This is the third lesson in our series How to Study the Bible. In this lesson, we turn our attention to five keys to help us study the Bible.
Ezra 7:9-10 says, “For on the first day of the first month he [Ezra] began to go up from Babylonia, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem for the good hand of his God was upon him. For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”
Ezra was a scribe “skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD, the God of Israel, had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him.” Skilled means he was quick to grasp and respond to the Word of God. He was confident in God’s Word.
Ezra was a priest (7:5) with great knowledge in God’s word. What lessons can we learn from Ezra about studying the Bible?
- Ezra was intentional about his study of God’s law. “He set his heart.” Ezra had a whole-hearted commitment to knowing God’s Word. This was determined action by Ezra. One translation says Ezra had dedicated himself to this. He was intentional when it came to studying God’s law and he was dedicated. He knew that it would not happen if he did not act. The lesson then is when we are going to study the Bible we need to be dedicated and intentional.
- Ezra set his heart to study God’s law to do it. The goal of his study was to obey what God revealed. He applied God’s law to his life. He applied it personally. He obeyed God. Ezra exemplified what James says in the New Testament that we should not merely be hearers of God’s Word but doers of it.
- Ezra’s teaching of others came from the fruit of his study and application. Notice the distinct order here. He studied it first. Once he understood what he studied then he obeyed it. It was only after he did these two steps that he set out to teach others. The lesson for us is that we should study and obey before we teach.
Nehemiah 8:1-8 gives an account of Ezra’s teaching. The last verse shows us that Ezra and the other men read from the Law of God. One translation put this verse like this, “They read out of the book of the law of God, translating and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was read.” No doubt Ezra was able to do this from the fruit of the study of God’s Word he devoted himself to.
Ezra was aware of God’s presence. He was aware of this because of his devotion to God’s word. The end of God’s word is to know Him and love Him, to have a relationship with Him. God works as He chooses in His providence but throughout the history of the church it has been rare that God has done work for His kingdom through a person who was also not devoted to His word. Ezra was no exception.
The Psalmist writes in Psalm 111:2, “Great are the works of the LORD studied by all who delight in them.” There are two observations from this passage and the context around it. First, studying God’s works is done by those who delight in them. Studying God’s works is an expression of their delitght. The second observation is that study does not diminish praise. This Psalm is an expression of praise for the LORD and His great works. The true and proper study of God’s word does not get in the way of praising God.
From these two passages, we see that study is an important part of the Christian life. Specifically studying the Bible, God’s word. We need to admit up from that studying the Bible is hard work. The hardness of it does not give us an out for not doing it. I think the problem many Christians face is not the lack of desire to study the Bible but a lack of knowledge for how to do it. Now that we know what the Bible is and why we should study it we are left with to answer how do we study the Bible?
You Are Not Alone
Writing to his protégé Timothy Paul said, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” (1 Tim. 2:7) Timothy was to think. Thinking is hard work. Timothy had to do it. But why was he to do it? “For the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” The Lord would help Timothy understand what Timothy was thinking over.
Likewise, as we study the Bible, we cannot do it our own strength. We need the help of the Holy Spirit. We do this through prayer. When you study the Bible, you need to pray before you begin, as you are studying, and when you conclude. Remember, you are responsible to study the Bible, but you can never properly do it in your own strength.
Where Do You Start?
In many ways if you can read a book you can read the Bible. The Bible is not just any book, but it is a book. God chose to reveal Himself this way. It is a library of books, containing sixty-six different volumes, that cover one story, God’s redemption of sinners like you and me.
We need to start with the basics. We will look at five keys that will help us get the big picture of studying the Bible then we will look briefly at a three-step-plan for Bible study.
This should come as a surprise to no one. Context is the most important key to reading and studying the Bible. The words, verses, and paragraphs you are focusing on must be understood considering three different contexts. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. What do we mean by context?
Sinclair Ferguson is helpful when he says that reading the Bible in context means, “reading each word as part of a sentence, each sentence within its paragraph, each paragraph within the chapter in which it appears, each chapter in its book, and each book in the context of the authors writings, and then each author in the context of his place in God’s on-going revelation so that ultimately we read a passage in the context of the whole Bible narrative.” That is a lot so we will use John 3:16 as an example. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The paragraph in which the verse appears is verses 16-21. The paragraph is in chapter three. The book in which it appears is the Gospel of John. John is the author so we can set the book within the context of his other writings, 1-3 John and Revelation. Then we seek to understand the passage considering the whole Bible. This may seem like a lot, but it is something you will grow in over time.
