Everybody know what time it is? (No, it’s not Tool Time 😉 ) It’s time for another blog post. This is the third, and final session in Part III: How to Study the Bible. It is called “Session 3: Studying Logically”. Hope you’ll follow along! Multiply!
Last week we stressed the importance of studying prayerfully and obediently, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and change you as you absorb the very words of God. This week, I want to point out the importance of hard work within study. We have stressed before that merely studying the Bible with an academic approach does not necessarily lead to right results, however, we are actually called to put effort into Bible study:
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 NASB).
Being “diligent” means being “hard-working” or “meticulous”. Have you ever applied these words to how you study the message God has worked so hard to preserve for you? Using our minds in effort to understand and absorb God’s word is actually a form of worship that declares our love to Him (Matt. 22:37). The more we love Him, the more we will want to study, and the more we study, the more we will love Him. It grows and grows and grows…
And interesting thought brought up in Multiply is that “…we all misunderstand certain passages of Scripture” (124). Not one of us can understand all parts of the Bible perfectly. If we could, there would not be so many divisions in the Church. There are many things that get in the way: our culture, what we have been taught (my hang-up), our own sinful nature and desire to do what we want, etc. If we throw in haphazardness in study, we are creating a recipe for disaster and sore-abuse of the Bible. We must carefully analyze the Bible so we may hear what it is actually saying instead of what we think it is saying.
Consider the Context
This is a biggy and a personal pet peeve of mine. So many people randomly pick out Bible verses and attempt to apply them to all circumstances without the least attention to context. “Every text belongs to a context. Every chapter, paragraph, sentence, and word derives meaning from its relationship to the words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters around it” (124). The Bible is no different. Sure, if we pull a verse out of context, we can make it mean something (whatever we want, actually), but are we giving it the right meaning?
An amazing thing about the Bible is that everything is connected, every verse to a chapter, to a book, to the whole Bible. When we read a verse, we are just taking a “bite” of the whole. We need to make sure that our interpretation of that “bite” is consistent with the whole.
“One of the best things we can do to understand context is to read the Bible in its entirety”(126). There are many different ways to actually accomplishing this, for example, following a reading schedule or reading a chapter a day. Whatever you choose, the fact remains, the more you read, the more you will understand the whole story, God’s wonderful, beautiful, amazing story. (If you are interested in Bible reading plans to get you started, you can go here: YouVersion or Back to the Bible. LifeJournal also has a great approach to reading through the Bible combined with journaling what you learn.)
Discussion Question #1: Think about the way you tend to study the Bible. Would you say that you make an effort to seek out what the Bible is actually saying? Do you pay attention to the context? If so, how has this helped you? If not, how do you think this might change the way you read the Bible?
Know the Difference between Interpretation and Application
Sometimes we fall into the trap of looking at a Bible verse’s meaning from our own perspective instead of seeking what the verse actually is saying. If we are not careful, this can lead to the assumption that the Bible is personalized for every individual and can mean whatever we want it to mean within our own situations. There is no longer such thing as “misinterpretation” and it’s a free-for-all as to what the Bible is actually saying in any context. This is obviously not the case. God intends for the Bible to portray a specific meaning. If we make a request to our children to clean their room, we obviously have one meaning that we wish to portray and we trust that our children will figure out that message and act accordingly. We, likewise, must be careful to examine God’s Word and discover what He is actually saying to His children.
“With interpretation, we are asking what the passage is saying and what it means. With application, we are applying that meaning to our specific situation. Ultimately, each passage has one meaning, but it might have many different applications…Application depends on our specific life situations, so we may all read the same passage and walk away with different applications. Interpretation, on the other hand, is all about discovering what God has actually said and what He intended to communicate. We should all read the same passage and walk away with the same meaning.”(128).
Discussion Question #2: In your own words, why is it important to distinguish between interpretation and application?
Find the Plain Meaning
Sometimes we allow our own agendas or assumptions to get in the way of what God is actually trying to get across in any particular passage. If Jesus says “sell all your possessions and give to charity”, we might be tempted to say “Well, Jesus isn’t actually telling me to literally sell all my possessions, so this passage must mean something else.” What evidence would cause us to make such an assumption? Within the direct context of the story (Luke 12:33), Jesus is telling His disciples to literally sell all their possessions. If you know Jesus within the context of the Bible, you would see that Jesus calls for radical living in His disciples, so why would He not ask such a radical thing of today’s disciples? Now, just because Jesus asked some of His disciples at a specific point in history to sell all their possessions doesn’t necessarily mean that He will ask all of His disciples to do the same, but we need to make sure that our own assumptions do not get in the way of considering that He might.
