Inductive Bible study is an important skill for every Christian, but it is crucial for tentmakers in foreign cultures, who support themselves in secular work like the Apostle Paul who made tents for a living. In Saudi Arabia, where Christians may not worship openly, expatriate believers meet in little house fellowships. In one city, a Christian engineer met each week with the leaders of twenty little tentmaker groups to prepare the Bible study each one would lead at his meeting on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
In Kenya, Bob taught high school science in a rural boarding school. He was asked to preach every third Sunday in the village church. He had never preached, but he learned to turn inductive Bible studies into sermons.
In Spain, Becky, still a new Christian, became a study abroad tentmaker, as she won fellow international students to Jesus Christ, mainly through inductive Bible study discussions in English. At the same time, medical students, Pedro, Pablo and others, led similar studies in Spanish to nurture their GBU groups and to win Spanish students to the Lord. Marisa, a teacher who found Jesus Christ in one of these groups then began studies for secondary school students.
In 1954 I went to Peru to teach in a bilingual school and God helped me start the first university fellowship group in Lima. But after a few meetings I panicked—I had already taught everything I knew! I learned that you cannot regularly give out unless you regularly take in. Bible study became a lifetime priority, not only nurturing me, but also enabling me to help others. It is hard to imagine any ministry that does not center on personal and group Bible study.
This paper consists of four main parts. The first is an explanation of the inductive Bible study method. The second is a demonstration of the method on Mt.15:21-28 about Jesus and the Phoenician woman. The third is the same material turned into a Bible study discussion guide. The fourth is a set of worksheets you can photocopy and use for future studies.
I. Benefits of Personal Bible Study
The Bible is, of course, the main way that God speaks to us. Reading gives us the gist of what he is saying, but study is necessary for fuller understanding. We should care, because it is amazing that the Creator of the universe would even take the trouble to speak to us. In Palestine, Jesus often taught in parables, so that all the hostile or indifferent listeners could return home with their prejudices intact. Some probably liked his little stories. But only those whose hearts were touched, who remained to ask questions, received explanations of what his stories meant (Mk.8; Mt. 13).
God chose to give us his revelation in the form of a book, which is now an ancient book, which requires deciphering. The situation is similar. We can be satisfied with a superficial understanding, or we can make serious effort to decipher all we can of his message to us.
A series of metaphors show our utter dependence on his Word. It is the bread of life, and as essential to our spiritual well-being as whole wheat or sourdough is to our bodies. But bread includes all our food, from the milk that is appropriate for infants and adults to meat for the mature. It is water that refreshes our souls when they get dry. It is even dessert (honey), for our delight. Jeremiah discovered this when a long-lost book (Deuteronomy) was found during temple repairs. He said to God, “Your words were found, and I did eat them and they were to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart!” So the Word keeps us healthy, but it also enables us to feed and refresh and delight believers and outsiders around us. (Mt.4:4; 1 Cor.3:1,2; 1 Pet.2:2; Is.55:1-3; Ps.119:103; Jer.15:16.)
But note other metaphors. Joshua says we are to meditate on God’s Word day and night as a recipe for success. The psalmist says it makes us like “trees planted by streams of water”— always green and fruitful. (Josh.1:9; Ps.1:2-3.) Isaiah 58:11 says we become watered gardens and like artesian wells, for the refreshment of others. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would use his word to make rivers of living water overflow from us to others(Jn.7:37-38).
James says God’s Word is a mirror that shows us our sins, the way a computer spell check program points out errors in our manuscripts (Jam.1:23-25). God’s Word can keep us from sinning, and washes us clean when we fall (Ps.119: 9,11; 2 Tim.3:16). It is light that illumines our daily path in a dark world and guides us in making decisions (Ps.119: 105)
Paul says his word is also our armor in this history-long cosmic war in which we find ourselves, and our only weapon—the sword of the Spirit (Eph.6:10-17).
Bible study is essential for prayer. It is how we listen to the Lord’s voice, and converse with him, and respond to him with hearts full of worship. John 15:7 says that if we abide in Christ and his word abides in us, then we can ask what we will and God will answer.
How much is available to us if we make time for Bible study! How much we miss if we don’t. Our family and friends and colleagues are impoverished by missing out on what we could have given them, and outsiders around us have less chance to find God.
