Thursday, February 26, 2015

How to Study the Bible

Somebody once asked me how I write my sermons. My impression was not that this person was asking about the actual writing process but the way I string together the ideas. One answer is simply that this is the way my mind works. I have always been a mental magpie, plucking bits of wisdom from wherever I spot them—a proverb, a line in a comic book, a news story on NPR, a pop culture trope—bringing them back to my nest and arranging them in some coherent pattern. Formally, you could call it inductive reasoning, bringing together various observations or pieces of data and deriving a general principle from them.

In most cases it starts with scripture. I read the lectionary texts for a particular day, often in more than 1 translation; I take note of what words, phrases, ideas or questions leap out at me; I look up any interesting Greek or Hebrew words; I read commentaries; I mull them over and look for parallels in other sources, in my personal experience or in the experience of others. Then I organize and write it, verifying facts and quotes and honing the language and the logical and psychological reasoning that connects it all.

But I'm not going to be doing that for these Lenten midweek services. That is, I'll do the research and the mulling but we are going to be doing a series of Bible studies prepared by the Florida-Bahamas Synod. The purpose is to encourage and come up with ideas for local churches to do missions in their area. And the way we are going to do this is by inductive Bible study.

The simplest form of inductive Bible study is to break it down into 3 steps: observation, interpretation and application. First you observe what the Bible says in a passage. Then you interpret it. And finally you apply it to your life—if appropriate. Some passages of scripture are prescriptive. They tell us what to do or give us an example to emulate or adapt to our circumstances. Other times a passage is descriptive. It's a bit of history or background details. Or it might be a bad example for us to avoid, like the actions of Lot and his family. You can regard it as a cautionary tale or just another instance of sin.

That's one big reason why it's important to look at the context of a verse or passage. People are forever taking Bible verses out of context and then twisting the interpretation to justify their opinions or desires. But context can be crucial. Let's say in a story a woman walks in on a man and says, “What are you doing?” To really understand her question, it's vital to know whether the man is scattering rose petals on their bed or standing over a dead body. So context is key to understanding.

We are going to use a passage from Mark. Normally I would look at the whole chapter or even the chapters before and after the passage in question, just to make sure I knew the context. In this case, though, this is one in a series of confrontations in which Jesus' critics are lobbing religious questions at him hoping to trap him in some heresy. Read Mark 12:28-34.

What do you notice? Any words or phrases that jump out? Any interesting or surprising details? With a familiar passage I like to take note of what it actually says. And what it doesn't say. Ever read a passage you thought you knew and realized it was different than you remembered?

Now since we are doing a study of a core ethical idea I want you to read Luke's rather different version of this. This topic was quite a hot one in Jesus' time and it's possible that it got discussed often during Jesus' mission. Read Luke 10:25-37.

First look at it as if you had never read any version. What do you observe?

Now what differences do you see between this and Mark's version.

What does Jesus' parable reveal about his interpretation of the word “neighbor'?

The second step in inductive Bible study is interpretation. What does the second commandment mean? What principle can we derive from this passage?

So let's go to the original that Jesus is quoting. Read Leviticus 19:18.

What does neighbor seem to mean in that verse?

One last piece of data. Please read Leviticus 19:34.

Does that cast light on how Jesus sees verse 18?

This time we didn't have to venture outside scripture to interpret it. Read as a whole the Bible often comments on itself and leads us to better understanding of it. That's why it's good to constantly study the Bible.

The third step is application. How can we put what we've learned into practice? In the light of this passage how we should think about other people? How should we talk about or to them? How should be act toward them?

There are other ways of studying the Bible but this is a start. And there are lots of books and tools out there that will help you get a fuller and deeper understanding of scripture. One great website is Another is, There are even apps you can use on your phone. 

But the important thing is to first open yourself to God's Spirit. Without the Spirit, people try to read their own ideas into the Bible. But the proper way to read scriptures is to get yourself, your desires and your fears out of the way and listen to what the Spirit is saying to God's people. 

And remember, the center of the Bible is the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Not rules, not theology, not intellectual arguments, not denominations, not your pet idea of God but God himself. Just as no commandment is greater than the two commandments to love that Jesus cited, so nothing in the Bible is more important than the God who is love. He is the lens through which we see the Bible and indeed all of life.    

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