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In the previous installment of this How to Study the Bible series, I addressed the question of how fast one should read the Bible. My suggestion was to alternate; engage in a Bible reading plan each year that takes you through the whole story, then pick out a few books that you want to focus on and designate a period of time to go slow and drink in the depth.
So, when the time comes to do a detailed study of a smaller section, the following steps will help you break down the Scriptures and discover the depth of meaning woven into God’s Word. The basic technique we will cover below is taught and expanded on in Living By the Book by Howard Hendricks. You can also check out Chapter 7 of The Bible Chapel’s Living Grounded book, which covers how to study the Bible.
The following three steps will help you lift the words from the pages (or your cell phone screen) and make them a living and active part of your everyday life.
Observation is about asking and answering the question ‘what do I see?’ When it comes to studying the Bible, the first step is learning how to see more of the picture. In other words, we take on the role of a detective and seek out commonly overlooked details. But, how do you do that? There are many ways to observe, but let me give you two: slow down and ask good questions.
Too often our biggest mistake is that we go too fast. Step one is to slow down. If you are studying the book of Philippians, just focus on the first chapter awhile; but not just chapter one as a whole. Start with the first couple of verses. This is where a blank Word document comes in handy; copy and paste the verse right in there, like so:
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then space it out into smaller chunks so you can better see what is there. A good place to start is by using the grammatical punctuations as your divisions.
Paul and Timothy,
servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi,
with the overseers and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Think of it like you are looking at a map on Google. When you zoom all the way out, you get the whole picture — continents, oceans and all — with very little detail. As you zoom in, you begin to see features like rivers, mountain ranges, and cities. Go even closer and you start to see the minute details like streets, schools, and even the top of your own house! By breaking down the verses and “zooming in” on each part it allows you to see a much richer picture of everything that is being said, which leads us to the next aspect of observation.
Ask good questions
Now that we are slowing down, the next step is to ask good questions. Space out the phrases and write as many questions as you can think of for every phrase. If you are not sure where to start, try using these six interrogative words: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Keep in mind that this step isn’t necessarily about finding the answers, but rather to help you see more of the picture. Here are some examples of what questions might look like for our passage.
Paul and Timothy,
- Who is Paul?
- Who is Timothy?
- What is the nature of their relationship?
- Why are they both introduced?
- Did they co-write this letter?
- Would the audience know them by their first names?
- Why are they together?
servants of Christ Jesus,
- What does it mean to be a servant in that culture?
- Why did they introduce themselves as servants?
- Was it normal for a person to introduce themself in this manner?
- What does Christ mean?
- Why does it sometimes say Christ Jesus and other times say Jesus Christ?
So on and so forth. When you slow down and take the time to ask questions, you start to realize there is more going on than you may have initially realized.
After we have taken the time to see more, we want to make sense of it. Interpretation is about asking and answering the question ‘what does it mean?’ There are a lot of helpful tools that can bring us closer to discovering the meaning of a text, but let’s start with the most popular — context.
It’s common for individual words to carry multiple meanings. For example, if I say the word ‘rock,’ you don’t know if I’m talking about a stone, a type of music, a motion someone does in a chair, or the greatest movie star of all time. The only way you will discover the meaning is by evaluating the surrounding words. When I say, “The Rock was awesome in Rampage,” you can now look at the surrounding words and come to a more accurate conclusion of what I mean when I use the word ‘rock.’ You now know that I’m talking about Dwayne Johnson, and you also know I’m crazy… but that’s beside the point.
When discussing biblical context there are three layers to consider: immediate, remote, and extra-biblical. Immediate context includes the words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and book surrounding the verse at hand. Remote context includes the author, genre, testament, and even other parts of the Bible. Extra-biblical context includes the history, culture, and literature surrounding the time of the writing in question. When trying to determine the meaning of a specific verse, start with the immediate context and work your way out. Let’s look at an example to better understand.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
This is a popular verse that athletes quote to inspire them to accomplish more than they think they are able to accomplish. I personally would say this to myself when I was running cross country. But the question we need to ask as good Bible students is, ‘what did the author have in mind when he wrote this?’ Let’s start with the immediate context. How do the surrounding verses help us? Verse ten says, “You have revived your concern for me.” Then verses 14 through 20 talk about the financial support the church of Philippi engaged in with the author. Verses 11 and 12 discuss the author’s explanation of learning how to be content with much provision or little provision.
When we step back further and look at the book as a whole, we discover that it is a letter to the church at Philippi, written by the apostle Paul from within the walls of a prison cell. If we start including other books from the New Testament, we can read Acts 16 and learn who the church of Philippi was and how they got their start. When we put all the pieces together, we learn that Paul founded this church; he loves these people and they have supported him financially in his ministry. He is writing to update, encourage, and strengthen them. Clearly since they were last together Paul has run into some hard times. With all those elements in consideration, we can conclude that Paul has learned that the secret to being content is reliance on God. Paul can endure the challenges of ministry because Jesus Christ is strengthening him in the process. Christ is providing for his physical needs, encouraging his inner heart, and constantly reminding him that his purpose, in prison or out, is to make Jesus famous.
