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Can You Trust the Bible?

One of the questions I get asked the most about the Bible concerns some element of its trustworthiness. “Can you trust the Bible?” 

In fact, I was asked to speak at a philosophy conference many years ago, in which my question for the evening was, “Is the Bible Reliable?” In the weeks leading up to the event, I asked the moderator for a few more specifics on what he meant by reliable, qualifying “reliable for what?” He laughed and told me to take it where I felt inclined. 

He was less than pleased when I opened the lecture part of my discussion with a list of things that we could absolutely rely on the Bible to accomplish. For instance, your Bible will hold up one corner of your couch if its leg is broken. It may be a sacrilege, but it will work. I have a friend who once used a bible to defend us against a street gang intent on robbing us. It was efficient. Indeed, a good Bible will even stop most bullets… assuming it’s not a digital one on your smartphone. 

I followed with a list of things that one could NOT rely on the Bible to do. You cannot rely on all of Scripture to be easy to understand, or to give up all its secrets to the casual observer. You cannot rely on the Bible to reflect your own cultural or personal sensibilities back to you, or to use all your own categories for understanding the world. Scripture is neither a math text, nor encyclopedia, nor dictionary, nor comprehensive history of the world written with modern standards of what does and does not constitute history. It is not a manual on psychology, philosophy, economics, nor is it a textbook on biology, archaeology, linguistics, physics, chemistry, anthropology or medicine. 

This does not make its literature primitive babble, nor insist that the Bible is utterly useless when discussing these matters, but it does mean that the authors’ orientation to the world, their vocabulary and categories will not replicate our own. It does mean that the intention of the writers is not to satisfy inquiring minds, but is to impart a specific body of understanding and wisdom to the diligent student. 

While we categorize the animal world with mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird and the like, it is perfectly acceptable for the inspired writers to present a world organized around different categories, like swims, crawls, or flies. In that case, a whale can be called a great fish, a bat can be classed with birds. My inability to trust Scripture to organize reality as my modern mind does is NOT a testament to its frailty, but to the important distinction between wisdom and knowledge. 

The cosmology of Scripture, for instance—the vision of the structure and nature of the world—has the disadvantage of being almost entirely presented in poetry, making their beliefs about material world forces difficult to discern with precision. For instance, it is plain from the historical texts written in prose—normal talk—that the ancients understood quite well that rain came from clouds and that clouds were made of water, but that does not keep their prophets from recording God’s poetic challenge to Job and his friends saying, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail…?” Just so, sailors have known for ages that the earth is round, witnessing at sea as the hulls of ships disappeared from view before their sails, exposing the curvature to view. In fact the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes discovered the circumference of the earth with a stick and a shadow almost three centuries before Jesus walked the shores of the Mediterranean. 

There is a big difference between what the arrogance of modern souls imagine about the ignorance of the past and what the ancients actually knew. We can trust the Scriptures to present to us the divine wisdom of the ages in an ancient husk, if we are wise enough to wrestle our way to it. Hubris will sabotage us.

Let’s finish with one more. You cannot rely on Scripture to be a science book. The scientific method was articulated millennia after the writing of even the newest Scriptures. Our particular way of thinking about and talking about the world as scientific-minded readers (However poorly we do at it) will not be reflected back at us. This does not make Scripture untrustworthy or wrong, rather it qualifies the kinds of discussions we can and cannot have with the Biblical text. 

For example: The Creation story of Scripture, which in truth stretches from Genesis 1 through Genesis 11 is not interested in our modern ontological curiosities about the origin of the material world. The Biblical Creation story is more interested in functional ontology than material ontology. Scripture tells us not about the origins of all the stuff, beginning its tale with the material world in place, unformed as it was, but does tell us about the nature of divine order in creation as God takes that material and turns it into a functional world. 

We want to know “when” and “how,” but the author of Genesis wants to talk about “Who,” and “Why,” and “What.” Who made the world? What did He make the world to be? Why did He make the world? How did He make it to function? The ultimate question then becomes a wisdom question: How can I function best in the world that Yahweh made and that man has influenced? This is the Bible’s bailiwick. 

