I want to lay out a 5-step method I use to study Scripture. I'll apply it to John 15:1-8 to illustrate the method. It's not the only method, and it's not an exhaustive method, but I hope you find it helpful as a tool in your personal study of Scripture.
STEP #1 – Identify the genre of the biblical passage.
John’s gospel falls under the genre of ancient biography, much like ancient Greco-Roman biographies. However, in his historiographical work, John is not a disinterested observer. While recounting factual historical events, ancient historians would also emphasize particular themes. Often in ancient biography, the writer would embed those themes in the narrative (“the moral of the story”). So John, like the other gospel writers, is both historian and theologian. John’s gospel is especially interpretive in its approach to history, and therefore, it may be most accurate to call the Johannine narrative a theological biography.
STEP #2 – State your initial understanding of the “generic or intrinsic conception” of the passage.
Jesus gives His disciples final instructions to abide in Him out of love and to love one another.
STEP #3 – Make observations about the literary, grammatical, historical, and cultural contexts of your passage.
John writes to both Jews and Gentiles to persuade them of Jesus’ divine origin and the divine message that He brings. In particular, John focuses his attention on the Pharisees as opponents and contrasts them with what it truly means to follow Jesus. John labels them “the Jews” and gives a negative view of the Jewish authorities throughout the gospel.
In John 12, John has transitioned us out of Jesus’ public ministry with a summary in verses 37-50. In chapter 13, we are led into the Upper Room Discourse, as Jesus joins His disciples at the Last Supper. From chapters 13 through 17, Jesus instructs and commissions the disciples during His very last night with them. At the beginning of chapter 15, Jesus has just finished telling the disciples that their love for Him is evidenced in their obedience to Him.
STEP #4 – In light of steps 1 through 3, interpret the meaning of the passage.
Knowing that these are some of the last instructions Jesus gives to His disciples, we sense their urgency and importance. In the Old Testament, Israel is portrayed as a vineyard or vine (e.g. Ps. 80:8; Is. 5:7; Hos. 10:1) and God is the one who cares for the vine. The analogy demonstrates the dependency relationship. In the same way, Jesus identifies Himself as the vine that His followers are dependent upon. If they do not “abide in” Him, they cannot produce the fruit of good works that marks every believer.
Jesus then instructs His disciples that their relationships with one another are to be marked by love. Verses 12 and 17 seem to “bookend” these verses, and the commandment to love one another stated in verse 12 is repeated and re-emphasized in verse 17. This has been the consistent message of Jesus. After washing the disciples' feet in the beginning of chapter 13 and modeling His love for them, He informs them that they are to follow His example of love (v. 34) and that the defining mark of the community of believers is their love for one another (v. 35). In chapter 14, He emphasizes the intrinsic connection between love and obedience. But that obedience can only flow out of the believer who abides in Christ, and the clearest evidence will be found in the love believers have for one another.
STEP #5 – Apply the passage to life.
These passages very clearly state that as a community of believers we are to love one another, just as Jesus has loved us. This is a tall order, but at the same time, it must be attainable if Christ has commanded us to do so. We can certainly look to Jesus as our model and see expressions of this kind of love in His life. Indeed, when the community of God is marked by this love, it will be evidence to others that we are Jesus’ disciples (13:35).
Throughout John’s gospel we see how this love is evidenced in the believers’ lives by seeing how it is evidenced in Jesus. First, we see it in humility. Jesus performs the menial task of a servant by washing the feet of the disciples in John 13. He then instructs them that He is their example and that they should do likewise. As the body of Christ, we should emulate Christ's example of humble service to one another. Second, we see it in unity. Jesus intercedes for believers in chapter 17, asking the Father that the believers may be “one” and “perfected in unity.” The ideal state of community in the body is unity.
We need to evaluate our love in light of Jesus’ love, and not by the standard of love of those around us. When we compare ourselves to others, we can rationalize quite easily and make ourselves look pretty good in our own eyes. However, when we see our love in the light of Jesus’ love, we are humbled.
Also, as one whose work largely deals with apologetics and theology, this was a much needed reminder that my love for the other members of the body is a more powerful “argument” for the truth of Christianity than any of the intellectual arguments I can marshal. My hope and prayer is that people can see my love for others, even in my apologetic presentations.
(Want to learn more about studying and interpreting Scripture? Here are some excellent videos from Dr. Walt Russell.)