“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15, ESV)
“He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9, ESV)
“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3, ESV)
“You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.” (Deuteronomy 11:18-21, ESV)
This is the third post in my series on the Bible as a means of spiritual discipline. In the other two posts, I have discussed reading the Bible in daily private worship, meditating on the Scriptures, and the memorization of Scripture. In this last post, I will highlight some of the techniques used to properly study and exegete the Bible. Given that entire books and theologian’s careers have been based on this topic, my discussion will have to be brief and will likely only scratch the surface. However, I hope that this will help to shine light on the methods that approach the Scriptures with the utmost of reverence and submission to their authority.
1. Approach Scripture for what it is
The Holy Scriptures are the Word of God given by the revelation of the Holy Spirit through the prophets and apostles. We must approach it as nothing less. In this Holy Word are contained all of the perfect treasure of divine revelation. To take the Word of God flippantly or irreverently is at best foolish and at worst damnable blasphemy. We must therefore approach the Word with reverence and obedience. It becomes the plumb bob, the level, try square, and drawing compass for our doctrines and our lives.
2. Pray before and after reading
Believers in Jesus Christ have a unique gift to be able to speak directly with the Author of the Scriptures. He who inspired the prophets and apostles indwells us and opens our eyes to understand the Word. Approaching God in humility and asking for wisdom and discernment from his bounty of grace is essential. We must always remember that we are beholden to God for the least of His graces, and from His Hand they still flow to us in our need. Confessing sin and asking for sanctification can also remove roadblocks to our comprehension of the Word. In all of this, remember that this is no magic formula to compel God to open our eyes our increase our understanding. He is no errand boy to be ordered about by our whims. Rather, we are His servants and submit to His eternal, immutable, sovereign will.
3. Understand immediate and universal context
Every passage has its place within the immediate context of its book, and each passage has its place within the universal of context of Scripture’s overarching narrative of God’s work of redeeming the covenant people whom He purchased for himself. Scripture does not contradict itself. To make sense of any one passage of Scripture, we must understand its place in God’s grand work of redemption.
4. Understand the genre of the passage
While the Bible is one book with one central theme and in no way contradicts itself, the genres of Scripture are remarkably diverse. Within it we find narratives, letters, poems, proverbs, genealogies, law codes, and prophecies. It is important to note that genre has no bearing on the truthfulness of a passage. All Scripture is trustworthy and true. Genre has no bearing on that. It does, however, influence methods of interpretation. For example, epistles and narratives require very little reading between the lines. However, poetry can use a great deal of figurative language, and prophecy can be particularly difficult to interpret because of its unusually unique idioms and symbolic language.
5. Understand the grammatical structure of the passage
Words have meaning. That meaning is governed by the rules of grammar. If possible, understand the passage in the original language. If (like me) you know little to no Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the best substitutes for this ignorance is to do word studies using a resource like Strong’s numbers and reading the passage in as many translations as possible. Diagram the sentences as best possible to understand the structure of clauses and phrases. Observe subject-verb-object relationships. Pay close attention to tenses, moods, and voices of verbs. After collecting this information, organize it into an overall diagram or outline of passage to illustrate connected ideas.
6. Understand the historical context of the passage
The events of Scripture did not take place in the 21st Century. There are significant historical details that make Scripture much more understandable. When studying a passage, try to understand the other events occurring alongside it. For example, knowing that Roman soldiers had the right to force any person to carry their gear for one Roman mile greatly enhances an understanding of Matthew 5:41. Good historical sources are a handy resource for increasing understanding of the historical context.
7. Understand the geographical context
In the same way that the events of Scripture did not occur in the Modern Era, so too they did not occur in the United States. Understanding a geographical context can change the way that we understand a passage of Scripture. For example, when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery near Dothan, they were most likely on the edge of the Jezreel valley where a major trade route joined Mesopotamia to Egypt. It was therefore no surprise that Ishmaelites were traveling in caravans to Egypt. Another example is the order of the churches listed in Revelation. The order follows the most common route that one would take traveling from the island of Patmos.
8. Make sound application
Application is the bridge from the meaning of the text to the practical belief and practice of Christians in the world today. Bridging the gap requires an understanding of the universal truth contained within the passage and the relevance of the passage. Sometimes bridging that gap is easy. Romans 3:23 communicates a universal truth with such clarity that its application is obvious. The conclusion is that we are all sinners and do not conform to God’s glory. Colossians 3:22-25 details the obedience that slaves were to give to their masters. The original direct application of this passage is lost today in a largely post-slavery world. However, the universal truth of the passage communicates that it is the duty of a Christian to submit to authority even under the most unsavory of conditions. If this holds true for a slave serving a master, then how much more does it hold true of an employee serving an employer!
Looking back, this post could have very easily been several posts. Each one of the sub-points could be its own post. My hope is that this at least gets you started with study of the Bible. I should say that one final point is that one of the best ways to get in the habit of studying is to teach. There is a quote from Richard Bach that says, “You teach best what you most need to learn.” Teaching goads us on to study more.
While this is the last post in the practical Bible usage series, it is not the last post relating to personal godliness. I hope to begin a series on prayer soon. Until then, keep on reforming according to the Word of God.