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Bible Study for Every Christian (Part 2): Observation

Tom Pennington • Selected Scriptures

  • 2011-07-03 PM
  • Bible Study for Every Christian
  • Sermons


Well, welcome back. We look forward to our study this evening of How to Study the Bible, Bible Study for Every Christian, and tonight is part two, and tonight and next Sunday night are really the heart of Bible study. They're the heart of the hard work, the research, that's required to understand really any ancient document, but certainly God's word. And so I hope you'll sort of put on your seat belt, now let me just say to begin with, there is no way you're going to be able to write as fast as I'm going to put things up there. But what we'll do is we'll put these slides, this information, on the website with the audio of it, so if you go and find the audio, next to it will be all this information. So don't feel like you've got to melt down your pen tip to get it all down this evening. You jot down the things that are most helpful, most important. Also, let me just say that it really is going to be nuts and bolts, all right? There's not going to be like a lot of just rich, deep, spiritual truth that will warm your soul. What I'm teaching you to do, however, is how to mine that for yourself. So I hope you'll pay attention and learn because out of this you will be able to get there. All right? So with that background, let's look again at Bible Study for Every Christian.

I may have mentioned this story to you before, but about a year ago I was starting to teach my daughters some of the basics of Bible study. But I wanted them to understand how many Christians abuse the Bible. So I landed on what I thought was a pretty creative idea of using a kind of parable with them, catching them off guard by surprise. So, one morning after breakfast, without telling them what I was going to do, I told them that I had been particularly encouraged that morning by an article that I had read in the Dallas Morning News, and so for our time in the Scripture that day they didn't need their Bibles. Instead, I would read an article from the newspaper and make some comments about what had really challenged me spiritually. I found an article on the front page of the Dallas Morning News, really at random, about an aging rock group appearing at the American Airlines Center, I think it was the Eagles if I remember correctly, and I began to read this article to my girls. And I would periodically pause and wax eloquent about rich and deep spiritual truth that was found in this article, lessons that had absolutely nothing to do with what the author of the article intended. For example, the article mentioned that the Eagles, I think it was, had worn suits for this concert. Why, I'm not sure, but I eagerly explained that there was a great spiritual lesson there, that we all ought to really dress up for our worship of God. That was imperative that we do this and I found a number of spiritual lessons from that article that were deep even.

Well, when I first started this, and I just kept at it and didn't let on what was going on, and when I first started I noticed that, you know, my daughters had this sort of quizzical look on their face like, well, that's interesting, never done that before, but after awhile they started looking confused and it wasn't too long until they started catching each others eye with this worried look like, what's wrong with Dad, you know. And they were becoming very uncomfortable and they had these really troubled looks after awhile like, you know, Dad's losing it, I don't know what's going on, but, so I stopped and I said, "What? What's bothering you so much?" And their response was something was something like this, "Dad, we don't think that's what that article means." Which was exactly, of course, what I wanted them to say and then I gave them the classic Christian response, "Well, that's what it means to me." At this point, with growing exasperation, one of my girls said, "Dad, you just can't do that." And, of course, I agree. And then I helped them to see that what I had just done to the newspaper is what many Christians do to God's eternal word. They take something that God said clearly and in context to communicate a particular truth and they pull it completely out of its context and make it say something God never intended to say, or, something He intended to say but elsewhere and not there. It's one thing to do it to the newspaper, it's another thing to do it to the eternal God.

There are so many examples, I am sure you've heard them. You've sat in services and you've heard messages, maybe on the radio, maybe in person, where the word of God was abused. So many come to my mind. The classic example that just cannot be overcome is the country preacher I heard who took that text from Matthew's gospel where Jesus is talking about the end times and He's talking about when the hardships come on the Jews. He says, "Let him on the housetop come not down," is what the King James says. "Let him on the housetop come not down." Well, this country preacher paused right there and he said, "top come not down," and he preached, and I am not making this up, an entire message on women keeping their hair up on their heads rather than letting it down their backs. "Top come not down." Now, that's silly, it's ridiculous. A lot of the examples are not so apparently ridiculous, but they are equally ridiculous when you look at what God was really saying.

We do not give the Bible meaning. The question is not what does it means to me. It means something whether we get it or not. It means what the original authors, both the human author and the Spirit, intended to mean. That's why studying the Bible is so important. Because if you don't study the Bible it's very easy to read what you think it means into a passage and suddenly you and I have become guilty of making God say what He didn't say. So, that's why you're here, I know, because you believe that.

We're looking at the process then, of how do you go about this, really the process of inductive Bible study. It includes several steps. I have divided it, and it can be divided several different ways, but I have divided it into six distinct steps that we're going to work our way through this summer, and the first is preparation. We talked about that last week. I'll review that briefly in a moment, preparing yourself. Then comes observation, observing the details of the text. After you've done the hard work of observation comes meditation. You think deeply. You choose to think deeply about the passage in order to do two things, to better understand it and to plan how to do it. That's meditation. I want to understand what it means based on the study I've done so far and I want to know what I am supposed to do with it.

