Study the Word (part two): Meet My New Teacher, Sherlock Holmes

This is part two in a series on what I have learned to help me study the Word more effectively. You can read part one here

Growing up at a Christian school, I had a Bible class built into my schedule each year, and many of my teachers were significant influences in my understanding of Scripture and my personal walk with the Lord. Other influences, such as pastors and mentors, have also been a blessing as I have learned how to move my knowledge of Scripture out of the classroom and into real life. And, as of late, Sherlock Holmes has been the newest addition to the list of Bible teachers who have impacted my spiritual life.

I started reading Great Cases of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because I was looking for something fun to read this summer along with some denser books that are on my coffee table. Each case that Sherlock solves is its own short story, so I can easily sit down and read a little bit, then not pick it up again for a week and not be out of the storyline. Plus, I somehow acquired this really pretty copy, and books are especially fun to read when they look and feel classic, like I should be sitting on a picnic blanket alongside the river with a parasol, or perhaps in Belle’s library in Beast’s castle. (I mean, it’s the dream library, am I right?)

This summer, I want to focus on learning how to study the Bible correctly and effectively, both for growth in my personal walk with the Lord as well as growth in how to equip the students I am ministering to. I am watching a short video series from Dallas Theological Seminary and reading a couple different books to help me gain an understanding and appreciation of studying the Bible methodically: Living by the Book by Howard Hendricks, How to Read the Bible Like a Seminary Professor by Mark Yarbrough–and what was my for-fun book is now added to this list as well.

Of all of the different ways people have put together to help you study a Bible passage, Inductive Bible Study is perhaps the most commonly taught. This method teaches observation (what do you see?), interpretation (what does it mean?), and application (how does it work?).

I’m going to be honest, I learned this method in junior high or high school, and it has continually come up in other contexts, but I have always been resistant to it because the first step, observation, feels so tedious.

Observation is simply looking at what the words on paper say, but there are so many factors to consider when you observe. You want to consider the type of writing, the time period of the author, the grammatical significance of the words on their own, and the significance of the sentence in light of the paragraph, in light of the chapter, in light of the book. You should look for comparisons, contrasts, commands, promises, cause and effect statements, conclusive statements, etc. And when this method is taught, you are instructed to write all of this out.

My pride always convinced me that I have excellent reading comprehension–I mean, I scored pretty dang high for that section on the ACT­–so I was probably above spending much time on the observation part. That was just for people who weren’t good readers or who were baby Christians still unfamiliar with the Bible.

But I am learning that, when I skip observation, my ability to correctly interpret and apply the passage is hindered. I am not getting the full depth of the God-breathed words when I decide to just read it once then immediately determine what I think it means.

The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle connection: the more Sherlock stories I read, the more I recognized that Sherlock Holmes follows the same method of observation, interpretation, and application. His ability to make keen observations then interpret what those mean is what has made him famous! It’s the key to solving each mystery.

There are a few (convicting) lessons I have learned from Sherlock Holmes about how to more effectively read and study my Bible.

  1. Don’t go into observation having already determined your supposed application.

It can be easy to open your Bible looking at a specific passage to prove a certain point, but all too often that results in our unconsciously trying to make Scripture say what we want it to say. Observation has to come before interpretation and application in order to correctly understand the Word.

In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes receives a letter requesting an audience with him, and Watson asks, “What do you imagine that it means?” Holmes responds, “I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

There are several ways I think this concept applies to our interpretation of Scripture. Don’t go to the Bible looking for Scripture to prove your own points. Be cautious that you don’t make up an application just to have something to say about a passage. And don’t assume you know what a passage is talking about just because of how you have heard it talked about in the past.

There’s a method and an order to most things in our world, from building a house to cooking a meal to solving a math problem, and reading the Bible is no exception.

  1. Nothing is insignificant.

In “A Case of Identity,” a Miss Mary Sutherland had entered Holmes’s house upset, and after asking her a couple of questions, he allows her to just talk, explaining her background and her family history and her relationship with her stepfather before she even begins to discuss the actual reason she was there. Watson observes: “I had expected to see Sherlock Holmes impatient under this rambling and inconsequential narrative, but, on the contrary, he had listened with the greatest concentration of attention.”

It turns out that these seemingly “inconsequential” details are a key in Holmes being able to understand what motives might have prompted her parents to be the conspirators behind Miss Sutherland’s mysteriously-disappeared fiancé.

When it comes to reading the Bible, there is a lot that is easy to overlook or skip. Genealogies, references to cities we don’t recognize, quotes from other parts of Scripture, metaphors that don’t make sense–these are all commonly skimmed over. In the past, if I was reading something that felt tedious or like background information, I had a habit of continuing to read ahead for the treasure instead of stopping to look for treasure in those verses, doing research to figure out why this would be in the Bible and even in this specific passage.

