What is Inductive Bible Study?

person wearing silver ring on ring finger on book page

There are about as many ways to study the Bible as there are dad jokes in my dad brain. But some are always better than others. One of the best Bible study methods I have come across is the Inductive Bible Study method.

I first heard about this kind of study when my fiance (now my wife) was taking a Bible study methods course in college. Being the nerd that I am, I read all the books for my own classes and hers too. I was drawn in by this way of studying the Bible that was entirely new to me. 

Up until this point, I was most concerned about what a verse or passage in the Bible meant to me. How did I understand it? What did I think it meant? I would read a passage and think that it was specifically about me. 

One of the great things about the Inductive Bible Study method is that it takes the focus off of ourselves and puts it entirely on Scripture. The questions we begin with aren’t questions about how we are feeling or what is going on in our lives. The questions we begin with are focused on the Bible. This allows for the Bible to speak to us in the way that it was intended to. 

So, how does it work? Before you get your pen and Bible out (or your colored pencils), start with prayer. Whenever we begin to study the Bible, we should begin with prayer. Prayer settles our spirit, it centers our mind on what God has given to us. Ask the Lord for wisdom, to make the words of Scripture clear to you in your study. One of my professors at Seminary suggested using this simple prayer: Lord, open my heart to your Word and open your Word to my heart. That is the kind of attitude we want to begin with.

Once we have prayed, then we are ready to begin the actual study. I have found the method as explained by Peter Krol, in his book Knowable Word the easiest to follow.

Krol identifies three basic steps for inductive Bible study [1]Krol, Peter — Knowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Study the Bible:

  1. Observe
  2. Interpret
  3. Apply

STEP ONE – OBSERVE

When we are observing a text, we are asking, “What does it say?” Here we are identifying facts, we are making observations. We begin to introduce questions like “who, what, when, where and how.” Who is mentioned in the text? What is happening in this passage? Where is it happening? When was it written?

These questions will help us to slow down and see what is really happening in the text. For example, if I am using Jonah 1.1-3 as an example:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.

In making observations, I simply write down (or circle, underline, highlight) important information. 

  • Who – The LORD and Jonah
  • What – The Word of the Lord comes to Jonah to go and preach to the Ninevites; but Jonah goes to Tarshish instead
  • Where – Nineveh, Joppa, Tarshish
  • How – Jonah finds a ship and pays the fair to try and go away from the presence of the LORD.

Another important item in observing a text is to see if there are repeating phrases or ideas. When you are in a class in school and the teacher repeats something, you know it is important for understanding what you are learning. The same is true in Scripture. Here in this short passage, the phrase “from the presence of the LORD” appears twice. We don’t know why just yet, but if we were to continue to study Jonah we would see that one of the themes in Jonah is that we cannot escape the presence of the LORD, we cannot get “away” from God. Making the observation that this phrase seems important here in this passage sets us up to see its importance later in the book. 

STEP TWO: INTERPRETATION

When we approach the interpretation step, we are looking for meaning. “What does this text mean?” Notice that there are two words missing in that question – “…to me.” I have been in Bible studies before that started with that question, “What does this verse mean to you.” I don’t want to sound mean when I say this, but it really doesn’t matter what a verse means to you. You don’t determine the meaning. The question is simply, what does it mean PERIOD. 

Let’s look back at Jonah again. To better understand what is going on in the passage, it might help to find a map and locate the cities mentioned (Joppa, Tarshish and Nineveh). 

If we found these three cities, we would see that Tarshish, where Jonah was attempting to go, is basically as far away from Nineveh as Jonah could have gone during this time in the world. That would help us better understand the seriousness of Jonah as he tried to flee from God’s presence.

We might also want to know more about the people of Nineveh and why God would want Jonah to go there and “call out against it.” What was their “great evil?” We can learn more about Nineveh by looking up other passages in Scripture that talk about it. Passages in Nahum and Zephaniah tell us some things about Nineveh. We find this by using the index in your Bible, or a concordance. A concordance works like a dictionary but instead of definitions, it gives passages in Scripture where words are used. Websites like www.biblestudytools.com or www.blueletterbible.com have resources like maps and concordances that you can use for free. 

STEP THREE: APPLICATION

Now, as we approach the application step, we enter the picture. After we have made observations and begun to interpret the passage, we look for places where the passage applies to us. What does it require of us? “How should I change?”

In this passage for Jonah, we might not see a lot of application points just yet. But we can infer some, especially if we know where the passage is headed.

For example I might ask myself in what ways do I try to get away from what God has asked me to do? Do I listen to the truth of God’s words in Scripture or do I only like those things that seem to benefit me in the moment? Maybe this has a specific application towards how I treat my parents. I know God instructs me to honor and obey, but many times I do the exact opposite of that in how I speak to them, the tone I use or direct disobedience. 

As I bring my study time to a conclusion, I end as I began, in prayer. I pray that God will give me a heart to listen to His word and to accept His instruction as what is best for me. I ask Him to help me change and to glorify Him in my thoughts and actions, specifically as it pertains to my relationship with my parents. 

A Final Word

There are lots of ways to do an Inductive Bible Study. I like the OIA method, but you may find a different one that works better for you. The important thing is that you are involved in personal Bible study. When we spend time in God’s word, looking at it carefully, it will change us, so that we can better honor and glorify Him. And that is what is most important. 

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