Ep. 076: How Ordinary People Can Study the Bible
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You Can Do Bible Study: What exactly is Bible study? And how do I do it? Pastor and author Peter Krol joins us this week to help us understand what Bible study is and how anyone can do it. Not only does Peter help us understand the OIA method (observe, interpret, apply), but he also explains the Holy Spirit’s role in reading the Bible. Near the end of the conversation, he gives an appeal to all young Christians to just read the Bible. He asks the question: “If you were locked in a room with just a simple edition of the Bible, would it be like a first date with silence and awkwardness? Or would it be exciting and wonderful?”
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Peter Kroll. Peter is president of DiscipleMakers, it’s a campus ministry. He’s a pastor, he’s an author. A few years ago now he wrote a book called Knowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Study the Bible, and that’s the topic – Bible reading, Bible study – that’s the topic we’ll be getting at today. But anyways, thanks for being here today Peter.
You know, before we jump into the topic, do you mind letting us know a little bit more about who you are? Specifically, how you came to know Jesus, and also what you’re up to in life right now?
Sure. I grew up in a Christian family in the suburbs of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. Heard the gospel from a young age and I remember praying to receive Christ when I was pretty young. It didn’t fully sink in for me until later in my high school years, when all the things that I had been trusting in fell apart on me all at once.
I just lived for music and for girls. I played the trombone and had a failed audition one year and I had a dating relationship that went sour. The combination of those things launched me into some depression and helped me realize that only Christ could really give me the life that I was looking for. So, I started really walking with Christ at that point.
I went off to college. While I was in college I was deeply impacted by DiscipleMakers’ campus ministry, as the folks that were invested in me helped me learn how to study the Bible and how to think biblically about everything I did. Applying the Scriptures and the gospel to all different areas of life. I had been so impacted and convinced by the benefit of reaching college students that I joined the ministry when I graduated. I served with DiscipleMakers for about fifteen years before being appointed president in 2016.
I also serve as preaching pastor of Grace Fellowship Church, my local church in State College, Pennsylvania which is right were Pennsylvania State University is.
What exactly, I mean, I’m a little bit unfamiliar with DiscipleMakers, so, what is it in a brief snapshot?
Well we reach students at secular universities across the state of Pennsylvania. We’re still small, but we’re working at reaching new campuses. And our mission is to, as you can guess from our name, it’s to make disciples of Christ. So we want to take the boys and girls that come into the university to help them grow into men and women of God who are dangerous, because wherever they go they’re going to make a big difference for the kingdom of God in Christ.
Well, it’s interesting. Thank you for your work because that can be a weighty task, you know, making disciples in the midst of a secular university. My wife just finished graduating from university and she would tell me how hard it can be when a professor who, in their authoritative way, maybe speaks down on Christianity. It can sound very convincing, and a lot of young people, if they’re a little bit wavy in their faith or don’t have any faith at all, they can be very impacted by those things. It’s a hard place to be!
Yeah that’s true. And it also helps to solidify folks when they realize that the Bible and the Christian faith have withstood the strongest objections for millennia. And so, there’s nothing to be afraid of there. And that’s pretty eye-opening for a lot of students when they realize, “Ah, my freshman hall mate really isn’t going to destroy this thing if Bertrand Russell couldn’t do it.”
Thank you for sharing that, that’s awesome. Let’s jump in here. As I was preparing this interview, I was thinking of something I read recently. George Muller, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him.
He had the different orphanages back in the 19th Century. I was reading in his autobiography, and I found it fascinating – I really enjoyed reading it – he said that in his early Christians years when he first came to know who Jesus was, he was writing in his diary about how he would read lots and lots of books about Christianity, and then he became convicted of this because he wasn’t putting as much energy and time into just reading the Bible. So he decided from that point on to not read as many books about Christianity, and spend that time and energy reading the Bible instead.
And as I was starting to think about this conversation and Knowable Word, I was reminded of this, that, even for myself, so often I can read a lot about Christianity and a lot about the Bible, but not so much invest time in the Bible, and that’s really what we’re going to get at today: Bible Study.
