06- Discovery Learning in the Bible


I. The ultimate goal of Bible study is to learn its significance for our lives—how it applies to us.

II. We must first discover what the Bible means before we can determine how it applies.  If we seek to discover how it applies before we know what it means, we will seriously misunderstand its meaning and application.  We must know the historical meaning of a text (what it meant to them, then and there) before we can know its application (what it means to us, here and now).

III. Always remember the following.

A. We cannot know how the Bible applies until we know what it means.

B. We cannot know what the Bible means until we know what it says.

C. We must, therefore, ask the following three questions:  1) What does this biblical text say?  2) What does this biblical text mean?  3) How does this biblical text apply.


I. Pray for God’s help in your study of the Bible. Bible study is both a rational process and a spiritual process.

A. Since God has sought to communicate to man through a rational communication—the Bible, we must approach biblical interpretation rationally.  However, since we are attempting to understand the infinite mind of an infinite God, we need divine help in our understanding.  Paul told the Corinthians that man cannot know God’s redemptive truth by scientific exploration or physical observation [e.g., “eye” or “ear”] nor by philosophical activity [i.e., “the mind of man”] (1 Cor. 2:7-9).  Man does not know the mind of God, anymore than we know the minds of other people, until it is revealed to us.  Just as only the spirits in people know their minds, only the Spirit of God knows the mind of God.  So God’s mind had to be revealed by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:7-13).  The Bible presents to us the mind of God as revealed through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

B. Even though the truth of God has been revealed and recorded in the Bible, the natural man has difficulty in understanding this Revelation—the Bible.  Paul indicates that we need the aid of the Holy Spirit in understanding this revelation (1 Cor. 2:14-16).  It also stands to reason that the Spirit that dwells in us will help us to understand the Bible.  Communication of God’s truth has been a primary work of the Spirit.  Since He dwells in the Christian, it would seem absurd for Him to not help us understand the Bible.  Why would He not help us understand that which He has so diligently sought to communicate to us?

C. Four things should be obvious.  First, God will not “reveal” one interpretation to one person, another meaning to someone else, and even another meaning to someone else.  The Spirit is not  confused and does not contradict himself.  Second, He will not “reveal” a meaning for a text that is not supported by the details in the text. Third, He will not “reveal” a meaning that contradicts the details in the text.  Fourth, He will not “reveal” an interpretation that contradicts other plain passages. Meaning will be supported by the historical setting of the text and the facts within the text.


II. Read the document (biblical book) in which your text is found over several times.

A. You must be a Bible reader before you can be a Bible scholar.  Through extensive general reading of the Old Testament and New Testament, you can build biblical perception of God and His purpose, Christ and His mission, and Christianity and its function.  Cumulative reading of the Bible regularly and extensively creates the knowledge that will enable you to screen interpretations and applications of specific teachings to see if they are in harmony with or contradict the biblical view of God.

B. You should read the book you wish to study several times before you seek to do deeper study (Kaiser 71-72; Fee 28; Torrey 14).  Read it as many times as possible at one siting.  This exercise will help you to see threads of thought that run throughout the book.  It will make key words and ideas stand out.  Through this reading the book will get hold of the mind.  It will make each following step far more meaningful and easier.  G. Campbell Morgan’s publisher said he would read a biblical book fifty times before he wrote an analysis or interpretative exposition of it (Morgan, Analyzed Bible, iii).


III. Seek to put yourself in the situation of the writer and first readers by performing a historical analysis. (Note: A historical analysis of the book in which your passage is found will reveal information about its author, recipients, occasion, and purpose.  This information will be more often implied than stated explicitly.  By performing a historical analysis, you can write your own introduction to a book.)

A. Gather information about the writer and his/her situation from the biblical book by asking the following questions.

1. Who wrote the book?

2. What were the circumstances of the writer?

3. Where was the writer?

4 What is revealed (i.e., stated or implied) about the character of the writer?

B. Gather information about the recipients of the writing, its first readers, from the biblical book by asking the following questions:

1. To whom was the book written?

2. What were the circumstances of the recipients?

3. Where were the recipients?

4. What is revealed (i.e., stated or implied) about the character of the recipients?

C. Gather information concerning the occasion of the writing of the book  (i.e., what was going on that caused the writer to write the book) from the biblical book.  Look for direct statements or implications about what was going on with the recipients that created the need for the book.  Note:  Much of this information will overlap with information about the recipients.

