Picture: A person looks at Hebrew characters under a magnifying glass.
Last week we talked about diving deeper into the word of God for 2020. When it comes to reading more of the Bible, many of us may have an “ought to” in place of a “want to” in our hearts. We know it’d be good for us, but how can we get ourselves to do it, let alone on a regular basis? It’s kind of like trying to eat more spinach and cut out sugar from our diets. Our taste buds and cravings may not be there yet, so we wrestle. Out of conscience and duty, we order the salad bar, when what we really wanted was the cheeseburger and fries. And, doesn’t everyone know, it’s every woman’s right to love chocolate. Of course, I only share these examples hypothetically.
Despite our flesh’s resistance, God gives us this hope: your taste buds can change, making you crave the word of God more than your daily food. It satisfies like nothing else can. It can even taste sweet to you. But, we need to give ourselves to it! The more we eat of it, the more we’ll see its goodness, the more we’ll want to take the time to dive into its mysteries.
I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. –Job 32:12
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. –John 6:63 (NKJV)
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! –Psalm 119:103
Remember, Psalm 119 is a love song to the word of God! Clearly, the psalmist was smitten! Not just with God’s word, but with God Himself. When you’re in love, every word counts!
So, diving deeper into the word of God is really diving deeper into God: His mind, His heart, His ways, His plans and His passion for you!
Once you really get into reading it, you may not want to stop. When revelation and understanding give birth to more of the same, it’ll turn into a positive upward cycle.
YES, MICHAEL JORDAN FAITHFULLY PRACTICED HIS LAYUP DRILLS
Michael Jordan, the famous basketball player, when asked about his ability to perform at his peak in high-pressure games, gave a surprising, yet, not altogether unexpected answer.
The only way to relieve that pressure is to build your fundamentals, practice them over and over, so when (the) game breaks down, you can handle anything that transpires.” –Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan became the best basketball player in history in part by practicing the fundamentals over and over again. His muscle memory took over when the game was at a fever pitch: blocking, passing, jump shot, outmaneuvering, dunk. He sunk shot after shot, because he worked harder than anyone and practiced making shot after shot away from the game lights.
What?! No magic wand, no pill, no short cut. Nope. Just hard work, practicing the fundamentals. (Yes, this is yet another encouragement to eat your spinach. By the way, I have nothing against spinach. I happen to like it!)
Likewise, Bible study has its fundamentals just like basketball does. Fundamentals are the kinds of things you’d learn at a summer “Bible study camp,” if there were one. In turn, we can develop a mind memory through practice, just like Michael Jordan developed his muscle memory.
BIBLE STUDY FUNDAMENTALS
Before we get to the other stuff, it behooves us to cover the foundational aspects of Bible study. Everybody needs to learn how to study the Bible for themselves. Though there are many Bible study methods, many see the below four steps as the basics of Bible study. I compare Bible study methods to basketball drills, because I believe once you practice them enough, you’ll begin to do these things automatically. It’ll become more of an intuitive process.
If practiced faithfully, these four steps will help us to draw out from the Bible what’s actually there. We don’t impose our own meanings, agendas or theological perspectives on any given passage, but we let the passage speak for itself.
- OBSERVATION– What does it say?
- INTERPRETATION– What does it mean?
- CORRELATION– What does it say elsewhere about the same subject?
- APPLICATION– What does it mean personally for me?
Since many people have taught these methods more effectively than I ever could, I don’t intend to reinvent the wheel here. I only include these fundamentals to say that I both believe in and (intuitively) follow this process. If you think about it, each step naturally follows the one before it. Someone was just smart enough to categorize these steps and explain them further.
If you’re a conservative Bible study student, you can breathe a sigh of relief at this point. She’s not going off willy nilly, but she’s grounded or, at least, wants to be.
WARNING: SOMETHING TO WATCH OUT FOR AS YOU PROCEED
Everything, however, has its potential pitfalls when used the wrong way. Some conservative Bible teachers I believe go too far in their pronouncements. (More on this later) At this point, I’ll just say a person can be too rigid in how they handle Bible interpretation. These Bible scholars believe there’s only one “right interpretation,” depending on the “author’s intent.” In other words, whatever the human author intended to communicate when he wrote his book is the “correct interpretation.” To some degree, this may be true in the present, literal sense of the writer’s experience–a faithful narrative of a particular place, time and culture–but not in every sense of Bible interpretation.
HERE’S THE PROBLEM: Even though the human author was involved, it was really the HOLY SPIRIT, who wrote the books of the Bible through human authors. Huge difference!
But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. –2 Peter 1:20-21
The writers may have had an idea of what they were writing, but I GUARANTEE YOU they didn’t know ALL of what they wrote at the time they were writing it. They wrote about things they didn’t understand nor could foresee.
Ultimately, each of us can only look “through a glass darkly.” None of us have the whole picture and the picture we do have is not always that clear. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
For example, Psalm 22 accurately describes Jesus’ death on the cross. David wrote as he was “moved (or carried along) by the Holy Spirit.” He illustrated the horrible psychological and physical effects of what Christ went through for us. The Israelites, however, didn’t know anything about crucifixion, since it hadn’t been invented yet. The Israelites often punished people by stoning them, but they didn’t pierce them. The Persians would invent crucifixion centuries after David’s death.
THE TRUTH WILL KEEP YOU FROM THE COUNTERFEIT
On the other hand, this Bible study method can keep us largely grounded and centered on a safe path. We need to accurately handle the word of God from a stable, proven foundation. There are too many people out there with weird ideas about what “the Bible says.” Many even use the scriptures to endorse warped doctrines, agendas and lifestyles. In this day and age, God’s calling us to critically analyze what’s being taught and to be more discerning. But, how does that discernment come?
Historically, bank tellers spent more time studying the real rather than counterfeit in an effort to more readily detect counterfeit money. They were so intimately acquainted with the true bills– their feel, look, varied texture, coloring, watermarks, details, etc. — that when a counterfeit bill passed by, the internal alarm went off!
We need to know the truth of the Bible so well that we could spot a counterfeit a mile away, no matter how logical, reasonable, good, and/or compassionate it may appear to our fallen human nature.
In fact, one of Jesus’ main warnings concerning the End Times is “Do not be deceived.” A spectrum of false teachers and false doctrines will litter the landscape, ranging from the very obvious to the very subtle. (Matthew 24:4-5,11, 23-26)
Yet, another good reason to become passionate about the word of God for 2020.
Let’s work on a verse we used last week.
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. –Acts 17:11
Observation– What does it say?
In this step, it’s important to focus in on what’s in the TEXT and the CONTEXT. We examine the details without yet coming to conclusions. If we were CSI investigators, this would be the time to don our latex gloves and have a magnifying glass handy to examine the crime scene for whatever evidence is available.
Here we make simple observations about the passage.
- Paul preached the message to Jews in Berea.
- The Bible compares Berean Jews favorably to the Jews in Thessalonica.
- The Berean Jews exhibited “a more noble character” by how they responded to Paul. God didn’t use the word intentions, heart or mind, but he used character.
- The Bereans eagerly received Paul and his teaching with open arms.
Yet, they also searched the Bible daily to make sure what he taught was Biblical and of God.
[Note I also paraphrased what I saw in the text. No statement has gone beyond the scope of the text.]
To go further into the context, we look to the verses before and after verse 11.
Acts 17:1-9 gives us a larger context because it chronicles Paul’s visit to Thessalonica and their response to him. In short, envious and unbelieving Jews stirred up trouble for Paul, causing him to be sent away to Berea. The more noble character of the Bereans can be clearly seen, when looking at the way he was treated in Thessalonica.
Acts 17:12-14 (the passage immediately after) shows the response of the Bereans and how the Thessalonian troublemakers went after Paul in Berea also.
So, Acts 17:1-14 seems to be the larger context of the passage; in other words, the same story, from beginning to the end.
But, Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17:15-34 makes me wonder if this section also fits into the same context. (I think it does.)
How it fits into the context of the Acts 17 (the whole chapter)
In Acts 17:1-14, Paul evangelized the Jews with the word of God, since they’re people of the word. From Acts 17:15-34, Paul evangelized the Gentiles from a different base of operations, given the fact that they didn’t see God’s word as an authority.
Huge point: His outreach to the Jews differed from his outreach to the Gentiles.
Context can go much further than the immediate chapter where we see the verse or passage! Think of it as ever larger concentric circles covering a wider area of the Bible.
How it fits into the context of the book of Acts
Next, one could look to see how this verse fits into the last half of the book of Acts, and, then, the whole book of Acts. After all, the Church had just been born. Jesus had called His followers to be witnesses for Him in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth. (Acts 1:8) They first preached only to the Jews, but were later surprised God also wanted to bring salvation to the Gentiles. The Apostle Paul, one of the first missionaries, had to have a strategy to reach out to both groups of people. He made it a point to be “all things to all people” in order to reach some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
How it fits into the New Testament
Another larger concentric circle could be the New Testament. Jesus came to bring a new covenant that would include both Jew and Gentile.
…he (the Lord) says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” –Isaiah 49:6
How it fits into the whole Bible
Lastly, the context of the whole Bible. God told Abraham that through him and his descendants all the nations of the Earth would be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3) I doubt Abraham knew the full ramifications of what God had told him. Ancient Jewish history as chronicled by the Old Testament led not only the Jewish Messiah, but to the Savior of the world. In Ephesians, we read that God’s intention all along was to tear down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile through Christ in order to make one new unified people. (Ephesians 2:15)
OBSERVATION– REPORTER’S QUESTIONS
In looking for other answers regarding text and context, you can turn to the questions journalists have asked throughout history in order to get “the facts of the story.” You can ask these questions of the target passage or the larger context.
WHO? Who wrote the passage? Who is the audience? Who are the characters in the immediate passage?
WHAT? What kind of genre? (Historical narrative, law, wisdom literature, poetry, epistles, prophetic, etc.) What’s happening in the passage? What’s the main message?
WHEN? What time in history? What time– during the day or night? What time during Israel’s development? What time during the Church’s development?
WHERE? What city? Country? Travel from where to where? Topography–land formations? (For example, what does it mean that the Jordan was at flood stage when the Israelites crossed it on dry land? Joshua 3:15)
WHY? Why does this passage fit into this book? Why did something happen the way it did? Why did somebody commit a certain action? For example, why was Paul in Berea?
HOW? Method used? For instance, how did Jesus heal the two blind men? How did Jesus heal the woman with the issue of blood for twelve years? How did Paul seek to evangelize the Jews? The Gentiles? How did the Bereans receive Jesus? How did God speak to a certain Bible character?
OBSERVATION– YOUR OWN QUESTIONS
Depending on what you ask, your own personal questions can lead you to fill in observation details or even lead you on an interpretive journey into the next Bible study method step of interpretation.
Some of my possible questions from the passage:
- Where is Berea? What is the city like? What are the demographics of the city?
- Why did the Holy Spirit use the word “character,” instead of intention, mind or heart?
- What specific Bible passages did Paul use to try to convince the Berean Jews that Jesus was the Messiah?
- Why are there letters to Thessalonica, but not to Berea? Was there a church started in Berea?
- What was it about Paul and his teaching that helped the Berean Jews to trust him enough to eagerly receive his message, even though he was a stranger?
As you can see, some of these questions may never be clearly answered, but the questions cause me to wonder. If the draw is strong enough, questions may also lead a person to prayer and research. By asking questions and seeking out their answers, we get more deeply involved with the process of Bible study.
BIBLE STUDY AS AN ORGANIC PROCESS
My heart’s desire is to demystify Bible study for everyone and make it as non-intimidating as possible. Since God wrote His love letter to you personally, He longs for you to uncover the depths of His Word. If you think about it, studying the Bible flows naturally from one step to the other. To know what the text says, you first have to know what it means. After you have a good grasp on the meaning of the passage, it’s natural to wonder what the other verses in the Bible have to say about the same topic in order to get a fuller picture. When we see the Bible’s meaning more clearly through interpretation and correlation, then it’s easier to apply the passage(s) to our lives.
