Interpreting the Bible in 3 Simple Steps

3 Kinds of Questions

In the simplest form, we sit down and read the Bible with a focus on the fact that God is present and speaks to us through what we read. We consider a three-step approach to studying the Bible. The three steps are observation, elucidation, and application.

Observation answers the question, “What does the text say?” Elucidation answers the question, “What does it mean?” Application answers the question, “What does it mean to me?”

Below is an example, based on 1 Samuel 22:1–2.

1. Where did David go?
2. Who joined him?
3. What kind of people were they?
4. What was David’s relation to the people with him?

1. Where did David come from and why?
2. What caused David to be in danger? (hint: see preceding context; see 1 Sam. 18:6–9)
3. Why might people be motivated to come and join David?
4. What does the passage show about people’s view of David?
5. What does it show about David taking responsibility?
6. What does it show about David’s leadership?
7. What was God’s plan for David’s future? (hint: see 1 Sam. 16:1–2, 13)
8. What do we see about community life around David?
9. How does the passage show God’s care for David and for the community?
10. What does the passage foreshadow about a future greater son of David? (hint: see Acts 2:30–31)

1. How is Christ’s care for you reflected in David?
2. In what ways does the passage foreshadow your relation to Christ? Other people’s relation to Christ? What does the passage imply about how your relation to Christ should develop?
3. In what ways does David serve as an example for you?
4. In what ways do the people around David serve as an example for you?
5. What does the passage suggest about your relation to those in distress?
6. In what ways does the passage prefigure the church?
7. In what ways might the passage prefigure the relation of the church to outsiders, and what does it imply for your attitude toward outsiders?

Using the Questions

A person may study the Bible by himself for his personal benefit, or he may study in order to prepare for leading a group or giving a presentation or a sermon. For any of these goals, a person may ask himself the three types of questions, concerning observation, elucidation, and application.

Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God

Vern S. Poythress

This comprehensive resource on biblical interpretation argues for the importance of reading the Bible as both a human and a divine document, advocating an explicitly Christ-centered approach to understanding Scripture’s meaning.

To study a passage more fully, a person may prepare a worksheet, with four columns on a single sheet of paper or on a word processor. He then fills the far left-hand column with the text of the passage, spreading the passage out within the column so that it fills the whole column (or, for longer passages, a person can use the left-hand column of multiple pages). To the right of the far left-hand column are three other columns. These columns have space that will contain observations, elucidations, and applications, respectively. Then the student adds comments on the passage in the other three columns.

The Value of 3 Steps

Breaking the study of the Bible into three steps, rather than seeing it as all one process of interaction, has an advantage. We all have weaknesses and biases in how we look at Scripture. The three steps help people not to overlook one or more aspects of interpretation as they hurry to get to their favorite part.

One person loves application, and tends to leap into it without taking time to think through what the passage is really saying. Another person avoids application, and tends to think and think and think without ever acting on the message. By contrast, James tells us that we should make sure that we act on what we hear: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22; see also vv. 23–27). Still another person reads and reads, without asking himself about what it means or how it applies. He remains largely on the level of observation.

The division into three steps encourages people to look at the passage in several ways, and not to neglect aspects that they tend to minimize.

This article is adapted from Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God: A Handbook for Biblical Interpretation by Vern Poythress.

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