Tuesday, February 26, 2013

How to Study the Bible

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”  2 Timothy 2:15

“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 competent, equipped for every good work.”  2 Timothy 3:16-17

Members of my congregation frequently ask me, “How should I study my Bible?”  I love getting asked this question because it usually indicates that the person is already reading his Bible regularly and now desires to dig deeper into God’s truth.  There is no substitute for Word of God intake in the Christian life.  “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; Deuteronomy 8:3).  In this post, I would like to provide some step-by-step instructions for Bible study.  In doing so, my target audience is not other preachers or seminary students.  I want to explain how the ordinary Christian can read and study his Bible in order to grow in his faith, hope, and love.  Overall, there are three basic steps in Bible Study.  Firstly, we must determine what the passage of Scripture says.  Secondly, we must determine what the passage of Scripture means by what it says.  Thirdly, we must determine how the passage of Scripture applies to us today.  We might call these three steps: translation, interpretation, and application.  The order is important.  We should never study a passage of the Bible asking the question, “How does this apply to me?” before we ask the question, “What does this passage mean?”  Although a passage of Scripture may have many applications, there is only one interpretation.  What determines the validity of an application is the validity of the interpretation upon which the application is based. 

          Most Christians know that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and that the Bible they hold in their hands is an English translation of a variety of ancient manuscripts.  So, unlike pastors, professors, and seminarians who learn the original languages, most Christians are dependent on an English translation of the Bible.  This is not a major disadvantage for two reasons.  The first reason for this is that there are many excellent translations of the Bible in the English language.  The second reason is that there are many Study Bibles and tools in English that can help the reader understand the original words of the Bible.  The most important step in studying the Bible for the average Christian is to choose a word-for-word translation of the Bible. 
There are two major types of Bible translations.  There are those that seek to capture each and every word of the original languages.  This is called formal equivalence.  And there are those that seek to capture each and every thought or phrase of the original text.  This is called dynamic equivalence.  Most Bible translations will have a section at the beginning of the Bible called, “Translation Philosophy,” that will explain what kind of translation the Bible is.  A good example of a word-for-word translation is the New American Standard Bible.  A good example of a thought-for-thought or phrase-by-phrase translation is the New International Version. 
Both approaches have their value, but, in my opinion, the word-for-word translation is the best for Bible study as we should be paying attention to each and every word.  One criticism of word-for-word translations is that they tend to make for a “wooden” reading.  Phrase-by-phrase translations are much easier to read.  Some translations, like the English Standard Version, are somewhere in between. 
It always helps to compare a variety of translations in seeking to determine what the original text says.  Let me make a very important clarification at this point.  When determining what the text says, the key factor is not what reading you prefer.  I have heard many Christians say, “I like the way this or that translation puts it.”  What we like is irrelevant to what the text says.  They key factor, then, in determining what the text says is accuracy (how faithful it is to the original languages), not appeal (how well you like).  It is important to have a Bible that is readable and understandable, but we want to be reading and understanding something that is an accurate representation of what was originally written by the inspired authors. 
In order to get a sense of what the original text says, I encourage people to use the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the English Standard Bible (ESV), and the New International Version (NIV).  The NASB is probably the most literal of the three.  The ESV is a little more readable than the NASB, and the NIV does an excellent job of making the text readable and understandable, even though the NIV does not always capture as literal of a reading as it should.  In order to make sure you have a good grasp on translation issues, I would recommend spending the money to purchase a good study Bible.  I recommend either the ESV Study Bible (Crossway) or the NIV Study Bible (Zondervan). 

          In my experience, evangelical Christians tend to skip interpretation in order to get to how the passage applies to their lives.  The problem is that there is no authoritative application of the Bible that does not first begin with interpretation. 
Usually, when Christians go straight for the contemporary application, they end up assuming an erroneous interpretation.  For example, I once heard a Christian say that we should be vulnerable with one another because 1 Corinthians 13:7 says, “Love bears all things.”  Now it may be true that Christians should be vulnerable with one another, but that is not what 1 Corinthians 13:7 says.  It says, “Love bears all things,” not “love bares all things.”  It is speaking about enduring love, not love that lays bare all the emotions of the heart.  So this Christian had an illegitimate application of this verse because he had a faulty interpretation of the verse.  That is always the way it works. 
Proper interpretation is the first step toward proper application.  There are certain questions that we should always ask in order to interpret a passage of Scripture.  In all these questions, we are trying to discern what the Holy Spirit originally intended when he inspired these words through the original author to the original audience.  At this stage in the process, the question is not, “What does this passage mean for me today?”  The question is, “What did this passage mean for its original author and audience?”  Here is a list of some good questions to ask when it comes to interpretation.

1.     Author:  Who is the human author of this passage of Scripture?  Different authors have different vocabularies and styles.  For example, knowing that Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts helps us to interpret those two books.  Or knowing that John wrote the Gospel of John, 1, 2, 3 John, and Revelation helps us to read those books in light of John’s vocabulary and style.