D.  Gather information concerning the purpose for writing the book from the biblical book.  Sometimes this will be explicitly stated in the book (e.g., 1 John).  However, usually this will be implied by the content of the book.  (Note:  Don’t be surprised that much of this information will overlap with that concerning the occasion.  This is natural since purpose is what the writer is trying to accomplish to correct the problem or meet the need indicated by the occasion.

IV.  Look at your text in the logical context of the book, i.e., perform a structural analysis of the book and write an outline of it. This process will reveal what the central argument of the book is and the function of each part in the argument.  It will show how each part relates to other parts and to the whole.  It will show the function of your text in the entire book.

A.  First, in your own words, write a one-sentence summary that states the central idea of each paragraph.  (Note:  Each sentence should be general enough to cover everything in the paragraph.  If your language is too specific, you will either leave some thoughts out or your sentence will go on and on in an effort to cover everything.

B. Second, group all paragraph summaries that support the same general idea into one group.

C. Third, write a one sentence summary of each group of paragraphs by summarizing that group’s summaries into one sentence; this states the single central idea of each section.

D. Fourth, write a summary of all section summaries; this states the theme of the book.

E. Fifth, form an outline by the process of coordination and subordination

1. The one summary of all section summaries will serve as the thesis (i.e., one big idea that the entire document is designed to develop—i.e., explain, prove, illustrate, apply) of the whole book.

2. Each section summary (summary of groups of paragraph summaries) will serve as a major point.

3. Each paragraph summary will serve as a sub-point.


V.  Closely analyze the text to see what the Bible actually says.

A.  Likely, the most accurate analysis of a text is a syntactical analysis—a grammatical diagram of each sentence in the paragraph being studied.

1. Pick out the subject, verb, and complement (direct object and subject complement).  When this is written out, it will form the kernel sentence.

2. Break the remainder of the sentence down into meaningful parts—words, phrases, and clauses.

3. Write the modifying word, phrase, or clause under the part of the kernel or other modifier that it tells something about.

4.  After rewriting the text in diagrammatic form that shows the relationship of each part to each other and to the whole, state each element of the diagrammed text in propositional form.

B.  You may omit the syntactical analysis and perform a “Propositional Analysis” only. This analysis is called a “Propositional Analysis” because it is an attemp to state everything contained in a text in propositional form.  (Note:  When you omit the syntactical analysis, you run the risk of not being as accurate in your analysis.)

1.  In performing a propositional analysis, you focus on paragraphs as units of study.

2.  After you determine the paragraph you wish to study, first seek to discern the main simple statement made by each sentence and write it down.

3.  Second, separate each modifying element in each sentence and write in propositional form what it says about the element it qualifies or tells more about.

4.  After writing all propositions included in the paragraph, you summarize what the paragraph reveals about its main truth assertion—topic or theme.

C.  A third type of textual analysis is an “Interrogative Analysis.”

1.  In performing an interrogative analysis, you study topics or themes by probing them with interrogatives: What?  Who?  Which one?  What kind?  How many?  When?  Where?  Why?  How?  To what extent?  To whom?  For whom?  By whom? etc.

2.  The first step in performing an interrogative analysis is to discover the passages that give information about a topic or theme developed in your text by using a concordance.

a.  There are verbal concordances that list all passages dealing with the particular word you wish to examine.  Young’s Analytical Concordance and Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance are verbal concordances.

1) Young’s lists passages including the particular Greek word translated in text from which your study originated.  You will study the texts in which the Greek word for your topic or theme is translated.  Young’s concordance is based on the KJV.  There are “analytical” concordances based on other versions.

2) Strong’s assigns a numbers to the passages that represent specific Greek words.  You study the passages marked with the number assigned to the word found in the text where your word first appears.  Strong’s concordance is also based on the KJV.  There are other “exhaustive” concordances that are based on other versions.

3) You simply look up the word used in the text to find book-chapter-verse references for all texts where the theme is dealt with.

b.  There are conceptual concordances that list passages where a theme or topic (concept) is dealt with, but the specific word does not occur (e.g., Nave’s Topical Bible; Topical Analysis of the Bible, Elwell ed., Baker; Topical Indes and Digest ,Monser, Baker).  There are several such topical lists of references.

c.  There are several search programs for both PC and Mac computers.  These enable you to enter a word and have all passages that use it to appear on your screen instantly.  These programs speed up this process greatly.

