How to Study the Bible
by Keith VenHuizen
Studying the Bible. It arouses both excitement and dread in many. Everyone I speak to about studying the Bible seems to say the same thing, “I wish I knew how to study the Bible better.” Or a similar sentiment, “I get overwhelmed when I start to study the Bible.”
A single article on Bible study is not going to fix these issues, however, the frameworks I hope to present here can be used to consistently improve your Bible study skills, no matter if you would call yourself an expert or a novice.
God has given us all powerful, logical minds, and we are commanded to love Him with all of it. Many people throw logic to the wind when studying the Bible, keeping the time honored tradition of opening to whatever they feel led to read that day. Many people also fail to question their own thoughts and presuppositions about what they read, assuming that their first thought must be right. We must use our whole mind as we study Scripture and attempt to apply it to our lives. Here are a few helpful frameworks to keep in your mind the next time you study God’s Word.
Every word is placed within a sentence; every sentence within a paragraph; every paragraph within a section; every section within a book; every book… you get the idea. If we simply studied the word ‘love’, for example, without considering how it is used in the context of the sentence in which it was placed, we would never have a chance to truly understand what is being communicated.
We have all had the experience where we have come in on the wrong part of someone else’s conversation, only to be truly baffled (and sometimes horrified) by what we hear. But in the context of the larger conversation, everything makes sense. Too many people read a verse or a paragraph, and never stop to consider the context. This is a practice that will quickly lead to confusion and disappointment in Bible study.
Interpretation or Application
Knowing the difference between interpretation and application can go a long ways to better studying the scriptures. We often talk in terms of “what does this verse mean to me?” And in talking to others about the same verse we can come away with very different meanings. This can casue us, especially the logical part of us, to become disillusioned to the sanity of studying Scripture. If the same verse can mean so many different things, why even bother trying to study at all.
This is where the difference between interpretation and application apply. Interpretation is the process of understanding what God has actually said and what he intended to communicate. Taking this definition, we should all be able to come away with the same meaning for the same passage. Application, on the other hand, depends on the circumstance of the reader. How we take the truth and meaning of the passage and apply it directly to our situation will look different for everyone. Confusing interpretation and application can result in a lot of frustration in Bible study.
Take it Literally
A saying I once heard in this regard bears repeating: If the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense. The idea here is that we don’t need to be seeking a magic meaning behind everything we read. However, just as in every other book you have read, the author will at times use figures of speech, or other literary devices such as metaphors to make a point. Therefore, when Jesus says “All authority in heaven has been given to me,” we should take it literally, because it makes sense to do so. However, when he says, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” It would be best to understand that you are not literally a branch. These two example make ssense, but throughout Bible study, keeping in mind that we out to take the Bible at face value will help us avoid a majority of commom interpretation pitfalls.
Yes, I know I mentioned context earlier, but it is important. And there are also multiple types of context. The Grammatical Context is something we need to consider when we are studying. For example, you ought not study the Psalms, Genesis or Romans in the same manner. They are different types of literature. For example, studying the biography of Abraham Lincoln, a science fiction book and the work of Robert Frost as if they were one and the same would be a mistake. The authors of Scripture employed different literary techniques, and keeping the grammatical context in mind is an important aspect of Bible study.
Historically, the books of the Bible take on different meaning as well. The Bible was written over thousands of years, to assume one historical context, especially if that context is inadvertently our own, would be a mistake. Understanding what David was going through when he wrote some of his Psalms will reveal much deeper meaning to his works. Jesus came at such a time in history that the gospel could spread rapidly thanks to the Roman highway systems. Historical context is an important part of understanding the meaning and impact of God’s Word on our lives.
In the end, the most important thing to remember about studying the Bible is to do it. The Bible is God’s Word for us, and apart from it we cannot know how to live as God wants us to live. Keep these things in mind the next time you study, but more importantly don’t put off studying.
- Multiply by Francis Chan
- Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks
- Studying, Interpreting and Applying the Bible by Walter Henrichsen and Gayle Jackson