Let me begin by saying that I am not offering a way to make Bible study easy. Bible study is already easy. Anybody can do it; no training is needed; anyone with a willing heart can study the Bible and get some benefit from it. People can put in a small amount of time, and get a small benefit, and that’s easy. Millions of people do this every day, and it works pretty well. Oh, some of them come to some pretty strange conclusions, but for the most part, the errors aren’t too serious, and overall, people are better off for doing it, than if they hadn’t.

But if we want to get more out of our Bible study, and if we want to have better results (which I hope is the case), then we need to go about our study with a bit of guidance as to where to focus our attention and efforts. We need some training, and some practice, to obtain better results.

Now, by the word “better,” I do not necessarily mean a bigger quantity. Rather, I mean more accurate, more defensible, more rooted in details that we can actually see in the text.

Let’s suppose, for example, that you are reading Paul’s speech to the Athenians in Acts 17. Through some creative free association of ideas, the Holy Spirit may give you a helpful thought about whether to take a new job opportunity. Your thought may be inspired, and the Holy Spirit may have used Acts 17 to bring it to you, but you can’t say that that is the meaning of the passage, the meaning that other people ought to get out of it.

No – when we want to explain what it means to other people, we need to use evidence that other people can see. And that means that we have to carefully examine what the Bible says – and the way it goes about saying it. Now, this attention to detail does not necessarily make Bible study more exciting, or our results more exciting. But it will make our results better.

So at one level, Bible study is easy, but if we want to go to another level, it will require an investment of time, and some work in thinking about our method – the way we go about our study. We want to approach it in a way that will

1.    help us cover the important angles,

2.    ask the most productive questions, and

3.    focus our attention on the things that are the most likely to help us learn what the passage means.

Practice makes perfect

Perhaps we can compare it to learning to play the piano. Almost anybody can press the keys and make some sounds. And most people can, with a little experimentation, learn to play a simple tune on the piano – “Mary had a little lamb,” or “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” But if we want to get better at playing the piano, then we will have to spend more time at it, probably get some instruction in it, and probably do some practice. Maybe we will have to play scales and chords, and we probably won’t find all this practice either fun or melodic. So it may take us many hours of work before we can actually make one hour of good music. But if we want to do it right, and get better at it, then we put in the time.

Well, all analogies break down at some point, and I’m not sure where that one breaks down, but my point is that if we want to get better at Bible study, then we need to think about the way we go about it, spend some time, and do some work. It is not necessarily difficult, but neither is it “easy.” It takes time, and practice, and we may not get instant gratification with our first efforts in a new method.

My goal in this lecture is to point you toward an approach that can help you, the kind of details that professionals look at.

Of course, there is no magic formula that guarantees us correct results. There is no special prayer that will cause us to come to the correct interpretation every time. There is no special book, no special key to unlocking the secrets of Scripture, there is no magic concordance or commentary. The professionals don’t always get it right, the preachers don’t always get it right, and the lay people don’t always get it right, either. We all make mistakes — but we are better off for trying, than if we did not try at all, and we can learn a little bit from each other’s mistakes.

Context is the key

OK, where do we start?

The most fundamental basis for understanding anything — anything at all — is context. For example, the word “bear,” by itself, doesn’t have any meaning, unless it has a context. Only the context can tell us whether we are talking about a noun or a verb. Most words have more than one possible meaning, and only the context can tell us which one is right. The context makes all the difference, and the same is true for the Bible. We need to know what context the words were given in.

Context is a multifaceted thing. I break it down into three types of context:

1.    The historical context, the way in which the events or words first happened.

2.    Second, the literary context, the way in which those things are reported to us. The literary acts as a filter, and as a guide between the events and us.

3.    Third, there is our own context. Our own background and circumstances are going to affect the way we read the Bible, and our purpose in reading the Bible, and the lessons we might need to get out of it. This varies for every person, and this is a major reason that we each need to do our own Bible study, rather than having an officially sanctioned commentary that provides pat answers for everyone. We each have different needs, and the same text may have different applications for different people.

We will look at each of these in greater detail, and we’ll find that each of these three contexts can be divided into more categories.

Historical setting

Let’s consider the historical context. It comes in three or four subcategories.

A. First, the big sweep of history – what we usually think of when we hear the word “history.” These are the military and political events. We consider “Who’s running the nation?” and “How do the people feel about it?”

And so for the Bible, it’s very helpful to have some feel for the history of the Holy Land and its peoples – Canaanites, Philistines, Egyptians, Aramaeans, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Samaritans, etc. What were the political hopes and dreams?

Here we might also include geographical setting – where the events happened, and perhaps how the topography or climate might affect the story.

Some passages in the Bible are greatly affected by their historical setting; others are not affected as much. But this is one angle that we all need to consider when we want to understand a passage. With practice, we’ll get a better feel for seeing from the passage itself as to how important the historical setting might be.

