Bible study comes down to at least two things. Firstly, we read the bible to know what the text says, and secondly, we reflect on what text means by what it says. While this might seem overly simple, reading the Bible well nevertheless takes both effort and spiritual discernment.
How to know what the text says
Putting words together means that you need to understand grammar, history, and literary context. The grammar just means that you know how words relate to another and how they communicate meaning. For example, you know that in the sentence “God is love” that God is subject, “is” is the verb, and love is the predicate nominative.
Even if you don’t know those grammar words, You still know what the sentence means. This is because you have learned to read. And grammar rules come to you intuitively.
By history, I mean that you understand the world in which the Bible was written. You need to know basic things like that Egypt was a country or that Israel was the people of God. You need to know simple things like a chariot is a box with two wheels on it. And this is basically what it means to know history.
By literary context, I mean that you know how the paragraph that you are reading fits with the rest of the book. And you know how the book you’re reading fits into the whole Bible. Really this is the most important and probably the most difficult part. It is a skill of knowing where a paragraph is and what it means in relation to all the paragraphs that are around it. It is also the skill of knowing how one Bible book relates to other Bible books and how all the books of the Bible fit together and create meaning.
So this is the first stage of reading and studying the Bible. You need to know how words fit together, what the Bible talks about when it says works like “Assyria,” and how authors try to convey ideas by the books they write and how each book relates to the whole Bible.
How to know what the Bible means
Sometimes we stop at determining what the text says and so miss out on the real goal of Bible study: knowing God.
But we read the Bible to know God. That’s the whole point. So we need to reflect on what we’ve read. One traditional way of saying it is this: biblical words are signs that point to something else. And generally speaking, that something else is God.
In other words, the Bible is a big sign that says “God ahead” in white letters. Now, we could stop and look at the sign. Study the letters. Realize that God is ahead and simply walk home. But we’d miss out on what the signs points to! We need to keep going further to get to God. He’s ahead. He’s not the sign.
Here’s a simple illustration of what I am saying from the Bible. In the book of Genesis, God promises Abraham that he would receive an offspring and be a blessing. In Galatians 3, Paul identifies the offspring as Jesus and points to the Holy Spirit as a/the blessing of Abraham.
So here’s what we know. God promises to bless the world through Christ and bestow the Spirit upon his people.
We can then embrace the promised offspring (Christ) and meditate on the reality of the blessing (we have the Spirit). At this point, we can trace the idea across the Bible. Pray for God to help us to trust in Christ and live by the Spirit. Consider what it means to have the Spirit. Be thankful for the gift of love through the Spirit.
And so on.
We use reason, prayer, the Spirit, and interactions with elders and other Christians to work through these things. We do theology.
Theology is less about writing a book of facts and more about pursuing God and working out what that means on the basis of the Bible and a lived experience with him. Taste and see that the Lord is good. And then live like the good God whom you’ve tasted. That ends up being the point of Bible reading.
So let’s learn to read the Bible to see what it says and then to reflect on what it means. Then we will come to know God and his Son Jesus Christ with increasing closeness and unity.
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