Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bible 101, Question 6: Principles for In-Depth Bible Study

Assuming you have been with me through this series, you know why I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the Bibles we hold in our hands are accurate texts of the words God inspired, that the differences in translations should not trouble us, and that the Bible should have a place of priority in the life of a believer. The last post covered some ways to start making the Bible prominent in your life. In this post I want to zero in on one of those suggestions: In-depth Bible study.

What is in-depth Bible study?
When I use the phrase "in-depth Bible study" I'm not referring to a particular method or style. In-depth Bible study is any form of detailed Bible study that requires you to look seriously at the text and spend significant time understanding what it says (observation), what it means (interpretation), what it means in your life (application), and how to communicate it to others (proclamation). This can be guided, with a workbook or a teacher, or it can just be you and the Bible. The key to in-depth Bible study is that the Bible itself, not commentaries or other resources, always remains central. In-depth Bible study honors the inspired text of the Bible by making it the primary textbook. There are a number of excellent "How to study your Bible" books out there; rather than re-invent the wheel I am just going to touch on each of these four elements in an overview fashion to get you started and encourage you to follow the Holy Spirit's leading from there.

The first step is to pick a book to study. For simplicity I am going to refer to the book of Philemon as an example. This is a one-chapter book that is rich in treasures when we take time to dig them out. Don't rush it - you will complete this study over several days or even a couple of weeks. The more time you allow for study, the deeper you can go into the words of the Word. OK - grab a Bible, pray for spiritual insight, and let's get started!

Observation - what it says
Observation always comes first. You absolutely cannot understand accurately what a text means if you don't know what it says. So let's turn to Philemon (the book right before Hebrews) and follow the first step of observation: Read the text. Right now, read the book of Philemon at least once. (If you have a study Bible, resist the urge to look at its notes.) Before you are finished with observation, you will want to read it multiple times, possibly in different translations. I always like to read out loud, especially the letters since they were written to be read aloud. And often my final step in the reading phase of observation is to listen to the text read aloud (many Bible apps have audio versions). This is the one step of the process you can't really overdo. My pastor spoke Sunday of one pastor who reads the text 30 times before preparing a sermon.

Done reading? OK, let's go to step two. Look for key words and ideas. Having spent so much time in the text, you should be able to see recurring themes. What words, phrases, or ideas occur over and over? Find a way to note these - you can mark them in unique colors in your Bible, or make a list in a notebook. Somehow though, you want to be able to record what key ideas occur in the passage. In Philemon I noted words like love, appeal, slave, refresh, and useful. Some of these might not occur a lot, but in a very short book even one or two significant verses can make a theme important.

Once you have your key words, you want to start looking at significant transitions in the text. The "connecting words" of Scripture are big clues here. Words like "therefore", "so", "but", "for" signal potential shifts in thought or logical connections. These transitions will bring you to an outline of the text. Since paragraphs and verses are man-made, not inspired, don't feel like your outline has to correlate to the paragraphs in your Bible. It can even be helpful to do this initial observation on a printout of the Bible verses with no paragraph markings. In Philemon, I notice two major sections: verses 1-7, and verses 8-25. Within those sections are five paragraphs: verses 1-3; verses 4-7; verses 8-20; verses 21-22; and verses 23-24. How does that line up with what you observed? Don't worry about filling in paragraph descriptions or any outline details - that will come.

By the time you complete these three steps -- multiple read-throughs; key words and ideas; and an outline -- you will have a good idea of some basic questions to answer. Through your observation, answer the following questions:
What type of literature is it? Differences in genre will significantly affect the interpretation of the text. Some of the common Biblical genres include historical; biographical; poetry; proverbs; prophecy; epistles (letter); or a combination of genres.
WHO are the important characters in the book? Think not only of the author but of individuals featured prominently in the text of the book.
Where does this occur? Are there any geographical references?
When does this occur? What about timeframe? This will rarely be an exact year, but you will often see references to other events with words like "before" or "after" or "during".
What is the purpose of the book? Does the author state a reason for writing?

These are just a few questions. You can come up with your own. This of "who, what, when, where, why, how" to get you started asking questions of the text. Record all your answers and note where in the text you find them. In Philemon, you probably noted that this is a letter, written by Paul and Timothy to Philemon, Apphia, Archipus, and the church in their home (verses 1-2). The purpose of the book is stated in verse 9 - to make an appeal on behalf of Onesimus, who was formerly a slave but whom Paul is sending back with this letter asking Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother in the Lord (v 16).  I won't give away all the answers, but that should be enough to give you the idea.

By the time you finish with observation you will have done a good day's or week's work! You might feel you are done because you will have a solid stack of notes. But this is where the fun really begins!

Interpretation - what it means
Once you understand the author's purpose in writing the book and have a solid foundation for what it says, you are ready to begin to interpret what it means. Think of observation like flying over a forest to get a broad look at the trees and flora. Now, in interpretation, we are going to land the plane and start looking at individual leaves, bark, grasses, etc. Ready? Keep in prayer, grab your Bible and notebook, and let the fun begin!

Taking your outline divisions one segment at a time, begin to focus on the individual words. Make a list of your key words and phrases and begin to list out what is said about each one. Pay special attention to what you learn about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Let the words draw out their meaning for you. Keep a separate page of questions that you need to find answers to. As you study a section, fill in the outline with a sentence stating the main point of that section of text.

