That’s right. I’m going to attempt to distill three decades of Sunday School, many years of Seminary, and a lifetime of experience into one measly little post. Let’s see how this goes. Without further ado, let’s begin.
Step 1 – Read a passage.
Pretty straightforward, I know. Here comes the tricky part—what you shouldn’t do after you read a passage. This list includes:
Ask yourself what the passage means for your life.
Read what your commentary says about the passage.
Ask what your pastors think about the passage.
Ask your friends what they think about the passage.
Step 2 – Read the passage again, within its original context.
This means don’t just read one passage or verse because it sounds nice and inspirational. If you really want to study a passage of scripture and interpret it correctly, you need to read what comes before it and after it. Sometimes this means reading the entire section or chapter in which you found it. Smaller books, such as the New Testament epistles, should be read in their entirety. Books of the Bible, especially letters, were meant to be read as a whole and their authors crafted them in this way. 90% of the time, if a passage of scripture leaves you asking questions, the answers can be found somewhere else within its book. It also helps to read a tricky passage in a few different translations.
Step 3 – Think about what the passage meant to the original audience.
It’s still not time to ask “What does this passage mean for me?” First you need to ask yourself what it meant to the people to whom it was written in the first place. Romans was written for the Church in Rome, Galatians for the Christians living in the Galatia region, and so on. Each of these places had their own cultures and historical situations that brought about their own set of problems that needed to be addressed. If Paul’s original plan had been to write a giant manifesto of rules and regulations for proper worship and theology throughout the Christian world for all time, he would have. He certainly had the background to do so and to do it right. Instead, he wrote to churches addressing specific problems. Only by understanding these original issues first and foremost can we even hope to attempt to understand whatever universal truths can be gleaned from Paul’s instructions. The same goes for every book of the Bible.
Depending on the passage and subject matter, this step can vary in time and difficulty. I’m sorry, but it will probably require a bit of effort on your part. You might have to read a few articles, search through some good commentaries, and ask the right questions of the right people.
The path to true knowledge and wisdom is not easy or short. For many, the quest is still ongoing. Decades of scholarly study and academic investigation have gone into the search for the proper context for the books of the Bible. That is the beauty of it. We can always learn new things and discover new ways of looking at the texts and each time some wonderful new truth reveals itself. That is why we must always consider that our views might be wrong and never close our minds off to new ways of looking at scripture.
Step 4 – Ponder how the truths you’ve just discovered can be applied to your own life.
Once you’ve discovered the most likely interpretation of a passage (there can be only one) the path to discover personal truths is endless, infinite, and wonderful. Now is the time to contemplate how the passage effects how you view the world. Take these truths and discuss them with your friends and family, with your pastors and neighbors. Speak these spiritual truths to the world.
Step 5 – Repeat for the rest of your life.
Only by treating scripture with the respect and care it deserves can we avoid believing and spreading heresies that only serve to sow dissension and chaos. Only through proper study of the Bible can we understand the glorious Wisdom and Truth of God which brings about a spirit of unity that can change the world.