Verse of the Day

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Study of the Scriptures Session 2: Wednesday, 11 FEB 2015, at Faith Baptist Fellowship Church Lake Ariel, PA

The Study of the Scriptures
Session 2: Wednesday 11 FEB 2015
Faith Baptist Fellowship Church
Lake Ariel, PA
Note: There was no audio recording of this session.

I. Review Session 1

Hebrew 1:1-3

“How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?”[1]

2 Timothy 3:13-17

We do not live in a time or a place where the Scriptures are chained within cathedrals in a language that we cannot understand. We do not face martyrdom for possessing translations of the Bible into our vernacular, our native language. We have ready access to multiple translations into the language that we speak, along with virtual libraries of helpful tools assisting us to study the Word. And yet modern Christians seem to have less understanding of the Scriptures than many in the past, and decreased confidence in their ability to remedy the situation. We need to get at the root of why that is.

I assume that you are here because you desire to understand God’s Word, or to understand it better than you have in the past. In order to help you to do so I would like to first address what I believe are the major barriers to our understanding of God’s revelation.

1. The character of God and our need:

The acknowledgement of God’s ability and our inability is fundamental to understand what is required to know His Word.

2. The nature of God’s revelation and His prerogative as the Revealer:

The acknowledgement of the nature of God’s revelation and confidence in Him as the communicator of His revelation is essential for the humble student of God’s Word.

3. The nature of our cultural context and the skeptical mindset of modern man:

Christians today face discouragement that they can know God’s Word both from the skepticism of our cultural mindset, and from the elitism of ivory tower academics.

There are two alternatives:

1) Growth in Grace and in the Knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18)

2) Is. 28:8-13 - “But the word of the LORD was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.” (28:13)

Calvin - Know God, know yourself
See yourself in relation to the Word and the world in history
Know your place, your role, your capabilities and limitations

The ability of God

John 1:1-5
Genesis 1-3
Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 29 - “And God said…”
Gen. 2:16 - “And the Lord God commanded the man…”

The responses of the creature to the revelation of God

Gen. 3:1, 5-6 - What did Satan do?
Gen. 3:8-10 - Once man sins against the command of God, how does he respond to the voice of God? Why does man do this?

See yourself in the mirror of the Word! What do we do? This is not about Adam. This is just as much about you and I, and every sinner born of Adam. We are no different, and we do not respond any differently to the voice of God today than Adam and Eve did in the Garden. Do people hide from the voice of God today? Are people afraid of the voice of God today? Why don’t people understand the Bible?

What was the tactic of Satan when it came to the Word of God in the second temptation of Christ in Mt. 4:6 (“…for it is written…”)?

How is this different from the temptation of Eve in the Garden (“…hath God said…Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know…”)?

We must be aware of and alert for both aspects of error when it comes to God’s revelation!
1) Skeptical questioning of what God has revealed in His Word
2) Subtle uses of God’s Word in attempts to subvert His purposes

Now what?

The inability of fallen or natural man

It is naturally impossible for man in his fallen state to understand and properly respond to the revelation of God - Romans 1:18-32

What is the unregenerate unbeliever to do?

1 Corinthians 2

Holding God’s Word at arm length:
Eden - Hide!
Sinai - Shut Him up!
Prophets? Kill them! Get rid of them!
God? Keep your distance!

We are not the interpreters of the Scriptures. We are not the determiners of the meaning of God’s Word. We are incapable of doing this, and in error when we set ourselves over the Word  in such a fashion. If we think that if we do A+B+C, etc., and that will result is us understanding the Bible, then we have done the same thing with God’s revelation that Charles Grandison Finney did with revival via his “New Measures.” If we focus on ourselves and our ability we are disrespecting God, His ability, and His Word. We demonstrate in so doing our ignorance of what God’s Word says about not only its Author, but about our dependence upon Him, especially in our sinful state. It is not about you and your perceived ability or presumed skill.

There is the pathway of the blind, unbelieving skeptic, and then there is the pathway of the humble, faithful, trusting student.

