Jeanne and I were vacationing on the West Coast a number of years ago with our son and my coauthor, Bill, just after he had graduated from college. We had a friend there who owned a plane, and one day he asked if we wanted to fly with him out to Santa Catalina Island, off the coast. We accepted, and the next morning we were zooming down a runway, heading up into the skies over Orange County.
After we leveled off over the Pacific, our friend turned to Bill, who was riding copilot, and shouted over the whine of the engine, “How’d you like to try your hand at flying?”
Always one for adventure, Bill replied, “Sure.” He had never flown a plane in his life—but what difference did that make?
Our friend gave him some brief instruction in the art of flying—sort of a “crash course,” you might say. Then he handed over the controls, and Bill was in command. Things went along uneventfully as long as we flew straight ahead. But after a couple of minutes the pilot shouted, “Why don’t you try a turn.”
Bill banked to the left, and suddenly I felt a bit dizzy. A moment later our friend said, “OK, try the other way,” and the plane banked to the right. Now Jeanne and I both felt dizzy. We were quite relieved to see the pilot eventually rest his hand on the controls and level us off before taking over again.
“Not bad,” he shouted to Bill, who was smiling like a Top Gun. “We only dropped about a thousand feet.”
Obviously learning to fly takes a lot more than just handing the controls to someone and shouting, “Have fun.” It requires skills that take years to develop fully. Apart from that experience, you’re taking your life in your hands.
The study of God’s Word is no different. Learning to do it properly is a process that can’t happen overnight. Yet that’s exactly what we do with new Christ-followers when we tell them to get into the Scriptures, hand them a Bible, and expect them to take it from there. No wonder so many give up in frustration.
In this chapter I want to give an overview of the Bible study process. First, I want to define what method in Bible study involves. Then I’m going to show the big picture of where the method leads and where you’ll end up by following it.
Let’s begin with a definition. I define method in Bible study with three statements. First of all, Method is “methodicalness.” That is, it involves taking certain steps in a certain order to guarantee a certain result. Not just any steps; not just any order; not just any result.
The result governs everything. What is the product of methodical Bible study? What are you after? All along I’ve been saying that personal Bible study has a very specific aim—namely, life-change.
So, then, how will you get there? What process will lead to that result? I propose a three-step approach that will guarantee life change—three crucial steps carried out in a particular order.
In this step, you ask and answer the question, What do I see? The moment you come to the Scriptures you ask, What are the facts? You assume the role of a biblical detective, looking for clues. No detail is trivial. This leads to the second step.
Here you ask and answer the question, What does it mean? Your central quest is for meaning. Unfortunately, too much Bible study begins with interpretation, and furthermore, it usually ends there. But I’m going to show you that it does not begin there. Before you understand, you have to learn to see. Nor does it end there, because the third step is …
Here you ask and answer the question, How does it work? Not, Does it work? People say they’re going to make the Bible “relevant.” But if the Bible is not already relevant, nothing you or I do will help. The Bible is relevant because it is revealed. It’s always a return to reality. And for those who read it and heed it, it changes their lives.
So method is methodicalness. But let me add a second statement to the definition: Method is methodicalness, with a view to becoming receptive and reproductive.
Do you want to make an impact on your society? First the Scripture has to make an impact on you. It’s the analogy of the sperm and the egg. Neither the male sperm nor the female egg is capable of reproduction. Only when the sperm impacts and is embraced by the egg is there conception and reproduction.
So it is in the spiritual realm. When God’s Word and a receptive, obedient individual get together, watch out. That’s a combination that can transform society. And that’s what personal Bible study is designed to do—to transform your life, and as a result, transform your world.
A third statement completes our definition: Method is methodicalness, with a view to becoming receptive and reproductive, by means of firsthand acquaintance with the Word.
Once again, there’s nothing to beat prolonged personal exposure to the Bible. It’s vital. Without it, you’ll never be directly involved with what God has to say. You’ll always have to depend on an intermediary. Imagine dealing with your spouse on that basis. How long do you think your marriage would last? The same is true with God. There is no substitute for firsthand exposure to His Word.
Now that you know where you are going, take a closer look at how you are going to get there, at the process itself. Recall that the first step is Observation. That’s where you ask and answer the question, What do I see? In Observation, you’ll be looking for four things:
A term is more than just a word. It’s a key word that is crucial to what an author has to say because it unlocks meaning. For instance, in the gospel by John, the word believe appears no less than seventy-nine times, always as a verb and never as a noun. Do some investigation, and you’ll discover that John uses believe very purposefully. It’s a term that unlocks his meaning.
