Posts Tagged ‘ Bible study methods ’

A Very Short Guide for Interpreting a Whole Book in the New Testament

We used this guide as fifteen students (from Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi) and I have studied Hebrews through Jude in six weeks. I led class the first three weeks, and they took turns leading class the last three weeks. It’s been rich.

Read the following guide and then read through the whole biblical book with these questions in the back of your mind, taking notes as you go.
1. What stands out the most to you as you read this book?
2. What clues do you find regarding the audience’s situation to which the author is speaking?
3. What rhetorical aims do you find? That is, what does it seem the author was seeking to accomplish by writing the book? Where and how does the writing express these aims?
4. What strategies does the author use to carry out these aims? (Examples: Can you detect a structure of an argument? Is there repetition of key words and concepts? Do quotations of the OT seem significant? Are certain phrases or ideas important at the beginning and re-appear at the end? Does making an outline of the book help you see the strategies better?)
5. What are the main themes of this document? How are they described?
6. Try to describe, in depth, how this book portrays the Christian life. What contributions do you think this book makes for understanding the Christian life?
7. What situation(s) in your own life, or in the life of your congregation, does this book remind you of? If you wrote your spiritual autobiography with this letter in front of you, how might you use it to tell your story? And are there ways this letter helps you to understand things you have witnessed or experienced in your congregation?
8. How does this book speak to your life? How might it speak to the life of a congregation you are serving or have served? How might it speak to the church as a whole in your home country?
9. If you were to prepare a series of sermons (and/or teachings) based on this book, how would you do that in a way that is true to what the book is saying and also on target for the lives of the people you are ministering to? What passages would you choose? What would the main focus be for each of the messages you would share? Take notes for possible sermon outlines.

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Uncovering a Biblical Book’s Vision of the Christian Life

Each book of the Bible bears a distinct witness to life with God. Asking the right questions and using good study methods can help us to recognize and receive that witness, so that it shapes and textures our own vision of the Christian life.

When we study a book of Scripture it can reveal to us not just the outward actions God calls us to, but also the inner processes and principles behind them. In addition, it can help us learn and grasp the resources that make the Christian life possible. We can find out how life with God actually works, as depicted in that particular book of Scripture. We shouldn’t assume we already know these things; there’s always more to discover.

So the first thing we can do when approaching a book of Scripture is read it straight through with eyes open for clues to that book’s unique witness. We look for the literary aspects that feed into and shape its particular message. These include the occasion that led the author to write, the stated aims of the author, and the main themes. (Books of the Bible don’t usually leave us in the dark; a close reading is enough, even without the help of a commentary or study Bible, to get at these things.)

To go still deeper, we can study how the book’s main aims and themes intersect and relate to one another. Taking note of these intersections in a biblical book is like hitting a tennis ball with the part of a racket where the longest and most important strings intersect – the sweet spot. In tennis, using the sweet spot is crucial for accuracy and power. Likewise, when studying a book of Scripture, if we can pinpoint the main aims and themes, and trace how they interrelate, then we’ve found our way to the heart of the book. We want to aim for that kind of accuracy, because it takes us to the real depth and power of what’s written.

Pinpointing the main aims and themes of a book of Scripture (or even within a particular passage), and dwelling on how they relate to one another, protects us from misunderstanding. Friedrich Schleiermacher called hermeneutics “the art of understanding”. He also called it “the art of avoiding misunderstanding”. He said that misunderstanding happens “if I take as the main thought what is only a secondary thought”. To recognize a book of the Bible’s vision for life with God, we need to make the most of the places where the main aims and themes intersect, and the ways they intersect. This keeps us from overemphasizing what’s secondary.

Yet there may still be a farther distance to go in order to grasp how the book depicts the Christian life. To get there, we can try to discern and follow the particular reasoning of a book of the Bible when it is at its most practical. When it gives commands or makes statements about the Christian life, we can pay close attention to the line of thought and how one statement, image, or command builds upon others. Often a basis is given for a command. Often a book will describe not just a desired behavior but also resources for arriving at that behavior. By tracing such patterns of reasoning, we can often see the inner processes of life with God – how this life actually works, and what makes it possible.

Finally, all of the above involves tapping into the awareness of God known by the writers of Scripture. Every book of Scripture depicts a way of life suffused with convictions about God. Even when a book is at its most practical, statements about God (maybe Jesus Christ, maybe the Holy Spirit) are close at hand. Studying a book of Scripture leads to an awareness of God at the heart of the outer behaviors, inner processes, and fundamental resources of the life of faith. So we approach a book of Scripture with an attitude of prayerfulness. Study of Scripture requires using good methods and asking the right questions, but it also demands that we be open to the living God who inspired the object of study and speaks through it.

Note: This piece would look a little different in the case of books of the Bible that are narratives. I am primarily thinking of New Testament epistles here, but most of this also applies to other kinds of books in the Bible.