God’s Spirit moved on holy men to pen His written revelation to us (2 Peter 1:21). This resulted in 66 books which His people receive as authoritative and without error, since their source is an all-knowing, omnipotent, and truthful God. Since He has communicated to us in written form, His intention is that we read and study His Word.
For studying God’s Word, inductive Bible study is a method many have found fruitful. Inductive Bible study is at the core of what we train preachers and teachers to do through the Cumberland Area Pulpit Supply, so we can prepare and send out men who have studied the Word they are to preach.
The method is simple and something we already do every day. It will also help us to directly encounter the voice of God in the text, as we prayerfully and sincerely approach Him there. There are three basic steps to this type of study and three corresponding questions. I have gleaned much from Peter Krol’s excellent, brief, and very readable book, Knowable Word, which I commend as a follow up to this article.
WHAT DOES IT SAY? (OBSERVATION)
First of all, we must observe what the Bible says. Every day we observe some things and ignore others. When we observe that the red flag is still up on our mailbox, that observation will provide the foundation for our interpretation that the letter has not yet been picked up, which will lead to our response of refraining to visit the mailbox. Likewise, when we read the Bible, we need to notice both large and small details.
To help us observe, we need to set aside any familiarity we may have with the text and know some things to look for. Asking the basic who, what, when, where, why, how questions is always a good starting point to slow us down and help us see what is in the text. These questions are helpful to note what you can see about the bigger picture (author, audience, occasion, type of literature, themes, purpose) and the particulars of a certain passage (structure, key words, connector words).
WHAT DOES IT MEAN? (INTERPRETATION)
Once we notice what is actually there in the text, we can proceed to the next step, which is interpretation. Interpretation seeks to find the meaning of the text on its own terms, not presuming to understand it before we have observed and examined it in context. The context includes not only the paragraph of the verse(s) under consideration, but encompasses the entire book of the Bible in which it is found, as well as the larger context of the whole Bible, since all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16).
The type of literature and factors such as figures of speech will have an impact on interpretation. The structure and grammar that you should have observed will also provide clues for understanding the meaning of a passage. Since the purpose of the Bible is to point us to Christ (2 Tim 3:15; Luke 24:27, 44), we must also interpret a given text in light of Jesus. To do this, we can ask how the text points forward or backward to Jesus’ death and resurrection, how it illustrates our need for repentance and faith in Christ, or how it demonstrates our obligation to preach Him to all nations.
HOW SHOULD I RESPOND? (APPLICATION)
Bible study cannot be properly done without observation and interpretation. But it is not complete without application. We must seek to discern the implications of the biblical text, not only for its original hearers and readers but for our own time and our own lives. Application deals with how we need to change in our thinking, our desires, and our actions. The text may have multiple applications that can vary widely depending on one’s situation. Application can be made to individuals as well as to entire groups. We must look for the proper response to the text, and then cooperate with God’s Spirit to overcome our inertia and be doers of the Word (James 1:22).
CASE STUDY: PHILIPPIANS 4:2-9
Philippians 4:2-9 contains several well known verses. As you read through the book and the passage, you can see them in light of their larger context. In this case study, we observe that Paul is addressing a situation in the church at Philippi, a church he had helped start after meeting them at a women’s riverside prayer meeting and being jailed for his ministry (Acts 16). The context of the book shows us that the church had sent him a gift to him in a later imprisonment, which he acknowledges, but that he also wanted to address the issue of unity in the church. Their fear of persecution, need for more humility, and threat of false teachers were factors that reduced their unity and robbed them of joy. In this particular passage, Paul lists two feminine names, Euodia and Syntyche, tells them to be of the same mind in the Lord and enlists a true yokefellow to help them. The commands to rejoice in the Lord always, be gentle, pray, think on certain things, and follow Paul’s example come immediately after Paul addresses this particular instance of disunity.
The fact that these commands follow Paul’s mention of a specific situation strongly suggests that the church was to work through the apparent conflict between these women by doing the things commanded. As they tried to help Euodia and Syntyche, they needed to rejoice in the Lord (4:2-3). This is the same Lord who set the perfect example of humility (2:5-11) and who should be everything to them (3:7-11), whose gospel they needed to proclaim and represent in a worthy manner, which would be demonstrated in unity (1:27). They needed to be gentle since the Lord is at hand (4:5), avoid anxiety through thankful prayer (4:6-7), think on excellent and praiseworthy qualities (4:8), and follow Paul’s good example (4:9).
When we face conflict in the church today, rather than avoiding people, we need to take responsibility, whether as one of the parties directly involved or someone who can help them resolve matters (4:2-3). We need to be of the same mind in the Lord and remember that we are on the same team if we are believers (4:2). We need to rejoice, not in getting our own way, but by locating our joy in the Lord, regardless of how matters proceed (4:4). We need to be gentle, not harsh, since the Lord is at hand and looking on during our conflict (4:5). As conflict brings anxiety, we need to take that to the Lord in prayer and be thankful for our brothers and sisters, and expect mind- and heart-guarding peace to come from God (4:6-7). We need to think on the things that are excellent, not dwelling on the negatives and our differences primarily, but the pure, good, true things that are who they are in Christ and who God is making them to be now (4:8). We must not follow just any example in dealing with conflict, but godly ones which follow the pattern laid out in the text (4:9).
The best way to learn inductive Bible study is … to do it! Pray and ask God’s Spirit to open your eyes and heart (Psalm 119:18). Read, read, and re-read. Observe, interpret, and apply. Look at what it says, learn what it means, and live it out.
After you do these three steps, you can add one more. Share what you have learned with others. You can do this one on one, in a small group, or even through writing or preaching. Lord willing, in the next issue, we will consider how inductive Bible study is a necessary foundation for biblical, expository preaching that feeds God’s Word to people.
Thanks to the Common Ground Herald for printing this article there!