II. Benefits of Group Bible Study
Group Bible study is the best way for Christians to nurture each other. It is the ideal way for professional people and students and all lay Christians to help each other, because our peers do not consider us as religious authorities.
When I started university groups in Peru and Brazil, I was younger than many of the students, and I was a layperson—a teacher in an elementary school, taking a few classes at the university. I related to the students, not as a missionary, but as a fellow student. It would have been awkward for me to say in a group meeting, “Now I want to teach you all something.” But I found that through Bible study discussion groups I could teach volumes without seeming presumptuous, even when we rotated the leadership—since I prepared all our study guides! All the benefits of our personal Bible study can be transmitted to those around us. (Later many of my studies were translated into foreign languages for other countries!)
Group Bible study is the most patient way to evangelize outsiders. Seekers have time to discover the truths they need to make a heart-felt, intelligent commitment to Jesus Christ. Seekers who will not go to church with us are often eager to study with peers in a non-religious environment, because it is non-threatening.
Group Bible study is ideal for nurture and evangelism in hostile countries. Where Christians are not allowed to meet openly, their survival requires that they meet together for mutual support. If evangelism is forbidden, we must obey God rather than local authorities. Good evangelism can never be stopped because it consists mainly of a godly lifestyle that raises questions in the people around us, revealing who are the seekers. We get them into home Bible study groups. My experience in Franco’s fascist Spain and in communist Poland showed me that these can never be stopped because wherever a handful of people can sit and talk about sports or music, they can be talking about Jesus Christ. Instead of big black Bibles, they can use small Testaments, individual Gospels, or simply pages with typed text and a few questions—easy to prepare at home with a computer.
Group Bible study and discussion leadership are skills most Christians can learn, even people whose best skills are quantitative rather than verbal. Not everyone can become a good preacher, but all can lead a small-group discussion on a passage.
So we need to learn good Bible study skills for our own spiritual well-being, for the sake of our families, our friends, our colleagues, and the outsiders we want to bring into God’s kingdom.
III. Develop Good Study Habits
Choose a regular place and time for study. You do not find time; you make time for what you consider important. Form a lifetime habit of Bible study. Plan to spend half an hour a day, or several longer periods each week. Then analyze just one passage a week, doing only one aspect of the study each day. It is better to spend a week in intensive study of one passage than superficial study of several, because the thoroughness produces insights that enhance all subsequent study.
For example, I am glad I took long enough on 1 John to learn that he uses light to mean three things: Intellectually, it is truth; morally, it is righteousness; and socially, it is love and fellowship. Now every time I find these words in John’s writings, my understanding is enriched.
For the same reason, it is better to study a whole book, rather than isolated narratives from several, because each passage is best understood in its larger context. So it is better to take one narrative after another, in Mark or Luke or Galatians or Haggai, because each text builds upon previous ones. Each book touches on a wide variety of subjects so even your teaching on diverse subjects can be taken from your main study book for a few months.
Supplement your concentrated study of a single book with rapid reading of the whole Bible in large chunks. For example, read all of Isaiah in one sitting. Many passages will illumine the particular ones you are concentrating on. When you combine the broad reading with intensive analysis of smaller passages, you are focusing simultaneously on trees, tree groves and the whole forest ecology.
IV. Why Inductive Bible Study?
A Bible study is not inductive because it consists of questions. Many questions only test if the user can read. Or they are intended to substantiate conclusions already presented. Inductive study uses questions to discover facts, then to interpret and correlate them, and then to conclude how they apply to our lives today. The facts you discover lead you to conclusions about what the writer meant and the first readers understood, and what it should mean to us today.
In contrast, a deductive study begins with conclusions, with propositions, and then seeks passages in the Bible to substantiate them. This is a good method for pastors or seminary professors whose greater knowledge and authority have gained them the respect and confidence of their Christian listeners.
But inductive study has the following benefits:
You learn and remember much better what you personally discover in the text. That is a reason why you should not consult commentaries on any passage until you have first squeezed out all the meaning you can.
Your group participants, Christians or outsiders, will remember better what you lead them to discover, than what you tell them. Their own discoveries make more impact upon them. Research shows that passive listeners forget about 90% of what they only hear from others, but they remember as much as 90% of what they hear, see, talk about and act upon.
It is the best way for lay people to teach Christians or outsiders—who do not consider their peers religious authorities. Many nonbelievers would not come to hear a religious authority, but are excited about Bible study with peers in a non-threatening environment.
Nonbelievers prefer examining the Bible and coming to their own conclusions about what to believe. Don Posterski tells about a man who told him, “The big problem with religion … is that it is a deductive system … you have to accept what is already decided for you.” Inductive study helps skeptical people.
So how do you do inductive study?
V. Detective Work is Required
You seek clues, like coroner Quincy, in an old TV series. His students found a suspicious human bone as the foundation was dug in a large construction site. He led his students in the analysis of that single, long-buried thigh bone, and determined that the person had been a tall, big-boned, blond, blue-eyed, Scandinavian male, and a professional football player. They determined his age, year of death, time of death, and the cause of his death—a gunshot wound! The large concentration of fluoride pinpointed the man’s long-time residence as Lubbock, Texas. He had been killed, but the angle of the wound showed the gun had been fired in self-defense. So Quincy and his team go to the town, and rather easily locate the perpetrator of the crime. They have him exonerated after two decades of hiding from the law. By exhaustive examination of one small bone they solved a mystery and restored an innocent man’s life!
Good Bible study requires sleuthing, and you will marvel at how you can reconstruct a whole incident through what seem like insignificant words. Each time Luke says that Jesus “turned” and spoke, it tells us that Jesus was walking along with other people. But he walks first. Why? Your research will show that disciples never walked ahead of their rabbi. It also shows that the crowd probably considered themselves disciples of Jesus. But Jesus decides when to sit down for a rest and to teach his followers. None of this becomes clear unless you notice the word “turned.”
In Matthew 15, it doesn’t say that the needy woman cried to Jesus and the disciples for help, but that she cried after them. What difference does that make? That one little word shows us they were all walking, almost certainly single file, on a narrow path diagonally through a field. (Walkers didn’t go on right angle roads.) So she was at the end of the line of disciples, and had to shout because there were 12 people between her and Jesus!
Your basic inductive tool is the question. A good exercise is to turn the statements in your passage into questions, like TV’s Jeopardy. What question does each detail answer? This shows what role that word has in the sentence. Take Luke 19:1, 2. Jesus “entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus …” This gives you the location, the occasion and the new main character. To ask “Where was Jesus?” only tests ability to read. Rather, ask, “Why was he going there? What can we know about it? Where had he been? Why didn’t he plan to stay there? What was his destination? Who was this man Zacchaeus?” Etc.
Just this simple exercise alone can break a problem of habit focus—always seeing the same thing in a familiar passage—and can give us new insights. When I began my studies at Chico State, Alice Alter, the IVCF staff worker, took a couple of hours to show me how to turn facts into questions, and I don’t think I went to bed that night. I read through one passage after another, turning facts into questions. I couldn’t believe how the Scriptures opened up to me. Those two hours with Alice forever changed my life! I sometimes stop in the middle of a study to thank God for her and her gift to me.
It made me eager to learn more specific question tools, of the kind we will consider below. If you use questions, you will find the Bible inexhaustible. Learning is not transferring blocks of data from a book or a person to your brain. No matter what material is presented, your brain will assimilate only those concepts that connect with concepts you already know—with data already stored in your brain.
So the inductive approach is especially useful for two kinds of passages—the most familiar ones and the most difficult.
1) Take familiar passages. The better we know them the more we are likely to suffer from habit focus. We see in them the same things we have always seen. They become old stuff. But even if you think you have squeezed all the meaning you can from a passage by inductive study, when you return to it in six or eight months using inductive questions, you will wonder at how much you missed. Why?
Because meanwhile you have been reprogrammed in two ways. All the other Bible studies you have done during those months have given you new insights that now affect the meaning of your former study. Your understanding of John 3 will be enriched if meanwhile you have worked on Numbers 21, about Moses and his bronze serpent. Your understanding of the rider on the white horse in Rev. 6 may change significantly if, in your broad reading you came across Psalm 45, Hab.3:8, 9 or Isaiah 63:3.
Second, you have had new experience. Your perception of the widow of Nain in Luke 7 will be significantly affected if meanwhile you have had a death in your family. Luke 14:25-35 will have new meaning if you have spent time with persecuted believers from China.
