The Bible is the Word of God, and so we read it. It comforts us, directs us, and feeds our soul. But sometimes the Bible is hard to understand. And sometimes (or frequently), Christians disagree about what the Bible means. Often when we read or study the Bible, we’re eager to get to practical application – what does this have to do with my life? The Word of God will always get there, but we need to be careful about the steps we take before applying its words to our lives.
The post Seven Principles for Interpreting the Bible reviewed elements of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation). One of the principles is to follow the study method of Observe, Interpret, Apply. Whether you are doing personal devotions, preparing to lead a small group, or studying for a Sunday morning sermon, these steps are crucial.
1- Observe: What does it say? Carefully read the section of the Bible you are studying, and consider the questions below. If you are already familiar with the passage, slow down and read it again. It is a great idea to take notes as you read. Or you can even consider a “manuscript study” where you print out the passage with lots of space between lines. As you carefully observe what the text says, highlight repeated themes, underline important terms, draw arrows between related concepts, etc. (Try using colored pencils.) Put complicated words and concepts in your own terms. Write notes above the words. Look at different translations. Use a dictionary if needed.
- Genre: What is the genre (narrative, history, poetry, prophecy, letter, etc.)?
- Structure: How is the passage structured? What comes first? Last?
- Grammar: Pay attention to grammar. What are the main subjects and verbs? What adjectives and descriptors are used?
- Repetition: Are there any repeated words, concepts, or themes?
- Transitions: Pay attention to transition words and connections (such as therefore, because, so that, etc.)
- Contrast: Are there ideas that the reader is intending to compare and contrast? Are there opposites being represented?
2- Interpret: What does it mean? Next, think through the meaning of all that you have just observed. Consider what unanswered questions you still have. As you think through the questions below, continue making notes. Literary context is crucial here: understand words as a part of the sentence, understand sentences as a part of the paragraph, and understand paragraphs as a part of the larger section. It is also crucial to take into account the historical context, such as the author, the audience, and the circumstances that lead to the writing. Other passages that address the same themes can help with interpretation too (initially look only at passages in the same book of the Bible or by the same biblical author). A good Study Bible, Bible Commentary, or Bible Dictionary can answer a lot of these questions for you, but before you go there, see what the Holy Spirit shows you first.
- Repetition: Why is a particular theme or word repeated?
- Connections: How do the important concepts relate together and build a line of reasoning?
- Vocabulary: How does context inform the meaning of the specific words used?
- Purpose: What was the author’s purpose?
- References: Are there Old Testament passages being referenced or New Testament passages that quote this text?
3- Main Point: What is the central idea? Before you jump to application (where we all want to go!), take some time to summarize the work you have done. Can you boil the passage down to one or two main ideas? Don’t just explain what was written (observation), but also what it means (interpretation). Try to write out the main point in a single sentence.
4- Application: What effect should it have on my life? You want to start with general principles and then move to personal application. Think about specific relationships and circumstances you are currently facing. And, don’t forget to make Jesus a part of your application! Consider how Jesus fulfills this passage and how the Gospel impacts what you are studying. You can think through application on a variety of levels:
- Inward: How does this passage relate to your own heart and relationship with God? How is it calling you to become more like Christ?
- Outward: How does this passage impact the way you interact with others? How will this influence your relationships with your family, the church, and unbelievers?
- Beliefs: How does this change or strengthen what you think and believe about God, yourself, and others?
- Identity: How does this impact your understanding of who you are (character, values, priorities, identity, etc.)?
- Actions: How does this impact what you do and say?
Whether by yourself or with others, whether a brief time or an extended study, when you read the Word, take to Observe, Interpret, and Apply. For more on this method, check out great resources at www.knowableword.com.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
– Hebrews 4:12