Let’s Get Back to the Bible: The Process of Studying the Bible
By Al Valdés, Bible Professor
Some years ago I received a phone invitation from a friend inviting me to listen to a traveling Bible teacher who had come to our area with some amazing claims. Neither of us had ever heard of him. So, we went both out of curiosity and mistrust. We joined a few hundred people from various churches who had gathered to hear him. As the evening progressed we realized that we had indeed encountered a false teacher. We discovered that he both denied the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ — an essential Christian truth clearly taught in Scripture (cf. John 1:1-18)— and proclaimed spectacular interpretations with no basis in the biblical text. In fact, he admitted that he had no evidence for one of the various inaccurate ideas he presented as truth. But, that evening we made another startling discovery: those who had gathered to listen to him from the different area churches both applauded his teachings and gave him money! Only two or three people challenged his false teaching.
This true story brings us back to the purpose of this series of articles—to return God’s people to His Word. The first article revealed the simple secret to understanding the Bible — to read it! We specifically prescribed reading whichever book of the Bible you choose to read at one sitting, repeatedly or more than once, and in different versions. In this article we want to look at the process for studying the Bible. So, once we gather our Bible, our notebook and pen, and, a cup of coffee (if we need it), we pray for God’s help in understanding His Word, and get to work. Now, what kind of work do we need to do as we read through a book of the Bible?
Use the Classic Process
The classic process of inductive Bible study essentially involves three steps: observation, interpretation, and application. A visit to the doctor closely mirrors the steps. First, the doctor looks for data by asking you questions and examining you. If he comes across something he doesn’t recognize or needs more information about he might consult a medical reference work or order some tests. He might have some hunches at this stage but no definitive answer. This corresponds to the observation step, guided by the question “What do I see?” Once he has all the information he needs, he interprets the results and tells you what you have. This parallels the interpretation step, guided by the question “What does it mean?” Finally, the doctor prescribes something. He might order some medicine, surgery, therapy, or simple rest. This reflects the application step and answers the question “What should I do?” or “What should I simply believe?” So, let’s start with the first step.
Ask Eight Questions/Ask Many Questions
Eight questions can help us fulfill the step of observation: Who?, What?, When?, Where?, How?, How much?, To what extent? and Why? These questions help us gather much information as we ask them from the text itself. The more that we notice the more precise our interpretation. Later, we can use trustworthy reference books to help us gather additional information, but initially we stay very close to the text itself. To see a little of how this works, let’s first use the observation questions to take a look at John 3:14-18:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (English Standard Bible)
- Who? The verses mention various P(p)ersons: Moses (v. 14), the Son of Man (v. 14), whoever (v. 14), Him = the Son of Man (v. 15), God (v. 16), His only Son (v. 16), the world collectively (v. 16), the believer (vv. 15, 16, 18), and the non-believer (v. 18, 2x).
- What? The text speaks about lifting up a serpent and a parallel action of lifting up the Son of Man (v. 14), believing in the Son of Man = God’s unique Son = Jesus (in context), and God’s purpose in sending His Son into the world, to save not to judge.
- When? Verse 18 speaks of a negative judgment that occurs already for those who do not believe. Verse 14 speaks of an event that happened in the time of Moses. Verse 17 presupposes that God has already sent His Son into the world.
- Where? The serpent incident with Moses happened “in the wilderness” (v. 14).
- How? Moses facilitated deliverance by raising up the serpent in the wilderness (v. 14, cf. Numbers 21:4-8 for the background). God accomplishes salvation by the giving (v. 16) and lifting up (v. 14) of His Son. The person receives eternal life by believing in God’s Son (vv. 15, 16, 18).
- How much? The verse does not quantify belief into degrees. One either believes and receives eternal life (v. 15), obtains salvation (v. 17), and escapes condemnation (v. 18), or does not believe and experiences the opposite: perishing (v. 16) and judgment (v. 18).
- To what extent? The passage mentions “eternal” life and so it extends into eternity (vv. 15, 16).
