the Spirit Watch

How To Study And Understand The Bible For Yourself :

Part 2 - Studying The Passage

by Rev. Rafael Martinez, Co-Director, Spiritwatch Ministries

Preparing For Your Bible Study

The preparations for study of the Bible are simple, yet take a lifetime to master as one consecrates themselves to seeking God out daily through His Word. And this will make the difference between just reading the Bible and studying God's Word. 

First of all there must be a firm determination of a specific time and place to meet with God daily where one will not interrupted or disturbed by distractions. Whether in the beginning, middle or end of the day, this time of encounter should be set apart to seeking God. This is entirely a choice mediated by your lifestyle. 

Secondly, good Bible students will use a good translation and not paraphrase, of Scripture. The King James Version can be used with the New International Version, the New American Standard Version and others, not to mention the New King James Version. Paraphrased Bible versions such as the Amplified and Living Bibles do not have dynamic word equivalents of the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible as do translations and should not be relied upon for daily study, although they can offer good devotional insights from time to time. 

And finally, yet most importantly, is our personal attitude we cultivate during our times of meditative study: coming to them with honestly receptive, open spirits tempered with expectancy and humility should be a joy – not duty or grudging or rejection of it as "legalism." We are drawing near to God who in turn will draw near to us: no greater blessing can there be!

Above all,  pray for God’s Spirit to be your teacher.  

The Holy Spirit’s ministry in the life of the believer is to be the Spirit of Truth that leads them into all truth (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:13; 1 John 2;27). Make room for His presence as you pray and welcome Him to do so. Prayer with heartfelt praise God will certainly hear that asks His help and exalts Him should be had before each study (Philippians 4:6-7). Only through earnest prayer can the direction of any Bible lesson be determined. Ask for it. 

He delights to lead and guide those who seek Him through His Word. Prayer is the alpha and omega of not only ministry to others, but in the seeking of God’s face, and praise is an act of loving, reverent faith in His leading. He never fails to then lead the seeker into the passage of Scripture that will address their discerned needs. At this point, the thorough study of the Word can then be begin, following the three major presuppositions we’ve just outlined that will help bring form to a solid system of personal hermeneutics that the Spirit of God will use in our very lives.

Finding The Big Idea - An Example Using 1 John 2:3-5

Seek out what may be called "The Big Idea"of the Scriptures you feel led to consider.  

The Big Idea is the central truth that is asserted in a passage of Scripture, and therefore, it will be the focus of any well-planned study. Too many Bible studies and teaching sessions never make the impact that they can because of the lack of coherence and unity within them - instead, teachers "go off on tangents" or ride the "sawhorses of convictions." Studying the Bible becomes "readings" that lack any real interaction with the truth of the Scriptures within them. A student of Scripture knows they've got to have more than just that and will press ahead to actually study the Bible and dig out the riches therein. The Big Idea determines what the critical context is for any verse or verses you will study and keeps you on track with what the Scripture says – this is a crucial principle of absolutely vital importance.

Thirdly, to get the "Big Idea" of the Bible passage studied, it should be carefully read through several times to get a firm grasp of the content as well as its context. 

In doing this you are searching through it to "rightly divide" it (cp. Acts 17:11 and 2 Tim. 2:15). If you are seeking understanding of a specific verse, read its entire chapter as well to keep the verse in proper context. This is crucial in keeping from being distracted by incomplete or inconsistent study. At this point, you are seeking understanding of what the passage under study is about, and one cannot hurry gathering an appropriate context: as you read you will be carefully pondering, pausing and thinking about what you’ve read. Having a good notebook or journal that enables you jot down your impressions and ponderings is a good idea. But keeping one’s focus on your observations is very important. A study notebook shouldn’t become a diary. You are seeking to be a student of the content of the Word of God, so keep that in mind. Journaling can and should be reserved for another time.

After prayerful and careful reading through of a given Bible passage and having begun to closely observe its content, you should then be ready to take two major steps in determining the big idea of a passage: a two-fold focus to establish the broad subject (passage topic) and the specific focus (passage theme). In your defining of the passage topic, you are identifying the major content of the passage, broadly considered. The passage topic is what the passage is about. Once you’ve done that, you then narrow the passage topic down to a theme. By doing this, you are paring the topic down to a specific idea that the passage asserts. The passage theme is what the passage says about the topic.  

Again, this is careful, slow and difficult work that cannot and must not be rushed. It does require labor. But once this is done, the Bible study has been given its unifying focus based on a good, solid grasp of the content of a Biblical passage. By taking this high road, a true Bible student will avoid the slippery slope of twisted tangents of speculation, pet doctrines and imbalanced teaching which many a cult group and false teacher have fallen upon. They will instead be building a solid foundation for personal spiritual nurture, growth and strengthening, not to mention spiritual healing, insight and fulfillment. 

