How you read your scriptures depends on what you want to get out of them. Scriptures are the word of God. They are the recorded dealings and communications of God with His children.
Scriptures are a source of comfort, revelation, facts, stories, courage, and repentance, to name a few. As we study the scriptures the Spirit confirms truth to our soul and fills us with His light, which is spiritual understanding. It is the process by which the eyes of our understanding are opened. The word of God has spiritual power, and becoming familiar with God’s words will change our lives for the better.
All spiritual understanding is gained by way of the Spirit. Comprehending spiritual things is a gift from God. Things of the spirit cannot be fully comprehended through intellect alone. Those who have once enjoyed great spiritual understanding, but have turned from the truth and embraced the world find that what they once understood and prized so much soon fades into confusion and becomes nothing but a jumble of mysteries that makes no sense. This is because the Spirit has withdrawn their understanding of spiritual things, and they are left to their own understanding, which is just what they can comprehend with the finite intellectual mind of mortality.
In this series on how to study the scriptures we will look at the physical properties of the books of scripture themselves, as well as look at methods of study for learning about what is in the scriptures. This is not intended to be an exhaustive work, but hopefully it will give you some ideas of at least one way you haven’t thought of yet to study your scriptures. I’ll write another version of this article at some point in the future that will cover how to study the scriptures using LDS.org.
As you read this series, if additional ideas pop into your head as to how you can study the scriptures, please share those ideas with everyone else in the comments below or on Facebook. I’m sure others will appreciate your insights.
Let’s start with the physical make up of the scriptures themselves. Over many years study helps have been added that give background and testimony to the scriptures themselves. We have two main volumes of scripture in the Church, the Bible and the Triple Combination. I strongly suggest that as I discuss each individual part that you open a set of physical scriptures so you can see for yourself what I refer to.
We use the King James Version of the Holy Bible. It was first published in 1611, after 7 years of translation efforts by the best minds in England. For historical reference it was published just five years before the death of William Shakespear. It is written in middle English, and was translated with the idea in mind that it would be spoken out loud in sermons.
There is a dedication after the copyright page to king James, who commissioned the work to be done. (This version of the Bible is referred to in shorthand using the initials KJV, short for King James Version.) Not many people read this page, but it is instructive and educational to read it as it demonstrates how people reverenced a king in his day. The dedication is referred to on the second page of the dedication as The Epistle Dedicatory.
In the version of the Bible we use in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the page listing all the books of the Old and New Testaments are referenced to the pages where the individual books begin. There is also a reference to the Appendix at the bottom of the page. The appendix includes the Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, the Joseph Smith Translation (JST), the Gazetteer, and a maps section.
The page before page 1 is an Explanation Concerning Abbreviations. As you study the footnotes you will need to know what these abbreviations mean so you know where to look things up for further study. Because the Church references the books in the Triple Combination, this abbreviations page also includes the abbreviations for all the other books in the Triple Combination.
This abbreviations page is an important page to become familiar with. The footnotes in the Bible will do you far less good if you can’t find any of the references the footnotes point you to. Learn these abbreviations. This is very important!
The Title Page for the Triple Combination lists The Book of Mormon Another Testament of Jesus Christ, The Doctrine and Covenants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and The Pearl of Great Price. This is also followed by a page of abbreviations you should become familiar with.
The Book of Mormon opens with a title page written by Mormon, and translated by Joseph Smith, Jun. It is followed by the official Introduction to the book. This has a lot of good information in it you should know. Next come the Testimony of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, then the Testimony of Eight Witnesses. Finally, Joseph Smith writes his own testimony about the Book of Mormon and how it came about.
In multiple places in the Book of Mormon we are told that certain sets of metal plates were used to record key events important to our understanding of the people in the book. After the testimony of Joseph smith is A Brief Explanation About the Book of Mormon that talks about all the plates we know of used to compile this historical and sacred record. Finally, we have the listing of the books in the Book of Mormon, and what page they start on.
The Doctrine and Covenants also has its own title page and a forward written to explain to the reader the purpose of the book. That is followed by a Testimony of the Twelve Apostles to the Truth of the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. This was written by the original apostles of this dispensation.
Because the Doctrine and Covenants is a modern book of revelation, mainly to the prophet Joseph Smith, there is also a Chronological Order of Contents listing at the beginning of the book. This listing tells us when and where each of the revelations were given, and how many sections the revelations take up. Some of the revelations actually comprise up to five sections.
At the end of the Doctrine and Covenants are a few maps that show where the Saints were living and where they moved to at different periods of time.
