Have you ever been in a class or small group where the leader says, “There are no stupid questions?” I have, and I get it – we as teachers and leaders want people to open up and engage, discuss and learn. Still, when I was teaching at a bible college for 25 years, one of my favorite worst possible questions was “Why isn’t the Bible Easier to Understand?” It’s what lies behind the question that bothers me. It’s assuming that since the rest of my culture seeks to serve and please me, that’s how God should relate to me too, and that since reading the bible isn’t easy, it’ll likely be avoided.
But, as you likely know, reading scripture is difficult. At least reading it well, is difficult. Ken Kalish once wrote, “The greatest possibilities for human growth lie in the realm of the difficult and the untried.”
Reading the bible is difficult because when you crack it open to read, you are dropping into the middle of a very specific cultural context which has its own language (literary context), and historical context. Their sociopolitical world was different. Their diets were different. Theirs marriage customs were different. Their view of the universe was different.
Each verse, paragraph, story, chapter, or book was written by a specific author who sat in a his/her own specific culture who used specific words to convey specific ideas to a specific audience who sat in their own specific culture, with the goal that they would make specific changes in thought or action.
The authors of the bible don’t do random. They are very specific.
So, we should not be surprised that reading the bible takes some effort. The basic steps of reading and understanding and then applying scripture are; Observation, Interpretation, Application. In that order. We need to read it in the historical context, then we understand the timeless truth that we can accurately bring into our own culture to apply.
So, to help us in that endeavor, here are a few methods that can be helpful in reading the bible.
ICON Bible Study
A Bullseye: what is the central idea of the passage.
A light bulb: anything that shines out in the passage and draws attention; it can be something important, or something that particularly strikes you.
A question mark: anything that is hard to understand; something that you would like to be able to ask the author about.
An arrow: anything that applies personally to your life.
A speech bubble: names of people you know that might benefit if you shared with them what you’ve learned.
COMA Bible Study
Context - What is the historical context?
Observation – Who are the main players? Do you see conflict, pivot or a high point in the passage? Do you see any cause/ effect or repetition?
Meaning – Why was this passage written? Does someone in the narrative learn something or grow in some way? How? What does this person learn? Are there specific instructions/commands given to the reader?
Application – Is there an attitude or action that you need to change?
Each of the four COMA steps have different questions we should be asking to gain clear and accurate understanding based on the type of literature it is and also based on the dominate cultural context. Click the download link below for a multi-page COMA chart that shows the questions change as the book of the bible changes. If you are in a historical section, you’d ask a certain set of questions. But, if you are in Poetry, you’d need to ask a different set of contextual questions.
SOAP Bible Study
Scripture – start by reading, thinking and writing what stood out to you.
Observation – what catches your attention? What questions do you have? What is the historical context, etc.
Application – How can this apply to your life today?
Prayer – Ask God to help you use this scripture in a specific way today.
So, the important thing is that we read God's word and do so in a way that we'll understand and apply it accurately.