This article is Part 1 in our How to Read the Bible Series. If you are interested in more, check out Part 2: Roadblocks to Bible Application.
Reading the Bible is one of the most frequently discussed parts of the Christian faith. If you are in or around a church, chances are you are constantly encouraged to find time to get in your Bible. Before long, “quiet times” can become a metric for how well you are doing in your faith. Small groups, Bible studies, and podcasts can quickly fill your free time.
But there is a problem: we are rarely taught how to read our Bibles. We know how to read the words on the page, but not how to understand what is being said or how it relates to our own lives. Because we don’t get much out of it, Bible reading becomes a check-the-box chore. It produces feelings of guilt, anxiety, duty, or boredom, instead of the joy, life, and purpose that should come from reading the inspired Word of God.
If your Bible reading is constantly boring, anxiety-inducing, or confusing, then, chances are, you are coming at it incorrectly. Time spent in the Word should be a life-giving and engaging process. It is core to your faith in Christ and your walk as a believer. God gave us His word so that as we study and apply it to our lives, we can know Him, love Him, and love others. It is profitable and applicable to every aspect of our lives (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Thankfully, we are not left without direction. Just as there is a way to read a magazine or a news article, there is a way to read the Bible that helps you get something meaningful from it. To read the Bible effectively, here are three steps you should follow: observation, interpretation, and application.
Observation is simply taking note of what is there, and answers the question, “What do you see?” It requires taking into account who is speaking, what people are involved, where they are, what they are doing, what words are being used, etc. Put another way, it’s the “who what when where and why” of the passage.
When you start the process of observation up close, begin by looking for things that are emphasized, contrasted, listed, exaggerated, repeated, similar, different, or related. Have a pen out and don’t hesitate to mark up the page. Find out what is literally occurring in the verse and what is taking place before and after.
As an example, let’s look at one of the most quoted Bible verses, Jeremiah 29:11.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
At first glance, most people just read this and rush immediately to Application (step 3 of this process). We make this verse say what we want it to say: God must have great things ahead for us. But what happens when we start to observe the passages surrounding this famous verse? By looking at the chapter thus far, we see that God is speaking through Jeremiah to His people as they enter exile. Verse 10 tells us that Israel will not see their exile end for another 70 years! Observations like this can be completely missed unless we commit to paying attention.
So, as you go about your own observation, ask questions like:
- Do I see any patterns arising?
- Who is speaking? Who are they speaking to?
- Is the author repeating something over and over again for emphasis?
- Have I read something similar before?
- What genre of literature is this?
While observation is the process of determining what is there, Interpretation is the process of determining what it is saying. It requires us to build a bridge from today to when it was written. Interpretation is how you come to an idea of what the Holy Spirit, through the biblical author, had in mind when writing these words.
When interpreting a passage, you must begin to investigate context. Understanding context requires looking at the literary context (What is around the passage? What book is it in? etc.), its narrative context (Where is it in the story?), it’s historical context (What is happening in history outside the biblical narrative?), and the cultural context. This is going to require looking at things like cross references and biblical metaphors. A study Bible can be a helpful resource and you can also find helpful commentaries and tools online.
For example, let’s return again to Jeremiah 29:11, and try to interpret some more from its context. Like we’ve already observed, we need to read this verse understanding it is being spoken to a people in incredible hardship and suffering. In fact, they have 70 years of crisis and exile ahead. What can we interpret from this? What is God saying to His people?
First, maybe the word “welfare” means something slightly different to this ancient Israelite culture than it does to us today. When God says He has “plans for welfare and not for evil,” this seems to be the case even though His people are about to experience significant struggles. God’s plans aren’t going to give them a pain free-life, but instead a life filled with hope in Him. Verses 13 and 14 are God reminding them that even if they are in exile, He will still be with them.
So, when interpreting your Bible, ask questions like:
- Am I understanding what this word means?
- Does this word mean the same thing today that it would have back then?
- What is the significance of this metaphor or reference?
- What thought is the passage trying to convey to its original audience?
Application is asking questions like “So what?” “What difference does it make?” or “How does this have anything to do with my life?” As you do, remember that a lack of proper observation and interpretation will always result in inaccurate application.
Your application of the passage needs to be relevant, accurate, and concise. It needs to be practical and applicable to your life. Not in some highly theoretical way, but in a very real, intimate way. It is also important to keep in mind that there are roadblocks to proper application of these truths. You cannot apply a passage faithfully if you neglect how it was meant to be applied.
So, once more, how do we apply Jeremiah 29:11 to our lives? Well, we now know that this verse isn’t really relevant if we want our immediate future to be comfortable or free of hardship. It shouldn’t be used to promise anyone that “good times are right around the corner” or that God will immediately fix their problems. In fact, this verse is actually a much more helpful reminder when the future seems uncertain. Jeremiah 29:11 is a verse that can give us courage even if our circumstance is scary or problematic. When we apply it rightly, this promise becomes a source of hope in what God can do, even when we cannot see Him at work.
As you apply the truths of God’s Word, ask questions like:
- How does this make me love Jesus more?
- How does this make me love others more?
- What does this empower me, in the Spirit, to do?
- What could I do today to put this principle into action?
- How does this truth inform my decision making?
- Does this application look different in our modern world than it would have when it was written?
Read Your Bible with Others
When you feel lost or alone in your Bible reading, ask other believers for help. One of the reasons God gives us the local church is so we might read our Bibles alongside other Christians. Theology in isolation is never a good idea. Surrounding yourself with community ensures that your Bible reading and interpretation can be weighed with other perspectives, opinions, and interpretations.
Remember that two people can look at the same thing and come to two different conclusions. That is why it in so important to also read your Bible alongside community. This process is going to be an exercise in learning. Getting good at it will take a lifetime. Enjoy the process!
Lastly, if your Bible reading results in growing further isolated, angry, prideful, or self-serving, you are not applying your Bible correctly. We don’t read our Bibles to become smarter sinners. We read out Bibles to know God Himself and discern how to live our lives in a way that glorifies Him. We read our Bibles to become more like Jesus and to love Him more fully.