I did not mean to take this long to get back to you. I was a day or two away from leaving on a deployment when you sent your question to Jessica. I was deeply encouraged by your question. I remember talking about Bible study methods when we all lived in Washington. I sometimes feel as though, because I talk so much, that my words are less valuable than the words of others and so they will not be well remembered. Thanks for remembering that we talked about this several years ago. That you remembered means a lot to me.
So here goes…
That’s it!! Have fun!!!
LOL… I’m just kidding.
When sitting down to study your Bible, have a few tools at the ready. A dictionary, concordance, a couple commentaries, a notebook, a Bible you are comfortable writing in (or several in different translations), and something to drink. I like to have a couple pens and a set of colored pencils too. I don’t like using hi-lighters because they bleed through the pages. Colored pencils do the job, are pretty cheap, and are readily available in my house. (The kids make comments sometimes about me coloring in my Bible)
The first step is to read whatever passage you wish to study. I used to advise people to push through a chapter at a time, but I don’t do that anymore. I like to stick to no more than a “thought” at a time. Sometimes that is a chapter, sometimes a little less or a little more. When I am reading and it seems like the story or the main theme has changed, I stop and try to find roughly where the change occurred. That is where I choose to place the end point for the passage I am studying. Depending on the amount of time that I have, I may work this process several times on sequential “thoughts/passages” or on other passages that I think of while studying the one currently before me. That is one of the things to put in your notebook… other passages that you think of and have one of those thoughts like, “Huh… I remember reading… and I wonder what exactly… I’d love to look into…”. Each time you sit down to study, you have no shortage of things to look into. Continue where you left off or pick up one of the passages that was a tangent for you from a previous study.
After you have read the passage a couple times, start writing down your observations. Not your feelings, or your interpretations, your “this means…” statements, just simple observable facts. Think, “What do I see” not so much “What does it mean” or “What can I find that is significant.” The meaning and the significance will be looked at later. Observations are things like, “There is a book on the chair” or “A gorilla walked through the basketball game”. There are a couple ways to go about making observations. Look at the passage as a whole and write down what you observe. This is the easiest and least invasive. Look at the passage as a whole and pick an arbitrary number for how many observations you want. The smaller the number, the easier, the larger… well… challenge accepted! Pick an arbitrary number and look for that many observations per verse. I often ask some of the guys I spend time with to find 5 observations per verse from Romans chapter 6. This is a great exercise in placing value on what is written on the page before placing value on how to feel about what is written on the page.
I was having a conversation with a guy about John chapter 8 this morning. Lets use that as an example. The passage will be John 8:2-11.
Here are my observations:
Jesus went to the temple at dawn.
People were going to see Jesus.
There were people at the temple at dawn.
There does not appear to be a coffee shop at the temple.
A woman was caught having sex with a man to whom she was not married.
The woman was brought to Jesus.
The woman was brought into the crowd.
The woman was publicly charged with adultery.
The scribes and pharisees want Jesus to condemn the woman to death.
Jesus stoops and draws/writes on the ground instead of answering.
Jesus stands, answers, and returns to writing/drawing on the ground.
There appears to be no mention of what Jesus wrote/drew.
The accusers abandon their plot and leave.
Jesus acknowledges the woman.
Jesus does not condemn the woman.
Jesus sends the woman on her way.
There ya go. Those are my quick observations. No interpretation, no answering the question, “What does it mean” or even “Why…”. Just simple observations.
It is now time to move to the next step… oIca… Interpretation.
What does it mean?
Be careful here. It is hard sometimes to keep this question in this simple form. For some reason we like to add “to me” to the end of the question and I often here that same little addition added to the beginning of statements being made by Christians when discussing Bible things. I do my absolute best to never put those words anywhere in my head, much less my heart, when working through this part of a study. I don’t want my ideas or perspectives flavoring the life giving soup of the Spirit. I want the soup… what does it mean… not what I want to be in the soup… what does it mean to me. Try to keep in mind things like historical context, local economy, the culture of the day, they way the characters in the passage would respond. This part gets easier the more we read and study. Do not do this step without regard to the observations you already made. Here is what I interpret from this passage:
Jesus values spending time with His people and teaching them.
The scribes and pharisees have little regard for the dignity of the woman who was caught in adultery.
The scribes and pharisees are not simply motivated to see the quick execution of justice or else the man would also have been brought before Jesus.
The sin of the woman and the sin of the scribes and the pharisees have led them to Jesus where they await his Judgement. (This might be considered an observation… don’t over think it)
Jesus addresses the heart of these 2 groups, the woman and the scribes/pharisees, at the same time. As Jesus stoops to write on the ground, a woman feeling guilty and exposed in the middle of a crowd of men, is no longer the center of attention as the men surely look to see what Jesus is writing. Jesus immediately starts to address her shame and guilt, immediately addressing the effects of sin in her life.
