Biblical illiteracy. It hurts us personally, hurts our churches, and hurts our witness. Most importantly, it hurts the advancement of the gospel across the globe. Regarding our distraction from and inattention to the scriptures, Randy Alcorn writes, “It was God—not Satan—who made us learners. God doesn’t want us to stop learning. He wants us to stop what prevents us from learning.” Paul scolded the Corinthian Christians for their unspiritual attitudes and conduct in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4. He explained that their problems were partially caused by some of them having too little knowledge of God’s ways. He wrote: “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame” (1 Cor. 15:34). We cannot properly honor and serve God unless we have knowledge of His will, acquired through regular, diligent Bible study.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Ti 2:15). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
After researching context, reading and rereading your passage, it’s time to make a commitment to find the meaning and apply the instruction of the Scriptures. Scripture may have multiple applications, but only one meaning. Biblical text doesn’t mean one thing today and another tomorrow. What it means, it means forever. You must be confined to the author’s intent as you study. Bible study requires you to work hard in achieving the scripture’s meaning so that you might accurately apply to daily life. When getting to the meat of your study, go beyond reading the Bible. Actually do what it says.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jas 1:22–25). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
This Bible study method is simply a procedure, system, or routine put into practice to study and understand the Bible. We will explore a commonly used three-step method using observation, interpretation, and application. Pull out your notes from your research on context and consider them in every step. Using an in-depth inductive study, the learner applies three main questions: What do I see? What does it mean? How does it work? In this post, you will learn the details that guide those three little questions. In each step, there are phrases and questions that will better inform the learner, adding depth to inductive study. I recommend breaking down your study over two or more sittings the first few times you practice this method. When using the guiding phrases and questions in your study, you can get more out of your Bible study. It’s my recommendation that you write them down for now. Over time (having gained an eye for what is important in your Bible study), you should be able to craft an abbreviated version that best suits your time frame.
During your study time, work in these four points:
- Understanding of the basic facts of the passage
- Following the author’s flow of thought in the passage
- Using literary context by reading text before and after this passage
- Knowing what you might need to study further
The most important questions to ask of the text are Christological. All of the Bible points to Jesus Christ.
- Where does this text stand in relation to Christ?
- Does this text speak directly of Christ?
- How do the implications of the Gospel make these commands possible?
- Does this text reveal a type of Christ?
- Is this passage predictive of Christ?
- How does this passage show us mankind’s need for Christ?
- How does this passage reveal the nature of the God who provides redemption?
- Does the passage reveal a biblical theme that points to Christ?
- Does the passage show a promise of God that points us to Christ?
1) observation: What do I see?
Observation is taking a good hard look at what is in the text. I recommend reading the specific passage from at least two translations, preferably one Word-for-Word and a second that is Though-for-Thought. For example, I typically use ESV and NIV for this step. The observation stage of Bible study involves reading the text closely and making sure you understand the details of the passage. You begin to ask basic questions of who, what, where, when, why, and how? To accurately see the text is to observe what information God himself has put in a biblical passage. Look closely at the details and seek meaning from those details. Look for significant words, concepts, repetitive words or phrases. Observe relationship with the larger text and the Bible as whole. This is the point to begin making additional notes or mark up the text itself. It’s very important to engage in the text directly. Ask:
- Who is the author of the book?
- To whom is the book written?
- Who are the characters in the book?
- Who is speaking?
- To whom is he speaking?
- What is the atmosphere of the book or passage? Friendly? Chastening? Loving?
- What is the author’s general topic? What is he saying about his topic?
- What is the context?
- What are the key words? What do they mean?
- When was the book written?
- When did this event happen in relation to other events?
- When was this prophecy fulfilled or has it been?
“When” questions are important to ask, especially in narrative literature such as the Gospels. This will help give you the “time” perspective.
- Where was the book written?
- Where were the recipients of the book living?
- Can you locate the places mentioned on a map?
- Where else does this topic appear in Scripture?
- Why was the book written?
- Why does he include this material and not other things?
- Why does the author give so much space to that topic and so little to another?
- How many? How many times does the author use the same word in this book, chapter, passage, verse?
- How long?
- How much?
- How does he do this? Say this?
- How does this relate to the preceding and succeeding statements?
2) interpretation: What does it mean?
Seeking the meaning of a text deals with interpreting the observations. Seeing and seeking are most often best done simultaneously. Interpretation is basically asking questions of your observations and answering them. Correct interpretation is when we draw the meaning out of the text. Incorrect interpretation reads meaning into the text. Interpretation is not some mystical experience of direct revelation. Revelation is objective disclosure of truth. One can easily read meanings from the text that were never the text’s original intent. Gordon D. Fee writes, “Who speaks for God? …we should be properly concerned whenever anyone says they have God’s deeper meaning to a text – especially if the text never meant what it is now made to mean. Of such interpretations are all the cults born, and innumerable lesser heresies.” We disrespect the Scriptures in making a text mean anything that pleases us, placing credit due to the Holy Spirit. Remember, the Spirit inspired the original intent. The interpretation stage of Bible study involves sorting through what the text meant to its original audience. The text will have one fixed meaning.