B. The second aspect of the historical context is the culture. “Culture” is a wide-ranging term that covers economic life, family life, language, religious beliefs and customs. Whenever one person interacts with another, culture is bound to be involved.

When Abraham negotiates for the price of a field, for example, there were certain expectations in that culture for how things were done. When Ruth comes to Boaz at nighttime, cultural customs were involved. When Jesus interacts with a Samaritan woman, different cultural expectations were involved. When Paul is defending his right to be an apostle, he is dealing with cultural expectations. The better we understand those, the more likely we are to hear the passage the way it was supposed to be heard.

We often get a clue that we are dealing with a cultural matter when we come across something odd in the text. We go, “Huh? Why’d he do that? How did he come to that conclusion? Why didn’t he talk about this?

There are a variety of books that talk about “daily life in Bible times.” A good study Bible will often alert you to cultural customs that affect a specific verse. And there are some commentaries that focus on these background issues – some are called “Bible background commentaries”; others are called social-science commentaries.

Does this mean that you have to read ten books before you can even get started? No, of course not. Like I said before, even a novice can read the Bible and get something good out of it. But if we want to get better at Bible study, then yes, we should read some other books. We don’t have to do it all at once, we don’t have to drop everything before we do it, but we do need to get to it.

Just as I said with historical context, the cultural context is more important for some passages than for others. But we have to ask the question before we get the answer as to how important it is. We specifically include this in the questions we bring to the text, and with experience we will grow in our feel for whether this is worth additional research for the passage we are looking at.

C. The third element of the historical context is the specific situation or occasion – why this particular book was written, and why this specific passage is in it. Sometimes the author tells us why he wrote the book; sometimes we have to figure this out from the way that the book is written.

The Gospel of John has a clear purpose statement: it was written so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). As we go through the book, we can ask the question, how would this passage help readers believe that Jesus is the Messiah?

Another example: the book of Hebrews does not tell us what its main purpose was. Was it to convince people that Jesus is the Messiah? That is certainly one of the things it says, but is that its purpose? We can get a clue when we see where it puts its emphasis. Some things it just mentions; for other things it offers supporting reasons. It does not give supporting reasons for Jesus being the Christ, but when it says that Jesus is a sacrifice for our sins, then it offers lots of reasons, and tries to prove its case.

If we read between those lines, then we can make the hypothesis that this book was written to people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they weren’t sure that he made much of a difference for us. Then we can read the book again with this hypothesis, with a new viewpoint, asking a new question: How might this passage help people grow in their confidence that Jesus, by his one sacrifice, made all of them perfect?

Or suppose we look at Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s a great letter, but why was it written? There’s a scholarly debate about that. Was there some problem in Rome that Paul wanted to address, or was there some circumstance in Paul’s life that caused him to write to a church he did not start? Was there any problem at all, or was Paul inspired to write to a church that didn’t have major problems? What clues are in the text to help us see?

Once we have a hypothesis, we can ask, How does this chapter fit into the whole? If this was the purpose of the letter, then why did Paul include chapter 9, for example? When we ask questions like that, we are asking about how this passage helps convey the overall meaning that Paul intended, and that, in turn, can help us clarify the meaning of other passages.

It’s like a jigsaw puzzle: The better all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, the more likely it is that we understand what each particular piece actually is. If you have one piece by itself, sometimes it’s rather difficult to tell just what it is depicting. It is only when we connect it with the pieces nearby that we can see what’s actually on the piece. And again like a jigsaw puzzle: sometimes we have to try it this way, then try that, in order to see what looks the best.

Many of Paul’s letters were written for a specific occasion, and it helps to be aware of what that was. Other books may have been written for a more general occasion. The Gospel of Luke, for example, says it was written to help the reader know for sure that the things he had been told were true. What were those things? All the things in the Gospel of Luke, it seems. Luke has more about money than the other Gospels do, and it has more about women, but neither of those seems to be the chief reason that the book was written. The larger the book, the more likely that it has several purposes in mind.

D. Sometimes purpose can be layered in time, too.[1] Jesus may have had one purpose in telling a parable, whereas the early church may have had a different reason for preserving the parable. For example, Jesus told some parables about how a king returns to his territory and requires an accounting of how his people did. In the original setting, Jesus may have been referring to his first coming: he was the Lord who had come to see how Israel had done with what they had been told. But when the early church included the parable in the Gospel story, they had a different setting in mind, because the parable pointed toward the return of Jesus, when he would again require an accounting of what people had done.

So, for every story in the Gospels, we should consider two historical settings: the first in the ministry of Jesus, the second in the setting of the early church. We have to consider why Jesus said it or did it, and then we should consider why the early church preserved the story. They didn’t have space to preserve everything – each story was preserved because it served a purpose in the early church.

