How to Study the Bible

Introduction

The Bible is a big book, isn’t it? To many, it’s an intimidating book, ancient and otherworldly, filled with difficult concepts and foreign names. We know it’s full of truth, and we accept it as God’s Word, but we wonder whether we can really understand it for ourselves. And if we could, would it make any difference?

Well, the answer is . . . YES!

You don’t need special schooling to study the Bible or to be transformed by it. This article will show you how you can not only discover God’s truth but also live it out in your own life. As a result, the Bible will come alive like never before as you draw near to God through His Word.

Observation

Observation is an important element to solving a tangled mystery, and it is absolutely crucial for Bible study and application. What separates the great Bible readers from the rest of us is the same as what separates great detectives from the rest of the population: everyone sees, but the great ones see well. We all perceive certain things about our environments, but we cannot become keen observers of Scripture until we learn how to see and what to see.

How Do We Observe?

First, to observe the Bible well, we must be attentive. As believers, we want to have a thriving relationship with God. As we seek to know Him through His written Word, our attention to the details of Scripture will help us enter into a more substantial relationship with Him.

Second, to observe the Bible well, we must be deliberate. First and foremost, this means that we must read Scripture repeatedly. The Bible contains deep reservoirs of truth. When preparing to dig into a passage, we make sure to plan time to read it several times, which will allow us to see elements of the passage that were not clear with a single read-through.

Third, to observe the Bible well, we must be curious. A lifetime of Scripture study will not exhaust its insights. We must recognize that Scripture is filled with valuable wisdom for our everyday lives. Curiosity in our reading of Scripture allows us to see ourselves as open vessels, and as Scripture’s truths flow into us, we’ll benefit from our increased understanding of God.

Fourth, to observe the Bible well, we must be humble. The apostle Peter exhorted God’s people to “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Peter 5:6). With a humbled attitude, we place ourselves under the power of God as He speaks to us through the text. In humility, we open ourselves to change, growth, and maturity.

What Do We Observe?

Observing well involves reading well. We can focus our vision on these eight key categories:

Words and Phrases

As you read, write down the terms that you don’t know. As you interpret the passage, you’ll dust off that dictionary and consider the meaning of the term within its context. Then, observe those terms (especially nouns and verbs) that strike you as interesting, significant, or unique. These observations will prompt further investigation.

Names and Places

Good Bible readers scour the passage for names of people and places. People and places bring context to passages of Scripture. Noting those mentioned in a particular text presents the opportunity to take what we can discover about that person or location and relate it to the events or ideas portrayed in the passage. In most cases, people and geography play a vital role in understanding the text in question.

Repetition

In addition to looking at the basic building blocks of the text, we should also observe the notable ways that the words relate to one another. We should look for the same word or phrase repeated within the same passage or throughout Scripture as a whole. Observing repetition in the Bible offers insight into the themes and significant concerns of a particular passage.

Comparisons

One common strategy in biblical writing involves making comparisons to enhance or explain the meaning of an idea or the significance of a person. We approach biblical comparisons by seeking out those things in the text that are alike. This may take on a number of forms, such as personification: ascribing human characteristics to animals or objects, as in Isaiah 55:12 or Psalm 114; hyperbole: the conscious exaggeration by an author for a heightened effect, as in Deuteronomy 1:28 or John 21:25; or anthropomorphism: ascribing human characteristics to God, as in Exodus 6:6 or Psalm 19:1. Usually comparisons occur as similes—look for the words like or as—or metaphors—when an object or idea is used in place of another to show likeness.

Contrasts

The Bible also uses contrast to communicate ideas. By showing the differences between two objects, people, or ideas, the Bible allows us to see more clearly the real essence of those things in view. The easiest ways to spot a contrast is to look for the word but. Writers also show contrast by using irony: the use of language to express a different meaning than the one stated for the purpose of ridicule or sarcasm, as in 1 Kings 18:27 or Job 12:2; or paradox: the statement of truth in what appears to be a contradiction of ideas, as in Matthew 13:12 or Mark 8:35.

Cause and Effect

Many points that the Bible argues and many actions that the Bible portrays follow a structure of cause and effect. When reading a passage, it helps to be attentive to this relationship. The Bible has a great deal to say about promises, all of which function on the basis of cause and effect: because God made a promise, a blessing (or a curse) will come to pass. One set of words to look for in seeking out cause and effect is the “if . . . then” statement.

