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Monday, January 5, 2009

Studying the Bible: The Overview, Part 1

At PBF, we talk frequently about the importance of feeding on the Word of God: reading it, memorizing it, meditating on it, studying it, and praying it. It is only by the intake of Scripture that our minds, hearts, and actions are transformed into the likeness of Christ. If we are going to be a congregation pursuing Christ, we must be a people of the Word.

That all sounds good, but the reality is that of the modes of biblical intake that I mentioned above, there is probably only one that most people would feel competent doing. Reading Scripture is something anyone can do. But memorizing, meditating, studying, and praying the Word can be very intimidating.

I’ve already suggested a great resource for memorizing the Word, An Approach to the Extended Memorization of Scripture by Dr. Andrew Davis. Prior to finding this tool, Scripture memorization had been quite a chore for me. I have been doing this plan for a couple of years now, and I can tell you that it has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. I challenge you to just read the plan and consider making Scripture memorization a priority in your life.

For the next several weeks (maybe months), I’d like to try to take some of the intimidation and mystery out of meditating, studying, and praying the Word. We’ll start with study, since meditating and praying Scripture will be far more effective if you know what the verses mean.
Bible study is more than just reading. It is digging into a portion of Scripture to learn what it says, what it means, and how it applies to everyday life. It’s quite possible to read the Bible and come away with almost no idea of the significance of the text. However, if we do it consistently and correctly, it is almost impossible to study the Bible without understanding far more than we did before.

There are several stages that we want to make sure that we include in our study of the Bible. These stages are: overview, observation, interpretation, and application. The elimination of any one of these will hamper our ability to accurately handle the Word of Truth (2 Tim 2:15). It is unfortunate that many people approach the Bible with the idea that Bible study is simply interpretation. The sad irony is that if we study that way, 99 times out of 100 we will end up with a wrong interpretation. Patience is key. Studying the Bible is hard, time-consuming work. It cannot be rushed.

Let me warn you against a common temptation. Because study is time-consuming, it is very easy to skip the hard work and go straight to bible study tools, such as dictionaries, word study tools, concordances, and commentaries. These tools do have their place. In fact, I would consider it reckless to complete my study without them. But to start with them, is to rob myself of the joy of wrestling with the text and discovering its truth on my own. So if you have some of those tools, don’t touch them until I tell you! :)

Before you can start to study, you must pick a book. There are 66 books in the Bible and all of them hold a valuable place in the canon. You may be drawn to what seem like the most interesting books, like Revelation or Exodus. My recommendation is that you choose a smaller book like 2 Timothy or Philippians. These are great to use to learn how to study because they are brief and relatively simple, not to mention very convicting.

Today, I’d like to talk about the first stage of study, the overview. One of the cardinal rules of Bible study is this: context is king. Memorize this rule. Love it. Don’t ever forget it. This rule is what separates truth from error. The context includes the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs surrounding any given word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph being studies that colors the meaning of that word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph.

Without an understanding of the context of a passage, not only will I miss the forest for the trees, but it is possible to come up with an infinite number of very colorful, but very wrong interpretations of Scripture. Any interpretation of a passage that does not make sense with its context is a wrong interpretation. If I ignore the context, I can support from Scripture the notions that there is no God (Psalm 14:1) and that Jesus was a glutton and drunkard (Matt 11:19). But if take the context into account, I will find that these interpretations couldn’t be further from the truth.

The overview of a book of the Bible is like a nice aerial photograph. You don’t see tons of detail, but you have a pretty good idea of the overall nature of what you’re looking at. You know the shape, color, and contour of the landscape and that information will be invaluable as you try to make sense of the details.

The first step in doing an overview of a book is to pray. Jesus told His disciples in John 16:13, But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth… It is essential to humble yourself before the Lord, acknowledging that without the guidance of His Holy Spirit, the Word will forever remain an enigma to you. Ask Him to guide you into all the truth.

The next step is reading. Read the book. Read it again. Read it again. And then…read it again. If you are studying a large book it may take a day or two to read it once, but don’t cut corners. (This is why I suggest a smaller book for you first study.) At first, the book may seem like a random collection of unrelated material, but the more you read it, the more you will begin to see the train of thought. Don’t take the time to try to figure out what is in the details, yet. All you want is the big picture.

After you have read the text multiple times, you can then read while looking for specific information. First, identify the obvious names. Read through the text, noting all the things that you learn about the author and his circumstances. You might want to make a list of these things. Read through again, noting all the things you learn about the recipients. If there are any other people mentioned prominently, make a list of the things you learn about those individuals. One of the major objectives of the overview is to determine the purpose of the book. Frequently, especially in the epistles, what you find about the author and recipients will provide a good idea of why the book has been written.

Next, you will want to mark keywords or phrases. Mark each word with a distinctive way or color. Having read through the text so many times, you will have noticed certain words that are used repeatedly throughout the book. In the book of Ephesians, various forms of the word “give” are used 12 times. Various forms of the word “grace” are also found 12 times. Keywords are important because they lead to key subjects, which lead to the theme. God’s gracious gifts to the church figure prominently in Ephesians. Marking these keywords help us to make that discovery.

Next time, we’ll look at how to discover the main theme of the book. This whole thing may seem like a whole lot of work…and it is. But what else could we spend our time on that will be more rewarding? I encourage you to dig in. Pick a book. Read it over and over this week. If possible, start to notice facts about the author and recipients and begin to mark those keywords.
Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

Remember, don't read commentaries or dictionaries, yet!

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