This article is part of the ongoing series Meditating on God's Word. Meditate on the Word by Studying It There is a distinction between reading and studying. Reading the Bible is generally more casual and prayerful, or as some would say, “devotional.” A reading plan allows us to gain understanding of the flow of redemptive history and helps us see important verses that apply to our lives. But a study plan allows us to dig deeply into what we are reading. Jerry Bridges says, “Reading gives us breadth, but study gives us depth.”
Usually, the in-depth study of a passage occurs around a class or a sermon series. Of course, one may choose to study by oneself regarding a specific passage or theme. I passionately want to see Christians, particularly in my congregation, become “self-feeders,” that is people who respect teachers and learn from them, but know how to teach themselves and can then teach others.
Let me share with you some guiding principles for studying the Scriptures. To begin, always read the Bible in an attitude of prayer. Read, read, and re-read what you are studying and ask God to open your eyes to behold its wonderful truths (Ps. 119:18).
Next, always consider the context of the passage that you are studying. Context rules the interpretation of the passage. Context means, “that which goes with the text.” As you are studying a passage ask, “How does a particular verse function within its context?” The reason “every heretic has his verse” is because he or she doesn't consider the context.
In addition, remember that “a text can never mean what it never meant.” Look for the intended meaning of the original author before rushing to application. There is one meaning to the text with many applications. Since the Bible is a historical document, always ask, “What did the original author want the original readers to understand and do by this statement?” To answer this, again you will need to consider context and perhaps consult some study tools such as commentaries from trusted scholars.
Another important principle is to always consider the type of literature in which the verse is found. That includes the following: (1) Law, (2) OT Narratives, (3) Acts, (4) Prophets, (5) Psalms, (6) Wisdom (7) Gospels, (8) Parables, (9) Revelation. Remember some basic principles when reading various types of literature. I recommend that everyone purchase a book on “hermeneutics” which is the science and art of interpretation.
Further, remember that the whole Bible points to God’s redeeming work in Jesus. The Old Testament points to Christ, and the New Testament flows from Christ. Therefore, always ask, “What does this passage teach me about the nature of God and the greatness of Christ?” (Luke 24:27). Read with an eye for the ongoing flow of redemptive history. I recommend a simple book like The Drama of Scripture for understanding the storyline of the Bible. It will help you get the big picture of redemptive history.
Next, remember to interpret Scripture with Scripture. Our high view of Scripture leads us to believe that God’s Word is not only coherent, but also consistent. The Scripture will be its best interpreter. Look at other passages when you see an interpretive knot. Interpret difficult passages with more clear passages, knowing that the Scriptures will never contradict themselves, though there may be many mysteries.
Finally, since the Bible is a unified book, always look for certain themes in the passage. Ask, “Where did this theme start?” “How is it developed?” “Where is this theme going to end?”
A Three-Step Method for Studying the Scriptures By answering the following three questions, you will soon discover the joy and benefits of studying Scripture. I suggest that you begin with a pen and paper, or with your computer and begin digging into your particular passage(s). You should consider consulting other reference material as you work through the questions on your own.
Step 1: Investigation – What Does the Passage Say? Begin by reading and re-reading your passage(s). Note the obvious observations and big ideas. Before looking for intricate details and probing the mysteries, notice the dominant truths. As you investigate the big ideas ask basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? You will be surprised how many things you identify by asking these basic questions. You will identify the background of the passage, the author, the occasion, and purpose. Also note the things that are unclear, and this will help you move to step two.
Step 2: Interpretation – What Does the Passage Mean? In this phase, you are going deeper. What seems to be some key words, phrases, or ideas in the passage that need further exploration? What’s the structure of the passage? Are there important linking words, clauses, or phrases? What did the author intend to communicate to the original hearers? It’s important in this phase not to rush to personal applications and/or the implications of the passage. Try to minimize subjectivity as much as possible to get to the meaning. If the meaning of a passage is still unclear, then do two things: (1) look at cross-references (let Scripture interpret Scripture), and (2) consult the commentaries. When looking at cross-references, consider the same book first, then the same author, and then the whole of Scripture.
Step 3: Implications – How Should I Apply this Passage Personally? Once you’ve come to understand the point of the passage, you are ready to apply the dominant truths. Remember that you don’t want to turn the Bible into a human-centered, self-help book. You are looking for timeless wisdom to apply, theological truths about God to worship, and the gospel to ponder. The following are a list of questions for you to consider as you apply the text:
- What does this text teach me about God? (e.g., His attributes and activity)
- What does this text teach me about Christ? (e.g., Does it speak directly of Christ? Does it show me my need for Christ? Does it predict Christ? Does it show a type of Christ?)
- What does this text teach me about myself? (e.g., My nature; my identity in Christ; my need for Christ)
- What does this text teach me about a particular doctrine?
- What immediate things should I go do now?
- Are there examples to follow in this text?
- Are there commands to keep in this text?
- Are there errors to avoid in this text?
- Are there sins to forsake in this text?
- Are there gospel promises to claim in this text?
- Are there new thoughts about God or doctrines to further explore in this text?
- Are there convictions to be lived by in this text?
Remember, when God’s Word is interpreted faithfully, then to disobey God’s Word is to disobey God himself. We always study for obeying the Word, not simply knowing it (James 1:22).
Meditate on the Word by Hearing it Hearing God’s Word attentively is essential for the Christian (Neh. 8:1-8; Luke 11:28; Rom. 10:17; 1 Thess. 2:13). The primary place for hearing God’s Word is in your local church from your pastor. Paul told Timothy:
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:13)
There is no substitute for biblical preaching and teaching. You need to hear the Word of God in worship.
You may also hear the Word of God through other audio tools. My personal favorite is the iPod (actually the iPhone). Here I’m able to listen to terrific biblical teachers as I walk, drive, or do laundry (okay, I don’t do the last one much). I often tell our church that if you listen to talk radio all day, you’re killing brain cells rapidly! Fill your mind with the truth of God’s Word by hearing it.
 Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Godliness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1977), 17.  Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).
Tony Merida serves as the Lead Pastor of Imago Dei Church, Raleigh, NC and as the Associate Professor of Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Kimberly, with whom he has five children. Tony is the co-author of Orphanology and author of Faithful Preaching. He travels and speaks all over the world at various events, especially pastor’s conferences, orphan care events, and youth/college conferences.