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Lesson 12: Observation

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A popular genre of film and books is criminal scene investigation (CSI). CSI stories follow a regimented procedure: after a crime is committed and discovered, the police isolate the crime scene to make sure no one tampers with evidence. Then, investigators screen the area for items such as blood, hair, broken glass, bubble gum, and receipts. They do this because they realize that any detail, even a tiny detail that seems insignificant, might lead to solving the crime. Like an investigator meticulously studying a crime scene for clues, Bible students must learn to develop a similar procedure when studying Scripture. Several components are necessary for a Bible student to do this:

Believe That All Scripture Matters

First, Bible students must believe that all Scripture matters—even seemingly insignificant details. Consider the following verses:

Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Matthew 4:4

Second Timothy 3:16 tells us that “every” or “all” Scripture is inspired, not “some.” Jesus stated that we live by “every” word that comes from the mouth of God. In fact, in Matthew 5:18, Christ said this: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.” These verses emphasize that every portion of Scripture is important—even the smallest letter and stroke of a letter. This realization is vital to developing the skill of observation. God chose the specific words, including tenses, in a passage for a purpose. Therefore, we must develop keen vision to notice details and seek to understand what the Holy Spirit, through human authors, was trying to say to the original audience and now to the contemporary audience.

We can discern the importance of every word and how it can lead to both meaning and application by observing how Christ confronted the Sadducees’ lack of belief in the resurrection in Matthew 22:30-32. He said:

For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. Now as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living!” When the crowds heard this, they were amazed at his teaching.

Christ asked, “have you not read what was spoken to you by God, ’I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?” Surely the Pharisees had read it before, just as most Christians have, but what made Christ’s reading of this OT text so different was his keen observation of it. Christ pointed out that though Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were dead, the original writer wrote about them in the present tense, which meant they were still alive and therefore would be resurrected.

Believing in the importance of every aspect of Scripture is indispensable. If we don’t believe that all of Scripture is important, we might skip certain parts (like genealogies or historical details) or not read God’s Word at all. If we’re going to develop observation skills, we must believe that “all Scripture is God-breathed,” that we are called to live by “every word” of God, and that even the smallest letter and least stroke of the pen will never pass away. Just as Christ asked the Sadducees, we must ask ourselves, “Have we truly been reading?”

What else is needed to properly observe Scripture?

Become Spiritually Inquisitive

To properly observe Scripture, we must become spiritually inquisitive. We must ask questions about the Bible and its passages. Many can’t understand Scripture deeply merely because they’re not interested in knowing the meaning and application of Scripture. They’re simply content to read it, if that. This is part of the reason why, in 1 Peter 2:2, Peter commanded believers to “yearn” for “spiritual milk” like an infant. People won’t need to be told to read the Bible, memorize it, and study it, if they actually “yearn” for it. Yearning will motivate us to do all those things. Therefore, God commands us to have a hungry disposition, as we will need it to understand Scripture and grow from it.

Certainly, we see this inquisitive, hungry disposition in the disciples, who often asked Christ questions about his teachings. For example, consider the disciples’ interaction with Christ after he taught the Parable of the Sowers in Luke 8:8-9:

But other seed fell on good soil and grew, and it produced a hundred times as much grain.” As he said this, he called out, “The one who has ears to hear had better listen!” Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant.

After presenting the parable, Jesus added, “The one who has ears to hear had better listen!” This meant that not everybody was capable of understanding the parable—including his own disciples! However, their desire to understand it and their request for Christ to explain it was proof that they had ears to hear. Sadly, most people read passages in the Bible without any understanding and simply move on to the next verse. They don’t ask questions of the text, pray about it, or research it further. Having “ears to hear” doesn’t just mean we understand Scripture when we read it; it means we desire understanding and are willing to pursue it. This separated the disciples from the rest of the hearers in Luke 8:8-9, who didn’t understand the parable either but failed to pursue further explanation.

As we read the Gospels, the inquisitive nature of the apostles continues to be displayed. After Christ taught the need to pursue reconciliation with those who sinned against us, Peter asked, “Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21). Similarly, after Christ taught the disciples about the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24:3, they asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

One might say, “We don’t have Christ here to ask questions of the Bible. How do we get further understanding of his words, and the Bible’s teachings in general, like the disciples did?” In John 14:16-17, Christ said this to the disciples, after telling them that he would be leaving them: “Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [or Counselor] to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.” Christ used an interesting word to refer to the Holy Spirit. Two Greek words are typically used for “another.” One means “another of a different kind,” and the other is “another of the same kind.” Christ used the latter. Essentially, Christ said to his disciples, “I will send you someone just like me. I will not leave you as orphans. I will send the Holy Spirit to you. He will teach you the truth and explain things to you. He will be your counselor. In the same way, you asked me questions, ask him questions.” Christ has given us this Counselor as well—the Spirit of truth. He will lead us into all truth, as we depend on him.

Therefore, it must be understood that those who don’t prayerfully ask questions of the Bible—trying to understand its meaning and applications—will not grow in understanding it. Like the multitudes who listened to Christ while never understanding his words, so is the person who reads Scripture and listens to sermons, yet never asks questions or pursues answers. Again, Christ said, “The one who has ears to hear had better listen!” The person who has ears is the one with an inquisitive nature—who genuinely wants to understand and obey God’s Word.

