Studying the Bible – Learn!

I have completed a series of videos that detail the Learn phase of the Bible study process. Using 1 Peter 2:1-10, I look at the kind of thinking that goes into learning what a passage means. Good observation of the details in a passage will set us up to accurately learn what the text means as we study to determine the original author’s intended meaning. So, what goes into interpreting a Bible passage?

First, Look! We need to take time to notice what is in our passage. Here is a one-video summary of the Look! stage for this passage. So, onto the Learn stage:

1. Context: Historic – When was the passage written? What was happening at the time? What prompted the author to write it? What can we understand about the relevant cultures, the occasion for the writing, the situation at the time? (Click here for the video.)

2. Context: Written – The passage you are looking at sits within a book and therefore there is a written context to consider. What has come before your passage? What flows out from it? To understand a passage, you have to wrestle with the flow of the whole document. (Click here for the video.)

3. & 4. Content: Details – Remember all the details that we spotted in the Look stage of our study? Now we need to seek to understand them in light of the context of the passage. (Click here for the first video and click here for the second video on details!)

5. Content: Flow – How do the details work together in the flow of thought in this passage? It is so important to not only understand details, but to understand them in their most immediate context! (Click here for the video.)

6. Intent – What did the author intend to achieve through writing this passage? Are there clues within the passage, and are there indications within the book as a whole? (Click here for the video.)

After the Look! and the Learn! stage of Bible study, we will then move on to the Love/Live response (what should the text stir?) Here is a one-video summary of the Love/Live phase for this passage.

I will release another series that uses a different passage but focuses on the Love/Live phase instead of the Learn phase as I have this time. Hopefully, that makes sense! Please subscribe to the YouTube channel so that you can see the new videos as they are released.

Studying the Bible – Look!

I have completed a series of videos that detail the Look phase of the Bible study process. Using the triumphal entry passage in John 12, I look at the kind of details that we need to notice as we look at a Bible passage. The more closely we look at and observe the text, the easier it will be to accurately learn what the text means in the next phase of our study. So, what type of details are we noticing?

1. Who? – Who is being referred to in the passage? How are they being described? Who do the pronouns refer to? This is the first and, in some ways, the most important detail to notice. Why? Because the entire Bible is primarily a revelation of God and so noticing who is in the passage should get us thinking about God from the very beginning. (Click here for the video.)

2. When? – Are there any time references in the passage? Perhaps a time of day, or a point on the calendar. But it is not just about explicit time references, there is also the whole issue of tenses. Is something written with a tense that stands out – perhaps a reference to the past or the future. (Click here for the video.)

3. Where? – Does the passage refer to any locations? These could be geographic (i.e. Jerusalem), or circumstantial (sitting on a donkey), or they could be out of this world (God’s throne). Notice any details to places or locations in the passage. Do you need to check a map to note a specific location? (Click here for the video.)

4. What? – This is a catch-all question! What is repeated? What seems to be significant? What other details are you seeing in the passage? What key terms are being used? (Click here for the video.)

5. Which? – Which other passages are feeding into the passage you are looking at? These could be earlier Biblical content that is being quoted or alluded to in the passage you are studying. Or it could be earlier passages in the same book that are influencing our understanding of the passage we are studying. (Click here for the video.)

6. How? – How did the writer choose to write the passage? Is it a narrative, poetry, or discourse? At the Look stage, we don’t need to conclude why they did it, but we do need to notice how it was written. (Click here for the video.)

After the Look! stage of Bible study, we will then move on to Learn (what does the text mean?) Here is a one-video summary of the Learn phase for this passage. And then there is the Love/Live response (what should the text stir?) Here is a one-video summary of the Love/Live phase for this passage. I will release another series that uses a different passage but focuses on the Learn phase instead of the Look phase as I have this time. Then another focusing on Love/Live. Hopefully, that makes sense! Please subscribe to the YouTube channel so that you can see the new videos as they are released.

Studying the Bible

The first half of preparing a sermon is studying the biblical text.  More than that, a fundamental feature of the Christian life is feasting on God’s word.  We all need to be able to study the Bible and enjoy the great gift of God’s word to us.  So, how should we do it?

In this video, I give a brief overview of the Bible study process.  Let’s think of it in terms of three questions, or four stages:

1. Look – what does the text say?  We need to develop our observational skills to be able to see what is actually written in the text before us.  Too many of us are too good at feeling familiar with the text and therefore skipping ahead.  A lot of Bible-handling errors and heresies would be avoided if we slowed down to see what is actually there.  What does the text say?

2. Learn – what does the text mean?  Once we have looked carefully at the text, we will get to the point of determining what the text means.  That is, not what does it mean to me – this is not an exercise in modern art appreciation.  What was the author intending to communicate?  Learning what the text means requires me to travel back in my mind to the original author’s situation, and try to make sense of what he wrote, in context, for the sake of the original recipients.  I have to go back then before I can think about lasting implications for today.

