There are three basic parts to bible study: observation, interpretation, and application. In other words, when we read a passage, we should ask: What does it say (observation)? What does it mean (interpretation)? What difference does it make in my life (application)? Understanding what the Bible means and how it applies to our lives is often not as simple as it sounds, so here are four tips to help you as you strive to better understand the Bible.
1. Clothe Yourself in Humility
If someone comes up to me and says, “Wes, I need to tell you about something your son did,” I’m already biased about whatever they are going to say. I cannot be completely objective when it comes to my sons. But in humility, I can recognize my bias and determine that I will not let my bias get in the way of hearing and understanding what is being said.
We need to do the same when it comes to reading the Bible. We need to recognize that we are all biased. None of us are completely objective. We must determine, therefore, not to let our biases cloud our judgement. We need to be aware of things like these:
Cultural Baggage – When I read the text, I need to admit to myself that my culture often clouds my judgement. I need to strive to put my cultural biases aside and try to read the text like the original audience, rather than a twenty-first century American. It is going to take a lot of humility to say, “My way of seeing the world is not the only way to see the world.” And ask, “Am I limiting what this text can mean because I’m viewing it through modern eyes?”
Familiarity and Pre-Understanding: When we read the Bible, most of us are already familiar with many of the biblical characters, themes, concepts, words, and ideas. This can be great and it can also present a challenge. If we are are going to grow in our understanding, we must admit that we might have the wrong understanding about certain things in the Bible. We have to try to approach the Bible, each time, with fresh eyes. We have to ask, “If this was the first time I was reading this, what would I think this means?”
Agenda: We often have an agenda when we approach Scripture. We are trying to prove a point or answer a question. The problem is, we may not be asking the same questions the original audience was asking. We need to be aware of our agenda. We need to ask ourselves, “Is this passage really addressing the issue I have or the question I am asking? Am I really being fair with this passage?”
2. Understand the Context
Understanding what a passage of Scripture means has so much to do with the context. If you take a verse out of its context, it can seem to mean any number of things. However, when you consider it in its original context, it means what the author intended for it to mean.
Cultural/Historical Context – The first part of the context is determining what was going on in that time and place. We have to try to determine what this passage meant to the person who was writing it and the people who were first reading it. We have to ask ourselves, “Would this interpretation make sense to those people?” We aren’t trying to be historians or scholars, but we are trying to make sure our understanding fits the cultural and historical context.
Literary Context – The other part of context is understanding what comes before and after this passage. First of all, what genre of literature is it? Every genre has its own rules for interpretation. Poetry, historical narratives, letters, prophecies, all have to be interpreted according to their type of literature. And we also have to take into consideration what the author was talking about in that particular book and in that particular paragraph. Ask yourself, “Does this interpretation fit the context?”
3. Follow the Author’s Train of Thought
One good thing to do is outline the book. You need to understand where the story or the argument is headed. If you can’t understand the author’s train of thought, you probably don’t really understand what the passage means. Before you quote a verse to prove a point, ask yourself, “Do I understand what the author was talking about in that book of the Bible? Do I understand how his argument was progressing and what point he was trying to prove to his audience?”
4. Check Your Conclusions
Using a commentary – or asking a respected Christian friend for his or her thoughts – is an important step. You don’t want to cheat yourself out of the joy of discovering what a passage means on your own, but you also want to be careful that you are arriving at good conclusions. If you read and interpret the Bible in isolation, you forfeit the benefits of other people’s study and understanding.
You might not understand the full implications of your interpretation until you check your conclusions with someone else. And if you’re the only person who has ever interpreted a passage in a particular way, you are most certainly mistaken. Christians have been studying the Bible for a couple of thousand years; we need to learn from one anther.
If we are going to apply the Bible to our lives, we must first understand what it means. And if we are going to understand what the Bible means, we must do the hard work of interpretation. Hopefully these tips help you on that journey.
I love you and God loves you,