Hebrews 5:11-6:9

2 Peter 3

“Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.”[2]

Five times Jesus repeated the refrain, “Ye have heard..But I say unto you…” (Mt. 5:21-48)

Is it worse to question the Word of God, to twist it by a subversive use, or to deny that it has anything to do with us all these centuries later? Are we guilty of doing something with the Word of God that produces the same result as what Satan intended in the Garden and the temptation of Christ? Do we look in it as a mirror, and see ourselves in it? Do we hear and remember and do what we find there, or do we hide from it and forget it? Do we hold it at arm’s length? Do we distance ourselves from it, or treat it as if were dead and irrelevant, instead of honoring it as the living Word of the one true and living God who speaks to us in it by His Spirit? If you can pile up excuses for why you cannot understand God’s revelation what need does Satan have to question it to you or to use it to subvert God’s purposes for you? If you are already hiding from God by hiding from His word, and have given up in despair, the battle is over. But if you will be honest with yourself and with God, and will trust in His ability and the sufficiency and perspicuity of His Word, the He will strengthen you, feed you, nourish you and equip you!

James 4:5-8

Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you!

II. Introduce Session 2

Historical and Personal Parameters in the Spectrum of Abilities
for the Understanding of the Scriptures:

Created Unfallen Man
Fallen Unregenerate (Natural)
(Spiritual) Man
Maturing Regenerate
(Spiritual) Man
Maturing Regenerate Man: Maximizing Resources
1. Eyes to see

2. Ears to hear

3. Mind to know

4. Heart to believe

5. Unhindered communion with God


What could be better?

1. Eyes Blind

2. Ears Deaf

3. Mind Dark

4. Heart hard

5. Neck stiff

6. Rebellion towards God

7. Suppression of the truth of God


The problem is obvious!
1. Eyes to see

2. Ears to hear

3. Mind to know

4. Heart to believe

5. Spirit to teach


So, what is the problem?
1. Read

2. Memorize

3. Meditate

4. Obey

5. Testify
1. Knowledge of Ancient History and Culture

2. Knowledge of Ancient Languages (vocabulary, semantics, grammar, syntax)

3. Awareness of Spiritual Warfare including Satanic Subversion of the Word of God through False Teachers throughout history
Know as we are known

From Total Depravity to Eternal Glory
From Great Darkness to Glorious Light
From Ignorance of God to the Knowledge of Christ

We are no longer in the Garden, and we are not yet in glory.

"There is an old adage: ‘Half the bad theology in the world is due to suppressed perspiration.’ It is the result of not really making the effort, taking the time, and exercising the necessary disciplines to try to grapple with what God is really saying in the pages of Scripture....The value of our Bible study depends on this. Are we willing to work at it?....We do not grow as Christians merely by taking our spiritual temperature. Scripture teaches us that maturity comes from the life transforming renewal of our minds. That, in turn, comes from actually understanding and learning to apply God's word to our lives."
- Sinclair Ferguson, From the Mouth of God (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014), pg. 63 (on 2 Tim. 2:15);  posted by Fred Zaspel on Facebook 8 OCT 2014.

A Question from Jesus Christ: “Are you a teacher in Israel?”

Robert Dick Wilson (1856-1930; as an extreme example of the 5th column in the table above):

“I made my plan as to my life, that I would give—you know, like life
insurance. I was good on that line, my family was noted for its longevity, and I felt I
might reasonably live till I was 70,[3] so I divided my life into periods of fifteen years. I
gave myself the first 15 years to study languages, these languages divided this way. I
would learn all the Semitic languages, every language which threw light on the vocabulary
or the syntax of the Old Testament. Of course, I did already know Syriac, and Aramaic,
and Hebrew, but there was Ethiopic and Phoenician and Babylonian, and Assyrian, and
a number of others—about twelve different Aramaic dialects. Secondly, I would learn all
languages that threw light on the history of the Old Testament, taking in Egyptian, Coptic,
and others. Then, thirdly, I would learn all languages that threw light on the text of the
Old Testament, down to the year 600 after Christ. The texts after that would be too late.
So that took me into Armenian and several other languages, Gothic, and Anglo-Saxon,
etc. . . .[4] The second part of my life I would devote to lower Criticism, studying the text of
the Old Testament, the comparison of the Hebrew text with the Versions, Greek, Latin,
Syriac, especially, and all the versions down to 600. . . . The last 15 years, after which I
had acquainted myself with all the machinery, I would tackle the subject which is called
the Higher Criticism of the Old Testament, including all that the critics have said, and so
be able by that time to defend the history, the veracity of the Old Testament. . . . Well, I
admit, and you will admit too, that that was a pretty big proposition that I laid out for
myself, and I think you will admit that the Lord must have been in it.”[5]

III. The Means God Uses

If we believe that God’s Word is sufficient and clear (perspicuous), that He has communicated effectively, then what should be our concerns as we come to His Word? What can we learn from His Word about our responsibility towards the Scriptures? (deception, self-deception, false teaching, wrongly dividing versus rightly dividing, twisting and wresting the Scriptures, curiosity, vain imaginings, idle questions, etc.)