The inspired descriptions of creation are made within the bounds of interest for the inspired writer, dealing with the realities of a world drowning in paganism. Therefore, I cannot rely on him to dazzle me with a scientifically definitive answer to questions of “when” and “how,” but I CAN rely on the prophetic writer to tell me the truth about life before the one Holy Creator of all. I can trust him to tell me the truth about the fundamental problem in the world’s systems. I can trust the Bible to speak true about the hope that we have for redemption and restoration in the salvation plan of that Holy Creator. 

This does not mean that the inspired writers are ignorant clods on all matters we would regard as scientific. They lived and prospered in their world far better than most of us would if magically transported there. True, we understand many things that they do not. We know how far the moon is from the earth. We know what the bottom of the ocean looks like. We even know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. But we don’t know many things that they understood intuitively and that they learned by lived experiences so different from our own. 

It reminds me of the punch line in the majestic poem in Job 28, which after detailing all the then-modern accomplishments of man, asks the more meaningful question. We find boasts like those in verses 3 & 4, saying, “Man puts an end to darkness, And to the farthest limit he searches out. The rock in gloom and deep shadow. He sinks a shaft far from habitation, forgotten by the foot” But, the poet turns to the important counter in verses 12 & 13, “But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? “Man does not know its value, Nor is it found in the land of the living.” We can put an astronaut on the moon, but living peaceably with our fellow man is often beyond us. We can map the human genome, but do not know how to cultivate truth and integrity. We may rightfully boast the former, but it is Scripture that will guide us in the mastery of the latter. 

As we continue to unpack the question, “Can you trust the Bible?” let us escape the simple-minded approaches to Scripture common to modern readers who have not learned to think reasonably or wisely about their own questions and expectations. Instead, let us articulate exactly what we mean (and don’t mean) when we ask, “Can I trust the Bible?” and continue the investigation in coming posts. 

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When Was the Bible Written

Bible Timeline
(all dates are approximate)
BC
1900-1600 – Job
1445-1405 – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
1405-550 – Psalms
1405-1375 – Joshua
1150-900 – Judges, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, 1-2 Samuel
900-800 – Obadiah, Joel
800-700 – Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah
700-600 – Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk
600-500 – Ezekiel, Lamentations, Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai
500-400 – 1-2 Chronicles, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Malachi

AD
40-50 – James
50-60 – Matthew, Mark, Romans, Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, 1-2 Thessalonians
60-70 – Luke, John, Acts, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, 1-2 Peter, Hebrews, Jude
90-96 – 1-3 John, Revelation

Most of the books you and I will ever read were written within the last century. Perhaps certain classics of literature date back two centuries. It is remarkable to realize, then, that the Bible is not just old, it is truly ancient. What is more, no other book in the history of the world can claim even a tenth of the span of years over which the individual documents in the Bible were written. Still, as long ago as that was, understanding these details is more than just an exercise in abstract history. Learning when, how, and why the Bible was written helps us to understand what God is doing. Looking back through the lens of history can teach us a great deal about what the Bible meant to its original audience, and, therefore, what it means for us today.  

The very simplest answer you can give to the question “When was the Bible written” is to say, “a very long time ago.” Even this seemingly useless answer can be helpful. You see, when we read the Bible as if it were written during our own time, we will read it wrongly. Knowing that it is an ancient text will help us to take a step back and think about details like, ‘to whom was this written?’ ‘What was happening at the time?’ ‘What did that mean in their culture, place and time?’ and so on. These are important questions to ask as you study the Scriptures. The Bible itself provides enough information to give context to the stories it tells. 

Now, if we stop with the simple answer, we will miss a great depth of truth. Therefore, we will spend some time among the details, answering the question specifically for each section of the Bible. 

The Old Testament

Let’s begin with the oldest book in the Bible. Perhaps you will be surprised to find out that it is not Genesis. No, the book of Job was written half a millennia before any other book in the Bible, making it the oldest by far. The events of Job take place somewhere around 2000 years before Christ. Unlike the rest of the Old Testament, we must use our best guess to come up with a date for Job, but it is likely that it was written between 20th and 17th century BC. 