Emphasis

When reading Scripture, take into account what the writer is emphasizing. Sometimes we can perceive emphasis when the author expressly reveals his purpose for writing. At other times, we see what receives greatest emphasis based on what comes first or what comes last. Another way to perceive emphasis involves the amount of words an author devotes to one topic—extensive remarks indicate emphasis, while only a line or two means that topic isn’t as important.

True to Life

Part of bringing God’s Word to rest in our hearts involves observing those portions that touch our everyday lives. Often, Scripture works on us in mysterious ways, and therefore, it’s important to note those times when it touches a nerve or speaks to a situation especially close to our hearts. The Holy Spirit often works through moments just like these to effect lasting change in our lives. Further, observing circumstances such as these brings God’s Word closer to our own experience. It helps us to see God’s involvement in our daily lives, making clear for us just how significant it was that Jesus, the Son of God, took on human flesh on our behalf.

Practice Passage: Genesis 39:6–12

Read Genesis 39:6–12, and write down your observations that fall into the eight key categories: words and phrases, names and places, repetition, comparisons, contrasts, cause and effect, emphasis, and true to life. Here are some questions to guide you through the observation process.

  • How did Moses, the author of Genesis, describe Joseph in Genesis 39:6?
  • What did the “master’s wife,” Mrs. Potiphar, do and say in verse 7?
  • How did Joseph respond to Mrs. Potiphar in verses 8–9?
  • How many times did Mrs. Potiphar speak with Joseph, and how often did he refuse her, according to verse 10?
  • Where did Joseph go in verse 11, and who was with him?
  • What did Mrs. Potiphar do in verse 12, and what was Joseph’s reaction?

Interpretation

The purpose of interpretation is to determine what God said in Scripture in order to determine what God meant by what He said. The meaning we are looking for in a particular passage is God’s intended meaning, not the meaning we wish to ascribe to that passage. In this way, we must be careful never to confuse the voice of God (the interpretation of Scripture) with the voice of the reader (the application of Scripture).

Often the Bible tosses its golden nuggets on the ground, and all we need do is pick them up. It doesn’t take special insight or knowledge to interpret Exodus 20:13–15, for example. Even in the original language of Hebrew, the prohibitions against murder, adultery, and theft mean: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, and don’t steal. Most often, however, the Bible buries its treasures deeper in the soil of interpretation. And those willing to dig will unearth the Bible’s treasures and thereby those treasures may become buried deeply into their souls.

A Bridge from There to Here, Then to Now

If the goal of interpretation is to determine what God said in order to determine what God meant by what He said, how do we do that? We build a bridge of interpretation.

At least twenty-one centuries separate the biblical world—when the Word of God was recorded—and our world, where we interpret and apply the Word of God. This separation has created a great chasm between the original audience and the modern-day audience. We bridge this gap with a question: “What does this passage mean?” That’s interpretation.

Becoming a Biblical Bridge Builder

Before we construct and cross the bridge of biblical interpretation, let’s make sure we have all the qualifications we need to accomplish the task.

Biblical interpretation begins with an interpreter, someone who asks questions in order to discover God’s mind as revealed in the Bible. And because “the mind of Christ” reveals the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:16), the first qualification for biblical interpreters is faith in Christ.

Second, we must approach Scripture with humility, tossing out our intellectual pride and approaching Scripture with childlike humility (Matthew 11:25).

Third, we must be willing to obey. The writer to the Hebrews decried the Jewish believers’ inability to hear difficult teaching, though they had been believers for some time. They failed to put into practice even the elementary things they learned (Hebrews 5:11–14).

The fourth and fifth qualifications for the biblical interpreter go hand-in-hand. We must pray for the Spirit’s illumination of a given text (Colossians 1:9), and we must work hard to discover its true meaning (2 Timothy 2:15).

The final qualification is a dependence on the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit reveals the mind of God to those who possess the Spirit of God. Therefore, those who possess the Spirit of God possess the power to understand the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:11–13).

Besides the six qualifications for biblical interpreters, there are two assumptions about the Bible all who wish to interpret it must accept.

First, the Bible is a work of literature. Each of the books of the Bible was written by a specific person to specific readers in a specific historical, cultural, and geographical situation for a specific purpose. Each passage must also be accepted and understood in light of its larger context, taking into account its literary forms and the principles of logic and communication.

