This is the fifth lesson in Mel Lawrenz’ new “How to Study the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
Many people love detective stories, and probably for different reasons. I know I enjoy them not because of chase scenes or gunfights or big finales. I appreciate a good detective story when it shows someone who is able to discover the truth of a situation by amazing observational powers. That detective who sees details that no one else sees, who makes connections, and understands inferences. Sherlock Holmes is at his best when he sees what few others see, piecing together clues, finding a larger truth. I come away from such stories feeling like I want to to have that kind of sharp eye because I really need to see things the way they really are in life.
The first action we take in Bible study is observation. We read the biblical text thoughtfully. We read in order to understand, and that requires paying attention to the details at the same time that we look for the big picture. Bible study is a process of discovery, and that’s one of the reasons it is exciting.
Many Bible study experts have broken the process of Bible study into three stages: 1) observation; 2) interpretation; and 3) application. We read the biblical text, 1) asking what is it saying?, and 2) what does it mean?, and 3) how does it make an impact today? This is as important as anything else we will cover in this series, How to Study the Bible. This is a method of Bible study, but it also simply a way of reading the Bible–a mindset that will drive us deep into the goldmine.
Many times we want to get to the third question, to get the big payoff. But it is only the true meaning of Scripture that impacts our lives, not a random association with its words. We have to do the work of observation first, but it is not too difficult. Every Bible reader can sharpen his or her observational skills.
So what are we looking for?
1. The basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, how. These are the same questions a good journalist, or a physician, or an attorney, or a detective asks when approaching a new situation. When we know it is the apostle Paul (who), instructing people on worship (what), in his later years (when), writing about the needs of the Ephesian church (where), because of false teaching (why), via a courier (how), we understand the context of all the strong statements Paul makes in the epistle we know as 1 Timothy. Every answer is different when we look at the heart-rending confession of David in Psalm 51, or the oracles of Jeremiah, or the visions of Revelation.
2. Emphasis and repetition. Any section of the biblical text has main points and minor points. We must “major on the majors and minor on the minors” as someone has said. When a biblical author tells us what the main point of a passage is, sometimes by repeating the basic idea again and again, our powers of observation should focus on that point.
3. Key words and phrases. This can be somewhat intuitive, but when we read a passage there are typically a few key words of phrases upon which the whole passage hangs. What is grammatically dominant may help, but sometimes the key expression is buried in the middle of the text, or comes at the end.
4. Comparisons and contrasts. Biblical passages frequently compare one truth to another, or draw a contrast between a truth and a falsehood. When we read Jesus’ parable of the soils, we compare the experience of people who are like the hard soil, the thorny soil, the shallow soil, and the good soil. The truth of the passage is contained in the contrasts. Jesus frequently made comparisons, too. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, or leaven, or treasure hidden in a field. Jesus said of himself: “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the bread sent from heaven,” “I am the light of the world,” and many other comparisons.
5. Cause and effect. Many biblical passages describe what happens when someone makes a terrible error, or makes a truly good decision or commitment. Such connections are not always absolute. What is said in Proverbs, for instance, is generally true, but proverbs are not the same things as promises.
There are many other details in any given passage that the good Bible detective will observe and note. If we will read Scripture in this way we are more likely to see the deep meaning of it, and we will avoid entire misinterpretations. The best thing we can do is to develop a deep longing to see everything that is in Scripture, passage by passage. Superficial reading never gets to the truth.
Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, the latest, How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.