The Apostle Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy, “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). Later in the same letter, he affirmed his own careful study with a request: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). Even though Paul was an old man approaching his death, he intended to continue studying Scripture to his dying day.
It is extraordinarily rare for a holy book to call for careful, rational examination of its own teachings to see if they are consistent with revealed truth. Nothing in the Qur’an, for example, says, “Check this out for yourself to see if the Prophet Mohammad was correct.” In fact, Mohammad himself was told to consult the “people of the Book” (Christians and Jews) if he doubted that the message he was receiving from the angel Gabriel was correct. 1 Why? Because Christians and Jews had diligently studied the Bible (though, the Qur’an claims, to little effect). 2 As for itself, the message of the Qur’an is much like the books of other religious worldviews: “Here it is, take it or leave it.” 3
The Bible promises several benefits to those who carefully examine it:
- Insight into how to bear spiritual fruit. See Galatians 5:22-34.
- Freedom from spiritual bondage. See 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:2.
- Direction in life. See Proverbs 3:5-6.
- The ability to grasp truth and defeat error. See 2 Corinthians 10:4-5.
The Bible calls for careful examination because it is revelation from God. “Revelation” means to make known something that was previously unknown. The Hebrew word (galah) and the Greek word (apokalupto) “express the idea of uncovering what was concealed.” 4 As Gordon R. Lewis wrote, “Revelation is an activity of the invisible, living God making known to finite and sinful people His creative power, moral standards, and gracious redemptive plan.” 5
How can we best study and understand God’s revelation in Scripture? Consider these 10 steps:
Step #1: Commit to reading the Bible and studying it. One common mistake people make when learning about the Bible is to assume that what pastors and commentators say about the Bible should be given place over their own personal study of it. Take the time to really read the Bible. No one is setting a stop watch or an alarm clock. At whatever time, in whatever place is most conducive for you to read — do it. You can’t get in shape by playing around in a gym. Nor can you grasp the Bible just by reading about it. You have to get into the text in a serious way.
Step #2: Read the Bible in context. Never content yourself with reading a single Bible verse. Instead, read it in context and learn how the verse fits into the paragraph, how the paragraph fits into the chapter, how the chapter fits into the book, and how the book fits into the Bible as a whole. 6 A good foreign language interpreter does not insert his own meaning into what is being said, or render only what he thinks should have been said. Instead, he renders his source as faithfully as he can. This is what we must do when understanding Scripture.
Step #3: Choose a translation. It is important to begin your study of God’s Word with a solid translation reflecting the realities of the original ancient texts. Online Bible programs such as www.biblegateway.com offer several translations at the click of a mouse, and www.bible.cc shows various translations side by side. With these tools, you can compare several versions at once. If you have the opportunity to pick out a Bible, look for one called a “Study Bible,” such as the English Standard Version (ESV) Study Bible published by Crossway Publishers.
Step #4: Understand the genre. Next, to understand a specific Bible passage, identify the genre in which it is written. The primary genres are the Old Testament narratives, the Old Testament law, the prophets, the psalms, the “writings” (wisdom literature), the gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, epistles (“letters”), and apocalyptic literature (Revelation). The genre is important. Graeme Goldsworthy says, “The issue is not that of giving a piece of text a precise name of genre identification, but rather that of understanding the variety of ways that literature can be used to communicate.” 7
Step #5: Understand the context. By “context” we mean the historical and literary basis for a text. Historical context refers to “the time and culture of the author and his readers, that is the geographical, topographical, and political factors that are relevant to the author’s setting; and the occasion of the book, letter, psalm, prophetic oracle, or other genre.” 8 Two questions to ask are, “What occasioned the writing?” and “What is the purpose of the writing?” 9
Step #6: Understand the content. “‘Content’ has to do with the meanings of words, the grammatical relationships in sentences, and the choice of the original text where the manuscripts have variant readings,” say Fee and Stuart. “It also includes a number of the items [such as] the meaning of denarius, or a Sabbath day’s journey, or ‘high places,’ etc.” 10 One helpful tool in understanding both the context and the content of Scripture is called a commentary. Commentaries are books written by theologians to help people better understand Scripture, passage by passage.
Step #7: Look for relationships. Matthew 4:1-4 (ESV) describes Jesus being led into the wilderness and tempted by the devil. The text says, “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’ To understand what Jesus was saying, we need to look at the Old Testament passage Jesus was quoting: Deuteronomy chapter 8, where Moses gave instruction to the children of Israel in the wilderness.
Step #8: Study words. Because the Bible is a unified whole, we might expect words and concepts to be woven throughout in the way individual threads weave throughout a tapestry to create a meaningful picture. To get started with a word study, type the word you’re studying into a Bible program, write down each occurrence, and study them one by one in the context in which they occur.
Step #9: Bring your experience to bear. After we have done the hard work in steps 1 through 8, we are often invited to bring our experiences to bear by the Bible’s use of examples from everyday life. When the Psalmist tells us that he hides in the shadow of God’s wings, people who know something about chickens are invited to picture the way a mother hen shelters her chicks in times of danger.
Step #10: Courageously pursue a response. We are to be “doers” of the word, not hearers only (James 1:22). To hear God’s Word and do nothing about it is to deceive ourselves into thinking we are free to do nothing. Here are three actions to pursue:
- Journal. It’s great to get “off-line” for a bit and actually write things down that we can refer to for the rest of our lives and that might even be of spiritual benefit to those who come after us.
- Share. Talk to people. “May I share with you something I learned from scripture today? It would help me if I could talk about it aloud.”
- Live. God’s Word is powerful, and often God meets us with specific promptings about how we should live differently. Jesus said in John 13:17 (ESV), “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” To not do them is to not know them.
- See the Qur’an, Suras 10:94, 16:43, and 21:7.
- See, for example, Qur’an, Sura 2:40-44 and 2:121.
- See the Qur’an, Sura 2, in its entirety for insight into how the Qur’an is to be believed and not questioned.
- Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), p. 201.
- The Apologetics Study Bible, ed. J.P. Moreland, Paul Copan, and Ted Cabal (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), p. 1823.
- Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), pp. 17-18.
- Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012), p. 51.
- Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), p. 26.
- Ibid., p. 27.
- Ibid., p. 28.