How to Study the Bible

Session 1
Session 2
Session 3
Session 4
Session 5

1.  We must strive to be diligent and accurate in our handling of God’s Word because we will have to answer to the Lord.
2.  The foundational conviction behind how we study the Bible is that the Bible is God’s Word of truth, and the nature of Scripture determines how we interpret Scripture. 

Here are some theological understandings that lie behind this conviction:

1.  All Scripture is inspired (literally God-breathed) by God (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:21).
2.  Therefore, all Scripture is God’s Word, which means it is the authority for our lives.
3.  Therefore, all Scripture is truth (John 17:17).  Orthodox Christians realize and have always affirmed that human beings were involved in the writing of Scripture and their personalities and writing styles are part of the Bible. 
4.  Therefore, all Scripture is consistent with every other part of Scripture (1 John 2:21).  It has a single Mind behind it (a perfect mind, nonetheless) so one part agrees with and does not contradict another part.  As a result, Scripture interprets Scripture.
5.  Interpretation is correctly reading out the God-intended meaning of any text.  It is accomplished through the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).  There has been no new normative revelation for the Body of Christ since the completion of the New Testament (with the writing of the book of Revelation around 96 A.D.) [note Revelation 22:18-19], but God still speaks today to us through His Holy Spirit.  The way He does this is by giving us understanding of Scripture and how it applies to our lives.  Through the Bible, the Holy Spirit teaches, convicts, guides, encourages, and reveals God to us.  Please note that God only speaks based on and in agreement with His written Word.  That is the test for any supposed leading of the Holy Spirit.  John Stott writes, “Our foremost teacher is the Holy Spirit Himself.  ‘Hermenutics’ is the technical name given to the science of interpreting Scripture, and it should be obvious that a truly Biblical hermeneutic will be consistent with the nature of the Bible itself.  If, then, the Biblical authors spoke from God, not on their own impulse but as they were moved by the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit who can interpret what He cause them to speak.  The best interpreter of every book is its author, since He alone knows what He intended to say.  So God’s book can be interpreted by God’s Spirit alone.  The work of the Holy Spirit in communicating God’s truth to man is now seen to have two stages.  The first and objective stage is ‘revelation,’ the disclosure of the truth in Scripture.  The second and subjective stage may be called ‘illumination,’ the enlightenment of our minds to comprehend the truth disclosed in Scripture.  Each process is indispensable.  Without revelation we have no truth to perceive, without illumination no faculty with which to perceive it.”
6.  There is only one correct interpretation, but many different applications.  It means what God intended it to mean and what it always has meant.

3.  We are commanded to rightly divide the Word of truth.  What does this mean and how do we do it?  Paul is writing directly to Timothy as a pastor, but it applies to every Christian as we study God’s Word.  Kent Hughes writes, “Being one who ‘correctly handles’ {or “rightly dividing” in the New King James translation} the Word requires getting it straight and giving it straight.  ‘Correctly handles’ has as its basis the Greek word orthos (‘straight’), the same word from which we build words like orthopedic and orthodoxy.  The exact charge to Timothy is to ‘impart the word of truth’ without deviation, straight, undiluted.”  Here it refers to the straight, precise, careful communication of the word of truth, the gospel.”  Kenneth Wuest writes, “Rightly dividing is orthotomeo, from temno, ‘to cut,’ and orthos, ‘straight,’ the compound verb meaning ‘to cut straight.’  Molten and Milligan suggest that it might be a metaphor derived from the stone mason’s art of cutting stone fair and straight, to fit into their places in a building.  They quote Sophocles, a Greek writer, using it to mean, ‘expound soundly.’  Vincent defines the word, ‘to cut straight,’ as paths, ‘to hold a straight course, to make straight, to handle rightly.’…Robertson suggests, ‘handling aright.’  He quotes Theodore as explaining it to mean ‘ploughing a straight furrow.’…He adds his own comment, ‘Since Paul was a tent-maker and knew how to cut straight the rough camel-hair cloth, why not let that be the metaphor?  Certainly plenty of exegesis is crooked enough (crazy-quilt pattern) to call for careful cutting to set it straight’.” 
Basically, we are saying that interpreting Scripture is rightly dividing it, which means we are understanding what God said and what it actually means as opposed to infusing our own meaning into it.  It means what God meant it to mean, not what we we think it means. 

