A Pepper Grinder Post

How I Study the Bible

This posting started out as a harmless suggestion from my wife. Why not write something outlining what you do when you study a passage? It sounded like a great idea to me and something that would be easy to churn out in a couple hours. Hah! I guess it's sort of like if someone asked you to write a short article about how to drive a car. It seems like something you do without a lot of thought, but when you start getting into the nitty gritty, you realize how much there is to it.

I want to say that this is absolutely not intended to be a definitive guide to studying the Bible. What I've tried to put down here is how I generally study a passage. Pretty much all the posts on this blog, except for a few that are not the direct result of studying a passage, were done in the way that I'm going to try to outline below. I have found this basic technique to be really fabulous (though it is really the Bible, more than the technique, that is fabulous). The point of studying the Bible is to come face to face with God's word and let it change you. If any of the methods I outline help that to happen, I will be pleased.

Once upon a time, I thought that Bible studies were the most boring things imaginable. Here is how I remember a few of them. A small group of people sits around in a room. Someone reads a Bible passage, and then that person reads questions about the passage from a book that is supposed to help people think about it more deeply. Each question is met by uncomfortable silence, and then by people haltingly answering the question. Everyone is nervous that they might get the answer “wrong,” and so the tendency is to say nothing but what is obvious from a surface reading of the passage. YAWN!

However, what I discovered was that studying the Bible did not have to be dull. A lot of the key is knowing some basic ways to look at a Bible passage. Not every one of these techniques will provide insight into every verse. Sometimes when I am studying a passage, there are only one or two of the steps that yield something exciting. I have to say, though, that whenever I study a part of the Bible, there is almost always at least one place in the process where my eyes widen and my pulse starts pounding.

My Messy Study TableI would love to tell you that I figured out these steps all on my own, but, although the way I explain them may be slightly original, most of them are basically lifted from two of my favorite seminary professors, Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart. It was in Fee's class in New Testament exegesis, that I really learned how to study the Bible. (Exegesis means to draw the true meaning out of a text—it is basically a fancy word for studying the Bible.) For the class, I used a book that Fee had written called New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. This book was tremendously helpful, and it is still in print. (I had the 1st edition, now the 3rd edition is out.) There are two reasons that I hesitate slightly to recommend it to most people. One is that, as the title suggests, it focuses on the New Testament, although many of the techniques and principles taught can also be applied to the Old Testament. The other is that it assumes knowledge of Greek and other seminary/grad-school-type-stuff that the average reader won't have.

It was Doug Stuart who taught me similar skills for unpacking Old Testament passages. While checking to see if the Fee book mentioned above was still in print, I noticed that there is now a book by Doug Stuart, which I presume to be a companion to Fee's book, called Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. I've never laid eyes on this before, but I would guess it's good, though it's probably not intended for people who don't know Hebrew. If you want a book for people who don't know Hebrew and Greek that will go into more detail than this posting, my recommendation would be a book that Fee and Stuart co-wrote and geared for a more general audience, titled How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.

Enough rambling. Let me give you the steps I follow when I approach a passage. I've left out a few steps that you really can't do without knowledge of the original languages and the right reference tools, and made some minor modifications to others, but here they are:

  1. Pray for guidance. This should not be a dry academic exercise. The Bible tells us that it is living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword! (Hebrews 4:12) No matter how much knowledge and how many tools you have, you should approach the Bible humbly and ask the one who gave it to us for his wisdom.

  2. Read the whole book of the Bible where your passage is, or at least that section of the book. Far too often we treat the Bible like a bag of Halloween candy. We reach in, pull something out, and pop it in our mouth. The problem is that most of the Bible was written for a specific group of people in a specific time and situation. This does NOT mean that what is said doesn't apply to us, only that we need to think about who it was written to and why it was written when we try to understand and apply it. Study Bible introductions can sometimes help us out with this, but there is no substitute for reading the book yourself. Not only can you glean facts about the book, but you can get a general feel for the author's style and tone. You can see themes to which the author keeps coming back. Although reading the entire book is ideal, I will sometimes (especially with longer books) use a study Bible to see its breakdown of the big sections of the book and will then read the large section that contains my passage.