Neither one of these historical settings is a “magic key” to unlock the meaning of the passage every time – it’s just that these are questions that have proven themselves to be frequently useful in giving us a viewpoint from which to look at the passage and gain some understanding about it.

In general, we are more likely to get answers if we ask questions. In many ways, biblical interpretation is a matter of asking questions of the text: Why is this here? Why did they use this word? Why didn’t they tell us that? How does this fit in with what the author said in the previous chapter? What is the significance of the person involved in this story? Is there any significance in the location or the timing? Advances in understand are usually the result of asking new questions of the text.

I’m not saying that we need to question the accuracy of the text. It is rarely productive to ask whether the story is true. Did the tower of Siloam really fall down? That has a simple yes or no answer, and it does not encourage us to probe more deeply into the meaning of the passage. If we want to understand what the text is saying, then we need to ask, What principle is being taught here, and how is that helpful for us? Does the tragedy at Siloam have any parallel in our lives?

We can’t always come up with conclusive answers about this historical setting. We don’t have to. My point is that we can sometimes gain new light on the text, a new angle for our look at it, by asking questions about each stage in the telling of the story. How would people in different historical circumstances look at this story? That can help us look at the story in different ways, and it’s possible that one of those ways might be helpful to us in our circumstances.

[1] The older the book, the more difficult it is to determine the historical setting. Was the story of Jericho written down in the time of Joshua, or was it written down centuries later in the time of David? Was the story edited before the exile? Was it edited again in the time of Ezra? Were editors inspired to add details, or to delete certain things as no longer relevant to the needs of the community? It is difficult to pin down a precise author, location, date, and purpose, because it might have had multiple authors and dates and purposes. What we have is not a videotape from 3000 years ago, but a story that has been shaped in a certain way. This is the way that the later editor wanted the story to be remembered in the community of believers, and the purpose of preserving the story might be different than the reason it was originally written down.

Literary setting

Now let’s consider the literary context, the way in which the events or sayings are reported to us.

In all forms of communication, there are three elements:

1)    the sender,

2)    the receiver, and

3)    the medium or the means by which the message is sent.

In historical context, we are looking primarily at the sender. In literary context, we are looking primarily at the means by which the message is transmitted. Later, when we look at our own context, we are looking at the receiver of the communication. These three steps in communication are also the three contexts that we need to consider when we study the Bible.

The literary context is the most objective of all three. This is what we can see in black and white. When we go to study what the Bible says, we have already agreed that this is the focus of our study. We are not here to study the history of Judea, or to study what modern culture thinks of ancient ideas. We are here to study the Bible, the text, the actual words of Scripture.

We study history not for its own sake, but for the light it can shed on the text, because the text is the real focus of our study. And the modern context may be interesting in its own right, but the reason we study the modern context is because we want to see how it affects our understanding of the text. Scripture is the center, the focus, of our study. We are analyzing ancient literature.

When we look at the literary context in more detail, we can see three things to consider about the literature.

A. First, the largest, broadest category: what is the “genre” of the literature? That’s just a literary word for kind or type of literature. Is it a news story, a speech of exhortation, a song of praise, or a fictitious story?

Often, several types of literature are included in the same book. The Gospels have news stories and parables and speeches. The epistles have arguments in which reasons are given and conclusions are drawn; they also have passages of exhortation in which the purpose is to motivate, rather than to inform.

They even have some words of irony, in which the meaning is the exact opposite of what the words say. In 1 Corinthians 4:8, Paul writes, “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us!” Were the people already reigning? Apparently not, because Paul then says, “How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!”

It is important to know what kind of literature we are dealing with – and that requires some familiarity with the different types of literature. Mostly, it means that we cannot treat every verse as if it were a simple statement of fact. Some are, and some are not. When Jesus says, “If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out,” is he saying that our eye can actually cause us to sin? No.

When Paul says in Romans 9:3, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race,” does he really mean it? – or is this an exaggeration designed to emphasize his feelings?

In Galatians 5, he says, “Every man who lets himself be circumcised…is obligated to obey the whole law.” Does that mean permanently obligated? No, it doesn’t.

Usually, words do mean what they say – but sometimes they don’t, and if we want to understand the Bible the way it was intended, then we have to be willing to ask the question as to whether these words might not be meant in their full force.

B. Another thing we need to consider is the overall tendencies of the book we are studying. What themes occur throughout the book? For example, one of the Gospels gives more attention to the life of the church. One of them gives more emphasis to suffering. One of them talks more about money.

In any specific passage, it’s good for us to ask, does this support or reinforce one of the major concerns of this particular author? Maybe it does, maybe not, but it is good for us to ask the question.

