I believe the best way to study the Scriptures is by using the Inductive Bible Study method. This method uses the Bible itself as the primary source of information as you personally explore the Scriptures apart from the conclusions of Bible scholars. Commentaries, books, tapes, etc., are consulted only after you have made your own thorough examination of the Scriptures.
An Inductive Bible Study consists of three component parts, Observation, Interpretation and Application.
First, Observation answers the question, “What does the passage say?” To discover this, we must:
a. Begin with prayer. Because the Bible is a spiritual book written by a spiritual being, we must ask the Author to illuminate the text to us.
b. Read and re-read the book. Each book of the Bible is unique and has its own individual message and theme. However, each book is also connected to every other book of the Bible in the sense that it amplifies what God said in another book. Therefore, to know God in the fullest sense, you need to study his Word book by book.
Once you’ve chosen a book for personal Bible study, your first step is to get an overview of it. An overview will help you see the big picture.
You absolutely must read through the book several times before you begin a serious study of it. The first time you read through a book, it may seem like some of the verses are out of place and do not belong. The more times you read the book, however, the more you will see that all of those “isolated verses” really do belong together. At this stage of Bible study, do not stop and try to figure out the meaning of a verse or a passage. There will be a time for understanding, but it is not now.
c. Examine the historical setting, culture, and geography.
Bible handbooks, Bible dictionaries or a good study Bible will explain the various cultural practices and historical backgrounds that help you understand what God is saying in a particular book or Scripture passage. As you study the Bible over the years, you will discover that an understanding of the historical and cultural setting of a passage will often illuminate the correct interpretation.
d. Discern the main theme of the book.
The theme, or subject, will be the thought that is repeated over and over again. Once you discern the theme, look for a verse that best expresses the theme that will become the book’s key verse.
For example, in the Gospel of John we find the theme summarized in John 20:30-31:
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
e. Look for clearly defined segments.
A segment is a major division in a book, like a group of verses or chapters that deal with the same subject, doctrine, person, place, or event.
In the book of Revelation, the divisions are clearly stated in Revelation 1:19: “what you have seen” (chapter 1); “what is now” (chapters 2 and 3); and then, “what will take place later” (chapters 4-22).
f. Discover the theme of each chapter.
Remember that each chapter’s theme is in harmony with and makes its own unique contribution to the overall theme of the book. Once you discover the chapter themes, write them down and do this for each chapter of the book.
g. Identify the context
The unpardonable sin in a study is to interpret a verse of Scripture out of context.
In the Bible and in real life, written and spoken words and sentences occur in the context of a conversation, in the context of a language, and in the context of a culture and history. The meaning of these words or sentences depends on the context in which they were spoken. Apart from that context, it is impossible to know the intended meaning of the words or sentences.
You must let the text speak for itself. You must never bring preconceived ideas or prejudices about the text’s meaning into your study. Remember, the best commentary on the Scriptures is the Scriptures
h. Observe the obvious.
When you are studying a Scripture passage, begin by looking for things that are obvious: places, events, repeated words, phrases, names or ideas.
i. Mark key phrases and statements.
A key phrase or repeated statement may indicate the theme of a chapter or book. For instance, in the book of Judges, the repetition of the statements “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” and “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” denotes the theme of the book.
j. Mark key words.
To fully understand the meaning, you must study the individual words and their relationships to each other. A key word is one which, when removed from the sentence, leaves the passage devoid of meaning.
Often key words and phrases are repeated. For example, the word know is used twenty-two times in the Epistle of 1 John. This is the key word and also indicates the theme of the Epistle: a believer’s salvation may be known for certain.
You will also need to research the meaning of Bible words in the language in which they’re written – Hebrew in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament.
k. Words may be studied several ways:
-Etymologically (the way it is formed). Words may have prefixes, suffixes and sometimes are a combination of words.
-Comparatively. Using a Hebrew or Greek concordance can help discover all the occurrences of a word in Scripture to give us a “feel” of the word’s meaning.
l. Learn to ask questions.
Journalists are taught to ask the “5 Ws and 1 H” (who, what, when, where, why, and how) in their reporting. This can also help a student of the Bible. Kay Arthur suggests that as we read the Scriptures we should ask:
Who wrote it? Who said it? Who are the major characters? Who are the people mentioned? To whom is the author speaking? About whom is he speaking?
What are the main events? What are the major teachings? What are these people like? What is the purpose?
When was it written? When did this event take place? When will it happen? When did he say it?
Where was this done? Where was this said? Where will it happen?
Why was there a need for this to be written? Why was this mentioned? Why was so much or so little space devoted to this particular thing? Why was this reference mentioned?
How was this done or accomplished? How did it happen? How is this truth illustrated? How did the people react?
m. Look for contrasts, comparisons, terms of conclusion, and expressions of time.
– Contrasting thoughts are thoughts that are different or opposite.
– A comparison uses words that refer to things that are similar or alike: like and as.