    As an example of this, imagine that you were studying Hebrews 11, the famous chapter on faith. Far too often, we think of faith as a way to get what we want from God. However, in reading the entire book of Hebrews, it becomes clear that the author is addressing a specific group: Jewish believers who are tempted to slip back into mainstream Judaism and stop focusing on Jesus. Again and again, the author addresses this group, first encouraging them not to give up and to stand firm, and then showing them the dire consequences they face if they do turn back. This is the context in which Hebrews 11 is written. This helps us understand why some of the examples given of people of faith don't fit in well with our ideas of faith—such as when the author talks about people who suffered horrible persecution but refused to give up. He is telling these Jewish believers to hold onto faith, not so they can get what they want, but to encourage them to endure for the sake of the rich reward that waits for them at the end of the line.

  3. Read the passage repeatedly, in different translations. Although this is something I consistently do when studying a passage, it becomes even more important if you don't have the luxury of studying the passage in the original languages. The challenge facing us is that no English Bible translation is inspired by God. It is the original text in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic that is inspired by God. Translators then take on the task of translating the original languages into something that will be understandable to us in our native language, in the context of our culture, with our own peculiar set of idioms.

    Shelf of BiblesSome translations, like the New American Standard Version, focus more on producing a literal translation without worrying quite as much about producing something that sounds like normal English.

    Others will work very hard at producing a translation that sounds like the way normal people would talk or write, even though this involves sacrificing some literalism. The aim of this type of translation is to produce something that will convey the same ideas to the people who hear it today as the original text would have communicated to the people of its day. An example of this type of translation would be something like Today's English Version, also known as the Good News Bible.

    Other translations, such as the New International Version, fall somewhere in between these two, trying to balance the desire for literalism and the desire for something that won't sound like a foreign language.

    My advice when you are studying a passage is to read as many translations of it as you can get your hands on. Thankfully, this is much easier today than it used to be. You no longer have to have a shelf full of Bibles, if you have an Internet connection. One site that I have used is Bible Gateway which allows you to read Bible passages in dozens of English translations, as well as in translations in many other languages.

    One caution on this step: don't try to decide which translation is "best" based on which one says what you want it to say. At this point, you are trying to see where there are disagreements amongst translators on the meaning of a passage, and where there is agreement. Part of what you will be doing as you go through the process of studying a passage is to decide for yourself what the best translation or combination of translations is for the verse(s) you're studying. A big part of the payoff of studying the Bible is seeing what God has to say to you that you may never have seen before. If you just read the translations and say, "I like this one," you will have missed out on that.

  4. Go with the flow. Some Bible passages are quite simple. For example, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God, (John 1:1) is straightforward, in one sense. We may be confused by what John means by some of his loaded terms, but the grammar and sentence structure almost sounds like something a beginning reader would read. On the other hand, some Biblical writers seem to love piling on so many parenthetical clauses that it is easy to get completely lost and forget where the sentence was going when it started out. For example, here is what Paul says in Romans 2:17-21a:

    Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark,an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth--you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself?

    In a case like this, I think that making what is known as a sentence flow can be very helpful. When I do a sentence flow, I do it in the original language, but I think that even doing this with a translation in your own language can be quite helpful. It allows you to see what the main thrust of a passage is and what is secondary. This would probably be especially helpful with a literal or middle of the road translation such as the NASB or the NIV.

    So how do you do it? It is possible to do sentence flows or diagrams in a very fussy way, but the basic idea is that you put the most critical parts of a sentence on top, and if something is just modifying one of the main parts of a sentence, you put it underneath and indented from the thing it's modifying. If something is parallel or reiterating something that was already said, I would put it directly under that. What you want to end up with is something that shows the main flow of the sentence.

    If you look at the passage above, you realize that Paul is actually saying something pretty simple--"If you call yourself a Jew, are you practicing what you preach?" What Paul has done is to add lots of parallel clauses to "if you call yourself a Jew" to make his point better. We don't want to ignore all those other clauses, but we'll understand the whole passage better if we can start out seeing the bare bones and then see how stuff was added on top of that. It's sort of like seeing a blue print of a house, as well as the finished house, to understand more clearly how the house was built.