The same principle applies to every book in the Bible. Each one is filled with terms. You’ve got to learn to recognize terms and pay close attention to them, because they are the basic building blocks with which you construct meaning.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible is not a collection of random sayings and stories that somehow fell together, willy-nilly. Rather, it’s a library of carefully constructed books that display—to those who look for it—two basic kinds of structure.
First, there is grammatical structure. I can almost hear the groans: “Do we have to get back into that? I gave that up in seventh grade.” But if you want to learn how to study Scripture effectively, you must learn to read it with the grammar in mind. What is the subject of the sentence? What is the object? What is the main verb? The more you know about grammar, the more you can get out of a passage.
There is also literary structure. There are questions and answers. There is a climax and resolution. There is cause and effect. There are many other structuring devices. I’ll show you a variety of ways in which the authors have structured their works.
It’s amazing to me how people ignore genre when they come to the books of the Bible. They treat them all the same.
Yet there’s a vast difference between the Hebrew poetry of the Psalms and the tightly argued epistles of Paul; between the grand, sweeping narrative of Genesis and Exodus, and the simple, poignant stories of the parables. There is allegory and love poetry, satire and apocalyptic, comedy and tragedy, and much more. The Holy Spirit used each of these forms to communicate His message. So if you want to grasp that message, you must read each kind according to its proper “rules.” I’ll show you how to do that in later chapters.
Reading for atmosphere involves picking up the setting and feelings from the biblical text. What was it like to be in the author’s shoes? For instance, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Sounds good. But where was he? In the Ritz-Carlton? Not exactly. He was in a foul-smelling Roman prison. And life looks very different from behind bars.
You want to transport your senses into the passage. If there’s a sunset, see it. If there’s an odor, smell it. If there’s a cry of anguish, feel it. Are you studying the letter to the Ephesians? Then join the church at Ephesus, and listen to Paul as he goes down on his knees to pray (Ephesians 3:14–21). This is an exercise for the imagination, not just the intellect. So it doesn’t take professional training to recapture the atmosphere of a passage of Scripture.
Observation leads to the second step, Interpretation. Here you ask and answer the question, What does it mean? Remember, your central quest is for meaning. I want to suggest three things that will help you get the meaning of a passage of Scripture.
If you want to understand a biblical text, you’ve got to bombard it with questions. The Bible is never embarrassed to be asked questions. That doesn’t mean it will answer all of them. But you still need to ask them to determine if they can be answered. I’m going to give you a series of questions to lob at the text that will help you search for meaning.
Obviously, if you’re going to ask questions, you’ve also got to look for the answers. Where will you find them? In the text. Observation will give you the basic building blocks out of which you will construct the meaning of a passage. The answers to your questions will come directly from your observation process.
That is why I say, the more time you spend in observation, the less time you will need to spend in interpretation, and the more accurate will be your results. The less time you spend in observation, the more time you will need to spend in interpretation, and the less accurate will be your results.
Not only must you ask the text questions, not only must you look for answers, but finally you must put the answers together into a meaningful whole. Otherwise you end up with nothing but baskets of fragments.
One time I was asked to speak at a church. “Preach on anything you want,” they told me. “Except Ephesians.”
That seemed an odd request, until they explained why: “Our preacher has spent three years in Ephesians, and we’re just into the second chapter.”
I went out to lunch with some of these people, and I asked them, “What’s the theme of the book of Ephesians?”
They didn’t have a clue. They had all kinds of little details. But their pastor had never put all the data together into a meaningful whole. Result: despite three years of teaching, his congregation had never discovered the meaning of Ephesians.
Integration is the stage where you reconstruct the meaning of a passage after you’ve taken it apart to inspect the details.
Observation and Interpretation lead to the third step in the process, the crucial step of Application. In application you ask and answer the question, How does it work? Again, not does it work, but how does it work? There are two areas to consider.
That can be a very convicting question. As George, the adult Sunday school teacher, told us in chapter 1, it’s so easy to study the Bible and say, “Oh, wow! That’s just what my class needs. Man, I can hardly wait to get there and tell it to them.” But by taking that approach, it is possible to ignore the more personal question, What does this have to say to me? How would this work in my life? Because if it isn’t working in my life, then what authority do I have to share it with someone else? I have a credibility gap.
Of course, the Bible does have implications for others. And it is legitimate to ask, How would this transform their life? How would it affect their marriage and family? Their school life, if they are a student? Their occupation, if they are in the work world? How can I effectively communicate biblical truth to others? I’ll point out some ways to make application of the Scriptures to people in your sphere of influence.
That is an overview of where we are going and how we’re going to get there. Every time you come to a portion of God’s Word, approach it in terms of the big picture:
Observation: What do I see?
Interpretation: What does it mean?
Application: How does it work?
Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks, Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 44–45.