2) Take difficult passages. They are like hard nuts to crack. But they are always worth opening, and many can be opened with inductive tools. They are also like gold nuggets, not lying on the surface, but hidden deep down, where digging is required. The effort we make to understand them shows what value we place upon God’s Word. God’s Spirit does not help lazy minds.
Take Mt. 16, a passage Catholics use to legitimize the papacy. Is Jesus telling Peter he is the foundation rock on which the church will be built? Jesus is that Rock! The steps of an inductive study will lead you back to the word “rock” in Isaiah 51:1-2, where Abraham was the “rock”—the man of faith on whom God built his O.T. people of God. Jesus sees Peter as the first man of faith in his N.T. church, because he was the only one who had confessed Jesus as God. All the disciples believed Jesus was Messiah, but it took them a long time to realize he was also God. So Peter was first in time, but not in authority.
Take the glorious pregnant woman in Revelation 12, who is clothed with the sun, wears a crown with 12 stars, and has the moon under her feet! She cannot be Eve or the Virgin Mary. All the symbols in Revelation come from elsewhere in the Bible. Your study will show she represents the O. T. people of God, who gave birth to the Messiah and to the N.T. people of God, who are called “the rest of her offspring.”
The inductive approach always gives new insights—for a more basic reason. It is the appropriate way to approach the Bible because of the nature of the Bible.
VI. The Bible is Literature
God chose to give us his revelation in the form of literature. It is more than literature, so we pray that the Holy Spirit will open the Scriptures to our minds and our minds and hearts to the Scriptures (Lk.24:27, 45) But it is literature. So God expects us to approach the Bible as we would other literature—especially, ancient writings— like Greek tragedies.
That the Bible is literature means it is made up of words and sentences, and we must know how the parts of a language work. We must be concerned with grammar and syntax—although not in a highly technical sense. You can do good Bible study even if you do not know grammar, but I recommend that every serious Bible student learn the basics—at least the parts of speech. It has not been popular to teach this for decades, but I am glad one of my English teachers was old-fashioned enough to teach us how to diagram sentences. This has been invaluable for my Bible study. (Grammar is also an enormous help for foreign language learning and English teaching.)
There are not dozens of Bible study methods. I have descriptions of a dozen kinds—but all are ways to deal with the data in the text, and most are superficial because they begin at this point, without doing an inductive study first. Unless you do the digging first, you have only surface facts to deal with, and some of them may be wrong.
The Bible is a whole library of different kinds of literature, so we must determine what genre our chosen passage is, because that makes a difference in how to deal with it. Is it a historical narrative? a letter? a sermon? a collection of proverbs? a poem or a song? a prophecy? a parable?
Expect more figurative language in the last three. Daniel and Revelation contain visions. Remind yourself often that a vision never describes what really is, but only symbols of what really is. The vision may be bizarre, but the reality it describes is not. Many Christians think that all Scripture must be interpreted literally, so they fear figurative language. But symbols, far from diminishing biblical content, usually give us much more content than literal language could. We are not free to give the symbols meaning, but must discover what they already mean elsewhere in Scripture.
Regardless of the genre, we need four basic steps to understand Scripture and communicate it effectively to others.
VII. The Main Steps
1. Observation is scrutinizing the text, for data, not meaning. You ask, “What does it say?” This step is crucial and is too often omitted. Most people jump from reading, or misreading, to application, and so deal mainly with surface data that has not been properly interpreted. Most of us read badly. We miss an enormous amount of detail, much of it significant.
Bible study is like preparing a meal. Observation is gathering together your raw materials. You cannot cook food you do not have, nor study data you have not found. You will notice some meanings immediately, but do not yet try to interpret or apply. Just collect data. Turn statements into questions, and ask how or why about the details.
2. Interpretation is cooking the raw products for easier assimilation. Ask, “What did this mean to the writer and his first recipients in that ancient culture?” Resist the temptation at this stage to jump into application.
We could read the Bible like a contemporary novel, except that it was written from 2000 to 4000 years ago, and in diverse cultures. So in 1 Cor.9, we must determine why Paul made tents to know when it is appropriate today. In 1 Cor.11, we must discover what a woman’s head covering meant in ancient Greece, to know what application this passage has for us today. If we notice in Mt.9: 35-38 that Jesus sent his disciples to reap a harvest among people who had ample chance to know him, we will not apply his instructions to a pioneer situation where hardly anyone has heard of him.
