I feel very strongly that people should know how to study the Bible for themselves. Crises don't present themselves on Sunday right after church service. Sometimes you need to hear from God now!
And reading and studying the Bible for yourself makes you a more discerning Christian. But it's not something that you need a special anointing from the Holy Spirit for, like a spiritual gift. And it shouldn't be a secret that church leaders keep to themselves in order to be the one you have to go to for biblical wisdom.
So here is my method. Bear in mind that this is a method, not the method. We all have our own way of learning. Go for the way that works best for you. But you might get a few hints seeing how I do it.
First of all, you'll need to choose a Bible translation to get your study started with. To the right you'll see my happy little collection of Bibles and a handful of study tools.
My personal go-to for getting started is a study Bible with either the King James Version or New International Version translation.
Second, I need quiet. I can study with the washer and dryer going, but not with human voices in the background or (as I recently learned) with an animal wanting attention dancing around my feet. So the tv has to be off, or I'll keep stopping to listen to what Dr. Phil's talking about. And no music can be playing or I'll wind up humming lyrics. If necessary I can go to my special room and close the door. I also like the dining room table because I can spread books and papers just everywhere! So find out what you personally need in order to concentrate.
Third, identify the topic. This time it's easy. I want to understand Romans 8:28-39 because I need to teach it at Sunday School this Sunday.
There are two things I always start with. One is PRAYER. God's own Spirit is best equipped to explain God's own Words. Yes, the Spirit of God is always within me to teach me. But it's always polite to ask.
The second thing is I always start with is to READ GOD'S WORD ALONE. Commentaries, books, and etc., while they can be good resources, will predispose you toward a certain viewpoint. I want to leave all such predispositions behind, including my own preconceived ideas of what this passage is trying to say to me.
Now it's time to read the passage for the first time. And I'm going to walk you through the entire thing so you can see where my thought processes are going. The options for reading are a quick read, just to get an overview. After the quick read I can go back and read it again with an idea of where I'm going.
Then there is the slow read. Sometimes I have trouble staying focused. My mind wanders a lot and I can read quickly without really absorbing anything. So the slow read allows me to absorb individual words and verses as I go.
Sometimes I'll do a read-as-you-go. In other words, I'll read a verse or two, jot down notes about concepts I'm curious about, things I want to look up, other verses that might come to mind, etc.
Let's Get Started
Today I'm using my KJV study Bible. The passage itself isn't too long, only 12 verses. My first question, since chapter 8 is in the middle of a book, is what is the book about?
The study Bible has an introduction and an outline for each book. I don't read the whole introduction. I just peek at the first paragraph which tells me Romans is "the most complete compendium of Christian doctrine." So I know the passage I'm reading will inform me about foundational Christian beliefs.
When I turn to chapter 8, I notice that my focus, verses 28-39, is actually the tail end of the chapter. Plus, verse 28 begins by saying "And we know that..." This clues me that it is continuing a thought that was started earlier. So to get a grasp of that thought (i.e. the context. Our Sunday School class knows I always harp about keeping scriptures in context.) I decide to back up and read the preceding 27 verses... in other words, the whole chapter.
It's a rainy day, it's my day off, I got nowhere to go and all the time in the world to take a casual stroll through Scripture.
I originally plan to do a fast read through verses 1-27, just for the overview. But I find I can't retain what I'm reading. So instead I read a little slower and make a note of anything that it seems the Spirit is particularly bringing to my attention. (I don't need to know why, at the moment. If it's important, He'll tell me when I've read enough to learn.)
On my way through verses 1-27 I make note of the following.
Verse 4: There is a purpose that the "righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us."
I notice as I read that there is a back and forth comparison between living in the flesh (having a carnal mind) and living in the spirit (having one's mind on spiritual things).
Verse 13 essentially says (I reword the scripture in my own words in order to grasp it better):
If you try to live after the flesh, you'll die.
If you die in your flesh (your choice of deeds), you'll live.
The first section also notes that we have certain things in common with our brother the Christ. Namely an expectation of a bodily resurrection after physical death, and that temporary suffering will be followed by eternal glorification.
