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PRINCIPLES OF BIBLE STUDY AND TESTIMONY WRITING

Key Verse: Psalm 1:1-3

ďBlessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.Ē

There are many ways to study the Bible. In our ministry, we usually follow this approach: First, we study a Bible passage by answering questions together, either in a one-to-one or a group setting. Next, we listen to a message or read a written lecture on the passage. Finally, we write a testimony to articulate what we learned and to develop practical application. Writing a good Bible testimony is one of the most difficult tasks in the world. I wrote my first Bible testimony sometime during the summer of 1982. I donít remember what I wrote, but Iím sure that it was terrible; it was not a good testimony. But to God it was very important and useful. That decision to write a testimony became a turning point in my life. Those who write testimonies always begin to change and grow. Those who do not write testimonies usually do not grow. In this seminar, we want to think about how and why we study the Bible, what a testimony is, and how to write a good testimony that glorifies God and helps us.

First, why we study the Bible. The Bible is the word of life. These days there are many Christian books and videos. Christian music and radio broadcasts are popular. I know a young lady who loves contemporary Christian music; much of what she knows about God comes from song lyrics. These things can be helpful, but they are not equivalent to the Bible. The Bible is unique in its spiritual power and divine authority. The degree to which God blesses a manís life rests upon his attitude toward the word of God. God loves and blesses those who study his word with deep respect and reverence.

The word of God has power. Psalm 33:6 says, ďBy the word of the Lord were the heavens madeÖĒ The word of God is the means by which we believe in Jesus Christ and are saved (Jn 5:24). The word of God is the instrument by which God purifies and changes us from worldly people to godly peoplec(Jn 15:3, 17:17). Deep personal Bible study is the way that we come to know who God is, what God thinks and how God acts. When we stay connected to Jesus through prayerful Bible study, we have life-giving fellowship with him and he answers our prayers (Jn 15:7).

†Second, how we study the Bible. The Bible study found in most churches and ministries today is topical. Topical study gathers passages and verses from different parts of the Bible to see what the Bible says about a particular subject. Topical Bible studies are helpful for answering questions that are already in our minds. But this is also a limitation; the subject of a topical Bible study is predetermined.

In contrast, our UBF Bible study is textual. Textual study goes through whole books of the Bible chapter by chapter and verse by verse. The UBF method is not new; it grew out of principles that Dr. Samuel Lee and Mother Barry learned from a British missionary organization called the Scripture Union. Our approach uses four steps. First, pray. Always pray. We must approach the Bible prayerfully with a humble, learning attitude, asking God to illuminate our minds through the Holy Spirit. Second, observation. What does the passage actually say? Read the passage carefully, paying close attention to the exact words and details. Third, interpretation. What does the passage mean in light of the literary and historical context? We try to understand the meaning that the author wanted to convey. Fourth, application. Are there blessings to thank God for, promises to claim, command to obey, sins to repent of? Based on the passage, we develop prayer topics for ourselves, our coworkers, our nation and our world. And we avoid attempts to force the Bible into a man-made theological system. Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture. The Bible speaks for itself.

As we study the Bible, we should be careful not to over-personalize. That is, we should read and understand the books of the Bible not from our own point of view, but from the context in which they were written. We read the Bible not because we can immediately identify with everything it says, but because it describes what actually happened in Godís history. It is much more important to first understand the facts of what God has done through Jesus then to try to get from the Bible some immediate personal application. Nevertheless, as we respectfully study it and come to know the God of the Bible, we naturally begin to apply biblical principles to our lives in the way that God intends.

The fourth step, application, is commonly misunderstood. To many people, application means, ďHow does this Bible apply to me?Ē But thatís backwards. We should consider how we apply to the Bible. We must find ourselves in the Bible. Where are we in the Bible? We are in the New Testament, somewhere between the end of Acts and the beginning of Revelation. We are the ones in our generation to whom God has entrusted his gospel and the task of preaching it worldwide. Finding our own place in Bible history is the best starting point for understanding how God expects us to live and what he wants us to do.

Christians are sometimes too quick to apply passages and verses of the Bible to people without prayer or deep understanding. If someone has Problem A, we want to apply Bible verse A; if he has Problem B, we want to ďfix him upĒ with verse B. We give out certain Bible verses haphazardly the same way that a bad doctor over-prescribes a drug. That approach doesnít work. People do not suffer from isolated problems, and the Bible is not a collection of isolated verses. A person is a whole, and the Bible is a whole. To make a difference in someoneís life, we need to let the whole Bible operate on the whole person. This takes patience, time and systematic study of the Bible in its entirety.