3.  The second step involves seeking answers to as many of the interrogatives as each passage answers.  Some passages may include answer to only one interrogative.  Other passages may answer several interrogatives.

a. You should probe each passage where a theme is found with all of the interrogatives.

b.  Record all answers given by each passage.

c.  After you record all answers possible, write out all that is taught about your topic or theme of interest.

4.  Note: Instead of using a concordance, you may discover the passages in a particular biblical book by reading the entire text of the book and recording all passages where topic or theme is dealt with.  Then proceed to probe each of the texts with the interrogatives, record all answers, and then draw a conclusion about what these passages teach on the topic.

VIPerform an analysis (“Theological-Word Analysis”) of all key words in the text to establish the complete and precise meaning of each word.

A. Perform a study of each key word in Greek-English lexicons.

1.  Establish the Greek word in the text by using a Greek New Testament (or if you are not a skilled student of Greek, in a Greek-English Interlinear New Testament).

2.  Determine the lexical form of the word by parsing the word (or if you are not a skilled student of Greek, by using an Analytical Greek Lexicon).

3.  Establish the semantic field (general meaning) and the semantic context (specific meaning of the word in your text) by using a standard Greek-English Lexicon (e.g., Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, & Danker.).

B.  Perform a study of the usage of the key words—an independent study of word meaning.

1.  Discover passages where the word is used by consulting a Concordance.  (Note: Make sure that the passages you study use the same Greek word as the one translated in your text.)

2.  Probe each passage where the word is used and make notes of your observations about the writer’s use of the word in each passage. There are internal helps that help you to discover meaning of words in a text.

a. The writer’s own definition may be given in the text.

b. Often there are parallelisms that state meaning in other words.

c. When opposites are stated in the text, this helps to understand meaning.

d. What the word is associated with in the text gives insights into meaning.

e. The subject and verb in the sentence also provide insights, especially concerning figurative language.

3. Draw a conclusion concerning the meaning of the word and write it out—even if it takes a paragraph.  Note:  This provides insights into a writer’s theology on a theme as well as insights into word meaning.

VII.  Discover the significance of the text—how it applies to us here and now.

A.  There are three basic divisions of biblical interpretation:  analysis, interpretation, and application.  Bible knowledge is of little or no value if you do not know how it applies. But remember, you cannot know what the Bible means until you know what it says. Likewise, you cannot know how the Bible applies until you first know what it means.

B.  After we as interpreters discovers what a text meant to its first readers (i.e., what the author meant to say),  we must seek to discover what it means to us. In order to know what it means to us, we must bridge the time and culture gap between Bible times and now.  This is done by stripping the teaching of its cultural and situational trappings and applying the principle (i.e., universal and eternal truth) to ourselves in our cultural and situational context.  This process is called “Contextualization” (Osborne), “hermeneutics” (Fee and Stuart), “transposing the word” (Stott), “transferring the message” (Greidanus), and “principalizing” (Kaiser).  In the following lists of suggestions, I will share with you some suggested activities for applying the message of God and presenting the message in the form of a contemporary and living message from God.

C.  In The Contemporary Christian, John R. W. Stott says that the sense of remoteness and difficulty we often experience when we read the Bible is “not due primarily to the passage           of time . . . nor to the mere distance . . . , but to the cultural differences which remoteness of time and place have caused”.  He calls this experience “a collision of cultures between the biblical world and the modern world.”  He also says that this cultural gap often causes readers “to ask impatiently, ‘What on earth has that old book got to say to me?’” (186).

D.  Sidney Greidanus (The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text) agrees as he discusses the relevance of the sermon:  “Without genuine relevance there is no sermon.  Relevance for the church here and now is the final goal of sermon preparation, yet sermons that have           remained on the right track through the process of text selection, theme formulation, and form selection often derail at the point where the message for Israel or the early church must be transformed into a relevant sermon for contemporary congregations (157). Greidanus warns against selecting a text, formulating a sermon theme, and selecting a sermon form “without an eye to the congregation.”  He also warns against reflecting on the relevance of the sermon “without an eye to the text” (157).  E.  In his Toward an Exegetical Theology, Walter Kaiser says that “after the interpreter has met all the requirements of investigating the grammar, syntax, literary structure, and history” of the text, something further is needed.  He calls this need “theological exegesis” (131).  He points out that the expositor can get caught in the trap of “historicism” or “descriptionism.”  Then he immediately adds, “The Achilles heel for men among the trained clergy is the failure to bring the Biblical text from BC. or first-century AD. context and to relate it           directly and legitimately to the present day” (131).

