Category: How to study the Bible Written by Jim Denison
Proverbs 22:6 says, "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." Is this a guarantee? If so, can we assume that any time a child makes a sinful decision the fault is the parent's? How old is "old"? Or is it possible that this parable represents a biblical genre which communicates metaphorically rather than literally?
We discovered in our last session that there are some preparations necessary for studying any literature and especially God's word. As we will see this week, there are principles and practices which guide all effective Bible study. But these tools are intended for every person who wants to meet God in his word.
As we begin our study of a specific passage, first we will ask the background questions we explored in the last session. Then we will read the text in question, preferably in several translations. Note what seems to be the major idea of the passage, and its relation to the author's intended purpose for the book.
Now ask basic questions of the text:
Who is speaking, writing, and/or acting?
What is the subject of the text?
Where is it happening?
Why and/or how?
With this information in mind, we are ready to proceed. We'll use this passage as our lab throughout:
Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2).
I will suggest in this study the "four-fold" approach to all Bible study:
Grammatical: what do the words mean?
Historical: what are the circumstances behind the text?
Theological: what spiritual and theological truth does the text intend to communicate?
Practical: what applications does the text intend to make in my life?
We'll start with grammatical questions. The Bible is intended for all believers, as we are each our own priest before God. And so we come to the text in the belief that it intends to be understood. No advanced seminary degrees needed. The words will reveal their meaning to those willing to study them.
Word study ("lexicography")
Begin with the words themselves. We want to know that the author intended them to say, not just what they seem to say to us today. Word which survive long in any language acquire added meanings and implications. We want to know that meaning which the author intended.
For instance, Jesus told us of a man who entrusted his servants with "talents" (Mt 25:14-30). Today the word refers to gifts or abilities. In Jesus' day it was a measure of money (worth more than a thousand dollars in our currency). We misinterpret the parable if we think it relates to our God-given abilities and spiritual gifts.
The King James Version tells us that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus "and could not for the press, because he was little of stature" (Lk 19:3). We picture this short man trying to see around the reporters who are interviewing Jesus on his way into Jericho. Of course, "press" in the 17th century means "crowd" today. Luke is not condemning the media.
How do we do a word study? Ask these five questions.
First, how was the word defined? With the help of a Bible dictionary, look up all unclear words in the passage. Be careful to confine your work to the definition of the word as it was intended by its original author.
Second, what is the context of the word? Often the sentences surrounding the term will explain its meaning. For example, Jesus referred to the Kingdom of God in the Model Prayer (Mt 6:10). What was this "kingdom"? Our Lord defined it himself: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Jesus used parallelism, a kind of Hebrew expression where the second line repeats or defines the first. The "kingdom" is where God's will is done. The context defines the term.
Third, what is the history of the word? A dictionary or encyclopedia will provide its background and root meanings. But again, be careful to confine your interpretation to the intended meaning of the author. And work with the word in its original languages, as the commentaries enable such study.
Fourth, what are other biblical uses of the word? A concordance or dictionary will help here. Since Scripture interprets Scripture, other passages can often help clarify the meaning of the words of the text.
Fifth, What is the cultural background behind the word? What practices current in the author's day affect his use of the term? Jesus told us, "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two" (Mt 5:41). Was he talking about joggers out for a run, or bikers on a trail? Actually, he referred to a Persian custom taken over by the Romans, by which a subject could be forced to carry a soldier's pack for one mile. This was done not to help the soldier so much as to remind the subject that he serves the Empire. Jesus is saying, If someone humiliates you, allow him to humiliate you even further. Don't return slander for slander, insult for insult. Treat even your enemies with humble service. The cultural background clarifies the intention of the phrase.
To summarize, begin your study of the biblical text with the words. Define and clarify their meaning, with the help of a dictionary, concordance, encyclopedia, and/or commentary. We must know the meaning of the words of God if we would interpret the word of God.
Often the grammar of the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek text will affect its translated meaning for us. Here the sentence structure employed by the author is vital. A good commentary will help in this regard.
An example of the significance of sentence structure in the Greek New Testament is 1 John 3:9. The King James Version translates the verse, "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." This rendering has caused many people to question their salvation when they sin. If we are "born of God," we "cannot sin." Or so the text seems to say.
Here's good news for all of us who are God's children but still disappoint our Father. The Greek verbs are in the "imperfect tense," which mean continued action. Thus the NIV translates, "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God." The syntax makes the intended meaning clear.
We discussed in our last session the importance of knowing the kind of literature used in the book we're studying. However, the specific text must also be considered in the same way. For instance, Matthew's Gospel contains symbols, teaching discourses, and apocalyptic sections. We will interpret a parable differently than we will an historical narrative.
As we consider the grammatical dimensions of the passage we're studying, we want to study the larger context of the text. Ask three questions. First, what is the general idea of the larger passage where the text is found? Second, how does the text contribute to the flow of the author's thought and intention? And third, is this passage teaching "prescriptive" or "descriptive" truth? This is a crucial issue in biblical hermeneutics.
Prescriptive statements are intended as commands for the reader. When Jesus warns us, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" (Mt 7:1), he prescribes behavior for all believers. On the other hand, descriptive statements simply disclose the event, without endorsing it as proper behavior. 1 Kings 11:3 states that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. The description does not prescribe such behavior for us.
Many of the wrong ideas which have been blamed on Scripture have originated in this area. Polygamists claim that "the Bible says Solomon had 700 wives," so why can't we have several? The Bible also says that the crowd wanted Jesus to be crucified, that Ananias and Sapphira tried to cheat the church, and that the town of Lystra stoned Paul and left him for dead. None of this behavior is prescribed for us today. Much of what we find in Scripture is there to warn us of what not to do.
