“What does this verse mean to you?”
The question is asked intensely by many a Bible study leader, and it kicks off many a highly personal discussion about Scripture. It’s a good question to ask, forcing us to go beyond objective truth and wrestle with application and personal response to God. But it’s the wrong question with which to start.
As a teen, I read the Bible devotionally with a focus on hearing what it had to say “to me.” Passage in Isaiah given to Israel about their captivity in Babylon? A personal message to me about the hard time I was having in a certain relationship. Parable about the Pharisees in Jesus’ day? A personal message to me about hypocrisy. Theological passage on the atonement of Christ’s blood? A personal message to me about … well, you get the idea. I read the Bible as a letter from God to me. The parts that didn’t make sense as a letter from God to me mostly got ignored or allegorized.
Without an objective handle on scriptural truth, we’re going to have a hard time ever understanding or applying it correctly. Paul knew we had to approach truth from both angles: He wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17, ESV).
In my early 20s, I was forced to confront my own ignorance and lack of depth in doctrines and stories I’d been reading my whole life – ignorance which made a serious difference to my daily life. I started studying my Bible in a very different way, looking for objective truth first and determined to learn what the Bible really says about, well, everything. It’s become an enriching, fascinating and often frustrating journey – one that’s well worth every minute, every step and every wrong turn that eventually has to be righted.
Serious personal Bible study is both less intimidating than it sounds and more challenging than you might expect. It hasn’t required thousands of dollars or years in Bible school. I’ve become a coffee-table Bible scholar, armed with a couple of Bible translations, a concordance, a dictionary, a journal and pen, and critical thinking skills. But it does require time, commitment and willingness to tackle hard questions in study and prayer.
Take the Time
I’ve often heard Christians challenged to spend at least five minutes in the Bible each day. It’s admittedly hard to find time to read the Bible. Surely we can read a handful of verses on our way out the door to work or before your roommate gets up. The trouble is, while five minutes a day is better than nothing and can give you something to meditate on throughout the day, it’s not conducive to real study.
For the last five years, I’ve spent half an hour to an hour each morning, six days a week, with my Bible and journal. When has varied: At times it’s worked best for me to study before I go to bed; now I study before work in the morning.
Daily Bible study requires commitment. It can mean getting up early or staying up late; it can mean lost social or free time, a missed movie or outing. But it’s worth it. We wouldn’t protest that half an hour a day is too much time to spend with our closest friends or spouses. Nor would we think it too much to devote to investing in a career – or even to recreation. Bible study is about relationship with God and investment in eternity. It will eventually affect every other relationship and all our worldly endeavors. It’s the ultimate act of re-creation as our minds and hearts are transformed by the truth of God’s Word. So we owe it, if not to God, then to ourselves to spend time in it.
It’s crucial to make Bible study a habit. Good intentions are easy to break. Routines safeguard intentions and help us follow through on our commitments.
Learn the Words
One of the biggest roadblocks to serious Bible study is also one of the simplest to overcome: Most of us sometimes have trouble with the words. I can’t count how many times I’ve watched a church Bible study derailed by someone who just did not understand the meaning of the words and phrases used.
Three tools are invaluable here. The first is in our minds: a commitment to sharp thinking rather than fuzzy notions. If you’re not sure you understand exactly what something means, get in the habit of looking it up. That’s where the other two tools come in. It’s helpful to understand Greek and Hebrew roots and see how else certain words are used in Scripture, so I highly recommend owning and learning how to use a concordance and Bible dictionary (I use Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance with the best of Vine’s Dictionary). The third tool is probably less used by Bible scholars, but it’s just as important: an English dictionary. Often our problem isn’t that we don’t understand a Greek root. It’s that we’re just not quite following the English.
Look at Context
Attention to context can work miracles in your objective understanding of Scripture. There’s a famous urban legend about a guy who wanted direction from the Lord, so he opened his Bible at random, stuck his finger on the page and read, “and [Judas] departed, and went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5, if you wondered). That anecdote is a good reminder of why we need to understand more than Scripture’s subjective application in the first place but also of our need to read in context.
