example, was of more noble character.

All too often, we are content to have an interest in the things of God, but it is superficial. When the commands of Scripture come to us, we choose to obey the ones that don’t shatter our comfort levels; others we ignore or explain away. Study after study shows that professing Christians have no discernable difference with non-believers in areas like divorce, attitudes toward honesty, and sexual behavior. Shouldn’t we be noticably different than the world?

3 To teach

Finally, Ezra had a fervor to teach the Word in Israel. This was a great need as the Jews had been in captivity in a secular society for over 70 years. They would have forgotten much of the statutes and commands of the Law. And just as during the time of the end of the Exodus (Deuteronomy, the “second reading of the Law”), the people needed to hear again from the Lord.

This happened as recorded in Nehemiah 8, where we find that Ezra read from the Law from “monring until midday” (Neh. 8:3), and the people were attentive. Then Ezra and a numbger of the Levites “helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:7-8). In other words, they held Sunday School!

Many believers don’t think of themselves as teachers. But we are all enjoined to teaching, whether it’s our children, younger believers, or even the church at large. The readers of Hebrews were chastised – “though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles” (Heb. 5:12). How many of us feel inadequate to teach because we haven’t done our own study?

Where is your heart set regarding the Bible? I pray that we will be people who are known…for our studying, for our practice, for our teaching.

Why I don’t often ask myself, how do I apply this?

Read any Bible study guide, or any book on how to study the Bible, and you’ll invariably see a directive to ask, how do I apply this passage to my life?

I’m going to go a little counter-cultural here and admit that when I study the Bible, I rarely ask that question of myself.

It’s not that I don’t think the Bible has a practical application; it’s not that I don’t try to apply the truths to my life. I just don’t rush to answer that question. Here’s why –

1 I want to grasp the meaning of the text.

If we rush to the practical application, we can short-change the interpretation stage. This is perhaps the most important step in your Bible study. If you don’t determine what the text says and what it means, then any application you may come up with could be misguided at best, or just plain wrong at worst.

Understanding the text takes work and it takes time. There’s the observation of the text – making note of which words and phrases are repeated or emphasized, seeing the flow of thought in the text, determining word meanings, comparing the passage to others in the Bible. All of this is a concentrated endeavor and is not to be rushed. It can take multiple sessions with a text.

2 I want to savor the richness of the text.

Sometimes, it is in the repeated mulling over of the text that a deeper understanding comes. This is called meditation, and it is commended to us throughout Scripture, most notably in Psalm 1:2 – “his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating on the Word, the over-and-over rehearsing of the text in your mind, can open up connections and implications that a quick once-over just cannot do.

A number of years ago, I was memorizing long passages in Ephesians. As I would repeat the text, each day adding a new verse, connections from one part of the epistle to another became clear. For example, in chapter 1 we read that God was “making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:9-10).

Later in chapter 3, Paul speaks of the “mystery [that] was made known to me by revelation” (3:3). He continues, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). As I contemplated this later passage, I was able to make the connection to chapter 1 and have a greater understanding of what it means for all things to be united in Christ. This only came after extended meditation on the text.

3 The Bible is a much better applier of truth than I am.

For me to assume that I am the determining factor of whether or not my study and meditation of the Bible will affect my life is seriously short-changing the power of the Word of God. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Bible is not passive as I read; it is “living and active.” Reading and studying the Bible can cause me to say, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32) To feed on the Word and then to ask how I might apply it is like eating a 4-course meal and then asking how I might get the proteins and nutrients into my system.

It is the Scripture (coupled with the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit) that will convict me of my sin and instruct me in the way I should go. This happens as I store up the Word in my mind and heart. It may be that in that moment, the weight and import of that passage may not resonate. I don’t sweat that. In time, the Spirit will bring it to remembrance and bring it to bear on my situation. I know this is so because the Bible teaches that this is the ministry of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:11b-12), and I know this to be so because I’ve seen it happen time and again in my life.

I fully understand that it is possible that I might become a student of the Bible and miss seeing Christ. But as I pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18), the Bible itself is its own best instructor in how to apply its truths to my life.