After 23 years of reading the Bible, I finally learned how to study the Bible better in 1996. I thought I already knew. I learned a better way in studying and understanding the Bible. I learned how to apply it into my personal life more accurately. I’d like to share these with everyone and I hope it’s simple enough to understand. Let me try.
There are essentially two tasks involved in how to study the Bible properly. The first task is getting the facts and the second task is application of these facts.
First Task: Getting the Facts
Think like a crime investigator trying to solve a mystery in a crime scene. Not exactly—but try to find out everything about that part of Scripture that you are studying or are interested in. Read through the book.
Try to find out what exactly happened back then. Try to imagine the original situation when it happened. What was the occasion? What was the situation? Ask probing questions. Who wrote the book? Who? What? When? Where? Why? What’s the point? Who was the author of the letter or book? Why did he write? Who was he writing to? Try to find out the situation in the past.
Find out the historical background or context. Find out the cultural background. Find out the literary context. Is this part that you are studying part of a letter, a poem, a song, a parable or a narrative? It will have a great bearing on how you interpret Scripture. Check the grammatical context if need be. Check various Bible translations and other Bible helps. It’s not wrong to ask scholars. They know their work. Is this written in Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic? You might need to do a word study. Get all the facts available.
For this first task on how to study the Bible, you are like an investigator trying to get the pieces of the puzzle together to “solve a mystery”—sort of. What happened back then in that particular situation? Get all the relevant facts. Some call this first task as “exegesis.”
Second Task: Application of the Facts
The second task in how to study the Bible involves interpreting all the relevant facts that has been gathered and applying it into our present situation at this time. Some call this part as “application” or some call it “hermeneutics.”
Both exegesis and hermeneutics involve interpretation. Exegesis (first task) involves interpreting what actually happened in the past while hermeneutics (second task) involves interpreting the facts gathered and applying it into our modern times. The whole process (the first and second task) is also called hermeneutics but please don’t get confused. These two words, exegesis and hermeneutics are sometimes used interchangeably and it can be confusing sometimes. But for our purposes here, I hope I’m making myself clear about their difference.
In light of what we have discovered in the first task of exegesis, how do we now interpret all of these information and apply it into our modern situation at this time (hermeneutics/application)? In light of who God truly is as revealed in Jesus Christ, how are we now to interpret these facts and apply it into our lives at this time? Is this relevant and applicable at all to us today? This is the second task.
Are we bound to just follow everything in the past—word for word (literal translation)—just because it is in the Bible? Of course not. For example, should we try to literally greet each other with a “holy kiss” (Romans 16:16) just because that’s what it says in the Bible? Of course not hahaha! In some cultures, they do kiss each other (men to men) as a form of greeting but in some other culture, that may not be appropriate—even repulsive haha! But we can understand the principle of greeting one another and loving one’s neighbor. This is the importance of getting the context. We can apply this principle of “greeting one another” to our modern times (maybe a handshake as an example) but not exactly the way they did it in the Bible back then (literal). We should try to understand first what we have learned in the past (exegesis) before applying it to our modern times (hermeneutics). That’s the idea.
Should we disregard the facts we’ve discovered and go right ahead and interpret Scripture without considering the various backgrounds/contexts (exegesis)? Of course not! We don’t just interpret and apply Scripture from thin air (hermeneutics). If we differ in our modern application and practice today from the past, it is because we have already considered the facts found in the text—not from thin air.
Jesus and Paul re-interpreted the Old Testament. That was their only Bible back then. There was no New Testament yet. Their interpretations and how they applied Scripture (the Old Testament) are recorded in the New Testament. The early Christians added more books to the Bible in light of their understanding of who God truly is as revealed in Jesus Christ. They decided which literature should be added and included in the Bible based on their understanding of who Jesus is. This gives us a hint on how we should approach the Bible as a whole. We interpret Scripture based on what Jesus said in the New Testament and not the other way around. We interpret Scripture (the written Word) based on who God is as revealed to us by Jesus Christ himself, the Living Word. That’s an important point to consider in interpreting Scripture. We get the facts, apply these facts to our modern situation with the understanding of who Jesus is and who we are in him.
Broadly, I believe these are the two important points to remember when we study the Bible – when we try to study, understand, interpret and apply Scripture: Get the facts and apply these facts to our modern times with the understanding of who Jesus really is. Or for the scholarly, they call it exegesis and hermeneutics.