Jim Denison on How Can I Study the Bible?

Photo: Unsplash/Olivia Snow

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

Is this a guarantee?

If so, can we assume that any time a child makes a sinful decision the fault is the parents’?

How old is “old”?

Or is it possible that this parable represents a biblical genre that communicates metaphorically rather than literally?

There are certain principles and practices that guide all effective Bible study. These tools are intended for every person who wants to meet God in his word.

When you begin the study of a specific passage, ask background questions. Then read the text in question, preferably in several translations. Note what seems to be the major idea of the passage and its relation to the author’s intended purpose for the book.

Now, ask basic questions of the text:

  • Who is speaking, writing, and/or acting?
  • What is the subject of the text?
  • Where is it happening?
  • Why and/or how?

With this information in mind, we are ready to proceed. We’ll use this passage as our lab throughout:

Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.—Romans 12:1–2

Grammatical principles

I will suggest in this study the “fourfold” approach to all Bible study:

  • Grammatical: What do the words mean?
  • Historical: What are the circumstances behind the text?
  • Theological: What spiritual and theological truth does the text intend to communicate?
  • Practical: What applications does the text intend to make in my life?

We’ll start with grammatical questions.

The Bible is intended for all believers, as we are each our own priest before God. And so we come to the text in the belief that it intends to be understood. No advanced seminary degrees needed. The words will reveal their meaning to those willing to study them.

Word study (“lexicography”)

Begin with the words themselves. We want to know what the author intended them to say, not just what they seem to say to us today. Words that survive long in any language acquire added meanings and implications. We want to know the meaning the author intended.

For instance, Jesus told us of a man who entrusted his servants with “talents” (Matthew 25:14–30). Today, the word refers to gifts or abilities. In Jesus’ day, it was a measure of money (worth more than a thousand dollars in our currency). We misinterpret the parable if we think it relates to our God-given abilities and spiritual gifts.

The King James Version tells us that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus “and could not for the press, because he was little of stature” (Luke 19:3). We picture this short man trying to see around the reporters who are interviewing Jesus on his way into Jericho. Of course, “press” in the seventeenth century means “crowd” today. Luke is not condemning the media.

How do we do a word study? Ask these five questions.

1. How was the word defined? 

With the help of a Bible dictionary, look up all unclear words in the passage. Be careful to confine your work to the definition of the word as it was intended by its original author.

2. What is the context of the word? 

Often, the sentences surrounding the term will explain its meaning. For example, Jesus referred to the kingdom of God in the Model Prayer (Matthew 6:10). What was this “kingdom”?

Our Lord defined it himself: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus used parallelism, a kind of Hebrew expression where the second line repeats or defines the first. The “kingdom” is where God’s will is done. The context defines the term.

3. What is the history of the word? 

A dictionary or encyclopedia will provide its background and root meanings. But again, be careful to confine your interpretation to the intended meaning of the author. And work with the word in its original languages, as the commentaries enable such study.

4. What are other biblical uses of the word? 

A concordance or dictionary will help here. Since Scripture interprets Scripture, other passages can often help clarify the meaning of the words of the text.

5. What is the cultural background behind the word? 

What practices current in the author’s day affect his use of the term? Jesus told us, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matthew 5:41). Was he talking about joggers out for a run, or bikers on a trail?

Actually, he referred to a Persian custom taken over by the Romans by which a subject could be forced to carry a soldier’s pack for one mile. This was done not to help the soldier so much as to remind the subject that he serves the Empire.

Jesus is saying, If someone humiliates you, allow him to humiliate you even further. Don’t return slander for slander, insult for insult. Treat even your enemies with humble service. The cultural background clarifies the intention of the phrase.

To summarize, begin your study of the biblical text with the words. Define and clarify their meaning, with the help of a dictionary, concordance, encyclopedia, and/or commentary. We must know the meaning of the words of God if we would interpret the word of God.

Sentence structure

Often, the grammar of the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek text will affect its translated meaning for us. Here, the sentence structure employed by the author is vital. A good commentary will help in this regard.

An example of the significance of sentence structure in the Greek New Testament is 1 John 3:9. The King James Version translates the verse, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” This rendering has caused many people to question their salvation when they sin. If we are “born of God,” we “cannot sin.” Or so the text seems to say.

Here’s good news for all of us who are God’s children but still disappoint our Father. The Greek verbs are in the “imperfect tense,” which means continued action. Thus, the NIV translates, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.” The syntax makes the intended meaning clear.

Literary type

It’s important to know the kind of literature used in the book we’re studying. However, the specific text must also be considered in the same way. For instance, Matthew’s gospel contains symbols, teaching discourses, and apocalyptic sections. We will interpret a parable differently than we will a historical narrative.

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: Christian Post, Jim Denison