Interestingly enough, Bible teaches us that there are many different ways to study the Bible. If we focus on just one of the ways we’re supposed to study the Bible, then our knowledge of the Bible, of Christ, and of ourselves will be greatly impoverished. Let me list some of the important ways Scripture itself teaches we should be studying our Bibles.
Exegetical Study. This is the most basic way we study our Bibles. When studying the Bible exegetically, we look at the meaning of the words, the grammar, the sentence structure, the context, the historical background, and the overall theology of the Bible. Paul provides an example of exegetical study when he examines Genesis 17:7 grammatically, historically, and in light of the Bible’s theology. He writes, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings’ referring to many, but ‘offspring,’ referring to one, ‘and to your offspring.’ who is Christ. This is what I mean: The law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God so as to make the promise void” (Gal 3:16-17). Paul examines the nature of the word “offspring.” He considers its relationship to the overall theology of the Bible, and he situates it in redemptive history. That’s exegetical study.
Biblical-Theological Study. In biblical theology, we study the Bible along its own storyline. The whole Bible tells one beautifully unified story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration in Jesus Christ. There are many themes that God weaves through His story. We need to understand how those themes are developed through biblical history so that we can be swept up into the Bible’s own story, eagerly anticipating the age to come. Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 is an example of biblical theology. In that sermon, Stephen does not limit himself to a single biblical text. Instead, he proclaims the sweep of redemptive history from Abraham, through Moses, and to the post-exilic period. He studies the theme of the temple and sacred space showing that the temple was only an earthly shadow of a greater reality, which is fulfilled in Christ and in the church (Acts 7:1-53). That’s biblical-theological study.
Systematic-Theological Study. Systematic theology takes one biblical idea and formulates an orderly, coherent account of it. For example, in order to understand what the Bible means by “sin,” we need to study everything the Bible has to say about it. We need to know from Scripture what “sin” is, where it came from, how and why it is passed down through generations, etc. It’s only when we do systematic theology that our thoughts about biblical truth are clarified so that we have a sharp understanding of what God revealed. Jesus engaged in systematic-theological study with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. He studied the meaning of “Christ” throughout the whole Bible. Luke 24:27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Christ explained the nature of “Christ” from all of the Scripture, not from a single text. This is systematic-theological study.
Practical-Theological Study. Practical-theological study (sometimes called “pastoral theology” or “counseling,” but the biblical term is “discipleship”) is the fruit of every other kind of Bible study. It is the highest expression of biblical truth because it brings all of Scripture to bear on all of life. This is what our Sunday School study “How People Change” attempts to do. It explains the nature of the world around us, the nature of human relationships, the nature of the human soul, and then applies the Bible’s great theological disciplines in order to lead us to worship Jesus through faith. And when we encounter the Christ of all of Scripture, it’s impossible that we remain unchanged.
Jesus Himself is the master practitioner of “practical theology.” In the book of John, we’re told that Jesus “knew what was in man” (Jn 2:25). Jesus understood how the streams of sin run in the hearts of men, and He knew how to apply the gospel as a redemptive and healing balm so that He would be exalted in the hearts of men. The following two chapters present two of the most practically difficult cases of counseling found in the Bible. In John 3, Jesus counseled Nicodemus, a self-righteous, blind, but curious Pharisee. Christ preached the gospel to Nicodemus, corrected his false doctrine in love and called on him to be born again. In John 4, Jesus counseled the woman at the well. She was a licentious woman who had a string of husbands. But Jesus wisely and gently preached grace to her and called her out of her sin. Christ applied the law and the gospel to her with love and grace. This is the fruit of practical-theological study. Jesus knew the Word of God so thoroughly that He was able to bring it all to bear upon the minds and hearts of men, pointing them to Himself.