Harvesting the Fruit of God’s Word, Part Two: Reaping and Gathering—Key Principles for Studying the Word
Every June, my husband and I gather our kids and head out to the strawberry patch for our annual strawberry picking adventure. I’ll have to admit, some years, we are tempted to skip it and grab some berries at the corner grocery. But something keeps us heading to the patch. Maybe it’s the idea of carrying on the berry picking family tradition from our own childhood. Or perhaps it’s the taste of our homemade strawberry jam that just doesn’t seem like it would taste the same with store bought berries. Or maybe it’s the primal sense of connectedness to the land and the accomplishment of gleaning its harvest. Whatever it is, every year we plod through rows of berry plants, filling cardboard cartons until they’re spilling over. But beforehand, we make sure to go over the basic principles of picking. With the kids, these include such simple imperatives as “Don’t step on the berries,” “Don’t pick orange berries,” and of course, “Don’t eat all the berries.” But beyond these basics, there really are some keys to achieve berry picking success. The fact is, with any harvesting endeavor, doing things the right way leads to success in the venture.
This same truth applies when it comes to harvesting the fruit of God’s word. When we approach scripture with solid principles of study in hand, we will find success in gathering the best of the harvest. Here are three principles, which apply equally in the harvest field as they do in God’s Word…
1. To find the fruit, you need to move the leaves.
If you have ever picked strawberries, you will know that the berries are usually found hiding in the shade of the leaves. If you stand above a plant and look down, you may be fooled into thinking the plant is barren, when in reality, it may be loaded with fruit. Scripture can sometimes give the same illusion. Some passages you may read and think that there is not much fruit there relevant to your life (hello, Leviticus). But, when you get closer to the text, begin to dig in and study it, you might be surprised at the treasures you will find hiding within it. But they will often never be seen without spilling a little sweat in the process.
The study of Scripture is commonly laid out in a three stage process: observation, interpretation, and application. But the first thing one must do before engaging in these activities is to decide what to study. While there is a time and place for surfing through the scriptures following a thread of a topic, we can often glean much more from scripture when we focus intently on one particular section of scripture (often called a pericope), studying it thoroughly and gleaning it until its branches are bare.
Observation focuses on the process of LOOKING at the text. Some things to look for include key words that seem important to the main idea of the passage, repeated words and phrases, lists, contrasts and comparisons, cultural and historical references, and important grammatical markers like terms of conclusion (words like “therefore”) which often tell you quite a bit about the movement of the author’s argument.
Interpretation is also referred to as “hermeneutics.” It is the next stage of the process which involves THINKING about the things you observed and studying them at a deeper level. At this stage, doing some outside research on the cultural and historical context is key, as well as researching the author and the original audience of the particular passage. This is also when getting to the words in the original language can be so helpful. It is also key to look at the passage in its context, circling out consecutively into the passages before and after it, the book, the writings of that particular author, the genre, the testament, then the Bible as a whole. If you’re in the Old Testament, here is where you might want to think of the Messianic implications, how the passage might connect to Christ. In the New Testament, explore connections in the passage to themes and passages in the Old Testament. There are many tools that will help you at this stage in the process, which I will go over next month in the third part of this series.
As is true with strawberry picking, there comes a time when those pounds and pounds of ripe strawberries beg to be turned into jam. This is comparable to application. This involves what we are going to DO with the fruit we’ve gathered. Although of course, the doing may also involve our minds, our ways of thinking about God, ourselves, and his plan for the world. How is our theology and worldview different than it was before we studied the scripture? How are we going to live our lives differently based on what we’ve learned in God’s word?
2. Pick the fruit at the peak of ripeness.
Traveling through the three steps above, we can see why picking ripe fruit is so important. In a sense, all fruit is ripe in that there are things we can learn and apply from every single portion of God’s word (even the notorious Leviticus!). However, it is often good to scratch where it itches in relation to scripture. In this sense, sometimes thinking through the application portion at the beginning is a good place to start. What things do I need to learn more about? In what areas is my knowledge of Scripture and theology weak? What challenges am I facing right now? What personal character traits do I need to work on? What challenges are the people I am around facing right now?? All of these questions will lead you to decide what fruit you need to gather, and then perhaps where in Scripture to begin.
3. Don’t harvest alone.
Finally, one of the basic principles that applies in cultures throughout the world when it comes to harvest time is don’t try to do it alone. Now, this doesn’t mean to make every study endeavor a group project. Not at all. For especially at the beginning stages, it is good to go to the text yourself to see what it says before you call in the experts. But even then, you dare not go alone. At every second of the process, walk through scripture in community with God and in his presence. Ask his Spirit to enlighten your understanding and to speak to your heart. Once you have spent some time in a passage with just you and God, then it is time to widen the community circle to others who have done the same before you. The Christian faith was meant to be lived in community, and this applies as well to the study of the book of our faith. See what others have said on that scripture and on that topic through commentaries, books on theology, works of both the early and contemporary church, etc. Let their insights flow together with yours as you ponder and process the scripture, struggling to discern its meaning and relevance. Harvesting fruit from God’s Word is a community venture.
(In Part Three of this series, we will look at some specific tools you can use to study the Word. For a great time of studying the Word, join us Nov. 2-3 at the 2012 Word Conference: Jesus, Faith in the Facts in Denver, Colorado.)