Not long ago, I wrote an article giving some principles for effective Bible study. Here, I want to give some actual methods and processes you can use to understand the Bible in a more comprehensive way. These methods work if you take the time and put in the effort to use them.
There are some differences in how you approach a text depending on what genre you are reading (law, narrative, poetry and so on), and I will not get into the specifics of each one here. With this article, I’m going to give some methods that work no matter what genre or passage of Scripture you are reading. Later on I will try to give information about how to deal with specific literary genres.
Why Exegesis Is Important
Biblical exegesis is how we remain faithful to what God has said in Scripture. The Bible is not subject to interpretation in the sense that a painting may be. The Bible is ultimate objective truth, and misunderstanding it leads to error in your understanding of the world and how you live in it. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself; God’s very words written for us.
Imagine for a moment how it feels when someone misunderstands something that you have said and still decides to act on or believe according to what you said. You would be misrepresented, and the other person would be in error. You could be defamed. You could have negative information spread because of the misunderstanding of others. You would probably be upset at this. Unfortunately, people do this with the Bible all of the time. They will read or hear a text in Scripture but try to understand and apply it out of context.
Consider the following familiar examples of Scriptures taken out of context: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” “Nothing will be impossible with God,” “I know the plans I have for you… plans to give you a hope and a future,” “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” All of these are frequently used out of context, even if they are used by some well-meaning Christians (which some of them are). All things being possible with God does not mean you can accomplish seemingly unrealistic dreams. It means that Mary, who was a virgin, could conceive and have a child (Luke 1:37). Jesus being present where two or more are gathered does not mean He is there even when few people want to show up for Sunday morning service. The context of the passage is about decisions made concerning church discipline (Matthew 18:20). God does not promise to give you a hope and future that involves a perfect spouse and a big house and a nice car. God was promising a restored relationship to those who repented and turned to Him after He punished them by exile to Babylon.
Scripture out of context misrepresents what God intended to say. It leads people astray, which is an unloving and inexcusable act. If the God Who created the universe intended a message to be delivered, the only appropriate course of action is to make every effort to make sure that the message is delivered faithfully, as the Author intended it to be. Therefore, accurately representing God is why we practice exegesis.
Another reason for exegesis, related to the first, is that it gives us the truth as it really is and enables us to live out the truth in our worldview and practice. For example, suppose that you read a passage like in Matthew 6, where God promises to provide all of our needs and commands us to not be anxious: “Do not be anxious about your life… But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:31, 33). One could understand this to mean that God will always graciously provide what they need… And He will. But notice that the promise of God’s provision is conditioned upon seeking His kingdom first. In context, that means not valuing money as high as you value God and His kingdom. And what is the “kingdom of God” that we must seek first? You must have a biblical understanding of this, which will only come through faithful interpretation. And what about the Christians that do God’s will but still struggle financially and live in poverty? You must understand this passage in light of the rest of the Bible’s teachings. God never promises that His people will not struggle financially or have physical difficulty, but that His people will always have what is necessary to do His will. God promises what you need.
Suppose that one reads and tries to apply that passage without understanding the full picture (the context). They seek God’s kingdom with their little understanding of what that term means, and expect a certain outcome that God does not give them. As a result, they are upset with God and do not trust the Bible. Notice, in this instance, that the Bible is not in error, but the person’s understanding of it is. This was probably a poor example, but I hope it made the point. Exegesis prevents this.
A third reason is that if you are charged with leading people through the teaching of God’s Word, whether in your family, or if you’re a Bible study teacher, or a pastor, then exegesis will help you prepare lessons that faithfully lead those in your care to God’s truth.
An Exegetical Method
One of the main purposes of exegesis is to minimize your opinions. You need to focus on what God has said, not what you thought He said or what you would like Him to say. The principles I gave in the previous Bible study article are good things to keep in mind at all times and practice continually. Masters still practice the basics. But following are some things you can do to go deep in any passage of Scripture. These may seem very technical and difficult, and in some ways they are. But if you practice them, your study of Scripture will be rich. If it seems like too much for you to do, start small and then work until you develop your ability to use these tools. Like any other discipline, it takes practice and intentionality.