The three main contexts to think about are:
- Immediate. This is what is around the verse or passage you are studying. It includes the verse, the paragraph, and the surrounding paragraphs.
- Book. The next context to look at is the complete book. How does the theme of the book inform our understanding of what we are studying?
- Bible. How does the message of the Bible inform our understanding of this verse?
Remember, always, context, context, context.
Jesus and the Story of the Bible
In John 5 Jesus is speaking with the religious leaders of the day and said to them, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” When Jesus used the word Scripture what writings did He refer to? The Old Testament. The books of the Old Testament bear witness about Jesus.
One writer said, “Ultimately the Bible is about God sending Jesus to be the Saviour.” I remember one teenager telling me once that the OT looked forward to Jesus and the NT looked back to Jesus. Either way the whole Bible is about Christ. When we study then we should be asking how the passage is connected to Jesus.
Reality and Commands
When God commands His people to do something in His word it is based in a truth about Him or them. This is most clearly seen in the Epistles which tend to be more logical in their arrangement, but the pattern holds throughout Scripture.
When the people of Israel come to Mt. Sinai for God to give them the law notice how God begins, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God reminds Israel who He is and what He has done for them. God is their redeemer. He is their covenant God. He is working to keep His promise to Abraham.
It is only after God reminds them about who He is that He declares His first command, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The commands that follow are grounded, they are rooted in the reality of who God is and what He did for His people.
When you are studying the Bible and you come across a command you should inspect the surrounding context to see what reality, what truth the command is grounded in.
Read According to the Literature
We mentioned earlier that the Bible is a library of sixty-six books with one theme. Within those books there are different types of literature, what we normally call a genre. We are probably most familiar with the word genre from the world of music today. There are different types of genre, classical, rock, hip-hop, country, bluegrass, and jazz.
The genre tells us what to expect from the music. As an example, when I listen to Shai Linne, Christian hip-hop, I expect the lyrics to rhyme more than they rhyme in other music. Here is an example,
He’s the sovereign thriller, the awesome healer, the Law-fulfiller
The Sodom-killer, the fraud revealer, no god is realer
I also expect that the lyrics are written to match the beat, the rhythm of the song. By way of contrast when I listen to classical music, I do not expect any lyrics, but I do expect changes in tempo and the various instruments.
Likewise, the genres of literature found in Scripture help us setup our expectations for what we find in the book. When you read a historical narrative, you know you are reading about real events. This really happened. An Epistle is a letter and can be more personal and is arranged in a logical way. When you read a Psalm, you know it is poetic in language and has a lot of symbolic and pictorial language.
As we progress, we will cover keys for each genre found in Scripture. For now, here is the list of what we will cover: Narrative, Poetry, Wisdom, Prophecy, Gospels, Parable, Epistle, and Apocalypse.
Whole, Parts, Whole
This is related to context so we will cover it quickly. Each book of the Bible has a main theme. Let us stick with the Gospel of John. John tells us why he wrote, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
That is the whole. That is the reason why he wrote the book. Now, we need to connect John 3:16 to our thinking here. John 3:16 is the part. We need to understand John 3:16 within the context of John’s reason for writing. Then we get back to the whole. How does John 3:16 help us understand John’s reason for writing?
They are directly related. God sent His only Son, Jesus is the Son of God, so save those who believe in Him.
A Three-Step-Plan for Studying the Bible
With these keys in mind, we have the foundation we need to look at the three-step-plan for studying the Bible. We are going to be using this process together in the coming weeks so tonight we are just going to review it.
- Observation. This is a crucial and foundational first step. If you do not work hard here then you will struggle with the rest of the process. In observation, we are looking at the text to see what is in the text. We ask questions of the text. We look out for repeated phrases. Observation will help us understand what the text says.
- Interpretation. Once we know what the text says we can move to understand what the text means. A way to look at this is that you are trying to determine the main theme of the passage you are studying. This theme will then help you understand everything else in the passage.
- Application. You must get to this point in your study if you do not you have not studied the Bible. Ask, what should I do because of the meaning of the passage? This is the step where we obey.