How do I study the Bible?
Visitors to Hampton Court in London are amazed by the maze they find there. Bushes form solid walls, head high. In the center sits a guide high on a platform. When pilgrims get lost wandering through the hedges, they look up to this guide, who points them to the next turn on their way.
God gave us his word to guide us in his will. But as with any guide, we must follow its directions correctly. If our guide points south but we turn north, we will soon be lost, no matter how accurate our guide’s suggestions. How do we follow his direction?
Meet the qualifications
To hear the Lord speak through his word, first join his family by making his Son your saving Lord. We must be close enough to hear his voice. Otherwise, we cannot understand the Spirit’s speech to our hearts (1 Corinthians 2:10-11, 14).
Second, be willing to work and study hard. Paul’s encouragement to Timothy applies to us: “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13; “devote yourself” in the Greek requires previous, private preparations). Start with a good study Bible. Then acquire study tools such as a Bible dictionary, a concordance, an atlas, topical Bibles and encyclopedias, and good commentaries. But use such tools only to assist you in your personal study of God’s word.
Third, choose to obey what you discover. Jesus was clear: “If any one chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or I speak on my own” (John 7:17). The Lord of the universe will not reveal his word as an option for us to consider. Only when we choose to follow his will, can we fully hear his voice.
Choose the right assumptions
Next, we choose presuppositions which will guide our study. A mathematician assumes that parallel lines never intersect, and that arithmetic certainties today will be certain tomorrow. The study of God’s word requires similar assumptions.
First, know that Scripture can be understood. Church, creed, or council can guide us, but they cannot prescribe to us. Because of the “priesthood of the believer,” every Christian has the right and responsibility to study the Scriptures personally.
Second, understand that the New Testament interprets the Old. The Bible centers in Jesus Christ, the One who fulfills the Hebrew Scriptures (Matthew 5:17). We seek in the New Testament guidance for interpreting the Hebrew Bible. For instance, an Old Testament law which is renewed in the New Testament retains the force of law for us today (cf. the Ten Commandments and Matthew 19:16-19). An Old Testament law not renewed in the New retains the force of principle for Christian living, but not binding law (cf. the dietary codes of Leviticus and Acts 15:28-29).
Third, use Scripture to interpret Scripture. The Bible is its own best commentary. Study difficult parts of the Bible in light of its clear teachings. For instance, Luke records Jesus’ statement that we must “hate” our family to follow Christ (Luke 14:26). But Matthew’s version clarifies that we must not love them more than we love Jesus (Matthew 10:37). Paul teaches that we must provide for our family (1 Timothy 5:8), and that a husband must love his wife as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25).
Learn the background
Now we’re ready to understand the text in its context. No literature makes complete sense unless we answer these questions first: Who was the writer? Who were the recipients? What was the author’s purpose? What kind of literature is this (i.e., history, law, poetry, letters, or symbolism)? A good study Bible will give you the basics here, and encyclopedias and commentaries will round out the story.
Take these four steps
Once we understand the context of the passage we’re about to read, we are ready to take these four steps to personal study and understanding.
- Grammar: what do the words and sentences of the text mean to say? Define unfamiliar words; restate the text in your words to be sure you know its literal meaning.
- History: is geographical knowledge assumed in this passage? Are social or cultural customs employed? Do differences exist between the original intention of the text and our culture today? (For instance, a Samaritan was a despised half-breed when Jesus told his famous parable, but today is a benevolent hero.)
- Theology: once we know the words and historical context of our passage, we are ready to identify its theological teachings. What does the text tell us about God, humanity, creation and the world, sin, salvation, missions and ministry, and/or the future? What abiding principles should we gain from this passage?
- Practice: now we are ready to apply the text to our lives. Write out the intended meaning of the passage, and its theological truths. Make direct applications where they are intended by the author (“prescriptive” truth), such as with the Ten Commandments or the Great Commission. Seek principles when the text does not intend to apply directly to our actions (“descriptive” truth), such as learning from David and Bathsheba that adultery is always destructive. Finally, define at least one action which the text requires of you today. You have not finished your study of God’s word until your life is different as a result.
A potter must touch the clay he wishes to mold. Scripture is a tool God uses to shape us into the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). When last did reading the Bible change your life?