Last Updated on August 28, 2023
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How To Study The Books Of The Bible
Ever heard the parable about the man who, in order to discern God’s will for his life, would open his Bible and read whichever verse he saw first?
One day, as he was going through a difficult time with his family, he sought the Lord’s guidance. Opening his Bible, he pointed to a random verse. His finger rested on Matthew 27:5: “Then Judas went away and hanged himself.” Puzzled by these directions, but still hungry for a word from God, he called a “do-over” and flipped to another page. His eyes settled on Luke 10:37: “Go and do likewise.” Flustered but chalking it up to coincidence, the man decided to give his method one last chance. Saying a quick prayer, he flipped the page and placed his finger on John 13:27. There, staring up at him, was a command from Jesus: “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
It’s a humorous anecdote, but it illustrates a serious point. Misusing the Bible is easy; “correctly handling” it is not (2 Tim. 2:15).
In my little book Before You Open Your Bible, I explored nine heart postures that are helpful, even necessary, for rightly approaching God’s Word. But what happens when the prelude ends and you begin reading? What then?
Three Vital Steps
Here are three commonly cited steps that have served me over the years—and will prove helpful as you reengage your Bible in 2020.
1. Observe: What Does It Say?
The first step is observation (or perhaps better, comprehension). Whenever we open God’s Word, our most fundamental task is simply to see what’s there.
The good news is that observation isn’t complicated. It mainly consists of reading slowly and carefully in order to gather the basic facts of who, what, where, and when. Good questions to bear in mind include:
- Are there any repeated words or ideas?
- Who is speaking or writing?
- To whom are they speaking or writing?
- Who are the main characters?
- Where is this taking place?
- Are there words that show chronology?
- Are there contrasts, comparisons, or conditional statements?
- What is the logical progression in the author’s argument?
- Are there words that indicate atmosphere, mood, and emotion? Figures of speech?
- What are the section divisions and linking words?
- What don’t I understand here?
Biblical observation doesn’t have to be some drawn-out, laborious process. You don’t need to consciously ask and answer each question. The more you engage the Bible, the more alert you’ll become to such things. (By the way, it’s best to work through whole books of the Bible from beginning to end, rather than adopting a “popcorn” approach that ignores context and bounces randomly from one passage to another.)
2. Interpret: What Does It Mean?
The next step is interpretation. You’ve considered what the passage says, but what does it mean? It may help to ask questions like:
- Does the surrounding context clarify any confusing words or phrases? (It’s wise to examine the “nearest” context—other verses in the same chapter or other chapters in the same book—before consulting “farther” passages or outside resources.)
- How would I paraphrase this passage in my own words?
- Why did the biblical author write this particular passage? Why did he feel it necessary to include?
- Is my interpretation consistent with what I noticed in the observation stage, or is it too dependent on a few details?
- Do other passages of Scripture fill out my interpretation? (The saying “Let Scripture interpret Scripture” reminds us to let clearer passages shed light on more complex verses.)
- Where does this passage fall in redemptive history? How does it fit within the Bible’s teaching as a whole?
Shortly after his resurrection, as described in Luke 24, Jesus encounters two men and explains the most vital secret to Bible study: the entire thing is about him:
Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25–27)
But it wasn’t just after his resurrection that Jesus spoke this way. During his earthly ministry he explained to the local “Bible experts” his central place in the great story:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. (John 5:39–40, 46)
It’s one thing to know Bible stories; it’s another to know the story of the Bible. It’s one thing to be aware of the story’s many heroes; it’s another to know the Hero himself.
It’s been stated that the Old Testament is “Jesus Christ concealed,” and the New Testament is “Jesus Christ revealed.” From beginning to end, the storyline of Scripture looks forward to and finds its final resolution in God’s redeeming Son (John 1:45; 8:56; 12:16; 2 Cor. 1:20; 1 Peter 1:10–12; Acts 13:27; 13:29; 28:23).
Here is a simple framework, gleaned from a pastor named Tommy Nelson, that has helped me interpret all of Scripture with the Savior in view:
- Old Testament: Anticipation
- Gospels: Manifestation
- Acts: Proclamation
- Epistles: Explanation
- Revelation: Consummation
No matter where you turn, your Bible is about Jesus.
