5 Questions to Ask of the Text

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    It is time to study the word of God. You pray for illumination (Psalm 119:18). You select a passage of scripture to study. You then…

    This is where many people get stumped. Every time. They come to the text with good intentions. But they do not have a clear process for properly understanding the text.

    To get the right answers in your study of scripture, you must ask the right questions. This is called inductive Bible study.

    Here are five fundamental questions to ask as you study a passage of scripture.

    OBSERVATION: What does the text say?

    Just because you heard what I said does not guarantee you understand what I mean. But you cannot understand what I mean without first hearing what I say. The same is true of the word of God.

    We study a passage to know what it means. But don’t start there. Begin by observing the text. Listen to what it says. See what’s there. Analyze the details. Diagram the sentences. Make connections. Look for repeated or emphasized terms. Ask journalistic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

    I call this “sanctified brain-storming.” The only tools I use at this point are a Bible and a blank page. I make note of what I see until nothing else comes to mind. The goal is to think myself empty, observing every detail I can prayerfully notice in the text.

    INTERPRETATION: What does the text mean?

    If you do your observations well, you will have more questions about the text than when you started. Yet you will be more ready to move on to answering these questions in Interpretation.

    Observation is about what the text says. Interpretation is about what the text means by what it says. The God-intending meaning of the passage is the truth you seek. What did God intend to communicate when the Holy Spirit moved the biblical author to write?

    Proper biblical interpretation has rules called Hermeneutics. These rules prioritize context. A text without a context is a pretext. To be a good interpretation of scripture, learn the rules and practice them.

    You also need tools to do proper interpretation. Translations. Study Bibles. Concordances. Lexicons. Dictionaries. Atlases. Commentaries. These are the tools that enable you to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

    CORRELATION: How does the text relate?

    A passage of scripture can be kidnapped from its context and forced to say what it does not mean. Compare scripture with scripture to guard against proof-texting. This principle is called the analogy of faith. It means scripture is its own best interpreter.

    To properly understand what a passage means, consider what related passages say about the subject. If you have an interpretation of a passage that cannot be supported anywhere else in scripture, you’re wrong! Scripture never contradicts itself.

    Correlation is especially important when you are dealing with an obscure passage. Study what the clear, primary, and obvious passages on the subject say (This is where a concordance or topical Bible come in handy.). Then base your interpretation on the relationship between the passages on the same subject.

    APPLICATION: How does the text apply?

    Having done your research, you have come to a proper understanding of what the text means. But your work is not done.

    The goal of Bible study is application, not interpretation. The word of God is not a cookbook or TV guide. To learn a recipe does not require you to cook. To know when a show airs does not obligate you to watch it. But to know the word of God is to obey the word of God.

    [Tweet “To know the word of God is to obey the word of God.”]

    The word of God is a mirror that reveals the truth about us (James 1:22-25). As you look into scripture, you should ask how what you see applies to you. Is there a truth to believe? Is there a command to obey? Is there a sin to confess? Is there a promise to trust? Is there an example to follow? Is there a warning to heed? Is there an attitude to change?

    REFUTATION: What does the text affirm or refute?

    What does the text refute? Or what does it affirm? I have recently started asking these questions in each study. Asking these questions help me to focus on the doctrinal themes of the text.

    Faithful Bible exposition should be doctrinal, as well as devotional. You will stunt your growth if you only ask questions of personal application. There are much bigger matters in the text than what it means to you. You need to understand what the text has meant to the church.

    [Tweet “Faithful Bible expositional should be doctrinal, as well as devotional.”]

    What is the theology of the text? How does it passage affirm the historical Christian faith? What doctrinal errors does this text confront and refute? How does this text point to the Lord Jesus Christ? Are there any gospel issues at stake in this passage? These are important question to ask of the text to help you contend for the faith delivered to the saints once for all (Jude 3).

    What questions do you ask as you study the word of God? What other questions would you recommend? Join the conversation in the comments section.


    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.