    I do not think that there is one right way to do a sentence flow. The best way to do it is the way that best helps you see how the verses you're studying are structured. You may find that you do things differently for different passages—that is completely OK.

    One of my favorite things about doing a sentence flow is that it allows me to "chew" on a passage more deeply than I tend to when just reading it. I find that, in general, the more time I spend pondering part of the Bible, the more I get from it. Here is how I diagrammed the above passage in English, just to give you an example, NOT to show you the only way to do it.
    Diagram of Romans 2:17-21
  5. Study important words. This can get tricky. Let's say that you have a passage with the word love in it. You whip out your trusty concordance or Bible app to search for all the places where love appears. But, if you've read The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis, you know that there are four different Greek words (plus at least one Hebrew word) that can be translated as love. You don't want to understand the meanings of all those words; you want to study the one that appears in the verse you're studying. If you know the original languages, this is not a big deal. You just study the Greek or Hebrew word that's used in your passage. But what if you don't know the original language of the verse you're studying?

    DictionaryA related problem is that the word you want to study may not always be translated the same way. An example of this is found in Genesis 3:16-17, where God pronounces the curse on men and women that results from their disobedience to his command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the Revised Standard Version, God tells the woman, "in pain you shall bring forth children," but tells the man, "cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life." Guess what? The word translated as pain in verse 16 is the exact same Hebrew word as the one translated as toil in verse 17!

    In this case, I think that modern cultural ideas about work and childbirth have influenced the translators, but there are plenty of cases in every language where the same word may mean different things and would legitimately be translated differently.

    This means that if you try to study a word by seeing all the places in the Bible where that English word appears, you will be seeing some verses that are not actually using the word found in your verse, and you will NOT be seeing some passages that are using the word. What's a Bible scholar to do? Enter Strong's Concordance. I have not personally used Strong's, but my understanding is that they have a numbering scheme that allows you to see which English words are associated with which Hebrew and Greek words. This means that if you look up the Strong's number for the word you want to study, you can find all the places where that precise word in the original language is used. Very cool.

    So much for the mechanics. What's the point of studying a word? One reason for studying it is that translators may not have translated it well. By looking at how the word is used in other places in the Bible, you can get a better idea of what it means in your passage and how it should be translated.

    The other reason is that we may be confused by what a word really means in a passage, or if we aren't confused, it may be that we should be. Watch out for words that your brain just glazes over. If a verse says we are justified, do you really know what that means? A dictionary can tell you something, but remember that the dictionary is only telling you about the meaning of the English word that the translator chose. To really understand the meaning of the word God had the author write down, you have to look at the other places where that Greek or Hebrew word was used in the Bible and how it was used.

    When studying a word, there may be many passages in the Bible where the word is used that don't give us much of a hint as to what the word means, but there will usually be some where the way the word is used gives you some real insight into what it means. Pay special attention to passages written by the same author as that of the passage you are looking at, and most of all, to verses in the same book, since sometimes different authors used words differently, and even the same author might subtly change the way he used a word over time.

  6. Look at Historical and cultural issues. It's important to remember that when a Bible passage was written, it was usually addressed to a particular group of people who had a particular culture and lived in particular circumstances. Imagine someone reading something 100 years from now that was written by someone in late 20th century America. Imagine that the writer mentioned someone as being a "dead-head." I could picture the 22nd century readers conjecturing that this was a derisive term for a person of limited intelligence. However, to understand what is actually meant, you would have to know, not only that the term referred to fans of The Grateful Dead, but also what kind of associations people of the 20th century had with these fans.

    In a similar way, there are many things in the Bible that we won't understand if we are ignorant of the historical and cultural situation of the author and his original readers. For example, if we just think of tax collectors in the time of Jesus as the equivalent of people who work for the IRS, we will miss the incredible kick in the gut that Jews of that day would have had at the thought of Jesus associating with such people and forgiving them when they repented. The Jews were an occupied nation and were by nature fiercely proud and patriotic. To add insult to injury, some of their fellow Jews had willingly become instruments of the conquering Romans. These tax collectors not only confiscated the amount dictated by the Romans (thus keeping the Jews powerless and the Romans strong), but they also were allowed to (and generally did) take extra money to make themselves rich in the process.