First, this means paying careful attention to sentences and themes. I much prefer to use Bibles that don’t chop up passages by inserting headings. Too often this interrupts flow and wrecks context. Chapter and verse numbers are likewise artificial constructs which, while they are handy for looking things up, should be ignored while reading for context.
Other than that, there are four basic questions to apply to context: who, when, what and why. Who is talking and to whom? When is this being said? What’s the surrounding story, the cultural context, the overall theme of this book, letter or discourse? In what order are the words arranged? Does this passage build on one that came before, or does it expand a familiar theme? Is it quoting an Old Testament passage or relying on an idea that’s explained elsewhere?
What is the genre of this book? Genre is important because it affects interpretation. Poetry isn’t usually literal, so when we read in Psalms that God hides us under the shadow of His wings, we’re not meant to picture a God with literal feathers. History is literal, so when we read about Jonah being swallowed by a great fish, well, we’re meant to believe he was swallowed by a great fish. History is also, to an extent, amoral; it tells us what happens but doesn’t always make a moral judgment on it the way the law and the prophets do (so we can’t necessarily argue that it’s OK to deceive because David pretended to be mad when it helped him out of a bad situation).
And finally, the really subjective question: Why? Treat this one with care, humility and prayer. And look for clues in the text before jumping to conclusions. Often God will tell us exactly why He’s done or said something.
Reference and Research
Cross-references and outside research can be really helpful in understanding context. I highly recommend studying books of the Bible from start to finish, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take any detours along the way. Most good Bibles cross-reference verses; look them up. And if you’ve got extra time and the inclination to do it, put in some time researching ancient cultures, events and people.
Go Slow and Ask Questions
Growing up in the church, I often heard people say, “The Bible is so simple even a child can understand it.” Well, yes, to a point. But the Bible is also very complex, a collection of poetry, history, theology and prophecy that brilliant men have studied and argued over for centuries. It should be taken literally but not just on its surface. It deserves careful thought and study.
If you’ve ever tried to rapidly read through one of Paul’s epistles, you’ve probably experienced brain fatigue. Halfway through Romans 2, your brain is liable to overload. To really study effectively, we need to slow down.
My own Bible study method involves a lot of writing. I use hardbound journals to keep notes. As I read, I write down key verses, paraphrase what I’m reading, jot down questions, list cross-references, outline passages, sum up past study, pray on paper – you get the idea. Writing forces me to pay attention and really take in what I’m reading. It forces me to interact with Scripture.
The real key, though, isn’t just slow reading or writing things down. It’s critical thinking. Critical thinking is the art of arguing with yourself. A critical thinker questions every assumption and tracks down answers. I have a list of critical-thinking questions I ask of most Scriptures:
- What do these words mean?
- What’s the context?
- Does anything here contradict what I believe, assume or have been taught?
- What doesn’t this passage say that I would expect it to say?
- Is there another equally valid interpretation possible?
- Might this Scripture have a broader application – or more than one?
- Does this verse/statement/question fit into a pattern or parallel?
You can probably think of more questions to add to the list. Get in the habit of questioning what you read. This isn’t about being a skeptic. It’s about earnestly engaging the text, humbling yourself enough to question your own assumptions and asking God to show His glory.
What Does This Mean to Me?
The danger in asking “What does this mean to me?” is that we’ll lose sight of the bigger picture of objective truth and end up splashing around the shallows of faith all our lives. But there’s a danger in studying for objective truth, too – the danger of self-satisfaction, the danger that we’ll decide we get what God is saying, close the Bible and go away unchanged by the truth we’ve uncovered.
The 19th-century novelist George MacDonald wrote, “Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have, this day, done one thing because He said, ‘Do it!’ Or once abstained because He said, ‘Do not do it!’ It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him if you do not do anything He tells you.”
The study of Scripture, according to Paul, is to equip us in every good work. My prayer is that my efforts as a coffee-table Bible scholar will translate into understanding God’s heart and obeying His will as I go forth from the home table into the world, empowered anew by God’s Spirit and truth. May the same be true for you.
Copyright 2011 Rachel Staff Thomson. All rights reserved.