Ministry Resources

Understanding the Bible

You are about to begin a very important activity: the careful, methodical study of the Bible. To understand the Bible, you must do more than merely read it. Reading it has value but often fails to make clear the relationship between different parts of the Bible. When you study the Bible with an organized plan in mind, you write down important findings that help you to see the unity that is present throughout the Scriptures. Series written by Dorothy L. Johns.

Devotional Method of Study

A tired, hungry traveler in a desolate place finds a beautiful tree, laden with delicious fruit. His one desire is to eat a piece of the fruit, to be nourished and refreshed by it. After he has eaten, he may consider the tree. He may note where it is growing, the shape of its leaves and branches, its color and fragrance. No matter how much he satisfies his curiosity about the lovely tree itself, however, it is his eating of the fruit that satisfies his hunger and nourishes his body. The part of the tree that you eat is the part that gives you life.

So it is with God’s Holy Word, the Bible. Every aspect of it is intriguing. No human mind ever can reach the depths or the heights of it because, like its Author, it is eternal and infinite. New aspects of familiar verses will continue to unfold as long as you study Scripture. Like the beautiful tree and its fruit, the part of the Scripture that you eat, is the part that gives you life.

How can I eat Scripture? I must begin by reading it, but I must do more than that. I must internalize it through devotional study. I must make its teachings my own. When I do this, Scripture becomes my spiritual food and gives me spiritual life. Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you bring God’s lifegiving Spirit” (John 6:63).

Introduction to Devotional Bible Study

One author has said of devotional Bible study,

“[It] is not so much a technique as a spirit. It is the spirit of eagerness which seeks the mind of God; it is the spirit of humility which listens readily to the voice of God, it is the spirit of adoration which rests in the presence of God” (H. F. Vos, Effective Bible Study, Zondervan, 1956, p. 172).

Throughout this course, you have been urged to make your studies more than intellectual exercises. You have become aware of the devotional attitude each time you have entered into the study of Scripture with an open heart and found it speaking to you personally. There really are no new techniques to present in this lesson. Devotional study is accomplished by combining all the tools and skills you have been learning. What is important to learn here, however, is purpose.

The main purpose of devotional Bible study is to personally feed upon God’s Word, allowing it to become life to you! It is seeking the mind of God. It is listening to the voice of God. It is pursuing the will of God. It is resting in His holy presence in praise and worship. This is accomplished by using every possible means to understanding what the Scriptures are saying, and then responding to the Lord in loving obedience.

Devotional study should be a part of every Christian’s daily activity. It is intensely personal. While there may be times when a devotional study is prepared to be shared with others, its main purpose remains personal. What is the Holy Spirit saying to me? Devotional study will help me find the answer.

Because Christians have an enemy who tries to keep them from knowing and doing God’s will, you may find more hindrances to your study when you are studying in this manner. Peter warns us:

Be alert, be on watch! Your enemy, the Devil, roams around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Be firm in your faith and resist him, because you know that your fellow believers in all the world are going through the same kind of sufferings (1 Peter 5:8-9).

The text for devotional Bible study can be a word, a verse, a paragraph, or a longer segment of Scripture. In this lesson you will not make a devotional study based on just one word because such a study would require access to reference materials which could give you further insight into the ways specific words are used in the original Greek and Hebrew texts. This sort of study cannot be covered in this course. Your studies will be based on a verse, a paragraph, and a longer segment— all from Philippians.

Verse and chapter division. Verse and chapter divisions are not found in the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. Scripture has traditionally been divided that way by translators to break up the text into smaller portions for better understanding. Once in a while you may find that the first verse of one chapter would fit better if it were the last verse of the previous chapter, or vice versa. The choice of just where to begin and end the chapters was made several centuries ago. The great convenience of having Scripture divided into easy to handle sections far outweighs any problem about which verse should end the chapter! You always are free to start or stop your study at any logical place. Just be sure that your starting or stopping does not alter the meaning of the passage. Include all the words that make the thought complete.

Paragraphs. Usually, modern translators include not only chapter and verse division but also divide the Scripture into paragraphs. A paragraph is grouping together of sentences that relate to the same main topic. The first line of that group of sentences is indented to show transition from one thought to another. A paragraph is a convenient unit to study.

These small “bites” of Scripture will be important to devotional study. When Jesus was tempted by Satan, He quoted the Scripture which says, “Man cannot live on bread alone, but needs every word that God speaks” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3. You will be studying small portions of Scripture intensely as though you were looking at them under a microscope. You will try to understand each phrase as thoroughly as possible. You will be asking the Bible questions as you learned to do in Lesson 2 and Lesson 5.

Longer segments. Sometimes you may want to use longer segments such as several paragraphs or more than one chapter. The length of the text is not as important as the “listening heart.”

Devotional Study of a Verse

It is true that in devotional study, heart attitude is more important than intellectual technique. It is true also that methodical study is more valuable than random or haphazard study. A good Bible scholar will combine right attitude of heart with best method of study. You will be responding to God’s Word to feed your spirit, and you will bring to bear all you have learned about Bible study.

In this section of the lesson, you will consider three convenient steps in making a devotional study. Then you will be asked to apply the last two of them to Philippians 2:1. The steps are: Choose the Text, Observe the Facts, Interpret the Facts.

Choose the Text. The first step is to decide on the verse to be studied. You will rely heavily on the Holy Spirit to direct your attention to His Word for you at that particular time. This reliance is difficult to explain to anyone because it is so personal. But if you are a Christian and you spend time with the Word of God, you probably are aware of the way the Holy Spirit quickens your mind to certain Scriptures. I have heard Christians say such things as “the letters just seemed to jump off the page,” or “it seemed like that verse was printed in letters of gold.” Each of you who seeks God for guidance in the study of the Word knows that the Holy Spirit has His own special way of attracting your attention!

