In order to read the Bible with understanding, we need to answer three primary questions: (1) What does it say? (2) What does it mean? (3) What does it mean to me?
Answering the first question requires observation.
Answering the second question requires interpretation.
Answering the third question requires application.
In this chapter we’ll cover observation and interpretation. In the
next chapter we’ll cover application.
Sherlock Holmes was known for his brilliant powers of observation. One day a stranger came into Holmes’s study. The detective looked over the gentleman carefully then remarked to Watson: “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”
Watson was so astounded by his abilities that he commented: “I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. ‘When I hear you give your reasons,’ I remarked, ‘the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled, until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.’
“ ‘Quite so,’ he answered . . . throwing himself down into an armchair. ‘You see, but you do not observe.’ ”
The first step in personal Bible study is to make several observations about the passage or book you are studying. Questions 1 and 2 of our sample study were observation questions. Observation is about seeing the obvious and the not so obvious. We bombard the book or passage with questions.
By probing a book or passage with questions, you will uncover many important facts. The importance of careful observation cannot be overstressed since your observations will form the basis for your interpretations.
Good observation questions should cause the group to search the passage and its context. They should not be so simple or superficial that they can be answered with one- or two-word answers. Sometimes the group will quit responding too quickly. LifeBuilder questions should generate more than one response. Encourage the group to dig deeper, inviting others to contribute.
Some may feel that observation questions are dull. Help the group to understand what they accomplish. Observation is particularly valuable for seekers and newer Christians who need to get the basics down. You may find that these group members respond most readily to observation questions because they can see that they have the “right answer.” More mature Christians may have learned to make the observations intuitively and be ready to jump to interpretation. Observation levels the playing field. Further, long-time Christians can miss important elements because they think they already know the passage well.
The language of the Bible is rich and multi-layered. Each of us can be enriched by dwelling on the words before jumping to the meaning.
The second step in Bible study is interpretation. This type of question follows after we have had an opportunity to make some observations and get inside the text. Questions 4 and 5 of the sample study from God’s Word are interpretation questions.
INTERPRETATION Why do you think the name “the Word” is used here? Why is the role of the Word in creation emphasized so strongly (vv. 1–4)?
Interpretation seeks to understand the facts that have been uncovered.
Were there any words you didn’t understand? Define them.
Did the author use figurative language? This needs to be unraveled.
Were major ideas presented? Try to grasp their meaning and significance.
Did you encounter any difficulties? Seek to resolve them.
Meaning, significance, explanation—these are the goals of the interpreter. How do you reach these goals? And once you have reached them, how do you know you are not mistaken?
For example, have you ever been discussing a passage of Scripture with someone when suddenly he or she says, “That’s just your interpretation,” as if to say, “You have your interpretation and I have mine, and mine is just as good as yours!”
People often disagree on how the Bible should be interpreted. And there are some issues that we won’t feel resolved about until we meet God in heaven. But good interpretation follows careful observation because the key is discovering the author’s intended meaning.
First, try to anticipate the questions when you prepare. After you’ve studied the passage on your own, read the leader’s notes and see what further background or insight is offered there. Often the notes will give extra help where disagreement on interpretation can be expected. In the sample study the following notes are provided for questions 4 and 5 to help in the interpretation process.
If you have a question that you still don’t feel has been answered, then check a study Bible or commentary or ask a friend for help.
If you get into a controversy in the study, remember that controversy can be very stimulating! Allow people to share their thoughts freely. Avoid imposing your particular view on the group. When you sense that you aren’t getting any further with the issue or that people are getting frustrated, encourage the group to agree to disagree and move on. You might keep the issue in mind as a topic that you can explore more deeply later, or you might encourage people to study more on their own.
LEADER’S NOTES Question 4. If people find this difficult, you may want to read them the following quote from The NIV Study Bible and discuss it. Greeks used this term not only of the spoken word but also of the unspoken word, the word still in the mind—the reason. When they applied it to the universe, they meant the rational principle that governs all things. Jews, on the other hand, used it as a way of referring to God. Thus John used a term that was meaningful to both Jews and Gentiles. (Kenneth Barker, ed. [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995], p. 1590) Question 5. Note in Genesis 1 how, as God speaks, each aspect of the world comes into being. We may think of a word as passive ink on a page, but this is a Word with power—the power to bring us into existence.
Once you learn how to observe and interpret Scripture, you will discover that you are using these good reading principles each time you read the Bible and that God’s Word is alive in your life.