How can we understand what the Bible says and apply its messages? How do we study the Bible?
Ever heard the parable about the man who would open his Bible and read whichever verse he saw first in order to seek God’s will for his life? One day, as he was going through a difficult time with his family, he sought the Lord’s guidance.
Opening his Bible, he pointed to a random verse. His finger rested on Matthew 27:5: “Then [Judas] went away and hanged himself.” Puzzled by these directions, but still hungry for a word from God, he called a “do-over” and flipped to another page. He found himself looking at Luke 10:37: “Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Flustered but chalking it up to coincidence, the man decided to give his method one last chance. Saying a quick prayer, he flipped the pages and placed his finger on John 13:27. There, staring up at him, was a command in Jesus’ own words: “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
This is a humorous, somewhat silly anecdote, but it illustrates a serious point. Misusing the Bible is easy; “correctly handling” it is not.1
What mind-set is necessary to read God’s Word in the right manner? Among other things, we ought to approach Scripture humbly,2 reverently,3 desperately,4 joyfully,5 expectantly,6 obediently,7 and frequently.8
I’ll admit that is already quite the list. But there’s one more: we should approach Scripture studiously.
Study the Bible?
We study what we love, don’t we? When I was a kid, I studied Michael Jordan statistics—not because I loved stats, but because I loved basketball and I loved Jordan.
Or picture this scenario. Imagine you asked me about my wife and I responded, “Oh, she’s incredible—the most amazing woman I’ve ever known! She’s from Oregon, has beautiful red hair, and hates chocolate.” In reality, my wife is a chocolate-loving brunette from Virginia. Would she feel honored and loved by the previous description? Of course not. I can gush about her all day long, but unless my words reflect who she really is, she’ll be insulted.
Does it make sense, then, to operate with carelessness when it comes to how we think and talk about God?
The study of God in the pages of the Bible is both intensely practical and the joy of those who cherish him. “Great are the works of the Lord,” the psalmist exclaims, “studied by all who delight in them.”9 There is the key: study anchored in delight.
Three Vital Steps
So how should God’s people go about studying God’s Word? Here are three helpful steps: observe, interpret, apply.10
1) Observe: What Does It Say?
The first step is observation. Whenever we open God’s Word, our most fundamental task is simply to see what’s there.
The good news is that observation isn’t complicated. It mainly consists of reading slowly and carefully in order to gather the basic facts of who, what, where, and when. Good questions to bear in mind include:
- Are there any repeated words or ideas?
- Who is speaking or writing?
- To whom are they speaking or writing?
- Who are the main characters?
- Where is this taking place?
- Are there words that show chronology?
- Are there contrasts, comparisons, or conditional statements?
- What is the logical progression in the author’s argument?
- Are there words that indicate atmosphere, moods, and emotion?
- What are the section divisions and linking words?
- What don’t I understand here?
Biblical observation doesn’t have to be some drawn-out, laborious process. You don’t need to consciously ask and answer each question. The more you engage the Bible, the more alert you’ll become to such things.
2) Interpret: What Does It Mean?
The next step is interpretation. You’ve considered what the passage says, but what does it mean? It may help to ask questions like:
- Does the surrounding context clarify any confusing words or phrases? (It’s wise to examine the “nearest” context—other verses in the same chapter or other chapters in the same book—before consulting “farther” passages or outside resources.)
- How would I paraphrase this passage in my own words?
- Why did the biblical author write this particular passage—why did the author feel it necessary to include?
- Is my interpretation consistent with what I noticed in the observation stage, or is it too dependent on a few details?
- Do other passages of Scripture fill out my interpretation? (The saying, “Let Scripture interpret Scripture,” reminds us to let clearer passages shed light on more complex verses.)
- Where does this passage fall in redemptive history? How does it fit within the Bible’s teaching as a whole?
Shortly after his resurrection, as described in Luke 24, Jesus encounters two men and explains the most vital secret to Bible study: the entire thing—Genesis to Revelation—is about him. “[Jesus] said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”11
But it wasn’t just after his resurrection that Jesus spoke this way. During his earthly ministry he explained his central place in the great story to the local experts on Scripture: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.”12
You see, it’s one thing to know Bible stories; it’s another to know the story of the Bible. It’s one thing to be aware of the story’s many heroes; it’s another to know the Hero himself.
