Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Christian Disciplines, Part I: Studying Scripture

This is Part 1 of a five-part series on the Christian Disciplines. It is a "how-to" manual, or "what mature Christianity looks like." It borrows heavily from Richard Foster's, "Celebration of Discipline" and I highly recommend it. A new post will be made each Wednesday. To view them all together, click on the "Series: Christian Disciplines" link on the right.


People view the Bible in many different ways. Some see it as a series of fables and fairy tales, like Jesus’ version of Aesop’s Fables. Some see it as a complete history textbook of the Jews. Some see it as a guidebook for how to live your life.

The truth is that Scripture is far more than any of that. To begin with, we must first understand the author. The Bible has two levels of authorship: the ultimate author is God Himself, and the person putting pen to paper is a human prophet or apostle. This is called special revelation, when God sent His Spirit to inspire a prophet or apostle with divine ideas; the apostle or prophet then recorded those divine inspirations in human words, human phrases, to a human audience.  The primary purpose of this is to equip us to achieve God’s will in our lives:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

So the picture is that the words come from a human author, but the breath those words is spread upon is from God—and it is not without purpose, but to equip you and I to do good works. Notice that sometimes this comes through teaching us something new, sometimes through rebuking (scolding) us for sin, sometimes by correcting our false ideas, and sometimes through training.

In addition, above all it is a Story. The story of how the One True God all things, how sin broke all things, and how Jesus redeems and restores all things.

Studying Scripture regularly is a core part of being a disciplined, maturing Christian.

But how does one study Scripture?

Today we will learn two major methods of Scripture study.

(1) Devotional Study.

I firmly believe that many Christians remain in bondage to fear, anxiety, and lack of direction for no reason other than a lack of routine study of the Word. Being faithful in church attendance and serving others is of course great, but if your mind is not renewed into a new way of thinking, then you will never fully experience what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

On this topic I feel that I have a lot to share—much more than I will bore you with!—because Scripture study has made such a huge impact on my life (more than any other aspect of Christianity). When your mind is renewed through Study, what you find is an entirely new perspective: you go through your day-to-day and you begin to see Jesus at work all around you. The mundane become miraculous, and you see God’s fingerprints everywhere. CS Lewis put it this way:  “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” A renewed mind which regularly meditates on God’s word is much more sensitive to His workings around you, and therefore more likely to be walking the right path and living in His peace as well.

Also, it is necessary to study regularly so that we avoid false teachers. One of Jesus’ biggest concerns was false teachers—He discussed it all the time (Matt 23:15 as an example). It is when we as His sheep understand His voice that we are able to avoid being led astray.

Devotional Study is daily focus on short Scriptures and how to apply them to your lives. This isn’t a deep and long-term study. This is a daily immersion in the Word of God. Reading and reflecting about one passage and how it is applicable to your lives that day is the idea with devotional study.

There two primary steps of a devotional study:

(A)  Regular immersion in the Word

The first step of devotional study is to have a daily time of study. Now this is not a long and intensive study—it can be very short. But it is all about the Scripture filling your day so that you can constantly be looking at how to apply it. The idea is that as you sit at home and walk down the road, there is Scripture present (Deut 6:7).

A few good ideas:
·         Scripture written around the house:  The ancient Jews used to hang Scripture on the doorposts and wore armbands that had Scriptures written on them. This is the case today, too—any Christian bookstore has beautiful paintings or wall hangings or iron-on vinyl verses that you can put around your house, so that when you see it, you remember to pray. I’ve also seen people have a “verse of the week” on a chalkboard or refrigerator whiteboard in their house. Others keep devotional studies in their car CD players so that they can listen to them as they drive.
·         Reading a devotional book: There are many books available which take you through and give you passages to consider and questions to ask each day.
·         Journaling: Many people like journals, which can often be bought with daily Scriptures on them and where you can record what God reveals to you about the passage.
·         A Psalm /Proverb/Passage A Day:  My pastor Josh likes reading a Psalm each day and summarizing it; another mentor of mine likes reading a Proverb each day; at times I've used the BCP app to get a variety of passages sent each day. By having a routine way of getting a new reading each day, you are always freshly immersed.
·         Bible in a Year/Three Years:  Online are dozens of reading programs (we can provide them as well if you are interested) which will take you through the Bible in a year or three years.
·         The Gospels in Three Months:  If you just read one chapter a day—usually less than 10 minutes—you can go through the Gospels very quickly. Matthew takes 28 days; Mark takes 16; Luke takes 24; John takes 21. That is 89 days—less than 3 months. Then you could repeat. Each time you will discover something new.