With the details that God provides in His Word, we can reliably date the books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy, to around the middle of the 15th century BC. The last books to be written are known as the post-Exilic books, written around the middle of the 5th century BC. So, we can say that most of the Old Testament was produced over the course of 1000 years, between 1445-400 BC, with Job being the lone outlier. 

The book of Psalms is also an interesting exception in that it has many authors who lived at different times. The Psalm of Moses, Psalm 90, was written during Moses’ lifetime in the 15th century. Most of the Psalms were written by David in the 11th and/or 10th century. Some may have been written as late as the 6th century BC. So the writing of the Psalms spans nearly the same length as of the Old Testament itself. 

Now, there is considerable debate about these dates, with two significant views emerging. The main difference between these views is whether Scripture itself is historically reliable. The dates given above assume that the events of the Old Testament happened in the way that the Bible says they happened. The other view relies on something called the Historical-Critical Method. It assumes that the stories in the Bible were written long after they happened through a process of gathering and compiling ancient source materials. According to this view, the stories of the Bible did not necessarily happen the way they are told, but they are included in Scripture to teach important lessons. It dates the final compositions of the Old Testament books to a much later time, asserting that the majority of it was produced during the 5th century, and assigning Daniel to a mere century and a half before Jesus. 

This is an important debate, but it is one that will have to wait for another time. For the purpose of the Foundations course material, we believe that the Bible is historically reliable. The older dates we provided up front are trustworthy. We also believe that, when the Bible attributes a book to a certain author, and discusses the lives of particular characters it is giving accurate information. 

For most books in the Bible, this means we can know when they were written if we know when the author lived. Moses, for instance, wrote during the 15th century. David wrote during the 11th century BC, followed by Solomon in the 10th. Many of the Prophets’ lives can be dated by their proximity to the Exile, with most writing between the 8th and 6th centuries. The post-Exilic books (those written after the Exile of Israel), including Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi, among others, were written between the 6th and 5th centuries, BC. The Bible gives us clear historical markers by which we can date nearly every book in the Old Testament. Take a look at the chart at the end of the page for a complete listing.

The New Testament

While dating the books of the Old Testament is not difficult, dating the New Testament writings is remarkably simple. This is because every book of the New Testament was written within the first century AD. If you go on to study this in greater detail, you will find that there is considerable debate over the exact year that many of the books were written, but these are most often differences of 1 or 2, maybe up to 5 years. 

Furthermore, we know that almost every book of the New Testament was written after Christ ascended to heaven, but before the year AD 70. This latter date marks an extremely significant event in the history of the Church: this is when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. No book in the New Testament makes references to the destruction of the Temple or any of the events that followed, save for Revelation alone. So, we can date the writing of every book other than Revelation and John’s letters to between the years AD 35 and 70. In fact, the great majority were written in less than a 20-year time span, between the years 50 and 68. 

John is the one outlier. John, the Apostle wrote Revelation and his three letters when he was an old man. We also know from multiple early sources that John wrote Revelation while he was in exile near the end of the reign of emperor Domitian, who died in AD 96. With these bits of information, along with details from within the texts themselves, we can say that John wrote 1, 2, and 3 John, along with Revelation, between AD 90 to 95. 

As we conclude, let’s answer our original question; “When was the Bible written?” The Bible was written over the span of 2000 years, between the 20th century BC and the 1st century AD. As you read and study the Bible, take a moment to recall this information, and be amazed at the remarkable unity of a book that was written by around 40 different people through multiple millennia. Indeed, this book must be the Word of God.

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Who Wrote the Bible

There is no question that the Bible is a literary masterpiece. It is the most sold, most translated, most influential book in the history of the human race. This raises an important question. Who wrote such an important book? 

Most books list their author on the cover, but the Bible doesn’t make it this easy for us. While attempting to answer the question, “Who wrote the Bible?”, we will need to keep several important considerations in mind. 