When we look into the mirror of God’s Word we are confronted with teachings which should cause us to proceed with great caution.

2 Tim: 2:14-26 - Of these things put them in remembrance, charging them before the Lord that they strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers. Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity. But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master's use, and prepared unto every good work. Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart. But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.

The other serious concerns enumerated by Paul here - in addition to his description of the nature of Hymenaeus' and Philetus' error - are: 

1) unprofitable and subversive strivings about words,
2) profane and vain babblings that precipitate ungodliness, and
3) foolish, ignorant, strife-breeding questions.

Included in the many warnings in the Scriptures are some regarding self-deception.  See the following examples from the 73 verses where the “deception” word-group is found (all of which were written to believers in Jesus Christ!):

1 Corinthians 3:18 - Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.

Galatians 6:3 - For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.

1 John 1:8 - If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

James 1:16-27 (22, 26) - 16 Do not err, my beloved brethren. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. 18 Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. 19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: 20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. 21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. 23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: 24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. 25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. 26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. 27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

When we come to Christ we come as lost sinners, dead, helpless, and in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace, forgiveness and cleansing, healing and power. When we come to God’s Word we need to come as humble students, not as proud scholars. We must come confessing our ignorance, and recognizing our need of instruction. We come with darkness, and in need of illumination. We do not shine light on God’s Word, it is quite the other way around. We come with our confusion seeking the clarity that can only be found in the Scriptures of Truth. If we come with such humility God will lift us up. “…be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6) If we come any other way we must expect nothing less than failure. “But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

We need to observe what the Bible does with the Bible, or more properly, how the inspired authors handle the Scriptures. This is especially instructive in the New Testament as we observe how the Old Testament is understood, interpreted and applied.

"The principal rule of interpreting Scripture is that Scripture interprets Scripture." - R. C. Sproul

"Reading God’s Word answers the question: What does the Bible say? But interpreting it answers the question:What does the Bible mean by what it says? Proper Bible interpretation is a critical element of successful Bible study. The reader does not have license to decide what it means. He has to learn what it means...."
- John MacArthur, "Common Interpretive Pitfalls" (30 OCT 2014), on Grace to You at [accessed 30 OCT 2014]; adapted from MacArthur's book, How to Study the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982, 2009).

1. The Scriptures

The best textbook for studying the Bible is the Bible itself.  You already have all that you need (2 Pet. 1:3) if you are a born-again believer in Jesus Christ, indwelt by His Spirit, with His Word before your eyes, and in fellowship with His children in the Church.

2 Peter 1:3-4 - According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

What do the Scriptures say about the Scriptures?

Let us begin with a reminder from Hebrew 1:1-2 - God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, 2 Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;

Lord willing, we plan to address the “sundry times” and “divers manners” by which God’s revelation came in the past by the prophets.

“It is written…” [Strong’s #1125]
“…by the prophet (Mt. 2:5)
“…in the prophets (Mk. 1:2; Jn. 6:45)
“…in the law of the Lord” (Lk. 2:23)
“…in the book of the words of Esaias” (Lk. 3:4)
“…by the prophets” (Lk. 18:31)
“…in the law of Moses” (Lk. 24:44; 1 Cor. 9:9)
“…in your law” (Jn. 8:17; 10:34)
“…in their law” (Jn. 15:25)
“…in the book of Psalms” (Ac. 1:20)
“…in the book of the prophets” (Ac. 7:42)
“…in the second psalm” (Ac. 13:33)
“…the words of the prophets…” (Ac. 15:15)
“…in the law” (Ac. 24:14; 1 Cor. 14:21)
“…in the book of the law” (Gal. 3:10)
“…in the volume of the book…” (Heb. 10:7)

For now, let us focus for a moment on the significance of His speaking to us by His Son.

Matthew 5:17-48 - There are 8 parts to consider in this passage from the “Sermon on the Mount”: 17-20, 21-26, 27-30, 31-32, 33-37, 38-42, 43-47, and 48. Attention must be drawn to the following:
1) “Ye have heard…” (vv. 21, and 27), and “It hath been said…” (vv. 31, 33, 38, and 43); and,
2) “But I say unto you…” (vv. 22, 28, 32, 34, 39, and 44).