It’s been stated that the Old Testament is “Jesus Christ concealed” and the New Testament is “Jesus Christ revealed.” From beginning to end, the storyline of Scripture looks forward to and finds its final resolution in God’s redeeming Son.13
Here is a simple framework that has helped me interpret the Scriptures with the Savior in view:
- Old Testament: Anticipation
- Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John): Manifestation
- Acts: Proclamation
- Epistles (each book between Acts and Revelation): Explanation
- Revelation: Consummation
No matter where you turn, the Bible is about Jesus.
It’s worth noting that once you’ve interpreted as best you can, it’s often useful to consult an outside study aide such as a commentary or Bible dictionary. Though never replacements for Scripture, such tools can be great supplements.14
3) Apply: How Should I Respond?
After observation and interpretation comes application. This is the ultimate goal of Bible study. In the first two stages you study the text; now the text studies you. To quit prematurely before applying what you observe and interpret is like chewing without swallowing.
The Bible itself is clear about the importance of moving through understanding to obedience.15 Helpful questions to ponder at this stage include:
- What’s something I learned about God—his character, his plan, his priorities, his promises, his desires, his ways?
- What’s something I learned about myself? My friends? The world?
- What aspects of the “fallen condition” are on display in the passage (i.e., what aspect of human sin or brokenness is most evident here?). How is the “redemptive solution” on display here (i.e., what aspect of God's grace is most evident in the passage?).16
- How does the gospel—the stunning news of what God accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—affect my understanding of this passage? Conversely, how does this passage increase my understanding of the gospel?
- How do I need to change my thinking or living based on what I’ve learned?
- How should I be praying in light of this passage?
- Is there an encouragement or promise here that I need to meditate on?
- What implications does this passage have for the way I engage others?
Take the Plunge
Studying the Bible takes work, but the payoff is priceless. The Bible is a bottomless treasure chest of wisdom, beauty, power, and truth. The ultimate reason we endeavor to comprehend the Word of the Lord is that we might know and please the Lord of the Word.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, 2 Timothy 2:15.
- Ibid., Isaiah 66:2.
- Ibid., Psalm 138:2.
- Our spiritual life is both started (James 1:18 and 1 Peter 1:23) and sustained (Matthew 4:4) by God’s words. They are a matter of life and death (Deuteronomy 32:46–47). Psalm 119 is an extraordinary chapter in which human longing for God’s revelation is on display (see especially verses 10, 20, 31, 40, 81, 123, 131, and 174).
- The Holy Bible, Psalm 1:1–2; Jeremiah 15:16; John 15:11.
- When Christians approach the Bible properly (not “perfectly”) they can expect comfort and strength (Psalm 119:28, 50, 52, 76, 107); encouragement and hope (Romans 15:4); guidance (Psalm 119:105); assurance (1 John 5:13), and transformation (John 17:17).
- The Holy Bible, James 1:22; 1 John 2:4–5; Psalm 119:4–5, 10, 34, 56, 59–60, 100, 133, 136, 146, 158, and 166–68.
- Ibid., Psalm 119:97, 147–48; Colossians 3:16.
- The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version © 1989, Psalm 111:2, emphasis mine.
- In this article I’m heavily indebted to Robert Plummer’s superb book 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010) as well as Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Zondervan, 2003). Another resource that’s also excellent is Jen Wilkin, Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Luke 24:25–27. The risen Jesus later tells his disciples: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).
- Ibid., John 5:39–40, 46.
- Ibid., John 1:45, 8:56, 12:16; 2 Corinthians 1:20; 1 Peter 1:10–12; Acts 13:27, 13:29, 28:23.
- For starters I’d recommend the ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008); the New Bible Commentary, 21st century ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004); and the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity and Diversity of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000).
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 7:24–27; John 13:17; James 1:22; 2 Timothy 3:16–17.
- This valuable distinction comes from Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed.(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).
- Photo Credit: Mattia Pelizzari / Stocksy.com.