Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Bible Observation

The Big Idea: To understand the Bible oberve the text like an newpaper reporter. Look at the facts. Read the passage again and again from different angles.

Observation: What does it say?

"I spy" is a child's game that teaches the power of observation. Scripture Spy follows this intent. The Bible is not a mere child's game. It is to be observed and studied intently to find every treasure, encouragement and guideline for a fulfilling, God honoring life.

Inductive Bible Study is a process of digging into a scripture passage itself instead of relying on devotional guides for our Bible study. There are various methods, but most agree that the 3 most important steps are:

  • Observation - What does it say?
  • Interpretation - What does it mean?
  • Application - Why does it matter?


Today we will focus on the first step. Observation.

Of course as I always say, prayer is always our first work and our last work. I trust you have prayed over your study time already. If not, be sure you do so. 

We read. We observe. We chart. But ultimately we want to know God better, understand what He is telling us, and be led by His Holy Spirit in our study.

Observation is foundational to our study of God's Word. We are taught from a young age to learn to be aware of our surroundings and the job of discovery. Your mother played Peek-a-boo with you as she temporary hid from your sight, then you both giggled when you saw her again. Remember the hours you spent playing hide and seek? How about the "I Spy" game. "I spy with my little eye, something ____." Oh, the joy of discovery! 

Observing the well known verse, John 3:16, one might briefly write "God loved the world. Sent His Son. Believe and live forever." Sometimes it is helpful to digest a verse, a chapter or a book into ten words, or a simple sentence. It is the big picture. But the point of inductive study is to slow down. Examine. Meditate. Observe what you may not have seen before.


Imagine a fender bender at an intersection. The casual pedestrian might report that a blue car ran the stop sign and hit a red car in the intersection. A trained investigator will note so much more. They will notice the make and model of each car. The license plate with state. How many were in each car. What the driver looked like. If a car had a broken tail light. What the sounds were. If a security tape caught it on camera, they will stop the tape and rerun a section. They will zoom in on certain features. They will look at weather conditions and time of day.

An investigator will look. Examine more carefully. Look again. Ask themselves questions. Consider the five senses. Map out the scene on paper.


When I was in college, I attended a retreat with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship called Bible and Life II. It focused on Inductive Bible Study. The opening illustration grabbed my attention and has stuck with me all these years. The story comes from the 1800s. It is called Agassiz and the Fish.  It's about a Harvard professor, a student, and a fish. Professor Agassiz gave the student a fish and asked him to study it. Then report. Don't consult a book. Don't ask anyone else. Just study the fish. He didn't say when he'd be back. 

Boredom set in as the student studied the pickled fish. Then he started looking at it more closely. Hmm, two eyes. Sharp teeth. Then he drew the fish and discovered all kinds of features not noticed before.  The Professor came back and coached him on further observation of the same fish. Finally after 4 days Dr. Agassiz introduced a similar fish and asked for comparisons and contrasts to be made. And sketched. The student grew to love the etymologic study of fish.


This story is now a famous illustration for the power of observation. It gives a great example for doing Inductive Bible study. Some key thoughts:

  • Slow down. Don't rush through the passage. Read it again and again. Read it in other Bible translations.
  • Just sit with the passage a bit. Think about it. Visualize it in history. Meditate on what it is saying.
  • Write down words and ideas in the passage. Look for repeats and synonyms used. Note contrasts. Lists.
  • Consider drawing a chart. Make a stick figure picture that illustrates it.


Every investigator, be it an insurance agent, news reporter, police officer or international spy, learns to answer these six questions. Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? Not every question is going to be relative to the verse or sectional passage, but it is good to go through all the questions. It will slow you down as you ask yourself these questions.

  • Who? - Who is writing? Is God mentioned (Father, Son, or Holy Spirit or all 3)? Is the audience mentioned? Is someone else named? Do we learn some characteristic or quality about the person?
  • What? - What is happening? What event is going on? What is someone doing? What do you learn about the historical context? What object or lesson is featured?
  • When? - Do you see any time references? Time of day? Season? Historical reference (i.e. when so and so was king…) Does is say when something will happen? Does it refer to a past event?
  • Where? - Is a town mentioned? A country? A region? Does it talk about the land? Hills? Village? Going up to Jerusalem? Can you find where it was written (check notes at the beginning of the book in a study Bible)
  • Why? - Is there any reason given why something was said? Why one should respond a certain way? Why God did something or the motives for a person? Sometimes we have to deduce, but sometimes the Scriptures are very plain (i.e. God loved the world so much that He gave His only son. John 3:16).
  • How? - Are we told how God will accomplish something? How the people reacted? How something is done? How is a truth illustrated?


As you are working through the passage, there are other word groupings for which to look.

  • Key word or phrase: Perhaps a word repeats or is illustrated throughout.
  • Contrast/Comparison: Rich and poor, light and darkness, good and evil, It/then and so on.
  • Transitional words: Therefore (what is the "therefore" there for?). But. Because. Likewise.
  • Command. Promise. Warning. Advice.
  • Illustration or analogy ("The Kingdom of God is like…")
  • Emphatic statements: Indeed. Truly. "I tell you/I say unto you." Behold/Look!


Anytime in this phase, feel free to write down questions that come to you. Hopefully the answers will start to reveal themselves as you study. Note also if there are questions and answers in the passage.

Are there Old Testament quotes? Usually they are indented in the passage. There is a cross reference in some Bibles to tell you where it was said. You can also Google it. Yes, you can! Look that up in it's original context. (If not at this phase, in the interpretation phase). 

Cross Reference illustrated

If there are words you don't understand, feel free to look them up in an English dictionary. Also if a person in the passage is mentioned, check for other sections of the Bible that tell more about that person. (A concordance, or the search feature of an electronic Bible).


You have made a great beginning to digging into God's Word. As time goes on your power of observation will get easier. You will always be amazed at what you see in God's Word as you slow down.

Finally, there is a comical informative video by 2100 Productions (Intervarsity Christian Fellowship's media branch). Used by permission. It shows Observation in Inductive Bible Study and tells the story of Professor Agassiz

1 comment:

  1. Very helpful as I continue to try to grow in this area of study. Thanks for taking the time to present this!