(B)  Ask the Four Questions about the Scripture

Whatever passage you study each day, ask these three questions and ponder them:
  • What does this teach me about God?
  • What does this teach me about Jesus and His ministry on earth?
  • What does this teach me about mankind/myself?
  • What does this compel me to do today?

(2) Interpretive (Exegetical) Study.

Devotional study was the daily rhythm of hearing from God's word--it is like standing on the beach with your feet being gently lapped, every day, by the water. Interpretive study is choosing a particular spot in the water and diving in deep to fully experience it.

I also sometimes say it this way:  devotional study is the key to daily living, and can answer pretty much any childlike questions about Scripture. But if you start thinking of grown-up questions about Scripture, then to find the answers we of course must also give the Scripture grown-up thoughts.

You don't need a seminary degree to do interpretive study (though of course, it helps!). But below is a good approach to doing a detailed, interpretive study of a passage--and it is very similar to the process Tim Keller uses (and I stole) for sermon research.

(A).  Create time and space to think.

I would say that a detailed, interpretive study of a relatively small passage--such as we might preach for a sermon (say, 1 chapter or less) will consume 30-50 hours at least, even if you have a familiarity with the text. To do a really deep dive on an entire book might require months or years!

Needless to say, you will need a space in your calendar to allow detailed study with no distraction. Maybe the hour before bed each night, or the first hour of each day, or a weekend away in a hotel are good ideas.

(B).  Initial study/journal/commentary.
  1. Open an empty Microsoft Word file, or start a blank page in your journal. 
  2. Start with a phrase/idea translation (I use NIV, but NLT or The Message will work).
  3. Verse-by-verse, read what it says and summarize the verse in your own words. Ask the verse Who/What/When/Where/Why/How, and if you can't answer one, highlight this--you will come back to it.
  4. Now pick a word-for-word translation (I use HCSB, but ESV or NET are also good).
  5. Verse-by-verse, read it in the new translation, adding additional comments, questions, or answers to the commentary you already began.
  6. Now pick a completely different type of translation that comes at the text at an odd angle (I use Complete Jewish Bible, but the Voice or Amplified are interesting choices as well).
  7. Again, repeat the verse-by-verse commentary update.
  8. Finally, read the passage on, clicking on "Tools" beside each verse and using the link to the Strong's Concordance to understand the meaning of each word in the passage. 
  9. Add these notes to your commentary.

(C).  Research.

At this point, you have a really good understanding of the text, and (even more importantly) a really good understanding of what you don't get about the text. All the highlighted questions which confused you are key areas to dive into deeply.

This deep research is best done through commentaries. We are lucky to live in a great time where the Internet provides instant access to the greatest thinkers of all time. 

I almost always use these three sources:
  • has detailed exegetical modern commentaries from great sources. 
  • Ryerson's Dictionary of Biblical Imagery; expensive but fantastic. I look up in the Scriptural cross-references and then read each article that is covered there.
  • has historical commentaries and I will search for the chapter/passage and see what comes up, reading things from Luther, Calvin, etc.

In addition, if you have specific questions you might have to research specific answers--how much was a denari worth, etc.; which, again, the Internet makes quite easy.

(D).  Outline.

Now that you have your own commentary of a passage,  you are ready to outline it in detail. This is where, I think, the key learnings finally come together.

Just like back in high school English, write a sentence or short paragraph describing the main idea of the passage. 

Then provide a one-paragraph description of its context. How does it fit within the Bible's meta-narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration? What does it have to do with Jesus? How would people from that time have viewed the passage?

Then provide a detailed outline of the entire passage.

It's a long process, I know....but if you do the above, then you truly understand a passage in great detail.

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