2 Timothy 2:15
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (1 Timothy 2:15)
The first and fundamental task of Bible study is to determine what the Bible author meant and what that means today. To put it another way, the two-fold task of the interpreter is to determine (1) the meaning the author intended to communicate and (2) the response God desires. The two are intimately related. What the text says to God’s people today must be based on and flow directly from what it said to God’s people originally or the sermon is no longer an authoritative word from God. So your task is to understand and apply the biblical text authentically.
The problem is that many of us seem not to handle the text well. Paul says that is shameful. We are to study diligently in order to stand before God unashamed because we have handled his Word rightly (1 Timothy 2:15). Yet, listening to some Sunday morning sermons, one begins to wonder if he has been watching a smoke and mirrors trick in which Bible words are used as a masquerade for the preacher’s inherited tradition, current fad, or personal predisposition. Good and uplifting, perhaps, but did the original author really intend to communicate that? And if it is not demonstrable that he did, can I be sure God expects me to respond the way the preacher says I should?
How can you miss the intent of the biblical author? Perhaps one’s Bible study tools have grown rusty through neglect. The rigorous pursuit of the author’s intended meaning has been by-passed to get on with the urgent task of telling others exactly what you have been burdened about of late. Whatever the cause of the deficiency, the result is that we who should be learning how to understand and apply Scripture authentically have, instead, a model of handling Scripture that will be impossible to follow or that might prove disastrous if they did.
The twofold task of Bible study derives from the nature of the Book. It was authored by human beings so the first task is to use the basic tools of understanding human communication to get at the meaning intended by the author. The Bible is more than human in origin, however. It was inspired by God and thus is God’s Word, so the second task is to derive from the meaning of the text what response God desires from his people today.
How glorious a responsibility! We live, not by physical nourishment alone, but by the words God has communicated to us. And our people, in turn, live by that same spiritual nourishment, not by our own wisdom. And we will do more than subsist, we will flourish if we feed ourselves. We can feed ourselves the Word of God, however, only if we learn how that Word is to be understood and applied. Our task, then, is not to dazzle people with ideas that no one could ever imagine were hidden away behind the text, but to demonstrate how we read it with understanding and apply it to our own lives with integrity.
Context is king for the meaning of words; the same is true for analyzing the flow of thought. If one has the linguistic tools to trace the grammatical construction, use them. But if one does not, do not use that as an excuse to bypass this critical step in careful study. The structure or flow can be discerned for most passages in a good translation and certainly can be examined.
After thoroughly examining the background of the text, the key words, and the structure or flow of thought in the passage chosen for exposition, the entire context must be examined. Context is still king, so the meaning of a passage must not be studied in isolation. It must fit and flow from the context of the entire chapter, the entire book. In fact, many make it a practice to read the entire context, even the entire book, many times before beginning the detailed analysis of the passage, getting a “feel” for the author’s flow of thought.
Why consider these Bible study principles? We must be faithful to God’s intent when He superintended the writing of the scriptures. What does He really want us to know and do? That is the question for you today. How well do you handle the Word of God?