If there was one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one single skill I could impart, one useful tip I could leave that would serve you well the rest of your life, what would it be? What is the single most important practical skill I've ever learned as a Christian?
Here it is: Never read a Bible verse. That's right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph at least.
My Radio Trick
When I'm on the radio, I use this simple rule to help me answer the majority of Bible questions I'm asked, even when I'm totally unfamiliar with the verse. It's an amazingly effective technique you can use, too.
I read the paragraph, not just the verse. I take stock of the relevant material above and below. Since the context frames the verse and gives it specific meaning, I let it tell me what's going on.
This works because of a basic rule of all communication: Meaning always flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units, not the other way around. The key to the meaning of any verse comes from the paragraph, not just from the individual words.
The numbers in front of the sentences give the illusion the verses stand alone in their meaning. They were not in the originals, though. Numbers were added hundreds of years later. Chapter and verse breaks sometimes pop up in unfortunate places, separating relevant material that should be grouped together.
First, ignore the verse numbers and try to get the big picture. Then begin to narrow your focus. It's not very hard or time consuming. It takes only a few moments and a little observation of the text.
Begin with the broad context of the book. What type of literature is it history, poetry, proverb? What is the passage about in general? What idea is being developed?
Stand back from the verse and look for breaks in the narrative that identify major units of thought. Ask, "What in this paragraph or group of paragraphs gives any clue to the meaning of the verse?"
There's a reason this little exercise is so important. Words have different meanings in different contexts (that's what makes puns work). When we consider a verse in isolation, one meaning may occur to us. But how do we know it's the right one? Help won't come from the dictionary. Dictionaries only complicate the issue, giving us more choices, not fewer. Help must come from somewhere else close by: the surrounding paragraph.
With the larger context now in view, you can narrow your focus and speculate on the meaning of the verse itself. Sum it up in your own words.
Finally and this is critical see if your paraphrase makes sense when inserted in the passage. Does it dovetail naturally with the bigger picture?
Here is an excellent example of how effective this paraphrase technique can be.
Jesus, the Uncreated Creator
In John 1:1 the writer states plainly that "the Word was God." In verse three he provides backup support for this claim. John writes, "All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being."
John says the same thing in two different ways for emphasis and clarity: Everything that ever came into being owes its existence to the Word, Who caused it all to happen. If the Word caused all created things to come into existence, then He must have existed before all created things came into existence. Therefore, the Word could not have been created. Jesus is the uncreated Creator, God.
Those who deny the deity of Christ offer this rebuttal, though. "Wait a minute, Greg. You didn't read the verse carefully. You missed something in the text. Notice the phrase ‘apart from Him.' The apostle excludes Jesus from the count. If you said, ‘Apart from Billy, the whole family is going to Disneyland' you wouldn't mean that Billy wasn't part of the family, just that he wasn't included in the count. Every member of the family is going to Disneyland with the exception of Billy. In the same way, every created thing was created by Jesus with the exception of Jesus Himself. Jehovah created Jesus first, then Jesus created everything else. Jesus is not God."