Third, what is a testimony? A testimony is written summary of our Bible study. It includes all four steps: prayer, observation, interpretation and application. In the early years of UBF, Korean students copied Dr. Leeís Bible messages by hand and distributed them to fellowship members. At that time, there were no copy machines available; the students became human copy machines. As they copied, the word of God began to move their hearts. During the 1970ís, when Dr. Lee and Mother Barry lived in Seoul, they encouraged students to begin to write about what they learned after each Bible study. They called it a ďsogam.Ē Writing a sogam or testimony about each passage has been a hallmark of UBF Bible study ever since.

Why do we write testimonies? In part, we do it for the same reason that we prepare for Bible study by writing answers to the questions before we meet one-to-one or in a group. We do it to maintain a serious, disciplined and studious attitude. Suppose that in the university you are trying to learn a difficult and complicated subject such as Calculus. Can you learn Calculus by casually reading your textbook the same way that you would look over a magazine or newspaper? I donít think so. In order to learn Calculus, you have to read the book carefully, attend the professorís lecture, take written notes about what he says, ask questions about what you donít understand, and solve many exercises from the book. If you do all this, then understanding comes. If you want to be an A student, you need to have the attitude and discipline of an A student. Bible study is no different.

Dr. Paul Hong from Toledo is an exemplary Bible teacher. I heard that whenever a new student comes to his ministry, he invites the student into his office for a personal interview. He asks: ďSo, I hear that you want to study the Bible. I have just one question. Do you want to have low-quality Bible study or high-quality Bible study?Ē Every student answers, ďI want to have high-quality Bible study.Ē Then Dr. Hong says: ďOkay. If you want to have high-quality Bible study, this is what you must do. First, you must come to your Bible study appointment on time and fully prepared, with written answers to all the study questions. Then you must listen carefully to your Bible teacher and ask thoughtful questions. Then you must write a personal testimony about what you learned from each passage.Ē Because of our lazy, nature, we have a natural tendency to be undisciplined and careless. Without discipline, our time of Bible reading and personal devotion quickly degenerates into daydreaming, worrying, self-meditation and sleeping on our noses. Casual and superficial Bible study may be worse than no Bible study at all. The Bible is the word of God. We must approach it seriously.

As sinners, we also have a tendency to keep our Bible study vague, intellectual and theoretical with no real personal application. The Bible warns us not to do that. James 1:22 says: ďDo not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.Ē Godís word is like a mirror. If you look in a mirror and notice that your face is dirty and your hair is messed up, what should you do? You should wash your face and comb your hair. Similarly, when our Bible study reveals our sins and shortcomings, what should we do? We should repent of our sins, wash them away by the grace of Jesus, and make a real decision to put the word of God into practice. Otherwise we are in danger of becoming modern-day Pharisees who apply the Bible to everyone except ourselves. Bible study should make us better, not worse.

Some people may say: ďI donít need to write a testimony to have personal application. God doesnít need it written down on paper; he knows my heart.Ē Does this sound familiar? Thatís what I said a long time ago. In reality, I just wanted to avoid writing a testimonyópartly because I was lazy, but also because I didnít have much to say. I thought that I understood the Bible profoundly, but when I sat down to write a testimony, nothing came out. If I had truly received the word of God, then Godís word would have been alive in me, and beautiful words of testimony would have flowed out from my heart through the pen and onto the paper. Once Jesus was telling his disciples all kinds of interesting and beautiful parables about the kingdom of God. His disciples were amazed; they wondered where all those beautiful stories came from. Jesus told them in Matthew 13:52, ďTherefore, every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.Ē One whose heart is full of the word of God can talk about Jesus and Godís grace and Godís kingdom for hours and hours. He has an endless supply of treasure that he can bring out of the storeroom at any time. On the other hand, if we sit down to write a testimony and nothing comes out, then we need to pray and go back to the Bible and study it more and wrestle with God until he blesses us with deeper knowledge and understanding.

Fourth, how not to write a testimony. When you sit down to write a testimony, please donít try to write a masterpiece! God is not impressed by complicated philosophies. Ecclesiates 6:11 says, ďThe more the words, the less the meaning...Ē When people use complicated language, itís usually because they donít know what theyíre talking about. A straightforward and sincere testimony is best.

