This is the one-hundred-fifty-second lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live 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.
As a practical matter, our study of the Bible typically comes down to peering intently into a specific passage. So, bearing in mind the importance of the whole-book context and meaning, how then do we plunge into a passage to understand and apply?
What we typically mean by a “passage” is a segment of a biblical book that holds together in some meaningful way. That may be just two or three verses, or a chapter or two. The chapter and verse numbers in the Bible we’re all familiar with were not developed for the biblical text until the 13th through the 16th centuries. They’re helpful, but we should not consider them definitive divisions of meaning.
Paragraph divisions are typical for most Bible editions, which are an attempt to show blocks of thought. Most Bible editions also include section headings, created by the translators to flag blocks of meaning. These are helpful, but we should remember they were not in the original text of the Bible.
The practicality of looking at one biblical passage at a time is sometimes a function of teaching or preaching. A pastor can offer a sermon that summarizes the whole book of Jeremiah, for instance, but it’s much more helpful to select a chapter, or a segment of meaning that’s just a few verses long. A sermon or a teaching could be based on Jeremiah 31, but it may be better to focus on Jeremiah 31, verses 31-35, the passage that describes “the new covenant.” These five verses are like the Rosetta Stone, a key that unlocks the meaning of the old and the new covenant. There are many details in those few verses, each of enormous importance, and each requiring study to get the meaning of the words and phrases. “I will make a new covenant.” “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” “No longer will they teach their neighbor… because they will all know me.” “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Let’s say you have identified a passage to focus on. Perhaps the Bible study group you attend has planned to focus on Hebrews 11, and you want to put in some personal study before the group meets.
In the case of Hebrews 11, the chapter designation is quite helpful. It begins with the magnificent statement: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” You read the chapter once, slowly and naturally, and then you go back and read it again. And a third time. The first time you just read. By the third time you are underlining or highlighting (if that’s how you best learn), or you make brief notes. You may choose to read it aloud. It’s amazing how much we see in a passage that way. (People in the ancient world typically did not read silently.)
As you read and reread, the text of this discreet passage is getting stuck in your head. It’s a long enough passage to have context, but short enough that you can go over it again and again. You notice some important ideas only on your third or fourth reading. Diligence is a friend of observation.
Through simple reading you observe the structure of the passage. The introductory truth about faith in verse 1, followed by a string of notable Old Testament figures who demonstrated deep faith. You see that there’s an intense conclusion (verses 32-38) to this roll call of heroes of faith, a vivid description of the cost of faith in torture and martyrdom. And then, in verse 39, a broad truth: these people were commended for their faith, “yet none of them received what had been promised.” This is faith. Believing, not just possessing. Now that’s a truth—a major truth—that can be applied in powerful ways in our lives (we’ll get to application later).
That is, in fact, the next step in Hebrews. Chapter 12 gives a profound real-life application. “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (12:1-2).
Studying or teaching a passage like Hebrews 11 is incredibly powerful when we take the time to consider the details.
This is why focusing on just one verse of Scripture at a time is inadequate and even dangerous. The meaning of single sentences can only come out of the wider context in which they’re found. It’s not wrong to feature a single verse as the highlight of a passage, a portion that’s easy to memorize, as long as we remember that the biblical authors themselves intended us to understand the whole of what they were saying.
We need to focus on complete thoughts when we study Scripture, so taking one passage at a time ensures we will derive the intended meaning of the author.
[See previous – Becoming a Life Learner]
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) 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 teaching pastor. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel’s many books include Spiritual Leadership Today: Having Deep Influence in Every Walk of Life (Zondervan, 2016). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.