The fourth step is interpretation. This is using proven principles to arrive at the timeless meaning of the passage based on your study and your meditation, based on your observation and meditation. You come to what does the text really mean in all generations and to me as well. Then comes evaluation. This is where you test your interpretation against the insight and expertise of others. You do so using tools like study Bibles and commentaries. And then you refine your own interpretation based on your evaluation, based on what you discovered. As I said last time, you don't want to be sort of hanging out there all alone, you're the only one who's come up with that view of the passage. And the last step is application, how does it apply? What did the original author intend his original audience to do with this and what in turn then am I suppose to do with this. How am I supposed to respond? So that's the process of inductive Bible study.

Last time, we started with preparation and, very briefly, I'll just remind you that we looked at the arguments for Bible study, and there were several of them. If you are still unconvinced, if this is your first night here and you're unconvinced of what I am about to share with you, that you need to do it, go back and listen to last Sunday night because we went through the biblical arguments for Bible study. We looked at the goals for Bible study, what you are trying to accomplish? And then we looked at the prerequisites, and this is where I want to just remind you specifically of what we looked at because this is really the heart of preparation.

How do you prepare yourself to study God's Word? Well, first of all you have to be a Christian. That's a bottom line requirement because So it doesn't happen. You can understand it at a surface level but in a life-changing, penetrating way, you can't. You have to confess your sin. You have to deal with your sin. Why, because you need the help of the Spirit to understand the Word of God. And if your sin is unconfessed you're grieving, quenching the work of the Spirit in your life. Then you need to pray. You need to pray for illumination. This is so important, underscore this, underline it. You have to come to God. Every time we come to God, we come as beggars. Do you understand that? When you enter the Christian life, you come as a beggar. When you come to study the Bible, you come as a beggar. Lord, I am ignorant and in need of a teacher. Help me to understand, or as the psalmist said, "Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from Your law." As Paul prayed for the Ephesians, "Open the eyes of our hearts that we understand what you've said, what you've revealed." Absolutely crucial to this process.

Have a good, literal translation of the Bible. I showed you the range of translations and paraphrases. There are translations that have a philosophy of a word for word equivalency as much as possible. That's what you want to use to study the Bible. The two that are most familiar to us that fit in that category are the New American Standard or the NAU, the New American Update, which was done in 95 which takes out the thee's and thou's and so forth, which I personally prefer. And the other is the ESV, the English Standard Version. Both, good, literal translations. They attempt, wherever possible, to be word for word. The NAS is a little more literal than the ESV, but both are good translations. On the other end, in the middle of the spectrum, I should say, is the NIV. That is not as literal; a lot more liberties are taken with interpretation.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have paraphrases where it's essentially that author's commentary on what he thinks the Scripture means. That's J.B. Phillips, who is a liberal, but did a good paraphrase of the New Testament. You have The Living Translation; The Living Bible would also fall at that end of the spectrum. By the way, somebody asked me last week about The Message by Eugene Peterson. I would put that at the far right. That would be almost past paraphrase. It's done so colloquially that it's certainly not an effort to be true to the text of the Scripture. So use those paraphrases carefully. You want a good literal translation. And then you have to work hard. Bible Study doesn't happen by osmosis. It doesn't happen without energy poured out. You have to work hard. That's why Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15, "Be diligent to show yourself a workman approved to God." "Cutting the word of truth straight." So, that's preparation.

Now the rest of the six steps, the other five have to do, not with us, this has to do primarily with us in getting ready, the rest of the steps have to do with the text, the text we're studying. Tonight we come to the second step in the process and because this is the heart of it I am going to spend tonight and next Sunday night developing this step, observation. This is what theologians call exegesis. What is exegesis? It's just a fancy word that means carefully reading, carefully thinking through, carefully analyzing with all the tools that you have, to understand the details of the text so that you can arrive at it's meaning. That's Exegesis, that's what we're trying to do.

Now the goal of this observation step is to discover what did the original author intend to say. It answers the question, what does this passage really say? This is so important because this has not always been the approach people take. It's not the approach everybody takes today. One of the most popular approaches in biblical history, in church history, has been the allegorical method. Many ancient sermons and interpretations are allegorical. They see in every passage four or more levels of meaning. For example, every reference, and I am not making this up, they would say every reference to the city of Jerusalem has four levels of meaning. So every time you come across the word Jerusalem in the text it means the literal, historical city of Jerusalem that sits over in the Middle East. Allegorically it's referring to the church. Morally it's referring to the human soul. So the city of Jerusalem is like representative of your soul. And eschatologically it refers to the heavenly Jerusalem yet to come. Every time you see the word Jerusalem you've got to interpret it at all those levels. It means something in each of those levels. That is a horrible way to approach the Scripture.

