Author: Charles Hegwood, M.Div., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM
How to Study the Bible
So, you have decided to start studying the Bible? Or perhaps you are a seasoned pro looking to further sharpen your skills? For whatever reason at all, you have decided to read God’s Word, reading is the first and most important step. This brings up the question, “How do I study the Bible?” Well, you have maybe heard of the S.W.O.R.D method, FA.I.T.H., R.E.A.P., H.E.A.R., and on and on they go. There are enough Bible study methods out there to make your head spin. So many options can leave us paralyzed. Yes, that’s right. Too many options can leave you spending more time trying to figure out which method to use than reading the Bible itself. What I want to do is to boil these methods down to their core and get back to the reason we have made so many of these methods, to begin with; actually reading the Bible. When we read Scripture we want to hit these three areas: observation, interpretation, and application. Let’s take a look at each one of these components of reading the Bible while looking at Joshua 3.
So recently I taught a lesson on Joshua 3. I want to use this passage as our example as we look at how to study the Bible. When I begin the observation stage I first look at what genre of Scripture I am reading. Noting the genre will help in correct interpretation and application. Some books of the Bible have different genres within them. Joshua 3 is a narrative. Now that I have noted the genre I want to read through the chapter. Then I want to read it again slowly. Why? Well, there are no points for speed reading Scripture. In fact, if we read fast there is a danger of missing key details hidden within the passage. Since this particular passage is narrative, we may want to ask some questions like, “who is talking?” We see that in Joshua 3 God is talking with Joshua and Joshua then talks to Israel.
Now as we read through the passage slowly, we want to note details. First, observe the big details. What is the context? Well, here it is Israel about to cross into the promised land. They had been rebellious in the past and now are in a change in leadership and geographical location. You also want to notice little details such as Joshua 3:15 where we will get some detail on what the Jordan River does in harvest season. Spoilers, it overflows its banks. This detail is not trivial to the story. Sometimes I make mental notes of these details and sometimes I write them down.
We want to ask questions about the text as well. This may seem counterintuitive to some, but it is okay to ask questions when reading the Bible. One of the questions that I had was: ‘why does Joshua note the detail of the Jordan River’s seasonal overflowing?’ This seems to be a trivial detail but it actually will help us build our interpretation. Ask questions about what, how, and why things are in the text. Why does God ask the priest in Joshua 3 to step into the water before it parts? Note any words you do not understand. It may help to look at another translation or a dictionary. Like the word “consecrate” for example. It is not a word we use much in everyday life. Ask questions even if you know the answer again because it helps us to get to the overall meaning of the text.
Before we move on to interpretation, let us have a word about words. One thing I do when I observe a text is take note of the words used. For example, when you see ‘so that’ this phrase is a purpose clause. Conjunctions tell us there is a change in the story or pros. I personally like to underline or highlight these words in my Bible. That way next time I read a passage I can observe quicker the textual details, words, and phrases. Before moving on from words, observe repeated words or phrases. Words are repeated for a reason. Observing word usage as well as all that was mentioned above will help us in the next section, interpretation.
Following observations made in Joshua chapter 3, we now want to begin to interpret these observations. Israel is in a time of transition of leadership (Moses to Joshua) and geography (wilderness to promised land). They are scared, they have sinned. So Joshua tells them to “consecrate themselves” or make themselves holy before God. God tells Joshua to tell the priest to step into the river holding the ark of the covenant and then the waters will part. We observe that it may require some faith to step into the water. And we must observe that the ark of the covenant represented God’s presence for the people of Israel. Interpretation is connecting the dots. God is calling the people of Israel to faith. After all, remember the Jordan river is overflowing its banks at this time in the story. This is a tactical nightmare. And yet that is the point. Joshua will not lead Israel across the river on his intuition of tactical genius, but instead completely reliant on God’s power to do what God has asked.
Now we have locked in on the theme of faith we may interpret that God is calling His people to have faith in Him to do what He has called them to do. The previous sentence is the main idea by the way. But it is not blind faith, instead faith that is preceded by God’s presence. See how I took all of the observations and plugged them in to find the theme and then the interpretation of a seemingly odd, unimportant story becomes knowable and important to the life of Israel and to our lives today. But we are not yet done. We must now work to apply the interpretation to our lives.
This step is perhaps the most difficult. It is easy to be too generic here. Such as Joshua 3, have faith in God, the end. But that is not really application. In your personal study, this is the part that might take you hours to suss out. Yes, that is right. It is a process. Just like we did not want to rush observation, we do not want to rush the application. I personally will read, observe, interpret and then pray. I meditate on the text as I go about my day. This allows God to let His word seep into my soul. Take your time.
Write out big applications; for example, Joshua 3, “have faith in God to do his will.” And ask specifics like, “where is my faith lacking in God in certain areas of my life.” But wait, there’s more. Then ask, “Where am I seeing God’s presence in my life right now. And how is do I see His presence in that area.” Application is personal and can change as your life changes around you. For example, God is leading my family and I into a new place and ministry. There are a lot of fears. And fear can lead to disobedience. God has called my family to trust in Him to do what He has led us to do. God has promised to go before me. I have the works of Christ behind me and all around me. God is calling me to trust in light of who He is. I must step forward into these next steps trusting He will carry me and my family through. See now that is personal. I could go on but time and space will not allow it, but you can see how it is personal and my next step in application is to make specific steps and things to do. Application is a process that takes time and prayer.
Just make sure that your applications are always tied to the main idea and interpretation of the text. If your application seems untethered from the passage then you need to go back and repeat the above steps.
Let me end with this: We observe the text so that we may better interpret the text. Once we have observed and interpreted we must now apply it to our lives. There are different levels of application. You saw that above. We whittle the broad application down over time and through thinking on what we have read. Reading the Bible is not easy, but it is always worth it and rewarding. Take your time, saturate every moment in prayer, and think about what you have observed, interpreted, and applied throughout the day. After all, it is not a to-do list item but a time of communion with the King of all Creation. He promises to meet us in His Word and through prayer. Go and read and find yourself in the presence of the King.