Bible Study Skills: Observing the Text
Bible Study Skills: Observing the Text
In studying the Bible, an important acronym to remember is OIL: observation, interpretation and life application. Observation asks this question about a passage, “What does it say?” Interpretation asks, “What does it mean?” Life Application asks, “What should we do about it?” Only after diligently observing a passage can one truly find the meaning of it, and only after understanding the meaning of a passage can one properly apply it. Observing, interpreting, and applying are skills which the Bible student must develop to become competent at studying Scripture. We will look at each skill separately.
A popular genre of film or books is criminal investigation stories. What happens in these stories is that after a crime, the police isolate the crime scene to make sure nobody tampers with evidence. Then, investigators screen the area for every detail such as blood, hair, broken glass, bubble gum, receipts, etc. They do this because they realize that any detail, even ones that seem insignificant, might lead to solving the crime. Like an investigator meticulously studying a crime scene for clues, Bible students must learn to do the same with Scripture. Several things are needed for a Bible student to do this:
Believing that All Scripture Matters
First, Bible students must believe that all Scripture matters—even seemingly insignificant details. Consider the following verses:
Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Paul tells us that “Every” or “All” Scripture is inspired, not “Some.” Jesus said that we live by “Every” word that comes from the mouth of God. In fact, Christ said this in Matthew 5:18: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.” Again, this emphasizes that every portion of Scripture is important—even the smallest letter and stroke a letter. This realization is important for developing the skill of observation. God chose the specific words and tense of words in a passage for a purpose. Therefore, we must develop keen eyes that notice details and seek to understand what the Holy Spirit, through human authors, was trying to say to the original audience and, now, to the contemporary audience.
We can discern the importance of every word and how it can lead to both meaning and application by how Christ confronted the Sadducees’ lack of belief in the resurrection in Matthew 22:30-32. He said:
For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. Now as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living!” When the crowds heard this, they were amazed at his teaching.
When Christ said, “have you not read what was spoken to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” Surely the Pharisees had read it before, just as most Christians have, but what made Christ’s reading of this OT text so different was his keen observation of it. Christ pointed out that though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were dead, the original writer wrote about them in the present tense, which meant they were still alive and therefore would be resurrected.
Believing in the importance of every aspect of Scripture is important for how we study it. If we don’t think all of it is important, we might skip certain parts (like genealogies or historical details) or not read God’s Word at all. If we’re going to develop observation skills, we must believe that “all Scripture is God breathed,” that we are called to live by “every word” from God, and that even the smallest letter and least stroke of the pen will never pass away. As Christ asked the Sadducees, we must ask ourselves, “Have we truly been reading?”
What else is needed to properly observe Scripture?
Become Spiritually Inquisitive
To properly observe Scripture, we must become spiritually inquisitive. We must start to ask questions about the Bible and its passages. Many can’t understand Scripture deeply, simply because they’re not interested in knowing the meaning and application of Scripture. They’re simply content to read it, if that. This is part of the reason that Peter commands believers in 1 Peter 2:2 to “yearn” for “spiritual milk” like an infant. People don’t need to be told to read the Bible, memorize it, and study it, if they actually “yearn” for it. Yearning will make us do all the other things. Therefore, God commands us to have a hungry disposition, as we will need it to understand Scripture and grow from it.
Certainly, we see this inquisitive, hungry disposition in the disciples, who often asked Christ questions about his teachings. For example, consider the disciples interaction with Christ after he taught the Parable of the Sowers in Luke 8:8-9:
But other seed fell on good soil and grew, and it produced a hundred times as much grain.” As he said this, he called out, “The one who has ears to hear had better listen!” Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant.
After giving the parable, Jesus said, “The one who has ears to hear had better listen!” This meant not everybody was capable of understanding the parable. The disciples didn’t understand it either. However, the proof that they had ears to hear was the fact that they desired to understand it and therefore asked Christ to explain it. Similarly, most read passages in the Bible, don’t understand it, and just move on. They don’t ask questions of the text, pray about it, or research it further. Having “ears to hear” doesn’t mean we understand Scripture when we read it; it means we desire understanding and are willing to pursue it. This separated the disciples from the rest of the hearers who didn’t understand either.
As we read the Gospels, the inquisitive nature of the apostles continues to be displayed. After Christ taught the need to pursue reconciliation with those who sinned against us, Peter asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21). Similarly, after Christ taught the disciples about the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24:3, they asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Well, one might say, “We don’t have Christ here to ask questions of the Bible. How do we get further understanding of his words, and the Bible’s teachings in general, like the disciples did?” In John 14:16-17, Christ said this to the disciples after telling them that he would be leaving them: “Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [or Counselor] to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.” Something interesting about the word “another” Christ used of the Holy Spirit, there are two Greek words typically used for “another.” One means “another of a different kind” and the other is “another of the same kind.” Christ used the latter. Essentially, Christ said to his disciples, “I will send you someone just like me. I will not leave you as orphans. I will send the Holy Spirit to you. He will teach you the truth and explain things to you. He will be your counselor. In the same way, you asked me questions, ask him questions.” Christ has given us this Counselor as well—the Spirit of truth. He will lead us into all truth, as we depend on him.