- Why? Verse 16 shows God’s love as the motivation for sending His Son to die for us. Verse 18 conditions judgment on one factor, not believing in the name of God’s unique Son. They receive judgment already because they do not believe.
Now, as we ask these questions, the details we discover will cause us to ask interpretive questions. These questions help us make sense of what we see and serve as the bridge to interpretation. So, you can divide a sheet into two columns and write “Observations” on one side and “Interpretive Questions” on the other. As you note your observations on one side, you can write questions that arise in your mind on the other. The answer to these questions will help guide you to the proper interpretation of the text. The observations on John 3:14-18 above raise questions such as these:
- What does “lifted up” mean as applied to Jesus? Does it refer to the Cross? (v. 14)
- Why does the phrase “in the name of the only Son of God” appear in connection with unbelievers in contrast to the simple “believe in Him” for believers? (v. 18)
- We know from other Scriptures like 1 Corinthians 3:1-18, esp. vv. 10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:9-11 and Romans 14:1-12, esp. vv. 10-12 that believers in Jesus will face judgment with reference to rewards. Here believers will not undergo judgment. What judgment does this context refer to?
The above only represents a limited sample of the observations and interpretive questions gleaned from this passage. You can consult Bible atlases, concordances, lexicons, and handbooks that deal with cultural issues in the observation step to, for example, find geographical locations or receive insight on cultural matters. In principle, they should help you arrive at your interpretation or interpretive options. (Unfortunately, even some apparently neutral resources offer an interpretive theological slant.) In the above example we would use a concordance to help us find the Moses reference.
Test your Interpretation and Apply it
Only after you have made your observations and asked — and tried to answer— the interpretive questions that arose do you consult commentaries. Why? Because these give you someone else’s correct or incorrect interpretation. The same principle applies to study notes or outlines already provided in many modern Bibles. We want to first do our own work with the Bible, pray, reflect, and arrive at a conclusion that we can later modify as needed. This puts us in the best position to later evaluate what others say. At seminary they taught us to treat commentaries as friends that we sit with to discuss a passage— not as final authorities. We should consult and dialogue with them, but the final answer lies in the biblical text itself.
In our study of the above passage, we concluded that in the same way that one look at the bronze serpent saved the sinning Israelite from death, so one look of faith at Jesus (i.e. belief in Him for salvation) can save the sinner. God, in His love offers this singular provision, by handing over His unique Son on our behalf. We can believe and not perish, or disbelieve and count as condemned already. So, in this passage the Application step does not ask to do something, but rather believe Someone. A beloved Spanish Church chorus says it all: “una mirada de fe es la que puede salvar al pecador.” (“One look of faith can save the sinner.”) Other Scriptures will ask us to do or not to do something, or both (cf. Philippians 4:6), or to have a particular disposition (cf. Philippians 2:5). A study of the text in the context of the whole book will let us know.
Years ago I took on a class project that challenged me to find out the meaning of this verse: “Then Paul said, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” (Acts 23:5). This declaration from the apostle Paul comes in the context of his appearance in Jerusalem before Ananias the high priest (cf. Acts 23:1-10). Do you see the issue? How could Paul with his expert knowledge of Judaism not recognize the high priest? I mentioned the assignment to a law student friend and we discussed possible interpretations. I quickly dismissed one option saying, “It can’t be that one.” My friend responded with two words, “Why not?” You know how the story ends. After further reflection and research it turns out that I ended up defending the very interpretation that I had originally dismissed! By the way, I enjoyed the discovery process so much that I still speak of it to this day.
So, at this stage we want to encourage your own study of the Scriptures. Initially we aim to avoid jumping either to someone else’s conclusions or our own. We want to first do our own work with the Bible text itself, pray, follow the process, reflect, and arrive at an interpretation. Then we consult secondary sources and test our conclusions. Ultimately, we return to the panoramic view and make sure your conclusions fit the text of the Bible. We do all of this to make sure that we interpret and apply the Bible correctly—believing what God wants us to believe and doing what He has told us to do.