Sin’s result in somebodies life is not condemnation but is shame and guilt. The attitude of the person with sin in the presence of Jesus determines their outcome after encountering Him.
These are just some very quick interpretations. Something to realize is that interpretations may very well be wrong. Interpretations are not convictions, though the way scripture is interpreted directly effects our convictions. When you have made your interpretations and written them down, test them. Make it a point to go over them with somebody else. Doesn’t have to be during a Bible study. While getting coffee or shopping with somebody, just fire one off. “So I was thinking about this the other day… what do you think?” Read some commentaries and see if what you are thinking is congruent what the commentary says. What you think does not need to match exactly, but if it is contradictory, then spend some more time looking into it.
C is for Correlation. Co-Relate. Does this passage, this theme, this verse, this idea have a cousin, a relative, living in another part of the Bible? Pretty simple. Spend some time running your fingers through your bible to passages you are reminded of from your current study. If while you are doing this, you come across a passage that is really significant to you, or seems to really drive something home in you, then write that reference in your Bible in the same area of the passage that you are studying. If it is a REALLY significant thing, or something that your head and heart have been circling for a while, or it is a topic that you find yourself talking about often, jot the reference on one of the first few pages of your Bible with a tag. “Woman in Adultery NOT stoned!! John 8” Those pretty pages, mostly blank, with the publisher emblem or some other scholarly but otherwise useless information are just begging for you to fill that space with these kinds of tags. You will essentially be building your own concordance in the first few (and last few) pages of your Bible, and you will be strengthening your grip on the themes of scripture. As you see important and powerful representations of Christ, the Holy Spirit, God the Father, the Kingdom, or any one of the many other themes of scripture, you will be able to fit them together in an appropriate tapestry of theology and life.
Application is last. This is the one that I think I had the hardest time with. Because I (and most of us I believe) come from a “do” society, that tends to be the immediate filter that “application” comes through. “What is the application for your life in John 8?” “Teacher, the application is to not get caught in the act of adultery!” Well… yes… but… no.
Application is not just something to do. If we boil all of our study down to a list of actions, then we run the risk of missing the relational aspect of Christ, the resting/recovering/healing nature of the Kingdom, or we may slide into developing a legalistic bend to our thoughts as they apply to the Christian life. There are lots of places where the application will be “Do… more” and “Do… less” or “Do NOT do… anymore” and “Start doing…”. But things like, “I am a valued and chosen, precious person to Christ.” is not so much of a “do” statement as a “be” statement. Applying that truth wouldn’t come so much from doing anything tangible so much as spending a little extra time that day (or the next day, or over the next week) simply meditating on the grace and goodness of God and how He has chosen to give you value, or beauty, or strength, or influence. The question for application is, “How does this apply to my life?” Be careful about asking “How do I apply this to my life?” Trying to find something in a study to do, or to make applicable to your life ushers you into a “do” attitude, which in turn can (doesn’t necessarily, but can) lead into a belief system based on, “If I only pray more and work harder and live more selflessly, then life will be better and Jesus will love me more.” Which, without realizing it, is a way that I lived for a long LONG long time.
In short… OICA.
What does it say and what do I see?
What does it mean?
Have I seen this in Scripture before and where?
How does this apply to my life?
This is by no means the end all be all method of studying the Bible. This is, however, a very simple, straightforward method and one that I have utilized more than any other over the course of my short life.
And one last note… Try to stay away from Study Bibles while studying (or when doing any kind of Bible reading for that matter). It is easy to jump into the footnotes and commentary of the person that wrote the notes while looking for observations and interpretation, which is then letting somebody else think for you instead of you thinking (and therefore connecting) to Scripture and Christ for yourself. I do have study bibles, and I use them while studying, but I don’t open them until after I have finished O I C, and then I turn to them to see if what I thought lines up with what these other folks think. Then I move forward with application. I use study bibles more like commentary reference material, a dedicated study tool, and less like my Bible. I want to be intimately familiar with my Bible, my sword, instead of only be proficient with it when I am reading the notes and directions from somebody else. I wouldn’t do that in the heat of battle, so I don’t do that in the calm of training. And that is what Bible Study is, Paige, it’s the calm of training so that you will be ready, out of season and in season, to engage on behalf of your King, your Husband, Kid(s), family, and friends as needed.
Again, I am deeply encouraged that you asked me about this. I hope you and Matt are doing well. I have not forgotten about y’all and I am still trying to come up with some sort of good way to help y’all with praying.