The 10,000-Hour Rule

I occasionally have my hearers ask me how I know so much about the historical background of the Scriptures. Perhaps they heard something I taught which connected in a way they had not thought of before, or learned something which had previously eluded them. My response is pretty uniform: I have spent most of my adult life seeking to know more about the Scriptures!

In 2008 a book called Outliers: The Story of Success, by author and New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell became a best seller. Gladwell had previously written The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2002) and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2007) – all three books examine the relationship between success, inspiration (i.e., genius), hard work, and opportunity in business and careers.

I mention these books because of their proposal that circumstances and opportunities often outweigh innate talent. But he especially emphasizes over and over that real competency at something (including, I would think, Bible knowledge or teaching) is greatly determined by his so-called “10,000-Hour Rule.” This “rule” states that truly successful or capable people in a given field have invested at least 10,000 hours working at their passion or interest to get to their skill level. He acknowledges that opportunities and “being in the right place at the right time” played a part, but pursuing and working at something consistently and persistently for thousands of hours over 5 or 10 or more years have the most profound effect.

Where am I going with this? Certainly Gladwell was not writing about spiritual pursuits but about business. And probably there are many things in his books with which we would take issue. But I think his fundamental proposition stands firm. There are no true shortcuts to success in Bible knowledge and application. Spending 10-20 hours per week for 10 or more years reading, studying, teaching, analyzing, outlining, and exegeting the Bible has its reward. That may not be the message a microwaveable, fast food, instant gratification generation is looking for, but it is the lesson it needs.

“Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts”

Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts, Editors & Major Contributors: J. I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney, William White, Jr. Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN. © Copyright 1995, 1980. Suggested retail about $30.00. (Update: currently out of print at publisher. A few copies are available by calling the Extension School Bookstore at 800-687-2121.)

I consider this reference work one of the most valuable in my library. As we said in our article entitled, “Know the Author’s Setting,” the biblical writers wrote within certain historical, cultural, and linguistic settings. Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts (NIEBF) is a one-volume resource providing many of the background facts which help illuminate and clarify the scripture.

This 746 page book (plus index and maps) was first issued under the title of The Bible Almanac in 1980. NIEBF is the revised and updated version.

NIEBF is different from “Bible handbooks” which take the Bible book by book and briefly outline and provide background. Instead, it approaches the Bible’s background topically. It has 45 chapters on topics such as Bible Chronology, Text and Translations, Pagan Religions, Animals and Insects, Agriculture, Languages and Writing, Geography of Palestine, Worship and Rituals, etc. Such an arrangement allows zeroing in on a specific topic while still getting the broader setting.

While called “Illustrated,” the book is mostly text; most of the photos are less than quarter-page size black and white. Clearly the focus is on the information, not the illustrations. In the Editor’s Preface, J. I. Packer says:

“History is the backbone of the Bible. Prophets’ and apostles’ sermons, with psalmists’ praises, must be slotted into their place in the history, or the organism of Holy Scripture will not work in our minds as it should to bring us knowledge of God. Spine trouble limits what a person’s other limbs can do, and uncertainty about Bible history – by limiting our insight into the rest of Scripture –limits what God’s Word as a whole can do for us. Without some historical study a vast amount of the meaning of Scripture gets lost. Not that a man who has no historical aids to Bible study cannot understand the Word at all; on the contrary, its saving message is spelled out so often and so clearly that only the spiritually blind can miss it. But with historical aids one will understand Scripture much more fully that one could otherwise. This is where Nelson’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts will help.”

Let me give some examples of its usefulness from a recent study on the Book of Esther. Here are just a few of the topics illuminated by NIEBF:

  • Get the historical background by reading Chapter 9 on “The Persians.”
  • Chapter 43 (“Outlines of the Books of the Bible”) provides a sensible outline of the book.
  • Learn more about the Feast of Purim from Chapter 27 on “Worship Rituals.
  • Susa is talked about in Chapter 45, “Places of the Bible.”

Any book is only as good as the information it contains. NIEBF treats the biblical text as truth and an accurate record of history. Its editors and contributors are recognized as conservative biblical scholars. Add this book to your library. You will be using it often.

Article updated August 13, 2011

“Know the Author’s Setting”

A most basic element of effective Bible study is illustrated well in this drawing taken from Getting More From Your Bible, by Terry Hall. Understanding the history, culture, background, language, and even geography surrounding a biblical author’s writing will make it more likely we will accurately interpret what he has written.

We plan to continue with more articles illustrating and expanding on this basic principle – that an author is always writing within a context. Each biblical writer’s original audience was very aware of that context, and needed little or no explanation from the author. Today, we need to practice “due diligence” and, as much as possible, put ourselves into the same position as the original recipients of the writing.