First, we call the Bible the Word of God. What does that mean, and how does that relate to its authorship? 

Second, the Bible claims that many different people wrote the Bible. If so, how can we call it the Word of God? 

Third, if many people wrote it, who decided to put it all together into a single book that is accredited to God Himself? How can we trust that they got the right books? 

Of course, each of these considerations deserves far more attention than we can give here, but let’s think of this as an introduction to these issues.

The Word of God

When we say that the Bible is the Word of God, we mean that the words we see on the pages of Scripture actually come originally from God Himself. The Bible attests to this, saying in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God…” The word “Inspired” literally means “breathed-out.” The Greek word translated as ‘inspired’ is theopneustos. This combines two Greek words into one. We find theo meaning ‘God’, and pneustos meaning ‘to breathe.’ Thus, Paul, who penned 2 Timothy, believed that Scripture is the Word of God in a literal sense. 

So, we could answer the question, “Who wrote the Bible?” by saying, “God did!” 

If we stop there, however, we will run into some problems. How, exactly, did God write Scripture? Did a finger appear to write the words on a wall, as it did in Daniel 5? Or perhaps God carved it into tablets, as He did for Moses in Deuteronomy 10

Of course, He could have done those things, but God had a more specialized instrument in mind when He decided to write. Just as God uses people to accomplish His mission and build His Church, God used people to write His book. As an artist wields a paintbrush or an author a pen, God wields men as instruments to record His words. This process is known as “Inspiration.”

The Inspiration of Human Authors

As God inspired men to write the Scriptures, He empowered them by His Spirit to write the words that He wanted them to write. This task, however, was far more complex than simple dictation. God worked with His human instruments, allowing their experiences, personalities, and even attitudes to come across on the page. As we dig deeper to determine who wrote the Bible, we find that there are around 35 to 40 human authors. They came from almost every imaginable walk of life. There were kings, princes, priests, warriors, musicians, farmers, shepherds, fishermen, carpenters, housewives, tent makers, medical doctors, and even a once despised tax collector.

Indeed, it is not an insignificant fact that the greatest, most influential literature in the history of man did not come from the world’s great philosophers or even rise from its great civilizations. Rather, from the least likely of places and the least likely of people at the least likely of times, these people came forward from all walks of life claiming to have had a prophetic encounter with, and a divine message from, the creator of all.

Now, each of these backgrounds shaped the content of their writing. David’s interest in music greatly impacted his writing of the Psalms, whereas Luke’s career as a physician led him to include many details that other writers would leave out. God did not simply turn the authors of Scripture into puppets so that He could say He wrote it through human agents. So, the question is, if each of these authors wrote the words they wanted to write, how can we say that God was writing through them? Perhaps an analogy will help.

Have you ever seen an orchestra playing a piece of music? If not, just imagine any group of musicians coming together to play a song. Each member has an instrument which they have individually learned to play. Not only that, but they play it with a certain style or flair all their own. Yet, the composer dictates where and how each musician plays. Thus, the final composition is under the ultimate control of the composer; and yet, each individual musician contributes his own unique personality to it. In a similar way, God is the composer of Scripture. He is ultimately in control of everything that is written, yet each individual author contributes something unique and personal. Understanding this, we call Scripture a Divine-Human work. God brings free human agents into the process, but it is accomplished through His supervision and by His power. 

The Bible as We Know It

Now, it is one thing to believe that God wrote the Bible through men, but that happened a long time ago. How can we be sure that the Bible we have today is the actual Word of God? There are many other books written by some very holy people, but they are not considered Scripture. Who decided which books got in and which ones did not? 

While there is a great deal of depth to the discussion of how we got our Old Testament, the simple answer is that it was assembled by prophets, kings, and leaders over many centuries. The Pentateuch, which comprises the first five books of the Bible, were well established as Scripture from the very earliest days of the Hebrew nation. Through the centuries, other prophetic works of history, prophetic oracles, and poetry were added. The final collection of the books Christians label “the Old Testament,” came some 400 to 500 years before Christ. When Ezra the priest and prophet returned from exile to find that the Jewish people had forgotten the laws of God, he led a national revival. Part of this revival included the rediscovery of the Jewish scriptures and efforts to organize, expand, and preserve them. 

