Sometimes, I've heard Christians complain that following an orderly Bible study method seems to squeeze out the Holy Spirit. At least it feels that way to them. While a step-by-step process of study does toss the "let your feelings be your guide" approach, that's actually a good thing. If we want to know what God is saying in His Word, our feelings must give way to disciplined and principled study. We must listen carefully to the text of Scripture. Otherwise, we'll only be hearing our own thoughts and ascribing them to God.
A sensible method of Bible study doesn't diminish the importance of the Holy Spirit though. Rather, God created us with minds that can think about things rigorously, and we should embrace that as a gift. The Holy Spirit is our powerful Guide, who helps us as we read, observe, interpret, and apply His Word to our lives.
The science and art of interpreting a text is summed up in the word "hermeneutics." Numerous books have been written plumbing the depths of various hermeneutical issues. A brief article like this can't possibly cover all that could be said about that. However, if you simply want to read the Bible to know God and know what His Word says, here are some basic steps to Bible study that most evangelical Christians seem to agree on. This coherent method has proven to be reliable and fruit-bearing for those who use it faithfully:
1. First, (after praying for God's help) survey the entire book you're studying.
After asking God to give you understanding into His Word, open a bible dictionary or a good study Bible and find out some basic background information about the book. Who is the human author? When did he write this book? What was his situation? Is it a historical book? A letter? Poetry? Prophecy? Jot down your findings. Next, skim read the book for what each chapter's main point is. Jot down a title for each chapter. Many Bibles today already have titles added by the publisher. You might follow along with those as you skim read the book, or write your own chapter headings. When you're done surveying the book, try to summarize the book's major themes and main message in your own words.
2. Second, observe. Now that you've gotten to know the entire book a little better, you're ready to dive in to a specific passage and make careful observations about it. Examine the text carefully to see what it says. Underline the verbs. Note any key words that stand out. Take enough time to observe facts that are stated, words or phrases that are repeated, contrasts or comparisons that are made in the text. Note any questions about the text that come to mind.
3. Third, interpret. Define those key words and concepts that you found in the observation step. When you interpret, remember three essential rules: (1) context (2) context (3) context. As one clever writer put it: "never read a bible verse." (Meaning, always read a verse in its larger context.) Seek explanations for any words or phrases that were hard to understand. Write a summary on what the passage means.
4. Fourth, apply the passage in the power of the Holy Spirit. The key question to ask here is: "Now that I know what God's Word says in this text, what am I to do about it?" Many times, the application of a text is simply "trust God," at least initially. God doesn't ask us to do things for Him without first believing in Him. He is the hero of the Bible. He is the Savior. Beyond that, we can still seek and pray how to make a general principle taught in a given text both personal and particular in our daily lives. To that end we might ask: "What does this text have to say about my relationships to (a) other believers (b) unbelievers (c) Satan (d) the created world (e) myself. Is there a command to obey? A promise to believe? A sin to confess or avoid? A character quality to pursue? An example to follow? These are the kinds of questions to ask as you seek God's help in applying Scripture.
On a related note, some have asked about the pros and cons of using a study Bible. While they can be helpful as a supplemental tool, I appreciate what author steve burchett has to say about their misuse:
Don't use a Study Bible as your primary Bible. Regular Bible reading, group study, and personal study should be out of a Bible without study notes. This eliminates the temptation to look away from what God has said.
Before you pull your Study Bible(s) off the shelf, force yourself to think hard about the text of Scripture alone. The person who "looks intently" at God's Word and lives it out is "blessed in what he does" (James 1:25). You may even want to purchase a Bible with wide margins in order to write down your thoughts, or maybe a notebook or journal.
- When you struggle to figure out what a verse or passage means, ask the Lord for help. You'll be amazed at what He helps you comprehend. If you still don't understand what you are reading, ask Him again and meditate longer. How often do we skip this vital step of depending upon the Lord? Who is more resourceful, a biblical scholar or God? When we are overly dependent on study notes, a subtle shift takes place from living "on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4) to living "by the words of Bible teachers."
It bears repeating that prayer is essential in all of this. Let's pray now for strength and disciplined consistency to spend well-ordered time in the presence of God as we seek to know Him through His Word.
In addition to writing and editing for christianity.com and biblestudytools.com, Alex Crain is the pastor of worship at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Mechanicsville, VA. Alex and Aileen Crain have been married since 1995 and are grateful for two sons and one daughter. Follow Alex on Twitter @alex_crain and rss his blog at Christianity.com.