A misinterpreted Bible is a misunderstood Bible, which will lead us out of God’s way rather than in it. – J.I. Packer
Remember to use Scripture to interpret Scripture (in other words, use more clear passages to help you with less clear passages). Because the Bible is not a collection of independent texts, but one complex work, we often need to refer to other parts of the work for clarification of what is being said at one particular point. Cross reference can prove helpful. Paul writes in Philippians 1:9-11, And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
On another note, because the people of Scripture were real, we should be careful not to minimize the humanity of the persons of the Bible. If we aren’t careful, we can easily romanticize these characters. In addition, we should not minimize their suffering and joy. While recognizing the reality of the lives of the people of Scripture, and experiencing the effective work of God’s Word in our own lives, it is imperative to remember: The Bible is true regardless of your experience. Never interpret the Bible in the light of your personal experience.
Five keys to successful Bible interpretation are content, context, comparison, culture, and consultation.
Consultation is where you may use reliable Bible helps, tools, and commentaries. Don’t go to them too soon, but use them to validate your own interpretation as you summarize the passage. Note: If you consult two or more commentaries and none share your interpretation, you’d best abandon yours. In this step, work in these four points for greater understanding:
- Historical and cultural background
- Meaning of significant words in the passage
- Reason for the author’s writing/Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the passage
- The significance of the passage
- Where does this fall in Scripture? Is it Old or New Testament?
- What section of the New or Old Testament is it contained in?
- How does the passage relate to what precedes and follows?
- What is the surrounding context?
- What is the main idea of the passage?
With humility, and while keeping a teachable spirit, confirm your interpretation with other people (2 Pet. 1:20). You can ask someone who you believe to be mature in Bible knowledge, or consult works by biblical scholars such as commentaries.
3) application: How does it work?
The interpretation of Scripture is one, but applications are many. Sound application must begin with sound interpretation. Application is the thoughtful appropriation of biblical truth to our lives. It’s how we take it in. We grasp it with our minds and embrace it with our hearts as we adjust our lives to bring them in line with the truth of the Word. Any doctrine we learn from a passage should be formative for us. The focus of application is who we are to be and what we are to do. In some cases this application is individual, but in some cases it is corporate. But it’s the shaping of character (and not just the mind) that should be the result of Bible study. You have an opportunity in application to think through various contexts of your life to which the passage might apply.
Application can be difficult to do consistently because of our sinfulness, and because many of us have been trained to think in vague terms rather than specific action. The study of God’s Word helps us see sin in our lives and helps us get rid of specific sins by way of the Holy Spirit. It’s important to note that application might take the form of a tangible action, worship, meditation, or adjusting our theology. The original meaning is fixed. The application might vary in detail. Application may be content oriented, or it may be conduct oriented. Often, the two are intermingled. Allow the intent of the writer to inform your personal application. Ask:
- What does this passage show us about God?
- What theological principles can be drawn out of this passage?
- Is there a truth in this passage we ought to believe?
- Is there an example in this passage we ought to follow?
- What does this passage mean for the church?
Carry the application further by asking:
- Is there an example for me to follow?
- Is there a sin to avoid?
- Is there a promise to claim?
- Is there a prayer to repeat?
- Is there a command to obey?
- Is there a condition to meet?
- Is there a verse to memorize?
- Is there an error to mark?
- Is there a challenge to face?
In the Bible study process, it is always better to err on the side of being overly obedient than disobedient. Sound application must begin with sound interpretation. Right application begins at the beginning of the time we sit down to read the biblical text. It includes our attitudes and our posture toward the Bible. Application should speak to the needs, interests, questions, and problems of real life today with an indicated course of action. As we read and study over time, we begin to understand and know what the Bible says about various experiences in life. The Bible keeps us from wasting years of our lives on that which does not matter and will not last.
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 7:24–27). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Lest we not forget the lasting benefit of having done the hard work of Bible study: Meditating on the Scriptures and your study of them. God’s Word should fill your thought life at all times but most especially following Bible study. Biblical meditation is a time for silence and solitude, with a focus on God’s truth (not some eastern practice). Meditating on the Scriptures might include prayer or journaling. The point is to use a short time for reflection and resting your soul. The purpose in this time is to seek spiritual goals prompted by the third step of study – application, because Scripture has transformative power. Gregg Allison puts it like this: The transformative power of Scripture is the multifaceted effect that God, its author, brings about through his Word. By the working of the Holy Spirit, the Word does the work.
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Col 3:2). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
James Montgomery Boice penned, “Bible study is the most essential in the believer’s spiritual life, because it is only in the study of the Bible as that is blessed by the Holy Spirit that Christians hear Christ and discover what it means to follow Him.” The more we make an effort to really dig into the Bible, the more reward we will gain for our efforts. If you are hesitant to begin the hard work of Bible study, remember that there is no abundant living without hard work. These things don’t always come easy or naturally but truth is, there is no reward without our willingness to do our part. Godliness is both closeness to Christ and conformity to Christ, inward and outward. Growth in holiness is a gift from God. However, we are not to sit still with our hands folded as we await our Savior’s return. Action is an immense part in our side of the equation. God-given spiritual disciplines are for our good, providing a pathway for us to receive His grace. Ultimately, the goal of Bible study is not only for our own transformation but to know and enjoy Jesus Christ.
Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Ti 6:11–12). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Sources for this series were acknowledged in a previous post. View them here.