How to Study a Bible Passage Ten simple and powerful steps October 23rd, 2017 Christina Miller
How to Study a Bible Passage
How to Study a Bible Passage Ten simple and powerful steps October 23rd, 2017 Christina Miller
Bible Engager’s Blog

Perhaps you’ve selected a Bible and started reading it. Maybe you’re even setting aside regular times to reflect or pray. You’ve gotten a taste of what’s inside, and a desire for God’s words is growing in you as you recognize the nourishment God offers in these encounters. What comes next? How do you go from a surface reading to unlocking and taking in more and more of what God has for you?

Whether you are reading the Bible for devotion, prayer, or academic learning, it is helpful to know how to study a Scripture passage. Studying helps us understand Scripture in its context, setting the stage for us to hear how God continues to speak to us through it today.

Find a comfy chair, pour a cup of coffee, and join me in studying the parable of the lost coin in Luke 15:8-10. Download this worksheet to try these ten steps on a passage of your choosing—alongside my example or anytime after.

1. Pray

Begin your time with prayer. Take a moment to clear your mind and focus your attention. Ask God to be with you as you study and reflect on this passage:

“Dear God, meet me as I read your Word. Give me eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand. Amen.”

2. Read the passage

Get familiar with your passage by reading it several times. Try reading it in different translations: at least one that is more word-for-word (like NRSV, NKJV, or NASB) as well as a translation that is more thought-for-thought (like GNT, NLT, or the Message). Notice how different translations help you understand the passage in different ways. What words and images stand out to you?

NRSV: “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The Message: “Or imagine a woman who has ten coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and scour the house, looking in every nook and cranny until she finds it? And when she finds it you can be sure she’ll call her friends and neighbors: ‘Celebrate with me! I found my lost coin!’ Count on it—that’s the kind of party God’s angels throw every time one lost soul turns to God.”

3. Who is speaking? To whom are they speaking?

Sometimes the speaker and audience are disclosed in the passage; other times you have to go back several verses or chapters. In this passage, the previous verses tell us that the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. This made the Pharisees and scribes—the religious professionals—grumble. So Jesus addresses this teaching to them (Luke 15:1-3). Knowing Jesus is speaking these words makes us hear them as spoken with his authority. Take into account who is speaking, who they are speaking to, and what they are speaking about to discern the meaning and relative weight of your passage.  

4. Who are the key characters?

Name the characters and find out who they are. Do they appear anywhere else in Scripture? Do they have a backstory? Do they have a title or role? In and around this passage, we have Pharisees and scribes, who are the religious elite in Jesus’s time. We have tax collectors and sinners, who are the outcasts. And we have the unnamed woman of the parable, respectable but with little status in Jewish culture because of her gender.

5. What is the genre of literature?

This teaching is identified as a parable (Luke 15:3), and it follows familiar markers of this type of writing. Parables tell stories using common images—like sheep and agriculture and families—to communicate deeper truths. They are fictional teaching illustrations, usually with some unexpected twist. Jesus often uses parables in teaching his disciples and other followers.

Other biblical genres you will encounter include narrative, law, prophecy, letters, wisdom, and apocalyptic literature. Identifying the genre helps us know how to read the passage—is this meant to be literal or figurative? Is it teaching or telling me something? Knowledge of the genre can help point us toward the intended meanings, similar to how we would read a novel or a history book with different expectations.

6. What does the original language say?

This step may sound daunting, but online tools now make the Greek and Hebrew behind our English translations more accessible to any reader. My favorite is Blue Letter Bible. Type in your Bible reference, then click on a specific verse to see it expanded in the original language. From that view, you can select a word and connect to its entry in their edition of Strong’s Concordance. You can see where else in the Bible this word has been used and the ways other translators have translated it, giving you a more nuanced understanding of its meaning.

7. What comes before and after the passage?

As we saw, zooming out a little helps us read the passage in context. What is happening before and after your verses? Is your passage a continuation of what came before? Is it setting up something that comes later?

Often parables come in a series, each expounding on the same teaching, or interpreting the other. In this passage, the parables before and after further illustrate the same concept. Each tells about something (or someone) that was lost being found—a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. Each gives a metaphor for God personally seeking out the lost—the shepherd, the woman, the father. The recovery leads to great rejoicing, pointing to God’s joy “over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

8. What are characteristics of the whole book?

Zoom out even further. What can you find out about the whole book? You may want to consult a commentary, online Bible resource, or notes included with your Bible or study Bible. What is the historical or cultural context? What are the book’s themes? Do you know who wrote or compiled it? Remember, much of the New Testament was written in the Ancient Near East during the first century, and the Old Testament is even older, so its assumptions are very different from ours in the global twenty-first century!

Often some of this information can be found in the first chapter. The author may identify who they are speaking as, address their audience, or state their purpose. For our passage, we can identify Luke as one of the four Gospels, or accounts of the life of Jesus. Luke set out to write an “orderly account” about Jesus’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection (Luke 1:1-4).

Luke’s Gospel is set within the Roman Empire, which had harsh class distinctions and power structures. There were clear “in groups” and “out groups.” The poor, women, and certain ethnic groups were at the bottom of society, often shunned and mistreated. But throughout Luke, Jesus’s call includes the outsiders. And Jesus calls his disciples to do the same.  

9. What is the passage’s message to its intended audience?

There are always layers to the audience when reading Scripture. Consider who is listening to the message, who the book was written to, who this writing spoke to on a wider scale, and who is receiving its words today. In this passage we have the hearers of Jesus, the church community of Luke, the wider New Testament church, and us too.

Piecing all our research together, we now get to make some initial conclusions. The Pharisees and scribes, who are powerful and elite, are grumbling because Jesus is including sinners and outcasts in his ministry. This is an ongoing tension throughout Luke’s Gospel. In response, Jesus uses a series of parables to reiterate that including outsiders is the focus of his ministry—and one of God’s primary concerns. Jesus came to seek out the lost, and God rejoices greatly when they are found. He uses an image of a woman—someone who did not have status in his culture—to represent God diligently seeking out those who are lost and celebrating at their return.

10. Reflect on the passage’s significance for you

The last step is to take all your gleanings and contemplate what this passage may be saying to you. Each person will find that different aspects or truths stand out. God may be showing you something specific about your own journey and spiritual growth. Take time to reflect and listen.

What is God saying to you as you reflect on the parable of the lost coin? Consider these questions: Who are the lost or outcasts in your culture, community, family? If God seeks out the lost, are you called to do the same? How might you do this? Conversely, what are lost parts of yourself, in need of Jesus? In what ways might God be seeking you now? How would it feel to be found?

As you go forward, live with the passage. Let the words and observations take root inside you. See if they come to mind in certain situations, giving you wisdom or insight or calling you to take an action. Let the passage’s meanings mature in you over time. 

Read more posts about: Reading the BibleSpiritual Practices

Christina Miller
Christina Miller

Christina Miller is the Senior Scripture Engagement Writer at American Bible Society. She has a BA in English Literature from Pepperdine University and Master's of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. As an active member of the Episcopal Church, Christina has served as a youth director, Christian formation director, healing prayer minister and adult education teacher. She loves to travel and has spent extended periods of time in Germany, Tanzania and Israel.

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