Last week we established how and why God’s word should challenge us and change us. Obviously, if you want to be challenged and changed, you have to spend time in the word. You have to read it, you have to meditate on it, you have to think about it, you have to discuss it with others, and you have to hear it preached.
What I want to do right now is share something with you that I feel will enhance the time you spend reading and studying the Bible. What I am about to share with you is basically a behind the scenes look at the process I use when preparing to preach a sermon. It contains 4 determinations and then 5 steps. Here we go…
Whether I am reading the Bible for personal study or getting ready to preach, I am always making my way through a certain book of the Bible. I don’t like to jump from book to book; I believe the best way to truly get something out of God’s word is to take it one book at a time. Think about it: when the believers in Galatia received a letter from Paul, they probably didn’t read the first twenty sentences and then stop until the next day or the next time they met. Most likely they read (or had read to them) the entire letter in one sitting. Does this mean that I would preach the entire book of Galatians in one sermon? No, not necessarily. But I would preach straight through the book of Galatians, mentioning every single verse, in the span of a few months. I would encourage you to do the same thing in your personal study of God’s word. Pick a book and read straight through it. If it’s a short book like Galatians or Ephesians, read through it in one sitting. If it is a longer like Genesis, take a week to make your way through it.
Before you begin making your way through a certain book, there are 4 determinations you need to make about it:
1. Determine the Author
Yes, whichever book it is you have chosen is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it has a human author as well, and knowing as much as you can about that person will be very helpful. Why? Because God allowed each human author’s personality and background to come through in their writing. Think about Luke, for example, who wrote Luke and Acts and possibly Hebrews. He was a physician, and you can see that in the many medical terms he uses in his books.
2. Determine the Audience
Not only is who wrote the book important, but also who it was addressed to. Now some books, like 1-2 Kings, may not have a specific audience, but all of the Old Testament Prophetic books do, and every New Testament book definitely has a specific audience in mind. Why is it so important to know who a book was written to? Because they were real people and they were involved in real situations and the biblical authors took that into consideration when writing. Take the gospels of Matthew and Luke for example. Matthew had a Jewish audience, an audience who was familiar with the Old Testament, so he arranged his gospel around several Old Testament passages. Luke, on the other hand, had a Gentile audience who was not very familiar with the Old Testament, therefore he didn’t quote it near as often as Matthew. Another example is the letter of Philippians. Philippi was an old battle ground, and many retired military families lived in that colony. Paul knew that and used a lot of battle terminology in his letter to them.
All of this is important, but it is of utmost importance to understand who the audience was because we need to know how they understood this letter. Why? Because what it meant to them is what it should still mean to us today. The best thing we can do as readers of these ancient documents is put ourselves in the shoes of those original recipients and understand what it meant to them. Have things changed since then? Of course. But has the meaning of God’s word changed? Not at all. The application may be different, but application is different from meaning, and we will talk more about that later.
3. Determine the Genre
At the beginning of last week’s post, I listed several different genres of literature that are found in Scripture (narrative, letter, prophecy, poetry, apocalyptic, etc.). Knowing what genre of literature you are studying is important, because each genre has its own rules of interpretation. Think about it: would you read a love letter from your spouse the same way you would read a letter from the IRS? Do you read a biography the same way you read a fiction novel? Probably not. In the same way, we can’t read 1 Samuel (history) the same way we read Revelation (prophecy/apocalypse) or 1 Peter (epistle) the same way we read the psalms (poetry).
4. Determine the Canonical Context
Basically, this means to determine where in the biblical storyline the book you are studying is found. Is it in the Old or New Testament? Did the events you are reading about happen before or after the death of Christ? Always keep in mind the grand context and narrative of Scripture when studying a certain book (remember, each book is just 1 of 66 parts).
Once you have made these 4 determinations about the book you have chosen to study, it is time to dig in to the text itself. Like I said earlier, I wouldn’t preach or teach through an entire book in one sitting, I would take it one chapter or one paragraph at a time. For each of these sections, there are 5 steps I take.
1. Make Observations and Ask Questions
The first thing to do is to read through the passage, making observations about it. Are there any words or phrases the author uses multiple times? Are there any figures of speech (similes, metaphors, exaggerations, etc.)? If you are reading a New Testament passage, are there any Old Testament quotations?
After that, it is time to ask questions about the text. The 5 W questions are always good ones to ask: Who? What? When? Where? and Why?
2. Understand the Context
Say you are studying Luke 18:15-30. Even though that text is your focus, you have to keep in mind that something was said before that point in the story, and more is said afterwards. Context is so important. When it comes to real estate, the saying is “Location, location, location!” When it comes to understanding the Bible, the saying is, “Context, context, context!”
Context is so important because words and phrases derive their meaning from what surrounds them. If I ask you to think of a trunk, what comes to mind? The trunk of a car? The trunk of a tree? The trunk of an elephant? See, you need context to know what kind of trunk I’m talking about. The same think is true when it comes to understanding the Bible.
In Luke 18:15-17 Jesus talks about receiving the kingdom of God like an infant or a little child. Well what exactly does that mean? It is helpful to know that in the previous passage, Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a self-dependent Pharisee and a humble tax collector. The point of the parable is to be like the tax collector, not the Pharisee. In the next few verses, 18:15-17, Jesus relies on what He has just said when talking about infants. Infants are very dependent on their parents, and as a result, they should also be very humble (they don’t have anything to brag about because they haven’t done anything…Everything is done for them). So what it means to receive the kingdom like an infant or little child is to be humble and confess your dependence on God. Hopefully you can see how the context helps give meaning to this passage.
3. Find the Meaning of the Text
Once you have made observations, asked questions, and gotten a handle on the context, it is time to put it all together and figure out what the passage at hand is saying. The question you need to ask is this: “What did this mean to the original audience?” Whatever it meant to them is what it should still mean to you. Once again, this is not application. Application comes at the very end (see step 5).
Besides the guidance of the Holy Spirit, there are some helpful tools you may want to check out: commentaries, Bible handbooks, Bible dictionaries, and Bible atlases, just to name a few. Some publishing companies that have good Bible resources are Baker, Eerdmans, Zondervan, and Broadman & Holman.
4. Find the Theology of the Text
In this step you need to ask what the passage at hand says about God, Jesus, and/or the Holy Spirit and also what it says about mankind. The thing about theology is that it must not be culturally or temporally specific. Theology spans the gaps of time, language, and culture.
5. Find the Application(s) of the Text
Finally, we come to the end, and it is time to make application of the text. This is where we ask the question, “What is this passage saying to me?” These applications take the original meaning and the theology of the text and impose them on our twenty-first century lives. This is where we figure out what God’s word is challenging us to do and how it is showing us what we need to change.
The problem is, most people, including myself at times, try to jump straight to this step before doing any of the others. But when we try to apply God’s word to our life before we figure out what it actually means, we can make it say some off the wall things that God never intended, and that is dangerous!
Now I know this seems like a lot. You’re probably thinking, “If I do all of this, I’m going to have to double the amount of time I spend in God’s word each day just to get anything out of it.” Well maybe so, but probably not. Once you get the hang of this, it will become second nature to you. You won’t have to sit there and say, “OK, now I’m on to step 3…” Yes, it might take some getting used to, but give it a try and see if it enhances your time studying God’s word!