It was the end of the school year, fifth grade, no less. A year of “lasts.” Last talent show, last STARS concert, last science fair. Last school lunch with my daughter in the cafeteria surrounded by her giggling friends.
One last assignment and then off to middle school. Spring fever was in high gear and my daughter wanted to rush through her work and be done with it.
“Trust me,” I told her. “I get it. But you still have to do your best, so let’s give it another shot.”
The task was to memorize the first two paragraphs of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. No small thing, to be sure.
Finally, the day before she was to stand before the class and recite our sixteenth president’s most famous speech, she nailed it. Front to back and top down, my theatrical daughter rehearsed it with passion and gusto.
“Great job!” I exclaimed, and then asked, “So what does it mean?”
“What?” she asked, her young brow furrowing in bewilderment.
“I’m asking you about what you just read—the Gettysburg Address. What does it mean?”
“What do the words mean? Can you tell me what you just said?”
Looking at me as though I’d grown another head, she began to rattle off the speech from memory.
“No, no,” I interrupted, “I know that you know the words. I’m asking you to tell me, in your own words, what Abraham Lincoln was talking about.”
“We don’t have to know that, mom! That’s not part of the assignment!”
Against her will, I had her slowly read the words to herself. Then I asked her to tell me what she had just read. Next I had her paraphrase it in her own words. Finally, she was able to tell me that President Lincoln was telling people that, eighty-seven years ago, the country’s forefathers took up residence in America to make a nation that treated all men equally. Mr. Lincoln, in the midst of a civil war, was dedicating a piece of land as a burial ground for those who’d lost their lives in battle.
Isn’t it interesting that, in memorizing the first two paragraphs, she had no idea what she’d been reading?
How often do we treat the Bible the same way?
I first received a copy of the New Testament at a church retreat in the seventh grade. Knowing I should read it, I started in Matthew and continued to Revelation. Then I did it again. And again until, in the tenth grade, I went to another church retreat and got my own Bible.
Excited to finally have “both halves” I started in Genesis and read all the way to Revelation, continuing the pattern until I learned how to study the Bible in 1999.
After reading Scripture on a fairly regular basis for over twenty years, I could recite certain passages – I knew quite a few of the words. But just like my daughter and the Gettysburg Address, I could not necessarily tell you what the Bible, as a whole, was about.
Because, like my fifth grader, I’d misunderstood the assignment.
You see, Caitlyn was under the impression that the goal of the task was to spit back words. It was not.
The goal of the assignment was to understand President Lincoln’s speech. The means, in this case, was memorization.
We make the same error when we approach Scripture with the wrong goal. We don’t read the Bible because we know we should, although we certainly should. To get a little more provocative, we don’t primarily read the Bible to know something—we read the Bible to know Someone. And if we’re going to do that, we need to think deeply about the words we are reading. We need to come to a place of understanding before we move on to the next psalm, proverb, book, or letter.
I incorporate five primary steps in Bible study. Each one is necessary. None can be skipped. The reward is rich—richer than you can imagine, and oh, so worth the work.
Step 1: Determine the context
No verse in the Bible exists in isolation. Each is part of a greater narrative, interconnected and related to the rest of Scripture, so when we read it, we must read it with the big picture in mind.
First, ask some questions. Let’s say we’re looking at Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
What is going on in Philippians 4:12 and 14? What is going on in Chapter 4? What is going on in this book? What type of book is this, i.e., legal discourse, historical narrative, letter? Who wrote it? Who did they write it to? Why did they write it? Where does this fit in the big story of the Bible?
When we ask these questions of Philippians we discover that this piece of work is an epistle, or a letter, that the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi while he was in jail in Rome. He wrote to encourage the believers to pursue Christlikeness. This is a New Testament work, which tells us that it occurs after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, during the years of the earliest Church.
Step 2: Observation
When observing the text, we are asking the question, “What do the words say?” One reason that Caitlyn couldn’t tell me anything about the Gettysburg Address is because she had never slowed down to observe the words. She hadn’t given them any thought or attention other than to read them and commit them to memory. Had she done so, she would’ve mined some treasures. Abraham Lincoln was speaking to a nation that was just eighty-seven years old and already in the throes of civil war. The men who fathered the country valued human life, for they were “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Let’s try it with Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”
Since we know this verse does not exist in isolation, read verse 12. Better yet, back up to the beginning of the chapter, or better still, chapter 1, verse 1. Simply starting at 4:10 tells us that Paul is rejoicing. Why? Because the Philippians had renewed their concern for the apostle. Paul goes on to assure them that, while it comforts him to know they care, he is not in need, because “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want (vv. 11, 12).”
Now reread verse 13, but don’t ask what it means. At least, not yet. We are still in the process of determining what it says.
Here are a few of my own observations:
- I – Paul is the one talking (duh, but this is the process)
- Can – this references ability
- Do – an action
- All things – anything and everything
- Through Him – Christ is “Him”
- Who strengthens – strength comes from Christ
- Me – Paul
Step 3: Interpretation
Now we ask ourselves, “What does this mean?” In this instance, we might want to look up a few definitions. I use Merriam-Webster:
- Can – 1) know how to, 2) be physically or mentally able to, 3) used to indicate possibility.
- Do – 1) to bring to pass, 2) perform, execute, 3) commit, 4) bring about, effect.
- Strength – 1) the quality or state of being strong : capacity for exertion or endurance, 2) power to resist force, 3) power of resisting attack, 4) legal, logical, or moral force; a strong attribute or inherent asset; the strengths and the weaknesses of the book are evident.
- Strengthen – 1) to make stronger, 2) to become stronger.
I know this seems obvious, but you’ll pick up nuggets you may otherwise miss by doing an exhaustive study on the meaning of the words. With time, you’ll get faster and won’t need to look up quite so many.
So what does this mean? In light of the wide range of circumstances that Paul has endured in verse 12, I interpret Philippians 4:13 the following way:
Paul has the knowledge and the physical and mental ability to persevere through, and find contentment in, anything and everything the Lord lays before Him, because it is the Lord’s power and force working through him.
Step 4: Application
Application is where we ask, “What does this mean for me?” Notice I did not say, “What does this mean to me?” Words mean what they mean, and the author of the words had a particular message he was trying to communicate. We do not get to assign meaning to the words of Scripture, thus robbing them of their divine authority. Our job is to understand first, what the words meant to the author and his audience, and second, what they mean for us, several thousand years later.
What does Philippians 4:13 mean for believers today in 2017?
Paul found the strength of Christ to be sufficient not only to enable him to do everything the Lord called him to, but to give him peace in the midst of it. If this is true for Paul, surely this is true for us. The Lord will equip us to walk through seasons of abundance and scarcity, fame and anonymity, health and sickness, financial stability and insecurity, rejoicing and mourning, because it is the Lord’s strength and power at work within us.
Step 5: Correlation
This is the least mentioned step of Bible study, so perhaps we’ll call this “extra credit” for those who want to go deeper in their time with the Lord.
Correlation is where we ask, “How does this correlate to the rest of Scripture?” Another way to look at is, “What does the rest of the Bible have to say about this subject?”
The easiest way to determine this is to look at your Bible’s concordance, if it has one. The concordance points out other verses of Scripture that repeat prominent words or themes. My concordance directs me to 2 Cor. 12:9; Eph. 3:16; Col. 1:11; 1 Tim. 1:12; and 2 Tim. 4:17.
Each of these verses comes from letters of Paul. When I synthesize them I come to this summary: The strength of Christ, which comes from His glorious riches and the power of the Holy Spirit, is made perfect our weakness. He strengthens us to increase our endurance and patience, and enable us to live out our purpose.
What does this add to your understanding? Here’s my answer:
It pleases Christ to work in us and through us to bring about His perfect plan. No matter what He calls us to or what happens to us in life, with Christ, we will never run out of divine power to endure and even thrive. Because we know it is Christ who holds all things together, we are bulletproof until He takes us home.
Now you try! What is your favorite verse? Where is it in the Bible? Who wrote it and who did they write it to? Implement the five steps and let us know in the comments what you found.
May God bless you in your studies. #HeartStrongFaith
About The Author
My name is Rebecca Ashbrook Carrell. I am, in order of importance, a Christ-follower, wife to Michael James Carrell, and mother to Caitlyn and Nicholas. I am also a conference and retreat speaker, Bible teacher, radio personality in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and a student at Dallas Theological Seminary.