Therefore, by unpacking the context we have a better idea that Philippians 4:13 isn’t saying that when we rely on God, we can accomplish any task we put our mind to, but rather, when difficulty comes, the secret of contentment is to keep our eyes on Jesus and watch Him prove that He is enough.
I hope that helps you as you start to explore the context to better understand meaning.
Now that we have taken the time to observe the text and decipher meaning, the last step is to put it into action. Application is asking and answering the question, ‘how does it work in my life?’ Application is such an important part of Bible study methods. In fact, the whole reason we engage in studying the Bible is to determine how it calls us to live. We must start with understanding God’s Word rightly, but it has to conclude with letting it work itself into our lives. Without application, the first two steps are meaningless.
With that said, let’s look briefly at how to rightly apply God’s Word to your life. Tim Keller’s book, Preaching, has been very helpful to me in this area. The way Tim explains application is as follows:
Step 1 — Tell them what they have to do: What standard is the Bible setting?
Step 2 — Tell them why they can’t do it: How is this standard unreachable?
Step 3 — Tell them how Jesus has already done it: How has Jesus fulfilled this biblical standard perfectly?
Step 4 — Tell them that this expectation is attainable by looking to Jesus: How does belief in Jesus empower us to meet this standard?
If we skip steps two through four and focus on only step one, we will fall into either despair or moralism. We can fall into despair over the constant failure to apply God’s Word to our lives. Or we will fall into moralism; a misguided belief that we can accomplish the task the Bible is calling us to on our own. When we put all four steps into action, we understand how the gospel leads us to live changed lives.
What’s an example of this?
Galatians 6:2 tells us to “bear one another’s burdens.” How do we apply this using Keller’s steps?
What is the Bible commanding us to do? To bear each other’s burdens. The word used here is the same word for carry. Our responsibility as believers is to walk alongside those who are hurting and carry their pain with them. As our brothers and sisters in Christ experience death, terminal illness, divorce, job loss, depression, and more, it is our calling to enter into that pain and lighten their load by shouldering their hurt with them.
Is this expectation attainable? Some people are laden with extreme burdens that can easily feel too heavy to carry. Imagine if you just found out that some close friends of yours lost a child. Then, someone in your small group reports that they just found out they have an aggressive form of cancer. Another friend confides in you that their spouse is having an affair. Later, someone with whom you serve asks for prayer because her husband just lost his job. Finally, your best friend texts you and wants to talk because he is hitting a low point in his battle with depression. How are you going to fulfill this biblical command to take on all this pain and still function as a human being? The truth is that on our own we do NOT have the strength to feel the weight of this pain and continue to function. We don’t have the perspective to see hope beyond the pain. We don’t have the time that it takes to support these people as much as they need in order to find healing. And many of us lack the expertise to know how to handle the complexity of our brother’s or sister’s pain. If we are honest, we can’t do what the Bible is calling us to do.
What has Jesus already done? When Jesus was dying on the cross He yelled out in Matthew 27:46, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What Jesus was doing in that moment on the cross was absorbing the wrath of God for all of the past, present, and future sins of the world. Jesus was literally carrying our ultimate burden of sin and shame and paying for it.
How is this biblical command attainable in Jesus? By carrying our ultimate burden of sin and overcoming the grave, Jesus has made a way for us to become new. By grace through faith believers are adopted into His family and empowered by His Spirit. This Spirit, now alive in every believer, is producing fruit that enables them to love others in a way that couldn't be done before. Therefore, our responsibility is not to try to produce this fruit, but to cling tightly to the Spirit that is supernaturally producing these qualities as we enter into the pain of others. So now, because of Jesus, we have the strength to feel the weight of this pain because it’s the Lord’s strength and not our own. Now, while we still lack perspective, we are anchored to the truth that there is hope in Jesus. Now, while we don’t have unlimited time, we have the ability to love the best we can knowing that Jesus fills in our gaps. And, while we are limited in our expertise, we listen well and point those hurting to the expert of all things, which is Jesus.
So that’s it! Observe, interpret, apply. These three steps are the backbone of how to not only understand the Bible, but also make it an integral part of who you are. Thanks for joining me on this journey of ‘How to Study the Bible’. I hope these five blog posts have been helpful and will spur you on to dig deeper in the richness and beauty of God’s revelation to the world.
Now GO! Take in the richness of God’s Word and let Him change your life through it.
- How to Read the Bible for All its Worth by Gordon Fee
- Basic Bible Interpretation by Roy B. Zuck
- Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks
- Bible Study Methods by Rick Warren
Web and Apps
- The Bible Project — thebibleproject.com
- Breakaway Ministries App — Engage the Word Training
- YouVersion Bible App