At the conclusion of this sermon the response of the hearers is recorded: “28 And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: 29 For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Matthew 7:28-29)

Is it too much to conclude that regardless of what other voices outside of the Scriptures tell us that Christ claims ultimate authority? Shouldn’t we be asking at every juncture, “Who says so?” There are a lot of voices out there. There is a lot of confusion as a result. There are many who pretend to have some authority for what they would have us accept from them as truth. Christ’s “But I say unto you…” should be ringing in our ears, and driving us away from the despair and confusion of uninspired voices to His Word, and His Word alone.

In Zondervan Publishing House’s “Counterpoints” series (currently 33 volumes[6]), InterVarsity Press’s “Spectrum Multiview Books” series (currently includes 19 volumes[7]), and B&H  Publishing Group’s “Perspectives” series (currently 14 volumes[8]) - all of which I really appreciate by the way - I notice one remarkable factor common to all of them: the Lord Jesus Christ does not get a chapter in any of them! At the end of the day in such books we are left with “this one said this, and that one said that.” If we open any commentaries on Revelation we will be confronted with four approaches to the interpretation of the book and three millennial conclusions, etc. What has God said? Where is there any authoritative Word from God in all of this “noise”? Can you spell “cafeteria theology”? What did Jesus Christ do with such “scholarly” debates during the time of His humiliation?

“Ye have heard…It hath been said…But I say unto you…”!
“…he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Matthew 22:15-46 - Christ confronted by the “scholars” of His day!

1) The Pharisees and Herodians:

15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. 16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. 17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
[Christ responds in vv. 18-21.]
22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

2) The Sadducees:

23 The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him, 24 Saying, Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. 25 Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother:
26 Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. 27 And last of all the woman died also. 28 Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her.
[Christ responds in vv. 29-32.]
33 And when the multitude heard this, they were astonished at his doctrine.

3) A Pharisee:

34 But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together.
35 Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
[Christ responds in vv. 37-45, including a few questions of His own for them!]
46 And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.

Be astonished!

What did Christ do with the Scriptures? [Strong’s #1124, 32X singular, 20X plural[9]]

1) He fulfilled them - Luke 4:21 (and many other passages) - And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.

2) He quoted them - Matthew 4:4-10 (Luke 4:4-12); Matthew 21:42 (Mark 12:10); 22:32; John 7:38.

2) He explained them: Luke 24:27 - And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

What do the Scriptures confront us with about the Scriptures?

1) The Questions:

Matthew 21:42 (Mark 12:10) - Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?
John 7:42 - Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?
Romans 4:3 - For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
Galatians 4:30 - Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.
James 4:5 - Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?

2) The Command: John 5:39 (Acts 17:11!) - Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

3) The Charge: Matthew 22:29 (Mark 12:24) - Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.

4) The Warning: 2 Peter 3:16 - As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

5) The Blessings:

John 7:38 - He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.

Romans 10:11 - For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.

6) The Goal: Acts 18:24 - to be mighty in the Scriptures!

Let us take up the obligation of searching the Scriptures, often mentioned as the first task of the Bible student as that of “observation.”

 “Peering into the mists of gray
That shroud the surface of the bay,
Nothing I see except a veil
Of fog surrounding every sail.
Then suddenly against a cape
A vast and silent form takes shape,
A great ship lies against the shore
Where nothing has appeared before.

He who sees a truth must often gaze
Into a fog for many days;
It may seem very sure to him
Nothing is there but mist-clouds dim.
Then, suddenly, his eyes will see
A shape where nothing used to be.
Discoveries are missed each day
By men who turn too soon away.”[10]

Myles (or, Miles) Coverdale (c. 1488-1569) produced the first complete printed translation of the Bible into English. In his “Prologue” he wrote:

 “Now will I exhort thee (whosoever thou be that readest scripture) if thou find ought therein that thou understandest not, or that appeareth to be repugnant, give no temeritous nor hasty judgment thereof: but ascribe it to thine own ignorance, not to the scripture, think that thou understandest it not, or that it hath some other meaning, or that it is happly overseen of the interpreters, or wrongly printed. Again, it shall greatly help thee to understand scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom, and unto whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstance, considering what goeth before, and what followeth after. For there be some things which are done and written, to the intent that we should do likewise: as when Abraham believeth God, is obedient unto his word, and defendeth Lot his kinsman from violent wrong. There be some things also which are written, to the intent that we should eschew such like. As when David lieth with Urias' wife, and causeth him to be slain. Therefore (I say) when thou readest scripture, be wise and circumspect: and when thou commest to such strange manners of speaking and dark sentences, to such parables and similitudes, to such dreams or visions as are hid from thy understanding, commit them unto God or to the gift of his holy spirit in them that are better learned than thou.”[11]

Golden Rule 

When the plain sense of Scripture
makes common sense, seek no
other sense; therefore, take every
word at its primary, ordinary, usual,
literal meaning unless the facts of
the immediate context, studied in
the light of related passages and
axiomatic and fundamental truths,
indicate clearly otherwise."[12]

"Dr. David L. Cooper, the founder of The Biblical Research Society, was proficient in the Biblical languages. He studied Greek under Dr. A. T. Robertson.”

“This rule was published regularly in Dr. Cooper's monthly magazine, Biblical Research Monthly.”

“A shortened form of the above rule goes like this:
If the plain sense makes good sense seek no other sense lest it result in nonsense."”[13]

Agassiz and the Fish,
or The Student the Fish and Agassiz

I wonder if you have ever heard the story of "The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz", often referred to simply as "Agassiz and the Fish". I first learned of this story while studying Robert A. Traina's book, Methodical Bible Study (self-published, 1952), pg. 80, note 6. He cited C. R. Eberhardt, The Bible in the Making of Ministers, pp. 134-138, as a source for the story. In Traina's "Bibliography" he lists Lane Cooper, Louis Agassiz as a Teacher.  This may have been another source.

Anyway, the fullest and perhaps most well-known version of this story is Samuel H. Scudder's, which is available online at Dr. David Howard, Jr.'s Bethel Seminary site at 
[accessed 11 JUL 2012]. Howard documents this as from American Poems, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1879), pp. 450-454. Other versions of the story may be found at "The Story behind the Story of "The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz"" on Dr. David Howard, Jr.'s Bethel Seminary site at [accessed 11 JUL 2012].

When folks take this approach to the study of a verse, a paragraph, a chapter or a book of the Bible they will see things and learn things that most others will miss.

See also Justin Taylor's blog post, "Agassiz and the Fish" (16 NOV 2009) on The Gospel Coalition at [accessed 11 JUL 2012].

"Do you know the story of “Agassiz and the Fish”? It’s a powerful lesson on the necessity of painstaking observation–staring at and studying the reality before our eyes–especially if you apply it to the idea of studying the word of God.

I first heard it in the late 90s at Bethlehem Baptist Church under Tom Steller, who first learned it in the mid-70s at Bethel College under John Piper, who first learned it in the last 60s at Fuller Theological Seminary under Dan Fuller, who first learned it in the mid 40s at Princeton Theological Seminary under Howard Kuist.

Agassiz was the founder of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and a Harvard professor. The following account was written by one of his students, Samuel H. Scudder, under the title “Agassiz and the Fish, by a Student” (American Poems, 3rd ed. [Boston: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1879], pp. 450-54). Thanks to David Howard’s site for the reproduction of the original story.”

Agassiz and the Fish
by a Student

It was more than fifteen years ago that I entered the laboratory of Professor Agassiz, and told him I had enrolled my name in the scientific school as a student of natural history. He asked me a few questions about my object in coming, my antecedents generally, the mode in which I afterwards proposed to use the knowledge I might acquire, and finally, whether I wished to study any special branch. To the latter I replied that while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.

“When do you wish to begin?” he asked.

“Now,” I replied.

This seemed to please him, and with an energetic “Very well,” he reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.

“Take this fish,” he said, “and look at it; we call it a Haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen.”

With that he left me. . . . I was conscious of a passing feeling of disappointment, for gazing at a fish did not commend itself to an ardent entomologist. . . . .

In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the professor, who had, however, left the museum; and when I returned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upper apartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as if to resuscitate it from a fainting-fit, and looked with anxiety for a return of a normal, sloppy appearance. This little excitement over, nothing was to be done but return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half an hour passed, an hour, another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face—ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarters view—just as ghastly. I was in despair; at an early hour, I concluded that lunch was necessary; so with infinite relief, the fish was carefully replaced in the jar, and for an hour I was free.