F.  Grant Osborne, in The Hermeneutical Spiral, emphasizes the need for application calling it “Contextualization” (318).  He says, “We cannot finally separate exegesis from application, meaning from significance, because they are two aspects of the same hermeneutical act” (118).  “The preacher’s task is to ensure that the Word speaks as clearly today as it did in ancient times” (318).  “Contextualization is ‘that dynamic process which interprets the significance of a religion or cultural norm for a group with a different (or developed) cultural heritage’” (318).  “The key issue is ‘relevance’; religious principles constantly must be adapted to meet new cultural challenges” (319).

G.  Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart say, in How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth, “The big issue among Christians committed to Scripture as God’s Word has to do with the problem of cultural relativity, what is cultural and therefore belongs to the first century alone and what transcends culture and is thus a word for all seasons.”

H.  There are three kinds of imperatives or normative teachings in the Bible.

1.  Universals which are universal, principles that transcend cultural context and are required in every age.  These imperatives reflect the moral and ethical character of God (e.g., “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God . . . and thy neighbor as thyself” (Mk. 12:29-31).

2.  General principles which apply moral and ethical law and transfer directly from culture       to culture; these are supracultural and transcultural imperatives (e.g., “Thou shalt not covet.”).  This differs from number 1 in that it is more specific and applies the general principle in a more specific way, a particular that is not culture bound, but can be applied in any and all cultures.

3.  Culture-specific or culture-bound commands, which are tied to ancient, even specific that these forms are rooted in the cultural particulars, experiences, and situations of particular people.  Also, there is no evidence that these particulars are rooted in the nature of God nor anything that relates to core matters in Christianity.  Note:  There are some particular forms or even cultural particulars that were bound and have transfer       because they symbolize important aspects of God’s nature or salvific events in salvation history—redemptive acts (e.g., baptism’s relationship to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ).

I.  Our problem in determining significance or in applying Scripture relates to the third kind of imperatives above—how do we distinguish cultural and situational particulars that are local and temporary from particulars that are universal and permenant?

1.  Be careful not to totally reject the Bible because the culture reflected in it is out of date.       Granted, if we cling to cultural particulars, rather than principles, we make the Bible seem to be “out of date.”  Nevertheless, if we disregard all particulars, including those       that are rooted in the nature of God or related to core matters, we will depart from the norm established by God.

2.  Be careful not to give equal authority to the principles illustrated by cultural particulars and the cultural particulars that apply or express these eternal principles.  If werecognize unbound cultural particulars as incidentals while retaining and showing the purpose of particulars that were assigned universal and eternal value, we will maintain a biblical stance while showing the relevance and timeliness of biblical truth.  Remember, cultural particulars and application may change, but divine truth does not       change.

3.  Osborne said, “The major difficulty in contextualizing Scripture is deciding exactly what are the cultural or time-bound elements in a passage and what are the surpacultural or eternal principles” (326).  He added, “All biblical statements are authoritative; some, however, are so dependent upon the ancient cultural setting that they cannot apply to today since there are no parallels (such as footwashing or meat offered to idols).  We       need hermeneutical criteria to enable us to make such decisions on firm ground” (327).  We must remember that the principles expressed in these optional particulars are timeless standards (e.g., footwashing to express brotherly love and hospitality and       abstaining from meat to express the fact that the feelings and the salvation of our fellow Christians are more important than our own cultural preferences or personal freedom).

4.  Part of our task is to strip away unbound cultural and situational specifics, to apply the principles they illustrate and establish, and to show particular ways in which these principles must be applied in our culture and our various situations.Another part of our task is to show the reason for retaining and observing the modes and methods (i.e., patterns and forms) established by bound particulars and to urge their observance upon ourselves and others.

J.  I have gleaned and evaluated some guiding rules for determining significance (contextualizing) or applying the biblical tachings. Tentatively, I think the following have merit.

1.  We must always establish the historical meaning of a text before we try to understand its current significance (i.e., Discover what it meant to them, then, and there before we decide what it means to us, here, and now).

