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One Book at a Time December 23, 2009

Posted by TJ Friend in OICA.
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Hello again. Up to this point I have been going over general principals of interpreting the Bible. Hopefully, as you read you will be keep an eye out for the context of whatever passage you are reading and try and interpret verses in light of their genre. I want to get into more specifics so that if there is a specific passage that you want to study, you will understand what is necessary to get at the meaning. Before we get into studying specific passages though, I want to take some time and talk about studying an entire book at a time. I also want to talk about both topical studies and studies of individuals in the Bible.

Step 1: Reading

The first thing you need to do to understand a book of the Bible is to read it. If it is not too long you should try and read the book in one sitting. Reading the book all at once will help bring out the recurring themes and the general thought flow of the book. This may take some time, but it is necssary for proper interpretation. As you read through the book don’t try to understand every detail. The important thing is just to read and get a general overview of what the book is about. After you read through the book once, read it again. Preferably you should read a book through at least 3 times before you start getting into the details of what it is about. Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of all time, would not preach on a book of the Bible until he read it 50 times. Reading is important because it gives a general structure on which the specifics of the book can rest on.

Step 2: Observing

After reading through a book of the Bible once you can move onto the observation step. When you are reading through the book the second or third time, get a piece of paper out so that you can take notes. As you are going through the book there are a few things you want to look for. First off, you want to find out what the book has to say about itself. Look for clues about the author and also the audience. You want to understand why the author wrote it and what message he was trying to convey. Look for the main characters and see what role they play. Look for words or ideas that are repeated throughout the book. Write down anything that stands out or looks important. Make a note of any big transitions in the text, such as in the epistles where the author is talking about theological ideas one chapter and then switches to exhortations on proper living in the next chapter. As you read through try and get a sense of the tone that the author is using. Is it encouraging, angry, sad, joyful? Why are these feelings there? Take some time as you read to ask questions. Go through the five w’s (who, what, where, when, why) and see if the text answers any or all of these.

Step 3: Situation

Although you probably made some notes on the situation in the previous step, it is helpful to go through intentionally and find everything possible about the people this book was written to. Some books will have very little if any of this information. But for those that do, it is important to understand what was going on with the people who this book was written for. This is especially true with the epistles and the prophetic books. You can get a sense for what issues there were by seeing what the author addresses. Often times he will point out specific problems, like disunity or worshiping idols. If the book you are reading doesn’t have any information on the situation, don’t make something up, just move on to the next step.

Step 4: Purpose

This is one of the most important steps in studying a book of the Bible. Here you want to go through the text and look for the reason why the book was written. In the prophetic books and epistles there are usually some problems that the author is addressing. In the historical books there is a story unfolding and we are given a glimpse into the spiritual condition of Israel as they go through their journey as a nation. The gospels are written to tell people about Jesus and Acts gives us a picture of the roots of Christianity. These are big generalizations. You have to look at each book individually to discover its purpose.

Step 5: Major Sections

By this point you should have a pretty good idea of the overarching message of the book. Now it is time to break the book down into sections. Most books have an introductory and concluding section, so look for these first. This will help you see where the author is starting and where he is trying to get to. These are usually the easiest sections to identify because of their uniqueness. Some books, like the epistles, will even mark off the conclusion with a word like “finally” or “in conclusion”.  A couple pointers on defining sections. First we are just looking for places where the author is talking about one thing and then switches to another. Second, the chapter divisions are not the same as the section breaks. The chapters were added after the Bible was written and do not necessarily correspond with changes in thought. The chapters were added in to help aid in locating passages of scripture and as such were put in at logical breaks in the text. These breaks sometimes correspond with the section breaks, but not always. The book of Judges is a fairly easy book to break into sections, because each section talks about a different judge. In Judges 3, there are 3 different Judges mentioned, which would be 3 sections, but then the next two chapters (4-5) are all about one judge and so make up one section.  Which brings me to my final point which is that not all the sections need to be the same length. The important thing is to find where there is a change in thought, without regard to how long or short the resulting section may be. After you find the major sections, take some time and think about each section. Try and come up with a title that encompasses the message of that section. This will help to make sure that each section is unique and that you understand what each section is about (at least in general)

Step 6: Theme/Message

The final step in studying a book of the Bible is to review everything and try come up with the overall theme of the book. Is it about redemption? Is it about judgement? Maybe there are a couple interwoven themes. Now you should have a good idea of what the book is about. Try and come up with a sentence that encompasses the situation (if there is one), the author’s purpose for writing and the message that is being conveyed. Make sure that your sentence incorporates the major sections and binds them all together.

One final note. Not all books are easily divided into sections. Some books, like Psalms, Proverbs, and James have recurring themes and ideas, but are difficult to outline or find a structure to them. You can still understand the big picture message that is being conveyed and come to a good understanding of what these books are about.

Reflection

The best way to learn about this is to do it. Pick a book and go for it. I would recommend starting with a smaller book, like 3 John or Jude for some practice before jumping into a bigger book.

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