3. Love/Live – what should the text stir? Bible study should never end “back then.”  God did not give us the Bible as a historical curiosity.  It should ultimately have an impact on my life today.  So what should it stir?  Since it is primarily a revelation of God’s heart, character and plan, it should stir my heart to love Him.  Bible study that does not lead to greater love for God has gone astray.  My heart should be stirred by the God I am discovering in my Bible study.  But it is not enough to have a stirred heart.  This is not about a mere emotional response.  The Bible is intended to exact transformation in my life.  And that transformation works from the inside to out.  So my heart is warmed to God, and then my life should bear fruit as I am not just a hearer, but a doer of God’s Word.  Good Bible study will stir my heart to worship, and it will stir transformation in every area of my life.

What does the text say?  What does the text mean?  What should the text stir?  This is the Bible study process.  It might seem cumbersome at first, but this can, and should, become second nature to us as Bible readers.  Make sure you see what is actually there.  Look closely.  Go back then before considering today.  Expect God to change you from the core of your being out to the most specific activities of your day. 

In the coming weeks, I will be breaking down these stages on YouTube.  There will be a series of videos on Look, then another on Learn, and another on Love/Live.  I will offer some in written form here, but to catch it all, be sure to subscribe to the channel on this link.

5 Reasons to Study the Bible

Some Christians seem excited about Bible study, while others seem scared of the concept.  Why should we invest time in studying the Bible?  Here are five good reasons!

1. For spiritual life.  Some years ago, I was pointed to a fascinating book about conversions in the Muslim world.  I am sure you have heard of how God is using dreams and visions to bring Muslims to Jesus.  The book’s author pointed out that when these testimonies are investigated, the dreams are a key link in a chain, but they are not the whole chain.  In each case, the person had to encounter God’s written word before coming to faith in Christ. 

When Jesus spoke to the religious leaders in John 5, he shocked them by saying they did not know God or have his word in them.  These were men who spent hours in their scrolls every day.  Jesus pointed out that they thought they could find life in the scriptures themselves, but actually, those scriptures were pointing to a person – him!  (John 5:39)  As we study the Bible, it points us to Jesus.  As we meet Jesus, we find spiritual life itself.  Knowing God the Father, through Jesus the Son, is the very essence of eternal life. (John 17:3)

2. For spiritual growth.  Six times we have had the joy and privilege of bringing a newborn into our family.  Life is relatively simple for the baby.  Eat and sleep.  And those regular meals with Mum result in the biggest growth spurt of their lives (even more than a teenage boy!)  So Peter positively uses the analogy of milk to describe how the Bible will nourish us and grow us as believers.  We should long for that sustenance so we can grow spiritually.  (1Peter 2:2)

3. For spiritual maturity.  That same analogy is also used in Hebrews but in a negative sense.  The preacher to the Hebrews is concerned because these believers have not matured as they should.  Instead of solid food, they are still on a liquid diet.  Mature believers can discern between good and evil because they have been trained for the challenges of spiritual adulthood.  Where should we look for solid food if the Bible provides spiritual milk?  Still, the Bible – that part of the analogy remains consistent!  (Hebrews 5:11-14)  Have you ever met a genuinely mature believer who had arrived at that stage without a steady diet of the Bible shaping their life and character?   No, nor me.

4. For spiritual effectiveness.  We live in an era of unlimited opportunities.  Where do you go if you want thorough equipping for ministry in the church, home, and workplace?  There are so many seminars, workshops, books, courses and institutions inviting us to come along and learn.   Paul wrote to Timothy and described the God-breathed usefulness of Scripture.  It teaches, reproves, corrects and trains us.  What is the result of that biblical influence in our lives?  It is that we may be complete, equipped for every good work.  That is quite the promise! (2Tim.3:16-17)

The Bible offers us salvation, spiritual growth, maturity and equipping for all aspects of life and ministry.  Some might stop there, but there is another reason to study the Bible:

5. For spiritual delight.  Psalm 1 introduces us to the righteous man who doesn’t allow the world’s message to shape his life.  Instead, his delight is in the revelation of the Lord; on that word, he meditates day and night.  Have you ever paused to ponder the word “delight” in Psalm 1:2?  He does not merely concern himself with the message or even simply find his life instructions there.  He delights in it.  There is something about God’s very character, and therefore his inspired Word, that means we can read and study it for sheer delight.  The ultimate reason to spend time in God’s Word is not that we have to, but because we get to!  The heart of eternal joy and never-fading delight is opened toward us in the revelation of Scripture!

There are more reasons to read and study the Bible, but that’s a good starting point. 

