Study the Bible like a Scholar
How can I read the Bible and make sense of it? That’s a common question in every generation. In 1943 InterVarsity published timeless tips on how to study the Bible that many students are still using today. We’re reprinting Jane Hollingsworth’s classic article from HIS magazine on how to read the Bible and explore the wealth of grace and truth embedded in its pages.
Author Jane Hollingsworth (Haile) joined InterVarsity staff in 1942. She was a key leader and pioneer in igniting and nurturing InterVarsity’s passion for inductive Bible study that is still alive today. Here is her 1943 HIS article, “Study the Bible like Noted Scholars.”
Today the Bible is the world’s all-time best-selling book, yet many people don’t know how to get out of it what God has put there for them. All that many know of the Bible are a few isolated texts – poorly learned, misquoted or utterly divorced from their contexts. We have a fleeting impression of an idea or an expression without the faintest conception of unity or order.
Intellectual struggle is not incompatible with true piety and deep spirituality. Because the Bible is more than mere literature, it is nonetheless real literature. It was conveyed to the writers through mental and spiritual travail and will not be re-revealed without a little mental exercise of the same sort.
So if you are willing to pay the price in time, patience and energy, what should you do? Here are a few practical suggestions.
Did you ever read the first few chapter of a novel and condemn the whole book as dull and uninteresting? Then why not be as fair to the Author of the Bible as you are to the modern fiction writer? Try reading a book of the Bible as a whole. Read it from the author’s viewpoint and impressions left upon your mind. Whatever those dominant impressions are may be the author’s main points and are the things you want to go back and study.
Now go back and read the book or passage more slowly and carefully. This time your object is not to see what the spiritual meaning is, but simply to get the content as it lies before you on the page. You are in no position as yet to interpret the meaning, draw conclusions or suppositions and apply them, for you have not as yet acquired an accurate knowledge of what is written there. So read it. Re-read it. Now read it again.
- Read it as though you were an artist looking for something to paint, visualizing the objects or scenes described.
- Read it as though you were a dramatist and imagine acting out the conversation or action.
- Read it as though you were a musician, listening for songs or music. Remember, we have the “Hallelujah Chorus” because Handel heard a song in the New Testament book of Revelation.
Now read it aloud and interpret as you read. Keep in mind that to read thoughtfully is to study.
Go back to the beginning of your book and look for some specific things. Don’t read aimlessly. Always look for something. Ask yourself some simple questions. Are there any people mentioned in this book? Who are they? Write down everything you can find that throws light on the character and circumstance of those mentioned.
That’s the way great Bible teachers who give wonderful character studies get their information. The Bible is a book of people’s lives. It is a book of people praying rather than a book of prayer, of people believing rather than a book of beliefs, of people sinning and repenting and righting themselves rather than a book of ethics.
Get out your colored pencils
If you’re reading an epistle (one of the New Testament letters), write down all you can find out about the writer from what he says and the way he writes. Also look at the recipient. What in the letter throws light upon those to whom it was written?
In reading narrative portions, such as the four Gospels, always look for the reactions of people. Jesus’ words caused peculiar reactions for both believers and unbelievers. These reactions may help you know what to expect from those students who hear the gospel from you.
Then what is said next? This may be a revealing question. Carefully extract everything the Scriptures say, not what you think they say. Get all the details of the situation. Use your pencil and write down the points. Now review them in your mind in proper order.
Note geography. Get the geographical location by using a map of Biblical times, often found in the back of many Bibles. Geography and locality very often affect events. For example, Paul preached a sermon in Athens that he never had preached anywhere else. There was something in that particular location that gave him his theme. Look it up in Acts 17:16-33 and see. Get a yellow pencil and mark all points of geography.
Note time. Look for the time element. Some of the things Jesus did would not have bothered the Pharisees on Tuesday, but upset them terribly because He did them on the Sabbath. How do people know that Jesus lived 33 years, and that there is one week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday? They simply watch the passage of time. Get yourself a green pencil and mark all the hours, days, sunsets and sunrises in your Bible.
Examine carefully. Seek the reason behind what is put in the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit never wrote one unnecessary word, just as Beethoven never wrote an unnecessary note. In John 6, examine why Jesus spoke of the bread of life when He did. This investigation will lead you to see that all the things in the Bible are related. Connect everything that is said with what goes before and what comes after. Perhaps this hint will help: look for conjunctions (but, wherefore, therefore); these words indicate that something has gone before and something else will follow.
Where’s the action? One more suggestion: When reading a long, involved passage, take the central verb and free it from the surrounding detail. You’ll discover how other statements in the passage are related to it. Do this with Hebrews 13:20-21. If there are a number of verbs, especially verbs of action (don’t limit yourself to involved passages), jot them all down and note the sequence. There may be some logical steps which the Holy Spirit put there for our progress.
Come to your senses. Keep all your senses awake. Be alert. When there is a sunset, see it. When Isaac smells his son’s clothing which is “like the smell of the field which the Lord has blessed,” smell it. When the wind blows and a storm arises, listen for it. The Bible is a living book. If we would have it affect lives today, we must let it live.
A final and important point in any Bible study is this: look for the message God has for you. What is the main thing God is teaching in this portion of Scripture? How does it fit in to God’s whole plan of redemption? What bearing does it have on my life right now? Obey implicitly and share it immediately.
A famous Bible scholar, C. H. Mackintosh, said, “All that we want to know is that God has spoken, and then obedience becomes the very highest order of intelligent acting.” We bring glory to God when we obey Him; we bring more glory to God when we bring others to obey Him.
As Bible scholar Richard Moulton said, “We have done almost everything that is possible with the Greek and Hebrew writings. . . . There is just one thing left to do with the Bible – simply to read it.”
(Revised from HIS magazine, copyright 1943 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship)
More . . .
Here’s another article with tips and suggestions for illuminating Bible study, How do I start reading the Bible?
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