How to Study Scripture

How to Study Scripture

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

If you were the devil (or perhaps one of his unsalaried employees), what would your strategy be to keep people from studying the Bible? What lies would you tell them to turn their hearts away from God and His Word? Perhaps you would begin by claiming that the Bible is little more than a collection of “myths” or “fairy tales.” You might point out that the Bible is “irrelevant and boring.” Or, if those tactics failed, you might resort to the argument that the Bible is “too hard to understand.”

Because by nature we are sinners who despise God and all He says to us, we are prone to devise all kinds of reasons not to study the Bible. We give ourselves excuses, we rationalize, we make a habit of ignoring God. But the fact remains that God has spoken in history; He has revealed Himself and His will in His holy Word. We can be thankful when God, by His Spirit, graciously imparts to us a desire to study His Word and to grow in the knowledge of His Son Jesus Christ.

But how should we study the Bible? What follows are just a few suggestions to help you get started. This is by no means an exhaustive list of principles of biblical interpretation. For more in-depth help, a recommended reading list is provided below.

Four Rules for Studying God’s Word

1. Keep in mind that the Bible is God’s Word. It is not a product of the finite mind of man; rather, it is the self-revelation of the infinite and eternal God. The Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible truth of the Maker of heaven and earth. While it was communicated through fallible men, it is no more the word of man than language and thought are mere human inventions. The Bible is God’s Word–it belongs to Him, and we must not tinker with it by adding our own thoughts to it, or subtracting God’s thoughts from it. It is this fundamental presupposition that will govern how we approach, study, interpret, and apply the teaching of Scripture.

If the Bible really is God’s Word, it is:

Authoritative. You can trust what it says because of the infinite authority of the One who is speaking. There is no higher authority to whom you can appeal for better answers. There is no better expert to consult than the God who made all things for His own glory in the space of six days.

Coherent. The Bible has the benefit of being the product of the most logical and orderly mind in the universe. To paraphrase the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), all of its parts are in agreement with one another and the scope of the whole is so breathtaking in magnificence that it, like the heavens, declares the glory of God (Ps. 19).

Clear. While the Bible itself points out that there are things in it which are difficult to understand (2 Pet. 3:16), God’s Word is crystal clear in its basic message regarding what man is to believe concerning God and the response of love and faith that God requires from man. Those who claim that the Bible is unclear will be “without excuse” when they stand before God on the Day of Judgement.

Self-Consistent. There are no contradictions in the Bible. Those who come to the Bible looking for reasons not to believe it will always find ways to confirm their prejudice against God and His truth. But those who read the Bible in dependence on the Spirit, in genuine faith, with a prayerful heart, will always find that the Bible is without error or contradiction. Every question you may have about the Bible has an answer. A humble student will question his or her own ability to understand before questioning the truthfulness of the Word of God.

Historical. The Bible is unique when compared to ancient literature. It records events that really happened in real places at real times in real history. God reveals Himself in Scripture as a God who comes down to us in time and space to be our God. It was in “the fulness of time” that the Second Person of the Trinity took to Himself a body of human flesh in order to live among us, die for us, and rise again in real history. The Bible pays careful attention to history because God is a God who delights to enter into historical relationships with mankind. Those relationships are called covenants. The Bible only makes sense when understood as a historical book.

Sufficient. We need nothing more than what God has said to us in His Word. We need no “new revelations of the Spirit” (WCF 1:6). We need no books in addition to the Scripture, such as the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon. God is not adding to His Word today by special revelation or prophecy. We have, in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, a sufficient revelation of all we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).

If we believe the Bible is God’s Word, we will approach it humbly, study it prayerfully, interpret it honestly and faithfully, and apply it diligently to our own lives.

2. Remember that the Bible must be interpreted. Interpretation is the skill of rightly understanding the meaning of something that has been communicated. You are always interpreting. God has made you with the capacity to understand what you hear and read. Every moment of every day, you are interpreting all the data your senses communicate to your brain. The question is whether you are interpreting rightly. Proper interpretation of the Bible requires a willingness to follow rules of interpretation.

Here are some particularly important rules to follow in biblical interpretation (just keep in mind that there are more):

Pay attention to the context. Every verse of the Bible is set within a passage. Every passage is located within a section. Every section is found in a particular book. In most cases, it is crucial to understand how the smaller unit of thought fits into the bigger picture. This is one reason it is often useful to read the entire book before trying to interpret a verse or passage within it. Above all else, it is critical to keep in mind the overarching meta-narrative of the Bible–the story above the story. That story is the promise and fulfillment of God’s redemption of His people in Jesus Christ. Nothing in the Bible makes sense unless you see it in the light of the Gospel.