Second, the Bible is a divine book. This makes the Bible unique among all other literature. It contains mystery, prophecy, parables, miracles, and doctrines. But because the Bible is the very revelation of God, it’s also unified, though written over centuries of time by many different and diverse human penmen.

Building an Interpretive Bridge

Proper interpretation builds upon the specific discoveries found in the biblical text (observation) and distills them into one general principle (timeless truth) that can be specifically applied to a present-day audience (application). It is out of biblical observation and interpretation that we build biblical theology—or a belief system about God. It is out of biblical theology that we apply the truth of Scripture correctly and communicate it convincingly.

The construction of an interpretive bridge between the biblical world and the present world that represents the timeless truth of a particular passage requires four major pillars.

Pillar Number 1: History

History in the Bible concerns three broad subjects: the history of God’s activities in the world, the history of humanity, and the history of God’s chosen peoples—Israel and the church. Because every book of the Bible was written by a specific historical author to a specific historical audience living in a specific historical situation, to arrive at a general theological principle—a timeless truth—we must explore the specific history of each biblical book.

The two major sources used in re-creating accurate biblical history are the Bible itself (primary source) and extra-biblical references (secondary sources), such as histories about ancient Israel, Egypt, Babylon, or Greece, biographies about biblical personalities, a Bible dictionary, a Bible atlas, a Bible commentary, or a Bible encyclopedia.

Author

We must ask: who is the author? Often, the internal evidence in the Bible itself tells us the author’s name, as with Paul’s letters. At other times, the author isn’t specifically named, but because of stylistic patterns in writing (internal evidence) and long-standing written Christian tradition (external evidence), scholars can assign authorship to unsigned books, such as Moses to Genesis or Samuel to Judges. If we can’t find clues to authorship internally, then we can turn to Insight for Living Ministries’ two-volume set of handbooks on the Old and New Testaments.

Once we feel confident about the author of a particular book, we can examine at least ten factors to help us paint a pen portrait of a biblical author:

  • Ancestral background
  • Profession
  • Advantages in home or schooling
  • Influence on others
  • Relationships—marriages(s) and friendships
  • Faults, shortcomings, and sins
  • Character traits
  • Religious experiences
  • Habits and thought patterns
  • Spiritual and moral growth
Audience

Next, we need to ask: who is the audience? Who were the folks that first received this particular letter or message? Were they Jews or Gentiles? Were they saved, unsaved, or apostates? And if they were believers, were they mature or immature in their faith? Where were they located—in Egypt, in Babylon, in Israel—and at what time? Why did the author address this audience? For example, the purpose of John’s gospel was to convince his readers to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing [they] may have life in His name” (John 20:31). The purpose of Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts was to compile a careful account of Jesus’ life and ministry and the ministry of the apostles (Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1–2).

Pillar Number 2: Culture

While exploring the historical situation, mark down references to the culture or customs. Pay attention to what people think, say, do, and make. Then consult biblical and external references to gain deeper insight. Specifically, look for these culture indicators and then ask questions like the ones below:

  • Political Positions/Systems: The Bible speaks of kings, queens, governors, satraps, elders, Caesars, and tetrarchs. What was involved in these various political positions? We read that Nehemiah was a cupbearer (Nehemiah 1:11). But what did a cupbearer do?
  • Geography: Why would one travel down to Jericho and travel up to Jerusalem? What’s significant about the fact that when David fled from Saul, he hid himself in the wilderness of Engedi (1 Samuel 23:29–24:1)?
  • Economics and Business: What was the value of a shekel, a mite, a drachma, a talent, or a denarius? Why was business often conducted at the city gate (Ruth 4:1)?
  • Legal Systems: The primary legal agreements mentioned in the Bible are covenants and birthrights. What were these and what made them important? Proverbs 22:28 warns against moving ancient boundaries. Why were these boundaries put in place?
  • Agriculture: Why were vineyards often enclosed by a wall and watched over from a watchtower (Matthew 21:33)? What’s spiritually significant about the concept of grafting (Romans 11:17–24)? Why were believers called “lambs” or “sheep” (John 21:15–17)?
  • Architecture: What is significant about the fact that David could walk on his roof in the cool of the night (2 Samuel 11:2), or that Daniel went to his roof chamber and prayed with the windows open (Daniel 6:10), or that the disciples met with Jesus for the Last Supper in an upper room (Mark 14:15)? Why were cities walled?
  • Military: Who were centurions, and what were the size and importance of a cohort and a legion? What did Habakkuk mean when he wrote, “They laugh at every fortress / And heap up rubble to capture it” (1:10)?
  • Family Life: What was involved in inheritance, marriage, and slavery in biblical times? What did Jesus mean when He said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother . . . he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26)?
  • Dietary Laws: Why were Hebrews prohibited from eating a young goat boiled in its mother’s milk (Deuteronomy 14:21)? Why were Jews allowed to eat certain foods but not others? What’s important about Peter’s vision of unclean animals in Acts 10:9–16?
  • Clothing: Paul admonished women to cover their heads in church (1 Corinthians 11:5–10). What does that mean?
  • Social customs: Why would Job tear his clothing and shave his head in mourning (Job 1:20)? Why would one mourn in sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:3)? What did it mean to “heap burning coals on [an enemy’s] head” (Romans 12:20)?
  • Religious Sects and Cults: The Bible refers to the worship of the false gods—Baal, Dagon, and Molech. What were the practices of these religious cults? What was the purpose of and difference between the various Jewish sects—priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and Herodians? Jesus accused the Pharisees of violating the command to honor father and mother because of the tradition of Corban (Mark 7:9–13). What was Corban, and what did it have to do with the fathers and mothers?