Section #2-Three basic principles of interpretation (this section is largely drawn from chapter 7 of John Stott’s book, “Understanding The Bible.”):  Stott writes, “It is often said by our critics, especially by those who know what a high view of Scripture we take, that ‘you can make the Bible mean anything you like’.  They are probably thinking of non-Christian and semi-Christian cults which support their particular opinions by an arbitrary selection and interpretation of proof texts.  But the New Testament itself condemns those who ‘tamper with God’s word’ and ‘twist’ it to suit their own purposes.  To those who accuse us of this, I always reply: ‘You are quite right.  You can make the Bible mean anything you like—if you are unscrupulously honest in your approach to the Bible and in your use of sound principles of interpretation, far from your being able to manipulate Scripture, you will find Scripture controlling and directing you’.  What, then, are these sound principle of interpretation?”

1.  The Natural Sense-the principle of simplicity:  Stott says, "One of our basic Christian convictions is that ‘God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.’  That is to say, it is as much the nature of God to reveal Himself as it is the nature of light to shine.  Now God has revealed Himself chiefly by speaking.  We may be quite sure, therefore, that He has spoken in order to be understood, and that He has intended Scripture (the record of the divine speech) to be plain to its readers.  For the whole purpose of revelation is clarity not confusion, a readily intelligible message, not a set of dark and mysterious riddles….[However] It is true that in some matters Scripture is not as plain as in others.  This is apparent from the fact that, although devout and careful students of the Bible, deeply concerned to submit to its authority, enjoy a very wide measure of agreement on the great fundamentals of historic Christianity, they still disagree on some points.”  Here are some truths to guide us in discovering the natural sense:

A.  Since God chose to speak to us in ordinary human language, we must know what the words mean, paying attention to the normal rules of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.
B.  We are, first and foremost, looking for the obvious and natural meaning of the words.  Stott writes, “In Sir Charles Odgers’ standard book on the interpretation of legal deeds and documents his third rule is that ‘words are to be taken in their literal meaning.’  Unless the subject-matter shows otherwise, he writes, ‘the plain, ordinary meaning of the words used is to be adopted in constructing a document’.”
C.  That does not mean that the natural meaning is always literal.  It can be figurative at times.
D.  We are to look for the natural sense, and usually common sense will guide us to know if it is literal or figurative.

2.  The Original Sense-the principle of history:  Stott writes, “We have seen in earlier chapters that God chose to reveal Himself in a precise historical context.  Although His self-revelation is addressed to every man of every age and every country, each part of it was addressed in the first instance to a particular people of a particular age in a particular country.  Therefore, the permanent and universal message of Scripture can be understood only in the light of the circumstances in which it was originally given.  It would obviously be very to misleading to read back into Scripture the notions of a later age…So as we read the Bible, we need to keep asking ourselves:  what did the author intend to convey by this?  What is he actually asserting?  What will his original hearers have understood him to have meant?”

A.  The Situation
B.  The Style
C.  The Language      

3.  The General Sense-the principle of harmony:  Stott writes, “From a human standpoint the Bible is a symposium with a wide assortment of contributors.  From the divine standpoint, however, the whole Bible emanates from one mind.  It is the word of God expressing the mind of God, and so possesses an organic unity.  For this reason we must approach Scripture with the confidence both that God has spoken and that, in speaking, He has not contradicted Himself.

Sir Charles Odgers, in the book mentioned earlier, gives as his seventh rule for interpreting legal documents ‘the deed is to be construed as a whole’.  He goes on:

‘The deed must be read and interpreted as a whole in order to extract the meaning of any particular part or expression… Every part of the deed ought to be compared with the other and one entire sense ought to be made thereof… Every part of it may be brought into action in order to collect from the whole one uniform and consistent sense, if that may be done… The words of each clause should be so interpreted as to bring them into harmony with the other provisions of the deed if that interpretation does no violence to the meaning of which they are naturally susceptible’.

As with legal documents, so with the Biblical text we should seek to resolve apparent discrepancies and interpret Scripture as one harmonious whole.  This will lead us to interpret Scripture by Scripture, especially what is obscure by what is plain, and never so to ‘expound one place of Scripture that it be repugnant to another’.”  The key is context, context, context.

A.  Immediate Context
B.  Context Of That Particular Book
C.  Overall Context Of The Entire Bible

Section #3-A basic process for interpreting Scripture.  When looking at a particular Scripture, here is a ten-step process to use in seeking to correctly understand the passage:

1.  Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you understanding and to be your Teacher (1 Corinthians 2:9-16).  Confess sin (1 John 1:9) and ask God to reveal Himself to you and make you receptive to what He will teach you.
2.  Accurately identity a unit of Scripture and what type of Scripture that it is (historical, letter, doctrinal, parable, poetry, Law, etc.).
3.  Read the text a few times in a single translation and then read it in a few different translations.
4.  Brainstorm and write down observations that come to you regarding truths given in the text. 
5.  Write down questions that you have regarding things you don’t understand in the passage.  (Observations and questions should include identifying and defining the key words in the passage.  You can also include the basic questions of who, what, when, where, how, and why in this part of the process.
6.  Use your resources (books, internet, etc.) in order to do research and answer the questions you have asked.
7.  Identify key connecting or transition words and cause and effect relationships because they often give insight to a passage.
8.  Using the work you have done so far, write the main idea or key theme of the passage.  Then, write down other key ideas and how they relate to the main theme.
9.  With this as your basis, do a synopsis and/or outline of the passage.
10.  Write down some personal applications based on the truths of the passage.

Section #4-Some questions to ask to test the accuracy of our interpretation:

1.  Do other Christians (the doctrine and teachers of my church, Christians that I know and trust, reputable Bible commentators/teachers) agree with my interpretation?
2.  Is the principle that I am drawing from the text universally true?
3.  Is it descriptive or prescriptive?
4.  Am I interpreting it in context?
5.  Does is line up with the rest of Scripture?
6.  Where do we see and what do we learn about Jesus in this text?
7.  Is this for me as an individual or for us corporately as the church?
8.  Is it cultural or permanently binding?

Section #5-Application:  All correct interpretation should result in changed behavior.  James 1:22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”  The ultimate purpose of Scripture is transformation, not just information.  Remember, however, that we are trying to determine what God meant the text to mean-not what it means to us.  Application flows out of understanding the true meaning of the text and then acting personally in response to that truth.  In other words, the application is not a unique meaning for us but the objective meaning personally put into practice by us.  Here are some helpful application questions:

1.  Is there a command to obey?  Am I obeying it?
2.  Is there a sin to avoid?
3.  Is there sin in my life to confess and repent of?
4.  What do I need to change in my life based on this text?
5.  Is there an example to follow?
6.  Is there a promise to claim?
7.  Is there a principle to follow?
8.  How is Jesus revealed in this text?
9.  What do I learn about God?  People?   The world?  Relating to God?   Relating to people?
10.  How does God want me to change my thinking/beliefs based on this text?
11.  What lies am I believing does this text expose and what truths do they need to be replaced with?
12.  What ways should I thank and/or praise God based on this text?
13.  How should I be encouraged based on this text?  How can I encourage others with it?
14.  How do I need help in believing or obeying this Scripture?

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