The Pearl of Great Price has its title page, followed by a one-page Introductory Note. The book is small, so its table of contents is short as well.
At the back of the Triple Combination is the Index. This is like the Topical Guide in the Bible, except it just has names and words along with a list of where they show up in the scriptures, instead of actual topics like the Topical Guide has. When searching for information be sure to look in both the Topical Guide AND the Index so you don’t miss something.
I know that reading all these peripheral parts of the books is not glamorous or necessarily full of heavy doctrine, but they are full of information, and important information at that.
The most recent version of the scriptures contain headings at the beginning of every chapter that tells us ever so briefly what that chapter talks about. Scanning the chapter headings is a good way to hunt for things quickly if you know an event or doctrine happened in approximately such and such location. Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote all the latest chapter headings in the English version of the scriptures
One of the modern additions to the scriptures is the addition of cross-referencing footnotes. These are one of the miracles born of the technology of the last days. Never before in the history of the world has anyone been able to read the scriptures with footnotes directing you to additional scriptures to help you study further. There are references to the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the scriptures, Greek and Hebrew alternative words, and explanations to help you understand what you are reading.
The footnotes are one of the most valuable tools you have for studying the scriptures. If you learn the abbreviations at the front of each of the two volumes of scripture, you will be able to understand better what the footnotes have to reveal to you.
From personal experience I can tell you that the Jesus of the New Testament is not the same man as the Jesus you will find in the footnotes of the LDS version of the KJV of the bible. The JST references paint a much more loving and accurate picture of the personality and character of the Son of God. I’ll talk later about how to mark scriptures to help you find these changes and references.
Topical Guide: After the New Testament ends you will find the Topical Guide. The Topical Guide is an alphabetical listing of words found in the scriptures along with a listing of scriptures where that word is used. For example, if you look up the word “city” you will find a long list of scriptures that use that word or a version of it. The references are always found in the same order – Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, then Pearl of Great Price. If you find a word that is missing one or more on this list then that word is not found in those scriptures. In the case of the word city, it is found in all of them.
Here is how you read a reference: First comes the actual physical scriptural reference. In the case of “city” the first reference reads this way: Num. 35:11 ye shall appoint you c. to be c. of refuge; You read the reference like this: “Numbers 35:11. Ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge.” Remember that the abbreviation stands for any version of the word you are looking up. Each new scriptural reference is bolded. It is just the first in the list that is not bolded.
The Bible Dictionary: Here is a brief example of how the dictionary works.
Agrippa. Listens to Paul at Caesarea (Acts 25: 13-26: 32). Son of Herod Agrippa I and brother of Bernice and Drusilla. See also Herod.
If you look up someone like Adam, you will get two paragraphs full of description before getting to the scriptural references. In the dictionary you will find names, place names, and doctrines, like Faith, Gospel, and Jacob’s Well.
Joseph Smith Translation
Not everything translated by Joseph Smith is included in the scriptures. The parts that have been included are deemed the most reliable parts of his translation of the bible. I again encourage you to read the New Testament including the JST verses. You won’t regret it.
Gazetteer and Maps
The Gazetteer is the listing of place names found in the maps section. Along with each name is a listing of the coordinates to help you find that place on the correct map. The maps have grid marks just on the outside edges of the maps. These show you which section to start hunting in for the place you need. For example: If you want to find Persia, the Gazetteer says E3: 11. That means you need to go to map 11. Along the top are letters. Find the letter E. Now scan down the right side of the map and you will see several numbers. If you go down from E until you are level with 3 you will see that it says Persia on the map.
The maps are important for many reasons, but primarily because much of what people reference in historical context refers to people and places, most of which don’t exist today. Learning your way around ancient maps can help you understand references made by the prophets to the people and events of their day that their prophecies talked about.
The most unappealing parts of the scriptures are all those parts surrounding the actual scriptures themselves. Please don’t think that just because they are not all the actual word of God that they are not worthy of your time and attention, for they are.
Remember that the Bible and Book of Mormon were written literally thousands of years ago. A lot has happened and changed in that time. Names of cities and countries have come and gone. Civilizations have risen and fallen. Place names that had great significance to the people of the Old Testament times often have little to no meaning to us today.
To give a thoughtful comparison, expecting us to understand some of their references would be like expecting Abraham to have any concept of what you mean by a New York minute or a Texas mile. There just isn’t any frame of reference for either of us to go by. This is why so much can be learned from studying the Gazetteer and the map section of the Bible, or carefully reading the footnotes to find explanations of words. More of that in the next part.
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