2.     Date:  When was this passage of Scripture written?  This goes beyond knowing dates and ventures into the significance of what was happening at that time in history.  It is helpful to acquire a Bible timeline for this purpose.  Most Study Bibles contain these timelines including key dates and events in Bible history.

3.     Historical Context:  What was happening at this time in human history that might impact my understanding of this passage?  Are there names, places, people, and customs that need to be researched in order to understand this Scripture? 

4.     Literary Genre:  What kind of writing is this?  Is it historical narrative, poetry, song, apocalypse, gospel, epistle, etc?  What does this tell me about how it should be read?

5.     Word Studies:  Are there important words in this passage that should be researched further?  What do the words mean?  Hint: Do not assume that biblical authors are using their terms in the same way that you would use them.  You must do the work in order to understand what they mean by those words.

6.     Literary Context:  How does this specific passage fit into the whole book?  For example, how does James’ teaching on faith and works in 2:14-26 fit into the entire book of James?  How does it mesh with the overall purpose of the book?  What is said before this passage?  What is said after it?

7.     Cross Reference:  What do other passages of the Bible teach on the subjects addressed in this passage?  Do other passages make qualifications to the truths in this passage?  Are there other passages that bring clarity?  Is balance on a subject achieved by pulling in other verses?  Remember: Scripture interprets Scripture. 

8.     Redemptive Context:  How does this passage fit into the overall redemptive storyline of the Bible (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation)?  You do not understand the passage until you understand it in light of the history of salvation.     

          Application is the goal of all Bible Study.  We want to be doers of the Word, not hearers only, deceiving ourselves (James 1:22).  After we have studied the Bible, there are certain ways to reach the application of God’s Word to our lives.

1.     The most important application is to determine what this passage teaches me about Christ.  Since the entire Bible is about Christ (Luke 24:44, John 5:46, 2 Timothy 3:15), we do not understand it unless we see Christ in the text.  This does not mean that we need to find Christ in the passage by the allegorical method, but it does mean that we should ask, “How does this passage prepare for, predict, picture, or proclaim the person and work of Christ?”  Some passages make answering this question easier than others, but do not rest until you are able to find the answer. 

2.       Use 2 Timothy 3:16 as a grid: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”  How does this passage teach me what is right (teaching)?  How does this passage teach me what is not right (reproof)?  How does this passage teach me how to get right (correction)?  How does this passage teach me how to live right (training in righteousness)? 

3.     Sometimes the application is what you need to know (doctrines), and sometimes the application is what you need to do (duties).  Never assume that application is always something that you need to do.  It is often a comforting truth that you need to hear.  There are a variety of ways to apply God’s Word to your life. 

4.     Avoid the errors of legalism (“If I am good, then God will accept me.”) and license (“Since I am saved by grace, I can do whatever I want”).  Search for the grace-oriented motivation:  “Since God loves me unconditionally in Christ, I will live for him.”    

5.     Consider the variety of applications that the Word of God can have to your life.  Jesus is Lord of all.  His Word applies to your spiritual and devotional life, your church, your family, your vocation and work, your use of your money, your entertainment choices, your understanding of the world and God’s purpose for it, etc.  Never reduce applications of God’s truth to one compartmentalized area of your life.  Think broadly. 

6.     Learn to ask good questions to draw out applications.
Is there a promise to believe?
Is there a doctrine to learn?
Is there a sin to avoid?
Is there a blessing to enjoy?
Is there an example to follow?
Is there a standard to apply?
Is there a command to obey?

7.      Study the Bible in the atmosphere of prayer and devotion to the Lord.  Never approach the Bible in a dry, academic way.  Pray at the beginning of your study.  Pray as your study.  Conclude your study with prayer.  Ask the Lord to illumine your mind to understand his truth.  Ask him to help you to apply his Word to your life.  Confess your sin as you see how far short you fall of his standards.  Believe the promises of the gospel.  Plead for the grace of repentance and the desire to walk in the way pleasing to him. 

A Final Note About Resources
          Christians often ask me to recommend resources for Bible study.  There are a plethora of good resources, but there are also bad ones.  First of all, I would begin with a good study Bible like the ones I mentioned (ESV Study Bible or NIV Study Bible).  Secondly, I would learn to use all the resources in the Study Bible.  Most Christians do not know what they have in their hands when they buy a Study Bible.  If you are having trouble, ask your pastor to sit down with you and show you how to use it.  If not, you probably can learn on your own by reading through the articles in the Study Bible.  Thirdly, I would purchase a whole Bible commentary.  There are not many of them, but Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible has stood the test of time.  Matthew Henry’s Commentary is not the best for in-depth interpretation, but it can really help in making applications to your life.  He does a great job linking interpretation with application.  This probably goes without saying, but always read non-inspired sources critically.  Just because notes are in the Study Bible or in a commentary does not mean that they are accurate.  You must evaluate the validity of the reasoning for the interpretations that are given.  Finally, one of the best ways to learn to study the Bible is to listen to expository preaching.  Pastors should show Christians how to interpret the Bible as they are preaching and teaching through it.  Most Christians learn how to interpret the Bible (for better or for worse!) from the way that their pastor preaches and teaches it. 

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