    Similarly, the parable of the Good Samaritan lacks much of its punch if we don't understand how despised the Samaritans were in Jesus's day. It's a little as if someone told a parable today of the good Ku Klux Klansman (or skinhead), who stopped and helped someone who had been avoided by religious leaders.

    Probably the best way to learn about cultural and historical context is to read widely in the Bible itself. When you read, don't assume that the people had the same way of looking at things that you do, but try to understand why they thought and acted the way they did. Another reference that can be very helpful is a good study Bible such as the NIV Study Bible. Although not all the notes are helpful, some are very good at helping the reader understand things that may not be obvious to modern readers. There have also been some good books published that are specifically aimed at helping people in our time and culture understand how people in the Bible acted and thought. Two books that I have are: Manners and Customs in the Bible by Victor H. Matthews and The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times by Ralph Gower. Just glancing on Amazon, I see that these and several similar books are in print.

  7. Context, context, context. You know how real estate people are always saying that the three most important attributes for a house are location, location, and location? In a similar way, I have often found that the single most important key to understanding a Bible verse is its context. This means that instead of just looking at a single verse or group of verses, you also need to look at what came before it and what came after it.

    Real Estate SignMost passages are part of a larger section that is heading in a particular direction. If we pull a verse out of context, we may be making it say something that God never intended it to say, in much the same way that people can pull the words of a politician out of context to make him or her sound bad.

    Let me give you an example. When I first became a Christian, I came across a selection of Bible verses that someone was suggesting people memorize. These were all in the King James Version. Here is the verse that they listed to encourage people to study the Bible daily: "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life." John 5:39a, KJV

    The problem with the way this verse is being used would be evident even to someone who just understood King James English or who bothered to read the verse in almost any other reputable translation. However, it is even more plain if one simply reads the verse in context. Jesus is not having a cozy chat with his disciples, giving them guidelines for their daily quiet time. He is responding to Jewish critics who are furious that Jesus had the gall to heal on the Sabbath. In this context, here is the NIV translation of all of verse 39 plus the following verse (the passage I was given to memorize was only the first part of verse 39):

    You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

    Jesus is blasting the unbelieving Jews because, even though they believe that the Old Testament scriptures are their source of eternal life, they refuse to believe what those very scriptures have testified about Jesus, the TRUE source of eternal life. Admittedly, this is an extreme example. However, I have found many, many times that reading a passage in context enriches or changes my understanding of it. It is also sadly true that this simple step, which requires absolutely no special training, is often ignored.

    Here is what I would do to study a passage in context:

    -Decide where the logical section that contains your passage starts and ends. In an Old Testament historical book, the logical section might be one that tells us a particular story. In one of the New Testament epistles or one of the Old Testament prophets, the section might be addressing a particular sin or making a particular argument. In the Gospels, the section might include all of Jesus's interaction with a particular person or group of people in one situation. Section headings found in some Bibles can help you see where a logical section starts and ends but don't assume that these are always correct—study it for yourself! Be even more suspicious of chapter and verse divisions—remember that these were added later and are NOT part of the inspired text. -Sit down with paper and pen (or digital device if you are a paperless type) and record the flow of the section that contains your passage. The point is not to get the actual words down, but the gist of what is being said.

    -Look over what you wrote and try to understand how your verse(s) fit into the flow of the larger section.

    For example, here is what I might write down if I were looking at John 5:16-47 (a possible choice for the logical section containing my memory verse).

