How to Study the Bible (5 Basic Tools)

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by Sean Perron

Five Basic Tools for Bible Study – Audio mp3.

1. Scripture interprets Scripture.

  • God is the best commentator on his Word.
  • This point is the umbrella for all of the rest. We have come to hear God and want to know what he is saying instead of what we want him to say.
  • Be careful of reading something into the text.

Today I dropped Jennifer off at work and she wasn’t feeling 100% healthy. I wanted to encourage her and so while she was in her work room, I left a purple sticky note on her laptop that read: “I love you soft dove of my soul. – Sean”

What did I intend to tell her by leaving this note? I intended to communicate that I loved her and I love her so much that I use mushy adjectives to describe her. That is what I want her to learn from reading that purple sticky note. What could she read this as? She could come upon the note and think, “Sean is telling me he loves me in spite of the fact that am soft and sickly.” Or she could think, “Uh, Sean is mocking me by saying he loves me and then calling me soft and weak.” Or she could think, “Wow, Sean is telling me he loves me and he used a cute phrase to do so.” Those three interpretations mean all the difference in the world. She could read in some feelings that are not there or that I did not intend to communicate!

2. Context is King

  • Pulling a verse out of context is one of the most dangerous things you can do as a Bible reader.
  • Immediate Context: What is around this particular verse?
  • Larger Context: How does this particular verse relate to the rest of the chapter or book?

“STOP!” If I just screamed this, you would very quickly try to process what I am referring to. If I make a gesture like placing my finger over my lips, this would communicate something different than if I help my hand up to signal halting movement. This is the immediate context. The larger context asks: Why did Sean motion like that? Does he not like what I am saying? Does he want to protect me from stepping on something? Do he hate me? Without knowing the larger context, you could completely misread why I yelled “STOP!”

Biblical Example: Philippians 4:13

  • Immediate Context: (4:12) – Contentment (4:14) – Suffering
  • Larger Context: Joy in God and suffering. (1:12-18) – Paul is in prison! (2:8) – Jesus was found obedient even to death

Is it true that Jesus can help us do anything? Yes and no. He won’t help you fly. But he will help you obey him. Does he guarantee you will win the next hockey game? No, but he does guarantee he will help you be content whether you win or lose.

Biblical Example: Matthew 18:20

  • Immediate Context: Church discipline
  • Larger Context: Forgiveness (v21-35), Reconciliation (v10-14), See also the establishment of the church (16:13-20)

Is it true that Jesus is present when we gather right now? Yes. But we would miss the entire point of this passage if we stopped here. This is helping us reconcile with those who are in conflict. It is helping us love those who need to be removed from the church.

3. Be(a)ware of Background

If you are having trouble understanding a text, there may be historical or background information that can help

Biblical Example: Colossians 1:15-19

  • Immediate Context: What does it mean by firstborn?

We know it does not mean Jesus was created (v16)

We know it still means Jesus is God (v19)

Clues: Firstborn over all creation and firstborn from the dead

  • Larger Context and Background: Status of firstborn in the Old Testament

Jacob tricked Esau into giving him his birthright. The Birthright went to the first born. (Genesis 27:18-41)

The firstborn got everything! It is a status symbol. Not a statement about Jesus being created. I have people stand on my front porch back in TN and miss this completely! They are going to hell in part because they do not see the background behind this one word. These are not small matters. They are about rightly dividing the Word of God.

Biblical Example: Matthew 1:18-20

What does Betrothed mean?

  • Immediate Context: (V19) – It required a divorce, (V18) – Joseph and Mary were not living together or sleeping together. They had never had sex.

Does it equal engagement? No

Does it equal dating? No

  • Larger Context and Background: Betrothal was a legal commitment during this time period that was binding on a man and woman pledged to get married. They would be separated for approximately 1 year and not be together sexually until the marriage. It required a divorce (a legal breaking away) in order to call off the betrothal even though they had not yet been married! Only Matthew is the one who records this. You would need to look at other reference tools to discover the background about betrothal.

 4. Clear the Clutter.

Clear passages interpret unclear passages

  • Biblical Example: Philippians 2:12
    • Ephesians 2:8-9
    • Immediate Context: 2:13 – God works in you
    • Larger Context: Ephesians 2:10 and Matthew 7:15-20

     

 5. Know your pegs.

Genre Pegs: Narratives, poetry, love songs, sticky notes, letters and apocalyptic writings.

  • Do you interpret a love poem the same way you would interpret a legal document?
  • Don’t try to squeeze a circle into a square hole. You will be frustrated.
  • Knowing your biblical genres will keep you from being frustrated and help you study the Bible accurately. This will be the topic for the next few weeks.

Good resource: Bargerhuff, Eric J. The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, Surprising Ways God’s Word Is Misunderstood. Baker Book Group.

Small Group Discussion:

  1. Which of the five tools are new to you?
  2. Use the five tools to interpret the following biblical passages.
    1. John 5:28-29
    2. Matthew 15:26 (hint: see Romans 1:16)
    3. Colossians 1:24 (hint: see Philippians 2:30)

     

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