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Is There a Wrong Way to Study the Bible?

November 11, 2020

"What does this verse mean to you?" I have been in numerous Bible studies where this question has been asked. But is this really the question we should be asking when studying God's Word? If not, what kind of questions should we be asking?

Duck!

I have been canoeing/kayaking since high school, when I had my first real experience with our youth group. Our amazing youth leader would take a group of 20 or so kids every summer for a week-long trip canoeing down the Buffalo River. One year we had a new student join us. He had just moved to the states from Russia, and although English was not his first language, he spoke it very well. The river was pretty calm for the most part that time of year, but occasionally things got a little dicey with fallen trees or low hanging branches. I was in a canoe behind our new comrade watching as he and his shipmate got turned around backward, trying to maneuver around a boulder. Hunched down rowing to turn his canoe around, he did not see the low hanging branch that was about to catch him in the back of the head, so I tried to warn him by yelling, "Duck!". Instead of ducking down, he stood up in the canoe and shouted, "Where?" You can imagine what happened next.

Finding Truth

Obviously, the exclamation "Duck!" did not mean the same thing to my friend as it did to me. Likewise, when we study the Bible, we should be aware that scriptures might not mean the same thing to us 21st-century English-speaking Christians as it might have meant to its original audience.

The question "What does this mean to you?" is excellent when it comes to applying scripture to our lives, but it is an expansion of the more important question, "What does this mean?" Finding out what scripture really means takes a lot more work than creating meaning for ourselves personally. But it can save us from being knocked out of the boat in confusion later on.

Better Questions

If you are struggling with understanding what a verse really means I would recommend the following list of questions.

  • Who wrote this passage?
  • Who was this verse written to?
  • Was the audience believers or unbelievers?
  • What is the context of this passage?
  • Does this word have multiple meanings?

Helpful Resources

If you are like me and don't have any formal training in Biblical Studies, here is a list of resources I have found to be helpful when studying.

What tools or resources do you use when digging into God's Word? I'd love to see them in the comments below!

12 comments on “Is There a Wrong Way to Study the Bible?”

  1. Excellent! I love how you put that—beyond asking what does this mean to me, what does this mean? What was the author’s intent? I agree that taking a look at the context of a verse (even just the verses immediately above and below it) makes a huge difference to our understanding of any given verse.

    I’ll definitely have to check out the Grace In Focus radio series you mentioned.

    One of my favorite resources is Bob Wilkin’s Ten Most Misunderstood Words In the Bible. It’s paramount to understand that the same word can have different meanings in different passages of Scripture!

    Thanks, Kristah!

  2. Yes! I always cringed at this question even before I fully understood how to study scripture (well, I guess I still don’t fully understand it haha) but before I had any grasp, it still sat wrong with me! I always remember wanting to learn what it meant because I was curious and unknowing & I gravitated to teaching that did that! Now I think I have a healthier balance of how do we apply this truth? And what does this truth actually mean for us? If we don’t know the intention we can’t accurately apply it. Thanks for that hilarious story too haha! Great analogy!

  3. Great Entry, Kristah! The "Better Questions" was my favorite section. When thinking about context and multiple meanings, we can also look at idioms and phrases that are pregnant with meaning in the Old or New Testament worlds. For example, this morning studying
    1 Kings 2:7, I discovered that David was not just instructing Solomon to invite Barzillai to "eat at the king's table" but to provide for his family in perpetuity. That adds much to a seeming simple statement.

  4. I liked your "Better Questions" section too. My go-to study tool is blueletterbible.org, clicking on Interlinear and then on the Strong's number gives insight. As for application, I like JB Hixton's exhortation that "illumination" by the Holy Spirit does not mean He reveals the meaning necessarily; otherwise every in-fellowship believer would come up with the same interpretation. What it means is the HS customizes the application (not the interpretation) for each believer, based on what we are going through at the time. That's a precious thought.

    1. Thanks for your comment Marcia! I will have to look into those resources, they sound very helpful! It is amazing to me how the Holy Spirit works in showing us different applications for scripture.

  5. Hi Kristah! Thank you for the questions to look for when studying the Bible. I’ll definitely do that. My bible is the Life Application Study Bible in the original NIV version. I like it a lot because it helps me understand the context of what I’m reading better. I also use Nelson’s Quick Reference Chapter by Chapter Bible commentary by Warren W. Wiersbe. It’s helpful too.

    1. That's great Cindy! I have a Nelson study Bible I too like to reference for cultural context especially! Unfortunately, I have found not all of the commentary jives with free grace theology, but it helps me investigate further for sure!

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