The September/October 2019 issue of Bible Study Magazine contains five articles and a series of Bible study tips that together provide a solid foundation of tools to study the Bible. The articles comprise: “One Precept at a Time” by Kay Arthur, “Receiving God’s Message for Us” by Peter Krol, “Greek for Beginners” by H. Daniel Zacharias, “How to Choose a Bible Translation That’s Right for You” by Mark L. Ward, Jr., and “What Kind of Passage is It?” from Logos Mobile education courses. The Bible study tips are written by the following well-known teachers and preachers: Eric Mason, Beth Moore, Tim Challies, JR Vassar, D. A. Carson, Philip Yancey, Trevin Wax, N. T. Wright, Elyse Fitzpatrick, and Jen Wilkin.
This Primer is a compilation of the substantive teachings of the articles, the study tips, and a little bit of guidance from other sources. The major divisions of this Primer are (1) preliminary steps before study begins, (2) the first step: observation of the text, (3) the second step: interpretation of the text, and (4) the third step: application of the text.
The purpose of this Primer is to provide a brief, yet reasonably thorough, instruction on how to study the Bible. For those just beginning Bible study, I hope this Primer will be a catalyst for more in-depth study of how to study the Bible.
PRELIMINARY STEPS BEFORE STUDY BEGINS
Begin Bible Study with Prayer
An instructive article (September 21, 2015) by Pastor David Mathis from the desiringgod.org website entitled “Four Prayers for Bible Reading” identifies four verses to use in praying before engaging the Bible. The Bible student may want to try using one or more of these verses to structure a pre-study prayer.
The first verse is Psalm 119:18 (ESV), which reads:
18 Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.
An exemplary prayer using this verse reads as follows:
Dear Heavenly Father, I am consumed with longing for Your Word at all times. I ask You to open my spiritual eyes so I can feast upon Your extraordinarily wonderful truths that I have never truly comprehended before. I will listen to these truths so they are my counselors that guide me as I strive to obey Your Word. O Father God, deal bountifully with me so I may live in accordance with Your Word. In Jesus Name I pray, Amen.
The second verse is Luke 18:38 (ESV), which reads:
38 And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
For context, the cry came from a blind beggar who wanted Jesus to heal him from his blindness. See Luke 18:35-42. The beggar continued to cry out in spite of opposition (see v. 39).
A sample prayer using this verse reads:
O, Father God, before I open up Your Word today, I cry out that You give me 20-20 spiritual vision to clearly see Jesus like did the blind beggar after Jesus let him recover his sight. I know You can take away spiritual blindness, and I have the faith to trust that You will do so for me this day. I ask You to give me the perseverance to cry out for spiritual sight even amid opposition such as distractions, strife, and turmoil. In Jesus’ Name I pray. Amen.
The third verse is James 1:22 (ESV), and it reads:
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
A suggested prayer using this verse reads:
Dear Heavenly Father, I am about to engage in the study of the Bible. Please give me guidance, courage, and determination to apply the timeless principles in Your Word to my life today. In Jesus’ Name I pray. Amen.
Finally, the fourth verse is Luke 24:45 (ESV):
45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
For context, Jesus opened the minds of His disciples so they understood how the Scriptures pointed to Jesus Christ the Messiah. See Luke 24:36-49.
A prayer built around this verse reads:
Dear Heavenly Father, I stand in awe of You and the infinite love You display towards me in giving Your Son as a sacrifice for the atonement of my sins. Please help me to comprehend better the infinite sacrifice Jesus made on the cross and see it in the text. I rejoice in the fact of Jesus’ physical bodily resurrection and the absolute certainty it gives to the authority of Scripture and the certainty of my salvation. In Jesus’ Name, I pray. Amen.
One result from the pre-study prayer should be to enter Bible study with an attitude of humility toward and reverence of God.
Overarching Pre-Study Principles
Before the student engages the Bible, he or she ought to keep the following five overarching principles in mind. First, each author of Scripture had a message which he intended to convey to his intended audience. It is encouraging to know that a Scriptural text reveals its authorial intent through diligent Bible study.
Second, it is possible for the Bible student to understand that message. Practicing solid Bible study tools gives the student the opportunity to understand the author’s intended message of the passage.
Third, adequately understood, the message of the passage will influence the lives of God’s people in any generation. The Bible was not written to any specific person in the 21st Century. Yet, its timeless principles are applicable to 21st Century mankind. What a great encouragement to know that the time spent in Bible study opens the door to apply biblical truths for life change.
Fourth, keep in mind that every Bible study session will not necessarily result in a “come to Jesus” moment. The Bible student should strive to consistently engage the Bible so that he or she has a steady diet of spiritual food.