Some basic things to keep in mind as you apply this method is what book of the Bible you’re in. If you’re reading Old Testament law, for example, you need to note that there are similarities and differences between Israel in the Old Testament and Israel in the New Testament and us today. We don’t deal with crimes the same way God prescribed in the Old Testament law because God’s people are no longer under a theocratic form of government, for example. Israel in the book of Genesis was not yet a nation, so their place in redemption history was not the same as it is in the book of Joshua. If you’re reading the book of Revelation, remember that it was written to specific people at a specific point in time, giving it historical context and setting up how you should interpret the book. You need to know that before you try to interpret the prophetic visions in the book. Keep things like this in mind whenever you’re reading.
Also, to help interpret the Bible it is helpful to note different types of contexts. For any passage of Scripture, there is a theological context (the theological themes and doctrines in the passage), a historical context (what time the book is set in with its culture and understanding), and a passage context (the passage that you are currently reading). All three are necessary for getting the full meaning of the text and applying it correctly. Note that no passage of Scripture should be read in isolation from the book it’s in, and no book should be read in isolation from the greater story of redemption present in all of Scripture.
Some of the things I discuss here I wrote about in the previous article. I hope here to give them in greater detail and with new information that will help everyone become good students of the Word. Also note that this is a method, I am not claiming it to be the method. In fact, I myself do not necessarily follow this exactly as I have written it, depending on what passage I’m studying.
Like the previous article, much of this information is from Tony Merida’s The Christ-Centered Expositor, though I have altered it in some ways and included information that is not in his book. Much credit belongs to him, however, and a lot of information as it appears in his book remains unchanged.
1 – Context
Remember that context is the most important thing. If someone asks you what the most important part of Bible study is, you don’t have to have a spiritual answer. You can just say context. I like to have a good understanding of the circumstances of the book’s writing before I ever read the first paragraph of the book. Information such as the author of the book, the date when it was written, the audience and occasion (who it was written to and why), and the genre. You may not need every last detail, but some information is always good when doing in-depth Bible study. This type of information helps a lot when you’re trying to understand a book as a whole and a particular passage in the book. Having this information will help answer some of the questions we’ll ask later.
The reason it’s helpful to have a good understanding of the context before actually reading the book is because if you understand the circumstances and purpose of the book as a whole, then any individual passage in the book becomes easier to interpret, since any individual passage must fit within the greater context of the entire book. This way, you have a kind of boundary to fit any particular text in. This may be a bad example, but I think of it as building a puzzle. Instead of trying to build pieces without knowing where they fit into the greater picture, it is helpful to build the border of the puzzle. It is easier to work with something if you have some idea what to do with it, instead of just jumping in and not knowing how far you may go in any direction.
Know that the context limits the interpretation of a passage. You cannot interpret something outside of the given context. For example, earlier I talked about the famous “where two or more are gathered” passage. The understanding that Christ is present where two or more believers are present is taking the text out of the bounds of the context. The context is church discipline, and so we therefore must know that to interpret anything in that passage as speaking to a subject outside of church discipline is a misinterpretation of Scripture.
You may not have a lot of resources to help in this area. If not, I encourage you to buy a study Bible or commentary or books by faithful teachers. There are also plenty of resources published that have introductions and overviews of books of the Bible, which may help you.
You need to keep all of this in mind as you read the text and go through the next parts of this process.
2 – Interpreting the Text Responsibly
The first step is to simply read the text and make observations about it. It helps to reread the text and use a couple of different translations if you have them with you. Read it slowly and very intentionally. Then make note of some of the main features of the text. What is the immediate context of the passage? What is the surrounding context? How does the particular passage you’re reading fit within the entire book?
