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- What did this text mean to the original readers (as best I can discern)? The basis for trying to understand any text is to discern the author’s intent. It’s the courtesy we try to provide for anyone in communication. If you and I have a conversation, and I take your words out of context and interpret them in a way you did not intend, then I have not listened well as a hearer. The same goes with the Bible. What did the biblical author intend for his readers to understand? Now, this is not always easy. It requires some basic practices, knowledge and discernment. You want to read a passage in its context—what comes before it, what comes after it. At times, it is helpful to know the historical context and cultural context. It can be helpful to know what type of literature this is—is it poetry, narrative, or some other genre? Here is where Bible study tools can be helpful. A Study Bible can help with its introductions to the book and the commentary it provides. Commentaries, Bible Dictionaries, and other resources can also be useful. You can ask a trusted spiritual leader for helps with resources.
- What principle from this text can and should be applied across time, geography, and cultures? Once I have attempted to discern what the author wanted to communicate to his original audience, then I look for principles from this passage that transcend the circumstances of the author and reader. If I’m reading Leviticus and its various sacrifices, I consider the principle applied today. We know from the New Testament that Christ’s sacrifice is “once for all” and that there is no more need of animal sacrifices (see especially the Book of Hebrews). But, I may still understand that God has to deal with sin and that sin is serious enough and requires a payment. This principle may allow me to consider and reflect on the cross of Christ and gain new insights on what Jesus has done on my behalf. When looking for a principle, I should consider the whole story of the Bible and how a passage applies in light of being a part of the New Covenant in Christ.
- How does the truth of this passage relate and apply to me? Why can’t we simply start with this question and skip the first two? The danger of only asking “What does this text mean to me?” is that it can easily digress into rampant subjectivism and narcissism. That is, I am in danger of reading into the text whatever I want through the lenses of my life and circumstances. I may try to make the Bible say something that it never intended to say. I can make the Bible all about me, where I am the main point (hint: it’s not about you). But…once I have done the hard work of thinking about and praying through the first two questions, then it is important and necessary to ask this third question. Bible study should never simply be an academic exercise. Ultimately, studying the Bible should result in life transformation as I submit myself to the teachings of Scripture.
The first question grounds my interpretation in the historical meaning related to the author’s intent. The second question tries to discern which principles rightly apply to other contexts, bridging the text to the modern reader. The third question insures that I apply the Bible and its truths to my life, and do not make Bible study simply an academic exercise. Ultimately, I engage the Word of God because in these pages I believe I can encounter the God of the Word. This is an academic exercise, but never merely an intellectual routine. I wish to present myself as a worker approved by God, “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).