So, the first question that strikes me is this: why should we study the Bible? Culture tells us that the Bible is outdated, it’s irrelevant, sometimes just wrong. Many churches, I find, don’t properly encourage Bible reading. They promote programs, but not so much Bible reading. Sometimes it can be hard to interpret. I remember a youth I was leading one time say that she just doesn’t read the Bible because she just doesn’t understand it.
So yeah, why should we study the Bible Peter?
That’s a great question, and I have sometimes answered that by saying:
you probably shouldn’t study the Bible, unless you want everything about you to change.
So we can have all of our reasons why we don’t study it, or why we can’t or why we shouldn’t, and that’s fine, I appreciate what people think, but the Bible is a dangerous book – it is the most dangerous book. Because,
the Bible is where we meet with God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
So, if you want to know God you must know Jesus Christ. And I think very few people who claim to be Christians would disagree with that assertion. However, the Scriptures also say that if you want to know Jesus Christ, you must meet him in his Word. In John 14 in the upper room before Jesus was arrested and put on trial, He’s talking to His disciples and in John 14:18-25 He told them that the way He manifests Himself to His followers is through His word.
And it’s as we keep his words that He manifests Himself.
1 Peter 1:23 says, “You have been born again through the living and abiding Word of God.” Romans 1:16, “It is the gospel that is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.” So, the Word of God is living and active, and it changes people. It rescues us, it transforms us, it helps us to be conformed to the image of Christ because in the Scripture we meet Jesus, and if we want to know God we have to meet Jesus. So that’s why I say, “Why Study the Bible? Because Jesus Christ is life! We meet Him, the Son of God, in the Word of God. Why would we not study it and treasure it as we would do with any other love interest?”
I remember, I was talking to, I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Bible Project –
Yes. They’re doing marvelous work.
They are! And I really do appreciate what they’re doing. I was talking to Tim Mackie, who is the voice of it, about Bible Study as well. And he said that it’s not so much, “Go read the Bible,” it’s rather, “Go follow Jesus.” And if you’re going to follow Jesus, you’re going to have to read His words. So I hear the exact same thing that you’re saying. If we want to meet Jesus, we have to read the Word. So that’s good.
Peter, I don’t know – I’m assuming that the Christian subculture in the States can be very similar with the Christian subculture in Canada, probably some differences, but, I find that the Christian subculture can indirectly, and sometimes directly, promote and model a style of life, a style of Christianity, that looks very Christian, yet there’s this lack of personal Bible study involved. I just think a lot of people, especially my age (20s and 30s), they just don’t really understand where that fits in and what that looks like in their “Christian” life.
So, the next question is, what does personal Bible study look like? That’s apart from listening to a sermon, that’s apart from this or that. But what is personal Bible study?
This might sound rather ordinary, but personal Bible study looks like a person with a Bible.
And I think that is a very important point to get across and for us to understand. Because, personal Bible study, what that means by implication, is that personal Bible study is not primarily about listening to sermons, or collecting the right resources. It’s not even about getting a decent curriculum or workbook to fill out. But when somebody gets personal Bible study and they understand how to do it, it means that I could look that person alone in a room with nothing but a simple edition of the Bible and they’ll know what to do with it.
Because this is about you and God through the Word of Jesus Christ. And in saying that, I don’t mean to communicate that we don’t need any help. And I’m not saying that we isolate ourselves from the Christian community, either in our day or the community of history. I’m not saying that. We need help with history and languages and ancient cultures, and we can and should benefit from the insights of others.
But in the end, we need to be able to engage directly with the text.
If we have Jesus as our high priest, then we’re not dependant on even scholars or experts to mediate our walk with God for us. Personal Bible study means that we are people of the Word. We crack it open, read it, and know what to do with it.
I want to get a little more into what the OIA method is, but before we jump there. Can I just ask you, why do you think that different Christian organizations and churches don’t promote that sort of Bible study a lot of the time? Do you have any thoughts on why we don’t see as much, “Go into your room and read the Bible,” and that’s it? What are your thoughts on that?
I find lots of reasons; I don’t think there’s just one. I think sometimes its because we just don’t know what to do with the Bible. Sometimes it can be because we don’t have confidence that we can read the Bible, and so I won’t read it or study it unless I have an expert to tell me what to think about it.
Sometimes we fear it will be boring for people, and so we don’t encourage them to do it. We think they’ll give up too quickly.