On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the museum, but had gone and would not return for several hours. My fellow students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish; it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my fingers down its throat to see how sharp its teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.

“That is right,” said he, “a pencil is one of the best eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet and your bottle corked.”

With these encouraging words he added—

“Well, what is it like?”

He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me; the fringed gill-arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshly lips, and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fin, and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment:

“You have not looked very carefully; why,” he continued, more earnestly, “you haven’t seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself. Look again; look again!” And he left me to my misery.

I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish? But now I set myself to the task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the professor’s criticism had been. The afternoon passed quickly, and when, towards its close, the professor inquired,

“Do you see it yet?”

“No,” I replied. “I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.”

“That is next best,” said he earnestly, “but I won’t hear you now; put away your fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish.”

This was disconcerting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying, without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be, but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.

The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw.

“Do you perhaps mean,” I asked, “that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?”

His thoroughly pleased, “Of course, of course!” repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. After he had discoursed most happily and enthusiastically—as he always did—upon the importance of this point, I ventured to ask what I should do next.

“Oh, look at your fish!” he said, and left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned and heard my new catalogue.

“That is good, that is good!” he repeated, “but that is not all; go on.” And so for three long days, he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. “Look, look, look,” was his repeated injunction.

This was the best entomological lesson I ever had—a lesson whose influence was extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the professor has left to me, as he left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part. . . .

The fourth day a second fish of the same group was placed beside the first, and I was bidden to point out the resemblances and differences between the two; another and another followed, until the entire family lay before me, and a whole legion of jars covered the table and surrounding shelves; the odor had become a pleasant perfume; and even now, the sight of an old six-inch worm-eaten cork brings fragrant memories!

The whole group of Haemulons was thus brought into review; and whether engaged upon the dissection of the internal organs, preparation and examination of the bony framework, or the description of the various parts, Agassiz’s training in the method of observing facts in their orderly arrangement, was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them.

“Facts are stupid things,” he would say, “until brought into connection with some general law.”

At the end of eight months, it was almost with reluctance that I left these friends and turned to insects; but what I gained by this outside experience has been of greater value than years of later investigation in my favorite groups."


Don’t make it harder than it has to be, but at the same time, don’t think that there is any easy way out or shortcuts! If zoology students find that a fish is worthy of that much attention, then isn’t God’s Word worthy of much, much more? How much attention are you willing to give God’s Word? How much time are you willing to invest in exposing yourself to the inspired Scriptures?

“Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” (John 5:39)

Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria,

John T. “Jack” Jeffery
Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
Greentown, PA

11 FEB 2015

Basic Bible Study and Bible Study Leadership Materials

A Suggested Bibliography (with links to Amazon)

J. Scott Duvall, and J. Daniel Hays, Journey into God's Word: Your Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008); on Amazon at [accessed 14 JAN 2015].

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1982, 1993, 2003, 2014); on Amazon at [accessed 18 JAN 2015].

Sinclair Ferguson, From the Mouth of God (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014); on Amazon at [accessed 10 NOV 2014].

James M. Gray, How to Master the English Bible: An Experience, a Method, a Result, an Illustration (London: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1907); on Google Books at [accessed 18 FEB 2012].

John Green, "How to Avoid Bible Study Pitfalls", adapted from Discipleship Journal, March/April 1999; on NavPress at [accessed 2 OCT 2012].

J. Edwin Hartill, Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1947); available online or as a free PDF file download (60 mb) on Seminario LAMB at [accessed 9 MAR 2014]; print editions available on Amazon at 
[accessed 18 JAN 2015].

Peter Krol, Knowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Study the Bible (Minneapolis: Cruciform Press, 2014); on Amazon at [accessed 10 NOV 2014].

Peter Krol, "My Love-Hate Relationship With Bible Study Tools" (10 NOV 2014); on The Gospel Coalition at [accessed 10 NOV 2014].

Navigator's materials at [accessed 2 OCT 2012]; also, notes from a Bible Study Leadership Seminar the Navigators conducted in 1994 in New Jersey on Navigators at [accessed 2 OCT 2012].

Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991, 2006); on Amazon at [accessed 10 NOV 2014].

