The first step in Bible study is observation. The goal is to slow down your reading and generate a list of questions that must be answered to understand the passage. I tend to break observation into the following 5 steps which generally correspond to my first few readings through the passage.
Step 1: Mark up the passage
During your first reading, print a copy of the study text, get a good set of colored pencils or highlighters, and mark up your passage. The mark up makes you slow down and notice what is in the passage. Here are the kinds of things I mark:
- Mark paragraph breaks and underline the topic sentence of each paragraph. (Underlining all verbs can sometimes help you identify paragraphs and thesis statements).
- Circle key words or phrases (these are the words you must understand to understand the main point)
- Color code repeated words and phrases (some of which may be circled as key words)
- Box connecting words that explain the logical connection and flow of thought
- Comparison (e.g. and, like, as, just as, also, so also, even so)
- Contrast (e.g. but, rather, yet, however)
- Purpose and/or result: (e.g. that, so that, in order that, as a result, with the result)
- Cause or inference: (e.g. because, since, for, for this reason)
- Explanation (e.g. therefore, because, for)
- Conditions: (e.g. if, if-then)
- Mark pronouns, names and places, watching for shifts and changes.
More: What to observe
Step 2: Summarize the main point
Looking at your marked and color-coded passage, identify the topic sentence of each paragraph and the primary theme(s) of the passage. In other words, you’re seeking to identify and summarize the main point, the central truth or the “big idea”. Make your first attempt at using your own words to boil down the main point to 1-2 sentences and to identify the the flow of thought.
Step 3: Create a list of Questions
Using the “5Ws and H” (who, what, when, where, why, how), create a list of questions generated by your “mark up” and your first attempt to summarize. Hint: Read slowly and try to be aware of what assumptions you’re making.
Step 4: Dig for answers
Start answering the questions generated in Step 2. Use bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, grammars, word searches, research and commentaries to start putting it altogether. Re-write, refine and revise your summary from Step 2. Check off questions from Step 3 that you have answered and keep a list of those still needing work.
As my understanding starts to crystallize, I start working on an analytical outline to clarify my conclusions and expose gaps in my understanding.
Step 5: Put it all together
Your done when you can do the following: Identify the author’s main point in your own words. Understand and explain his flow of thought and line of reasoning in your own words. Unpack any metaphors or figurative language.
Then ask the question, “so what?” What does this passage mean to us today? What truth(s) does it teach and how does that truth make a difference in the way I live my life?
Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.