Really, we just need to equip them with the skills for how to do it, and then, like Charles Spurgeon said, it was in a different context – he was talking about preaching, but I think the point still applies – that we just let the Scripture loose, it’s like unleashing a lion. And when we can engage directly with the text, I have seen people just get far more excited than they otherwise would over another book about the Bible.
Let’s jump to the OIA method, it’s something that you talk about more extensively inside your book, Knowable Word. Can you explain this method a little bit?
I can. The OIA method stands for observe, interpret, and apply. That’s the OIA. It’s a simple and straightforward method for reading the Bible. It’s not just for reading the Bible, you can apply it to anything because OIA, observe, interpret, apply, is simply a way to describe how all communication takes place. We’re just trying to codify the way communication works so we have a way to approach God’s communication to us. Let me explain what I mean.
If I met you on the street, and I said “Hey, there’s Isaac,” I might walk up to you and I’ll look you in the eye, and I’ll have certain body language and you’ll observe my eye contact, my body language, and you might observe that I stick out my right hand toward you. And then you’ll interpret that to mean that “I must know you,” and I want to greet you. And you’ll apply that, hopefully, by reaching out and taking my hand and shaking it and saying “Hello!”
So, when we observe, we’re just trying to figure out, “What does it say? What’s actually happening?” When we interpret, we’re trying to figure out, “What does it mean?” And we’re taking those observations and asking, “What do those mean?” So it builds on it. And then in application we’re figuring out, “How should I change as a result of what I’ve seen and what it means?”
So that’s how all communication takes place. So when you take advantage of OIA as a method for personal Bible study, you’re making it possible to comprehend God’s own communication with you. And I would say that without it, you can’t really comprehend. I think everybody who does any kind of effective bible study is doing OIA, even if they don’t use the terminology of observe, interpret and apply.
And you’re pretty much saying that we all – I’ve probably used OIA multiple times already today.
It’s all the time, right?
Every time you talk to someone, or read something, or watch something on TV, it’s OIA. You can always break it down.
Right, so you pretty much just helped us get the skeleton of the method that we always use subconsciously and applying it to God’s Word. Simple. I love it.
That’s right. And I think it needs to be simple because we can explain it in two minutes to people who’ve never heard about it, and then do it together. It’s also complex enough to engage us for the rest of our lives. Even PhD’s and beyond.
You know it’s interesting, I just think a lot of people, especially different youth and young adults, they become a little overwhelmed with the Bible because in their minds they’ve elevated it to something that only the people with the letters after their names can actually understand. And you mentioned this a couple of minutes ago as well, but I think that is a huge point. But what you’re saying now is no, with OIA, with just this normal way that you interpret conversation, we can understand the Bible.
That’s right, and we need help with the cultural distance and such, but the Bible was written to uneducated people in the common, plain language of the day.
The Lord has always intended for the Bible to be read and understood by ordinary people.
And that’s why, you know this year’s the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, that’s something we can rejoice about the Reformation, that the Bible was brought into people’s hands. Which is really, really cool.
Now, you have a site knowableword.com, you blog regularly on there. And I was briefly looking at it this morning, and you actually demonstrate what this method looks like (going through Exodus). So, if you’re listening right now and you’re interested in, “Okay, I hear about this OIA method, but what does it look like?” Go to knowableword.com and you can actually see how Peter has understood it, and applied it. So that’s pretty cool.
Now, would you say there’s a difference in devotional reading and Bible study reading? I know some people think of those as separate, like, “This is my devotional time,” but “This is my Bible study time,” if they did have any. I think I already know what your answer is going to be, but I would love to hear your answer to that!
I have blogged about this because I hear this question quite a bit, and I hear people talk about this when they say, especially people in ministry – if they’re leading a Bible study or they’re preachers in churches, I hear them say, “I need to set aside my study and do more devotional time.” And my perspective is that when both terms “devotional reading” and “Bible study” when both of those terms are rightly understood, there should be no difference. And if there is a difference, I think you might be misunderstanding one term or the other.
Here’s what I mean by that. If your Bible study does not increase your devotion to the Lord, then you are not really studying the Bible. In John 5 Jesus complains about this to the Pharisees, “You might be studying the Scripture because you think in them you have eternal life, and yet they were written to bear witness about Jesus Christ.”