In some cases a concept could be taken either in a physical way or in a spiritual way. For example, in Luke 4:16, Jesus said that he came to preach good news to the poor. Did he mean people who were financially poor, or those who are spiritually poor? Well, one clue about it is the way that Luke tends to use the word “poor” – he says that the blind receive sight, the lame can now walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf can hear, and the gospel is preached to the poor (7:22). It would seem that he is talking about physical blindness, physical lameness, and those who have very little money. Economic status is one of the themes we see again and again in the book of Luke.

How do we learn these themes?

The easy way is to read the introduction to the book in a study Bible. Many study Bibles include that kind of information because of how helpful it can be – it helps us to know what to look for as we read. But we can see these themes for ourselves if we pay attention as we read. We have to compare one work with another, and pay attention to the details, and think about how those details might affect the meaning.

For example, Matthew says, Blessed are the poor in spirit. Luke just says, Blessed are the poor. Both are right, but there is a different emphasis.

Mark says, Take up your cross and follow me. Luke says, Take up your cross each day and follow me. We need to notice the little details and ask about what they might mean, because they are clues to what the larger details mean, too.

C. Third, what we often think of when we hear the words “literary context,” and that is the passages right before and after the one we are studying. We need to look at the story flow to see how one thing leads to another, or is contrasted with another.

In Mark 11, for example, Jesus curses a fig tree. But Mark tells us “it was not the season for figs.” Why does he tell us that? And why would Jesus get angry at the fig tree when it wasn’t the season for figs? Why does Mark make it look like Jesus had a fit of unreasonable anger?

I think he is telling us that the story is not really about figs. We have to look at something else, and we can see that in the literary context. Mark tells us that Jesus cursed the fig tree, and then he went in to chase money changers out of the temple, and the next thing he tells us is that the disciples discover that the tree has withered.

He has wrapped one story around the other, and most scholars conclude that he saw the two stories as related: the cursing of the fig tree was like a parable in action that showed what would happen to the temple – and it is not long before Mark gives us Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple. The temple had been examined, and found deficient; it was not bearing any fruit and might as well be destroyed.

When we examine a narrative, a story, like many in the Old Testament or the book of Acts, the literary context often tells us about the original historical context. But when we look at the epistles, we are looking at the flow of an argument, and we need to put each part of it into the larger context.

We can’t just take a passage out of Romans 1 and assume that this gives us Paul’s teaching on the subject. This is only the starting point of what he wants to say about it, and he may well develop the subject considerably before he is done with it. So we have to keep tracking with him until he’s done.

Or in Romans 3, we have to think about where we are in the overall sweep of the argument. What points has Paul already proven, and how does this particular passage contribute to the conclusion? How does the picture on this puzzle piece match up with the picture on the surrounding pieces?

Word studies

We have started very broad, from the wide sweep of history, gradually narrowing our focus to the culture, then to the specific occasion, to the type of literature, the themes of the book, and the passages before and after. Now we can narrow our focus even more, to look at specific sentences and specific words.

Words are really important, and many biblical studies have fallen into the category of “word studies.” We go through a concordance and look up every verse in which a particular word has been used. From the sum total of all its uses, we form a concept of what the word means. That kind of work has been very helpful.[1] But there are weaknesses in this method of study. We don’t need to stop doing it, but we need to do it with more awareness of its limitations. When it comes to word meanings, we need to be aware of the following common mistakes:

1) First, the meaning of a word is not determined by its “root words,” or by the way it originated. This is called the “root word fallacy.” Sometimes the meaning of a word in is harmony with its origin, and sometimes it is not. The English word “nice” used to mean “silly,” but that is not what it means today.

Generally, the sound or spelling of a word has no inherent connection to its meaning – it is just a code. It works if the sender and the receiver associate similar meanings with the same set of sounds. It is a social construct. If I want to be understood in Spain, then I will have to use a different set of audible codes.

Indeed, if I want to be understood anywhere at all, then it is my responsibility as a speaker to try to use these audible codes in such a way that my audience will associate the right meaning with those particular sounds. If a word might be understood in more than one way, I need to provide some clues to help my audience get the right message instead of the wrong one.

And it is the responsibility of the audience to try to figure out if the speaker is using the word in a way that fits in with what they understand the word to mean. The meaning is determined by the way that a particular society is in the habit of using a particular word. In the Bible, we have to learn how a word was used when the Bible was written, and not how it was used in 5th century Greece, for example. And if we are using the King James Bible, then we need to understand how the words were used in 17th century English, not necessarily how those words are used today.         

2) Almost all words have more than one meaning, and that meaning must be determined by the context. We cannot just pick the meaning we happen to like and force it into the verse. And we cannot add all the meanings together and pretend that the word means all of them at the same time. Just quoting the dictionary, in itself, cannot tell us which of the meanings is the right one.

If we don’t know the original languages, then the next best thing for us to do is to consult dozens of experts. If we want a “multitude of counsel” on the meaning of biblical words, then we can easily get it by comparing different translations. We have many available to us on, for example.

These translations are made by people with far more experience and expertise in the biblical languages than we have, and some of the modern translations are produced by committees in which several scholars have discussed and sometimes debated the meaning of the words in their particular context. They are not always right, but they definitely have a better track record than self-taught people who have no formal education in the appropriate languages.

When we compare different translations, we will see when the meaning of a word is pretty well established, and when there is some uncertainty about it. The multitude of translations that we have available partially compensates for our lack of expertise in Hebrew and Greek. My point here is that we should not always rely on one translation, no matter how good it is. It’s better to compare at least one additional translation.

3) Studying a word simply from Strong’s Concordance is an incomplete study in three ways. It’s not wrong, but it’s not complete, either.

1.    First, it’s based on English words. A Hebrew or Greek word might be translated by different English words in different contexts. Rightly so, because the word can have different meanings in different contexts. But if we study only the English word, then we are dependent on the translation decisions made by people in England 400 years ago. What we need to do is to study all the occurrence of the original Hebrew or Greek word. Either on paper or on computer, we need a concordance that is based on the original language.[2]

2.    Second, for people who don’t know the Hebrew and Greek alphabets, Strong’s has a code number for every Hebrew and Greek word, and in the back of the concordance is a list of those words in numerical order. Many people think that this is a dictionary that tells us what each original word means. Many people think that they are now empowered to pick a different meaning, as if they are now experts in the language, without even being aware of how Greek grammar differs from English grammar.
But Strong’s Concordance is not a real dictionary. For the most part, it just lists the English words that were used to translate the original words. It’s a list of possible synonyms, not a description of what the words actually mean. If you really want to know what a Hebrew or Greek word means, then you need a full-length lexicon.[3]

3.    Third, a concordance can help us study individual words. But we really need to study, not individual words, but concepts. Almost every language has synonyms, and when more than one word can be used to communicate the same concept, then we need to study all of those words together, not just one at a time. A good Bible lexicon will usually include some discussion of synonyms, and how they might be used in different circumstances.

In summary, we need to pay attention to the meaning of each word, but we should not be too hasty in thinking that we have found the key to a radical re-interpretation of what the verse is normally understood to mean. The standard English translations are a pretty good basis for study; we don’t have to dive into Hebrew and Greek.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to use Strong’s Concordance – it is better than nothing – but we should not think that a concordance that has been around for 120 years can give us insights that no one else has. If we can’t even read the Greek alphabet, and don’t know any Greek grammar or Greek idioms, it is very unlikely that we are going to stumble across some “never before understood” truth.

In general, the best question about a word is not “what does this word mean?” – it is, “Why is this word here?” Chances are, we already have the right meaning, but why did the author use this particular word? That is going to be a more productive question for us. “How does this word contribute to the meaning of the passage?”

What we are really interested in is not the meaning of individual words, but the meaning of the sentence as a whole, and the passage as a larger whole. Our focus is not on the individual puzzle piece, but only as that piece fits together with others.

[1] There are some good examples of it in George Ladd’s Theology of the New Testament.

[2] For example, Hebrew-English Concordance, and Greek-English Concordance, both by John Kohlenberger and published by Zondervan, using the NIV text.

[3] For example, Compact Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Hendrickson, 2009), or Word Study Dictionary of the New Testament, by Spiros Zodhiates, or Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Organized by Semantic Domains, by Louw and Nida. The most authoritative, most scholarly work is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, by Frederick Danker.

Asking questions, getting answers

And how do we make sure that we ask the right questions? Well, frankly, perhaps we never ask all the right questions. But there is one technique that has a good track record in being helpful, and that is repeated re-readings while taking notes.

Read the entire passage slowly and carefully, paying attention to the details, and taking notes as you go. Write down your observations. Take note of words that are repeated, of how concepts are tied together, of how the structure and logic of the passage works.

Then set that piece of paper aside, and do it again with a fresh piece of paper. Go through the passage again, and write down your observations about the passage, and write down your questions about it. What does this mean? Why did he do that? Was this normal in that culture, or was it odd? You might need to look up some things in a Bible dictionary.

OK. Set that piece of paper aside, and do it again. We are doing scales on the piano, and we are forcing ourselves to think more deeply about the passage than we would have otherwise done.

We should go through this process at least six times, and use at least two translations. And after we have done this, then we will have a much better foundation for our conclusions – we will have a better understanding of how the passage works as a whole to communicate something. Our conclusions will be more likely to be based on details in the text, rather than in some vague “impressions.”[1]

Let’s say that we are studying a passage of eight or ten verses – maybe two or three paragraphs, in a translation that marks paragraphs. We should now be able to do the following things:

1.    In one sentence, write a thesis statement of what the passage actually says. Don’t just assume in your head that you can summarize the passage in one sentence – actually write it down. The act of writing it down forces us to think about it more accurately, and it preserves the results of our study for use in the future.

