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3 Questions I Ask When I Read the Bible

I have probably half of a shelf of books in my office devoted to reading and interpreting the Bible, and another half of a shelf of books on preaching and how to move from studying a text to proclaiming it to a congregation. I also have numerous books that touch on these topics -- and many others I have gotten rid of because my library was getting too big to move! Obviously, there has been much written on the subject of how to read, interpret, and apply the Bible. Reading the Bible can be overwhelming as it contains so much information, but learning how to read the Bible can seem overwhelming as well  

When I first started working as a pastor, I came across an article in which the author asked three insightful questions. I don’t recall if the article specifically addressed Bible study (or even where I found this article), but I felt like these questions capture much of what you find discussed in these books on reading the Bible and also pretty simple to remember.Therefore, I have often viewed them as three questions we should ask when we open the Bible, and I wanted to pass them along to you as we try to grow closer to God by daily reading and studying the Bible.

What?

The first question I think is important to ask in reading the Bible is, “What does it say?” This might seem like an obvious question, but behind it is the principle that the Bible is written for us but not to us; that is, the Bible has value for our lives today but consists of books that were written many years ago to specific people (for example, the people of Israel or a particular church).We need to understand what the text meant to the original audience in that day and age before we seek to understand how it applies to our lives today. A key to understanding any form of communication is considering its context (as the same words can have different meanings in different contexts). When I think about the context of the Bible, I like to break it down into three categories:

  • Historical-Cultural: This examines the time and place of the original writing to understand what the words meant and what historical and cultural factors are in the background of the text. Some things might not make sense to us today, but they were important at the time and/or in the culture that the events took place or the writing was produced.
  • Literary: The passage you are reading is part of a larger work, so it is important to figure out how it fits in with what goes before and what comes after the passage. There might be a key word that is repeated throughout the book, and if you do not look at the literary context, you may miss it, or it might address a particular issue that influences how you should interpret the passage. In addition, we need to recognize the literary genre of what we are reading, as historical narratives (e.g., Genesis, Gospels) are different than poetic songs (e.g., Psalms) or instructional communications (e.g., Proverbs, Letters of Paul), just as a newspaper is different.
  • Biblical: The Bible is the unfolding storyline of God’s saving work and we need to think about where a passage fits into this story. Commands given to the people of Israel should be viewed differently than commands given by Jesus or Paul. Therefore, you need to know where to find a specific passage in the Bible as well as how that part of the Bible fits in the unfolding story of God redeeming His people.

So What?

The second question I like to ask is, “So What?”. This is basically asking why something was said was said in the first place and why you should care about it today. If this still seems too broadl,I like to think about this question in light of the Westminster Shorter Catechism which asks in Question 3, “What do the Scriptures principally teach.” The answer is this: “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” Therefore, we need to consider what a passages teaches us about God and what we should do...and why we need to hear that. We are not told to do things that come naturally to us (no one has told me to breathe), but we are told things that are difficult. Therefore, we need to examine to see if the “what” confronts certain idols in our lives or culture, if it corrects certain misunderstandings we might have about God, or if it tells us to stop or start doing certain things. One of my favorite books on preaching is Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell because he talks about how every passage has a “Fallen Condition Focus” -- basically, looking to see how the truth of the passage seeks to confront our sin and point us to who God is. He also notes that knowing what the passages say in the original context may help us see how the same principle connect to our lives today; for many passages, it might not be as difficult as you might think to find the “So What?” once you figure the “What?”

Now What?

The final of the three questions reminds us that the Bible is not just meant to be read and pondered, but to be lived out. “Now What?” tells us we should do something with the truth that we discover and is relevant to our lives. Saying we need to do something with the truth does not mean there is a specific command given in each passage, as some passages give us certain beliefs to hold or reject or values to integrate into our lives. In fact, I have found Daniel M. Doriani’s book Putting the Truth to Work to be helpful in noting four aspects of application, as the text can point to a duty (something to do), character (the sort of person to be), goals (things we should aim for), or discernment (distinguishing truth from error). We need to look at passages and see which of these four applications we might find. The bottom line though, is that we need to do more than just identify what difference it can -- and should -- make in our lives; we need to apply it and integrate it into our lives. Of course, this is easier said than done.

While it is necessary for us to read the Bible on our own as we seek to grow closer to God, the challenge of understanding and applying God’s Word to our lives is a major reason we need to do so in community -- gathering together and reading together. We can help each other understand and  follow through as we apply God’s powerful Word to our lives.

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