Look Look Look Look Look

Perhaps you have come across the “Five Looks” approach to Bible study?  It is a clear and helpful approach credited to Andrew Reid of Ridley College, Melbourne.  Here is a brief synopsis:

1. Look Up – We need to receive the Bible as the word of God.  This implies a commitment to prayer and faith.

2. Look Down – We must recognize the Bible as the work of human authors.  This implies careful consideration of the deliberate communication as designed by the human writer. So, exegesis is about considering and understanding the text itself, while also adding in two more looks…

3. Look Back – We need to see a text in its biblical context by looking back to what has gone before, and:

4. Look Forward – We need to see a text in its biblical context by looking forward to what comes after the text.

5. Look Here – Finally it is important to apply the text today and consider it’s application in today’s world.

This is a helpful approach.  Tomorrow I will add a post commenting on this approach to Bible study in light of my post from yesterday.  Feel free to comment in the meantime.

The Mastery Challenge – Rationale pt 2

Here are the last three points of rationale for my list.  This follows on from the last two days of posts.

5. The brick wall approach urges book by book study – By definition it helps avoid the “mastery of preferred proof texts approach,” or the “selected doctrines based on preferred theology approach,” or other less than ideal approaches.  To be a real Bible man or woman, I’m convinced we need to really know the books of the Bible (i.e. verses in context!)

6. The brick wall approach taps into personal motivation – What do you want to study next?  Romans?  Revelation?  Psalms?  Esther?  Nahum?  This approach says go for it!  When the heart is in the task, the study is a delight.  When discipline alone is boss, then the tanks feel permanently empty.

7. The brick wall approach recognizes that study is never exhaustive – So you’ve done a few weeks in John, and for now you feel that is enough.  You’ve come to a point of closure, thanked the Lord, finished well and moved on to another book that is attracting you.  Does that mean you are done with John?  Of course not.  In a few months or years you’ll come back, motivated again, and you’ll go deeper and further.  By then you’ll be building on top of other bricks that have been laid in the mean time.  Perhaps a study of Psalms will bring John’s use of Davidic Psalms out in a fresh way, for instance.

This approach encourages success by generating achievable goals, by tapping into personal motivation, and by progressively building throughout life in a way that never suggests completion, but recognizes progress continually.

I could add more rationale, but I’ll leave it at that for now.  I’m not saying this is the only way, or even the best way, but I’ve yet to find an approach to Bible mastery that has tempted me to change my approach (or to change what I suggest when asked for my suggestions!)

The Mastery Challenge – Suggestion

Back on April 7th I wrote about the need for us all to prioritize mastering, and being mastered by, the Bible.  Winston commented and asked for my suggestions on this.  I’ll share my thinking briefly here.  I’d encourage you to read the earlier post again to refresh your memory and stir the motivation – it is here.

My approach is to split personal Bible study into two halves.  These two halves are best explained as a foundation and brick wall approach:

Half 1 = Foundation – The foundation is to be reading through the whole Bible.  My strong encouragement is to keep reading through the whole Bible, at a fairly persistent pace.  Allow the big story to wash through you.  Don’t get caught up in details, or in trying to remember every interesting fact you find.  Don’t try to pronounce every long name.  Just keep moving.  Like pouring water through a sieve, the goal is not to retain, but to be cleaned and to get a big picture awareness of the Bible God has given to us.

Half 2 = Brick Wall – With the other half of the time available I suggest getting your teeth into study.  By default I would suggest a book-by-book approach.  God didn’t give us a topical index, or a collection of proof texts; He gave us a collection of books.  So pick a Bible book and study it.  Use whatever skill and resources you have.  Begin with inductive study of the book, constantly moving between analysis of the details and synthesis of the whole.  If you have original language skill, use it.  If you have quality commentaries, eventually consult them.  Make it your goal to master and be mastered by the book you are studying.  After a few weeks of this you will find that your motivation for that book wanes and you feel like you are coming to finish point in your study.  I like to be able to explain my way through a book, section by section, without looking at the text.  Perhaps you would choose another way to define the finish line.  Then move to another book you want to study.  Periodically you can do a topical study, or a character study, or a theological study, or whatever, but default back to book by book.

Tomorrow I will share my underlying thinking that helps to make sense of this approach.

Always the First Step

I remember well my first class in hermeneutics at seminary.  Years later I still have the voice of my prof ringing in my ears – “Observation!  The first step in inductive Bible study method!” Influenced as he was by Howard Hendricks, he left his mark in my life as I open the Bible and start by looking.  What is there?  What does it say?  You can’t interpret it until you know what it is.  Observation is the critical first step to success in Bible study, and in preaching too.

You have to observe well to handle the Bible well.  You have to observe well to communicate effectively.  In a discipline like preaching, so built on effective Bible study, we would do well to continually develop our observational faculties.  Let me share this quote from William Wirt (1828), quoted in McDill’s 12 Essential Skills:

Perhaps there is no property in which men are more distinguished from each other, than in the various degrees in which they possess the faculty of observation.  The great herd of mankind pass their lives in listless inattention and indifference to what is going on around them . . . while those who are destined to distinction have a lynx-eyed vigilance that nothing can escape.

Practice observation every day.  Describe the person you just spoke with.  Define the distinctive characteristics of their body language.  Observe the headlines on the newspaper you pass.  Live with a lynx-eyed vigilance so that you never waste your life in listless inattention and indifference!