We all naturally apply what we read in Scripture. And even though that instinct is right, looking for quick answers can rob us of seeing the beauty and depth of Scripture. When we take our time to observe a text—withholding immediate application—we can apply it in broader and deeper ways. One way to do this is by asking good questions about a text.
Good questions force us to identify treasures we often miss. Those treasures come in all forms. We see God’s holiness, our sinfulness, as well as God’s sovereignty and grace. We also discover his promises, our identity in him, and more. Therefore, when observing a text, here are five questions that have helped me. Over time, you’ll develop your own.
What Is the Context of This Passage in the Book?
Studying the background of a Bible book reveals the big picture of the passage. This first context question, however, helps you see where the passage falls within its chapter and book. It not only protects you from misapplying a verse, but it also helps you see its beauty when placing it in the right setting.
Consider Revelation 3:20. It says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” Though many cite this verse to describe how God convicts and saves us, that is not God’s intent for these words. The believers in Laodicea were pridefully self-reliant. God says, “You think I’m among you, but I’m not. I’m on the outside knocking to join you. If any one of you would humble yourself and submit to me, I’d be a part of your gathering.” What a sobering condition for a church. What a powerful promise from God. Yet, we miss it if we take the verse out of context.
We also see the richer value of a text when we understand it in its intended setting. Jewelers know this. They know setting a priceless diamond in the right setting adds to its beauty. Consider all Jesus taught in John 12–17. The events in these chapters occur the week before Jesus’s crucifixion, most of them the night before. It seems Jesus is giving his disciples an intensive on understanding people, the gospel, and being servants. He also teaches them about God’s comfort, love, and joy. Then he models for them how to pray. Realizing that this conversation is all occurring in his last week, we not only look at it differently, we savor it, knowing he’s preparing his disciples (and us) for his ascension and for life with him.
Seeing the passage in its God-intended setting makes what you are about to observe even more meaningful.
Who Is Speaking to Whom?
There are countless conversations in the Bible. Some are between Christians—Paul and Timothy. Others are between Christians and those God is drawing to himself—Philip and the Ethiopian. Others are between Christians and those rebelling against God—Jesus and the Pharisees. God even preserves conversations his followers have with him (e.g., David in the Psalms).
It’s important to distinguish who is involved in each conversation. There are times, especially in the Psalms, where conversation partners switch with little notice. Understanding relationships between dialog partners also helps. For example, knowing that Titus and Timothy were the equivalent of pastoral interns to Paul helps us understand Paul’s letter to them better.
When Are They Saying It?
This is more than knowing the date a book was written. It includes knowing when the timing of certain events affects a particular text. Consider the following examples from Paul and David.
In Ephesians 6, Paul describes our spiritual armor. It’s a powerful analogy. Paul details it specifically because he’s seen it up close. Though under house arrest, he’s constantly around Roman soldiers. He uses their armor to illustrate how we are equipped by Jesus to withstand any spiritual attack.
“When we take our time to observe a text—withholding immediate application—we can apply it in broader and deeper ways.”—Mark Becton
Similarly, God inspired David to pen Psalm 23 toward the end of his life. As an old king, David reflects on how God shepherded him through life. The psalm not only becomes a tribute to God’s care, it also transports us back to each moment in David’s life where he needed God to shepherd him.
Looking at when something is said in a passage adds interpretive weight to what is said.
What Are They Saying and Why?
This question is key to good observation. It forces good practices that help identify what God is saying to the original reading audience and why that particular text was written to them. Answering this question requires looking closely at the words God uses and the way he uses them. Therefore, when looking at a passage, follow these four steps.
- Pay attention to the verbs. Verbs drive the point of the passage. They let us know if we are reading a one-time command with ongoing implications (e.g., Jesus on the cross saying, “It is finished!”), or a command we must keep on doing (e.g., “keep on asking, seeking, and knocking”).
- Pay attention to direction words. Words like for and therefore cause you to look back at the antecedent for what is being said. Also, the conjunctions and and but help you see linking concepts, comparative phrases, or contrasting statements.
- Pay attention to purpose words. The words that, so that, and for this reason, tell us why something has been said.
- Write down questions. When studying Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian in Acts 8:26–31, I wrote down questions like “Where’s Gaza?,” “Are the Greek words translated twice as ‘go’ the same words?,” and “What does the word guide mean when the Ethiopian asks, ‘How can I understand what I’m reading unless someone guides me?’?” Answering these questions give me a clearer picture of the text I was studying and how it might apply to my own personal evangelism.
What’s helped me most in recent years is the practice of printing out the text I’m studying. I enlarge the font, increase the spacing, and place the text in the middle of the page. I circle keywords. I want to define some of the circled words. I connect other words like and, therefore, or so that with arrows to show the flow of each sentence. After working through a text like this, I’m ready to answer the last question.
What Is the Passage’s Message to the Original Reading Audience?
Having answered the four previous questions, I resist the urge to rush to application. God inspired the author to pen the text I’m studying with an initial reader in mind. Even if an epistle was intended to be sent from one church to another (i.e., an encyclical), it was written with an initial church in mind.
Therefore, it’s healthy to ask, “What was the message God intended the first recipients to hear?” Asking this, after using all the tools of observation I’ve noted above, keeps me focused on the message when I’m tempted to jump to application. Again, our application will be broader and deeper when we fully grasp the message to be applied.
Therefore, stop and write out your summary paraphrase of the message God intended the original recipients to hear. Try to keep it fifteen words or less. And, write it in the past tense. Remember, it was God’s message to them then. With this statement in hand, you are now ready to move on to interpretation.