As a Christian, it is good for us to desire the pure milk of the word. If you are a new believer, or even if you have been a believer for a while, it isn’t uncommon for Christians to have questions about how they should study the Bible. There are many articles out there that give some very generic information on how to study the Bible, and there are yet more that flatly get it wrong. The goal of this article is to be helpful, without being too complicated, or too simple. Hopefully it will be just the right combination for most of you.
If you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, you are blessed with a teacher who will lead you into truth. (1 John 2:27) This isn’t to say you shouldn’t learn from Christians who came before. The same Holy Spirit who indwelt them, indwells you. He teaches them the same truth, and since they already lived, and learned, we can glean some hard-won understanding from reading their works. Equipped with the Holy Spirit, your next consideration should be prayer. Pray for God to make Himself known to you by the study of His word and the power of His Spirit. Obviously, you’ll need a Bible, and a place to study. It also helps to have some way to take notes, and some reference materials, like a concordance, dictionary, and some commentaries. You can get many of these materials online for free on certain web sites, or as apps for your tablet or smart phone.
The next step is to have a plan, whether it is for a short-term word study, topical study, or long-term in-depth study of the entire Bible. I’m the type of person who reads slowly. I study while I read. Other people who read much faster do a study that is separate from their daily reading. If you are reading along, and not paying close attention you can find yourself many pages into a section with no recollection or understanding of what you just read.
You’ve got your materials, your plan, a place and time set aside to study, and you’ve prayed, now what? Time to consider some hermeneutical ideas before diving in. These are things you’ll have to remember to employ while you study, or you could come up with meanings to the scriptures that God, the author did not intend. It is imperative that we don’t approach the word of God irreverently, or eisegetically. We should come seeking the truth, not to bolster an argument for our own position.
I have two fancy words for you, “exegesis, and eisegesis.” Exegesis is when you read the Bible and allow it to inform your understanding. The meaning of the scriptures, and the intent of the author are brought out of the text through faithful study. Eisegesis is when you come to the text with a preconceived notion and read it into the text. You may have seen some false teachers do this. They will cherry pick a few verses out of context, arrange them in a way that seems to make them say what they want them to say. If you aren’t armed with the truth, you might fall for this trick. This is another good reason to understand how to study the Bible.
While focusing on the hermeneutical concept of exegesis we must also consider who the author is writing to, what language is being used, what idioms of that language are being employed, when the audience lived, where they lived, what their culture was like, what relationship the author had with the audience, what type of literature the writing is,(e.g. poetry, historical narrative, songs, prescriptive, prophetic, apocalyptic, epistles/letters, allegory, and wisdom/proverbial language to name some.) grammatical rules, transmission of the text to man by God, modern applications for the individual Christian, and the Church, and finally context, context, context!
Context is key. The meanings you come to by analyzing a verse must fit with the verses surrounding them, and the sections of scripture that speak to those topics in the rest of the Bible. They must also fit with the entire message of God’s word in toto.
I know all of that sounds daunting, but it really is worth the time, and effort to consider these things when you are studying. Since God as the author intended for us to understand His word, and by His Spirit has made it understandable to us, we can, and should read it in its literal sense most of the time. As you mature in faith, and become more familiar with scriptures, much of those aspects will become self-evident, and you’ll find yourself checking a couple of them to get the point of a difficult passage.
With all of that in mind you can follow along as we examine some small passages of scripture. First let’s examine Genesis 11:31-32, “31Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to enter the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran, and settled there. 32The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.”
Fortunately for us, modern Bible translations move the words around in the sentence to fit modern English grammar. Otherwise we would need to know the Biblical languages to figure out what is going on. With a simple plain reading of verse 31 we can tell who the object, and subject are, and what the verb is. If you had already read the Bible from the beginning to this point you wouldn’t already know that Moses was the prophet and patriarch whom God used to give us these scriptures, and that the Old testament is mostly ancient Hebrew with a small section in Aramaic. At this point the word of God was passed on verbally and had yet been written down. It wouldn’t be until later in the book of Exodus we would read that Moses was told to compile and write down the first five books of the Bible. This is where some of those resources come in handy that I mentioned earlier. You could use a commentary, and Bible history book, to help you out.