If every word of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), that includes endless lists of names of who begat whom. That includes the choice to mention a specific city, or closing greetings, or metaphors of animals and plants.

An example to study: the genealogy of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 1 versus Luke 3. Matthew’s record starts at Abraham and works forward in time, while Luke’s starts at Jesus and works backwards in time all the way to Adam. Matthew mentions key women in his, while Luke’s only mentions men. Matthew and Luke both had different purposes in writing their Gospel accounts, and these purposes are made clear in their selection of how to present the genealogy.

  1. Connect the passage you are reading to other parts of the Bible.

Look for commonalities in Scripture–how does it all connect? Though the Bible was written by over 40 different authors on three continents over 2000 years, because those authors were actually writing the words of God, it’s one cohesive book.

The ability to consider other situations is what led Sherlock Holmes to solve “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor.” When Holmes amazes his client by stating that he already had a conclusion, he tells him, “I have notes of several similar cases, though none, as I remarked before, which were quite as prompt. My whole examination served to turn my conjecture into a certainty.”

Sherlock Holmes considers other similar cases to aid in his present one; in the same way, consider what you know from other parts of the Word.

The ability to do this just takes practice. The more you read and study the Bible, the easier this becomes. The more I dig in to the different parts of the Bible (especially the Old Testament), the more I can connect various parts of the Bible as one whole book.

I taught through 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles this past semester while at the same time studying Jeremiah on my own. The Kings and Chronicles books provided me with an overview of the history of the divided kingdom, the generations of corrupt kings and disobedient people, and the development of what led God to the decision to punish his people through exile. Reading Jeremiah, I am thus able to understand the circumstances surrounding Jeremiah’s ministry and the examples of injustice he is referring to.

Another great example is the book of Hebrews. This powerful letter gains much more significance and depth when you have an understanding of the Old Testament, specifically the first five books of The Law. Being told that Jesus is your great high priest may not mean much until you know what a high priest was, just as learning that Jesus’ sacrifice once for all would have been an incredible relief to a people who were accustomed to the ongoing sacrificial system.

  1. Everything you need is there in the text, but observation is a learned skill over time.

In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes and Watson are trying to solve a mystery concerning an abandoned turkey with a valuable blue gem found inside, and their first major clue is finding the black felt hat alongside the turkey that was dropped. Holmes handed the hat to Watson and asked what he could gather about the owner. “I see nothing,” said I, handing it back to my friend. “On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your inferences.”

You can see everything (although, perhaps, there’s more to see if you know the original languages it was written in), yet you must learn know how to look at it, what questions to ask, and how to connect what you see to what it means.

Howard Hendricks wrote, “What makes one person a better Bible student than another? He can see more. That’s all. The same truth is available to both of them in the text. The only difference between them is what either one can see in a cubic foot of space.”

I am still learning how to slow down and spend time observing before I jump into deciding what a passage means, but my heart has been convicted that it is worth it to analyze and savor each inspired word. The following statement from Living by the Book really convicted me as I considered my perspective towards the Bible:

Too many “readers” are nothing but browsers. They turn pages the way they flip through channels on a TV set, looking for something to catch their interest. The Word doesn’t lend itself to that sort of approach. It requires conscious, concentrated effort. So read portions of the Bible over and over. The more you read them, the more clear they will become.

If you are looking for a good resource to teach you what to look for in observation, Dr. Hendricks’s book that I mentioned above is very thorough, almost to the point of being overwhelming, until you remember that the skill of observation will become more natural the longer you do it. While he is a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes’s own skills came through years of study and continuous involvement in cases that sharpened his abilities even more.

I want to dig in to everything God has revealed to us on the pages of Scripture, and I want to savor each word that he intentionally wrote to help us know him more and more.

Study the Word (part one): It’s More Than a Love Letter

I’m a strong believer in the accessibility of Scripture, that God’s Word can speak to anyone. Because we have the Holy Spirit, Who guides us into truth (John 16), we don’t need fancy commentaries or well-designed devotional books to help us know what the Bible is saying.

I’ve been working on a series of blog posts to share more about what I have personally learned to help me study the Bible. This topic of discussion comes up often with others, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers yet (or ever will), but I want to share some things that have significantly impacted my relationship with the Word and thus my spiritual growth.

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A Bible teacher in high school used to remind us over and over that “the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible.” I am pretty sure it was a fill-in-the-blank question on every single test that semester. He meant that the Bible is self-sustaining. When we don’t understand a passage, we should search Scripture to find other passages that support it and help us digest it more fully.

