Once again, the pastor has given you a challenge during his sermon to spend time in God’s Word. You know you should, but when he brings it up, there is a twinge of guilt in your mind because you aren’t even sure when the last time was that you opened your Bible outside of a church setting. But you know the pastor is right, so you commit to reading your Bible every morning before you go to work this week. When Monday rolls around you grab your Bible, and a healthy dose of caffeine to get your theological juices flowing. Maybe the rest of your family is still asleep, it is peaceful, quiet, and the perfect time to spend some much-needed time with the Lord. Your motivation is there, and you are excited to hear what God has for you. The only problem is now you are faced with what many find to be an extremely intimidating task, because now that the moment has come, you have no idea where to start or what to do next.
WHERE DO YOU BEGIN?
Now that God is beginning to give the desire to spend time in His Word, what are you supposed to do now? This was the question that plagued me for many years of hearing pastors declare during their sermon that I really need to spend time reading my Bible. But while everybody else seemed to be coming away from their Bible study time with deep insights to apply to their life, I seemed to come away with confusion. Why am I reading about all these animal sacrifices? Why did I just spend all that time reading a genealogy listing who was the father of who? And what is with the Bible mentioning something like circumcision all the time? Ironically, those are exactly the things we need to be asking as we read Scripture, but we often feel ashamed for having questions so we never go to find the answers.
This leaves you remaining in confusion as to what the Bible is talking about most of the time, and feeling that maybe other people are just smarter or somehow more spiritual than you are. But there are actually some intentional steps you can take every time you sit down to study the Bible to help ensure you are properly understanding the text. While there will always be a time and a place for deep study and intentionally walking through these steps, you will find the more you use these, the more your mind will naturally just start asking these questions as you read.
1. What is the Context?
The very first thing you always want to do when you want to understand a particular text, is to gather as much information about the context and the background of the verses as you can. Ask questions like: who is the author? who are they writing to? is this to Israel in the Old Testament or the Church in the New Testament? Begin with these broad questions, then move closer and examine the surrounding verses to see how your section fits into the context of the entire book; does the author have a flow of argument to make a point? Take another step and begin to make observations about specific words and phrases to discover the subjects, the verbs, and the flow of thought. In essence, make as many observations as possible and seriously dig into the text. Once you have done this, you should be able to understand the meaning of the text for the original audience. Do not move to application too quickly; first understand what it meant for the people the book was originally written to. When we move to application too quickly, we run the danger of claiming promises that were never meant for us. Do not fall into the trap of asking yourself, ‘what does this text mean to me?’, but realize that the text had a specific meaning to the original audience, and you need to discover what that is before you can move forward to application.
2. What is the Principle?
Now that you have gathered all of your information and understand what the text meant for the original audience, you can discover what the general principle is that should be taken away. This is dependent upon several factors, and recognizing that it may be more difficult to discover the principle in something written to the nation of Israel, compared to something written directly to the church in the New Testament. In other words, the chasm that separates us from the church two-thousand years ago, is still significantly more narrow than the one that separates us from the nation of Israel in the old covenant. None the less, we know that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This means it is important for us to study from Genesis to Revelation, and discover what God has for us today. But once we think we have discovered the principle from our text, it is important to run it through the rest of Scripture to make sure you didn’t come up with a principle that is contrary to what is taught throughout the rest of the Bible. Scripture should interpret Scripture, and the places where it is clear should help us understand the areas where it appears more muddy.
3. What is the Application?
Once you have understood the text in its original context, and extracted the theological principle that aligns with the rest of Scripture, you can now move to applying the principle in your own walk with Christ. When we understand the principle we are meant to take away from the text, then application itself becomes much more personal to our situation. The principle you discovered may tell you something about the character of God, for instance that He is faithful. This means in your own life that if you are in Christ, you should see God as faithful to fulfill his promises to his children. Such as the fact that he has promised nothing will be able to snatch you out of his hand (John 10:28). So you may have discovered in Genesis 21 that God was faithful to fulfill his promises to Abraham and this reveals part of his character. Now we can look at the promises he has made to us as part of his church in the New Testament, and ask how that then applies to our walk with Him today.
A FUN NEW WORD
You have now taken your first steps in learning what is called Biblical Hermeneutics; a fancy term that in essence describes the art and science of rightly interpreting and understanding Scripture. Once you begin to take the time to ask intentional questions as you study God’s Word, the more it will come alive and you will see how all of Scripture fits together with Jesus at the center of the entire biblical narrative. Just as you would not want somebody to take something out of context from a letter you had written, so we should show even more respect to the Bible itself. Context matters, and once we recognize that, discover the principle we are meant to take away, then we can apply it to your own life.