Saturday, January 12, 2008

How To Understand and Study Scripture

Many Christians study Scripture without ever having developed proper Bible study habits. Some people mistakenly believe that Scripture can be instructive but not always authoritative. Others, not shackling their faith with the weight of unbelief, nevertheless hinder their own spiritual growth by applying Scripture without first understanding it. It is this error in particular that I will address today.

The Bible itself helps us in our understanding of it. In 1 Timothy 4:13 (NASB), the apostle Paul instructs Timothy with these words: "Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching." This verse gives us three clear principles that must be a part of our Bible study habits.

Step 1: Observation = "reading". Observation answers the question, "What does this passage say?" Many Christians who face difficulties only open their Bibles when all else has failed. (In fact, one reason Christians today face so many difficulties is because they have failed to avail themselves of the wisdom of God's Word prior to problems arising.) Scripture should be our first source of instruction, not our last.

Moreover, when we read God's Word, we must accept it for what it says. It is both intellectually dishonest and self-deceiving to read our preconceived ideas into Scripture. We must never allow our fear of having our beliefs or traditions challenged keep us from observing what the Bible says. As the very Word of God, it is truth, and it stands on the authority of God Himself.

Step 2: Interpretation = "teaching". Interpretation answers the question, "What does this passage mean?" This is the step skipped most often. On numerous occasions I have often observed Christians read God's Word and then immediately apply it to their own lives without even considering that the passage has a meaning independent of their circumstances. The result is a game of spiritual gymnastics. The problem is that if you don't know what a passage means, how can you know how it applies to you?

Every verse and passage of Scripture has a singular meaning, even if that meaning has levels of depth not readily apparent to everyone. To understand a passage best, we must make a good effort to understand its historical and grammatical context.

John MacArthur, in his excellent brief book How To Study the Bible, lists four principles that are foundational to interpreting Scripture:
  • The literal principle - In the formation of Scripture, God used normal speech to communicate to us in a normal way. You should understand Scripture in its literal, normal, natural sense. Figures of speech should be understood as such, and apocalyptic language should be understood as figurative, even though there is a literal truth that is being conveyed.
  • The historical principle - The Bible was written in a historical context. To arrive at your best understanding of a passage of Scripture, try to determine what it meant to the people for whom it was written. A good study Bible or commentary can assist you in this.
  • The grammatical principle - Even without a working knowledge of Greek or Hebrew (the main original languages in which the Bible was written), you can usually determine the grammar of a sentence. A key to understanding Scripture is to determine as much as you can about the verbs, nouns, pronouns, and prepositions.
  • The synthesis principle - Foundational to understanding Scripture is this truth: The Bible never contradicts itself. When properly understood, one passage of the Bible doesn't teach something contrary to what another passage teaches. Since "all Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16), and since God's nature is wholly consistent, then so is His Word. What may appear as contradictions in Scripture can be resolved if we have all the information.
Step 3: Application = "exhortation". Application answers the question, "How does this passage affect my life?" This question should not be asked until you first engage in observation and interpretation. Otherwise, you may end up like the Christian who randomly flipped his Bible open to the page that read, "Judas hanged himself." So the Christian randomly turned to another passage that read, "Go and do likewise."

The application of God's Word to your life is crucial. Scripture is not properly understood unless it is applied. Remember, God saved you not just so you could gain Bible information, but so you could experience life transformation. He transforms your life through His Word. So read it, memorize it, meditate on it, and teach it to others. Let the Word of God fill your mind.

Here are a few resources that may assist you in studying God's Word:
May your love of God's Word grow each day.