In Discipleship Essentials, Greg Ogden writes: “Because the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the uniquely inspired revelation of God and the standard in all matters of faith and practice, a portion of each day should be set aside to read, study, and meditate on God’s Word. The Bible is to the spirit what food is to the body.” So often we come to the Bible to read and meditate on God’s Word. Therefore, our devotional reading should be a source of joy and communion with the Lord. However, we must also study for learning and understanding.
When I was a college student, my corps officer told me about a time when he was juggling the demands of his corps appointment, raising children and taking higher education coursework. His corps was holding an evangelistic campaign and his family was hosting the special guest. He arrived home one evening after class, exhausted from the busy week. His house guest encouraged him to leave his degree program, stating that, “God does not need your education.” These were welcome words to some very weary ears. The officer met with his advisor to resign from the program, telling him that “God doesn’t need my education,” to which his adviser quickly retorted, “God doesn’t need your ignorance either!”
The same holds true when we approach God’s Word. Proper interpretation and application begin with study. Otherwise, the Bible can mean whatever any reader wants it to mean, which becomes subjective truth. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, in their book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, states that the original meaning of the biblical text provides an objective control—what did it mean to the original writer and audience? A text cannot mean what it could never have meant to the original author or original hearers.
“Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in Your law.” Psalm 119:18 (NIV)
The Holy Spirit will help with our discovery of the original meaning: guiding us through study to faithfully apply the precious truths of God’s Word to our own lives and situations. The key is to learn to read the text carefully and ask the right questions using observation, interpretation and application.
Start with a careful reading of the passage and its context—recording personal observations and questions. Notice the structure and main thought divisions; read the passage in paragraphs or stanzas. Make note of the background of the passage. Ask the six investigative questions: who, what, where, when, why and how.
Who are the main characters and how are they described? Notice the character of God, Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit and who they are described to be. Notice human characters and how they are described. Notice the relationships between characters and to the Lord.
What is happening? Notice key verbs, commands, promises, conditions, local customs, and the sequence of events and conversations.
Where do the events occur? In what part of the world does the passage take place? What is the geography like? Is the location significant to what is happening?
When did the events occur? Can we learn from the time of year or historical time they take place? What is gained from the reference to rulers, historical events, genealogies, cultural practices, time frame, or moment in the character’s life?
Why do the events occur?
How does this passage play out and how does it relate to the rest of scripture? Write down the main point of the passage. You may need to consult reference materials to help you understand: Bible dictionaries, study Bibles, or commentaries.
Interpretation (What does it mean?) seeks to bring out the meaning of the passage for whom it was first written, asking questions about content. Content has to do with the meanings of words and their grammatical relationships in sentences. What do the terms, phrases and sentences mean in this passage? How are they understood in their original language? Notice the figures of speech used (similes, metaphors, puns, word plays, exaggeration).
The most important question to ask of every sentence and paragraph is: What’s the point? Try to trace the author’s train of thought. Why is the author saying this? Why did they use this word, phrase, or idea and why here? Having said that, what is stated next and why? Be mindful to seek out the author’s intended meaning, resisting the urge to over spiritualize or interpret things metaphorically or symbolically. You will likely need to rely on the work of others to understand these issues, so check your ideas with credible sources.
Application (What does it mean?), then seeks to apply the main point to your life. This involves discerning what principles are specific to the setting of the author/audience and what are the timeless truths that emerge:
- about God and His character,
- about people and human nature,
- about our relationship to the Lord,
- our relationships to one another,
- our relationship to the world and culture,
- our journey of faith, living out divine calling and mandates,
- something solid and timeless to apply to our lives and times–applicable to a believer in Rome, in England in the Middle Ages, the United States in the 1800’s, or in Africa now.
Meditate prayerfully regarding:
- What has already been part of my thinking? What is new to me?
- What requires a change of thought? How do I make that change?
- Where might I need to change my behavior or my attitudes towards self and others, obedience to the Lord, situations/ relationships, how I form/express my thoughts, values, resources.
When we learn to read and study God’s Word properly, we can discover the rich truths that will engender steadfast faith, provide genuine hope and transform our inner being. We can build our lives on the eternal, solid rock of God’s living truth, so the Lord can use us in powerful ways to bring love, grace, peace and truth to His world.
Resources consulted and for further study:
Fee, Gordon and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All its Worth. Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Academic, 2014.
Ogden, Greg. Discipleship Essentials: A Guide to Building Your Life in Christ. Downers
Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2007.
McKnight, Scot. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. Grand Rapids: