In a nutshell, careful observation, supported by a constant awareness of context, both fueled by curiosity are my top three principles. Stated in another way, if you want to glean lots of treasure from God's word: Be observant, be aware (of context), be curious.
Be observant. Most people will start discovering a lot more treasure in the Bible just by slowing down and looking more carefully at what they are reading (or hearing if they are auditory learners). Rushing through the Bible to get a reading program done rarely allows for the careful observation that exposes the gems in the Bible, so I often tell people, "Stop, look and listen!"
But it helps to know what you are looking for, of course, so what should you be looking for? I could write a book about this, but here are a few things for those starting out on the journey of discovery.
- Look to see if the passage is a complete unit and for how it fits in with the rest of the book it's a part of.
- Look to see what kind of literature your passage is. Different kinds of literature need to be looked at in a different way. For example, an Old Testament narrative (story) is very different from one of Paul's letters (mostly written "discourse"), and Old Testament poetry is different from the Book of Acts. For a thorough understanding of this, I recommend How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.
- Look for the main thoughts/themes or events of passage and for how the themes are developed (or how the events fill out the story if the passage is a narrative).
- Look for repeated important words and other factors like emphasized words, connecting words (What is that "therefore" there for?, etc.) and other patterns.
- If applicable, look for hints about the writer and those he is writing to that give you clues as to the purpose and main ideas of the passage.
- I hope this gives you a good starting point. Now let me illustrate how this works (just a little) from Ephesians 1:3-14.
Take a careful look at Ephesians 1:3-14 and it won't take too long to notice that words like, "all, everything, every" are repeated quite often, that the passage is one big long praise to/of God (the phrase "praise of His glory" or something similar appears three times), that the words "redemption" and "predestined" appear twice (NIV), etc. There are many more things to notice in this passage, of course--I have just scratched the surface. But just a little closer look at the first "every" leads to a remarkable discovery that can leave us reflecting on it for the rest of our lives: we have been blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ! Just working through the implications of that one truth can change your life forever, especially when you remember that it's in the plural: all of us together and as individual parts of Christ's body have already been blessed with every possible spiritual blessing! And then there's all the worship in the passage, the rest of the "all, every" theme and much, much more.
One final thought about observation: careful observation can also help us see what's not there. What do I mean? I mean we get to question assumptions we or others have made. One of my favorite examples of this for me comes from the parable of the Sower. I recently realized that contrary to my previous assumptions, the parable does not imply only a 25% success rate, does not say that the word is planted only one time, does not say that the soil cannot change or be renovated or weeded, etc. All of these new things that aren't there have many implications which I cannot cover right now, but I trust they help you see what I mean by seeing what's not there.
Be aware of the context. Words only have specific meaning in context. A word can have potential meaning by itself, but it can have specific and clear meaning only when we see it in its context. For example, you don't really know what I mean by the word "love" until I add some kind of context to it: "I love dark chocolate!" or "I love country music," or "I love my grandchildren!" And note that even the amount of context can be increased by adding more words. I can tell you what kinds of dark chocolate I "love." I can give you specific types of country music that I "love." I can elaborate (forever) on what I love about our grandchildren.
So it is with the words in the Bible. Surrounding every word in Scripture are concentric layers of context that give the word its specific meaning. These include 1) the words immediately surrounding it, 2) the entire passage it's a part of, 3) the book it is a part of, 4) the Bible and theology, 5) the history and culture of the writer and original readers. All of these can affect the meaning of the words in Scripture, and the possible meanings of a word can only be narrowed down to its one true meaning by thinking about its context. Now some of this thinking is automatic, so don't panic, but being aware of context as we read the Bible is one of the most essential parts of discovering God's written treasure.
Be curious! For me, insatiable curiosity is the fuel that feeds the discovery process in my approach to Scripture. I find myself asking curious questions all the time: "Why did Paul repeat that word so many times?" "What was the writer feeling when he wrote those words?" "How is this connected to that other passage later in this book?" "What would it have felt like to be there when Jesus did that or said that?" I think you get the picture. My observation of the passage gives birth to these questions, then the questions lead to more observation that leads to more questions that leads to more observation, so that it becomes a wonderful cycle of discovery that never really ends. Try it! Take a passage that you are familiar with and look carefully with your curiosity at full attention and see if you can arrive at questions you've never asked before. You won't be disappointed.
But how do we answer all of these questions and/or make sense of the observations? The answer to that will have to wait until next week when I will cover a simple method (SOAR) that will help you put all of this into practice and soar like an eagle on the winds of fresh discovery.
Marveling at the endless treasure,
Tom, one of Abba's little children