Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM
The Bible can be a bit intimidating. It’s huge, it’s ancient, and it’s inspired by the eternal God who made everything. How can we possibly understand it? Well, it is one of the great miracles of history that God has communicated His Word to us in a way that even children can get it. And He has made us a part of His Church, so we are not alone in the effort. So, let’s spend some time trying to understand how we can study Holy Scripture so that we might not only understand it, but be changed by it.
What makes the Bible so intimidating is also what makes it so approachable: it comes from God. This guarantees two things that we should always keep in mind: first, that it is inexhaustibly rich and full of meaning beyond anything we will ever know; but second, that God Himself desires to communicate to us in specific ways—ways we can understand and respond to. This means that, no matter who you are or how intelligent you may be, you will benefit from your study of Scripture, even if you study the same verses every day for the rest of your life.
Now, if God desires for us to read and study His Word, we must come to it with certain expectations and follow certain rules in order to get the most out of our study. The first and most important rule is described in 1 Corinthians 2:14, where Paul tells us that “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” If we rely solely on our own, natural wisdom to understand God’s Word, which was breathed out by His Spirit according to 2 Timothy 3:16, it will seem to us a very foolish thing. We who are in Christ study Scripture in order to pursue God and deepen our relationship to Him. Therefore, we must rely on His Spirit, active in us, to fully comprehend and engage with His Word.
All of this is to say that, even before you read your Bible, begin your study with prayer. Ask the Spirit of God to do for you exactly what Jesus promised that He would do. Jesus tells us in John 14:26 that “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” So, before you sit down to read Scripture, pray and ask God to teach you. Ask Him to help you understand what you read, to see new things that you’ve never seen before, and to understand and obey God as a result of what you read.
Now, let’s take this understanding and apply it to an effective Bible Study method—inductive Bible Study.
Step 1: Observe the Text
The first step in a good inductive Bible study method is to observe the text. This means that you simply read the passage of Scripture, sometimes more than once, and make note of everything that stands out to you. Make note of what the passage tells you about God—who He is and what He wants. Make note of what it tells you about humanity—who we are, both as children of God and as sinful creatures. Finally, make note of any commands you see in the passage—how we are to respond to God.
So far, this can all be done easily according to human wisdom, and it doesn’t require a relationship with God to do it. To transform your reading time from a book study to a devotional time of worship, take your observations and pray them back to God. Say anything that you find amazing or praiseworthy about Him. Remember, God loves to hear His own words spoken back to Him in praise and thanksgiving, so pray Scripture back to God. Then, tell God what you see about humanity, and about yourself, in the passage. You may see your own sin and shortcomings in the passage, so take time to confess. And finally, respond to any commands you see, telling God how you will obey, or confessing the difficulty you have with the command.
When you respond to Scripture in this way, you are engaging with the God who is there; the very real and present God who indwells you by His Spirit if you are a believer, and who is the author of the words you are reading. You are no longer merely reading words printed on paper, you are conversing with your Creator who loves you and wants you to know Him. The next two steps fall in line with this:
Step 2: Interpret the Text
After you have observed what is in the text, you can interpret its meaning. Sometimes the meaning will be clear, but there is often meaning beyond the surface. Other times you may have no clue what it means. Here, especially, prayer is needed. Ask God to help you understand His Word by His Spirit. God will certainly respond to the humble prayer, as James 1:5 says, “but if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”
You will not likely experience an immediate flash of understanding. This will involve learning from others in your church community. It may be a long process of reading the Bible, wrestling with its content, and asking for clarity from people you can trust, but the Spirit of God will teach you according to His Word. The goal is not mere understanding. The Word is meant to change us, and that is why we also need step 3:
Step 3: Apply the Text
Finally, you should look to apply what you have learned from Scripture and heard from God. If there were any direct commands in the passage you studied, this part is easy because it will be quite clear what you need to do. If your observation did not reveal an obvious application, ask God how He would like you to respond to what you’ve read. In either case, you can tell God how you want to obey His Word, what steps you will take, and that you need His help in doing so. And in every case, obedience means sharing what you have learned with others.
Now, if you approach Scripture in this way, you will begin to see your Bible study time as a divine appointment; a meeting with Almighty God. Rather than sitting down with a boring, confusing book that you know you’re supposed to read, you can see that reading the Bible is like sitting down for a rich and engaging conversation with a friend who loves you, and a teacher who cares for you. This kind of study does not just inform you; it changes you.