As you study the text itself, think in contextual circles. Move from the text in question, to its chapter, to its section in the biblical book, to the book, to the Testament, to the rest of Scripture. As you understand the words in their intended meaning, you have made the most important single step to effective Bible study.
Locate the biblical event in its proper geographic circumstances. The more you know about the land where the event took place, the more you'll understand its text. It's a good investment of time to familiarize yourself with the basic layout of the Bible lands. A good atlas or map at the back of your Bible is all you need. In addition, you'll need to know the geography behind any specific text you are studying. Two examples are often cited by hermeneutics textbooks in this regard.
Remember Luke 2:4: "Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David." This was a journey of some 90 miles, made on a donkey's back by a woman who was great with child. Fulfilling God's promise that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2) required great sacrifice for his mother. The geography of the text makes it alive and relevant.
In addition, Judea was "up" in elevation from Galilee, explaining the reference in the text. We typically think of "up" as north and "down" as south, and are puzzled to learn that Joseph and Mary went "up" but "south." The geographic context explains the text.
Knowing the customs or general historical situation often illuminates the biblical text. For example, Jesus' words to the Samaritan woman at Sychar shocked even her: "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (Jn 4:9). Her question makes sense when we learn that Jews hated Samaritans, and that Jewish rabbis would typically refuse to speak to any woman in public during the day, even their own wives. Jesus broke with this popular prejudice in winning the woman to himself. Often we must do the same today.
Basic facts of everyday life are often presupposed by the writer but unknown to readers today. For example, Jesus' parable in Luke 11 describes a man whose friend awakens him at midnight to ask bread for a guest who has just come. The man is frustrated: "Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything" (v. 7).
Every detail of the story made sense to Jesus' hearers. Typical homes in his culture were one room. The back one-third was an elevated wooden platform where the family slept. The front two-thirds was a dirt floor where the animals were kept for the night. The door was locked only when the residents were asleep and wished not to be disturbed. The man without bread has committed a major social mistake, as keeping bread for hospitality was a sacred responsibility in their culture.
Now he makes his problem his neighbor's. His pounding on the locked door will awaken the family and animals, ensuring that none slept again that night. Nonetheless, the man got up and gave his neighbor the bread he needed. Here is Jesus' point: if the man would answer such a request, how much more will God answer our prayers. Knowing the historical culture makes the parable live again.
As you investigate historical context, be especially alert to changes between the first century and ours. For instance, calling someone a "Good Samaritan" today is a compliment. In Jesus' day, the term was an oxymoron. For a Samaritan to help a wounded Jew after his priest and Levite had refused him would be akin to a black man in the 1960s helping an injured white man after his pastor and deacon chairman left him for dead. When we understand and communicate the historical situation behind the text, its meaning is still as relevant as when the biblical writers first recorded it.
Once you are familiar with the author's purpose for his book and the particular text you're studying, you know the meaning of his words and phrases, and you understand the historical and social background of the passage, you are ready to interpret the text theologically and practically. You have laid an excellent foundation for the application of God's word to your life today.
Scripture interprets Scripture
Now that you have developed the grammatical/historical meaning of the text, relate this meaning to the rest of God's word. Use a topical Bible or concordance to find other passages on the subject. But be careful--never take any other passage out of its context to make it fit your study. Only relate those texts which are intended by their author for this application.
General theological concepts
Now you are ready to look for intended theological principles within the passage and larger word of God. See what the text has to say about:
Creation and the world
What other theological significance is found within the text? What key theological contributions does the passage make to our lives today?
The theological principles discovered in a biblical text are especially important to the passage's relevance today. However, these principles must be grounded in the author's intended meaning, as discovered by grammatical-historical study. That is why our "four-fold" method builds theological application upon textual investigation. We should never reverse the order.
One, write out the intended meaning of the text. On the basis of your grammatical-historical study, define the meaning and purpose of the passage for its author and original readers.
Two, note differences in setting and context. In your historical investigation, you will have observed changes in culture and context from the text to our day, some of which will significantly affect its contemporary application.
Three, make direct applications where intended by the author. Where the writer's intended meaning and purpose transfers directly to our culture and needs, make this application as practically as possible. For instance, Paul's call to "offer your bodies as living sacrifices" calls us to complete surrender and obedience. Is there a part of your life not on the altar? Make this practical and personal application of the passage.
Four, seek principles within the passage when the text does not apply directly to our day. Sometimes we will study an Old Testament passage not renewed in the New Testament (such as a dietary code), or a historical event which does not prescribe a specific application (such as the Battle of Jericho). In this case, do not apply the text as directly as if it were prescriptive. Otherwise, all Christians would be required to obey kosher dietary laws and warfare would be reduced to marching around enemy walls.
Instead, seek principles within the text which might apply to today's situation and needs, keeping these principles consistent with the author's intended meaning. Dietary laws reveal the practical principle that God cares deeply about our bodies and health. The Battle of Jericho shows us that God's will, when obeyed, always leads to the victory which is his will and intention for our lives. Find such general principles within the author's intended purpose, and apply them practically.
Last, define at least one action which the text suggests today. When you have finished your study of the text, you should be able to describe at least one practical action you will take as a result of the author's intended purpose. Then you can determine ways to communicate this application to others.
The four-fold method of biblical study is an excellent way to discover the intended meaning of the text. As you use these methods, however, always remember that the Holy Spirit must reveal the inspired text to you before you will fully understand its meaning and significance for your life. Study with a surrendered mind, and you will receive all that your Father intends to give.