Pillar Number 3: Literary Form

While it recounts true, historical events, the Bible can be studied as if it were any other work of literature. Its books contain stories, poetry, parables, letters, and prophecy. When it comes to interpretation, each type of literature requires a unique approach. Sometimes an entire Bible book can be classified under one type; other times several different types appear in the same book. That’s why it’s important to know ahead of time what passage you will be studying.

Narratives

For stories, or narratives, we want to focus on three items. First, we ask questions about the setting, noting physical, temporal, and cultural components. For example, we learn from the book of Jonah, Bible commentaries, and maps that sometime in the 760s BC—before Assyria sacked Israel (temporal setting)—God commissioned Jonah to leave his homeland of Israel and travel to the northeast, to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh (physical setting), which, ironically, was the cultic center of Ishtar and the worship of fish (cultural setting). However, Jonah fled from God to the southwest—the direct opposite direction—as far as modern-day Spain.

This establishes the setting of Jonah, but what can we learn about the characters in the story? This is the second item to note. How do the characters interact with one another? What do they say or think? And how do they act? In the book of Jonah, we discover that Jonah was a disobedient prophet of God, boarding a ship filled with salty sailors who pleaded to their gods when the seas grew violent. We also read that Jonah confessed that God was the Lord of the sea, and Jonah told the sailors if they would throw him overboard the seas would become calm. What do these factors tell us about the attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs of the characters?

Finally, identify the nature of the plot development—the sequence of events that follows the model of beginning, middle, and end. When looking at your observations about the plot, ask and answer the following types of questions:

  • Why type of conflict is in view—physical (person against nature), character (person against person or person against him or herself), or spiritual (person against him or herself or person against God)?
  • What makes the plot interesting or suspenseful—danger, tests, questions of destiny, or divine-human encounters?
  • What are the relationships between the events—cause/effect, change/no change?
  • What challenge(s) must the main character master—physical strength, resourcefulness, mental acuity, or spiritual strength?
  • What changes occur between the beginning and the end of the narrative—solutions to problems or character growth?
  • What do the details of the narrative tell us about the author’s purpose—perspective on reality or teaching of morality?

As we consider narratives, we want to look for a particular type of narrative called parables. Parables are unique and almost exclusively consigned to the New Testament. They are “short stories” that depict real life and, by way of analogy, are designed to teach specific spiritual truths, usually related to God’s kingdom. Parables have four basic purposes: first, to reveal new truth to the believing person or people (revelational); second, to conceal truth from the unbelieving person or people (judgmental); third, to provoke a decision from the undecided person or people (persuasive); and fourth, to stir up the memory of the truth through the telling of concrete stories (perpetuative).

When it comes to interpreting parables, five guidelines apply:

  1. Uncover the historical and cultural setting.
  2. Discover the problem being addressed in relation to God’s kingdom.
  3. Uncover the central truth or its major points of comparison.
  4. Relate the details of the supporting scenery to the central truth.
  5. State the intended appeal or application.
Poetry

The Bible contains four basic styles of poetry:

  • Brief and thematic lyrics
  • Pastoral love lyrics (Song of Solomon)
  • Descriptive and declarative praise and lament psalms (Lamentations)
  • Character depictions

The distinguishing element of Hebrew poetry is the use of parallelism, the statement or restatement of previous lines or thoughts. Parallelism is a stereo-metric device, meaning similar ideas are repeated either in the same words or in different words, driving home important ideas and aiding readers and listeners in memory. Five types of parallelism dominate biblical poetry.

