Today I have asked my husband Keith to tell you how he does a textual study. This is primarily useful in the New Testament epistles, and a bit more complicated, but still doable for the average Christian if you set aside the time, grab plenty of paper and pencil, and put your mind to it. --dw
It is possible to read a passage of scripture over and over until it is nearly memorized and still not understand it—I have done that. God reasons with us through his Word and expects us to use analytical thinking to understand Him, and He did mean us to understand Him. You don’t bother to communicate with someone you don’t want to understand you.
A paragraph is one unit of thought in written language and a group of paragraphs make up a segment that communicates a larger thought. The ASV (available online) has the best paragraphing. Often, modern translations chop some paragraphs into smaller pieces to make them more like sound bites and thus chop up God’s chain of reasoning. Also, verse and chapter numbers interfere with reading; if possible, use a Bible computer program to remove them and print out the text you wish to study so you will be able to read it as any other book you study. I was amazed how much that improved my comprehension.
To analyze a paragraph, first read it a few times quickly. Jot down the one thought it brings to your mind. Now, read it more slowly and write down the major phrases using the Bible words. Leave out non-essential words, condensing the phrase as much as possible and still have the sense. I know we are taught that no word from God is non-essential, but we are not saying that; we are studying and making our own notes to be able to better understand the message from God. Using this method Eph 1:17 becomes, “[praying] that God give you a spirit of wisdom & revelation in knowledge.”
It helps to take a blank sheet and write these phrases out. Don’t even try to keep your paper neat at this early stage. You will be doing a lot of crossing out, circling and inserting. We will often wish to stack some words that are parallels, such as wisdom and revelation are in the verse above. Or, we may list some to show their relationships as in Rom 8:18-27 where there are 3 who groan: creation, ourselves and the spirit. We will not be doing an outline so much as we are creating a graphic. Once we have written all the phrases from a given paragraph, we may scratch some out and scribble them in other places to show a relationship or to create a list, but we keep them in Bible sequence. Then, we may draw lines from one phrase to another and write in some of our own words to clarify a relationship; colored pencils work well for this. All this will take several more readings of the paragraph.
At the end of this process we have a graphic that shows the relationship of each phrase to the main thought of the paragraph. That main thought should be in Bible words. Do not be surprised if it is not the same as the one you jotted down at the beginning. That is the excitement of discovery.
At first, this process will be tedious and slow. The rewards are many: You will understand more than you thought possible; you will have one or more charts available on your graphic that you can use to teach someone else; these charts can be used to create PowerPoint presentations.
Now do the next paragraph, and the next, and the next. Use a separate page for each paragraph and only one side of the page. Now, review them and see which paragraphs cluster together to make one point. For example, the paragraphs of Rom 1:18 to 3:20 all fit together to show that all men are in sin and need the gospel. A conclusion stated forcefully in 3:9 and 3:23.
Another example: The paragraphs from 1 Cor 8:1 to 1 Cor ll:1 seem to have no cohesiveness as Paul moves from eating meats to pay of the preacher to the Israelites in the wilderness to the Lord’s Supper & back to eating meats. Many have accused Paul of going off on tangents but that usually means they do not understand his purpose. That whole section concerns the need to give oneself up to benefit others. He proves his rights to be paid in order to say that he did not use his right that he might not hinder others, threatens those who do not give themselves up with the punishment of the Israelites, and then ends by saying we should all imitate him just as he imitates Christ, the supreme example of giving up oneself for others. So certainly, the one who is mature can eat meat without worshipping an idol, but he should give up that right if its exercise could cause a brother to stumble.
At this point you are probably thoroughly confused. It would help if I were there with you and could lead you through one paragraph personally, but I am not. So you will need to attack this article in a similar way you might your chosen text. Read it again and again. Try to follow the instructions one at the time as you read your passage. Eventually you will understand, and practice will improve your ability to do these things. Such study is a delight in itself as we discover God’s truths and see new light. But that is a small thing in comparison to the joy we can have in showing them to others.