With the Reformation a new day dawned, not only for the doctrine of salvation, but for the priority and treatment of the Word of God. Luther absolutely rejected Origen, who was one of the early church fathers who began this approach and it sort of continued to roll from there. He rejected this method. I love what he says. Listen, this is so typically Luther. "Origen's allegories are not worth so much dirt." Okay, tell us what you think, Martin. He says, "For allegories are empty speculations, the scum of Holy Scripture. Allegories are awkward, absurd, invented, obsolete loose rags. Allegory is a sort of a beautiful harlot who proves herself especially seductive to idle men." In other words, it's easy, but it's not the meaning of the Scripture.

Luther believed instead that a proper interpretation had to come from a literal understanding of the text. You looked at things like the history, the grammar, the context. In fact, I love this, Luther says, "The Holy Spirit is the all-simplest writer that is in heaven or earth; therefore his words can have no other than one simplest sense, which we call the scriptural or literal meaning." Forget the allegory stuff. It has one meaning and it is a straightforward reading of the text in its grammar and its historical context. Calvin also placed the same emphasis. One of his famous sentences says this, "it is the first business of an interpreter to let the author say what he does say instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say." How many times have you read a text and wanted it to say something that it didn't say? And perhaps even shared the blessing that that had been with others. That's not our job as Bible students. Our first business is to let the author say what he says and not to make him say what we want.

So, how do you approach this process? Well, you do so systematically. Again, one other Luther quote. I love this. Here's how you approach it. "First," he says, "I shake the whole tree that the ripest fruit may fall. Then I climb the tree and I shake each limb, and then each branch and then each twig, and then I look under each leaf." That's Bible study; that's how we approach the process of understanding the Scripture and it happens through observation.

Now, what are you looking for in the observation stage, or to put it another way, what are you trying to observe? Well, we follow an approach to Scripture that theologians call the grammatical historical approach. The author's original meaning is what we're after. So, that meaning can only be discerned by understanding certain things. We observe, first of all, the context. We observe the context. And I use that word in two senses, first of all, the historical context. In observation we're looking at the historical context and by that I mean the setting of the book in human history. For example, how can you accurately interpret a statement from history unless you know its historical context? My favorite example of that is, you remember President Bush ended his speech after 9/11 with the words, "Let's roll!" Now, if you had not lived through 9/11 and all that happened in that time period, or you had not studied it, you would not know the specific context of that expression. But to really appreciate what he was saying at the end of that speech to motivate Americans to get busy in fighting terrorism you had to understand those were the last words of those who rushed the cockpit on that flight that went down in Pennsylvania. It was heard over their cell phone by their loved ones as they ran to the cockpit to try take control of the plane and keep another tragedy from happening.

So understanding the historical context gives you a richness of meaning that not understanding it really doesn't. That's true with the Bible as well. You didn't live through the times that these books were written. And so to really appreciate what's being said you have to know something about the setting in which they were said. For example, how do you really interpret 1 Peter accurately if you don't understand that it was written during the rising tide of Roman persecution that was caused by Nero's blaming the Christian for the burning of Rome? When you understand that he is writing to Christians scattered across the Roman Empire and they're seeing the heat turned up, literally and figuratively, boy it gives rich meanings to his words. But if you don't understand that, the words look flat on the page. So you want to know the historical context.

You also want to know the biblical context. That is, what relationship does this paragraph that I'm looking at have to the surrounding passages on each side of it, to the rest of the book in which it occurs, and ultimately to the rest of the entire message of the Scripture. What's its biblical context? How is it connected? How does it fit into the flow of the author's thought? Very important. Once again, I'll give you an illustration from my teaching my daughters this. When I was teaching them this principle I grabbed one of the books that one of them was reading at the time, Nancy Drew, which you know is like potato chip reading, but we all enjoy potato chips so they can do that, and I took a paragraph out of the context of the chapter and a paragraph out of the context of the book's theme, and I made it mean again what I wanted it to mean. You say you can't do that. That paragraph is in a chapter that is trying to communicate something. And that chapter is in a book that's making a larger point. Exactly, and that's how it is every time you study the Scripture. You cannot wrench a paragraph out of its context. You have to understand its relationship to what surrounds it. So you are looking at context.

You're also looking at content. And this we'll talk about next week. You're looking at syntax, the relationship of phrases and clauses to one another. That's how meaning is communicated. And don't be scared off by that word; I'll explain it and we'll deal with it next week. And then you're looking at words, the exact sense of the words that the author intended in that particular passage. But this is what you're looking for in the observation stage. Spurgeon, quoting a writer that he had read, writes this, "Most people read their Bibles like cows that stand in thick grass and trample under their feet the finest flowers and herbs." In other words, they pay no attention to the intricacies, the delicacies, the beauty, the details, and instead they just go tromping off through the grass and destroy all of the things that are beautiful. Don't hurry this step and miss the beauty and richness and depth of God's word.