Donít write a Bible commentary. Commentaries step through a passage interpreting the meaning of each verse. Detailed, verse-by-verse interpretation is good when we answer questions before and during the Bible study. But when writing a testimony, itís much better to focus on just one or two things that you really learned and explain them very well. If a passage has several parts, try to focus on just one idea from each part. Itís better to learn and remember one thing than to superficially mention and forget many things.

Donít begin by talking about yourself. At some point, there should be personal application. But a Bible testimony is a Bible testimony; itís not about you. For example, suppose that you are writing a testimony about Jesus and the Samaritan woman from John chapter 4. Say a lot about Jesus. Try to understand his mind, his heart and his actions. If you can identify yourself with the Samaritan woman, then say something about her and about you. But then, go back to Jesus and talk about how Jesus approached you and befriended you and shepherded you in order to give you the living water welling up to eternal life. A good testimony is Christ-centered, not self-centered.

Donít focus too much on your sins. Often the word of God convicts us and makes us realize how sinful we are. Itís often necessary to confess our sins in a testimony so that others can understand us and pray for us (Jas 5:16). But explaining all the bitter details of your sinful life is usually not a good idea. The testimony should glorify God and emphasize Godís love and grace more than human our human sinfulness.

Donít write your testimony habitually. Human beings are creatures of habit; we like to do today what we did yesterday. But in writing a testimony, we should approach the word of God with a fresh attitude every time. If your time is limited, itís much better to write one that is short and fresh than long and habitual. Recently, one chapter director told me that his fellowship members had been writing testimonies very habitually. In his words, ďthey just copied the message and exposed their sins.Ē Copying a message and exposing your sins is not a testimony. A testimony must help us to understand Godís word and, ultimately, Godís mind and heart.

Donít limit the application of Godís word just to yourself. Jesus is your personal friend and savior, but he is also the savior of the world. If we are Godís people, then we should become aware of his desires and prayer topics not only for us but for our families, our coworkers, our nation and all nations. Throughout history, Godís primary concern has been world salvation. Testimony writing should be an exercise to help us see beyond our personal concerns and broaden our vision to share in Godís concern for others.

Finally, when you write a testimony, donít be critical of others or yourself. A spirit of criticism is not from God. Writing and sharing a testimony that contains even subtle criticism will damage relationships among members and destroys unity. Itís much better to learn from and praise othersí strengths than point out their weaknesses. Our Bible study should increase our awareness of Godís love and make us gentle and compassionate like Jesus.

Fifth, how to write a testimony. When you write a testimony, first of all, please pray. Pray before you start. Pray as you write. Pray when you are finished. Testimony writing should be an act of prayer directed toward God from first to last.

Next, do it. The only way to start writing a testimony is to start writing a testimony. If you get stuck, pray and ask for Godís help. Then look at a message or lecture that someone else has written to stimulate your thinking and get more ideas. In UBF we have many excellent messages and lectures written by Dr. Lee, Mother Barry, Pastor Ron Ward and other well trained Bible teachers. Donít make the mistake of thinking that your testimony must be completely original, coming entirely from your own head with no input from anyone else. Originality is good, but learning from others can be even better. But donít simply copy a message; make it your own.

As you write, identify the most important verse or verses in the passage; meditate on them and write them down in your testimony. Even better, memorize them. Make Godís word the centerpiece. The testimony is a good one if, when you are finished, one Bible verse sticks in your heart.

Donít worry about the length. A good testimony can be one page long or thirty pages long. And donít worry about what others think of your testimony. Write it sincerely before God. If your testimony pleases God, then godly people will like it.

When your testimony is about half finished, itís a good idea to stop and read what you wrote. Count the number of times that you used the words ďI, me, my.Ē Then count the number of times you used the words ďGodĒ and ďJesus.Ē If you are talking about yourself more than God or Jesus, perhaps you should refocus.

Sometimes the character and subject of the testimony will be shaped by your life experience. If you have just graduated from the university, then you should thank God for helping you to graduate. If God has blessed you with a good job, thank God for your job. If you are experiencing some difficulty or hardship for whatever reason, you can ask for Godís help and put the situation into his hands. Sharing our practical thanksgiving or prayer topics with one another through our testimonies is a good idea. It helps us to go beyond superficial acquaintance and have deep Christian fellowship with one another. By sharing testimonies with one another, we share our joys and sorrows and even our sins. Writing Bible testimonies regularly and sharing them with one another builds our relationship with God and strengthens the fellowship of believers.