2.  Clearly stated didactic (i.e., teaching) passages should be used in interpreting historical passages (i.e., accounts of action) and other didactic passages that are difficult to interpret.

3.  We must interpret Scripture and seek application that is in harmony with the canonical context of the Bible (i.e., the broader central message of the whole) and with the theological context of the Bible (i.e., biblical view of God).  If an interpretation or application is in conflict with the central teaching of the Bible or the nature of God, it is obviously being misinterpreted or misapplied.

4.  We must seek to understand the command behind any account of action.  Any command that was local and temporary was binding on them, but is not binding on us.  Any command that is universal and eternal was binding on them and is binding on us.  Any command that did not bind a specific form of action required the action but not that particular form of action.  Any command that bound a specific form of action required that particular form of action.  From these accepted principles, we conclude the following guidelines.  (a) Any biblical account of action that is backed by a local and temporary command that requred the action, but  did not trequire he particular form of       action, bound the action but not the specific form on them, butdoes not bind even the action  on us. (b) Any biblical account of action that is backed by a universal and eternal  command that required the action, but  did not requier the particular form of action, bound the action but not the specific form on them, andalso binds the action (but not the particular form) on us. (c) Any biblical account of action that is backed by a local and teporarycommand that requredboth the action and particular form of action, bound the action and the specific form on them, but does not bind action nor form on us. (d)  Any biblical account of action that is backed by a universal and eternal  command that required both the action andparticular form of action, bound the action and the specific form on them, and also binds the action and particular form on us.

5.  When considering an imperative involving a particular form of expression, look for indicators in the passage concerning whether the form is dictated by some supracultural core principle of Christianity or eternal moral principle (e.g., love for neighbor, Christ’s death for sin, the resurrection of Christ.)

6.  If we can determine how much the underlying core principle and the application overlap, then we have insight into the extent to which the particulars of the application are binding.  For example, the form of baptism greatly overlaps with the fact that it is an expression of faith in the reality of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and a declaration of faith in the efficacy of the death, burial, and resurrection in giving us a new life in Christ (Rom. 6).  On the other hand, there is no more overlap between the cultural expression of love by a “holy kiss” than there is between the expression of love by a handshake.

7.  When a teaching transcends the cultural forms of the author and first readers, it is very likely not rmative.  Conversely, when a command is wholly tied to a cultural situation, it does not constitute a timeless norm

8.  Commands that involve morals or theology are closely tied to and reflecting of the changeless nature of God.  Therefore, they are as timeless and universal in their application as God is timeless and universal in his nature and authority.

9.  Observe what the New Testament presents as inherently moral or immoral (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-26).

10.  Observe whether there were other possible forms of expression (cultural options) availiable or if the particular form found in the text was the only one available.  This raises the question concerning whether the author had a divine mandate (i.e., background command or antecedent theology) to choose this particular form as       exclusive and binding (e.g., baptism).

11.  Observe whether a change in form had divine mandate (subsequent command or theology) that required or demanded the change.  Any norm that is changed or repealed by subsequent revelation (i.e., later biblical writers) is changed or repealed for us (e.g., keeping of the Sabbath).

12.  Observe whether the New Testament itself consistently demonstrates observance of a particular form of action (e.g., the form of baptism).  Consistency implies that the form of action must be nonnegotiable (e.g., baptism by immersion).

13.  We must learn to exercise Christian love and grace toward others who are acting in faith but differ from our conclusions, just as Jesus exercises love and grace toward us as faithful but imperfect people (Rom. 14:1-23; 15:1-7).

14.  We must distinguish whether a particular form was bound upon the first readers or not.  If a form was not binding but just an optional form for them (e.g., baptism in running stream), it is not binding on us.  Likewise, if the form was bound on them because the principle required it to meet the needs of that culture (e.g., greeting by       kissing or footwashing), but the form was cultural rather then supracultural, the form is not bound on us.  However, if the form proves to be both bound and supracultural (e.g., modest dress), it is binding upon us.

15.  We ought to consider the distance between the supracultural principle requiring an action and the form of the action in a particular culture (e.g., Does the supracultural principle of headship given in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 give normative status to the principle of submission or to the cultural act of wearing a veil to show submission?)


© William T. (Bill) Lambert, EdD  (8/01)

Professor Emeritus, Harding University

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