It’s worth noting that once you’ve interpreted as best you can, it’s often useful to consult an outside study aide such as a commentary or Bible dictionary. Though never replacements for Scripture, such tools can be great supplements. (To start I’d recommend the ESV Study Bible, the New Bible Commentary, and the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology.)
3. Apply: How Should I Respond?
After observation and interpretation comes application. This is the ultimate goal of Bible study. In the first two stages you study the text; now the text studies you. To quit prematurely, before applying what you observe and interpret, is like chewing without swallowing.
The Bible itself is clear about the importance of moving through understanding to obedience (Matt. 7:24–27; John 13:17; James 1:22; 2 Tim. 3:16–17). Helpful questions to ponder at this stage include:
- What’s something I learned about God—his character, his plan, his priorities, his promises, his desires, his ways?
- What’s something I learned about myself? My neighbor? The world?
- What’s the “fallen condition” on display in this passage (i.e., what aspect of human sin or brokenness is most evident)? How about the “redemptive solution” (i.e., what aspect of God’s grace is most evident)?
- How does the gospel—the stunning news of what God accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to reconcile rebels to himself—affect my understanding of this passage? Conversely, how does this passage illumine my understanding of the gospel?
- How do I need to change my thinking or living based on what I’ve learned?
- How should I be praying in light of this passage?
- Is there an encouragement or promise here that I need to meditate on?
- What implications does this passage have for the way I engage my unbelieving friends?
- How does this passage apply to my brothers and sisters in Christ? How does it speak to our life together as a church?
Take the Plunge
What does this Scripture passage say? That’s observation. What does it mean? That’s interpretation. How should I (or we) respond? That’s application.
Studying the Bible this year will take work, but the payoff will be priceless. The Book is a bottomless treasure chest of wisdom, beauty, power, and truth. Let’s dive in.
how to study the bible for beginners
7 Step-by-Step Bible Study Methods
Need to add some pep to your Bible study? Here are 7 different step-by-step Bible study methods you can easily do on your own. We took these methods straight out of the Open Bible Study Notes (KJV and NJKV version!). They are a sure-fire way to get your study of God’s Word headed in the right direction.
BIBLE STUDY BY CHAPTERS
In the Bible there are 1,189 chapters in the Old and New Testaments. In a little over three years, a person could make an intensive study of the whole Bible, taking a chapter a day. It is usually a good practice to start your Bible study in the New Testament.
Time needed: 20 minutes.
Study the Bible by Chapters
- Read through the chapter carefully. Seek to find its main subject or subjects.
- Give each chapter a title that suggests its main content. If you are reading the Gospel of John, for example, you might give each chapter titles like this:
– ch. 1 “Jesus Christ, the Word of God”
– ch. 2 “The Wedding at Cana”
– ch. 3 “The New Birth”
– ch. 4 “The Woman at the Well”
– ch. 5 “The Healing of the Man at the Pool of Bethesda”
– ch. 6 “The Feeding of the 5,000”
- Reread the chapter and make a simple outline. Including its main thoughts. For example, for John 1, you might make an outline like this:
“Jesus Christ, the Word of God”:
a. Jesus Christ was the eternal Word of God, 1–9
b. Jesus Christ came into the world, 10–18
c. John witnesses that Christ is to come, 19–28
d. John says that Jesus is the Lamb of God, 29–37
e. Jesus Christ calls His first disciples, 38–51
- Take note of any practical or theological problems in this chapter. Then, using your concordance, look up the key words in those verses and find out what other portions of the Bible say about this question or problem. Compare Scripture with Scripture to find its true meaning. Usually, to understand a Bible chapter, you must study it together with the preceding or following chapters.
BIBLE STUDY BY PARAGRAPHS
A paragraph is several sentences of thought in writing. When an author changes the subject of emphasis in writing, he usually begins a new paragraph. The beginning of a paragraph in this Bible is indicated by a boldface verse number. Studying the Bible by paragraphs like this is often called analytic Bible study.
Read the paragraph carefully for its main thought or subject.
