I realised some Christians find it hard to hear from God’s Word themselves because they don’t know if they’re reading the Bible right. I’m sharing this inductive Bible study method or framework which has helped me:
COMA. Context. Observation. Meaning. Application.
- Genre: What type of writing is this passage or ‘book’ of the Bible? A story, a letter, a poem? Is it written as prophecy, with literary imagery or plainly? How would the genre affect how you read the text?
- Text: What has been written so far in this book?
- History: Who wrote this book? When? Why was it written?
- Facts: Any facts about an event? Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?
- Emotion: What emotions are expressed in the passage? Rebuke, encouragement, disappointment, hopeful?
- Key verse: What is the key verse?
- Key words: What are the key words? Are there words or ideas which are repeated? Are there words or ideas which repeat, or relate to, other parts of the same book?
- Logical outline: Is there a logical flow of points or ideas? Note phrases like “but”, “therefore”, “now”. What are illustrations used to support the main point?
- Characters: What do you think the characters in the story felt? Be careful of cultural assumptions about how characters would feel.
- Surprises: Anything about the passage that surprised you? Why?
- Contrasts: Are there 2 or more things being contrasted in this passage? E.g. light and dark.
- Comparisons: Are there 2 or more things being compared? E.g. drinking water and living water.
- Metaphor: Are there metaphors (specific word, imagery or event) used to allude to something deeper? E.g. rescue from prison allude to rescue from sin, being “born again”.
- Tone: What is the tone of the author in the passage? Is it sarcastic, frustrated? Why was he sarcastic or frustrated?
- Rhetoric: Are there certain rhetorical devices in the text? E.g. polemic rhetorical? How would this affect our understanding of the text? If the writer was being sarcastic, then his statement cannot be taken literally.
- Reconstruct event: Is the passage addressing an issue relating to a particular event the original audience had experienced? If yes, how would understanding the event change the way you interpret the passage? You can reconstruct the event with some level of plausibility based on clues in the text of the passage, together with other corresponding Bible passages.
- Summary: What is the key idea or story in this passage?
- What is meant by certain key words? E.g. “glorify”. If it helps, look up a Bible dictionary.
- Is the meaning of these key words, phrases, ideas, concepts, based on the context? E.g. the phrase “guardians and trustees” (NIV) or “guardians and managers” (ESV) in Galatians 4:1-7 must be understood in the context of the law during Apostle Paul’s time. Likewise the word “guardian” (ESV) or “schoolmaster” (KJV) in Galatians 3:24 must be understood in the context of the role such a person played at that time, not what it is today.
- Purpose: Why did the writer write this passage? Why did the writer include this detail? Why did the writer use this contrast, comparison, metaphor, rhetorical device? Was the writer addressing a specific problem in the context of his original audience?
- Big picture: How does this passage relate to the book? To the entire Bible? To Jesus and the Gospel?
- Is there:
- Promise to claim?
- Example to follow/not follow?
- Command to obey?
- Sin to confess?
- Reason to praise?
- Aspect of God’s character revealed?
- Perspective: How does this passage change, support, or contradict, the way you see the world, yourself, and God?
- Emotion: What does this passage make you feel? Why?
- Attitude: What attitude in you needs to change or improve in the light of this passage?
- Action: What action can you take in the light of this passage?
- Prayer: How should you pray in response to this passage?
First Things First About Bible Interpretation
Many people tend to jump to the meaning and application without beginning with the context and observations. The danger of this is to miss the point of the passage. In Bible interpretation, we must always keep first things first: exegesis.
Exegesis –> Theological Principle –> Application
In other words:
(Exegesis) What the Bible author meant to say to his audience in his context –> (Principle) Universal truth gleaned from that –> (Application) Applying that universal truth to our context today.
A comparison of how things could differ when we don’t keep first things first is as follows:
Studying 1 Corinthians 13 – improper interpretation:
“It’s all about love. Because God’s love bears these qualities, we should love with these qualities.”
This is not altogether wrong. But it’s not getting the main point either.
Studying 1 Corinthians 13 – proper interpretation:
Context: 1 Cor 13 is sandwiched between 1 Cor 12 (spiritual gifts) and 1 Cor 14 (orderly worship in congregation).
“It is not spiritual gifts which mark Christian maturity, but serving others with our gifts out of love.”
That’s Paul’s main point. We can still come to the same finding as the one above, but we will not lose the main point.
Consciousness of Three Worlds
Whenever we read a text in the Bible, we should be conscious that there are 3 worlds interacting: (1) world of author; (2) world of text; (3) world of reader (us).
Take for example the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. The author’s world would be the world of Jesus and the world of Luke. Questions one would ask about the author’s world would include: How did Jesus and Luke understand the law on inheritance? How did they understand the roles and expectations on sons?
The world within the text would be the world and logic of the story and the passage within the gospel of Luke. Questions include: Why did the younger son return to the father? Who did Jesus intend this parable for? What events preceded Jesus telling the story?
The world of the reader would be your world. You have to consider what cultural assumptions you make about the story. E.g. in your culture, people may think it is not a big deal to ask a father for inheritance before he passes away, whereas in another culture, this may be offensive. You have to also ask application questions in your world. How does this story change me?
It is therefore important to read the Bible passage and ask questions about it across the 3 worlds. Don’t attempt to answer the questions first.
After you have listed the questions, you should ask yourself how you would find the answers to these questions. Some answers cannot be found within the Bible itself. You may need to refer to good commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and other historical documents or data. E.g. the law on inheritance in the Roman world during the time of Jesus. The role of a ‘guardian’ during the time of Paul, ‘guardian’ being mentioned in Galatians 3:24. Search the word in a Bible dictionary: example here.
You should not adopt wholesale interpretations and conclusions put forward in commentaries you read. They should just be sources of information which help you come to your own conclusions. Recommendations on best commentaries on specific books of the Bible by Tim Challies found here.