Rounding off our Spiritual Habits series, last night we looked at how to study the Bible.

One – It’s Challenging

First up we listed the challenges or difficulties that put us off from doing some serious Bible study. The list covered:

  • Being busy/ not prioritising it
  • Being confused by jargon terms or phrases (e.g. redemption, predestined, etc)
  • Not understanding the historical background of passages
  • Finding bits of it boring
  • Finding bits of it contradictory
  • Finding bits of it confusing
  • Finding bits of it scary
  • Struggling with how to personally apply it
  • Not knowing where to start – it’s a big book

Two – It’s Big

Some numbers help put it into perspective, illustrating why it is often difficult to study the Bible

  • 66 – number of books in the Bible (it’s actually a collection of books)
  • 40 – number of different authors (though this is not exact – we don’t know all the authors)
  • 3 – number of continents it took place on (Asia, Africa and Europe)
  • 3 – number of languages it was written in (Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic)
  • 1500 – number of years during which it was written (c. 1400 BC – 100 AD)

With all that, it’s no wonder that it’s often difficult to study the Bible. But it is also incredible that through those huge spans of time, geography and authorship, there is still an underlying unity and consistency to its message. This should give us great confidence that through the human authors, God himself was inspiring and co-authoring its pages.

Three – Start With Translations & Questions

We used John 3:1-21 as a passage to practice and try out some Bible study techniques. First we read it in several different translations. This is a great way to get familiar with a passage and start exploring its meaning. Where there are differences in translations is often a clue that a particular word or phrase could have varieties or shades of different meaning, and the translators have been forced into one particular interpretation. When studying several different translations together we don’t have to make that choice, but can try to explore more the original meaning.

Then we tried to ask good questions of the text. What things don’t make sense, or leave us with questions? What might a detective ask if this were the scene of a crime?

Our questions were:

  • Why does Nicodemus come at night? Is he ashamed of coming to see Jesus?
  • Does he come on his own, or in a group? (The use of “we” at the start of the discussion could imply there are others there with him.)
  • Does he come on his own initiative? Or is he coming as a representative (or possibly even a spy) from the Sanhedrin, in order to check Jesus out and report back?
  • How many of the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin members were actually open to Jesus, especially at the start of his ministry? Nicodemus’ comment “we know that you must come from God” implies that he and many others are open to Jesus?
  • Why does Jesus talk in metaphors and images with Nicodemus? Why isn’t he more clear in what he is saying?
  • Is Jesus harsh on Nicodemus? “You are Israel’s teacher and you don’t understand this?”

Four – Relate to the Wider Context

To start to answer these questions we need to start bringing in the wider context of the passage. The classic ways to do this are:

  • What is immediately before and after the passage? In John’s Gospel this story is immediately followed by the story of the woman at the well, and the two need to be interpreted together for us to fully understand the context. For example, Nicodemus is male, a trained Jewish teacher, part of the establishment of Israelite society, he comes at night, and he leaves confused. Whereas the woman at the well is female, a foreigner (Samaritan) and probably an outcast from her society. But she encounters Jesus in broad daylight, and leaves being convinced Jesus is the promised Messiah, and invites her whole town to come and meet him. The differences between the passages, but also the similarities, all contribute to the message John wants us to be understanding.
  • Next we need to think of the wider context of the whole book where the passage features. John’s Gospel frequently uses light and water as images – what do the use of light and water in this passage therefore tell us. Also, Nicodemus appears three times in the book; here at the beginning, once in the middle, once at the end. How does he change through the narrative, and what does that teach us?
  • Finally we think in terms of the whole context of the Bible. What is the meta narrative (i.e. the big picture story) that is happening throughout the whole Bible, and how does this story in some way contribute towards that?

Five – Now Try it

So with all that said, here is the challenge… how will you now study the Bible? As we said at the earlier, often we struggle with where to start. So how about studying a particular question you have? Or a particular Bible character? A particular book? Or even a particular genre of books (e.g. the Minor Prophets)?

And two final challenges:

  1. Rather than asking the standard question of what do I want to hear about or study?… why not ask the question what does God want me to hear about or study?
  2. And if you’ve never read the Bible through from Genesis to Revelation, and you’re struggling to know where to start, why not start at the beginning at work your way though it? It’s not recommended for those first approaching the Bible. But if you’ve been reading it and following Jesus for several years, and want to go deeper, it’s an invaluable way of getting more familiar with that meta narrative of what it’s all about.