Comparing the Ingredients

Whetting Your Appetite for Correlation

One of the many wonders of the Word of God is how it came into existence. The Bible is a collection of books and documents written by men who were supernaturally enabled by the Holy Spirit to record Scripture.

The apostle Peter wrote:

Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God. (2 Peter 1:20–21)

How Correlation Works

That’s why this technique of correlation remains so critical for searching the Scriptures. Correlation recognizes that all Scripture is God-breathed, thereby establishing the credibility and value of the whole Bible. So comparing one verse—by highlighting a particularly significant word or truth—to another verse in a different section of the Bible, helps to broaden your understanding and to confirm your interpretation. That’s how correlation works.

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By the way, just in case you are skeptical about the value of including the technique of correlation in your study of the Scriptures, take a look at the master Teacher as He uses precisely the same approach!

Jesus Shines the Light of the New onto the Old

Jesus, the Light of the World, broke through the thick veil of four centuries of spiritual darkness which spanned the close of the Old Testament era to the dawn of the New. He came, John declared, as “one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).

Just as a handy flashlight brings much-needed clarity to the dark corners of a dusty attic, Jesus, as He taught, shined the light of understanding onto the shadowed, often misunderstood passages of the Hebrew Scriptures.

At times, Jesus went toe-to-toe with the harsh and judgmental religious clerics who routinely presented themselves as the ultimate theological authority. On one occasion, Jesus shone the light onto their erroneous claims regarding the truth of the resurrection when He said, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. . . . Haven’t you ever read about this in the Scriptures? Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ So he is the God of the living, not the dead” (Matthew 22:29, 31–32).

Enter Jesus—the master of correlation!

By comparing what He was teaching to a misrepresented passage in the Old Testament book of Exodus, Jesus reversed centuries of bad teaching on what would soon emerge as the bedrock doctrine of the New Testament.

Jesus’ use of correlation literally brought to life—from the damp, darkened tomb of Pharisaic misinterpretation—the wonder and power of the resurrection!

Benefits of Correlation

Consider this list of the values of correlation to your own study of the Bible:

  • You will base your interpretation on clear discernment instead of vague opinions.
    Everyone has an opinion about what a verse or passage “means to them.” But do any of those opinions matter? Absolutely not! What matters is God’s intent and what the divinely inspired writers were moved to communicate when they penned the Scriptures.
  • As your knowledge broadens, your understanding will deepen.
    By comparing passages from throughout the whole Bible, just like Jesus did when correcting the Pharisees, you ensure greater accuracy in your determination of what the Bible means.
  • You will cultivate a reasonable and balanced approach to the Scriptures.
    How easy—and dangerous—it is to become unyielding in your teaching of the Scriptures. Correlation provides a firewall to protect against such unnecessary dogmatism by guaranteeing a balanced and more gracious presentation of truth.
  • You will become able to separate truth from error quickly.
    Correlation hones your ability to detect subtle errors in the teaching of others who promote incorrect ideas and who handle the Scriptures carelessly.
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So . . . don’t wait to get started.  You’ll be encouraged when you discover how wonderfully God’s Word fits together as a whole!

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Understanding the Ingredients: Ask God What It Means

In the Old Testament book of Psalms, David the psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8 NIV)!

God’s Word spreads before us as a smorgasbord of nutritious and satisfying truths necessary for us to grow in Him. Yet, just as it would be difficult to prepare a wonderfully fulfilling holiday dish if you didn’t understand the recipe, so preparing spiritual meals proves virtually impossible if you don’t understand the meaning of Scripture.

Just as observation helps you answer the question, What do you see? So, interpretation helps you answer the question, What does it mean?