Now, to accomplish the steps under observation, I'm going to recommend a couple of resources to you. Don't be scared off by these. If you get them you get them, if you don't you don't. And I'm not going to spend a lot of time here because you will have this information, as I said, available to you. But let me just mention some tools in addition to a good literal translation that will be helpful in the process of observation. First of all, a study Bible, at least one, maybe a couple, this will provide you a lot of information about the entire Bible in one place, one book. Let me just encourage you to resist the urge to look at it until you've done what we're talking about in the process, but there will be a time for using it. If I were recommending study Bibles to you I would recommend The MacArthur Study Bible, which I think is one of the best on the market, The NIV Study Bible, which is very good, and The ESV Study Bible. All are good study Bibles. There are elements of each one that you just need to be aware of, but they're good study Bibles and helpful for you to have. I have all three of them and use them regularly.

A second tool that would be helpful is a concordance. A concordance simply lists all the references in the entire Bible for every English word. And beside each of those biblical occurrences is a number. That number in most places now is keyed to the Greek and Hebrew dictionary so without knowing Greek and Hebrew you can just follow the number, go look in the back, and know what the Greek or Hebrew word is. The beauty of this is you can trace how those Greek and Hebrew words are used in English. You can understand them in their context. Very helpful resource, either a book or computer software but somehow you need access to a concordance. Strong's, of course, is the classic key to the King James. There's the New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible and there's the Strong's NASB Exhaustive Concordance by Zondervan. Those are all good concordances.

A third tool that you really need is a Bible dictionary. And all you need this for is to look up the proper nouns. You don't know, as I don't, without looking, all of the people, places, and things in the Bible. Some of them you know, Abram, but what about Epaphroditus? What about the Tabernacle, what's that all about? What is the Altar of Incense? What are the feasts of Israel? What's the Passover? And on and on the list goes. You need a Bible dictionary to help you sort through that. A one volume Bible dictionary is by Merrill Unger, The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, very helpful. If you want to get really serious there are a couple of four volume sets, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia and the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, but for most of you, you don't want to go there, just stick with the first one.

One other tool, I think it's just one other tool I'll mention, is a topical Bible. This basically allows you to read in one place what the Bible has to say about particular topics, so you look up love, for example, and it will have a list of most of what the Bible says about love, or at least in large sweeping categories, hate, grace, God's eternality, etc. Two helpful topical Bibles are Nave's Topical Bible, it's sort of the old classic, but I really prefer the MacArthur Topical Bible, it's actually expanded from what's called Torrey's Topical Textbook, if you're familiar with either of those, but those are very helpful. If you prefer computers, you can buy most of these books on your Kindle or you can purchase a Bible software like Logos which is sort of very common Bible software people use. But you say, look, I don't really have the resources to buy all those books or to buy a lot of computer software. If that's true of you a great place to start is with free Bible software. Just go to and there you can download free Bible software. It has some great resources, some classic works, and you can get a great start just by having that program.

Now, with those resources available to you, let's get started on the process of observation. Step number one, always remember the big picture. You have to start, when you are studying any individual passage, with the big picture still in your mind. Let me take several minutes and just run you through the big picture so you have it in mind. When you look at the Bible, here are the things you need to know. First of all, the Bible's history, it was written over 1500 years from the time of Moses, 1445, to the time of John the Apostle, 95 A.D., over some 1500 years. It was written by over 40 different authors. There are 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament, 27 in the New Testament. The process for the Bible is pretty simple. God commanded people, men, to write His words. Those are called the original autographs. We don't have any of the original autographs today. Instead, copies of those originals, and then copies of those copies and copies of the copies of the copies, you get the idea, were meticulously made.

Today we have more than 25,000 manuscript copies of the Bible that exist, either partial pieces of the Bible or entire versions of the Bible, manuscripts of the Bible. The Bible is authentic. A lot of people question it, but historically, the Bible's information is absolutely validated. We have more manuscript copies of the Bible than any other ancient book. I mentioned we have 25,000 manuscripts of the New Testament. The second greatest ancient document is Homer's Iliad of which we have 643 manuscripts. So when people say, "Well, I just don't believe that's what Jesus said." Why don't they say, "Well, I just don't believe Homer wrote that." It's because there's a bias.

