Studying the Bible

Many, many (many!) years ago, a large Christian publisher advertised for open submissions of Bible studies for women. I was already doing a little bit of teaching at the time so I dusted off a few of my lessons, attempted to transform them into the sort of Bible studies I knew this organization had published, and sent my so-called Bible study proposal off on a wing and a prayer. I wasn’t completely sure, but I thought that maybe this just might be my big chance to find my place as a woman in the strange and intimidating world of ministry.

Well, as you’ve probably guessed, my proposal ended up in some administrative assistant’s trash can or shredder–and for that I’m grateful. Maybe not so much at the time–just keepin’ it real–but lo, these many years (decades) later, I can thank God for not giving me what I so desperately sought.

The Bible study I wrote was bad. No, really, I am not just saying that. I knew very little about the study of the God’s word and truth be told, I’m a little ashamed of my attempt to bluff my way into it, however sincerely (and ignorantly) I may have done so. In my defense, I didn’t know what I didn’t know (and still don’t, not really). What I did know was that, at least in my experience, there was little opportunity for a woman who wanted to serve God but didn’t want to be a missionary or keep the nursery. I’m not saying there wasn’t some ambition in play, not to mention a desire for the sort of admiration and affirmation we reserve for those who speak and write for a living. But the truth was, women as authors and speakers–and speakers generally had to be authors in order to be speakers–this was the prevailing model for women in ministry. Sad but true and, really, that’s fodder for another post.

I’ve learned much about the Bible in the twenty years since. God, in His infinite patience, led me to both men and women who modeled for me how to correctly handle the Word of God. Authors like Nancy Guthrie, Kathleen Nielson, and others, not to mention the faithful Bible preaching of my pastor, taught me and continue to teach me how to read and study and learn God’s Word. I’ve discovered that, unlike that humble and horrible proposal I’d hoped to get published all those years ago, Bible study is far more than my personal impressions and whatever application I then derive to meet my felt need of the day.

I thought I would share a few of the truths that have completely transformed my understanding of and my approach to Bible study. I’m a little embarrassed to share them since they really are so basic and obvious, but, y’all, I didn’t know even this much. I approached the Bible as something like a Magic 8 Ball which is to say with little care or methodology. Lord, have mercy!

  • The Bible is one story and we are not its heroes, not you, not me. Yes, the Bible is for us and speaks to us but it is finally, ultimately about God and His glory and His redemption of a people for Himself through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of His Son Jesus. Yes, even the Old Testament. The whole of the Bible points to Jesus and His gospel. This motivates the main question I ask myself when I prepare a lesson: Am I pointing to Jesus? Am I offering the hope of the gospel? Can I explain how this passage points to sin and need for a Savior?
  • Context, context, context. A few years ago I taught an overview of the Old Testament prophets. Each week we considered a particular book, say Obadiah or Habakkuk, and discussed its major themes and purpose. Listen, you cannot teach the prophets and hope to understand them apart from considering the historical context of the prophecy: Was this book directed at the Northern Kingdom or the Southern Kingdom? Where in the timeline of Israel’s exile does it fall? These are critical questions and as I prepared each week I grew in my appreciation for the historical narrative of the Bible–what happens and when. No matter what passage or book of the Bible we are studying, we must consider its audience and its cultural context and its position in the overall narrative.
  • Application is the final step, not the first, not the primary. We only consider how a passage applies once we’ve investigated its context and its meaning and only then do we derive our application from what the text actually says. Several years ago I attended a conference for women and one of the speakers taught on Deborah from Judges 4 and 5. In the course of her session, she drew application regarding the sort of wives and mothers we women should be, asserting that these traits of a godly wife and mother were most certainly displayed in the person of Deborah. I was so frustrated because despite the well meaning application the Bible teacher offered, the Bible actually doesn’t tell us about the sort of wife and mother Deborah may or may not have been! This teacher’s applications were good ones in and of themselves (though can we not broaden our applications beyond marriage and motherhood??). However, they were not supported by the text at hand. Stick to the text and what it says, and this will keep us from jumping the rails into our own presuppositions.

Here are a couple of books that I’ve found helpful in learning how to study the Bible:

I’m am writing this post on a Tuesday afternoon. I spent this morning in Bible study with twenty-five or so ladies who love Jesus and love His Word and want to know Him and know His Word more and more and more. It is no small thing to stand before them and presume to teach. I’m grateful to God that He saved me from myself (and my bad Bible study proposal!) and that He has opened my eyes to the riches of the Bible, giving me the privilege to minister in His name through teaching. May I be found faithful!