So much of the Bible is easily understood and can, and should, be taken at face value. True, there are portions of the Bible that are difficult to understand, but even then, we can still glean meaning in simply taking the words for what they are actually saying.
If we say that we shouldn’t take God’s words at face value, that we need to discover some sort of hidden meaning beneath the plain meaning of the words of Scripture, then we are saying that God is using human language in a way that is different from the way human beings use language. But we have absolutely no indication that this is the case. To the contrary, when God spoke to human beings in the Bible, they understood Him and acted according to the plain meaning of His words. When God told Israel to build a tabernacle, they didn’t perform some sort of dance as a spiritual interpretation of His words. Instead, they took His words at face value and created a tabernacle in accordance with the plain meaning of God’s words. Our approach to Scripture should be the same (130-131).
Discussion Question #3: In your own words, why is it important to look for the plain meaning of each passage rather than seeking out a deeper meaning?
Discussion Question #4: Would you say that your study of the Bible is focused on finding the plain meaning of each passage? Why or why not?
Take the Bible Literally
“…if the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense” (132). What we mean by this is that we should look for the plain meaning of the words of Scripture. We accept the Bible as literal truth. This does not mean that we interpret every passage literally (for example the passage in Matt. 18 about cutting off hands and feet is generally not taken literally). We see many different literary devices used in the Bible: metaphor, parable, imagery, etc. When we say that we take the Bible literally, what we actually mean is that we will take the Bible at face value and when the speaker uses a figure of speech (like metaphor), we can acknowledge that and interpret accordingly.
Discussion Question #5: Do you have a tendency to interpret the Bible allegorically or figuratively? If so, why do you think you tend to do this?
Study the Grammatical Context
God used human language to write the Bible and speak His Words to us, so it makes since to pay attention to the grammar of the Bible and how words are used. You don’t have to be a “grammar nazi”, but the basic grammar of the Bible is worthy of our attention. We can ask ourselves helpful questions that may be valuable in unlocking the meaning of a passage:
- Who is doing the action here? (Find the subject)
- What action is the actor performing? (Find the verb)
- How are the actor and the action described? (Find the adjectives and adverbs)
- Who or what is being acted upon? (Find the direct and indirect objects)
While you often analyze in this way automatically, deliberately asking these questions can help you break down difficult passages to find their meanings.
Study the Historical Context
Placing a passage within it’s historical context can be very enlightening to the meaning of a passage. While this can often require outside sources, for example a bible commentary or maybe a study bible, the Bible gives a lot of history within itself.
In the study of Multiply, the authors give the example of the verse Jeremiah 29:11. I’m sure you’ve come across it at some point or other.
“For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11 NASB).
Now, if we ignore the historical context of the passage, we can assume this passage means that God is going to give us prosperity in every circumstances. However, if we examine the history of the text, we find out that these were words of encouragement spoken by Jeremiah to the people of Israel who were in exile. God wasn’t promising that nothing bad would ever happen to them. He was promising them that even if they did have to experience dire circumstances, He did (and does) have a plan for them and that eventually He would restore them. Just as God was not promising that nothing bad would happen to the Israelites, He doesn’t promise that nothing bad will happen to us, but He does promise that He has a plan for all of us and that plan will give us hope.
Discussion Question #6: In your own words, explain why paying attention to the grammatical and historical context is important. How should these concepts shape your study of the Bible?
Let Go of Your Baggage
Once again, we need to be careful not to let our own assumptions of life get away in our interpretation of scripture, this can be the biggest danger to biblical interpretation. Because of our cultural viewpoints and social views, sometimes we make the false assumptions, like that “God wants us to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled because that’s the message we get from everyone around us” (136). God makes no such promises. If you are careful to read the Bible, God doesn’t necessarily define happiness and fulfillment in the same terms as the world around us defines them.
Sometimes our experiences in life can also taint our view of the Scriptures. Perhaps an abusive relationship with your father makes it almost impossible to imagine a ever-loving heavenly Father who wants nothing but our best. Our experiences can affect what we want scripture to say and in turn may affect our actual interpretation of scripture. Let the Bible speak for itself, don’t put words in it’s mouth.
Discussion Question #7: What would it mean for you to read the Bible with an awareness of your own baggage and a willingness to get rid of those assumptions for the sake of understanding God’s truth more clearly?
A Note on Application
Remember what we discussed last week, interpreting the Scriptures is not the last step. We are not merely acquiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake. “The purpose of reading and interpreting the Bible is obedience and fellowship with God” (137).
Discussion Question #8: In light of what you have thought through in this session, how do you need to change your approach to reading and studying the Bible?
Thank you so much for joining me for another week. Enjoy your Bible study, allow God to speak to you, and it can be one of life’s most fulfilling joys. God bless!