2.    Next, in one sentence, we should be able to summarize the way that the political-historical context is relevant to this passage. (In the exegesis paper for this class, we should write one or two paragraphs for this, but for your own notes, one sentence might be enough; that can be the topic sentence of the paragraph. If we don’t know how the geography or political history is relevant, then we should say so. It is good to admit where our areas of uncertainty are.)

3.    Third, write a sentence about the relevant cultural situation. Again, in your exegesis paper, this might be one or two paragraphs, but you should still be able to summarize it.

4.    Fourth, describe the specific occasion that caused the passage to be written.

5.    Note what genre of literature we are dealing with in this passage, and how that might affect the way we understand it.

6.    Note whether or not this passage contributes to the main themes of the book.

7.    Describe how the previous passage(s) prepares the reader for the message of this passage, or how this one prepares the reader for future ones.

For each verse, we should be able to say how that specific verse contributes to the meaning of the passage as a whole. If we do not know how a particular verse helps convey the overall meaning, then it is likely that we are missing part of what is going on in the passage. That doesn’t negate all of our previous conclusions, but it is a question mark that remains. Perhaps we have missed part of the need that the audience had, or we are not understanding the way the logic works.

Another very helpful tool for analysis is to create a structural outline of the entire passage, showing how different words and clauses are subordinated or parallel to others. If you know how to outline, then I encourage you to do this – it can really help us think about how different parts of the passage are related to each other. But if you don’t know how to do this, then I’m afraid that I don’t know an easy way to teach it, and I’ll have to skip it for now. Just be aware that there are additional methods that can help us analyze the passage in yet a different way, for perhaps additional insights into the meaning of the passage.

[1] This is called the “inductive” method of Bible study. More complete descriptions can be found in Oletta Wald, Inductive Bible Study, and David Baker, Bible Study. The most thorough treatment is in David Bauer and Robert Traina, Inductive Bible Study.

The modern context

Last, I want to address the third context that we need to consider when we study the Bible, and that is our own personal context. We all bring certain ideas and impressions to the text, and those affect what we see, the way in which we see it, and what we tend to not see. If a verse seems to support a belief that we already have, for example, then we will rarely notice if the verse could also be understood in a different way. We will tend to read it the way we are familiar with it, and assume that this is the “obvious” meaning. The more we are aware of our own bias, and the way that it might affect our reading, then the better prepared we are to see the verse in the way that someone else might.

There are three aspects to our context.

A. First, there is our own culture, and our own subculture. Some parts of America have an egalitarian culture, and other parts have a patriarchal culture, and persons in each culture will tend to favor the parts of the Bible that are more in agreement with their cultural expectations.

Some people read with a tendency to believe that the dominant culture is correct; other people tend to read with the assumption that the dominant culture is incorrect. Both of these are assumptions, and it is not correct to start with either one of them, and yet all of us do, because we are human beings. We all grow up with certain expectations of what is “normal” and what is not.

America tends to have a culture of individualism; ancient cultures tended to be much more interested in groups and family connections. Is the “biblical” culture better than our own? Not necessarily. Biblical culture was quite accepting of the existence of slavery, for example – and it is possible that it was wrong about other things as well.

But on the other hand, perhaps there are aspects of our own culture that we take for granted, and yet might not be totally right. Neither capitalism nor democracy is perfect, but they can affect what we see in the Bible, and what we tend to overlook.

B. The second part of our culture is the fact that we are Christians, that we believe in Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and Lord. He is the lens through which we view the Bible and strive to understand it. Now that we have read to the end of the story, we can see the subtle clues that the author has put into the story in earlier chapters.

The Old Testament, for example, introduces us to the phrase “image of God.” But the Old Testament does almost nothing with this concept – it is only when we get to the New Testament that we see a far greater significance to it.

Our theological beliefs affect the way we look at the New Testament, too. When a specific verse or passage can be understood in more than one way, then we aim to read it in such a way that the author of the book is not contradicting himself; that is an approach that we need for any sort of literature. If he clearly contradicts himself, then we ought to admit it,[1] but if it can be understood in more than one way, then we prefer the way that does not involve internal contradictions.

And that applies to the New Testament as a whole, since we hold that it was all inspired by the same God. If James contradicts Paul, then we have to live with it, but if they can be understood in more than one way, then we prefer the way that does not involve contradictions.

In the early church, this was called “the rule of faith” – scriptures were to be understood in such a way that they are harmonious with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Books were included in the canon only if they were compatible with the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.