We have a hope (the unseen future which we know is to come). This hope sustains us, indeed it causes us to long for what is coming. But it also engenders a patient spirit of waiting.
I also learn that when I struggle, the Spirit within me helps me by interceding for me.
Bear in mind at this point I don't really know what these verses have to do with the ones I'm about to study. I just felt drawn to them and made a point of thinking about them.
So now I'm at the beginning of verse 28, and it starts to make sense.
"And we know that all things work together for good (all things including our infirmities for which the Spirit intercedes) to them that... are called according to his purpose." I choose to intentionally focus on the "called according to his purpose" part rather than get stuck on "love the Lord" because I know a lot of us feel that simply because we love the Lord, life is going to fall out in our favor. And I'm pretty sure that's not what the Bible is trying to say.
According to what I'm reading, God's purpose is: the eventual manifestation of His sons (meaning us) in Creation, in glorified / resurrected bodies. What we are now (infirm or weak) is but a step toward what we will be (glorified). So I'm not supposed to let the whole infirm part of my life throw me off. It's a necessary step toward what things are working together for, namely our eventual glorification (which is good).
Verse 29: Goes back to the part about us being brothers and co-heirs with the firstborn, Jesus. (Now I'm seeing the Holy Spirit starting to explain. To get a better understanding of verse 29 which says we are being conformed to the image of the firstborn among many brethren, it helps that I just read verse 16-18 about us being sons of God and heirs with Christ.) So conformation to the image of Christ is only to be expected of his kinfolk.
Verse 29 also says that God foreknew us and predestined us. This is where having built-in resources in my Bible (a study Bible) is immediately helpful. I want to know what God means by these terms. So I look at the commentary on the very same page.
I conclude that God uses his prior-to-my-existence intimate knowledge of my person and character to work out what I would need to become conformed to Jesus' image, as my elder brother (of sorts).
The word predestination sends me to an Eph. 1:5 note. The verb predestinate means literally "to mark off or choose before."
vs. 30 - Having been pre-selected, I received the call (the Gospel) so I might choose to respond. Having responded, it's not meet that I remain in my sins, and to handle that problem so that his purpose could go forth, God arranged that I also be justified.
Another note tells me justification means that my legal status in heaven is changed from unrighteous to righteous, through Jesus Christ's work which paid. And once declared righteous, I am now in a position where He can glorify me, thus fulfilling his original purpose for me.
vs. 31 - Through each step, beginning with his foreknowledge of me, I see that God works his purpose to our benefit. And if His interest and workings are of such long standing, who can stop it?
vs. 32 - In sparing nothing, not even his firstborn Son, to bring us to the goal, how could we possibly think God does not have great things planned for us, or that He freely (w/o cost to us) dispenses to us what he dispenses to the firstborn, Jesus?
vs. 33 - Since we (the elect) are legally cleared of charges of wrongdoing and unrighteousness in heaven's court, what earthly judgment can forswear it? It is God and God alone who has the power to declare us righteous!
vs. 34 - This verse takes me back to verse 1. Verse 34 says "Who is he that condemneth?" Verse 1: "There is now (there used to be, but no longer) no condemnation to those which are in Christ Jesus. And He is at God's right hand, interceding for me.
vs. 35 - Love (God) brought our purpose (see vs. 28 again) into being. And Love (God) will sustain it. A rhetorical question is introduced. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" What outside force has the ability to disrupt that love connection between our Creator and us? Tribulation? Distress? Persecution? Physical deprivations? Danger? Someone pointing a gun at me?
vs. 36 is a quote from the Old Testament. For thy sake (to fulfill his plan / or because of his plan) we are under attack by the murderous.
vs. 37 (Coming down the home stretch here!) It doesn't matter. These things in verse 35...? Well, we are more than conquerors over them, not by our own might, but by the power of God.
vs. 38-39. Myself and the original writer come to the same conclusion. I am fully convinced that absolutely nothing created, whether physical or spiritual, has the power to separate us from the love of God and his plans for us; a love wholly evident in the work of Christ Jesus, our Lord.
Hope you enjoyed studying along with me. I still have to turn it into a Sunday School study, but now we know what the Bible has to say.
With love to my brothers and sisters.