We also have manuscripts that date closer to the events they describe than any other ancient document. Again, what is the time gap between the events described and the earliest manuscripts we have today? The Iliad, 400 years, 400 years between the events and the earliest manuscript we have today and that isn't bad for an ancient document. But the New Testament, we have a fragment that dates some 30 years after John the Apostle died, a 100 years we have books of the New Testament, and 150 years we have most of the New Testament. So don't let anybody tell you, "Well, we just don't know, we just don't know if that's what Jesus said." The Bible stands on its own so when you come to study the Bible you can have this confidence. Theologically, of course we're confident of the Bible's authenticity because Jesus affirmed it. Jesus himself affirmed the Old Testament to be God's word. He affirmed His words to be God's words and He preaffirmed the New Testament by choosing the eleven apostles plus Paul to write it, and He validated all that by rising from the dead.

Don't forget, when you look at the study of the Bible, the theme of the Bible, what is the over arching theme of all the Scripture? It is God is redeeming a people by His Son, for His Son, as a love gift to Him, to His own glory. That is the theme of the Bible. Don't every lose sight of that. The Bible is not about Joseph. It's not about Abraham. It's not about Paul. The Bible is about God, God redeeming a people by His Son, for His Son, to His own glory. So as you study don't lose sight of the big picture. That's why the Bible was written.

What about the purpose of the Testaments then to develop that theme? The Old Testament basically says, "He's coming! He's coming! He's coming," the one who's going to bring that redemption, and explains why it is He needs to come. The New Testament, the gospels say, "He came!" Acts and the Epistles say, "This is what it meant; this is what He taught." And Revelation says, "And He is coming again." So when you look at the over-arching flow of the Scripture, understand the big picture; don't get lost in the forest for all the trees. So, when you come to your Bible study, start by reminding yourself of the big picture, this is where we're going, this is how this paragraph fits.

Now, the second part of the process is, choose a biblical book to study. I would encourage you not to choose a paragraph here or there, but rather to study the Bible as it was written. When the church in Ephesus received Paul's letter they didn't receive one paragraph, they received the letter. When the prophet prophesied, he prophesied an entire book. And so when you approach the Bible approach it in that context. That doesn't mean you have to study every paragraph in that book, but I would encourage you to study the flow of the book. And I would encourage you to, as a rule, study every paragraph as you work your way through a biblical book. So choose a biblical book.

If you've never really studied through a book of the Bible before I would encourage you to select based on three basic criteria. Here's how you ought to choose. First of all, choose a book that you think is going to be appropriate for you in your circumstance. For example, don't choose the Pastoral Epistles unless you are a pastor. Now there's great material in the Pastoral Epistles in 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. But those were written to whom? Elders, Pastors. And so pick a book then that you think is going to be especially appropriate to you and your life circumstance and situation. I do that when I am choosing books to preach here. I try to choose books that I think are important in the life and flow of this church.

A second criteria for choosing a biblical book is choose a short, manageable book. If you've never studied before, don't start with Isaiah. Don't start with Leviticus. Don't even start with one of the longer gospels because you're going to find that it's work to study. And so start with a small, manageable book. I would also encourage you to choose a New Testament book, not to say the Old Testament isn't profitable, in fact, it's very likely that when I finish Mark on Sunday night we'll study an Old Testament book. But as the Puritans used to say, "The new is in the old concealed, and the old is in the new revealed." The fullest explanation of God's purpose and plan comes in the revelation, the complete and full revelation, that comes in the life and ministry of Christ and His apostles. And so I would encourage you to start there. Choose a book you think's going to be helpful, choose a short, manageable book, and choose a New Testament book that you're going to study.

Third step in the process, read up on the book's background. This is really what you should do with any book. I don't know if you've ever read a book by Mortimer Adler. Mortimer Adler was the editor, I think he was the chief editor, for the Encyclopedia Britannica and he wrote a book called How to Read A Book. It's a great book if you've never read it. It's a secular book, it has nothing to do with the Bible, but it has a great concept for how to approach any book. And one of the ways you start is by understanding the setting in which that book was written.

And this is true of studying the Bible as well. How do you do this? Read through, this is where that study Bible I told you to get comes in, read through the introductory notes in a good study Bible or in a couple of study Bibles. You know, there's, at the beginning of the book, before the book actually begins, there's introductory material that's helping you understand the context in which that book was written. For example, in The MacArthur Study Bible, the introduction to each biblical book includes sections entitled: the Title, why is it called that, Author and Date, Background and Setting, Historical and Theological Themes, Interpretive Challenges, what are you going to face in the book that's hard, and then an Outline of the book. Read that, come to grips with that, maybe read that in a couple of study Bibles if you have them. Get a feel for what's going on behind the scenes with this book. Now, once you've read that in your study Bible. Tuck your study Bible away. I don't want you sort of cheating as it were and reading the notes because you're not mining the riches then as you can.

Fourth step, read through the book multiple times. Once you've gotten a feel for the background, read through the books multiple times. You say, how many times? Well that's really up to you, but I would say this, if you're really going to understand the book, no less than five times. If going to you're really study it, before you study it, read through it no less than five times. Now, I am taking it easy on you because John MacArthur, in his book on How to Study the Bible, says you ought to read it 30 times before you study it. And that's commendable and helpful. So, somewhere between five times and 30 times, all right? I'll leave it up to your conscience. Now you say, well what about like a big book? I mean is he really saying, or are you really saying you do that with, like, the gospel of Matthew? Yes. I would say that, but you break it down into chunks. You read, lets say you're doing the gospel of Matthew, there are 28 chapters, you break it up maybe into 9 chapters plus one, or you handle it someway to divide up the text so that it works for you in manageable portions, but read through it.

Now, when you read it, read it with a first time attitude, read it as if you've never read it before and try to do that each time. Read quickly but read with a first time attitude and I would encourage you to do it in different versions. Start out with the literal versions. Read it through in the NAS and the ESV, and then read it in the NIV or some other version. Just remember, the further away you get from literal the more they're making decisions about what it means and the less you're getting what the text actually says. So just beware of that. I even will read it through in a paraphrase. Just when you use a paraphrase, remind yourself this is somebody's idea of what it means, this isn't what the Greek or Hebrew text actually said. But it can be very helpful to get you that fresh perspective as you read it. You're trying to get the content of the book in your mind, the flow of the author's thought, and so you read through it multiple times.

Number five, once you've read it through multiple times, the fifth step in this process of observation is identify the paragraphs in prose, that is everything but poetry, or the sections in poetry. You want to identify where are the paragraph breaks. Now let me just show you how to recognize this. I am going to use the NAS since that's what I have. But turn to Isaiah. Look at Isaiah 6. If you look at Isaiah 6:8-13, you will see a lot of white space around those verses. Do you see that? Do you see how they're set off, where it comes back to the left-hand margin, and it's set off in your biblical text? Whenever you come to text handled that way in the Bible it's poetry. Now compare that to beginning chapter 7 verse 1. You see how prose looks in your Bible? That's prose, that's not poetry, beginning in Isaiah 7:1.

You say, well how did they know what was the difference between Hebrew poetry and Hebrew prose, because there's no rhyming in Hebrew? It's not like, you know, our little poems of, you know, violets are, how does it go? Roses are red, violets are blue, your feet are too big and boy they smell too. It's not like that in Hebrew, instead it's rhythm, there's a pattern, a parallelism, that happens in the text and when you look at Hebrew you can see that parallelism unfold, and it is different than prose. And so our translators have picked up on that and they're illustrating it for you. So you need to handle poetry different than prose, all right? So that's how you recognize it. Look at the difference between the end of Isaiah 6, the beginning of Isaiah 7. The end of Isaiah 6 is poetry. That's how your Bible handles poetry. The beginning of Isaiah 7 is prose; it's not poetry, all right? So, you want to identify then in prose, paragraphs, and in poetry, sections.

Now stay there a moment. Understand that because writing materials were so costly in the ancient world, the manuscripts in the Scripture, they were normally written on animal skin, velum, or on papyrus, which is reeds from the side of rivers that have been cut into thin pieces and laid on top of each other and pressed between rocks. That's how they got their writing materials and they were very expensive and so you didn't just use them carelessly. Because of the costs of writing materials the manuscripts of Scripture are often just run-on sentences, if you will. There's no break in the manuscripts. They just keep running. And in fact, the chapter and verse divisions in our Bible were added to the Bible no more than a thousand years ago in the Hebrew Bible and the first English Bible to have chapter and verse divisions was the Geneva Bible published by, out of Geneva, by John Calvin which I have a copy of in my office. That was the first English chapter and verse breakdown.

So remember that the chapter, or excuse me, the paragraph breaks are not inspired, but what you have in a good Bible, like the NAS or the ESV, is the translators have made educated, informed suggestions about where the paragraph breaks are. How do you recognize them? What tools do we have to identify paragraphs and sections? Well in prose, it depends on the kind of Bible you have. Look at the beginning of Isaiah 7. It's done one of two ways, either all of the verses start on the left-hand margin or it puts it like a paragraph and the verses are hidden, the verse reference numbers, are hidden in the paragraph. Okay, do you see that? If it's done as a paragraph, that's how the translators of your Bible are showing you the paragraphs. So when that ends and a new paragraph begins it'll be obvious in your text. If your Bible instead has all the numbers out to the left-hand margin, which mine does, then they've bolded the number that indicates where they think a new paragraph begins. So some of the numbers you'll notice, some of the verse numbers, are plain and some of them are bolded if all of your references go out to the left-hand margin. I wanted to show you this on the screen but I couldn't find a way to do that easily so I apologize, but I hope you're getting the point.

Basically, you're looking for that paragraph breakdown. You want to know where the paragraphs begin and end. Why, why is that important? Because a paragraph is the smallest unit of thought. It has a unified idea, so when you come to study you're going to study what? A paragraph. You're going to study a single unit of thought and that's determined by a paragraph. So in prose you're looking in your Bible to see where does the paragraph begin and where does it end. The translators have given you helps to identify that but those are not inspired. You may make different decisions from time to time.

The same thing with poetry, look at Isaiah 6. You'll notice that there are different ways to illustrate where poetry begins and ends. To show sectional breaks, for example, the ESV puts an extra return, or white space, after sections of poetry. The NAS shows the breaks in poetry by making the verse number of a new section bold. So you just have to see how your Bible handles it, but they're trying to give you those clues. So you see how your particular version of the Bible handles that. By using these very basic tools you'll have a pretty good idea of where the paragraph breaks in prose occur and where the section breaks in poetry occur. And again, the reason that's so important, because the principle feature of a paragraph or section of poetry is a unifying theme. That paragraph or that section of poetry is developing one idea. So, it's the most natural way then to break your study down. Now, you've identified the paragraph or the section of poetry. Now you're ready to study that one paragraph or section.

Where do you begin in studying it? I'm assuming, by the way, you've at least read the entire book five times and you've read the section five times in the flow of it. Now you're going to go back through it, but this time you're going to have a pen or pencil, a piece of paper, and a good English dictionary in your hand. And this is what you're going to do, you're going to look at that paragraph or that section that you're studying and you're going to do two things: you're going to make observations and you're going to ask questions. You're going to examine it carefully. You going to make observations of that paragraph and you're going to ask questions. I love the example my father-in-law used to give, who taught theology for 50 years but is now with the Lord. He said he gave his theology students a project one day. He said, "All right, here's what I want you to do. I want you to read two verses in the English text, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10." In fact, look at those verses, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10

For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.

He said, "All right, I want you to take those two verses and I want you to write a list of 25 factual observations that somebody can draw from those two verses." And, of course, typically, seminary students, or in this case college students, there were groans, you know. But they did it. They went back to their rooms and they followed this assignment. The next day they came in with their 25 observations on those two verses. And he said, "All right, here's your next assignment. I want you to find 25 more points on those two verses. Twenty-five more observations that you can make from those two verses." This time there are screams of agony, you know, but they went back, and they did it. The next day, you guessed it; he gave them a third assignment. He said, "I want you to find twenty-five more." Then in class, they added together all of their distinct observations that were possible of these two verses and they tallied almost 175 different thoughts that they agreed could be legitimately drawn from observing these two verses. This is what you're setting out to do. Not necessarily 175 from every passage but to make observations and to ask questions of the text.

I would encourage you at this step to keep a written log. If you're studying just one paragraph, have a separate sheet for each verse. This is what I do even when I am studying to preach here, on a piece of legal pad I'll have a sheet for each verse, and I'm going to write down my observations, my questions of that text that then I hope to answer as I study. So, for each verse then, as you're making these observations and asking questions, first of all you want to ask questions of the text as if you had no idea what the text teaches. What is happening in this passage? Gordon Fee writes, "The key to good exegesis is the ability to ask the right questions of the text in order to get at the author's intended meaning. Good exegetical questions are questions of content, what is said, or of context, why is it said?"

Let me simplify that. Here are the questions you want to ask. The 5 W's and How: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The 5 W's and How, that's what you want to ask of the text. You say, what do you mean by that? Well let me give you examples. Here are the key questions. When it comes to Who, you want to ask questions of that passage like this: Who wrote it? Who said it? Who's the main character? Who are the other characters? Who is in this account? To whom is it written? About whom is it written? Those are the kind of Who questions you want to be asking of that text as you read. The What questions, here again just examples, these are not all of them, these are examples and these will be posted again on the on the site so you can kind of get these ideas. What are the major ideas in this passage I'm studying? What's the main theme? What are the main events that are happening? What are the important lessons that are being taught? So you're asking What questions.

You're also asking Where questions. Where did it happen? Where will it happen in the future, if it's talking about the future? Where was it said? Where is the author when he writes this? Where are the people getting this? When. When did this happen? When was it written? Then you want to ask Why questions. Why is this important? Why did he include that detail? What does that have to do with anything? Why is so much written about this event or this teaching? Why should we do what's commanded? Does he give us a motive, a motivation? So you're asking the Why questions. And then lastly you're asking How questions. How can this be done? How should it be done? How is the truth illustrated in this passage? So, those are just examples of the kinds of questions you're asking as you look at that passage. And I would write them down. I would write those questions. I did this when I was first beginning. I skip the step of writing it down now, but these questions are constantly going through my mind. You're asking questions of the text and you're letting the text then answer.

The second part of this, you're not only asking questions of the text but you're also making personal observations about what seems to be going on in that text. What do I see in this passage? Look for key words. Well it seems to me as I look at this passage a key word is justification. It's repeated several times. As I look at this passage this is about eternity, it mentions eternity a number of times. You're looking for key words, key topics that come up again and again in that paragraph, key people, commands, are there commands in that passage to do something, to think something? You're looking for repetition, repeated words, repeated concepts, repeated phrases. You're observing those kinds of things. You are carefully analyzing the text.

Now let me give you an example of what this looks like. Turn over to Ephesians chapter 2. This is, as you know, one of my favorite passages, Ephesians 2:1-10. For the sake of giving an example I'm just going to choose one verse because we can't do this through all ten verses of Ephesians 2:1-10. So let's just pick one verse. This verse is familiar in my mind because I just recently finished, actually, an article on it, and so look at verse 7. If you were studying this passage and you came to verse 7 here are some of the questions and observations you might make. First of all, you'd observe, that it's not a stand alone sentence, it's connected to the rest of the text, "so that." You would observe that "so that" is usually used to communicate, what? Purpose. Do something, "so that," something will be accomplished. "In the ages to come." What does Paul mean by "ages"? Can we discern what different "ages" he's talking about? "He," who's "He"? Who's the "He" in this passage? That "He might show," "might show" what? "Might show" what to whom? Who is this display for? Why does he say, what is grace?, but why does he not just say "grace"? Why does he say, "riches of His grace?" And why does he say, "surpassing riches of His grace?" And what is "kindness" and how will God show "kindness toward us?" And why does he end the verse with that little phrase, "in Christ Jesus?" What relationship does that have to the rest of the verse? Now those are just a few of the questions and observations that you might make. Again, those are very limited. If I were looking at this text and studying it in detail there would be far more that would grow out of my observation of this text. I just want you to see there's a whole lot there that you can discover. That if you're just reading through you think what? Oh, I know what that means. No you don't. Okay? It takes study to understand Scripture.

There's a story of a student of a famous naturalist. The student came to this famous doctor, famous naturalist and said he wanted to study with him, he wanted to be his pupil, thinking he was going to get some great research assignment, some great opportunity to shine. The professor walked over to a jar and walked over to him and pulled out of that jar a fish, a dead preserved fish. A Haemulon, it was called, a particular kind of fish. And he said, "All right, you going to study with me? Here's what I want you to do. I want you to study that fish." And he walked out of the office. So there's the guy with this dead fish in front of him and, you know, he looked at the fish and it's a fish, I mean, what is there to know? This went on for 30 minutes, went on for an hour, hour and a half, and he's made a couple of observations. The professor comes back and asks him what he's learned and says, "Listen, if you're going to study with me you've got to do far more then that." And he left him again. Came back at lunchtime, he's still looking at his fish. By the way, the rule was he couldn't use anything but his eyes and a pencil and paper. The professor finds out what he's learned at lunchtime and says, "Not enough." Goes away. This happens, and I'm not making this us, four days. True story. Four days with the fish. At the end of those four days he had come to understand everything that could be humanly observed about that fish. And he writes, this particular man who later became a renowned scientist on his own, he writes, "That that was the most profound lesson he ever learned." It's working hard at observation.

Now what I've gone through tonight and what we'll go through next Sunday night is out of sync with our culture. Do you understand this? We live in an instant, fast food, microwave world. So when we come to our study of the Scripture, what do we want? We want a gourmet meal! We want to eat! We want to enjoy the richness of God's word! But we're only willing to invest the time and effort to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And I mean that seriously. That's what most Christians want. They want the gourmet meal. They want the richness of God's word. They just don't want to do the work to get there. Listen, through the centuries, this is how Christians have gotten there. It requires careful thought, analysis, and work.

Next time we'll look at a couple more absolutely crucial tasks. What I think is in many ways the most important part of the process, Lord willing, next Sunday night. I would encourage you to do this. Can I leave you with one challenge? This week, right now, determine before the Lord, that you're going to get started doing something we've talked about tonight. You're going to get moving in the right direction to understand the Scripture. Okay, will you do that? Will you challenge yourself to do that? You know you need to study, that's why you're here. This is how you study. Now you've just got to determine, I'm going to take the next step. May God give you the grace to do it.

Let's pray together. Father, thank You for Your Word, thank You for the rich feast that is there for our souls. Forgive us, forgive us, O God, for being lazy, for being caught up with lesser things. Lord, for providing our bodies the richest of foods but giving our souls the leftovers. Father, I pray that You would help us be diligent students. May it never be rightly said of us what our Lord so often asked of the Pharisees and others. "Don't you understand?" "Haven't you read?" Father, I pray that You would make us students who honor our Lord by how we handle His Word. Give us the grace and resolve to take the next steps even this week. We pray in Jesus's name, amen.

Bible Study for Every Christian