While it ought to be the goal of every believer to “accurately handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), we must remember that it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth (John 16:13). Whenever we study the Bible we would do well to pray with the Psalmist, “open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law” (Psalm 119:18). Having said that, it is important to recognize that handling Scripture accurately is a skill that must be developed. Mastering the following two principles can greatly improve one’s effectiveness in the study of Scripture.
Observe the Details
Armed with the slogan “a chapter a day keeps the devil away,” many Christians read the Bible quickly but not carefully. However, Scripture does not yield its treasures to the hurried reader.
The renowned Harvard zoologist, Louis Agassiz, was once asked, “What was your greatest contribution, scientifically?” His answer was simple yet profound, “I have taught men and women to observe.” The ability to observe – to see the details of a biblical passage – is a crucial first step in the process of Bible study. Before you can determine what a passage means or how it applies, you must first see what it says.
Every detail of the text is important and contributes to the meaning of a passage. Look for things like purpose statements, contrasts and comparisons, connecting words like “for” and “therefore” and key terms. The more you slow down and observe the details, the better equipped you will be to understand the author’s meaning.
One way to develop an eye for detail is to ask questions of the text. Who is the speaker? Who is the intended audience? What kind of passage is this (narrative, poetry, epistle)? When was it written? Is this an active or passive verb? You will not be able to answer all the questions you raise. What does “propitiation” mean? Who were the Amalekites? How much is a denarius? How is the word “justify” used in other contexts? For these questions a good set of Bible study tools is invaluable (see Trail Guides).
Pay Attention to the Context
A second important dimension of responsible Bible study involves paying close attention to the context of a given passage. Many people go wrong in their study of Scripture by ignoring the larger context of a biblical verse or statement. The cults are notorious for ripping verses out of context to support their own purposes. In his book Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible, James Sire cites the example of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation. Quoting part of Psalm 46:10 “be still and know that I am God,” Maharishi taught that “each person should meditate and come to the realization that he is essentially Godhood itself.” When we disregard context, we can twist Scripture to “prove” almost anything.
Paying attention to context can shed light on the text. In Mark 8:22-26 Jesus heals a blind man, yet he does it in two stages. After Jesus initially touches the man’s eyes, he can see only dimly. After Jesus’ second touch the man’s sight is fully restored. Taken in isolation, this passage seems strange. Was Jesus not able to heal the man immediately? Observing the context provides the key.
The miracle is sandwiched between two conversations Jesus had with his disciples. In the conversation preceding the miracle, Jesus reprimands the disciples for not understanding who he was: “Do you not yet see or understand…Having eyes, do you not see…Do you not yet understand?” (Mk. 8:17-18, 21). In the conversation following the miracle Peter declares to Jesus “you are the Christ” (8:29). Thus, when the miracle is read in its context it makes much more sense. Jesus heals the blind man in stages to illustrate the disciples’ progression in their grasp of Jesus as Messiah.
In regard to study Bibles, there are a number available that provide helpful information (e.g. ESV Study Bible, Ryrie Study Bible, etc.). However, be sure to remember that only the biblical text is inspired – not the interpretative comments!
This article was originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Journey Magazine.
Mark Stevenson (PhD, University of Wales) has been teaching in the Bible and Theology Department at Emmaus since 1999. He is the author of the book "The Doctrines of Grace in an Unexpected Place." He and his wife Tonya have 4 children and live in Dubuque, IA.