“Help me understand the meaning of your commandments, and I will meditate on your wonderful deeds.”  (Psalm 119:27)

 David, Israel’s shepherd king, possessed a profound devotion for the Word of God. In fact, he composed Psalm 119 as an ode to Scripture—extolling the wonders and pleasures of knowing God through His Law. Yet, David fully understood that mere human understanding of Scripture was insufficient. That’s why we regularly hear David ask the Lord’s supernatural enablement in understanding the meaning of Scripture—in other words, interpretation. In the same manner, then, anyone desiring to search the Scriptures must approach God and His Word with the same supernatural perspective.

Prayer is essential to discovering the biblical author’s original intent. We simply need God’s divine assistance. That’s why it’s critical that we ask Him for His help.  —Charles R. Swindoll

Key Questions to Interpreting the Scriptures

When studying any particular passage of Scripture, several key questions help you unearth the context. Much of this overlaps with observation. For instance, context has to do with the geographic, historic, and cultural setting of the biblical passage. In short, it’s the who, what, when, and where of the text. Ask:

  • What is the setting?
    Observe people, places, names, clues about the time of year, the weather, or the geography of the scene. It all helps to put together the rich fabric of the story or passage.
  • What is the genre?
    Is this passage poetry, as in the Psalms or Ecclesiastes? Is it narrative—that is, does it tell a story, like Exodus, as the Israelites wander in the wilderness? Perhaps it’s a parable—smaller, fictional pieces that pack a powerful lesson, as when Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 or the farmer sowing seed in Matthew 13. Or is it prophetic, as in the grand oracles of Ezekiel, Daniel, or the New Testament book of Revelation?
  • Who is the author, and why was it written?
    Understanding who wrote the particular Scripture you are reading, and why, will also help you unlock its overall meaning. Clues to this can be found in the notes of your study Bible, in the introduction to the book also in your study Bible or by consulting a variety of Bible commentaries. There are numerous online commentaries as well to guide you in your study.

This level of prayerful, and sincere, study will ensure you develop an accurate understanding of what the passage means.

Hazards to Guard Against

There are also important hazards to avoid when attempting to interpret a passage of Scripture. When putting together your interpretation of Scripture, guard against . . .

  • Reading your personal bias into the text.
    Interpretation is not setting out to find passages that prove your theory or reinforce your particular point of view. Interpretation is discovering truth and meaning out ofthe text, not bring your view tothe passage.
  • Being overly confident and dogmatic.
    Guard against becoming a self-appointed expert on a passage that has for centuries, possibly even millennia, remained a mystery! That’s why the reminder to ask the Lord’s help is so critical at this stage of searching the Scriptures.
  • Placing yourself above the authority of Scripture.
    Ultimately, God’s Word must govern every aspect of our lives. It is essential that the student not only be careful and diligent in his or her study of the Scriptures but also to live humbly and consistently in submission to them.

Just as David bowed in prayer to see the Lord’s enablement in understanding Scripture, so must we ask the Lord for guidance as we seek to interpret His Word.

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Observation: The Beginning of a Wonderful Journey!

A New Testament Story Reveals Clues to the Power of Observation

Most Christians know Luke wrote one of the four Gospels that open the New Testament. In fact, it’s identified by his name. . . Luke.  But he also wrote another New Testament book . . . the book of Acts!

In my first book I told you, Theophilus, about everything Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven after giving his chosen apostles further instructions through the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:1-2)

What follows is Luke’s sequel to the Gospel of Luke, as a detailed chronicle of the birth of the early church.

In this familiar text that begins the book of Acts, Luke, the writer, offered clues to how the story would unfold. In this single verse, there is much to be learned by paying close attention to the words Luke used to set the scene.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

Notice that the word “but” begins this verse. This is a connecting word that signals a contrast in thought. When you see a word such as “but” or “therefore” or “since,” it’s a clue that what has just been written or said is linked closely to what will follow.

 By paying close attention to what was happening and being described in Acts 1:8 and any other passage you may be studying, you can learn some important principles of observation. We’ve already highlighted one clue: contrast. Here are some others you should watch for in your observing.