Arthur T. Pierson, The Bible and Spiritual Criticism: Being the Second Series of Exeter Hall Lectures on the Bible Delivered in London, England in the Months of February, March and April, 1904 (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., n.d.; 1970 reprint of 1905 original by The Baker and Taylor Co., New York).
Print editions are available on Amazon at [accessed 18 JAN 2015].

Fred Sanders, "James Gray on Mastering the Bible" (21 APR 2014) on The Scriptorium Daily at [accessed 18 FEB 2012]. 

R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977, 2009); on Amazon at [accessed 10 NOV 2014].

Robert A. Traina, Methodical Bible Study: A New Approach to Hermeneutics (Wilmore, KY: self-published, 1952; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980); on Amazon at [accessed 9 MAY 2014].

Oletta Wald, Joy of Discovery in Bible Study, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1975) on Amazon at [accessed 9 MAY 2014].

Oletta Wald, The New Joy of Discovery in Bible Study, rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002) on Amazon at [accessed 9 MAY 2014].  This newly revised edition is also available in Kindle.

Oletta Wald, New Joy of Teaching Discovery Bible Study (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002) on Amazon at [accessed 2 OCT 2012].

End Notes:

[1] In John Rip­pon, A Se­lect­ion of Hymns from the Best Au­thors (1787); “at­trib­ut­ed var­i­ous­ly to John Keene, Kirk­ham, and John Keith;” on Cyber Hymnal at [accessed 26 JAN 2015]. The four possibilities for the “K-” ascription in Rippon (Robert Keen(e), George Keith, Thomas Kirkham, and Kennedy or Kennady) are discussed on at [accessed 26 JAN 2015].
[2] Will­iam Cow­per, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” in Twen­ty-six Let­ters on Re­li­gious Sub­jects, by John New­ton (1774); on Cyber Hymnal at [accessed 26 JAN 2015].
[3] Wilson died at age 74.
[4]During that time he mastered forty-five languages!” Wayne Jackson, “The Remarkable Robert Dick Wilson,” on Christian Courier at [accessed 26 JAN 2015].
[5] Robert Dick Wilson, Old Testament Introduction, Lecture 1; cited by Brian Nicks, “Life And Work Of Robert Dick Wilson,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 19:1 (Spring 2008), pg. 94; available as a free downloadable PDF file on The Master’s Seminary at [accessed 17 JAN 2015].
[7] InterVarsity Press at [accessed 11 FEB 2015].
[8] B&H Publishing Group’s “Academic Catalog 2014-2015” at [accessed 11 FEB 2015].
[9] The exception is the plural of Strong’s #1121 in 2 Tim. 3:15. The sole Old Testament rendering is in Daniel 10:21 (But I will shew thee that which is noted in the scripture of truth: and there is none that holdeth with me in these things, but Michael your prince.) which is elsewhere rendered “writing” (14X), and “register” (2X, Ezra 2:62, and Nehemiah 7:64).
[10] Clarence Edward Flynn, cited by Robert A. Traina, Methodical Bible Study (self-published, 1952), pg. 33.
[11] “A Prologue. Miles Coverdale unto the Christian reader.” on Bible Research at [accessed 11 FEB 2015]. See also: The Holy Scriptures, Faithfully and truly translated, By Myles Coverdale, Bishop of Exeter, 1535 (London, Samuel Bagster, n.d., reprinted 1838), pg. xiv (Note: most page numbering is not visible); on Internet Archive at [accessed 11 FEB 2015]. The words I have highlighted in bold font are frequently quoted. See, for example, F. E. Marsh, The Structural Principles of the Bible, or How To Study the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1969), pg. xiii, s.v. “Preface.”
[12] David L. Cooper, The God of Israel, rev. ed. (Los Angeles: Biblical Research Society, Inc., 1945), pg. iii. At the time this book was written Cooper was the President of the Biblical Research Society, and the Editor of the Biblical Research Monthly.  David L. Cooper's articles on "Rules of Interpretation" from Biblical Research Monthly (1947 and 1949) are available online on the Biblical Research Studies Group at [accessed 4 FEB 2014].  "Part Three, 3rd Rule" of the "Rules of Interpretation" is "The Golden Rule of Interpretation" at [accessed 4 FEB 2014]. These articles by Cooper are cited in "Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures", on Messianic Association at [accessed 4 FEB 2014].
[13] "Do I Interpret the Bible Literally?  Seven Tests to See If I Truly Do", on the Middletown Bible Church (Middletown, CT) at [accessed 4 FEB 2014].

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