Fifth, the student should try to develop an excitement for the Bible. He or she ought to enter Bible study with an eagerness to learn.
Choosing an English Translation of the Bible
The original biblical texts were written in either Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. Therefore, whatever English translation the student uses, it is just that, a translation. No single translation can reflect all of the nuances of the original languages. Thus, it is important for the student to carefully consider his or her choice of a Bible translation.
At one end of the spectrum of English Bible translations are formal translations which follow the form of the Greek and the Hebrew (and Aramaic). This type of translation is a more literal translation keeping in mind that no translation is one hundred percent literal. At the other end of the range are functional translations, which duplicate the actual effect, i.e., the function, of the original language in the modern language (e.g., English).
The Bible student should use both major kinds of English Bible translations. The formal translation will tie you a little more closely to the original language. The functional translation will make the meaning of the text more clear.
Read to Determine the Genre of the Book
The genre (or type of literature) impacts how the student studies the text of the book. Therefore, one important preliminary step is to either read the entire book, or enough of the book, to determine its genre. There are nine genres.
The first genre is NARRATIVE GENRE which tells the story of God’s involvement with humanity, including His people. When studying a narrative genre, consider the following aspects of the narrative: (1) the movement of the whole story moving toward Christ, (2) what the narrative says, and (3) what the narrative does not say. As to the last aspect, in some cases silence can be deafening. The books that comprise narrative genre are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (also law), Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Ester.
The second genre is LAW. This genre is a collection of legal stipulations. The law shows us our need for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. When reading the law, try to see how the law factors into the overall story of the Bible. History shows us that a person needs more than the law to be close to God. Jesus teaching had a focus on the law as He challenged Israel’s culture, which was formed out of the law. Books that comprise the law are Exodus, Leviticus (also narrative), Numbers, Deuteronomy.
The third genre is GENEALOGY. This kind of genre helps the student understand the connections of different people to the overall story of God. Use the genealogies to look for where a person fits into the overall genealogy or scheme of things. The books that comprise genealogy are Genesis, Ruth, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Matthew 1, and Luke 1.
The fourth genre is PROPHESY. While prophesy includes predicting the future, the prophets also assessed their present day. The prophets reported the condition of the people, as well as what the cause of blessings or curses. The prophets’ message can be negative, but it can also bring hope. When reading prophesy, look for what it says about the spiritual condition of the people, God’s expectations for them, His values and desires, and the way the people ought to respond. The article says that:
The prophetic genre is designed to challenge God’s people, to warn them, and to call them to repent.
The books in which one will find prophesy are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel (also apocalyptic), Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
The fifth genre is APOCALYPTIC. This kind of writing reports both what happens in the visible world and what goes on behind the scenes. This kind of literature relies on symbolism and mysterious visions. It reveals the cosmic battle between evil and righteousness. Symbolism makes this kind of genre difficult to interpret accurately. The article reads:
Consider what the passage reveals about God’s faithfulness – and the ultimate fate of those who are faithful to Him.
The apocalyptic books are Daniel (also prophesy) and Revelation.
The sixth genre is POETRY. Parallel statements, more than by rhymes, characterize poetry in the Bible. Psalms is the major component of poetry, and it deals with a variety of situations. It instructs us how to praise God and how to cry out for help. In the context of Bible study, Psalm 119 is a terrific group of statements extolling the benefits of God’s Word. Along with Psalms, the other book of poetry is Song of Solomon.
The seventh genre is WISDOM. The purpose of this genre is to equip the reader to live well. In addition to the practical advice from the wisdom literature, as the article says, we ought to consider:
What is our relationship to our Creator? What does the Creator do on our behalf? What does it mean to live as God created us?
Look at the wisdom literature to guide us to know God better and his priorities for people. The wisdom literature comprises Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.
The eighth genre is GOSPEL. While some could consider the gospels as narrative, the article points out that 1st Century readers would find them to be bios or “life.” A Greek bios is different than a biography. The article reads:
Instead, the bios genre concentrated on what the persons said and did that made them significant. … ancient biographies tend to focus just on the sayings and deeds of the person. The Gospels present Jesus in exactly this way. … The goal [to be like Jesus] has two parts: to help us grasp the uniqueness of who Jesus is, and to motivate us to respond to Him in faith.
In studying the Gospel genre, we should pay attention to what Jesus said and what He did. His teachings and actions have key themes and interrelationships. Those are the kinds of truths we need to discover from the gospels. The Gospel genre comprises Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
The ninth and final genre is LETTERS. While Hebrews is an exception, the letters begin with an opening, continue with a body, and end with a closing. The biblical authors typically wrote letters to churches and some to individuals. The letters provide theological insights, as well as specific advice to a particular situation.