3. Application is eating what has been gathered and cooked. We ask the question, “What does this mean to me today?” What point is there in preparing a meal and then not eating it? Meditating is chewing it well, for better digestion.
Because it is so easy to read the Bible and not put into practice what it says, we emphasize practical application. The lessons should be practical, and should be worked out in first person, singular, present tense, so your obedience can begin at once. The process is not complete until the truths have been digested and transformed into Christ-like character, strength for temptation, fruitful service and effective evangelism. Regular, nutritious meals are essential.
But by far the most important result of Bible study is not learning practical lessons, but gaining new insight about God that leads us to spontaneous worship.
4. The final form is what recipe books call the presentation of your meal. How do you make it attractive and easy to serve to others? You turn your data into an inductive group discussion guide, to help others discover quickly what it took you longer to ferret out. Or turn your data into an inductive sermon—easy to preach because while you have your listeners looking in the text for the answer to your question, you can peek at your notes, at the answer you will give. Your audience is never bored because you have them wholly absorbed. Or turn your data into one of the other creative forms suggested below.
VIII. The Enclosed Material
Note that four items are included in this GO paper. The first is an explanation of the inductive Bible study method. The second is a demonstration of the method on Mt.15:21-28—about Jesus and the Phoenician woman. The third is that material turned into a Bible study discussion guide. The fourth is a set of worksheets you can photocopy and use for future studies. You might want to try blind Bartimaus in Lk.18:35-43, the Roman centurion in Lk.7:1-10, or Jesus’ sermon in Lk.14:25-35.
Using the 4 steps on Mt. 15:21-28
With your Bible open at the text, you can see why certain details were recorded on the data sheet as observation. We are not concerned with meaning at this point. After each newspaper question in the left column, I jot down details I see. In the right column I jot down the immediate implication—so what? What does it matter? And I jot down my questions. The implications need to be verified and the questions researched.
The observation section has two parts, like all literature. The first is content and the second composition. The first is facts and the second form. The first, What is said? and the second, How is it said? Both are essential for meaning. Notice all the literary devices in the composition. The writer emphasizes points by repetitions, contrasts, or the amount of space he gives to them.
In a story, like the Phoenician woman, the content questions are more important. But in Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7, Jude’s letter or Psalm 24, the composition questions will be more important. But we need to ask both kinds in every passage.
All literary genre have a narrative component, but when the genre is not a story, you find answers to questions mainly in the context and elsewhere in the Bible. For example, who was Jude, to whom did he write, when and where did he write, how did he present his message, why did he write, and what were the consequences?
With your Bibles open to Mt.15:21, notice the observation details that have been quickly jotted down on the worksheet, both content and composition. Then see the suggested steps for interpretation, and note how they have been followed. Note the study tools, the resource books that were used. Then see the steps for application, and examples of the final form.
Then read through the completed inductive discussion guide on this Mt. 15 story.
—Ruth E. Siemens
Investigative Bible Study: Studying with Seekers.
Workplace Evangelism: Fishing out Seekers
Books on inductive Bible study:
Jeffrey Arnold. Discovering the Bible for Yourself. IVP. 151 pp.
Kay Arthur: How to Study Your Bible. Harvest. 126 pp.
Jack Kuhatschek. How to Study the Bible. IVP, 32 pp.
James Nyquist. How to Lead a Bible Study Group.IVP.
Basic Bible study resources:
A few basic recommendations from a wealth of available resources:
New Bible Commentary. IVP. 1340 pp. Won Christianity Today’s 1995 award.
New Bible Dictionary, 3rd Ed. Downers Grove: IVP. 1326 pp. Includes an atlas, etc. John Stott says: AI doubt if there is any better value for the money today. As a basic book for every thinking Christian’s library, it is indispensable.
New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nelson), 1545 pp., or one that suits your Bible, maybe Nelson’s Complete Concordance of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (Nelson),or The NIV Exhaustive Concordance (Zondervan), 1850 pages.
Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 20 volumes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 27 volumes. Downers Grove: IVP.
Both sets are excellent—much more than devotional commentaries, less technical than critical commentaries.
Craig Keener. IVP Bible Background Commentary of the New Testament. 800 pp. Award winner.
R. C. Sproul. Knowing Scripture. IVP. Excellent on rules of interpretation.
©1995 Ruth E. Siemens