  1. Synonymous parallelism says the same thing but in different words (Psalm 2:1; 3:1).
  2. Antithetical parallelism affirms the truth in the first line by offering a contrast in the second line (1:6).
  3. Climactic parallelism affirms the truth in the first line by exactly repeating it in the second line but adding a conclusion (29:1).
  4. Synthetic parallelism affirms the truth in the first line by repeating the thought in the second line and adding a conclusion (14:2).
  5. Emblematic parallelism presents a figure of speech in one line and explains it in another line (42:1; 52:4).
Epistles

The Epistles, or letters, of the New Testament are relatively easy to interpret because they follow logical progressions. Epistles usually open with a salutation, telling us something about the author and the audience and expressing a greeting. Introductions often include a report on the welfare of the writer and a blessing on the reader. Epistles follow a predictable pattern: an introduction, an issue or problem needing attention, and a conclusion—in which the author gives a closing greeting, another wish for health, and a farewell salutation. Knowing the structure of the Epistles helps us get acquainted with the writer, audience, and central message.

Prophecy

Prophecy, whether in the Old Testament or New Testament, basically either announces salvation or judgment. Prophetic salvation usually involves the future or end times when the Lord will rule and humanity will know peace. Prophetic judgment, however, is distinguished by these characteristics:

  • The accused is given a summons.
  • The specific accusation is given, usually because someone or a nation has violated the Law, often followed by a pronouncement of “woe.”
  • An announcement is made in regard to the accused that expresses either God’s merciful intervention or just punishment.

The distinctive of prophecy is its visionary literature. Typically, prophecy is filled with symbolism—historical realities communicated through figures of speech. It involves the supernatural world of God, demons, and angels. Its scope is to transform the present state of things into a situation that can only be imagined in the future. The scenes portrayed in prophecy are cosmic, depicting strange characterizations of people, places, and events.

When it comes to interpreting prophecy passages, keep in mind these seven principles:

  1. Interpret the self-contained prophecy unit first, then relate it to the larger section of Scripture or book in which it is found.
  2. Interpret biblical symbols by comparing them to symbols used by other writers of Scripture. For example, one should interpret Revelation in light of Daniel.
  3. Don’t forget: the basic purpose of prophecy is to either announce salvation or judgment.
  4. Prophecy is primarily futuristic, using present images to reveal the unknowns of the future and especially about the “Day of the Lord”—that period of time when God will judge His people and foreign nations, and will restore His people in perpetual peace.
  5. Some biblical prophecy has already been fulfilled; some has not. Being familiar with the whole of prophetic literature prevents confusion concerning the prophetic past and prophetic future.
  6. Implications of prophecy tend to be more cosmic and national, focusing more on the nation of Israel than on individuals.
  7. Not every detail of extraordinary descriptions has interpretive significance.

Pillar Number 4: Language

Once we’ve surveyed the historical, cultural, and literary backgrounds of a book or passage, we turn our attention to the meaning behind the words and phrases that make up that book or passage.

Grammar

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds when it comes to applying the interpretative process to grammar, especially when answering questions about etymology, or origins, of Hebrew and Greek words; about how a writer used particular words within the same book or in other books; or about how other writers used the same words. Applying interpretation to grammar is further complicated when wrestling with syntax—identifying parts of speech, types of sentences, and the function of key phrases—as well as understanding the grammatical structure of a passage.

The grammatical background, however, can be simplified by asking and answering: Is an assertion made, a command given, or a question asked in the main clause of a sentence? Are supporting clauses causal (expressing cause or reason), concessional (granting privilege), comparative, conditional, providing a purpose, or showing a result? How do these work together to convey meaning? For example, in John 3:16 Jesus makes an assertion that God loved the world, that He gave His Son, and that those who believe in the Son will never die. But in 3:17, Jesus expresses the reason that His assertion is true: because “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” These two truths together give us confidence that our salvation is secure.

Figures of Speech

Because the Bible is a well-written work of literature, it includes figures of speech such as simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, irony, paradox, and anthropomorphism. And just as in other literature, figures of speech are not to be taken literally. They are included to add color to the biblical narrative, to attract attention to important points, to make the abstract concrete, to aid in retention, to abbreviate ideas, and to encourage reflection.