Therefore, it must be understood that those who don’t prayerfully ask questions of the Bible—trying to understand its meaning and applications—won’t grow in understanding it. Like the multitudes who listened to Christ while never coming to understanding, so is the person who reads Scripture, listens to sermons, and never asks questions or pursues answers. Again, Christ said, “Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The person who has ears is the one with an inquisitive nature—who genuinely wants to understand and obey God’s Word.
What should we do if we don’t desire to read and understand God’s Word?
1. Repent for not desiring to know God by understanding his Word. Repent for desiring and prioritizing so many other things more than him.
2. Pray for God to give you a hunger to read and understand God’s Word. In Psalm 119:36, David prayed, “Give me a desire for your rules, rather than for wealth gained unjustly.” He prayed for his desire and so must we.
3. Begin to read Scripture, ask questions of the text, and pursue those answers.
Ask Questions of Scripture
As we become spiritually inquisitive, we must ask questions of Scripture as we study it, such as:
These questions are fundamental to reading in general; however, it might be helpful to write the questions down and routinely ask them while reading the Bible, until it becomes a natural habit.
Who: Who is the author of the text? Who was this text originally written to?
What: What exactly is being said? What does the writing mean? What is the theme or purpose of the writing? What is the historical background? What type of writing is this—narrative, prophecy, letter, sermon, song, prayer, quotation, etc.? What is the immediate context of the passage?
Why: Why was this written? Are there any purpose clauses (these typically begin with so, because, to, for, so that, etc.) which help discern the author’s purpose in writing a specific text?
When: When was this written or when will this promise be fulfilled? Are there any time references in the text such as before, after, until, then, etc.?
Where: Where was this text written? Where is the narrative taking place?
How: How does this passage connect with other teachings in Scripture? How should this passage be applied? How should I pray from this passage?
Develop an Eye for Details
While reading the text and asking questions, take note of details which may provide answers to the questions or prompt further questions. Specifically, focus on details such as:
literary genre (narrative, poetry, prophecy, epistle, etc.)
grammatical structure of a sentence or paragraph
things emphasized by repetition, amount of space given to it, or the order (sometimes order shows priority)
cause and effect
going from specific to general (or vice versa)
the end of a scene
As one practices searching passages for details, his or her eyes will begin to readily pick up noteworthy aspects that lead to interpretation and application. Secondary tools will often help with training one’s eyes to do this, as these resources should continually point the person back to specific aspects of the text and their meaning/application.
Find the Answers by Research
As these questions are asked and details are noticed, they will often provoke the Bible student to further research. This research might lead to reading the text over and over again, reading the surrounding text (to find context), consulting a study Bible or commentary, asking questions to a more knowledgeable believer, etc. Eventually, if not immediately, it will often lead both to finding the meaning of the text (interpretation) and applying it (life application).
What are some tips to help with observation?
1. Saturate the study of Scripture with prayer. In Psalm 119:18, David said, “Open my eyes so I can truly see the marvelous things in your law!” Like David, we should ask God to open our eyes before studying his Word and while studying it. We should also pray for grace to live out the truths learned from Scripture.
2. Read the text over and over again (including the surrounding context). Psalm 1:1-2 (NIV) describes how God blesses the person who delights in and “meditates” on God’s Word. The Hebrew word for “meditate” was used of a cow chewing his cud. A cow has a four-chambered stomach, and because of that, she chews, swallows, and regurgitates over and over again as the food works its way through each chamber. Cows do this in order to maximize extraction of nutrients. Similarly, we’ll find as we prayerfully re-read Scripture over and over again that God blesses that type of study. The Holy Spirit will extract maximum nutrients from the text to edify us and others.
In referring back to the crime scene investigator illustration, as seen in the movies: often the investigator will realize that he’s missing something. So, he revisits the crime scene to look for further clues. We must also continually do that with God’s Word. Since Scripture is living and active (Heb 4:12), we’ll find that God continually meets us in the text, no matter how many times we’ve read it before.
3. Allow secondary materials to be secondary. The Bible is the primary source and the Holy Spirit is the guide. Consider commentaries, systematic theologies, Bible dictionaries, etc., only after prayerfully meditating on the text. Allow the Bible tools to refocus one’s eyes on the text in a fresh way, in order to aid in finding meaning and application.
Are you prayerfully observing God’s Word—meditating on it to extract all the nutrients for your spiritual health and that of others? Or, are you simply reading Scripture, quickly skimming it, or neglecting it all together? If we are going to understand God’s Word, we must believe that all Scripture matters, develop a spiritually inquisitive nature, prayerfully ask questions of the text, begin to notice details, and research for answers. This is the first step in discerning meaning and then applying.
Which aspect of the reading stood out most to you and why?
How can we develop an inquisitive nature—one that seeks to understand and obey Scripture?
What types of questions should we ask when studying Scripture?
What types of details should we look for when studying the text?
What other applications or questions did you take from the reading?