If you’ve never challenged yourself in this way or have grown rusty in your “Bible study methods,” I encourage you to begin or sign up again.
Next week we’ll look at the Bible study method process of interpretation, or discovering what the text means.
APPLICATION AND REFLECTION QUESTIONS
1. The Bible seems to say the more we feed on it, the more we’ll savor its sweetness and crave more of it. Have you ever experienced this in your life? The devil will try to keep us from reading the Bible for this very reason. What are some ways you can keep distractions, attractions and competing commitments at bay, so you can dive into God’s word on a regular basis?
Make a plan to press into Bible reading on a regular basis.
2. Michael Jordan’s example shows us there are no short cuts to excellence. It doesn’t just rely on talent or ability, but in hard work and perseverance. But, once the muscle (in this case, mind, heart and spirit) memory kicks in, Bible study methods will become so much easier. When you’re first learning how to do something, it can seem awkward, and, let’s face it, hard and confusing. Remember back to when you learned how to drive? Now, you can drive the whole day without really thinking about the mechanics of driving.
Make a plan to take the extra steps and time to walk through the process of observation, to whatever level suits you. Start small and continue adding more as time goes on.
3. It’s so important to draw out from the text what it actually says, instead of imposing upon it our own ideas, agendas, theological perspectives, etc. Observation is the first huge step in that process as we look at text and context.
Challenge practice: Pick any passage in the Bible. It could be a verse or a paragraph (a set of verses that speak to the same subject) and make 20-50 different observations on that passage.
4. Why were the Bible writers incomplete in the full knowledge and implications of what they had written? [Thoughts and ideas about this can be found in the “Warning” section.]
Describe how the Bible was written. In other words, what was the Holy Spirit’s role in writing the books of the Bible?
Why is it important to give room to allow the Holy Spirit to interpret the scriptures?
5. Read Psalm 22 and a gospel account of Jesus’ crucifixion. David wrote Psalm 22 centuries before Jesus died on the cross and before crucifixion had even been invented. This prophetic psalm is only one example of how the Holy Spirit accurately wrote through human authors. Ponder this miracle and mystery of how our Bible was written. It is truly a divine book! Take some time to pray and thank God! Determine to both love and trust His Word more deeply and with greater confidence.
6. Bank tellers meticulously study the real over the false in their training to detect counterfeit money. Why is it important to see Bible study from this perspective, especially considering the times we live in? How will you apply this truth to your life?
7. Read the blog post again.
8. OBSERVATION CHALLENGE! I went to a school, where our motto was, “Learn by doing!” So, let’s put this part of “Bible study methods” into practice. Take a special Bible passage and use the steps of observation outlined in this blog post. (Next week, we’ll do the interpretation part of the process.)
The steps are explained under all of the subheadings that start with “OBSERVATION.”
- Reporter’s Questions
- Your Own Questions
Possible Tools: Bible dictionaries, Bible encyclopedias, Bible atlas or maps and Bible outlines for the books of the Bible. The Blue Letter Bible app or website has a variety of dictionaries and encyclopedias. Here’s a good link for Bible outlines: https://www.biblestudystart.com/outlines/
Special Note: Find resources free from any kind of theological stance or viewpoint. Each of us needs to learn how to make informed decisions about the text by looking at the raw data for ourselves. Secondly, Bible study resources that carry some sort of slant or commentary can influence your view of a certain Bible passage or topic, for good or for ill. We need to be very careful about what we take in these days. Whatever we believe about the Bible and what it says will steer our mindsets and lives in a certain direction.
By no means is what I outlined in this blog post exhaustive or the best you can find. I just tried to simplify the process.
If you want to work with me on a particular passage, I will do the same observation process on Daniel 1:3-8. I’ll include my work in a link in next week’s post.