As you seek to interpret the meaning of a text, there are a few key principles of Biblical interpretation to keep before you. It is easy to do "eisegesis" - that means to read something INTO the text. Anyone can make the Bible say anything they want it to, if they ignore the context. But "exegesis" - drawing out from the text what it says, without preconceived interpretations - is a lot harder. These principles of exegesis help you in your task:

1. Context rules! Always keep a verse in the context of the section you are in, the chapter you are in, the larger book you are in, and the larger body of that author's work, as well as the entire Bible. You want to ensure that you understand who the author was writing to, what the problem seems to be, what the historical or cultural context is, etc. If you spent ample time in observation, you will have a decent idea of the context before you do any interpretation.

2. Compare Scripture to Scripture. Always let God's word interpret God's word. For example John 15:7 says "ask whatever you wish and it shall be done for you." This verse has been sorely mishandled by people who failed to bring into their teaching other things in scripture about prayer. 1 John 5:14 tells us we have to ask in accordance with God's will, and James 4:3 says our motivation has to be right. Using a basic concordance will allow you to easily look at other passages about the subject you are considering.

3. Scripture will never contradict Scripture. Sometimes you will come across some hard things in the Bible. However, knowing that the Bible is the fully inspired word of God and that His truth is eternal, we know that He will not contradict Himself. Therefore, any apparent contradiction is a misunderstanding on our part, not a contradiction on the Bible's part.

4. Let clear Scriptures shine light on unclear Scriptures. Don't base doctrine on a random, obscure verse. Everything important in Scripture is repeated multiple times, sometimes hundreds of times. In almost 19 years of in-depth study I have found that when I stay focused on what is clear, over time God sheds light on unclear things. He knows I cannot handle it all at once!

5. Look first for the clear, literal, plain meaning of Scripture. Understanding the purpose of Scripture is for God to reveal Himself to us, we can assume that He inspired it in a way that is understandable! Don't fall for distracting teachings that complicate the simple words of God. Take it at face value, as the straightforward words of God, within the bounds of the genre. Does that mean there is nothing figurative? Of course not! Figures of speech are to be interpreted as such, just as poetic language is to be factored in. God doesn't literally have wings, for example, though Psalm 91:4 mentions Him covering the psalmist with his wings. But interpreting Scripture by Scripture, we can look at Jesus' words in Luke 13:34 and realize that God uses a similar image to speak of His desire to gather and protect His children just as a bird gathers and protects her young.

6. Look for the author's intended meaning of the passage. This is closely related to the idea of context. In the author's day, what was the purpose of this passage?

7. Utilize appropriate resources, such as word study tools and commentaries, only after doing your own research. There is definitely a place for study tools! I have word study books, concordances, books, and other resources that help me. Taking your understanding back to these sources is a good way to make sure you are not way off base. You don't even have to have a lot of resources! Just visit Blue Letter Bible and click on "Tools" next to any verse. You'll get a popup menu of word study tools, commentaries, sermons, etc. Use these with discernment, and only after doing your own interpretation, and you will be amazed at how much you've learned!

Those are just a handful of Bible study principles to get you started. For more indepth study on how to study the Bible, check out some of the books in the Bibliography.

Application - What does it mean to me?
Once you understand what the Word says and what it means, you can begin personal application. Again, questions are key to drawing out more than general points. Stay in prayer and ask God to show you what to do with the light He's given you in His word. Ask if there is a truth to be believed, a command to be obeyed, a warning to heed, a change to make. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that "All Scripture is inspired by god and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." Application is incredibly personal, but any application truly guided by God will teach you, reprove you (revealing areas that don't line up with Scripture), correct you, and/or train you in righteousness.

In Philemon, one of my personal applications was a truth to be believed, from verse 3: We live in a context of grace and peace! Another was from verse 6: The more I understand what has been put in me for Christ's sake, the more effective I am in my faith. This gives me motivation to stay in the word to understand what He has equipped me to become! And from Paul's example in verses 8-10 I learn that a Godly leader will appeal to love instead of issuing a command when possible. You get the idea!

Proclamation - How can I communicate this to others?
This final step completes the circle of revelation. You see, God didn't give us His word for us to horde to ourselves. He wants us to be part of His great task of telling the nations of the glory of Jesus! So anything we understand in the word of God is meant not only to transform us personally, but to strengthen us corporately and impact the world in our circles of influence. We'll talk more about the corporate aspect of the word of God in the next (and final) post of the series, but for now I just want to put out the idea that your Bible study isn't complete until you have somehow shared it with someone else.

At the most basic this would be praying for God to give you a chance to share a verse or a truth with someone. It doesn't even have to be a "chapter and verse" quote. Speaking truth into a situation is powerful, even if the person doesn't know the source. But it does open a door when you share something and the other person asks where you got that idea, or why you believe that to be true.

Other ways to communicate Scripture to others abound. In our social media-centered world, you can be a voice of truth sharing your daily Bible study insights. You can disciple a believer younger in the Lord. If God seems to have so gifted you, you can help out in your church teaching children's church or women's/men's studies (under the authority of your pastor, of course). The most important thing to remember is to keep your eyes and heart open to how God would have you share with others the truth He has taught you!

There you have it - some basic steps in the four-step process of in-depth Bible study. However you approach it, understanding these four steps will strengthen your study. Please see the resources below if you want to go deeper!

Select Bibliography
Arthur, Kay. How to Study Your Bible. Harvest House, 1994.

Fee, Gordon, and Stuart, Douglas. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Zondervan, 1993.

Graham, Mary Creswell. Inductive Bible Study Explained. Printout provided by William Carey International University for students in graduate program.

Morey, Earl Wesley. Search the Scriptures. Agape Ministry, 1993.

Piper, John. Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Original Meaning of Scriptural Texts. Desiring God Ministries, 199.

The International Inductive Study Bible, Harvest House, 1992.

Wald, Oletta. The Joy of Discovery in Bible Study. Augburg, 1975.

No comments: