[NOTE: This is the 5th post in a series of entries intending to help readers learn how to study their Bible.]
Preparation. Observation. The first two steps of good study. In the former, we invite the Holy Spirit's leading. In the latter, we stop to see. This process is known as the "inductive Bible Study" method [from "induce" = "to produce" or "flow out"]. Instead of bringing our preformed opinions to a text, we work hard to let the meaning of the text flow out to us.
The next step is "interpretation." Interpretation seeks to answer the question "What does it mean?" All of us are natural interpreters. We are ever analyzing and making sense of colors, shapes, textures, messages and events around us. In fact, we're forced to rapidly "draw conclusions" every moment. But, interpretation, as a Bible Study discipline, requires taking ourselves out of the mix and using good tools to better understand the meaning of a text.
Once I have made my observation "list," I began to move back through the list and find definitions, answer questions or understand connections. There are a variety of resources that a Bible student can use to help:
* Lexicon: Defines Greek and Hebrew words. You may think this is too "heady," but wouldn't you like to know that "joy" [James 1:2] means more than just a feeling of happiness? Joy is an inner confident contentment. I can't get that meaning simply by reading the word.
* Bible Dictionary: A lexicon provides the meaning of words while a dictionary provides the meaning of words, phrases, people and events. My lexicon helps me to understand that the word "train" in 1 Timothy 4:7 is the Greek word gymnaze which means "to exercise naked." When I look up "training" in my dictionary, I may get the broader understanding of how people trained, the influence of the Greek games on Paul's thinking and other words associated with the word I'm studying. In my dictionary, I can also look up places, people and events.
* Atlas: Once you begin studying your Bible, you'll appreciate the color maps in the back. A larger, more complete Bible atlas will become beneficial. For example, when Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the trip covered approximately 100 miles--not a short jaunt for an expectant mother!
* Other translations: Reading the text in another translation can often shed light on the meaning of a text. Remember that our present translations are not translations-of-translations. That is, the editors didn't simply translate from the most recent edition. All reputable translations have been crafted from a study of original texts.
* Commentary: It is tempting to read commentaries first. But, scouring a text, learning definitions and putting pieces together first allows the Holy Spirit to work in us before we hear from human authors. There is a time, however, when it is good to read the research of studied writers.
As I interpret a text, there is a mental list that I follow to help me discover the meaning. I seek the answers to these questions:
1. What is/are the key word(s) and what do they mean? [Usually, this is a word that repeats or a major theological word that is set apart]
2. What are the connections? [cause and effect; if/then conditions; statement and reason; chronological comments]
3. What is the context? [I pay particular attention to the preceding and following verses to get the larger meaning]
4. What is the tone? [forceful, warning, persuasive, defensive, compassionate, etc.?]
5. What are the commands or questions?
6. What cross-references support this passage? [use the center column cross-reference tools to help you]
Once you have done the heavy lifting of this study, there is one more interpretive discipline you can exercise to help arrive at the meaning of the text. I'll write about this in my next post.