Understand words, grammar, and syntax. This does not mean you need to become a Greek or Hebrew scholar. Some knowledge of the original languages is helpful in studying God’s Word, but there are plenty of resources available to help you make sense of linguistic difficulties. Make use of those resources. Ask your pastor for help in finding good Bible translations, commentaries, Bible dictionaries, concordances, atlases, encyclopedias, and websites. And remember to use the historic creeds and confessions of the church to help you interpret the Bible in a theologically consistent way. Be willing to stand on someone else’s shoulders to reach the things that are above your own head!

Be aware of literary genre. The Bible is made up of many different kinds of literature. It has historical sections, books of ceremonial and civil law, poetry (just try reading the Song of Solomon in the same way as the book of Leviticus!), prophetic books, wisdom literature, Gospels, tightly argued theological letters, and so on. What this means is you simply cannot interpret every portion of Scripture alike. You have to know the difference between historical narrative and apocalyptic (symbolic) literature. You have to know about literary devices and how they are used. You have to know when the Bible is using irony and satire. This requires studying the different kinds of literature in the Bible and learning to interpret them accordingly.

Interpret the Bible by itself. One of the most important principles of biblical interpretation is that of reading the Bible in light of itself. This means searching for help with difficult verses and passages in places where the Bible speaks more clearly. It means noticing how words and phrases are used elsewhere in order to shed light on their usage in the passage you are studying. It means interpreting the Bible in light of the Bible’s own theology and themes. It means tracing out the various images and ideas that recur throughout Scripture in order to draw out deep theological insights. It requires being a student of what is sometimes called “biblical theology”–interpreting the Scriptures within the bigger picture of the Bible’s own theological framework and storyline. Learning to do this is not only fun, but exceedingly rewarding as well!

3. Know that the Bible has a single unifying purpose and message. The purpose of the Bible is that we might know God and live in communion with Him. The message of the Bible is that, though we have all turned from God through sin, God graciously reveals His love for sinners through the salvation offered in His Son Jesus Christ. Not every verse in the Bible is about Jesus. In that sense, we should not expect to “find Jesus on every page” of the Bible. Nevertheless, the Bible itself is God’s revelation of Himself in His Son. All of Scripture calls us to respond in thanksgiving and obedience and faith to what God has accomplished for us in Christ. All of Scripture points us to Christ and our need for Him–not only at the beginning of the Christian life, but moment by moment, day by day, and Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day in the public worship of the church. Every passage of Scripture must be understood in light of the Gospel. Every passage of Scripture calls us to respond to the Gospel in repentance and faith. Seeing the “big picture” will help you avoid moralistic interpretations on the one hand, and subjective, superstitious, or foolish interpretations on the other.

4. Never forget that the Bible is meant to be applied. This needs to be emphasized, even as we emphasize it with a certain measure of caution. The word “application” means different things to different people. I have preached sermons which were regarded by some as “legalistic” because of specific and pointed applications from the text, while others were left wondering why there was not more application. We want to avoid seeing application in a “What does the text mean to me?” kind of way. Application has nothing to do with my own subjective impressions about what a text means to me. Our first question of any text ought to be, “What does this mean apart from me?” Only then can I begin to understand and apply what the text requires from me.

Some useful application questions might be:

What does this text teach me about God? What does it call forth from me in terms of adoration, confession of sin, thanksgiving, and supplicating prayer? What does this passage or verse teach me about my Savior Jesus Christ? About His glory, and beauty, and holiness, and love? What can I learn about myself and my need for Christ? What sins am I being convicted of by the Holy Spirit? In what ways does my heart need to be conformed to Christ? In what ways does my life need to change? What promises are here for me to take hold of by faith? How does this strengthen my assurance in God and in His power to do all He has promised to do for me in His Word? What do I learn about discipleship, about following Christ, about responding to Him in faith, hope, and love?

What is important to remember is that application is not a “to-do list” of boxes to check off in the Christian life. Application is meditating deeply on the Word of God, sucking out the marrow of God’s Fatherly affection toward us in Christ, and directing all our studies of the Word of God toward the end of growing in godliness through faith in the risen Lord. In that way, we will find that the goal of studying the Scriptures is knowing God and living all of life for His glory, in the enjoyment of Him alone as our greatest object of comfort, hope, and spiritual delight.

Three Resources to Help You Study the Bible:

Louis Berkhof, Principles of Interpretation

D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies

R. C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture

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