The New Testament, on the other hand, appeared suddenly. While the Old Testament recounts the entire history of the world from Creation through the Jewish return from exile, the New Testament is about the life and works of Jesus and His disciples. These events span years rather than centuries. The books that make up our New Testament are those written by men who were directly taught by Jesus or His inspired Apostles. These books were used as Scripture by the church almost immediately. We can see that, even while the New Testament was being written, the Church was recognizing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, we see Peter refer to Paul’s letters as “Scripture,” placing them on equal footing with the entire Old Testament. Thus, our New Testament came together organically as God directed men to write. 

In A.D. 325, Church leaders held a council where they recognized and canonized Scripture. The Council of Nicaea, as it was called, did not make editorial decisions about which books to include or exclude; rather, it made official and forever unalterable what the church had been practicing since its earliest days. They affirmed that these are divinely inspired works. As we conclude, remember: if we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, then it is ultimately God who we should trust to deliver His Word to us faithfully. God has gone to a lot of trouble to make sure that His Word has been written precisely the way that He wants it. Jesus says in Matthew 5:18 that “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished.” So, we should not look to men like Ezra or the council of Nicaea to know whether Scripture is reliable. God has seen to it that it was faithfully written, faithfully collected, and faithfully preserved. If we can trust the God of the Bible, then we can certainly trust the Bible that is from God.

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How to Study the Bible

Welcome to the lesson on How to Study the Bible. In this lesson we will learn that effective Bible study involves three careful steps: Observation, Interpretation and Application. This is not an academic study. The goal is not to make Bible scholars out of you. The vision for this study is to lead you to the passages of Scripture that show you God’s will for your life on a day-to-day basis. The interest is in the devotional message of the Scriptures. We thank God for this opportunity to study His Word.

In order to know what God has said in the Bible, one must first know how to study it. Having a trustworthy method for Bible study is important. There are three steps in good Bible study. They are 1. observation, 2. interpretation and 3. application.

Observation raises the question(s): “What does it say? What did the author of this passage of Scripture actually write? What is the context? What grammar did the author use? What literary structures and styles did the author choose in presenting the material?”

Interpretation raises the question, “What does it mean? What is the author of this passage of Scripture trying to teach the intended reader?”

Application raises the question, “What does it mean to me? What am I supposed to change about how I think or feel or act because of this passage of Scripture?” When you get to that section called “application” ask yourself some questions like these: “Are there any examples to follow? Are there any warnings to heed or commandments to obey? Are there any sins to forsake? Are there any new truths about God or Jesus Christ or any new truths about my own life? Are there any words of challenge and inspiration, any words of comfort and encouragement? Are there any questions that I cannot answer? Are there other Scriptures that relate to this Scripture?” These questions will help you to work out some of the application of the Scripture as you go through it.

12 Rules For Bible Study

With these three categories in mind, here are some general rules for Bible study. Worthwhile things tend to have rules. In formal training, like a Bible school, they call these rules “Hermeneutics,” the art and science of interpretation. Here are the 12 rules:

First, for any passage of Scripture there is one interpretation, but there can be many applications. It is important not to confuse interpretation with application. What the text intends to say to the reader is a single message, but the implications of that message for the life of any given reader may be many. An author writes to a single intended person or group, but those actually reading a text come from many places, times, cultures, and circumstances.

Second, since the Bible is a book about Christ, look for a text’s significance for the Christ message as you read it. Always ask yourself, “How does this relate to the larger purposes of God in His salvation work through Christ?”

Third, when you study the Old Testament, remember that you are looking for examples and warnings. Historical texts provide many examples both positive and negative. Believers are to emulate some people and take warning from others. Historical events in the Bible, in addition to being historical, can also have illustrative significance. In Galatians 4:22-24, the Apostle Paul notes that Abraham had two sons, but also declares these sons to be “allegories.” Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. That is history. The story can, however, also have metaphorical significance, representing two different kinds of covenant. When the Apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 10:11 that all these things happened to the saints of old for examples, he used the Greek word for “type.” These saints, while real, were also types, which are like object lessons.

