The terrific task handed down to us since the Reformation is to interpret Scripture on our own. Bible translations have proliferated. Bible reading has become the bedrock of Protestant spirituality. Bible interpretation, therefore, is the lynchpin to which Lord you serve. The watershed issue in our imagination of God is the way in which we determine the meaning of the text. So are you hearing God's voice or only pandering to your pre-existing beliefs by making verses verify your personal preferences?
The Bible is not a magical reference book. It's not God's dictionary for your life. So you better not open it up and just look for a word or article you are interested in. You can't understand one of its parts or paragraphs without knowing how it fits into the entire book in which it is found. Too many of us want to pretend the Bible is some Divine Twitter account that should send us a #QuoteoftheDay: Read 140 characters for inspiration and apply it however you see fit. But the Bible doesn't work that way.
"Too many of us want to pretend the Bible is some Divine Twitter account that should send us a #QuoteoftheDay: Read 140 characters for inspiration and apply it however you see fit. But the Bible doesn't work that way."
ADVICE: Before you study the parts, read an entire Bible book in one sitting. Yeah, that's a lot easier for Philippians than Isaiah. But it's how you were meant to experience it.
2. Go back in time to experience a book's impact on its first audience.
Think about it. You wouldn't write a letter to your friends the same way you write a letter to strangers. And what matters to you when life is going wonderfully changes when your world is falling apart. The content of your writing is very much dependent on your situation, who your readers are, and when you happen to be writing. It doesn't make any sense to use farming illustrations and tell old baseball stories if your audience is urban professionals in Mumbai, India. You won't get your point across.
The Bible has been preserved for us, but it wasn't written to us. We have to go back in time and listen to each text like our ancestors in the faith would have heard it. We are not the most important moment in God's long story of redemption. God has has been breaking in to direct His people for ages. We must take the time to explore what God was doing with other generations. We will not know how to take action in our place and time if we do not experience how God took action in so many contexts before us.
ADVICE: Use a Study Bible or Bible Dictionary to look up information about the author, readers, and time period of a book before you study its parts. Summarize in 1 sentence the situation of the author and audience in that time period.
Write it down on a note card and use it as your bookmark if studying in a paper Bible. Or paste it into the Notes section of an App you use when reading the Bible electronically. After each paragraph or chapter you read, ask yourself the question: How do those Bible verses accomplish the author's purpose in writing the whole book?
Some content informs. Some rebukes. Some interrogates. Some provokes. Some commands. Some inspires. Some frightens or frustrates. Some moves your emotions. Some makes you think. But all of it comes together to accomplish what the author wanted to make happen in people's lives. If you use it to accomplish some other purpose, you disrespect the author and may fashion God and his ways to your own liking rather than his revelation. We don't need any more of that.
ADVICE: Read the book from start to finish 2-3 times and write down what you believe the entire book's purpose is. Edit it after reading a Bible Dictionary or Study Bible article about the book's occasion.
1. If you stick to 1 book rather than hopping around to different topics...
2. If you know the historical situation of the book's author and audience...
3. If you figure out how each part accomplishes the purpose of the whole book...
You will move from making up the meaning of the text to experiencing the impact God intended. Your assumptions will fade into the background as the author's message takes center stage. You will be genuinely surprised by how poignantly God has always met us in our historical moments.
You will start studying the Bible for the first time rather than finding what your tradition or your preacher already told you was there. These first 3 steps will take you a long way down the path toward listening to the Lord's priorities rather than your pre-existing beliefs of what is relevant. You can actually grow rather than just self-congratulate what you already believed.
Enjoy the journey! And when you want to know which skills to develop next, take the B.IQ Test--to measure your Biblical Interpretation Quotient and find out how to improve your Bible Study Skills.