Bible study really is like digging for treasure. Sometimes it is harder to find than other times, but there is almost always something that will feel like a sparkly, colourful jewel.
Bible study is basically using the critical thinking skills of observation and evaluation to form a conclusion. Having a method to follow, helps to give a plan to Bible study and also prevents interpreting without considering the context, or coming up with applications without fully understanding what the passage is really saying, or forgetting to figure out how to apply to our lives what we have learned.
Critical thinking is “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment” (Google English Dictionary). To put it into practice we can use the observation stage to gather information; the evaluation stage to ask questions, answer questions, and work out the main points; and the conclusion is where we figure out how to put it all into practice in our lives.
If we think of Bible reading and study as God speaking to us, prayer or our speaking to God definitely plays a part. It helps us remember that Bible study is not primarily an academic activity – it is a spiritual activity. If we begin our study with a few words of prayer, it helps us remember that God is with us and speaking to us through His Word and in this way helps to prepare our minds. Our study of His word can also give us the words to pray especially in the Psalms, and it can help us see what we need to pray to God about, and what we need to ask for help with.
If you have trouble with prayer, it is often easier to start with the words of others. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he gave them a prayer to repeat, which can then eventually become more of a framework for your own prayer. Or you may find it helpful to use an acronym such as PART (Praise, Admit, Request, Thank) as a memory prompt. To see how you could use this in your prayers along with Bible study, you may find this article by Jen Wilkin helpful: How to Pray When You’re Struggling to Understand the Bible.
Once you have chosen where you wish to begin to study, start to build familiarity. Write out the passage by hand in a notebook. You could also print it out from a Bible program such as Blue Letter Bible so that you can mark it up. And then you want to read or listen to it often. The internet offers so many different options for listening to the word of God which make this easy. You can search for audio Bibles and find one that you like – many are free, and some you will have to pay for. Often you can also find passages of the Bible put to music. This is especially true of the Psalms. If you go to YouTube and type Psalm 1 into the search box, you will find a few music videos. Choose one that you like and play it often. The only difficulty is deciding which version to memorize since they may use different words.
1. Write it out by hand.
2. Divide it into natural sections if possible and give each a title.
3. Read it over every day.
4. Try to memorize it or at least part of it.
Now you are ready for observation. The basic reason for taking time to notice is so that we don’t take things out of context. A verse or word quoted on its own can quite often seem to have a very different meaning than if you put it in its own context. We can find this information in several different ways:
1. By reading a few chapters before and after, or the whole book if it is short;
2. The Bible Project gives very helpful overviews of every book of the Bible although there may be some places where you will encounter doctrinal differences.
3. Or you could consult a study aid that provides an introduction to each book of the Bible such as 66 Books of the Bible Study Guide by Norman Owen.
Here are some questions you could ask:
- Who wrote it? Who was it written for or to?
- What is it about? What is it’s purpose?
- When was it written? Is it speaking of past, present, future?
- Where was it written or taking place? Does it mention locations?
- How is written? Is it narrative, poetry, prophecy, a letter?
- Why was it written?
- Write a basic summary of the chapter.
If you like colouring, it can be a meditative exercise to colour in a few words or maybe even draw small pictures of what the passage you are studying is depicting. If you already do lots of Bible-marking, you may already have a colour code of some kind. If it is new to you, you may want to designate certain colours for broad topics – for example: blue for things relating to God and anything related to Him, His Son, and His Spirit; black for sin or evil; green for the blessed or righteous; yellow for commands, wisdom, or ways that please God; red for connecting words that help in understanding a passage; etc. You can use those colours in different ways – circling, boxing, highlighting, underlining, etc.
- Mark key words.
- Use marked words to make lists or charts.
- Pay attention to words such as therefore, but, like…
- Look up cross-references, notice Bible echoes.
- Look up significant words in a Lexicon.
- Look for commands, instruction, wisdom.
Once we have made some observations, we can start to work out what the passage is telling us. We can start by asking questions about things that initially don’t seem to make sense, or that we have never noticed before, or just don’t understand. We can look closely to see what it tells us about God, about Jesus, and about humanity. We can work out exactly what we are being asked to do.
It is a good idea when doing interpretation, to consult others when you have come to some conclusions. If your conclusions seem wildly different than what others have come to, you may want to reconsider. We always need to approach Bible study with an attitude of teachableness. You may be able to discuss these things with other people in person. If not, there are plenty of good Christadelphian books to read and compare notes with. There are also some helpful commentaries online. While these may contain doctrinal differences, it can sometimes be helpful to see how doctrine influences conclusions and how it changes the way in which you might apply a conclusion.
The final post will discuss how we take all of this and make it useful to our own lives. How can it change how we think, how we act, or what we feel.