Would you like to get more out of reading your Bible? Don’t answer. That’s a rhetorical question, kind of like when a salesman asks you, “You want to be treated fairly…. don’t you?” Of course you do! Whatever your task with the Bible: reading through it in a year, studying one small passage, listening to someone preach from it, or even just cracking it open for the very first time, I recommend an easy three-part approach: Historical, Universal and Personal. So let’s “HUP” to it.
Historical – what it meant at the time
Understanding the historical means you are answering this question about the text you are reading, “What did this mean then?” In order to get the most out of a text, it is important to know a little historical background. Scholars may dig very deep into the historical background and you could do the same. But, knowing five things about the text is sufficient for most of us. I remember these five things as “who times two, what, when, and why”. Many Bibles have an Introduction section at the beginning of each book that you can read to quickly get this background information.
- Who #1 – The first who means “who wrote it?” It can helpful to know who wrote the text you are reading. Not only does it give you a little historical knowledge, but it can also make the message more rich. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote much of the New Testament. Knowing that God used Paul (once a persecutor of the church) to record Scripture and lead others is a lesson in grace and redemption in and of itself.
- Who #2 – The second who stands for “who is the audience?” Was this written to Christians, Jewish Christians, Israelites, Romans, to one particular person or anyone who might pick up the scroll? Knowing who the original recipients were can help the reader interpret various passages.
- What – What stands for “what were the circumstances?” The original audience for your text received it at a specific time in history. What was going on in their lives? Is the original audience under the Old Covenant (Law), or the New Covenant (Grace), or neither? Are they struggling with sin, famine, oppressive government, poverty, etc…? Are they being persecuted for their faith? What is the culture? Are they walking with the Lord, or is sin rampant and accepted? What are the primary religions in their region? How were women treated in that culture at that time? Answering these questions helps determine why certain commands were given.
- When – When stands for “When was this written?” Knowing a precise date is good, but understanding the general era may be more helpful. Basically, be aware of whether you are reading from the Old or New Testament to know whether God’s people were under the law or in the current age of grace. Reading the Old Testament is beneficial in giving you a rich knowledge of God’s original design, and His plan to restore us to relationship like Adam once had. It gives you a glimpse of the holiness and heart of God. But read it knowing that you are not under the Law. If you are reading from the first four books in the New Testament, aka “the Gospels” (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), keep in mind the unique time in history. Those books tell of the time when Jesus came to make the transition from the old covenant to the new covenant, teaching and living the Law correctly.
- Why – Finally, the why stands for “why was it written?” Was this a letter addressing specific issues? Was this written to accurately record history? Was this written to give us a glimpse of our future? Knowing why God inspired that author to write that book wraps up the historical and leads you to the next phase of this study method: universal.
As I stated, you can go much deeper, but I think knowing Who x 2, What, When, and Why will give you a solid background for a richer understanding of the text.
Universal – what it means now and always
Understanding the historical sets the groundwork for something even more important, the universal truth in the passage–however big or small–that you are studying. Understanding the universal truth in a passage is answering the question, “What does this mean now?” The Holy Spirit of God breathed the scripture through human authors.
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. (2 Timothy 3:16 NLT)
And since God inspired the words, there is universal truth in each passage you read. The God who inspired the words in the Bible does not change, and therefore, the truth applies today. Many passages are pretty clear cut and the truth in them is easy to pick out.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NIV)
This famous passage was true when written and is true today. He loved us then, He loves us now, and Jesus came to offer salvation. Easy. But what about this verse:
He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? (Matthew 12:11 NIV)
Don’t be intimidated. Just remember to get the historical background, and then the underlying truth is likely to emerge. Jesus was speaking to Jews in the synagogue, men who were under the Law and not allowed to “work” on the Sabbath day. So what does it teach us about God and the world He created? Jesus’s statement demonstrates how the life-preserving intent of the Law overrides the legalistic application of it. That was, and is, and always will be true! There is always meaning for us to gather from the Bible, because God hasn’t changed.
Personal – what it means for me
Please don’t stop at the universal truth. Historical is good, Universal is great, but at this point you have wonderful knowledge, which typically comes from your own effort. Move to the most exciting part that’s at the heart of making this Christian life such an amazing adventure. Answer the question “What does this mean to me?” Personal gives you wisdom which comes from God! Whether you are reading your Bible, studying your Bible, listening to the Bible on your phone or hearing God’s Word preached, allow the Holy Spirit to act as your personal highlighter. Listen, in your spirit, for God’s Spirit to say, “[insert your name], this is for you.” Personal instruction from the God who spoke the universe into existence–you can’t get much better than that! Always enter into Bible study longing to hear the personal message from a God who knows you, loves you and wants what is absolutely best for you!
So study on, my brothers and sisters! HUP, HUP, HUP!
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers. (Psalms 1:1-3 NIV)