So as we study, let’s not refuse to come to Him so we may have life.
So that’s one side of it, if you’re doing study that doesn’t lead you to devotion. But we can look at the other side of it. If you’re looking at devotion that doesn’t cause you to study it, I would ask the question, “Who is it that you’re becoming devoted to?” If my wife were to write me a note asking me to please take out the trash, and I fail to interpret to “study” that note properly, and instead of taking out the trash I actually clean the bathroom expecting her to be totally impressed by my selfless service, she’s not going to be happy with me because if I misread and misinterpret what she wrote, I am not showing her true devotion.
So I would say that devotional reading must employ appropriate study and Bible study reading must increase the heart’s devotion – there shouldn’t be much difference.
That’s awesome, yeah.
That’s important especially for teachers, those who are teaching classes or leading Bible studies, because if you put together your study and your teaching notes, and you’re getting ready to teach this thing, and the text has not yet impacted you personally, I don’t think you’re ready to teach it. Part of your teaching has to be modelling for the people you’re teaching, how to apply it, and you do that by showing them how it applies to you right now.
I think that’s important for all of us to hear that, and like you said, especially for teachers. I find that even in– I went to Bible College for four years, and this could be the case for many people: when the Bible for a semester is no longer God’s Word, but a textbook solely. And not a place for devotional reading. I think that’s important to know that they lead to each other – Bible study and devotion lead and engage one another. That’s important.
We’re running low on time here, but I just wanted you to explain the doctrine of illumination and how that applies to Bible study. Because we know that the Holy Spirit is a huge gift, especially when it comes to reading the Bible and being led into all truth. So, I don’t know if you can explain that in a short bit of time.
Yeah, it’s important for us to keep that in mind. The doctrine of illumination comes out of passages like 1 Corinthians 2:10, “No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”
Only the Holy Spirit can introduce us to Christ through the pages of Scripture.
This “Bible study” is not an exercise in self-effort or supreme intelligence. However, we do need to be careful not to treat the doctrine of the illumination of the Spirit as a mystical, magical process as though it’s like I’ve been struck by lightning and I have instantaneous knowledge that I didn’t have before.
The Holy Spirit works just as much through hard work and study as He does through “flash bang” miracles.
So, the doctrine is important and we need to be relying on the Holy Spirit. Practically that means that with God’s help, my Bible study begins and ends with prayer. It’s conducted as an act of prayer, and it produces rejoicing and thankfulness. And whenever I feel stuck in my study, I try (and I don’t always do this), but I try to step back and ask myself, “Did I even pray? Did I even ask the Spirit to illuminate the words on this page that I might see Jesus more clearly?” And often I’ve forgotten to do so, and I just have to stop right then and ask. And it’s a prayer He loves to answer.
And the last thing, I really wanted to give time for this last question because I know you do work with College students which are usually around 20-somethings, 30-somethings. So, what would be your plea to young adult Christians today who are not investing time and energy into the Bible, but just enjoying church programs, Christian music – they’re enjoying their sermons and conferences and so on?
I would say to such folks that I am just delighted to hear of your involvement in your church, and your saturation with sermons and music and such. But my plea to you, my question would be:
Do you know God? do you know the Father through His Son Jesus Christ by the power of His Holy Spirit working through His Word of power?
Such that, if I locked you alone in a room with a Bible, would it feel to you like a first date? Would it just be filled with awkward silence and wistful hopes? Or, would it be excitement, like, “This is what I’ve been waiting for! Time with my Beloved! Time with my Lord, with my Master!”
So, my appeal, my plea, would just be to try it. Try it for a month. Dedicate yourself to be someone of the Word, whether that means reading it through, maybe read the New Testament in a month, or read something a bit and think about what it says, what it means, and how you should change.
For our listeners, like I said, Peter blogs at knowableword.com so you can find out everything about what he does, etc. And his book, Knowable Word was published by Cruciform Press, and you’ve heard me talk about Cruciform Press a lot because I really enjoy the different works that they’ve done.
So, anyways, Peter, thank you so much for spending some time with me and talking about this really important subject. So, I hope to have you on the show again soon!
Thanks for having me, it’s a real privilege.