When you encounter figures of speech on our list of observations from step one, ask not only the purpose but also the meaning of the word or phrase. Always use the literal sense unless there’s good reason for using the figurative sense. Use the figurative sense when the writer states that the passage is figurative, if the expression fits into one of the classes of figurative language listed above, or if the literal sense fits into one or more of the following categories:

  • It involves an impossibility.
  • It commands an immoral action.
  • It is contrary to the context and scope of the passage.
  • It is contrary to the general character and style of the book.
  • It is contrary to the plan and purpose of the author.
  • It involves a contradiction with a parallel passage of Scripture.
  • It involves a contradiction of established doctrine.

Crossing the Interpretive Bridge

Once we’ve answered questions of history, culture, literature, and language—the four pillars holding up the interpretive bridge—we’re just about ready to cross over from the biblical world into the present world of application. But before we make the journey, there’s one more thing we need to do: we must summarize our interpretation into one simple, succinct, and clear statement. In other words, we need to identify and state the timeless truth taught in the passage.

Timeless Truth

A timeless truth, as the name implies, is an abiding or universal principle that is not limited to a moment of time or a particular place. It is a general statement of truth that is applicable for all time and all peoples. Sometimes the timeless truth is found lying on the surface of the page, as in “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). At other times, we must dig under the surface of the text.

Practice Passage: Genesis 39:6–12

Joseph was the slave of Potiphar, “the captain of the bodyguard”—or the head of Pharaoh’s security detail (Genesis 39:1). What is significant about this fact in relation to Mrs. Potiphar’s sexual advances toward Joseph?

If Joseph had given in to Mrs. Potiphar’s advances, it makes sense that he would have committed evil against his master because he would have violated Potiphar’s trust. But in what way would it have been a “sin against God” (39:9)?

What does the fact that Mrs. Potiphar spoke to Joseph daily (39:10) and then caught him (39:12) tell you about the nature of sin?

What does the fact that Joseph tried to reason with Mrs. Potiphar (39:8–9) and then had to flee (39:12) tell you about how we should deal with sexual temptation?

Based on your observations and interpretation, what is the timeless truth in this passage?

Correlation

In the correlation step of Bible study, our goal is to validate our interpretation to ensure we’re accurately handling the Scriptures. We also try to find the harmony between the passage we’re studying and other parts of the Bible. Because the Bible is an inspired book by the one divine Author, it tells one unified story with unified teachings on many topics. The Bible is its own best interpreter, and the correlation step can help us find connections between verses and passages in Scripture that shed more light on the particular passage in question.

We can think of correlation as making a journey from the inside to the outside of a series of concentric circles. First, in the innermost circle, we look for related verses within the same Bible book we are studying. The second circle points Bible students to parallel passages that can help us understand the passage (this step will only apply if we are studying 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, and the Gospels). In the third circle, we research the same topic we are studying in other books written by the same biblical author. In the fourth circle, we use a concordance or cross-reference resource to locate the same topic within the same testament and then in the Bible as a whole. Fifth and finally, we can read our passage in different translations, paraphrase the passage on our own, and check reliable commentaries for charts and outlines.

Practice Passage: John 1:1–3

First, look for related verses on the deity of Christ in the book of John.

Second, if this passage had a parallel passage, we would research it now. In this case, John 1:1–3 doesn’t have any parallel passages.

Third, look for similar teaching in other books by the same biblical author, such as 1, 2, and 3 John, and Revelation.

Fourth, look for passages on Christ’s deity in other New Testament books, such as in Colossians or Hebrews.

Fifth, we would read John 1:1–3 in other Bible translations, paraphrase it on our own, and look for charts, outlines, and other helpful information in a reliable commentary.

Application

For some, the practice of Bible study can become little more than an intellectual pursuit focused on the compiling and ordering of facts and events. However, the Bible calls us to a much higher pursuit than the accumulation of information. The Lord makes clear in His Word that He wants us to pursue spiritual growth. Ultimately, the goal of Bible study is not increased knowledge but a more focused and earnest pursuit of God’s ideals for us in our day-to-day lives.