    -v16 Jews persecuted Jesus because he worked on the sabbath.
    -v17 Jesus responds that he's working because God is working.
    -v18 Jews even madder because Jesus called God his father.
    -v19-23 Jesus points out his intimate connection with God. He does what the Father does. He will give life to those he chooses, just as the Father gives life. The Father has given all judgment to the Son so that Son will be honored, and if you don't honor the Son, you aren't honoring the Father.
    -v24-27 Whoever believes the Son has eternal life, because the Father has given the right to give life and to judge to the Son.
    -v28-30 The time is coming when Jesus will judge the dead. He judges justly because he judges to please the Father.
    -v31-37a Testimony about Jesus comes not from Jesus himself: John testified to Jesus and God testified to the truth about Jesus through the works he gave him to do.
    -v37b-38 You haven't seen or heard God and his word isn't in you because you don't believe the one he sent.
    -v39-40 You think you have eternal life in the scriptures, but you don't believe what they say about Jesus, and won't come to him for eternal life.
    -v41-44 You don't accept Jesus who comes in the name of the Father, but you'll accept others who come in their own names. You don't love God or try to earn his approval.
    -v45-47 Moses will judge you, because you don't believe what he wrote about Jesus.

    As with so many aspects of studying the Bible, there is no one right way to do an outline like the one I've just done. You may want more detail or less detail. The point is to do something that will help you see the passage you are studying, not as an isolated fragment, but as a part of something larger.

    There is one caveat that I would like to add to this. Although studying the context is usually tremendously helpful, there are a few instances where it won't do much for you. Probably the best example of this is most of the book of Proverbs. Most of Proverbs is a collection of wise pithy sayings—usually only 1-2 verses long. Generally, the proverbs that appear before and after a proverb don't have much, if anything, to do with it.

  8. Think about biblical context. The context I'm referring to here is not the verses right around a passage you're studying, but the entire Bible. Since God gave us the entire diverse Bible and not just one book, we need to try to think about how other Bible passages may affect our understanding of the one we're examining. It can be helpful to look for other Bible passages that have a similar message to the one you're studying, but that may provide a slightly different nuance. Even more important is to look for passages that appear to contradict the one you're looking at. Since I believe that the Bible is inspired by God, I believe that it does not contain any out-and-out contradictions. If we start from this point, then there are two possibilities when we come across two passages that appear to disagree. Either we are misunderstanding one or both of the passages, or there is a creative tension between the two.

    In the first case, we will gain tremendously by looking carefully at the apparent disparity, and we will come to understand one or both passages better than we did before.

    In the second case, studying the passages will help us come to a better, more nuanced view than we had before. For example, think about the whole question of works vs. grace. Paul often makes the point very strongly that we are saved by grace alone. On the other hand, a book like James makes the point that faith that doesn't produce works is dead faith. These are not really contradictions, but it is the kind of subject where it is easy for our minds to slip into an either/or position. It would be much simpler to focus just on works, or to focus on grace, but the truth is that the two are meant to be bound together inseparably. If we were talking to a works-oriented person, we might tend to emphasize grace more, and if we were talking to someone who thought he could do anything he wanted since he was saved by grace, we would tend to emphasize obedience more, but neither one is complete without the other!

    This might sound to some like double-talk, but try asking a physicist if light behaves like particles or like waves. My guess is that you'll get some answer to the effect that it behaves like one in some ways and the other in other ways. Does this mean that the created universe is false? No, it just means that we, with our limited brains, have trouble fully grasping the nuances of God's creation. In the same way in the Bible, something that appears to be a contradiction simply means that we are looking at truth through a dirty mirror and trying to understand it the best we can.

    Most of all, the thing NOT to do is just to ignore the passages that don't go along with what you like to believe. This is what I used to do with some of the extremely clear passages in the Bible that talk about predestination (God choosing people rather than them choosing God). When I was finally willing to open my eyes to those passages, it was very freeing. At the same time, though, I would be going to the other extreme if I ignored passages that show people making real choices on their own and being held responsible by God for those choices.

    Do I completely understand how God can be totally in control and also allow people to make free choices? Nope. But I believe that someday I will. For now, there are some cases where the best I can do is to hold to one without letting go of the other. That is not nearly as easy or comfortable as just plunking down into one clear position that, to our limited minds, seems logically consistent. But, I believe that in many cases it is more Biblical.

