How to Read the Bible for Yourself
1. Read for the author’s meaning, not your own.
When we read, we want to know what an author intended us to see and experience in his writing. He had an intention when he wrote. Nothing will ever change that. It is there as a past, objective event in history.
We are not reading simply for subjective experiences. We are reading to discover more about objective reality. I’m not content with what comes to my mind when I read it. The meaning of a sentence, or a word, or a letter is what the author intended for us to understand by it. Therefore, meaning is the first aim of all good reading.
2. Ask questions to unlock the riches of the Bible.
When we read, we do not generally really think until we are faced with a problem to be solved, a mystery to be unraveled, or a puzzle to be deciphered. Until our minds are challenged, and shift from passive reading to active reading, we drift right over lots of insights.
Asking ourselves questions is a way of creating a problem or a mystery to be solved. That means the habit of asking ourselves questions awakens and sustains our thinking. It stimulates our mind while we read, and drives us down deep to the real meaning of a passage.
2.1 Ask about words.
Ask about definitions. What does this word mean in this specific sentence? And remember, we’re asking what the author intended by the word, not what we think it means. This assumes words will have different meanings in different sentences.
2.2 Ask about phrases.
A phrase is a group of words without a verb that describe some action or person or thing. For instance, “Put sin to death by the Spirit.” “By the Spirit” describes the activity. It tells us how we kill sin in our lives. Look closely at phrases like these and ask what specifically they’re explaining.
2.3. Ask about relationships between propositions.
A proposition is a group of words with a subject and a verb. How propositions relate to each other is one of the most important questions we can ask. Often, there will be a small connecting word that holds the answer (e.g. but, if, and, therefore, in order that, because, etc.). Sometimes the major differences between whole theologies hang on these connections.
2.4 Ask how the context helps define the meaning of words and phrases.
You can’t know accurately what a proposition means until you know the meaning of the words, and you can’t know the meaning of words until you know the meaning of the proposition. It is a circle, but it’s not a hopeless circle. Words have a limited range of shared meanings.
Wrong guesses about a word’s meaning are often set right by the end of the sentence or paragraph. Even though words, in and of themselves, can have several meanings, the content and relationships of the propositions around them usually clarify the specific meaning the author intended them to have.
2.5 Ask about connections with other parts in the Bible.
We have to ask how the meaning we’re seeing in a passage fits together with other passages. Are there confirmations elsewhere in the Bible? Are there passages that seem contradictory or inconsistent?
When I feel tension between two verses or passages, I never assume the Bible is inconsistent. I assume I’m not seeing all I need to see. If I have not seen enough to explain the apparent inconsistency, asking more questions will likely help me see more. Few things make us deeper and richer in our knowledge of God and his ways than this habit of asking how texts cohere in reality when at first they don’t look like they do.
2.6 Ask about application.
The aim of biblical writers is not only that we “know,” but that we “be” and “do.” So we need to form the habit of asking questions concerning application. To us. To our church and our relationships. To the world. The task of application is never done. There are millions of ways a text can be applied, and millions of situations and relationships for them to be applied. Our job is not to know every application, but to grow in applying the meaning of Scripture to our lives.
2.7 Ask about affections — appropriate responses of the heart.
The aim of our Bible reading is not just the response of the mind, but of the heart. The whole range of human emotions are possible responses to the meaning of the Bible. God gave us the Bible not just to inform our minds, but also to transform our hearts — our affections. God’s word is honored not just by being understood rightly, but also by being felt rightly.
3. At every page, pray and ask for God’s help.
O Lord, incline our hearts to your word. Give us a desire for it. Open our eyes to see wonders there. Subdue our wills and give us an obedient spirit. Satisfy our hearts with a vision of yourself and your way for our lives.
Look at the Book is John Piper’s latest effort to help teach people to read the Bible for themselves. It’s an ongoing series of 8–12 minute videos in which the camera is on the text, not the teacher.