– A term of conclusion tells you that the author is bringing his thoughts to a close: therefore, for, so that, for this reason and finally.
– Expressions of time include words such as then, after, until, and when. Understanding “when” something occurs is essential to interpreting text.
– Cross-reference the verse. To understand fully what God says about a certain subject, study what God has said about the same subject in other books of the Bible (Acts 20:27).
Because Scripture will never contradict Scripture, if there seems to be a discrepancy between two verses, check your interpretation for where you have made a mistake.
Second, Interpretation will answer the question, “What does the Bible mean by what it says?’
Paul told Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). You cannot read the text and then apply it. You must read it, explain it, and then apply it. Hermeneutics is the science and art of biblical interpretation. It is a science because it is guided by rules, and it is an art because the application of the rules is done with skill.
Reasons we need a biblical hermeneutic to interpret Scripture include the following:
– To understand what God has said. There is no benefit in having a copy of the Word of God if we do not know what God meant.
– Because all biblical doctrine rests upon the proper hermeneutic.
– To distinguish the voice of God from the voice of man.
– To bridge the gap between our mind and the minds of the biblical writers.
The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Because every language is different, problems arise in translating from one language to another.
There is also a cultural gap. The parables taught by Jesus were drawn from the manners and customs of his day. To fully understand them, we must have knowledge of Jewish culture in that century.
Geography of Bible lands and historical backgrounds are also essential for understanding the Scriptures. A proper biblical hermeneutic would prevent us from trying to force some incidents described in the Old Testament upon contemporary life.
In the Interpretation step of Bible study, we will let Scripture interpret Scripture. Here are some basic principles to follow when you interpret the Word of God:
a. A text without context is a pretext. When you interpret anything – a word, a verse, or a passage – it must always be considered in light of the surrounding verses and chapters, the book it is in, and the entire Bible.
Therefore, as you seek to know what something means, ask yourself:
– Is my interpretation of a particular section of Scripture consistent with the theme, purpose and structure of the book in which it is found?
– Is my interpretation consistent with other Scriptures about the same subject? Scripture will never contradict Scripture.
– Am I considering the historical and cultural context of what is being said?
Sometimes, you may find it difficult to reconcile two seemingly contradictory truths taught in Scripture. An example is the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.
It’s hard to reconcile these two teachings in our minds; they don’t seem to fit together. Yet the Bible clearly teaches both. But we need to let God say what he says without trying to correct or explain him.
Remember what Moses said: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29). There are some things we will never know or understand. Our finite minds can only scratch the surface of the infinite mind of God.
b. Interpret Scripture literally.
The meaning of a word is determined by how the word is used in ordinary conversation. Daniel Webster once remarked:
“I believe that the Bible is to be understood and received in the plain obvious meaning of its passages, since I cannot persuade myself that a book intended for the instruction and conversion of the whole world should cover its meaning in any such mystery and doubt that none but critics and philosophers discover it.”
The literal method of interpreting Scripture prevents us from the abuse of Scripture.
So, look first for the clear teaching of Scripture, not some hidden meaning. Remember that figures of speech symbols and parables are usually interpreted in context and convey literal truth.
Mystical, allegorical or spiritualized interpretations denying the literal meaning of the text make Scripture the slave of the imagination of man. This is not the way that God intended his Word to be understood.
c. Interpret the passage so that it relates to life.
d. All Scripture must be interpreted with the supernatural aid of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
e. Look for the author’s intended meaning of the passage.
Judges chapter six, for example, tells the story of Gideon’s fleece. However, this particular chapter is not teaching us that the way to know God’s will in the life of the believer is to “put out a fleece.” This chapter is simply a historical account of what Gideon did when he was afraid. There are noinstructions anywhere in the Bible that suggest putting out a fleece is the procedure to follow in determining God’s will. We must not ascribe meaning to a passage that the author did not intend.
f. Check your conclusions by using reliable commentaries.
If possible, check out more than one commentator on the passage of Scripture that you are studying so you can weigh various interpretations. If you find a meaning that no one else has ever seen before, it is probably not true.
God would not hide spiritual truth from godly students of Scripture for 2,000 years then suddenly reveal it to you.
Third, Application answers the question, “How do I apply this learning to my life?”
Learning is not complete unless we apply what we have learned to our lives. Spiritual growth in the Christian life requires application of the truth. Multitudes of Baptists have filled their minds with facts about the Bible, yet they are still living carnal lives.
Why? It is because they have never put into practice what they have learned.
If Bible teachers cannot help people understand how God’s Word can help them with the personal problems they experience today, our teaching will not make any difference in their lives. Bible application answers the following questions:
a. How does the meaning of this passage apply to me?
b. What truths am I to embrace, believe, or order my life by?
c. What changes should I make in my belief or my life?
Bible study is more than an intellectual exercise – it is a life transforming process. There is no greater personal joy than to discover for yourself the meaning of a verse of Scripture. By applying the three principles of the Inductive Bible Study method, you will begin an adventure that will last a lifetime.