How to Study the Bible

Today I’m continuing the blog series I started a few weeks ago. It’s a primer on how to study a Bible passage, as well as how to teach that passage in a way that is clear and compelling. I’m calling the series “Backstage Pass” because I’ll be taking you “backstage of the pulpit” to see what goes into the writing of a sermon.

As I previously said, I realize not everyone will become a vocational teacher of the Bible. Nevertheless, all Christians will spend their life studying the Bible; it’s what we do.

But how do we go about studying the book that God wrote?

O – I – A

I suppose many methods can be employed to study the Bible. I’ll admit that upfront. Yet not all methods are equally helpful. There are some ways to go about Bible study that go with the grain of the passage; they glide. They do not feel forced and manipulated because the interpreter cooperates with the text.

However, there are some ways of studying the Bible that are not at all helpful. In fact, we could say they don’t necessarily force a square peg into a round hole, but rather they batter it in with a sledgehammer. In short, they do violence to the Bible.  

Several years ago, a co-worker taught me a helpful acronym. He used it to explain (in broad terms) an effective process for studying the Bible. I’m not sure where my friend first learned the acronym. (A quick internet search shows that others are using the acronym too.)

The letters are O – I – A. I use this process each week when I prepare sermons. As I’ve written before, that’s a process stretched over twenty hours. But it certainly doesn’t have to take that long. Not that I do this overtly each morning, but when I read my Bible devotionally every day, the process lasts a little over 20 minutes.

The “O” stands for observation.
Observation is the first step to understanding a passage. To observe a passage well, you need to spend time looking at it—a lot of time!

For me, this most especially happens during the translation stage of sermon preparation. But you do not need to know how to read the original languages to accurately observe a passage. Observation can be done very effectively using only English Bibles, especially if you compare several good translations. When I’m in the observation phase, I write down as many things about the passage as I can, as well as noting what questions I have about the passage. If I’m able to answer my own questions through more observation, great. If not, I revisit them later. Sometimes I eventually learn the answers to my questions and other times I don’t.

If you get stuck in your observations and need some questions to get you going deeper, consider asking a few of these questions of the passage:

  1. What is this passage saying about the character of God?
  2. What is this passage saying about the grace of God?
  3. What is this passage saying about the way people are saved?
  4. What is this passage saying generally about people?
  5. More specifically, what is this passage saying about Christians?
  6. More specifically, what is this passage saying about non-Christians?

The “I” stands for interpretation.
Once you have spent sufficient time observing the passage, the next step is to determine what the passage means. This is interpretation, the necessary outworking of careful observation.

To assist in the interpretation stage, it’s helpful to consult other Christians who have also observed the passage, especially those who have studied the passage in depth. Think about it like this. If you come up with an interpretation for a passage that, after 2,000 years of church history, has never before existed, then you’re probably wrong. That’s why during the interpretation phase I typically consult several Bible commentaries on the passage. Three very helpful commentary series for pastors and non-pastors are: The Bible Speaks Today (Intervarsity Press), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan), and God’s Word for You (The Good Book Company). Also, the English Standard Version Study Bible is a tool I regularly use.

I know some people tend to pooh-pooh Bible commentaries (yes, a very technical term). They do this, I think, because they believe using commentaries is unspiritual. An interpreter, they say, should go to the source—God, not man. I agree that we should not prioritize commentaries to the exclusion of listening to God. Indeed, the best, highest, and most authoritative source to help us understand what one passage means is to use other Bible passages to shed light on it. Let Scripture interpret Scripture, the saying goes.

But I don’t think consulting commentaries is necessarily unspiritual. I think quite the opposite is true actually. If it’s true that God has given the church “pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:10–11)—which he has—then it is our spiritual duty to be learners. Before we teach, we listen to learn. Again, we are not the first people in church history to study any one passage.

The final letter, “A,” stands for application.
Once you have observed the passage and rightly interpreted it (i.e., you know what it means), now you have to apply the passage to your life, and possibly the lives of others.

During the application phase you should be asking questions like, “Based on what this says, what am I now supposed to do?” and “How should I be different because of this passage?” and “How am I meant to feel in light of the truth in this passage (hopeful, encouraged, sobered, repentant, etc.)?”

You should notice something about the way I worded these questions. They all have some variation of the phrase “based on what this passage means . . .” That’s intentional. The point of biblical application is that it flows naturally from what the passage means (i.e, it’s proper interpretation). Perhaps this is obvious to you, but I mention it because it’s not obvious to many people, and even when it is, it’s quickly forgotten.

Crafting applications that arise out of the main thrust of a passage is one of the most challenging aspects of studying the Bible. Too often applications come either from a minor or peripheral aspect of the passage. But even this is better than applications that have no basis in the text, which is sadly all too common.

If you get stuck on finding the proper applications, you can go back to some of the questions I listed above related to observation. For applications, you can rephrase them “Based on what this passage says about the character of God, I/we must do what?” This tends to jog some good ideas.  

Don’t Skip Steps

When studying and teaching the Bible, it’s crucial to not skip any one of these steps. Consider an analogy from health care. If you are sick, then you surely want a doctor to spend time observing you before she interprets your particular issues and prescribes a solution. You don’t diagnose cancer and prescribe a treatment plan after a 3-minute exam.

Additionally, another error could arise by overemphasis in the opposite direction. You don’t want your doctor to spend hours and hours (which means dollars and dollars) observing you but never come to an application.

The same is true when working with a biblical text. We must observe it, interpret it, and then apply it.

One final comment before leaving this subject until the next post in this series. In a sense, this three-step process is not only linear. It’s circular. In other words, we keep going through iterations until, in the case of health care, the health challenge is resolved, or in the case of a sermon, the passage is taught.

So, if you don’t have a “teaching assignment” already on the calendar. Just pick a short passage to try. And let the observation begin . . .

[Photo by John Towner / Unsplash]