This is the second post in a series on interacting with God’s Word. Read part one here.
Many people talk about doing “Bible study.” What exactly does that mean? Why is it important? And how is that connected to the practice of meditation?
Good meditation (the subject of a future post) requires biblical knowledge. The more Bible we know, the more effective we will be in meditating. The truths of the Bible act as the building blocks from which we construct our meditation. Knowing the Old Testament helps us understand the New Testament, and vice versa. We can understand James better if we know Paul. Likewise, knowing Peter from the Gospels allows us to gain more as we reading his letters.
Bible study takes time and effort, but you can do it! You don’t have to know the biblical languages or complete history of the Ancient Near East. With a little intentionality and a few basic tools, the Spirit of God will teach you his Word.
The most important part of Bible study is understanding its purpose. A lot of people approach the Bible as an instruction manual for life; they expect it to give them answers for their most immediate felt needs. While the Bible does give us great instruction on how to live, that’s not the Bible’s primary purpose.
The Bible is first and foremost a Book about God. It reveals our Creator, his holiness and righteousness, our rebellion against him, and his plan to bring us back to himself through Jesus Christ. When you study the Bible, the most important purpose is to know more about the God who has loved us through Jesus.
Basic Bible Study
Many of us have no idea how to start studying the Bible in greater depth. Here are some very simple suggestions for starting the process on our own:
1. Work your way through a book of the Bible.
Sometimes we are tempted to randomly open our Bibles and trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us to the passages we need to hear. Sometimes this works. However, God gave us the whole Bible, which is a collection of whole letters and not a potpourri of inspirational sayings. To really understand a passage, we need to understand it in its context. Reading whole books allows this to happen.
If you don’t know where to start, ask your Sunday School teacher or pastor for a suggestion. I often recommend people begin with the Gospel of John, followed by the 1 John. If you’re experiencing many trials, read 1 Peter. If you’re struggling with living out the Christian life practically, start with James. For a letter of encouragement, try Philippians.
2. Commit to a block of time, not an amount of reading.
Don’t force yourself to read a whole chapter a day. That might be too much. Instead, commit yourself to spending a certain amount of time reading. It may be ten minutes at first; that’s okay. Start there. Stick with it, and you’ll want more.
3. Begin and continue in prayer.
Start your time with prayer. Ask God to open the eyes of your heart to see his truth in the text. Trust that the Holy Spirit will illuminate God’s Word for you. Continue to pray as you read. If you have trouble understanding some verses, ask God to teach you by his Spirit.
4. Look for the author’s original meaning.
Ask some probing questions of the text to find out what the author was trying to say. The writers of the Bible had specific messages. Here are some basic questions to help understand the author’s intent:
- Who is writing this passage?
- To whom is this passage written?
- What is he telling them?
- Why is he saying this to them?
A good study Bible can help answer these questions. I recommend the ESV Study Bible, which has an introduction to each book of the Bible and helpful notes on each passage.
5. Ask what the passage teaches about God, and then ask what the passage teaches about us.
John Calvin begins his great work The Institutes of Christian Religion by arguing that true wisdom is made up of knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves, and that these two are mutually connected. We cannot know God apart from a knowledge of ourselves, and we cannot know ourselves apart from knowledge of God.
After you have done the work to discern the author’s original message to his audience, start looking for the truth about God revealed in the passage. The Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us, so every page teaches us who he is. Next, in light of what the passage says about God, ask what it says about us as human beings. Here are some questions to help get you started:
- How is God present in this passage?
- What is God doing in this passage? Is he showing power, issuing a command, rebuking sin, etc.?
- What does this passage reveal about God’s character? Is he holy, just, merciful, compassionate, faithful, etc?
- How does this passage relate to the gospel of Jesus? How does it relate to the cross?
- How is God different than man in this passage?
- What does this passage say about the relationship between God and man?
- How is God’s judgment present in this passage?
- How is God’s grace present in this passage?
6. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how the passage applies to your own life.This step is very important, but it must come last. You shouldn’t start applying a passage to your life until you’ve done the work to understand what it objectively means and what it teaches about God. This will only be fruitful if you commit to specificity; the more specific in your application, the more likely it will stick.
Here are some questions to help you think about how the passage may apply to your life:
- Do I live like I believe what this passage teaches about God? If so, how? If not, how?
- Does this passage reveal sin in my life? Am I doing something I shouldn’t? Am I not doing something I should?
- How does this passage point me to the gospel?
- Is there some change to make in my life in light of this passage?
In the next post of this series, we will consider the practice of biblical meditation.