Monday, January 08, 2007

How to study the Bible (part 1)

Every so often, someone will ask me where I get my Biblical knowledge. Let me just say for the record that I don’t know jack about the Bible. I’m not a theologian. I haven't been formally trained in the Bible. At best, I'd say that I'm a novice. In fact, as one of my friends who I consider to be a theologian tells me, it takes an entire lifetime to learn the Bible. Even then, you still don't know much. Each time you read a passage in the Bible there’s something new to learn.

The truth is: I can’t quote scriptures, nor can I quickly reference particular passages in ordinary conversation. As a matter of fact, I’ve never even read the entire Bible (I’d say I’ve read about 45% of it, but that hardly counts as the whole thing). So, to that end, it’s reasonable to conclude that I’m far from being a Bible scholar. But I can – at least – offer some suggestions on how to study your Bible, at least how I do it. That’s a start, I guess.

**I admit, this piece got a little long. So rather than strain your eyes I'll go over this in multiple parts.**

The approach I take to studying the Bible isn’t much different than the approach I would take in studying for an exam in school. It involves pretty rudimentary steps that, if done efficiently, can improve study skills:

Knowing what's what
For starters, I think it’s important to know that there is a difference between reading the Bible and studying the Bible. Reading the Bible can be done in large blocks if so desired, like reading numerous chapters at a time. If you wanted to, you could probably read your Bible from start to finish in a few months. Studying the Bible, however, involves the reader to focus their attention on individual topics, verses, characters, or circumstances raised in particular sections. This process takes far more time than it would to simply read a verse. For example, consider the popular verse in Hebrews 11:1:

“Now faith is substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.”

It probably took you about four seconds to read that line. But if you were studying it, it would have probably taken you at least five to ten minutes to fully comprehend it. That involves taking time to dig deeper into the passage to see what it’s really trying to say. Doing so (at least for me) requires a chunk of uninterrupted time where you can focus on what you’re reading.

Being a “Biblical Detective”
I think that the most critical component of effectively studying the Bible is being investigative. As the student, you must be able to ask important questions as you read the text. As my former Sunday School teacher used to tell me, you need to turn yourself into a “Biblical Detective”. Look deeply for clues. Ask questions. “What is this passage saying?” “Does anything stand out in this verse?” “What don’t I understand about this verse?” “Are there any abnormalities in this passage of Scripture?”

For example, use the well-known discussion that Jesus had with the woman at the well; found in the fourth chapter of John:

(5) Then cometh he to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.
(6) Now Jacob's well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour.
(7) There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.
(8) (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)
(9) Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.
(10) Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.
(11) The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?
(12) Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?
(13) Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:
(14) But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

When reading this passage, some of the questions that come to mind include:

  • Does the time of day when this event happened matter?
  • What were the customs of that time?
  • Why did the disciples leave Jesus alone?
  • Is Jesus demanding the woman give Him water or is He asking?
  • Why don’t Samaritans and Jews deal with each other? What kind of history do they have?
  • What does Jesus mean by “living water”?
  • Was there any significance with the woman pointing out how deep the well is?
  • Why does the woman compare Jesus to Jacob?
  • Does Jesus seem rude to the woman?

I think you get the point…

It’s important to realize that there are no certain questions that you have to ask. Any questions you can come up with will be important to help you understand what you’re reading. But, to give you an idea on what types of general questions to ask, here a few my late pastor taught us to ask:

  • Who wrote the passage?
  • To whom was the passage written?
  • When was the passage written?
  • Why was the passage written? What issue or situation was being addressed?
  • Is there any background information pertinent to the passage?
  • What lessons can I learn from this passage?

There a dozens of questions you can ask yourself as you read. The whole point is for you to figure out what needs to be investigated. Only you can determine what you’d like to know.

Part 2 tomorrow...


9 "Insiders" spoke their mind. Join in...:

Joslyn said...

Great Point, Andre!

I feel the same way as you do on this. I used to "read the lesson" for Sunday School, just to say that I had read it. Thank God for good Sunday School teachers (and my Mom) who showed me that you have to actually "study" it.

*can't wait for part two*

Joanne said...

Nice post Andre. I'm always looking for new ways to look at the Bible. Its such an incredible and impactful piece of literature that it becomes important to know how to read it.

Thanks for this!

JJM said...

Conclusive evidence that you're the smartest person I know. Good way to dumb it down for me. You always were a good tutor/teacher.

Saved Sinner said...

Nice work Andre. Studying the Bible is important work; not to be taken lightly. Thanks for the great pointers. Stay blessed my friend.

Cynthia said...

Nice job Andre. I'm looking forward to Part 2. Now where's my popcorn?

Ellena said...

Outstanding post Andre. God's word is as full and rich as we could ever imagine!

green eyed girl on planet earth said...

Andre;My Green eyed handsome man.

I really enjoyed this post , as I have in the past asked , how you recall your Bible references , as I have read a great deal of the Bible ,its interpertation from person to person can be muddy. This is a great idea and very wonderful of you to help others with their understanding of Gods Word .I am in great anticipation of your part ll and wishing for part three as well. Again I rave your praises and

GodBless you Andre ,

Malik said...

I don't think you need scholarly training to have spiritual insight. All you need is sincerity and willingness to embrace to the truth. There's many an "ignorant" person whose knowledge of the truth far exceeds the knowledge of scholars and theologians.

Andre said...

@ Jos: I think that many people read the Bible just for the sake of reading it or to prove to the world how much they now. People like that completely miss the mark. Thanks!

@ Joanne: You're correct in saying that the Bible is powerful and impact book. People have been killed over its words and healed over its words. Its important to know how to wield and understand power like that; the power that comes with truth.

@ JJM: Smartest person you know? Not likely. But if that's the case, you need to raise your standards...cuz I'm far from it. Thanks, though.

@ Saved: Thanks Rob. Correct again. Studying God's word is a l-i-i-i-ittle different than studying a People's Magazine.

@ Cynthia: Thanks Cyn.

@ Ellena: As I always maintain, God is too inexhaustible for any of us to figure out. But we can inch our way a little closer day by day.

@ Greeny: I think you already know, but you're the inspiration behind this. You challenge me more than you realize. Thank you.

@ Malik: Couldn't agree more. If you think about it, even God habitually used the lower-educated, marginalized people to be His mouthpiece instead of the holier-than-thou, 'do no wrong' dceorated Bible thumpers.

The Bible, however, is explicit when it calls for us to know God in spirit AND in truth. Spirituality is fine, but a longing for truth is also required.