Welcome to the lesson on How to Study the Bible. In this lesson we will learn that effective Bible study involves three careful steps: Observation, Interpretation and Application. This is not an academic study. The goal is not to make Bible scholars out of you. The vision for this study is to lead you to the passages of Scripture that show you God’s will for your life on a day-to-day basis. The interest is in the devotional message of the Scriptures. We thank God for this opportunity to study His Word.
In order to know what God has said in the Bible, one must first know how to study it. Having a trustworthy method for Bible study is important. There are three steps in good Bible study. They are 1. observation, 2. interpretation and 3. application.
Observation raises the question(s): “What does it say? What did the author of this passage of Scripture actually write? What is the context? What grammar did the author use? What literary structures and styles did the author choose in presenting the material?”
Interpretation raises the question, “What does it mean? What is the author of this passage of Scripture trying to teach the intended reader?”
Application raises the question, “What does it mean to me? What am I supposed to change about how I think or feel or act because of this passage of Scripture?” When you get to that section called “application” ask yourself some questions like these: “Are there any examples to follow? Are there any warnings to heed or commandments to obey? Are there any sins to forsake? Are there any new truths about God or Jesus Christ or any new truths about my own life? Are there any words of challenge and inspiration, any words of comfort and encouragement? Are there any questions that I cannot answer? Are there other Scriptures that relate to this Scripture?” These questions will help you to work out some of the application of the Scripture as you go through it.
With these three categories in mind, here are some general rules for Bible study. Worthwhile things tend to have rules. In formal training, like a Bible school, they call these rules “Hermeneutics,” the art and science of interpretation. Here are the 12 rules:
First, for any passage of Scripture there is one interpretation, but there can be many applications. It is important not to confuse interpretation with application. What the text intends to say to the reader is a single message, but the implications of that message for the life of any given reader may be many. An author writes to a single intended person or group, but those actually reading a text come from many places, times, cultures, and circumstances.
Second, since the Bible is a book about Christ, look for a text’s significance for the Christ message as you read it. Always ask yourself, “How does this relate to the larger purposes of God in His salvation work through Christ?”
Third, when you study the Old Testament, remember that you are looking for examples and warnings. Historical texts provide many examples both positive and negative. Believers are to emulate some people and take warning from others. Historical events in the Bible, in addition to being historical, can also have illustrative significance. In Galatians 4:22-24, the Apostle Paul notes that Abraham had two sons, but also declares these sons to be “allegories.” Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. That is history. The story can, however, also have metaphorical significance, representing two different kinds of covenant. When the Apostle Paul says in I Corinthians 10:11 that all these things happened to the saints of old for examples, he used the Greek word for “type.” These saints, while real, were also types, which are like object lessons.
Fourth, never come to a passage of Scripture with your mind already made up as to what the passage means. Study the meaning of Bible passages not assume their meaning without investigation. A pastor once shared some verses with a troubled woman. She then said to him, “Pastor, do not confuse me with Scripture. My mind is made up.” Some people read the Bible that way. They only hear Scripture telling them what they already believe. They tell the Bible what to mean rather than letting Scripture teach them.
Fifth, once you learn the meaning of a verse of Scripture, ask yourself if you are willing to obey it before you teach it to someone else. Like James 1:22 teaches us, we must be doers of the word and not hearers only, all the more so if we are teachers and preachers. Come to this book as Samuel did in 1 Samuel 3:10, saying, Speak, Lord, thy servant is listening. That means a person should be able to say, “God, I am ready to do whatever You tell me to do.”
The sixth rule is this, always remember that God speaks to us through His Word, so we must study the Word of God carefully, asking God to illuminate things to us through the Holy Spirit. You should come to the Scriptures trying to communicate with God.
Seventh, there are some passages of Scripture which are hard to understand. Do not feel disillusioned if you come upon one of them, and do not become fixated on or obsessed with these obscure passages. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law. There are many basic things in Scripture which God has made quite clear that could take a lifetime to master, there is no reason to spend a lot of mental and spiritual energy trying to perfect your understanding of obscure things. Just so, you should interpret these obscure or puzzling Scriptures in the light of verses which have a clear meaning. Use easy to understand statements as guides to understanding difficult ones. Don’t build doctrines or special teachings on problematic passages and be cautious about preachers who do.
Eight, the ultimate context for interpreting any Scripture is the rest of Scripture. The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. Second Peter 1:20 says, But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. Do not give any passage a private interpretation that contradicts clear teaching elsewhere in the Bible.
Ninth, come to the Scriptures looking for truth for living life, and not just to add to your knowledge. Biblical knowledge is not virtue. Virtue results from a proper application of Biblical knowledge. It is the doing of the Scripture, the obedience to the Scripture that will make the Bible a power, a real power, in your life.
Tenth, when you come to the Scriptures, look for truth to live by, without becoming preoccupied with contentions over side details. For example, when you mention the Book of Jonah some want to argue about whether or not whales can swallow people. Jonah, however, is about prejudice versus the love of God. Jonah hated the Ninevites, but God showed Jonah that His love extends even to enemies. That has nothing to do with whales swallowing people. When you come to the Book of Jonah or to the story of Adam and Eve or any other story in the Old Testament, come to that story asking these questions: “What does it say? What does it mean? What does that mean to me?” and “God, what truth are you trying to show me in this Scripture?” Get the big picture, get the big truth, get the central truth. What is God saying? What is His overall conclusive message here? Rest in what the Psalmist says in 119:160, The sum of Your word is truth.
In that same spirit, the eleventh rule is this: come to the Bible, especially in the New Testament, looking for what we might call the argument or line of reasoning of the book. Books like Romans and Hebrews have a magnificent argument. There is a main point that runs all the way through the book, so, try to discover and logically follow the argument of the book.
And lastly, number twelve, always consider the context of any passage of Scripture. One of the most common ways to misuse the Bible is to quote a passage out of context. The Scripture can be used to prove any point you want to prove if you take its words out of context and give them a meaning that violates that context. The word context literally means “with the text” interpreting a statement in light of the texts around it.
Finally, consider this prayer to close, that you will get into the Word of God and let the Word of God get into you. The Psalmist reminds us how significance that is, writing “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Ps. 119:11) Learning, studying, and applying God’s Word to our lives is the key to living a life that is pleasing to God.
We hope these rules were enlightening for you. The best way to learn them is through practice. The hope and prayer this session is that you are blessed and will plan to continue studying God’s Word in this study.