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How to Study the Bible

Author: Jon Slenker

God chose to speak to mankind through the bible. This is why it is referred to as his “word”. It has been said that when you open the word of God, you open the mouth of God. It is important to know how to study the bible not just to know the book, but to know the Author. Learning how to study the bible is an incredible journey filled with excitement, beauty, wisdom, deep love and strong justice. Sometimes it makes perfect sense at the perfect moment, other times you set it down and have more questions about your circumstance than when you started.

“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
Joshua 1:8

God’s people are commanded to study his word (Josh. 1:8). The benefits of studying the bible are profound and eternal. When you study, take it slow, be patient, prayerful and cautious not to jump to conclusions. Learning how to study the bible for yourself gives you freedom to know and relate to God in more personal and practical ways. It also helps to know when someone is mishandling the text’s meaning and purpose. The bible warns us and encourages us to entrust it to those that will remain faithful hearers, students, and doers of it. The challenge remains that many interpret the bible wrongly either intentionally or accidentally. Interpreting God’s Word is an art and science to be practiced with care.

3 Phases of Bible Study

1 Observation

The first phase of bible study is Observation. As you open God’s word, approach it with reverence, humility and a healthy curiosity. Sometimes we study for different purposes. We may study a topic or doctrine, a word, verse, or entire book or letter. A healthy practice for studying the bible is one book at a time. Read the book in its entirety like you would watch a movie. Then start back at the beginning and practice observation, interpretation and application for each chapter. Observation, interpretation and application may be used for a passage containing a few verses or one. Remember the broader context. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. A student of the bible is like a detective attempting to see the big picture by correctly piecing together important data.

Taking your time studying an entire book or letter over weeks or months is helpful  to understand the bible in its entirety. The student should not approach a text simply to gain knowledge, but allow it to affect their heart, mind, soul and to put it into practice. Becoming a good observer is an acquired skill. It is our first line of defense for not misreading the text or making it about ourselves. Observation rightly aligns us and places us in the audience, not on stage.

Questions for Observation

  • Who: Author, audience, characters?
  • What: Events, occasions, theme, topic?
  • When: What was life like, global events that occurred during that time period?
  • Where: Place and culture, weather, distance, geography, topography, market, temple, home?

As you build evidence, record things that stand out to you and are emphasized, repeated, related, alike, unlike, or true to life. During observation, fight the feeling to make meaning of the clues. Note the questions you have, but avoid chasing them at this time. Keep inspecting!

2 Interpretation

The second phase is Interpretation. Now that you have collected your data, it’s time to make sense of it. This can be difficult at times due to language, cultural or communication barriers. Interpretation is important. Across the world, the Church gathers in different denominations solely for the purpose of how we interpret the bible. It is important for you to study the bible to know God and his ways to develop your own convictions and beliefs without needing to solely rely on someone else’s. Knowing how to study the bible as a faithful observer and interpreter reveals to us the pillars and principles that God established. He wants us to be knowledgeable, wise and aware to live an abundant, quiet and peaceful life (John 10:10; 1 Thess. 4:11).

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
2 Timothy 3:16-17

Characteristics of the Bible

Like God, his word is unchanging and eternal (Psalms 119:89). It does not contradict itself or contain errors. It is inspired, meaning it was “breathed out” by God (Psalms 119:105). The bible affirms itself as the holy, inspired word of God (1 Cor. 2:12-13). The bible tells a unified story centered around the primary character, Christ (Rom. 1:1-4). Jesus himself modeled how to interpret the things concerning Christ in all the scriptures beginning with “Moses and all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27). Peter would follow his lead preaching at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36). Stephen, mimicked this in Acts 7 when he was martyred for preaching from a christ-centered interpretation of the bible. Paul teaches that the righteousness of God comes through faith and not works, explaining that “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it– the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Rom. 3:21-22). These passages show us that the Old Testament is the foundation of the New Testament and the New Testament assumes and affirms the Old Testament.

Begin your interpretation by establishing the context. Using the information from your observation, determine the author’s intent for writing this book or letter. Ask the following questions to build the original context, meaning and purpose. Answer the questions that relate.

Questions for Interpretation

  • What is the main point or big idea of the book or letter?
  • What is the structure of the book or letter? Are there sections of the book that transcend the chapters? The 5 ‘books’ or sections of Psalms is a good example of this. Chapters 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106 and 107-150 each have a unique tone or theme.
  • How does this text or passage fit into the book as a whole?
  • Does the author talk about this topic elsewhere?
  • What is the occasion?
  • What events are taking place and why is the author including them?
  • Determine a timeline of events as is helpful
  • What is the genre of writing? (Is it historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, an eye witness or secondary account?)
  • What does it say about God’s or man’s nature?
  • How does God relate to, or treat man and vice-versa?
  • How does man relate to, or treat man?
  • Is there a truth being told?
  • Is there a promise to believe?
  • Is there a sin to avoid?
  • Is there a command to obey?
  • Is there a principle to follow?
  • Is there an example to follow?
  • Has the pace of an account sped up or slowed down to emphasize something important?
  • What is being left out?
  • What is clear or unclear?

As you work to put the pieces together, fight the urge to apply it to yourself or others. Determine what the main point of the text is. What does the author want the recipient to know, believe or do? Is there a theme, topic, or belief the author explicitly or implicitly highlights? Christ-centered interpretation does not mean you should turn over every rock and pebble attempting to find some relation to Christ, but it does seek to know how Christ fulfills, relates to or affirms the main point of the text either in his birth, life, ministry, leadership, sacrifice, resurrection, or teachings. Finally, Utilize other sources like dictionaries, concordances, atlases, or commentaries. Let scripture interpret scripture before consulting outside sources.

3 Application

The final phase of studying the bible is Application. This is where we apply the truths and teachings of the passage studied to our own lives. Remember, the interpretation is one but the application is many. Paul tells Timothy to know himself, therefore, we should continue to inspect and know ourselves (1 Tim. 4:16). Our beliefs, traits, tendencies, emotions, weaknesses, inabilities, how we respond or react under mild or extreme stress (Rom. 12:3). We have to know God to follow him and know ourselves to lead ourselves. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Questions for Application

  • In what ways did the original audience apply the truths passed down to them?
  • How might they have applied it in their context?
  • How are we like or unlike them?
  • How should we be like or unlike them?
  • Is there a tendency or trait that the Spirit is bringing to mind?
  • O.S. Acrostic
    • What is God SAYING to me?
    • How should I OBEY?
    • Who should I SHARE this truth with?
  • How should my character, conduct, or conversation be affected by the Word of God?
  • How should this truth affect my:
    • Attitudes – toward God, others, circumstances, myself
    • Knowledge of God
    • Behavior – habits, reactions, positive or negative
    • Relationships – Where do I need to forgive, seek forgiveness, encourage, rebuke, submit, lead?

Application requires a decision and a specific plan of action in order to allow the Holy Spirit to make scriptural principles part of us. It takes around three months for habits to be replaced. Our tendencies are hardwired in us, and God desires behavior that honors ourselves, our people and him. But studying the bible is not just behavior modification or comprehension, it’s about salvation, truth, transformation, and relationship with God and man. Studying the bible should ultimately prepare you for a life of worshiping God and seeking the highest good of others.

Application is “best served” with prayer and meditation. What is God saying to you? Ask him. What does he want you to know, cling to, be warned of or comforted by? Let his word be ointment for healing, iron for sharpening, sweeter than honey, green pastures filled with peace, a rod for discipline and a staff for direction.

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