The Bible is important, right? You know you need to read it, right? But, if you’re like most people, you began reading it only to not really retain what you’ve read. Maybe you’ve even thought to yourself: “What did I read this morning? I can’t even remember.” If you’ve been there, you’re not alone.
Here’s why I think that happens. In school, we’re asked to read a lot of books. And while I’m an avid reader now, reading wasn’t my highest priority in high school. Do I think students should be exposed to great books and asked to read them? Yes! But do I think that high school students actually read them? No. If you’re like me you probably skimmed them well enough to pass the test or—if you were feeling very studious—you read them word-for-word as quickly as possible, but aren’t really reading those books just trying to pass the test. We you read this way, it can be hard to kick that habit in adulthood.
So how do we get out of that bad habit and begin engaging with Scripture? Here are six questions we need to ask with any passage that we read so we can stop skimming and truly comprehend what we’re reading.
The first question is WHO? Who wrote this part of this Bible? Yes, Scripture is divinely inspired by God—but who did God use as the human author? Who is the passage about? Who’s the main subject? Who else is there? Who is this written to?
The second question is WHAT? What is actually happening? If this is an account of something happening, picture it. What does the scene look like? What are the expressions on the people’s faces? What is the tension that people are feeling who are there? If this is a written letter, picture the writer penning it and the recipient reading it. What is the author trying to get across? What questions are being answered for these people?
The third is WHERE? Where is this taking place geographically? Why is this place significant? What else has happened here?
The fourth question is WHEN. Where is this taking place in history? Place it on the timeline. How does this build on what has happened before it? Asking these questions gives us context to what’s going on. Verses in isolation can mean something very different than their intended meaning if we don’t keep them in the context of when they were written in history.
The fifth question is WHY? Why did God make sure this was recorded in Scripture for us? Why did things unfold this way? Why did they think that way? Why was it said like that? Why did they take that action?
The sixth question is SO WHAT? This is the application question and what we need to do with what we read. Literally ask yourself, “So what do I need to do with what I just read?” Is there an action I need to take? Is there a principle I need to extract? Is there a belief I need to change? Is there an attitude I need to adopt?
Who? What? Where? When? Why? And So What?
So how do we actually do this? Let’s walk through two examples:
Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3. Ask these questions: Who wrote this? Matthew, a former tax collector turned disciple of Jesus, wrote down his eyewitness account of the life of Jesus as inspired by God. Who’s in this passage? Jesus, the promised Messiah, the Son of God. John the Baptizer, the cousin of Jesus who God sent to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of the Messiah. A crowd is probably there observing as crowds often came to hear John teach. The Holy Spirit is here. And the voice of God the Father is also noted.
What is happening? Jesus came to John and submitted Himself to baptism by John. John protests and says that Jesus is the superior One and that their roles should be reversed. Jesus is baptized by John and the God the Father and God the Holy Spirit each make an appearance.
Where is this happening? Around and in the Jordan River—the most important river in the area. Abram lived by this river. (Gen 13) The nation of Israel crossed this river on dry ground to enter the Promised Land. (Josh 3) I could go on and on—the Jordan is mentioned two hundred and ten times in the Bible. The big idea is that it is a significant place.
When is this happening? Obviously this is happening during the life of Jesus. More specifically, during the earliest part of His ministry while John the Baptizer was still very active.
Why is this happening? Jesus said it Himself: “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” Why did God want this part recorded? So we can know the importance of baptism—Jesus Himself wanted to set the example! Why did John balk at Jesus’ request? Because he knew exactly who Jesus was and wanted to submit himself to Jesus. Why did God the Holy Spirit and God the Father show up? To confirm that Jesus is exactly who He and John the Baptizer said He is.
So what? What do I need to do with this? First, follow the example that Jesus set and be baptized. Second, we need to develop humility. John recognized Jesus’ authority over him and Jesus submitted Himself to John for baptism to set the example for us. Third, we need to believe in the Trinity. God the Holy Spirit manifested Himself as God the Son was publicly baptized and God the Father gives His seal of approval. Who, what, where, when, why, and so what.
#2 Here is a command of God with no context: “Plant gardens.” Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d bet that most people can’t get me anywhere close to where I’m quoting this from in the Bible. Here’s the thing though, it’s actually from a pretty popular chapter.
Let’s add some context. First, the reference: Jeremiah 29:5. Right off the bat, we know this verse was written by Jeremiah as a part of what we call the Old Testament to the people of Israel. That’s two whos—the writer and the recipient. If we expand our context to the surrounding verses, we get more whos: God—this is a direct message from God to who? The captives exiled in Babylon. That’s also the where? Babylon. And the when: after Jerusalem was captured by Babylon, but before Babylon was captured by Persia. Why is God commanding this? In context, God is telling them they will be in exile for a while: seventy years to quote verse ten. God is telling them they need to make this new place their home for a while and settle in. Though this is not where they want to be, it is where they will be, so multiply there and work for the prosperity of the city.
Let’s ask the final question: So what? Do you need to plant a garden so you’re not living in sin? No, this passage is pretty clearly written to a very specific group of people in a very specific situation: “to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem.” But, that doesn’t mean we can’t extract some principles from this passage.
First, we see that God cares enough for these people He’s exiled to be very upfront with them about their time in exile and what they should do.
Second, we see that God intends for us to invest our lives into our communities to work for its “peace and prosperity.”
Third, we see that God’s desire is for peace and prosperity—after all, that’s the original state of the world God created before we messed it up with sin.
Finally, we are to pray for our community because God cares about it.
You might be asking: “Okay, if this passage from Jeremiah only directly applies to those specifically mentioned, why aren’t Paul’s letters only applied to those whom he specifically wrote them—like Philippians only applies to the believers in Philippi?” Good question. If we look at specific letters of Paul in the New Testament, it’s clear they had a specific church or person in mind, but also were intended to be read widely. (See Colossians 4:16 and 1 Thessalonians 5:27 for times Paul explicitly told the original recipients to distribute the letters and in 2 Peter 3:15-16 Peter acknowledges that Paul’s letters have been widely circulated and are Scripture for us all to live by.)
Remember, as you read the Bible, always ask: who, what, where, when, why, and so what? Snap out of summer reading mode and really engage with God’s Word.
I hope you learned something in this video. If you did, would you consider sharing it? And subscribe so you can catch the next video.
Before we go, you know I am going to tell you about channel sponsor Lifeword. Lifeword’s mission is spreading the story of Jesus worldwide using all available methods to reach the most people. They’ve got some great programming that helps you explore the Bible and understand it better (like this show) and others that help you apply God’s word to your life. Make sure you head over to Lifeword.org to find out more and find your next favorite show.
See you next time—grace and peace.