When examining a letter, the student should look at the flow and structure to discern how the topics change and relate to each other, as well as the overall message of the letter. The article suggests that the student: (1) try to identify the primary purpose behind the letter, and (2) work from the letter’s theological teaching to its application for 21st Century Christ-followers.
The books that comprise letters are Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude.
THE FIRST STEP: OBSERVATION OF THE TEXT
The first step in the (inductive or OIA) Bible study method is the observation step. Through the observation step, the Bible student wants to find out what the author says. The broad question is: what does the passage say? There are five broader aspects to the observation step.
Read the Passage with Two Key Things in Mind
When reading the passage, the student ought to carry out two actions. First, the student must read the passage slowly. While there may be situations it is acceptable the student must not speed read the passage. Bible study is a “crock pot” exercise and not a “microwave” activity.
Second, to slow down reading, the student should mark the text to highlight various aspects and attributes of the passage. Typically, the Bible student can mark using circles, symbols, colors, and the like to call attention to certain words, features, etc. of the text.
What to Look for When Reading the Passage
When reading the passage in the observation step, there are eight tasks to consider. First, if the student is reading the complete book, he or she should take it chapter-by-chapter.
Second, the student should read looking for the main characters, events, and time-related phrases that reveal sequences and the like. It is important to understand the flow of the text.
Third, to better comprehend what the author says and to slow down, the student should ask the “5 W’s and an H” questions of the text: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? By asking and answering the 5W-H questions, the student can gain insight into what the text says.
Fourth, the student should pay careful attention to repetition of words and phrases. Typically, the author stresses the importance of something through repetition.
Fifth, the student should study the grammar of the passage. The term “grammar” refers to the basic laws of language behind the relationships between the terms in the surface structure.
Sixth, the Bible student should look at the syntax of the passage. The term “syntax” refers to the configuration of the sentence units and the way the message as a whole can speak in differing cultural contexts.
Seventh, the student should look for various literary devices. Exemplary literary devices include metaphors, similes, hyperbole, and the like.
Eighth, the student should consider the mood of the text. Writings contain moods that reveal the emotions of the author. While the “mood” is subjective, the Bible student should look for and consider the mood of the passage.
It is well beyond the scope of this Primer to address in detail to substance of the fifth through the eighth tasks. While there are many books about Bible study, a couple of very helpful books are The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant Osborne [(1991), InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 60515] and Inductive Bible Study by David R. Bauer and Robert A. Traina [(2011), Baler Academic, Grand Rapids, MI 49516].
Read the Passage to Recognize Significant Words
When words occur that may have a deeper meaning in the original languages, the student should consult word study resources. One article refers to the Logos Bible Software materials which are superb to help the student study the original languages. If the student does not have access to Logos materials, there are many free sources on the internet. For example, preceptaustin.org and studylight.org are websites with original language helps. Excellent printed materials include Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, Zondervan, and Vines Complete Expository Dictionary, (1985), Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN.
The Zacharias article focuses on entering the world of New Testament Greek. When it comes to the Greek language, Zacharias presents essential overarching guidance:
It is important for everyone to know what they don’t know.
Zacharias characterizes Greek as a house. The foundation stones are the individual words and their meanings. The first floor represents Greek morphology. He points out that:
Every noun, verb, adjective, and pronoun is “morphed” resulting in many spelling variations for every word.
The second floor of the house comprises the area of Greek grammar termed “syntax.” Syntax is the grammatical structure of a text (the way in which words are put together to form phrases, clauses, and sentences).
The final component of the Greek house is the roof, which is discourse analysis of the language. He writes that:
Discourse analysis shows how a unit of text is working together as a whole toward a certain communicative purpose.
One entry point for the non-Greek student is at the foundation stones. Greek words have many meanings, and the context is critical to the meaning. He suggests three Greek tools to help with understanding the foundation tones. First, his choice for a lexicon is the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Second, building off of the Louw-Nida lexicon, he suggests using the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) by James Swanson. The third suggested resource is a theological dictionary such as the Lexham Theological Wordbook. This resource will help the student ascertain if the word in question, as used in its context, has any theological significance.
The second entry point to the Greek house is the roof. He suggests using the Lexham Discourse Greek New Testament Datasets.
Read the Passage Looking for Cross-References
Scripture is the best commentary on Scripture so that the student needs to cross-reference the text. It is valuable to learn (1) what the same author says elsewhere, and (2) what other authors say about the same topic. Keep in mind that it is the same Holy Spirit that inspired all of Scripture.
A good study Bible is a valuable source of cross-references. The following Bibles are good study Bible to help with cross-referencing:
(1) The New Inductive Study Bible (NASB95 translation), (2000), Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR 97402.
(2) The Thompson Chain Reference Study Bible, (1993), B. B. Kirkbride Bible Co., Inc. Indianapolis, IN.
(3) The English Standard Version (ESV) Study Bible, (2008), Crossway Bibles, Wheaton, IL 60187.
(4) The NIV Study Bible, (1985), The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, MI 49506.
(5) The Dake Annotated Reference Bible , (1961, 1963), Dake Bible Sales, Inc, Lawrenceville, GA 30246.
Read the Passage with the Goal to Meet God
The Bible student should keep in mind the following questions with the goal to meet God: (1) what does the text teach about God? (2) Who is God? (3) What is God like? (4) How does God make Himself known? (5) How does God speak to us? (6) What does God expect of us?
Listen (Instead of Read) the Passage
The Bible was written knowing that it would be heard, and not just read. Ezra read the law to the people as recorded in Nehemiah 8:1–3 (ESV)
1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
In Colossians 4:16 (ESV), Paul instructed the church to read his letter to the Colossian church and the church at Laodicea:
16 And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.
Listening to the text can impact the Bible student in ways that reading may not. A text can “sound” differently when listened to in contrast to when read.
Final Advice about the Observation Step
The student must not stop the observation of the text until he or she has seen and heard it inside out. The student must try to wring the text dry by squeezing all he or she can from the text.
THE SECOND STEP: INTERPRETATION OF THE TEXT
The second step in the (inductive or OIA) Bible study method is the interpretation step. Through the interpretation step, the student tries to find out what the author meant by the passage. The question to ask is: what did the original author mean by the passage? Another way to characterize the question is: what is the author’s original intended meaning to his original intended audience? Some people use the term “authorial intent” to identify the goal of the interpretation step.
There are three main tasks associated with the interpretation step.
Determine the Cultural and Historical Contexts of the Passage
The student must remember that the author was not writing to an audience in the 21st Century, but at a specific point in history and to a particular audience. We must avoid at all costs reading and interpreting the text through our western 21st Century Christian eyes.
The student can gain an understanding of the contextual background of the passage through reading good survey books. Some examples are Jensen’s Survey of the Old Testament, (1978), Moody Press, Chicago, IL 60610; Old Testament Survey, by Paul R. House and Eric Mitchell [(2007), B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN]; Jensen’s Survey of the New Testament, (1981), Moody Press, Chicago, IL 60610; and An Introduction to the New Testament, (1992, 2005) by D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 49530 . Many study Bibles contain excellent background material to assist the student to better understand the cultural and historical contexts.
Interrogation of the Observations of the Passage
Keeping in mind the contextual gloss of the culture and history, the student should interrogate his or her observations of the text. Through the interrogation, the student should try to discover the implications of the structure, the words, and phrases, etc. The interrogation must focus only on those questions that are within the four corners of the text under study. Other question must be let go to avoid becoming distracted from the message of the text.
After assimilating the answers, the student should arrive at his or her best assessment of what was the author’s main point in hand.
The student should also contemplate how the author’s main point looks either forward to or backward to the Person and work of Jesus Christ.
Determine What Others Have Done with the Same Passage
It is important not to develop an interpretation that comes “out of right field.” Before moving on from the interpretation step, the student should determine what others have done with the same passage. To accomplish this exercise, look at commentaries, books, articles, and other writings of credible evangelical commentators, theologians, and exegetes.
After finding out what others have done, compare their work to yours. If your work essentially agrees with theirs, then you know you have done a good job in your observation and interpretation.
If you disagree, then you need to examine your analysis to determine the reasons for the disagreement. Do not move on to the application step until you resolve the disagreement. Keep in mind that to disagree with mainstream conservative evangelical commentators should cause a Bible student to pause.
STEP THREE: THE APPLICATION STEP
The third step in the (inductive or OIA) Bible study method is the application step. The goal of the application step is to develop life applications. Bible study is incomplete without the Bible student implementing life applications.
When the student applies the main point of the text and its gospel connections, he or she puts it into practice by looking inward at their lives to make changes. The student also looks outward for opportunities to influence others’ lives. Application impacts what the student is to do (and is not do), as well what he or she believes and values.
My hope is that this Primer provides basic guidance for Bible study, as well as whets the appetite of the Bible student to dig deeper to become a more accomplished Bible student. In the future, I hope to revise and expand upon the material. If you would like notification of any revisions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.