Also notice how the passage divides. How many parts are in the passage? It’s also important to take notes of the verbs in the passage and their tenses. Are the verbs imperatives (commands) or indicatives? Look for the main characters and ideas in narratives. What is the big point of the story? From these observations you should be able to begin an outline of the passage (either on paper or a computer or in your head). Prayer and notes are important in this step of the process.
Other questions you can ask are the basic Who? What? Where? When? and Why? questions. You can actually learn a lot about a passage by asking these questions of the passage and answering them with the passage. When I first was taught all of this, I thought it sounded a bit ridiculous. But it works and it will help.
And it’s okay to make obvious observations. If it seems like something so obvious and basic that you can point it out without trying, it still may be worth noting and remembering.
2a – Study the Context in Greater Detail
After reading and rereading the text and asking the above questions (or for me while I’m doing those things), go deeper with the context. Review your initial background study and research unresolved questions. Ask the important questions about the context: How does this text fit within the book? How are words and concepts and themes used throughout the book? What was the intent of the author in writing this passage? Your background information (author and audience and other information) can help answer these.
Many incorrect interpretations of texts are a result of a failure to study a passage within the entire context of the Bible book. As an example, we can look at Acts 2:38. The verse is sometimes used to teach baptismal regeneration. However, if someone reads Acts carefully, they will know that the book of Acts does not teach this. Reading the whole narrative shows that the consistent teaching in Acts is that repentance and faith are what precede forgiveness of sins, and that baptism is an outward expression of an internal reality that has already taken place (Acts 2:21; 10:44-48; 13:38-39).
Now, I also need to note that historical context is helpful in this part of the process. The Bible was written in a time removed from our own, and there are words, expressions, customs and understandings that we would not readily consider in 21st century America. As foolish as it is, people often misunderstand the Bible because they try to understand something the way we might understand it in our culture. The intended meaning of the biblical text can escape us if we do this. In fact, historical context may be a good place to start at when you come across a term or word and don’t know how it fits into what you’re reading. How would the original hearers have understood it? Did it have a special meaning in that culture? Many times, the author will include something in Scripture that the original audience would readily connect with, but that we would not. For example, in Luke chapter 15, in the parable of the prodigal son, it is important to understand that an inheritance only came to someone when their father was dead. So, when the son in the parable asks for his inheritance, he is basically wishing death upon his father, something that dishonored his father. The son could have been stoned to death according to Jewish law for this. All of this connected with the Jewish audience that was listening to Jesus, though us in today’s society wouldn’t immediately think of an inheritance in this way and make all of the connections.
2b – Analyze the Passage
After you are sure of the context, break down the text in more detail. You can begin by noting clauses and contrasts and conjunctions like “but”, “and”, “therefore”, “or”, “so”. By noting these,, you can get into how the author is thinking, what connections they’re making in the text, what they’re drawing attention to, and what their flow of thought is. As you do this more and more, you will begin to notice these things more naturally. At first, it may seem strange (it did to me anyway).
If it applies, consider the poetic structure. In books that are historical narratives, note recurring ideas, as well as characters, contrasts, setting, scenes, conflict, and plot. In the epistles of the New Testament, there is often a sustained argument with multiple parts that can be traced through the majority of the letter. You will learn a lot about the text by doing this.
Another thing that will help is identifying key words. Look for important doctrinal words that need explanation. Also identify the verbs and their tenses (as mentioned before). You can get a lot of help here by referencing commentaries, concordances, word-study books, and other material. If you have a way to study the definitions of words in the original languages, then do it. It is especially helpful if a word seems to carry a different meaning in one passage than it does elsewhere in Scripture. It may be a different Hebrew or Greek word translated as the same English word. I encourage trying to find the original definitions wherever it seems necessary, as it may give an understanding or perspective that you did not have before.
