By Rick Ezell
Imagine living in the mid 1800s and hearing that gold has been discovered. You travel west. Everyone is saying, “There’s gold in them there hills.” You saddle your horse, riding into the mountains. You soon realize that if gold resides in the hills, it’s not resting on the ground for easy picking. To find gold you must discover the veins in the mountainside. And that means work. You must go after the hidden treasure with passion and pursuit.
Likewise, mining the truths of the Bible requires similar discovery. Personal Bible study is crucial to your development and maturity as a disciple of Christ. At its foundation, Bible study consists of three aspects: discovery—determining what the writer was saying; interpretation—finding out what the writer meant; and application—applying that truth to your life. This article focuses on the discovery aspect of Bible study.
In his book Daily Celebration, William Barclay wrote, “It is only when truth is discovered that it is appropriated. When a man is simply told the truth, it remains external to him and he can quite easily forget it. When he is led to discover the truth himself, it becomes an integral part of him and he never forgets it.”
Here are the steps to discover the truth as you mine God’s Word through Bible study.
Observation in Bible study is the first step toward discovery. Observation is the act, power, or habit of seeing and noting. In observing, the Bible student sees the basic facts contained in the text being studied. The more careful and thorough the observation, the more meaningful will be the interpretation, the fairer will be the evaluation, and the richer will be the application.
A major difference between reading and studying is observing something new. Many people read Scripture without truly seeing. On many a Sunday someone will say to me after I have preached a sermon, “Wow, I have read that passage a hundred times but never saw what you brought to light in your teaching.” They had been reading without seeing. I, on the other hand, had to observe to discover the truths and insights.
The Bible was written by short story authors, not novelists; therefore each word is important and filled with meaning. Every word, nuance, literary form, question, comparison, contrast, and repetition means something. As you read, observe the following:
• key words (where the main thought hides)
• verbs (where commands hide)
• people (where examples hide)
• character traits (where life lessons hide)
• odd items that might provoke good questions
Asking questions is the next step in the discovery process. In Bible reading you allow the truth of God to speak to you; but in Bible study, you speak to it, asking questions of the text. The Bible student asks questions on the basis of what has been observed.
A myriad of questions can be asked. As you become more adept at Bible study, the more appropriate and precise will be your questions, like an advanced miner knowing what rock veins to follow. Asking questions is a skill easily developed. The more questions you ask about the text, the more truth and insight you will get out of it.
Here are a few questions you need to ask of every text:
• Who wrote it? to whom? about whom?
• What are the main events? major ideas? major doctrines? What is the author’s purpose in writing?
• When was the book written? When did the events take place?
• Where did the events occur?
• Why was this written? Why were certain things mentioned or not mentioned? Why was so much or so little space devoted to this particular event or teaching?
Bible study cannot happen without writing something down. This is the huge difference between Bible reading and Bible studying. In fact if you are in doubt as to whether you are just reading or studying, ask, “Am I writing anything down?” Note taking and jotting down your thoughts are essential to Bible studying.
Dawson Trotman, founder of The Navigators, said, “Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass through the lips and the fingertips.” If you haven’t recorded your discoveries, you really haven’t thought about them.
As you record your findings, save them and leave space so you can add to your discoveries when you study the same passage or character again. Your first studies will provide a foundation for your future studies. So don’t let your insights be lost. Write them down! They become a map to hidden treasure.
Have you ever stopped at a place where you can pan for gold? They have the water flowing down a trough. The pans are handy. All you have to do is pay the $5 and try your luck. Simple and straightforward. But if you are mining for gold, you need more than a pan. You need some other tools: pickaxes, shovels, wheelbarrows, lumber, nails, hammers, dynamite, maybe even a train track with a wagon. What separates professionals from amateurs are their tools.
The Bible student’s tools are the Bible and books or software about the Bible. These helps are not meant to replace the Bible but rather to enhance understanding of the Bible. A great danger is to read books about the Bible while not reading the Bible itself.
While there is an abundance of possible tools, let me mention a few of the basics. If you cannot purchase these items, a number of them can be found for free online.
• A study Bible with a recent translation. The translators have accurately translated the text from the earliest of manuscripts. The notes provide brief comments on key verses to aid in your understanding of a passage. A word of caution: Don’t emphasize the study notes at the expense of the biblical text.
• Concordance. Often found in the back of most Bibles, a concordance is an alphabetical index to help you find verses on particular subjects. This helps with cross referencing topics and subjects.
• Bible dictionary. Like a regular dictionary, a Bible dictionary provides definitions, descriptions, and often illustrations of key words, places, events, and people.
• Commentaries. These provide greater detail into the background of passages. A good place to start would be a single-volume commentary such as Matthew Henry’s Commentary or The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Most commentaries do not provide information on all matters in a text. One would have to invest in multiple commentary sets or Bible software to cover all the bases.
Then remember that in-depth Bible study requires time. Perhaps the biggest difference between Bible reading and Bible studying is the time commitment involved. One can read the Bible in a year by reading 12 minutes a day. Serious study of the Bible takes concentrated time and effort. It is better to block out one to two hours for Bible study, rather than trying to study a few minutes each day.
Consider the difference between a strong and a weak cup of tea. The same ingredients—water and tea—are used for both. The difference is that the strong cup of tea results from the tea leaves being immersed in the water longer, allowing the water more time to get into the tea and the tea into the water. The longer steeping process results in a stronger cup of tea.
In the same way, the length of time you spend in God’s Word determines how deeply you get into it and it gets into you. The longer you are in the Word, the stronger you become.
In the end, remember that you study the Bible to grow as a disciple of Jesus. Bible study is not just getting to know the Word of God as much as it is getting to know the God of the Word. In doing so, you’ll discover the gold in Bible study.
Rick Ezell is a freelance writer in Greer, South Carolina.