As someone who loves to learn and study, though, I do appreciate being able to use those sorts of tools to give me a deeper understanding, whether it’s through knowing the historical context or the meaning in the original language or the way it connects to another passage in a different part of the Bible that I never would have recognized on my own. Various Bible studies have encouraged me and helped me learn through what God has taught someone else. The Bible has unending layers, of a sort, and tools help us go deeper and deeper within those layers of learning and interpretation.

But my first step in trying to understanding a passage is not to go to someone else’s words. It’s to spend time digging in to the passage itself, praying that the Lord would reveal truth to my heart.

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2:12-13)

There are a lot of people who don’t feel confident in being able to open the Bible and gain what God has for them. And often, when I talk to those who feel they are in a dry season with God, their explanation is that they try to read the Bible but can’t get anything out of it right now.

I have been there too. But I knew that the Bible was living and active (Hebrews 4:12), so there was no way I could blame the problem on the Word having gone stale; rather, it had to be something to do with me.

As an aside, we do often go through what some refer to as a “desert” season in our spiritual life, and sometimes this is a place where God chooses to leave us in order to strengthen our faith. It’s not always a result of our sin or our attitude. However, what I am talking about is a boredom or an apathy toward the Word because it doesn’t seem to be doing anything in your life, so you give up trying to read it.

Then, through a combination of things I was reading and people I was talking to, I realized that my problem was my perspective when I went in to read the Bible. I was looking for what it told me for my life.

There seems to be a phenomenon, especially within middle school and high school groups, that attempts to convince pre-teens and teens how fun it is to read the Bible. The motive is good – help them desire to get into the Word! But the reason I most often heard growing up is that the Bible is a love letter from God to you, and who doesn’t want to read a love letter??

I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school, and my crushes never liked me back, so I found comfort in the fact that Someone would write me a love letter, and Someone would care for me just as I am. After disappointing Friday nights and dashed Valentines’ Day hopes and lonely high school formals, I would retreat back to my room with my journal and write to Jesus, asking Him to fill that void in my life.

Now this is a tangent, so don’t get lost, but I am not totally bashing this concept. It really helped me grow through singleness to recognize that Jesus was the One Who could fulfill me, and it was only as I accepted this and rested in Him that I was ready to meet Eric. A relationship is made up of two broken people, and as wonderful as my husband is, he’s not perfect, and he doesn’t complete me or satisfy me the way Christ can. And Eric has to live in that place, too, where his ultimate desire is for Christ.

But back to the Bible being a love letter –
Eric writes me love letters from time to time. I married a sappy man who knows how to make me feel loved, albeit a little awkward in a giddy way, by writing pretty words and telling me how much he loves me.

And the thing is, those letters are all about me. About how much he loves me and how beautiful he thinks I am and how much it means to him when I serve him in different ways. He praises me and makes me feel good about myself, makes me feel valued and loved.

And while God does love us, and while He did pay the ultimate sacrifice because He wants us to share in eternity with Him, I’m not sure that the Bible is a love letter to us because the Bible is not about us. And when we are looking for ourselves constantly in Scripture, we will often come up dry and confused, because we can’t find ourselves on every page.

I get why youth pastors and other leaders communicate this to those kids. At that age, you are so self-centered. I know I was! All that mattered was whether or not my friends were inviting me to sleepovers, or how I did on my Algebra test (and if it was the top grade in the class), or what people thought about me. The world ended after high school, so of course every little thing was a life and death matter! And when you tell someone that there is a love letter waiting for them, of course they are going to want to read it, because who doesn’t want to be praised and adored? Kids need to know that the Bible is relevant to their lives, and this is a great analogy to help them dive in.

But that can then set us into a pattern for the rest of our lives as we keep looking for how the Bible serves us and our desire to be affirmed. The Bible is about God, first and foremost. It has implications for our lives, and it talks about how we should live, but all of that is in light of Who God is. And I think if we take the time to recognize Who God is, we will find that we experience the depth of His love even more.

so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith–that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:17-21)

We will come away discouraged from reading our Bibles, and especially from studying the parts that are more difficult, if we are only looking for the application–“What does this mean for my life?” I believe that the first thing to look for in Scripture is what it says about God and Who He is. Look for what the passage says about His character and His actions. What is true about God?

For the junior high Bible curriculum I taught this past school year, students learned to look at the Bible as one story with the plot outline of Creation, Fall, Redemption. The Creation and the Fall happen within the first couple of chapters–and the rest of the Bible is God’s process and fulfillment of his promise of redeeming the world, ultimately through His Son, then through His Spirit working through us to share the Gospel with others and to bring Him glory.

He is on every page of Scripture, and as we learn to look for Him in everything we read, we will see how much he loves us, and we will grow more deeply in our knowledge of him, our love for him, and our relationship with him.

To read more in this series, here are the links for the following posts.
Part Two: Meet My New Teacher, Sherlock Holmes.