We follow a similar rule today. If there is a set of scriptures over here that seem to contradict the gospel, and another set of scriptures over there that seem to support it, then which set should be re-interpreted? People have been working on many of these problems for almost 2000 years, and the now-traditional resolution of the problem is probably right 95 percent of the time. Tradition is not perfect, but it’s pretty important, because we are not the first person to come along to study these things.

C. Another element in our own context is our own spiritual condition. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” On one level, even an atheist can understand what the Bible says. But there is another level that requires that we be responsive to the Holy Spirit, and that enables the meaning or the significance of the scriptures to be in us in a more profound way.

So, the Spirit is needed – but we must also admit that conversion, it itself, does not guarantee a correct interpretation. Equally converted people sometimes come up with contradictory explanations. Nobody is perfect.

If God speaks to you personally and tells you what it all means, that’s great, but that doesn’t do the rest of us any good, because many people have claimed to hear the voice of God, and yet come up with different explanations. If the meaning is to be transferable, able to be taught to others, it has to be based on evidence in the text, evidence we can all see, and not a claim to a secret communication with God.

We all need prayer, too, as part of our study, but prayer is not a guarantee of correct interpretation, either. Prayer is not a replacement for our own work.

Either way, our spiritual condition is going to affect the way we read the scriptures. Our level of trust in God will make a difference. But we should not confuse faith with naiveté – we cannot pretend that it is adequate to say, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” That approach is often a means of avoiding the responsibility to find out what it is that God actually said. It is only after we ascertain that, that we can believe it and have it settled in our own minds.

D. Last, I want to note that Scripture should be studied in the context of a community of believers. We are not all Lone Rangers. We admit that others have gone before us, have studied these same things, with just as much prayer and often a lot more expertise, and we cannot simply disregard all their work. God’s Spirit works in other people as well as in ourselves, and we have to at least consider their work to see if it is coherent with what we see in the Scriptures.

So we consider the past – but we also need to consider the present context, too, that we are in a community of believers. Does our understanding of the Bible make sense to them? Are we getting positive feedback, or negative feedback, from our spiritual peers? No matter how much work we put into our study, we need a little humility about our results.

The community of believers is also the area in which any applications are to be worked out. How does this passage affect what we do, how we live, and how we treat one another? How do we move from interpretation to application? That is a large topic that we’ll address in later lecture.

One point that is worth making is that the same theological truths may call for one type of application in one situation, and a different application in another situation, for another person. We need to examine the text, and we need to examine our situation, and see how the two might fit together in the best way. And since the modern context is always changing, that is one reason that more study will always be needed.

[1] Some of Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians seem to contradict others; most scholars conclude that Paul is sometimes quoting the Corinthians rather than giving a statement of his own.



Let me summarize. As we study the Bible, we want to pay extra attention to three contexts: First, the original, historical context. We want to find out as much as we can about the circumstances in which the words were first given.

Second, we want to examine the literary setting in which we find it. How do these words fit into the words that God inspired them to be with?

And third, we need to be aware of our own context. It not only affects the way that we read, it is also the context in which we want the biblical words to be applied, and to come to life again.

This is one method of Bible study. Other approaches can be helpful, too, but this one, at least, has been shown over time to help people ask productive questions of the text, and to get answers that can be shown to be rooted in the text. And if we are going to study the Bible, it seems to me that the Bible is going to be the judge of whether we have got it right. Our answers need to be rooted in the text, and so our study must include a careful, even repetitive, examination of the text.

May your study be a blessing, and not a weariness to the flesh!

Better Bible Study: An Outline

I. Introduction

A. What does it mean to aim for “better” Bible study? Not a bigger quantity, but better in terms of accuracy. We want results that are based in the text itself, not in our preconceived

B. We want a method that helps us ask the questions that are more likely to give us meaningful answers. There is no magic formula for right results, but some methods do give consistently good results.

C. Most words have more than one meaning – we cannot know which meaning is intended unless there is a context. (for example: “bear”)

D. In Bible study, we look at three contexts: historical, literary, and personal.

II. Historical context – three types

A. Military and political history: who is ruling, and how do people feel about it?

B. Cultural context: language, economy, customs, etc. This is involved whenever one person interacts with another.

C. Specific situation: why was this written down?

1. This usually involves reading between the lines, forming a hypothesis, and testing it to see if the pieces fit.

2. Often, there are two historical settings: first, when the event first happened; second, when it was written down.

3. It’s important to ask questions of the text, especially why and how. These help us look at the text from different angles.

III. Literary context

A. In analyzing any communication, we are concerned with sender, receiver and method. We have already looked at the sender; now we focus on the method of communication: the written words.

B. The most basic question: what is the genre of this literature? Is it poetry, story, exhortation, parable, etc.?

1. Sometimes words mean the opposite of what they say – e.g., 1 Cor. 4:8.

2. We need to know not just the meaning of the words, but also the way those words are being used.

C. We should consider the main themes of the book we are studying – an author may use a word with a different emphasis – e.g., Luke’s use of “poor.”