Here is a non-religious example to illustrate. Looking through some personal papers once belonging to your great grandmother you find a letter. As you scan its contents you notice a number of things. It is addressed to someone whose name you do not recognize named Martha. The date is in the early 1860s. The address is in South Carolina. The contents are a mixture of personal expressions of longing and fondness along with references to war. With the clues referred to we would correctly conclude that the setting was the American Civil War in the South, and this was a letter home from a soldier. Without these basic bits of background (context), much of the real message of the letter would be lost. The same is true of the Scriptures. More to come. . .

(Getting More From Your Bible, by Terry Hall was copyrighted 1984 and published by Victor Books. I have not been able to locate the author to gain his permission to use this drawing. I have kept this book these 20+ years because of its contribution to effective Bible study.)

Article last updated August 10, 2011

Using Matthew’s Gospel as a Sermon Series

“Sundays with Matthew”
A Bible Book as a Sermon Series

“They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching,” Luke tells us in Acts 2 about the earliest church. In 2004 I made the commitment at the Tanglewood church in Odessa, Texas to, figuratively speaking, help them sit at the feet of one of Jesus’ disciples. June 6, 2004 I began preaching through the Gospel of Matthew. May 21, 2006 the last message was delivered. Two years, 90+ sermons, and over 55 hours of public exposure to the text – what was the result?

Continue reading

Internet Resources: Handle With Care!

The internet provides an amazing, even dazzling, variety of resources which can be useful for Bible study. However, it is often difficult to discern the theological and foundational beliefs of those behind various websites.

I am starting a series of articles highlighting some of the sites I use regularly. I will try to include the “bias” (not intended in a critical sense) of these sites. Surely we have all learned how to take advantage of the good and filter out that which seems out of sync with our own understanding of God’s Word whether from books, the media or the internet! I expect my readers to do that even with the material I present here; I certainly instruct my weekly congregational audience to compare what I say to the Scriptures.

Here are some of the “red flags,” or danger signs, I look for in printed, verbal and internet based teaching; these would lead me to avoid, or at least use with extreme caution, these resources.

  • Is it advocating some novel or supposed unknown “truth?”
  • Is there any claim, explicit or implied, that this website, ministry or organization is the unique source for truth concerning God’s will, His dealings with mankind, or salvation?
  • Is there any claim that one can only come to true understanding through the help of this person, organization, or material?
  • Is an effort being made to deny or “explain away” seemingly plain statements in Scripture?
  • Is there an effort to insist that some particular teaching(s) are the filter or foundational principles through which all others are to be understood?
  • Are there parts of Scripture teaching that are consistently ignored while implying the teaching that is provided is a comprehensive presentation of God’s will?
  • What is the purpose of the teaching — better understanding. . . or the profit of the teacher or learner? (“God wants you to be rich,” etc.)
  • Is the author, organization, or group claiming “a special revelation” or a unique prophetic gift or “word of wisdom” from God? This would, if true, put them on the same level with inspired men in the Bible.

It is my firm conviction that the Scriptures are God’s revelation. Therefore, it is not hidden or only available to a select few, but rather open to all who desire to understand and know His will. This does not mean there will not be differences, difficulties, and areas of misunderstanding. Like any significant topic of study, there should always be constant growth and advancement in understanding; differences on some points will continue even among serious students and scholars in a discipline.

I hope you will continue together with me in seeking truth and understanding!

Article updated August 5, 2011

“Why Good Arguments Often Fail”


Why Good Arguments Often Fail, by James W. Sire. Published by IVP Press.

“You made the best case you knew how, and your friend still wasn’t persuaded to follow Christ. Why is it that solid, rational arguments for the Christian faith often fail?”

Rather than focusing on the various arguments which constitute the broad topic of “Christian evidences,” James Sire devotes most of his book to the topics of logic and why people are (or are not) persuaded to accept a different point of view.

The book is divided into four parts. First is the section on defective argumentation. Next is the section on the profound influence that one’s worldview has on argumentation. The third part of the book draws together the author’s best proposals for presenting the Christian faith in a factual, persuasive, and effective way. The end of the book contains an extensive bibliography with author’s comments and suggestions of classic and new books in the area of evidences.

I’ve never read another book that addresses this particular subject in detail. James Sire’s more than 50 years in Christian publishing and working on university campuses shows. I actually felt stretched and challenged by his insights and proposals. The first section on defective arguments and attitudes is worth the price of the book. That is true again for the second section on worldviews and our need to understand how others think and believe.

This is not an easy book to read because of the topics covered. At the same time, Sire’s writing style is clear, enjoyable and persuasive, encouraging the reader to keep going. This is a highly recommended read! It already is causing me to examine more carefully both what I teach and how.

This book is available from Clicking Christian Book Distributor’s ad to the right and ordering from them provides a small commission to Thank you.

Article updated Aug. 4, 2011