Observe: Ask who, what, when, where?
For instance, What did Jesus do? Who was present with him at the time? What did they do after Jesus said what he did?
"When I hear you give your reasons," I remarked, "the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours."
"Quite so," Holmes answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. "You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room."
"Well, some hundreds of times."
"Then how many are there?"
"How many? I don't know."
"Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.
(A. Conan Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia,"
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) When answering observation questions about a passage, the non-Christian who has never even seen a given passage before can engage as completely as a long-time Christian. All he needs is to be literate enough to read the passage.
Interpret: Ask what is the significance of the facts observed?
For instance, Why did Jesus do such and such? What emotional impact do you think this might have had on the others? What might have been going through their minds as they watched all this unfold?
"We are coming now rather into the region of guess work," said Dr. Mortimer.
Holmes replied, "Say, rather, into the region where we balance probabilities and choose the most likely. It is the scientific use of the imagination, but we have always some material basis on which to start our speculations. Now, you would call it a guess, no doubt, but I am almost certain that this address has been written in an hotel."
"How in the world can you say that?"
"If you examine it carefully you will see that both the pen and the ink have given the writer trouble. The pen has spluttered twice in a single word, and has run dry three times in a short address, showing that there was very little ink in the bottle. Now, a private pen or ink-bottle is seldom allowed to be in such a state, and the combination of the two must be quite rare. But you know the hotel ink and the hotel pen, where it is rare to get anything else.
(A. Conan Doyle,
The Hound of the Baskervilles) When it comes to interpretation of a passage from the Gospels, for instance, at least some of the questions may draw on our background knowledge of 1st century Palestinian culture...in much the same way that Holmes is here drawing on his knowledge of 19th century English hotels.
Apply: Our objective in Bible study is not just to understand this or that factoid, but to become the people God wants us to be.
For instance, ask what practical difference would it make over the next couple of days if we behaved as Jesus suggested here?
"I am very much indebted to you, Dr. Mortimer, for introducing me to a problem which presents several interesting alternatives. But the practical point which we now have to decide, Sir Henry,is whether it is or is not advisable for you to go to Baskerville Hall."
(A. Conan Doyle,
The Hound of the Baskervilles)