D. Third, we need to look at the passages just before and after the one we are studying. How does one lead to the other? For example, Jesus cursed the fig tree in Mark 11.

E. Be aware of the limitations of “word studies.”

1. The meaning of a word is determined by the way it is used, not by its “original” meaning, or by its root words.

2. Dictionaries usually list several meanings; we cannot add them all together as if the word meant all of them at the same time.

3. If we don’t know the original languages, then we need to rely on translations.
Fortunately, it is easy for us to compare many experts – we should not rely on only one translation.

4. Strong’s Concordance is often misused.

a) Strong’s is organized by English word, when we really need to study how the Hebrew or Greek word is used, no matter how it is translated.

b) Strong’s word list in the back is not a dictionary. When we don’t even know the rules of Greek grammar, we are not suddenly empowered to challenge standard translations.

c) A concordance can help us study individual words, but what we really need to study is entire concepts.

5. The translations usually give us the right meaning. Rather than challenging the meaning, our time will be better spent asking about why this particular word has been used, and what it contributes to the passage.

F. We need to read carefully, taking notes each time, at least six times. Then write down the

  1. A one-sentence summary of the entire passage.
  2. A summary of how the political history is relevant to the passage.
  3. A summary of the relevant cultural differences.
  4. The specific situation that caused this passage to be written.
  5. The type(s) of literature found in this passage.
  6. Whether this passage contributes to the main themes of the book.
  7. Note how the previous passage prepares the reader for this one.

G. A structural outline can also be a very helpful tool.

IV. Our personal context affects what we see, and what we tend to overlook.

A. Our culture and subculture affect what we think is “normal” or “obvious.”

B. As believers, we read the Scriptures with certain expectations.

  1. We should resist the idea that an author is self-contradictory.
  2. We should favor readings that are in agreement with the gospel.

C. The Holy Spirit is needed (1 Cor. 2:14), although this cannot be quantified.

D. Scripture should be studied in a community – with insights from people who lived in the past, and with people who are now in our fellowship of believers.

E. Since our context is always changing, and timeless truths may have different applications in new circumstances, there is always a need for new study.


Historical resources

  • An introductory text: F.F. Bruce and David Payne, Israel and the Nations
  • A more detailed reference work: Craig Evans and Stanley Porter, eds., Dictionary
    of New Testament Background

Cultural resources

  • A.S. van der Woude, The World of the Old Testament 
  • Albert Bell, Exploring the New Testament World
  • James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament
  • More advanced: Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • John Walton et al., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
  • Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament

Information on specific books

  • Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book
  • David and Pat Alexander, Zondervan Handbook to the Bible, rev. ed.
  • More detailed: David A. deSilva, Introduction to the New Testament

Literary analysis

  • Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman, A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible
  • James Bailey and Lyle Vander Broek, Literary Forms in the New Testament

Word studies

  • D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies
  • William Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words


  • Edward Goodrick and John Kohlenberger, The NIV Exhaustive Concordance
  • Richard Whitaker and John Kohlenberger, The Analytical Concordance to the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament
  • John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, The Hebrew English Concordance to the Old Testament With the New International Version
  • John Kohlenberger, Edward Goodrick, and James Swanson, The Greek English Concordance to the New Testament With the New International Version


  • R. Laird Harris, Gleason Archer, and Bruce Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 2 vols.
  • Concise descriptive definitions: Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. 2 vols.
  • Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament
  • Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
  • Verlyn Verbrugge, The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words
  • Most scholarly and expensive: Walter Bauer and Frederick Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature

Bible study

  • Easiest: Oletta Wald, The Joy of Discovery in Bible Study. Inductive method.
  • David Thompson, Bible Study That Works. Also uses the inductive method.
  • Kay Arthur, How to Study Your Bible. Also uses the inductive method.
  • John Stott, Understanding the Bible
  • Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
  • Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, Understanding Scripture: How to Read and Study the Bible
  • More advanced: Michael Gorman, Elements of Biblical Exegesis
  • Gordon Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors


  • Jack Kuhatschek, Taking the Guesswork Out of Applying the Bible
  • Dave Veerman, How to Apply the Bible
  • Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible

One-volume commentaries

  • Gordon Wenham et al., New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition
  • James Dunn and John Rogerson, eds., Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible

Commentary series

  • Terry Muck, ed., The NIV Application Commentary
  • Tremper Longman and David Garland, eds., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
  • Leander Keck, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible. Uses both NRSV and NIV.

 Michael Morrison received a PhD from Fuller Seminary in 2006. He is Professor of New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary.
GCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Monday, March 11, 2024, 6:21 PM