  • Contrast
    But (contrast) you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes
  • Cause and Effect
    You will receive power (effect) when the Holy Spirit comes upon you (cause)
  • People and Places
    When the Holy Spirit (God) comes upon you (the disciples). And you (the disciples) will be my (Jesus) witnesses, telling people (unbelievers) about me (Jesus) everywhere—in Jerusalem (city), throughout Judea (region), in Samaria (region), and to the ends of the earth (all nations).

You can begin to see the significance and expansive impact of Jesus’ vision for the disciples simply by taking note of what you see—observation—in the text.

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Four Ways to Read the Text with Open Eyes (Observation)

Below are four important principles for you to learn and ultimately to practice each time you sit down to search the Scriptures for yourself.

  1. Read as if you are reading the passage for the very first time. This guards against the danger of familiarity. You might try reading the same passage in several different versions and then comparing the expression. Fresh eyes are the best eyes for searching the Scriptures.
  2. Read the passage as if you are reading a love letter from a special someone or dear friend. That means you are reading with great care and paying close attention to every word, not skimming or speed reading.
  3. Read the passage like a detective—looking for clues such as details, dialog, emotions expressed, etc. Take careful notes!
  4. Read as if you’re in the text—placing yourself in the story or in the context of when and where it was written. Imagine the scenes, chock full of sounds, smells, and impressions.

The more you practice this important step in studying the Bible for yourself, the more the Scriptures will come alive to you personally and to those with whom you share your observations!

Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Searching the Scriptures: Find the Nourishment Your Soul Needs(Carol Springs, IL: Tyndale House, 2016), 83–89.

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A Simple Prayer Opens Our Eyes

A Familiar Psalm Shows the Power Behind Observation

Before you get skeptical, take a moment to think about it: If God went to such mind-boggling lengths to reveal Himself in His Word, wouldn’t He want you to see what He wanted you to see? Of course, He would.

Yet here is list of common frustrations for people struggling with studying the Bible:

  • I don’t understand the language.
  • The Bible uses confusing images and figures of speech.
  • I don’t know where to begin.
  • I don’t really understand how everything fits together.
  • I can’t make sense of poetry and prophecy!

You may have frustrations of your own. But the Bible itself offers hope and help for anyone not understanding how to search its treasures.

David’s quest for discovering biblical truth began with a simple prayer:

Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your instructions. (Psalm 119:18)

What Do You See?

The first thing we see is that this is a prayer! A simple but powerful observation. It’s simple because it’s obvious. It’s powerful because it shows us that reading and studying the Bible is a supernatural experience that begins with inviting God’s help. And that includes opening our physical eyes—so we can notice important details and facts to unlock the Bible’s meaning—but also our spiritual eyes—so that we see deep spiritual truths (Ephesians 1:18). Look for clues such as repeated words and phrases, time of day, detail regarding surroundings and even contrasts and comparisons!

Second, we notice that studying the Bible provides wonderful and reliable instruction! In a culture saturated with false reporting and deception, it is so important that we pray for God’s help in discovering life-changing wisdom to direct our lives (John 16:13). Always take a few minutes during observation to underline or highlight right on the page of your Bible direct commands or promises that are revealed.

What Do You Need?

Finally, we see that Bible study is profoundly personal: David prayed, “Open my eyes.” Ultimately, we are responsible for our own spiritual well-being. Studying the Bible for your own personal spiritual benefit is a worthy use of your time and energy. Your life can be changed . . . your attitude can be improved . . . your concerns can be resolved and relieved in the promises and principles found in Scripture.

So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and start searching the Scriptures for yourself! But don’t leave out the most powerful and important step in the journey . . . prayer!

Ask the Lord to open your eyes too. Make sure to have a pen and paper ready to record the results!

Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Searching the Scriptures: Find the Nourishment Your Soul Needs (Carol Springs, IL: Tyndale House, 2016), 83–89. To learn more, see the Searching the Scriptures study.