Fourth, never come to a passage of Scripture with your mind already made up as to what the passage means. Study the meaning of Bible passages not assume their meaning without investigation. A pastor once shared some verses with a troubled woman. She then said to him, “Pastor, do not confuse me with Scripture. My mind is made up.” Some people read the Bible that way. They only hear Scripture telling them what they already believe. They tell the Bible what to mean rather than letting Scripture teach them.

Fifth, once you learn the meaning of a verse of Scripture, ask yourself if you are willing to obey it before you teach it to someone else. Like James 1:22 teaches us, we must be doers of the word and not hearers only, all the more so if we are teachers and preachers. Come to this book as Samuel did in 1 Samuel 3:10, saying, Speak, Lord, thy servant is listening. That means a person should be able to say, “God, I am ready to do whatever You tell me to do.”

The sixth rule is this, always remember that God speaks to us through His Word, so we must study the Word of God carefully, asking God to illuminate things to us through the Holy Spirit. You should come to the Scriptures trying to communicate with God.

Seventh, there are some passages of Scripture which are hard to understand. Do not feel disillusioned if you come upon one of them, and do not become fixated on or obsessed with these obscure passages. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law. There are many basic things in Scripture which God has made quite clear that could take a lifetime to master, there is no reason to spend a lot of mental and spiritual energy trying to perfect your understanding of obscure things. Just so, you should interpret these obscure or puzzling Scriptures in the light of verses which have a clear meaning. Use easy to understand statements as guides to understanding difficult ones. Don’t build doctrines or special teachings on problematic passages and be cautious about preachers who do.

Eight, the ultimate context for interpreting any Scripture is the rest of Scripture. The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. Second Peter 1:20 says, But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. Do not give any passage a private interpretation that contradicts clear teaching elsewhere in the Bible.

Ninth, come to the Scriptures looking for truth for living life, and not just to add to your knowledge. Biblical knowledge is not virtue. Virtue results from a proper application of Biblical knowledge. It is the doing of the Scripture, the obedience to the Scripture that will make the Bible a power, a real power, in your life.

Tenth, when you come to the Scriptures, look for truth to live by, without becoming preoccupied with contentions over side details. For example, when you mention the Book of Jonah some want to argue about whether or not whales can swallow people. Jonah, however, is about prejudice versus the love of God. Jonah hated the Ninevites, but God showed Jonah that His love extends even to enemies. That has nothing to do with whales swallowing people. When you come to the Book of Jonah or to the story of Adam and Eve or any other story in the Old Testament, come to that story asking these questions: “What does it say? What does it mean? What does that mean to me?” and “God, what truth are you trying to show me in this Scripture?” Get the big picture, get the big truth, get the central truth. What is God saying? What is His overall conclusive message here? Rest in what the Psalmist says in 119:160, The sum of Your word is truth.

In that same spirit, the eleventh rule is this: come to the Bible, especially in the New Testament, looking for what we might call the argument or line of reasoning of the book. Books like Romans and Hebrews have a magnificent argument. There is a main point that runs all the way through the book, so, try to discover and logically follow the argument of the book.

And lastly, number twelve, always consider the context of any passage of Scripture. One of the most common ways to misuse the Bible is to quote a passage out of context. The Scripture can be used to prove any point you want to prove if you take its words out of context and give them a meaning that violates that context. The word context literally means “with the text” interpreting a statement in light of the texts around it.

Conclusion

Finally, consider this prayer to close, that you will get into the Word of God and let the Word of God get into you. The Psalmist reminds us how significance that is, writing “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Ps. 119:11) Learning, studying, and applying God’s Word to our lives is the key to living a life that is pleasing to God.

We hope these rules were enlightening for you. The best way to learn them is through practice. The hope and prayer this session is that you are blessed and will plan to continue studying God’s Word in this study.