The direct object is, “Terah.” The verb is, “took.” The subject is, “Abram.” From the grammar, and a plain reading of the verse we know that Terah took Abram from Ur to Canaan. We also know that Abram was the son of Terah. We can check this by looking at the genealogy that was in the preceding verses. From those same verses we know that Haran is also a son of Terah, and a brother of Abram. We also know that Lot is Terah’s grandson by Haran, and that Terah took Lot with him, when he took Abram. We know that Sarai was Abram’s wife, and Terah’s daughter-in-law, and that she also went with them. The town, “Haran” as translated in English looks like Abram’s brother’s name, “Haran.” By using a concordance and a Hebrew dictionary we can find out that these two proper names are not the same. Haran the son of Terah and Abram’s brother is spelled, “הָרָן֙” in Hebrew. Whereas the town’s name is, “חָרָ֖ן” Haran, Abram’s brother means, “mountaineer” in Hebrew. It is pronounced, “haw-Rawn” Haran the place means, “crossroads” and is pronounced, “cha-ran.” If we pick up where we left off the scripture says v31b, “;and they went as far as Haran, and settled there.” We know the, “they” refers to the group that was traveling with Terah. We also know they finally stopped at the town, “Haran” and settled there. The literal and plain meaning of the text is what we needed here in this historical narrative. With a little help from grammar, the original language, a concordance, Biblical history book, commentary, and a concordance we have it made. “32 The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.” The days of who? Terah. What about those days? Were they actually talking about literal days, or were they talking about how long he lived? From our knowledge of the idioms we know that the narrative is about how long he lived, not the actual days of his life. It is a figure of speech. We can see that he lived 205 years. We also read that at the end of those days, Terah died, and that it happened in Haran.
Even though this was only two verses, you can see that it can quickly become quite complicated and involved if you are straining for understanding but worry not! Your mind can do most of this on the fly, and quite quickly. You might not even recognize that you are doing it.
For our next example let’s look at 1 Timothy 5:17-18, “17 The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”” Even with no context we can see what is meant regarding the elders and their keep. This is due to the explanation in the form of a quote from the Old Testament and what follows immediately after. We also have added scriptural context from 1 Corinthians 9:9-14, “9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? 10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. 11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. 13 Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar? 14 So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.”
You can see how additional context helped to understand the quote from the old Testament in the way that it was intended. After reading the quote from Deuteronomy a person might think that Paul is quoting the passage out of context. If you do think that, you should go read Justin Taylor’s article which quotes some other people’s work, and a couple of commentaries. (Read the article here) I think after consulting it you will come to agree with the author’s perspective that the ox was loaned or rented to the man to process grain, and as it was another man’s property he should not abuse it for his own gain. Paul is saying that he and other elders like him are the, “oxen of the Lord” if you will, and they should not be mistreated. With other men’s works, and commentaries, it is important to examine them carefully. Their interpretation may not be the best one. Examine their reasoning, and the context of their arguments and conclusions to see what you think is the truest. I happen to agree with Justin Taylor. I think in context to the entirety of scripture, and what we know from it about the created order this explanation makes the most sense.
You’ll notice this time we used a text with a quote from the Old Testament. It was from one of the Pastoral Epistles, but due to the quote we had to look at the broader context of scripture and examine 1 Corinthians, as well as Deuteronomy. The main text we were exegeting is prescriptive/instructional. You’ll also notice that we were doing a Bible study, but hopefully you could see that the same process would be used for a topical study, or a word study.
With a word study you would want to use a concordance and see how many different Greek, and Hebrew words were translated as the English word you are using, and how many times the specific word you are studying was used in the Bible, and what it meant most of those times, being careful to employ the hermeneutical principles mentioned earlier to determine what the intent of the author was to communicate.
I hope that this brief primer on how to study the Bible was helpful, and easy to follow. The word of God is our food. It is the mind of God for us to know Him by. It is how the sovereign God chose to explain Himself to us. It is entirely about Him. We can see Jesus in every book and chapter. We can preach the gospel of Christ out of every book. He is the central theme, not us. God bless you in your efforts to know Him better by His word.