2c – Look at Cross-References
It is best to let Scripture interpret Scripture, and cross-references help with this. If your passage teaches a particular doctrine, then cross-references will help you find other passages that speak about the same doctrine. You can also see how the story of redemption is connected by seeing how themes in your text are present in other areas of Scripture. The Bible is beautifully connected! Cross-references help to see this and help with interpreting your passage. Sometimes biblical authors will use similar words but mean something different, and sometimes similar themes are taught using different terms. So, always consider the author’s context.
When using cross-references, look at the immediate context of the passage. Is the same word or concept used multiple times? Is the same theme presented? After this, look next at references by the same author in the same book. Then look at references in other books of the Bible written by the same author. After this, look at the larger biblical text for the same words and concepts and teachings. It is best to start with the same Testament as your current book when doing this.
This is a helpful strategy for any book of the Bible: start with the immediate passage, then the book, then the larger text of the entire Bible.
2d – Use Commentaries and Other Resources
If you haven’t done so already, at this stage is a good point to reference commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and other resources to help answer unresolved questions or just to get a different perspective on the text in case you missed something. I personally use the New American Commentary and Christ-Centered Commentary series. You can also find some good commentary for free online. It is probably a good practice to go to commentary last, after you have extensively studied the text yourself, in order that you do not get into the habit of running to commentary every time you get stuck. Also, going to commentary last will help you develop these Bible study tools instead of relying heavily on extra resources. I also personally think that if you rely too much on commentary and tools that others have developed, then you are not allowing the Holy Spirit to help in your Bible study as much. However, I do frequently use commentary, and I encourage everyone to use them so they can deepen their knowledge.
While this next point is really helpful for teachers, it may or mat not be helpful for others. After all of this studying, it is useful to summarize what you’ve learned. If you can write out a summary that captures all that you’ve learned, then that means you understand it well. This is very helpful when preparing lessons, but I also find it helpful when I’m trying to understand a passage that I’m not teaching.
3 – Look for Theological Themes
If you read any book of the Bible, you’re reading theology. Always look for theological themes when you’re reading a passage. Doing this, you can discover certain aspects of what the Bible teaches about a certain topic or doctrine. For example, in the parable of the prodigal son, we see repentance and sin. Those are theological themes. We also see joy and God’s grace. All of these things are theological topics in Scripture, and by looking at how a passage presents them and how it uses them, we can learn about them. What does the passage say about the theme? What do other passages say about this same theme? As I said in the previous article, theology is the most important subject you could ever study. Everything else flows out of theology.
Another important point you should always keep in mind when reading is how your passage connects with the overall story of redemption that runs throughout the entire Bible. Scripture is one big story with a lot of smaller stories contained within it. The Old Testament points forward to Christ while the New Testament looks back at Christ. If you’re in the Old Testament, look for types that point to Christ (like the sacrificial system), characters that may be a Christ-like figure (like the prophets as those who reveal God), or events that point to salvation (like the flood and Noah’s ark or the Red Sea crossing). Pictures of Christ are all over the Bible (Luke 24:27). Of course, we need to be careful to not put more meaning than is there. In the New Testament, look for how the commands and teachings flow out of what Christ did on the cross.
This was a lot of information, and I’m sure that some reading this may be a little overwhelmed or feel like all of this is too much to put into practice. If that’s the case with you, then I encourage you as I did at the beginning. Just start to apply what you feel comfortable with and then be intentional about improving your study habits and developing your use of these tools. Be consistent and intentional, and you will get good at this.
If I have not already indicated such, I want to say that one does not need these tools to understand the Bible. God promises His Holy Spirit, and if we are prayerful and seek God then we can understand the Bible. I did so before anyone shared these tools with me, with God’s help. God will give you what you need. But I think it is very important that we use and develop our ability to study the Bible so we can understand it in a deeper way, and I think God uses our abilities to teach us more. I also feel it is everyone’s responsibility to interpret and apply the Bible faithfully, and anything we can learn to help us do that will not be a waste of time.
I hope that this helps whoever reads it. I plan on writing a shorter article, using these tools on a passage of Scripture so that I can demonstrate its usefulness.