Do you ever feel lost when you open your Bible? Do you read portions here and there, but forget what it said five minutes later? Are you frustrated with getting everyone else's opinions about what the Bible says on a certain subject, and wondering what's really true?
You don't have to be a theologian or scholar to understand the Bible. The Bible study method I am about to share with you revolutionized my life. Five years ago, I was introduced to a lady named Kay Arthur, founder of Precept Ministries. In a three hour seminar on the book of Haggai, she made the words of Scripture come alive for me. I took those same methods and began applying them to regular Bible study and have been totally changed by what I've learned. I've since taken quite a few Precept Bible Study courses and am totally sold on this method.
What is Inductive Bible study?
Inductive Bible study uses the Bible as the main source of information about the Bible. Here is a good illustration: if I decided that I wanted to learn about frogs, I could use one of two methods. One way would be to go to the library and check out all the books that had information about frogs. I could then read them and find out what each different author had to say about frogs. When their information conflicted, I would have to try and decide who was right. This could all be done without a lot of effort and I wouldn't even have to touch a frog.
The other approach would be to go down to the pond and find a frog. I'd observe the surroundings, which insects it ate, which it left behind, when it was awake, when it went to sleep, how it mated, where, when and how it laid its eggs, etc.. When I was finished, I'd take the frog back with me to the lab and dissect it so that I could see the inner workings of a frog. I would then have first hand experience with the frog and would know for sure that my information was accurate. It would take more time and effort, but I would not quickly forget what I had seen for myself. I'm sure you can see my point. If we study the Bible itself, asking the Holy Spirit to teach us, we will know it because we know it — not just because we heard someone else say it.
There are three basic parts to inductive Bible study
- Observation: What does it say?
- Interpretation: What does it mean?
- Application: How does the meaning apply to me?
Once we know what a portion of Scripture means, we are responsible for putting it into practice in our own lives. This, of course, is the goal of Bible study — to be transformed by the Word of God, developing a deeper more intimate relationship with God himself. It is of utmost importance that our observation is correct because our interpretation and then application will rest on it. When something you are studying makes an impression on you, stop and allow God to speak to you.
You may be surprised at how much you can notice and understand about the Bible by simply asking the right questions. You don't need a theological degree to understand the Bible. You can figure much of it out by using your God-given intelligence and asking the right questions (so long as you're seeking the direction of the Holy Spirit). Later, when you read some commentaries or listen to a sermon on the passage, you'll feel pretty good knowing that you reached many of the same conclusions on your own. The following are great questions to ask as you make observations:
Pray, asking God to teach you (John 16:13-15).
Find out the context — this is very important to accurate interpretation. For example, the word "sharp" can have several meanings depending on the context:
- a pointed object
- a musical term
- a thin keen edge
- quick witted
- bitingly cold
- stylishly dressed
Look for the obvious — facts about people, places, events — often these will be repeated making them easy to see. This provides a framework for the text.
Be objective — let Scripture speak for itself. Don't try to make it say what you've always thought it said. Ask God to make his truth obvious to you and then adjust your life accordingly.
Read, asking questions of the text.
- Who wrote it?
- Who did he write it to?
- Who are the main characters?
- What are the main events?
- What is the meaning of the message?
- What are these people like?
- What is his purpose in saying this?
- When was it written?
- When did this event happen?
- When will this take place?
- When did he do or say this?
- Where was this done?
- Where was this written?
- Where will it happen?
- Why was this written (Why did God want me to know this?)
- Why did the author say so much, or so little about this?
- Why should they do such and such?
- How did it happen?
- How did they do it?
- How do I do that?
Record your answers in a notebook. You will be amazed at how much you learn that you did not realize was there. It will be helpful if you use a Bible that you are willing to mark up.
Marking key words consistently throughout the text will help you quickly identify common themes. Colored pencils and a four-color pen work great together. You can use the pen to make little symbols that relate to the key words. For example, any time I see the word "Jesus," or a pronoun of it, I mark it with a red ink cross. Key words always answer the question who, what, when, where, why or how. They are most often words that are repeated. Names of key people in the story and their pronouns are key words. God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit, or any words that mean the same, including pronouns, are also always key as we are seeking to discover more about God.
Before determining what the passage means for Christians today, it's important to discern the intended meaning of the biblical author. If we derive a meaning that would have gone over the heads of the original audience, then we are most likely off track. It's only when you understand what the author meant to communicate in his historical and cultural context that you can confidently apply biblical principles to your life and today's context. Ask these questions of the text:
- What did the author intend for his readers to understand?
- How does this passage unfold a broader theme of this particular book of the Bible?
- What doctrinal or moral problem was he addressing?
- What action did he want readers or listeners to take?
- What is still unclear? (Are the confusing terms or phrases used elsewhere in this book, or elswhere in the Bible?). Before reaching for your dictionary, allow Scripture to define its own terms contextually through cross-referencing.
One word of caution is warranted. While you should be confident in your ability to understand the Bible through proper study under the direction of the Holy Spirit, this does not mean you should interpret the Bible in isolation from community. The community of believers who have gone before in history, and our church community today, provide checks and balances, keeping us faithful to orthodox Christian belief. If you come up with what seems like a novel or controversial interpretation, make sure to run it by your pastor or read some commentaries on the passage.
When you feel that most of your questions have been answered, summarize your interpretation. Try putting the main point of the passage into one or two sentences.
It's important to remember that the primary goal of Bible study is not the accumilation of knowledge. The chief aim is to encounter Jesus and follow him more closely. If we learn the truth but fail to put it into practice, we are no further along in our spiritual walk. In fact, we may end up stagnant and full of pride. In seeking to apply truth, it's important to move from head to heart to action. Take these steps:
Make it personal — Identify what is holding you back from fully believing the truth of the passage or fully obeying its commands. Confess any sins or doubts that come to mind.
Imagine the difference — Think of what would change in your life and relationships if you fully obeyed the passage.
Make a plan — Ask God what action he wants you to take and when you should do it. Then make sure to set a time in your calendar to follow through.
Rely on the Holy Spirit — Since none of us can be like Jesus on our own, we must practice being filled with the Holy Spirit. Confess your weaknesses and seek God's empowerment to follow Jesus better. Then step out in faith boldly. Spiritual breathing, as described below, is a great way to depend on God throughout your day as you try to live out what you have learned.
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