What should we do if we don’t desire to read and understand God’s Word?

  1. Repent of not desiring to know God. Repent of not desiring to understand his Word. Repent of desiring and prioritizing so many other things above God and his Word.
  2. Pray for God to give you a hunger to read and understand God’s Word. In Psalm 119:36, David prayed, “Give me a desire for your rules, rather than for wealth gained unjustly.” He prayed for his desire and so must we.
  3. Begin to read Scripture, ask questions of the text, and pursue those answers.

Ask Questions Of Scripture

As we become spiritually inquisitive, we must ask questions of Scripture as we study it, such as:

  • Who
  • What
  • Why
  • When
  • Where
  • How

These questions are fundamental to reading in general; however, it is helpful to write the questions down and routinely ask them while reading the Bible, until this becomes a natural habit. For example:

Who: Who is the author of the text? Who was this text originally written to?

What: What exactly is being said? What does the writing mean? What is the theme or purpose of the writing? What is the historical background? What type of writing is this—narrative, prophecy, letter, sermon, song, prayer, quotation, etc.? What is the immediate context of the passage?

Why: Why was this written? Are there any purpose clauses (these typically begin with so, because, to, for, so that, etc., which help discern the author’s purpose in writing a specific text)?

When: When was this written or when will this promise be fulfilled? Are there any time references in the text such as before, after, until, then, etc.?

Where: Where was this text written? Where is the narrative taking place?

How: How does this passage connect with other teachings in Scripture? How should this passage be applied? How should I pray from this passage?

Develop An Eye For Details

While reading the text and asking questions, take note of details which may provide answers to the questions or prompt further questions. Specifically, focus on details such as:

  • literary genre (narrative, poetry, prophecy, epistle, etc.)
  • grammatical structure of a sentence or paragraph
  • key words
  • things emphasized by repetition, amount of space given to it, or the order (sometimes order shows priority)
  • comparisons
  • contrasts
  • cause and effect
  • explanations
  • commands
  • exaggerations
  • foreshadowing
  • promises
  • applications
  • doctrine
  • going from specific to general (or vice versa)
  • the end of a scene
  • the plot
  • the climax

As one practices searching passages for details, his or her eyes will begin to readily pick up noteworthy aspects that lead to interpretation and application. Secondary tools (like commentaries and systematic theologies) will help with training one’s eyes to do this, continually pointing the person back to specific aspects of the text and their meaning/application.

Find The Answers By Research

As these questions are asked and details are noticed, they will often inspire the Bible student to further research. This research might lead to reading the text over and over again, reading the surrounding text to establish context, consulting a study Bible or commentary, or directing questions to a more knowledgeable believer. Eventually, if not immediately, these practices will reveal the meaning of the text (interpretation) and how to apply it (life application).

Observation Tips

What are some tips to help with observation?

1. Saturate the study of Scripture with prayer. In Psalm 119:18, David said, “Open my eyes so I can truly see the marvelous things in your law!” Like David, we should ask God to open our eyes before studying his Word and while studying it. We should also pray for grace to live out the truths learned from Scripture.

2. Read the text over and over again (including the surrounding context). Psalm 1:1-2 (NIV) describes how God blesses the person who delights in and meditates on God’s Word. The Hebrew word for “meditate” was used of a cow chewing her cud. A cow has a four-chambered stomach, and because of that, she chews, swallows, and regurgitates over and over again as the food works its way through each chamber. Cows do this in order to maximize extraction of nutrients. Similarly, we’ll find as we prayerfully re-read Scripture over and over again that God blesses such study. The Holy Spirit will extract maximum nutrients from the text to edify us. In referring back to the crime scene investigator illustration, often the investigator realizes that he’s missing something and, therefore, revisits the crime scene to look for further clues. We must also do that as we study God’s Word. And since Scripture is living and active (Heb 4:12), we will find that God continually meets us in the text, no matter how many times we’ve read it before.

3. Allow secondary materials to be secondary. The Bible is the primary source and the Holy Spirit is the guide. Consider commentaries, systematic theologies, Bible dictionaries, and any other secondary material, only after prayerfully meditating on the text. Allow the Bible tools to refocus one’s eyes on the text in a fresh way, in order to aid in finding meaning and application.

Conclusion

Are you prayerfully observing God’s Word—meditating on it to extract all the nutrients for your spiritual health? Or, are you simply reading Scripture, quickly skimming it, or neglecting it all together? If we are going to understand God’s Word, we must believe that all Scripture matters, develop a spiritually inquisitive nature, prayerfully ask questions of the text, begin to notice details, and research for answers. These are critical steps in discerning meaning and then applying it.

Reflection

  1. In the reading, what aspect about observing Scripture stood out most to you and why?
  2. How can we develop an inquisitive nature—one that seeks to understand and obey Scripture?
  3. What types of questions should we ask when studying Scripture?
  4. What types of details should we look for when studying the text?
  5. What other questions or applications do you have from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Holy Bible, New International Version ®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible.

All emphases in Scripture quotations have been added.

BTG Publishing all rights reserved.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Bible Study Methods, Bibliology (The Written Word)

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