So, one way to choose a verse is to pay close attention to a given passage of Scripture. You may be especially drawn to a verse as you read. Any time you read the Bible, make a note of verses that are interesting to you. The verses that lend themselves to devotional study are those which contain directions to follow or warnings to heed.

What if you receive no “special” guidance? Does that mean you should not study the Word? By no means! “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living” (2 Timothy 3:16). So, if you are not drawn especially to any verse, just choose one that contains directions to follow or warnings to heed.

Observe the Facts. The second step is to read the verse thoughtfully many times. As you read, think this question to yourself: “If I had to give this verse a three or four word title, what would it be?

By thinking of a title for the verse, you will grasp the main idea in it. When you have the main idea of the verse, read it through and list all the facts you can find in it. Look for facts that are either directly stated or implied by this verse. Look for answers to the questions you learned to ask in Lesson 2: WHO? WHAT? HOW? WHEN? WHERE? (You will not be able to find answers to all five of these questions in every verse you study.) Make a note of the names of things, the action words, the words that describe things. All of these observations should be written in your notebook.

Interpret the Facts. The third step is to interpret the verse by writing the meaning of it in your own words. By doing this, you will be answering the question that is the key to interpretation: “What does this mean?” For your devotional study you will ask a second question: “What does this mean to me?”

In preparing a devotional study you will be more interested in finding truth to feed your spirit than in technical matters. However, all the skills you have learned should be brought to bear on the text whenever you study the Bible. Let me illustrate what I mean.

You learned in Lesson 5 that repetition is a principle of composition. You learned to notice repetition as you study Scripture because it is a forceful literary device in the hands of a skillful writer. Repetition brings unity to a passage of Scripture. It indicates emphasis.

The reason for repetition is what makes it important! When you learn to recognize repetition, it is not just so you can say, “That truth must be important because the Holy Spirit has stressed it by repetition!” Your technical knowledge should help you handle truth more accurately. The skills you have learned all through this course will become tools to help you recognize and understand truth for your personal benefit!

Review Lesson 2 in this Study Guide. Especially note what you learned about the observing and interpreting steps in the study of Scripture.

Now you are ready to apply a devotional study to one verse: Philippians 2:1. Throughout the following exercises, it is extremely important that you follow each direction on your own, writing down all your findings in your notebook before you look at the answers in the study textbook. Expect your answers to be somewhat different from those given. Do not feel that you must change yours unless they are obviously wrong. Step one, choosing the text, has already been done for you. Write the reference, PHILIPPIANS 2:1, at the top of a page in your notebook.

Devotional Study of a Paragraph

Devotional study of a paragraph is very similar to devotional study of a verse. The paragraph you will study in this section is Philippians 2:1-5. First, you will read each verse carefully and assign a short three or four word title to it as you did for Philippians 2:1.

Second, you will observe the facts. That is, reread as many times as necessary to find answers to the five fact questions: WHO? WHAT? HOW? WHEN? WHERE? Note the verbs or actions, the statements of truth, the commands and warnings. When you begin to clearly understand the message of the paragraph, you will write a three or four word title for the paragraph.

The third step will be interpretation. It will include the writing in your own words of a statement of meaning on this paragraph. This statement will bring all your observations and interpretations together in a unified whole.

The following questions will guide you through a study of Philippians 2:1-5. Write your answers to them in your notebook before you look at the ones in the study textbook. The answers may vary, so do not think you have to change your answers unless they seem to need correction.

Devotional Study of a Longer Segment

The procedure you have used for studying verses and paragraphs can be extended to longer passages. For devotional study you will want to choose passages in which all the verses are related in some way. This could be several paragraphs or a whole chapter, but for this kind of study you should be able to see continuation of a topic throughout the passage. Here, the passage for study has been chosen for you.

Philippians 2:1-11 has been chosen so you can see how the study of a single verse and paragraph can relate to the study of the longer passage of which they are a part. We can save time and space by building on the study you have just completed, making it part of the study of the longer passage. In this section, you will examine verses 6-11. Write your findings in your notebook immediately following your study of verses 1-5. The steps will be the same as before, except in a longer passage you may want to find a key verse. Remember the following steps.

First, read each verse carefully, assigning a brief title to it.

Second, observe the facts. Reread as many times as necessary to find answers to the five fact questions: WHO?

WHAT? HOW? WHEN? WHERE? Note the verbs, or actions, the statements of truth, the commands and warnings. Be sure to find out the meaning of any words you do not know. In a longer passage it is likely that you will see more principles of composition and literary devices you have learned to look for. Write all your observations. Use an outline form as you did for Philippians 2:1- 5. Choose a short new title for the entire passage.

Third, interpret and write your findings, answering the important questions What does this mean? and What does this mean to me?

Write the answers to the following exercises in your notebook in such a way that they will be a continuation of your study of verses 1-5.

The study textbook contains only a basic outline. Your own outline should contain every detail of observation that comes to you as you carefully and prayerfully look for what the words actually are saying. Now you are ready to write your interpretation for 2:6-11. This section is one of the most profound, meaningful passages in all of Scripture. We will never be able to understand the full significance of what Jesus Christ did for us when He entered our world as a man, went to His death on the cross, and then received the highest name and the greatest honor from the hand of God the Father. Yet we are to have “the attitude . . . that Christ Jesus had” (verse 5).