I thought it might be fun to share some insights on how to approach the Word of God. I know for many years in my life I simply read the word, I never really studied it. But as I grew in my knowledge and learned better ways of getting into the Word that really help to bring out the meaning of a text. After all, how are we going to apply what the Bible says to us if we are not really sure what it is saying?

The method that I have been taught and use can be broken down into three parts: observation, interpretation, application. Let’s start by looking at observation (pun intended).

We start with observation because we need to first see what the text has to say. How is the passage laid out; are there repeating words; an unusual structure; word order and things like that. Let’s take a verse and see what this looks like:

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, (Eph 1:15)

In school the assignment was to find at least fifty observations on just one verse. Personally I find that a little silly because you start getting into the really ridiculous things (the word “of” is used once). The idea of the exercise was to push your mind into thinking about the verse and really finding everything that you could. So let’s see what we can come up with for this verse:

  • “For” starts the sentence which points may be pointing to the previous context
  • “have heard” is past tense
  • the faith that the author has heard of is that of the reader(s)
  • not only has the faith been heard about, but also the reader(s) love
  • the thought of the verse (without its context) isn’t complete
  • “faith” is in the Lord Jesus
  • love is directed toward the saints
  • who are “all the saints”
  • “because” of what? Because he has heard of their love and faith
  • not Jesus Christ, not Christ Jesus, THE Lord Jesus

That gives a quick ten, but we could probably come up with more. When you sit down to start your study and you begin this process it’s a good idea to write things out; I find that I can usually put my thoughts together much better when I sit down and write out some details of what I’m thinking. Once you have as much observation as you are comfortable with we can move onto the next section. I will give one final piece of advise: spend a good portion of your time in observation. If you pull as much detail out of a passage as you can the next two parts become much easier and quicker.

We next want to interpret what the passage is actually saying based upon our observations. In interpretation we are trying to understand what the passage means. When we talk about interpretation we are really talking about a two-step processes; first we need to look at the passage from the perspective of the first readers. This will mean that we will need to do some background research into the context of the passage in question. If you have a decent study Bible much of this work has already been done for you; at the beginning of most books of the Bible a study Bible will provide you with such information as the author, the date of writing, major themes of the book, an outline, etc. With a little background information we can hopefully get into the mind of the first readers and better understand the passage.

Looking at our example again we can draw the following conclusions:

  • From outside study we learn that Paul is the author of the letter and is writing, most likely, to the church at Ephesus
  • Since the Ephesians were the first readers of the letter we can conclude that it is their faith and love that Paul has heard about
  • Their love is also not limited to just the saints in their church, but rather is extended to all the saints
  • In a normal situation we would not examine a single verse like this outside of its context. When we look at verse 16 we can see that Paul is giving thanks and praying for them. This is done because of their faith and love.

After we look at the passage from the first readers perspective we can begin the process of moving from their time to our own. Some of this will over lap with the next section, which is perfectly natural and fine. The final step we take in trying to understand a passage is application.

During application we move beyond what-does-it-mean, to, what-does-it-mean-to-me. Application is where we make it personal to us in our context; sometimes this will be really easy. Commands like “do not lie” are very straightforward and mean the same thing to us that it meant to the hearer 3,000 years ago. Our example of course does not yield itself naturally to application, but it can ask some questions to which we should ponder. Are others hearing about my faith in the Lord Jesus? Do I show love towards my brothers and sisters?

If you’d like to learn more than just this basic overview I highly recommend How to read the Bible for all It’s Worth – A Guide to Understanding the Bible. It’s a really good, simple read that will walk you through the steps much better than I can.

Make the time to actually think about what you are reading. Maybe spend one day on each step as you work through a passage; thinking won’t hurt you and you may even like it!

*Take some of the comments in this post with a grain of salt and don’t be too serious.