4 questions to ask when reading the Bible


This article is adapted from Asking the Right Questions by Dr. Matthew Harmon. It originally appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.

What questions do you ask?

What we take away from the Bible largely depends on the type of questions we ask when reading the text. But how do you know what the right questions to ask are? Jesus provided a good starting point when he summarized the two greatest commandments: (1) to love God with all our being, and (2) to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mast. 22:34-40). From these two commandments, we can ask four fundamental questions to help us grow in our relationship with God.

What do we learn about God?

God is the main character of the Bible, the hero of the story. So it makes sense that the first question we ask is what we learn about him. The Scriptures reveal who God is in at least three different ways.

First, he shows us his character, or his attributes. Sometimes the Bible states them directly (for example, Isaiah 6:3). At other times, you have to infer truths about his character (for example, 1kg. 22:1-40). Even in a book like Esther, where God is never directly mentioned, there is much to learn about him.

Second, the Bible shows us God’s leading. What we see God doing in a passage tells us who he is. A good example is Psalm 23, which describes several things that God does for his people: to lead, to restore, to comfort, to prepare and to anoint. Paying attention to what God is doing in a passage helps us grow in our understanding of God.

Third, the scriptures reveal God’s concerns. Throughout the Bible, God reveals the people and issues that concern him, such as those on the margins of society (for example, Exodus. 22:21-22). These concerns give us a window into the heart of God for all.

As you search for the character, conduct, and concerns of God, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the three persons of the trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (e.g. Mast. 28:18-20).

What do we learn about people?

Each passage has something to tell us about humanity. Let’s approach this question from three different angles.

The first angle is to search the text for aspects of what it means to be created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). What desires or desires does the passage reveal that are expressions of being made in the image of God?

The second angle is to seek out the fallen condition(s) it exposes. The fallen condition refers to the sinful beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions, or tendencies mentioned or implied in the text (for example, Prov. 6:16-19). As fallen creatures, we experience the same kinds of temptations and battles against idolatry described in the text, even though they take different forms in our lives today.

The third angle is to look at what our lives should be like as redeemed people. God calls us to live in certain ways, both as individuals and as a group of believers (Acts 2:42-47). Often a passage will describe or command what this common life should look like.

What do we learn about relationships with God?

Loving God with our whole being takes many forms. A good place to start is to consider what we should be praising God for (for example, 1 pet. 1:3-5). Often this stems from what we learn about God – his character, conduct, and concerns.

Second, think about the sin you need to confess and repent of (1 John 1:5-9). Consider how you see the fallen condition at work in your life and confess it to God. What tangible steps of repentance do you need to take in light of what the Spirit has shown you?

Finally, look for the promises you need to believe in (2 pet. 1:3-4). Think about what aspects of the gospel are present in the passage and how God wants to change you through it.

What do we learn about relationships with others?

God created us to be in community with one another. He makes us part of the body of Christ and calls us to be a light to those around us. God has placed around us people with whom we must interact: family, friends, colleagues, classmates, neighbors, etc. Some are believers, others are not. Either way, the Bible has a lot to say about how we should interact with others (e.g., 1 pet. 2:11–25).

Since conflict in this fallen world is inevitable, consider what the passage teaches about reconciliation with others. God calls us to “live in peace with all” if possible (ROMs. 12:18). Is there someone you need to reconcile with or help to reconcile with someone else?

The Bible often shows and directs us to ways to serve and care for others. Look for both direct commands and examples of caring for others, such as David’s kindness to Mephibosheth (2 Sam. 9:1–13).

Remember that the ultimate goal of reading the Bible is to have our lives transformed by God so that we become like our Lord Jesus. Asking these four simple questions focuses our attention on the main message of the Bible and prepares us to apply biblical truths to our lives in meaningful ways. Why not try for yourself?

Download a free Bible study cheat sheet containing the four questions explained above plus four additional questions designed to help you apply God’s Word in your life. Then print it out and paste it into your Bible for easy reference!

Matthew S. Harmon (PhD, Wheaton College) is Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He was previously a staff member at Cru for eight years and is the author of several books. Matthew and his wife, Kate, live in Warsaw, Indiana, and have two sons.

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Publication date: June 9, 2017


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