    On a similar track, be careful of basing an idea on only one passage. Looking at multiple passages helps balance things out and protects us from our own mistakes and misunderstandings. Something that is just mentioned in passing in a verse is probably not trying to really teach us about that thing. An example that comes to mind is 1 Corinthians 15:29, which in the NIV says: Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?

    The Mormons do practice being baptized for their deceased, non-Mormon ancestors (which is, interestingly, why they have one of the best collections of genealogical records in the world). I will freely admit that this verse DOES sound as though being baptized for the dead is something legitimate. However, Paul's point here is not to teach about this practice. He mentions the practice in passing to bolster his argument that there IS a resurrection from the dead. If God had really intended that baptism for the dead be part of regular Christian practice, wouldn't he have given us at least one other passage that taught about how and why to do this, rather than just a passing reference?

    I can imagine people reading this, wondering how passages that relate to a verse can be found. Using a concordance or Bible app to search for key words can help. Tools such as study Bibles or topical Bibles may be of assistance. Also, searching for what others have written about a passage or a subject can help steer us to useful verses. Personally, though, I have found no substitute for having read the Bible widely myself. I don't have the kind of mind that can rattle off chapter and verse of passages I remember, but I often find that some phrase will come to mind, and it is usually not too hard to find where this is located with the help of a concordance or computer.

  9. Meditate. No, I'm not telling you to do some funky eastern thing. There was a confused time in my life when I did Zen meditation every day. The point of that meditation was to empty my mind of everything, but the kind of meditation I am talking about is intended to fill your mind. By contemplating the passage you are studying, you allow it to open up to you and saturate your mind. Often, a Bible passage seems like an onion to me, where, the more layers I pull back, the more I see.

    I encourage you to do this step after you have done most of your studying because you don't want to be filling your mind with a misinterpretation of a Bible passage. Dwell on the passage in your mind. Allow the Holy Spirit to show you the truth that was there all along and that your study has helped you uncover.

  10. Read what others have said. There is a reason that I put this near the end. It's very easy to jump right into this step when you first start looking at a passage, but I see two big problems with that.

    First, once someone else has explained how they see a verse, it will be that much harder for you to see it with fresh eyes. Instead of seeing what the Holy Spirit wants to show you, you may just keep seeing what someone else has said.

    Second, it encourages a lack of faith that God CAN show you something important from the Bible. It is easy for thoughts to creep in like, "I'm not smart. I'm not a scholar like _____. Why should I think that I can understand the Bible?" If you have read the Bible at all, I hope you have seen that God often delights in working through people who are not considered the wisest or strongest or most successful. Remember that the Holy Spirit was sent to guide us into all truth. He can do that, whether or not you went to seminary.

    I'm not saying that you should never read what someone has written about a passage without first studying it yourself. My point is that if you have decided to study a passage, study it yourself before you read what others have said. When you go back and read what others say after you've studied a passage, you may see things that you missed, but it is also possible that you've seen things the other person has missed.

  11. Apply it. This is very important. James says that someone who gets a message from God, but doesn't put it into practice, is like someone who looks at himself in the mirror and then walks away and forgets what he looks like. While there are some of us who might LIKE to forget what we look like, this is clearly a dysfunctional thing. Studying the Bible should never be a purely academic exercise. No matter how geeky some parts of the process may feel, the whole point is to hear what God is saying to US!

And that is how I do it. I'm sure there are other useful ways to study the Bible. You can study an entire book, you can study a particular theme throughout the Bible, and there must be other cool study techniques that I'm forgetting. The thing is, studying a verse or passage of the Bible is something I think of as a basic building block. If I were going to study a book of the Bible, I would probably end up focusing in-depth on various critical passages in that book. If I were studying a word or theme, I would choose some passages that were crucial to understanding the word and dive into them using the above method.

Most of all, I would steal the old Nike slogan and say, "Just do it." When God gave us the Bible, he gave us a phenomenal treasure. Don't let laziness or insecurity hold you back from jumping in and studying it for yourself. Will you always get everything 100% right? Of course not. Join the club. But you will be much better for having grappled with the scriptures yourself. They will comfort you, and they will cut you like a sword, and you will be a different person than you would have been. That's a good thing.