Sometimes one studies a Bible passage and has difficulty finding personal application. For example, suppose you are happy because God has blessed you in some way, but the Bible passage is about enduring hardship as good soldiers of Christ Jesus. Does it make sense to write a testimony about this, even though it seems completely irrelevant to your situation at the present time. Yes, absolutely. The Bible is not about us. Itís about God. The word of God always teaches us something about God regardless of our present personal situation. If the passage does not apply to you today, it may apply to your coworker, some other member of the body of Christ. Or it may apply to you tomorrow. Systematic study of the whole Bible lays the foundation for our lives of faith. Jesus said in Matthew 7:24-25: ďTherefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.Ē If you want to lay the foundation of your house to keep it safe from the storm, you cannot wait until it starts raining. The foundation must be laid carefully in advance while the weather is still good. Similarly, those who faithfully study the Bible and write testimonies week after week and year after yearówhether they feel like it or notólay a firm foundation in Godís word that gives them strength to withstand the storms of life.

Sixth, frequently (and infrequently) asked questions.

1.      What is the biblical basis for writing a testimony? No one in the Bible wrote a testimony, so why should I?

Testimony writing is found in the Bible. The books of the Bible are actually testimonies. The five books of MosesóGenesis through Deuteronomyóare Mosesí written testimony about Godís historical work from creation to the establishment of the Law. The books of the prophets are their written testimonies based on the word of God revealed to them. The gospels are the written testimonies of Jesusí disciples based on his life and oral teachings. The Psalms are poetic and musical testimonies written by King David, Solomon and others. And the Bible also contains many testimonies by servants of God at important points in their lives, including the Song of Moses (Ex 15), the prayer of Hannah (1Sa 2), the Song of Zechariah and the Song of Mary (Lk 1) and many others. All of these testimonies were spoken in public and written down for the benefit of others.

2.      Do I have to share my testimony with other people? Why canít it remain private, just between God and me?

Many testimonies are individual and private. For example, many UBF members practice morning devotions called Daily Bread. Every morning they pray, read a Bible passage, and write a short testimony in a journal with personal application and prayer topics. Many of these testimonies are never shared with anyone. At the same time, Christians are all interconnected as members of the body of Christ. If one part is strong, the whole body is blessed; if one part is sick, the whole body suffers. Writing testimonies and sharing them with others promotes unity and helps us to be aware of and concerned about what others are doing. Some people complain that testimony-sharing meetings are repetitive and boring. But mature Christians who truly care about others will appreciate othersí testimonies and are blessed by them. Something that you write can become a turning point in someone elseís life.

3.      What if I donít feel inspired by this passage? Can I skip this one and write about a passage that I really like?

No. Each passage in the Bible is there because itís important to God. If we are Godís children, then we should be willing to study any passage of the Bible deeply to discover why itís important to God. When we have this attitude, then we can really grow. If a part of the Bible is not interesting to us, itís not the Bibleís fault; itís our fault. We need to change ourselves and become more interested in the things of God.

4.      How can a Bible teacher encourage his Bible students to write good testimonies?

First of all, a shepherd should not use testimony-writing as a tool to ďmanageĒ the sheep, either in a group or in a one-to-one setting. When someone writes a testimony and reveals personal sins or struggles, that person becomes extremely vulnerable to criticism and gossip. It gives the shepherd a kind of power over the sheep. The shepherd must be careful not to abuse this power. If we confess our sins to God, he is always full of mercy to forgive; if people confess their sins to us, shouldnít we do the same? If something is shared with us in confidence, we should be reluctant to share it with others unless it is necessary to seek someoneís wise counsel or prayer. The shepherd must learn to respect the sheep and the sheep must learn to trust the shepherd. When trust breaks down, Bible students will no longer write sincerely, or they may not write at all. The best thing that a shepherd can do is to set a good example by writing and sharing his own testimonies very sincerely.

5.      Are Bible commentaries are useful?

Bible commentaries can be quite useful, especially when we study difficult-to-understand passages for the first time. It is often necessary to refer to Bible commentaries or other references (e.g. Bible dictionaries, Bible handbooks) to help us understand the historical context of a particular Bible passage or book. But commentaries are also limited for the following reasons. First, some opinions expressed in commentaries are questionable or even incorrect. Second, reading commentaries is no substitute for prayerful meditation on the living word of God. Jumping to a commentary too quickly, before wrestling with the difficult passage oneself, is unrewarding and may actually rob a serious Bible student of deep understanding. Third, in focusing on the details of individual verses, commentaries may fail to capture important connections between the verses. That is, they may help us to digest a single verse but not a whole passage or chapter. For your own Bible study, use whatever reference books you find helpful, but donít depend on them too much.