For an example on how to do this, let’s study 1 John 2:3-5: we’ll also be using these same three verses as we determine the passage theme

3 And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.

4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

5 But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. (KJV)

Use of another sound Bible translation like the New International Version brings more clarity:

3 We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.

4 The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

5 But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: (NIV)

By meditating and carefully pondering these verses, we can make observations about the content: writing them down as you do so can be very helpful to you later .. here's some you can derive from those verses:

  1. Keeping the commandments of Jesus Christ are the focus

  2. Those who say they keep His commandments but don’t are self-deceived deceivers

  3. The commandments of Jesus are also called "His word"

  4. Those who do keep Jesus’ words are those who keep His commandments

  5. Knowing a true worshipper of God is revealed by whether he/she keeps Jesus’ word

  6. The writer is contrasting those who keep Jesus’ words with those who claim to but don’t

  7. Those keeping Jesus’ words will find God’s love purifying and perfecting them

There’s much one can learn just from this observation aspect! But is this the end of the study? 

We’ve only just begun! To understand these 3 verses of Scripture in their proper context means we must ensure we take into account the entire chapters’ content as well – or at least the surrounding verses before and after them. We won’t go verse by verse through the chapter now (there are 29 verses filled with powerful spiritual insight that would take far too long simply to do observation on). But we will examine verses 1-2 to provide a bit more insight.

Paying Attention To The Bible Genres

At this point, we can see in our observations that the content of 1 John 2:3-5 is a straightforward exposition of spiritual teaching. This brings us to another aspect of Bible study we must be aware of that is just as vital to helping us understand it: we must maintain an attention to the literary genres of the Bible itself. 

A genre is a type of literature marked by certain shared features that convey information in distinctive and unique ways unlike another. For example, in secular literature, the three broadest categories of genre involve poetry, drama, and fiction. In popular movies, we find action ("The Matrix") comedy ("While You Were Sleeping") and suspense ("Signs"). In newspapers, such as USA Today, you will find paper sections like "The Nation", "Life" and "Sport" and you’ll find columnists as well as newspaper reporters filing their work from a variety of perspectives. 

Genres are often subdivided into more specialized ones, but the point is that literary works do use various ways to deliver their messages. As we have said, the Bible is God-inspired, yet humanly written, and the usage by the authors of the various books of the Bible of genres should be taken into consideration as you study. They provide a powerful dimension in focusing attention on a passage of Scripture that can be used to sharpen a Bible study - or used by false teachers to distort the message of the Word of God to their own ends. Although the Word of God, the Bible also can be seen as containing three basic types of literary genre which becomes quite obvious by even the most casual reader of it:

1. Didactic Exposition (teaching) – This contains objective, concrete discourse and formulation of teachings and often gives the clearest and most systematic treatments of doctrine and moral formulation that provide principles for spiritual living and practice (like Romans 8, Exodus 20 and Matthew 5).

2. Lyric Poetry – In contrast, lyric poetry contains both abstract and concrete imagery which holds many literal and yet often symbolically-conveyed truths in the context of the parallelism of Jewish thought. The Old Testament was dominated by this (the Psalms and prophets) and this in turn affected the New Testament as well (the book of Revelation and Gospel accounts)

Story/Narrative – This is a flow of action from a witnessed account of events, drawn from the perspectives of those involved. Both implicit and explicit content is found here. It often includes both lyric poetry and didactic exposition with their own unique deliveries of truth and information, as well as journalistic reporting of events and conversations (the book of Acts)

These are important considerations, because the genre of a given passage affects how we must consider it as we study it. What the genre is will affect the observation of the content and your grasp of the "Big Idea" as well. The differing approaches genre bring in the delivery of Biblical truth must be taken into account! We’ve seen that 1 John 2 is very much a teaching, so is therefore a didactic exposition. It’s not involving narrative or symbolically-phrased prophecy, so we won’t be concerned with trying to deal with those issues for now – but they are vital considerations that you must be aware of. We’ll discuss this later.

Having done our meditative study of the Bible passage after prayerful submission to God’s teaching Spirit in our lives, having jotted down observations and noted the effects of the verses’ genre that we’ve looked into, what’s the next step? We now determine what the "Big Idea" would be of 1 John 2:3-5. The "Big Idea" is simply a summary of what those verses teach. Using the observations we’ve jotted down above, we can see that the "Big Idea" seems to definitely be related to the contrast between those who keep the words of Jesus and those who claim to but don’t. John’s focus is upon knowing truth, and how to determine truth in spiritual life. So we can summarize the Big Idea as the following:

1 John 2:3-5 – Knowing the difference between those who obey God and those who don’t

Now that we have summarized what we think the passage is teaching, we should then determine what the passage topic and theme are. You’re now becoming more and more focused on what you are seeing in the verse as you study even further, which is what real Bible study is about. Remember that the topic is a broad consideration of what is being said, while the theme is much more specific: brainstorm, ponder and summarize what you are seeing:

The Passage Topic: Discernment

The Passage Theme: Recognition of the godly comes from a godly walk

Admittedly, this is not a process of study that comes as second nature to all of us: this is dedicated study, but the kind of study that will change your life! Once you take time for deep observations about a given portion of God’s Word and once you’ve taken the time to meditate and dwell upon them so as to give His Spirit the season to do His work of illuminating the Bible’s teaching within you, you will be arriving at God’s truth as He teaches it to you: there is no greater joy than that!

Once we've made these observations, the next step is to consider what the verses really communicate to us. We'll see how to actually interpret what the Bible is really saying. We'll get into that in our next study.

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