The writer to the Hebrews communicated eloquently on this subject. His readers had not matured as they should have, prompting him to chide and exhort them. He wrote:

You have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. Therefore, leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity. (Hebrews 5:12–6:1)

Drawing upon a “milk versus solid food” metaphor, the author makes clear his readers’ need for teaching and maturity. Most significant, though, is how he describes their immaturity, noting that they are “not accustomed to the word of righteousness.” In other words, the lack of maturity in these people is evident in their approach to life. We know they were not accustomed to receiving teaching about righteousness because they did not take that teaching and implement it in their lives, which would have led to increased maturity.

The spiritually mature, on the other hand, have worked at putting teaching about righteousness into practice. The result for these, according to the passage, was the ability to discern good from evil. The immature lack discernment, making them unable to walk in righteousness, because they can’t separate it from wickedness. Maturity, then, is vital to living out our lives in the way God intends for us; it shows itself in our deeds, not just our thoughts.

Such a perspective is consistent with how God made human beings. When God created us, He did not create just a mind to think or just a body to act. Instead, He created a whole person whose thoughts and actions are to work in unison to fulfill God’s design for His creation.

Deeds

In the view of Scripture, we are what we do. Our practices and behavior distinguish us from one another. One person murders another. One person shows kindness to a stranger. These acts reflect something of an individual’s identity. Scripture often characterizes people by their deeds. Psalm 1:6 teaches that,

The Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.

The reference to righteous and wicked here points primarily to a state of being that is evident to anyone looking on. The emphasis is placed in the case of both the righteous and the wicked on their “way”—focusing on what they do.

It should be no surprise then when Paul—a faithful Jew who knew Scripture well—addressed his Roman readers regarding application of God’s Word. He first called them to “present [their] bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is [their] spiritual service of worship” (Romans 12:1). By using the term bodies in this context, Paul showed he understood the biblical emphasis on deeds. The person who lives in right relationship with God is the person who understands the importance of acting in righteousness and of sacrificing personal desires for the sake of God’s desires and direction.

Thoughts

Human beings are also rational creatures. We don’t just act. We also think, reflect, and process events and ideas in ways that fundamentally distinguish us from any other created being. And as a result of that reality, God cares not just for our bodies but for our minds as well. Continuing his exhortation to the church at Rome, Paul encouraged the believers there not to “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The apostle was not content to simply have the people offer their deeds without also seeking transformation of their minds.

Such an approach would lead believers right back into the problem that plagued the Israelites throughout their history—they offered sacrifices to God but without the changed heart to go along with those worshipful deeds (Isaiah 1:10–17). The hypocrisy of the people led to judgment from God and eventually exile from the land He had promised to their forefathers.

Living a life of deeds without a changed heart is not the goal for believers. Spiritual maturity—and thus true application—demands an emphasis on both words and deeds.

The Principles of Application

When we think about actually applying the Bible to our lives, we consider a process that demands individual attention. Application requires each of us to think about our own situations and needs. Every believer finds himself or herself in different places with different struggles and pursuits. In one sense, then, application is intensely personal.

However, once observation, interpretation, and correlation have been completed, there are five questions that anyone applying Scripture should answer. Not every question will work for every passage, but the questions should, as a group, provide a solid foundation to begin applying Scripture. With the results of your interpretation in mind, answer the following questions.

Questions to Answer

Is there a sin to confess?

Many passagesin Scripture will raise the issue of sin. The apostle Paul is famous for his lists of behaviors to avoid. For example, Galatians 5:19–21 includes a list of clear deeds that characterize those who shall not inherit the kingdom of God. However, in many other passages, the sin to confess is a bit beneath the surface. Whichever the case, regular reading and study of Scripture will help each of us better distinguish the path between sin and righteousness.

Is there an error to correct?

Scripture is largely concerned with how we live our daily lives in terms of our deeds, but it also communicates clearly about the kinds of thoughts we should have about God and His world. Our study of Scripture will inevitably raise questions about some of our beliefs. A reading of the prophetic books may convince us of God’s concern for the poor and needy in a way we had not seen before. Or a reading of Ephesians might show us the absolute necessity of God’s grace for salvation. As we read, we must keep our minds open and malleable to correction.

Is there a command to carry out?

This is probably the easiest of all applications to identify. When Scripture makes demands on God’s people, we must recognize the authority of God’s Word and pursue a path of obedience. When we read Jesus’ command, “Do not fear” (Matthew 10:31), we are then responsible to implement that reality in our lives. With the command before us, our next step—obedience—is not difficult to determine, even if it is sometimes difficult to carry out.

Is there an example that challenges?

Throughout Scripture we find good examples for living. Human beings almost implicitly follow the examples of those who surround them. Therefore, if we make a habit of surrounding ourselves with the stories and people of Scripture, we shall find our lives filled with good examples of faithful people—and bad examples of unfaithful people—to guide our steps.

Is there a promise to claim?

When a Bible makes a promise, it might be to all people throughout history (Genesis 9:9–13), or it might apply to a narrower group of people (2 Chronicles 7:14). Hopefully through observation and interpretation, we can clearly determine the recipients of the promise. And if the specific contents of the promise apply to us today, we can continue to benefit from it as grounding for our hope in God and His specific plans for humanity and the world.

Is there a prayer to pray?

Lastly, we must keep our eyes open for prayers. In many cases—most notably the Psalms or the Lord’s Prayer—the Bible contains specific prayers that we can transfer wholly to our context today. David’s prayer of confession in Psalm 51 is no less powerful and meaningful today than it was three thousand years ago when he first penned it. Make a habit of incorporating the prayers of Scripture into your own prayer time with the Lord.

Principles to Develop

Once you’ve asked and answered the six questions above, you are ready to develop an application principle. It should be general enough to apply to many people yet specific enough to involve real and concrete action. This principle will draw upon the insights of the previous six questions and combine those with the timeless truth you developed in your interpretation step. Bringing these insights together will yield one or more principles of application and particular actions.

Part of this process requires understanding when to draw principles versus when to obey specific commands. When Jesus told the disciples to go and untie a donkey (Matthew 21:2–3), the application for all believers is not to let loose all the donkeys that have been tied up. Rather we understand from it the importance of obeying the command of Jesus. In contrast, when Jesus told His disciples to make disciples in every nation (Matthew 28:18–20), that is a direct command not just for the disciples but for the church as a whole today.

Whether the application has to be generalized from the text or corresponds quite closely with it, application requires drawing out a principle so that we can follow it up with action.

The Practice of Application

Once we have understood the purpose for application—spiritual maturity—and the principles of application—asking questions to develop values to live by—we can move to the final consideration of application: just doing it. When we have a principle in hand and are ready to apply it, we will accomplish our goal by going through the following three steps.

First, resolve to act. No application takes place without a decision to implement it. Often, when Scripture reveals a truth or practice that believers should embrace, many of us will decide to implement that practice right away. At times, however, we run up against one of those difficult truths, a slayer of our sacred cows. These truths lead us to wrestle with what God’s Word says to be true versus our own personal preferences or standard practices. Whether it is instantaneous or after a period of struggle, we must all make a decision to act upon God’s revealed Word.

Second, tailor a plan. Many times when we decide to apply Scripture, we do so without thinking about how we will make that decision a reality in our lives. This can lead to inaction due to uncertainty. For instance, when you decide to forgive someone who has wronged you, the decision portion of that act is often the easiest. Then comes the question of how you will interact with that individual from then on. Will you go back to your old way of interacting before the breach occurred in the relationship? Will you address the issue of forgiveness with the individual? Questions such as these require some thought and planning; it’s one thing to speak words of forgiveness and another thing entirely to live out the forgiveness on a daily basis.

Finally, follow through. The great commandment of Jesus, to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength is followed by another, that we love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37–39). The real significance of application lies at the heart of this command. We express our love for God in our love for other human beings. Wherever there are people, there should also be Christians there to love them. And the only way that happens? By applying the Bible.

Practice Passage: Genesis 39:6–12

Consider the timeless truth you wrote regarding this passage. Ask yourself the following questions, and place a checkmark next to those that apply.

Is there . . .

  • a sin to confess?
  • an error to correct?
  • a command to carry out?
  • an example that challenges?
  • a promise to claim?
  • a prayer to pray?

Before deriving your personal application principle, answer a few specific application questions to get you thinking about the practical implications of this passage.

Under what circumstances are you most vulnerable to sexual temptations (for example, when you’re lonely, depressed, sick, tired, or even when you’re successful or happy)?

What types of persuasion (words, sounds, sights, thoughts, or touch) are most likely to tempt you into sexual sin?

What is your game plan to avoid sexual temptation when the combination of circumstances and persuasion coincide in your life?

What personal application principle can you derive from your insights?

Recommended Resources

Books by Insight for Living Ministries

Articles by Insight for Living Ministries

Other Books

  • Hendricks, Howard G., and William D. Hendricks. Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible. Rev. ed. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007.