This lesson is part of a series of Inductive Bible Study lessons that I publish here on the blog every Friday. If this is your first time visiting this series, I recommend that you start with the first lesson: Inductive Bible Study: An Overview.
Learning Observation and Inference
Now that you have had some practice making detailed observations, let’s add “Inference” to the process.
If you’ll recall, in Inductive Bible Study, first we make Detailed Observations about what we actually see in the text. We don’t bring in any outside theology or modern-day perspectives. We simply look at what the biblical text tells us in its original setting.
Once we’ve made Detailed Observations, then we want to add Inferences. This is how we get our Interpretation of the biblical text.
Inferences Come Directly from Observations
With Inferences, you are going deeper, beyond mere Observation. However, you still want to be really careful not to bring in your own opinions or current teachings. You want to draw your Inferences directly from your Observations and from the actual biblical text.
What does the Observation compel you to conclude on a deeper level?
You have to put aside what you already know, and see what the Observations show you.
The Difference Between Observation and Inference
Here are some basic examples to help you get the hang of it:
Observation: I observe that trees turn green in the spring.
Inference: I conclude there is something about the spring that causes new leaves to grow on trees.
Observation: I observe that I can’t see street signs without my glasses.
Inference: I conclude two things: there is something in the lenses that makes the street signs easier to see; and I shouldn’t drive without my glasses.
Observation: I observe that my child practices basketball constantly.
Inference: I conclude that my child has a strong motivation for practicing. (Note: I may have to take my observations deeper to draw a more specific conclusion. My initial observation doesn’t show me what the motivation is, only that the motivation is strong and clear to my child.)
When you make a solid Inference, people should be able to look at your Observation and say, “Yes, that Inference makes sense.” It doesn’t matter whether they agree with you theologically or experientially. They should be able to agree that, yes, your Inference makes sense. It “matches” your Observation.
Now let’s look at some examples from the Bible. Please take some time now to read Matthew 9:35-11:1 about Jesus’ compassion.
Below are five Observations and Inferences I took from this passage in Matthew 9:35-11:1.
Notice how my Inferences are directly taken from my Observations and from the immediate biblical text. My Inferences don’t bring in my previous personal ideas or modern-day perspectives. Ideally, I will see similarities between my Inferences and things I have been taught about the Bible. But I let the text speak first.
However, I do include some background information from the culture and time period in which the biblical text was written. That is part of the biblical setting in which Matthew writes the gospel to his first readers. That historical, cultural information contributes to our understanding of what the text says. It is okay to consider that information in making Inferences. That information actually helps us make good Inferences. That’s why it’s important to learn about the historical and cultural background of the Bible passages you are studying. (Here are the sources I most often use for background information: The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig S. Keener as well as The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John H. Walton.)
Notice that in my Inferences, I also pay attention to the larger “book” context of these verses. What is Matthew doing overall in his gospel that helps me understand these verses? What is Matthew saying in the chapters that come before and after these verses? How does that help me make better Inferences from these verses? It’s okay to include that “bigger picture” in the Inferences, as long as I stay focused on what Matthew’s text actually says. (Remember how we start the Inductive Bible Study process with big-picture Surveys? This is one way those Surveys can really help us “dig in.”)
Observation: Crowds of people needed help, not just a few.
Inference: Jesus’ compassion was moved by the overwhelming numbers of people who needed help. Because so many people need help, Jesus’ compassion moves Him to call and send out disciples.
Observation: Jesus was healing every disease and every infirmity, not just some.
Inference: Jesus was not only moved by the large numbers of people. He was also concerned about every single person and moved with compassion for their individual needs. His heart was for total healing for each person. This is another reason He needed to call and send out disciples, to meet every single need and to let each person know He has compassion for their individual needs.
Observation: It was while healing the people that Jesus responded with compassion. So His compassion was a response (partly) to their diseases and infirmities.
Inference: God responds compassionately to all diseases and infirmities. Matthew is introducing a new theological perspective in a religious community that may have believed largely that diseases and infirmities were caused by sin and reflected a lack of God’s blessing. By also calling and sending disciples to heal people, He was also restoring people with infirmities to community.
Observation: The work charged to the disciples includes healing the sick, cleansing lepers, and raising the dead.
Inference: In that society and especially in the faith community, people with these maladies were considered unclean. By charging His disciples to go specifically to those people, Jesus’ compassion included His desire to restore those people to community.
Verses 10:1, 8
Observation: Jesus gives His disciples authority over unclean spirits and sends them specifically to heal and cleanse people who were considered unclean.
Inference: The author is demonstrating to readers that Jesus is empowering people to bring cleansing and healing into situations considered “unclean.”
Practicing Observation and Inference
Now it’s your turn to practice. Prayerfully re-read the scripture of Matthew 9:35-11:1. What observations stand out for you? Write them down.
As you make each observation, ask God to help you make inferences.
What does the observation compel you to conclude? (Without bringing in any of your outside knowledge or experience.)
You might not find an inference for every observation. You may have to make a few observations before you come up with one inference. The important thing is to let the Holy Spirit lead you, and to stay focused on what the text actually says.
When you’re first starting out, you may want to err on the side of being really careful not to bring in your modern-day perspectives and things you’ve been taught about what a passage means. As you become more comfortable with reading the text “as is,” you can go deeper with your Inferences. The Holy Spirit will lead you!
Remember, I am glad to answer any questions. Please feel free to contact me. God bless!