Rewrite the Text
In order to find the relation of the important words and sentences in this paragraph, it is often helpful to rewrite the text. For example, if you were going to study the paragraph on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 6:5–8 , you could rewrite this text:
And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”
Make an Outline
From the text you’ve now rewritten so that you can see the relationship of the various parts of the paragraph, it is easy to make a simple outline. For example, using Matthew 6:5–15, your outline of this passage would be something like this:
“Jesus Teaches Us How to Pray”— Matthew 6:5–15
A. HOW NOT TO PRAY MATTHEW 6:5, 7, 8 .A. HOW NOT TO PRAY MATTHEW 6:5, 7, 8 .
(1) HYPOCRITICALLY IN PUBLIC, 6:5 .
(2) WITH USELESS REPETITION, 6:7, 8 .
B. HOW TO PRAY: MATTHEW 6:6, 9–13 .
(1) IN PRIVATE TO YOUR HEAVENLY FATHER, 6:6 .
(2) FOLLOWING THE PATTERN OF JESUS’ MODEL PRAYER, 6:9–13
Use a Concordance
It is helpful also to look up in the concordance important words that occur in this paragraph, for example, the words “hypocrites” and “heathen.” By comparing other passages of the Bible that teach about prayer, you’ll be kept from making any mistakes concerning the true nature, conditions, and results of prayer according to the will of God.
BIBLE STUDY BY VERSES
In studying the historical passages of the Bible, such as most of the Old Testament or parts of the Gospels, each verse may have only one simple meaning.
But many verses in both the Old and New Testaments are rich with many great Bible truths that will demand more detailed study. There are many ways for you to study a single Bible verse.
Study it by the verbs in the verse.
For example, if you were studying John 3:16 you would find the following verbs: “loved … gave … should not perish … have …”
You could make a comparative list like this:
God loved … Humankind believes
God gave … Humankind shall not perish
… Humankind has everlasting life.
Or simply take the nouns in this wonderful verse: “God … world … only begotten Son … whoever … everlasting life.”
Study a verse through the personalities revealed.
For example, once again taking John 3:16, these very simple but significant points are brought to light: “God … only begotten Son … whoever … Him.
Study a verse by looking for the great ideas revealed in it.
Let us look again at John 3:16 as our example. We might title this verse, “The greatest verse in the Bible.” The following ideas are found in it:
“God”—the greatest Person
“so loved”—the greatest devotion
“the world”—the greatest number
“He gave”—the greatest act
“His only begotten Son”—the greatest gift
“that whoever believes”—the greatest condition
“should not perish”—the greatest mercy
“have everlasting life”—the greatest result
Sometimes a combination of these various ideas applied to a verse will bring the richest results.
“Therefore”—This verse depends on 4:25. Our justification is based on and is guaranteed by Jesus’ resurrection.
“by faith”—method of our justification (see also 3:24; 4:9).
“have”—not future, but present tense—we have this now.
“peace with God”—We were enemies, but now there is peace between us and God because of what Christ has done. “through our Lord Jesus Christ”—the way to peace with God is only through Jesus Christ.
BIBLE STUDY BY BOOKS
After you have begun to study the Bible by chapters or paragraphs or verses, you will be ready to study the Bible by books. There are several methods of Bible book study.
One is called the inductive method.
This is a method of studying in detail the contents of a Bible book and then drawing from these details general conclusions or principles concerning the contents and purpose of the book.
Another method of book study is called the synthetic method.
By this method, one reads the Bible book several times to receive the general impressions of the main ideas and purpose of the book without attention to the details. (It is sometimes hard to distinguish these two methods.) In some cases the study of a Bible book becomes a historical study, if that book relates the history of a nation or an individual in a particular period of time.
For example, the Book of Exodus tells the history of the children of Israel from the death of Joseph in Egypt until the erecting of the tabernacle in the wilderness in the time of Moses. This covers approximately 400 years.
The principles of Bible book study, whether inductive or synthetic, are very similar. Such study will require more time than the previous methods mentioned, but it will be amply rewarding.
Here are some methods for Bible study by books:
Read the book through to get the perspective and the general emphasis of the book. Then reread the book many times, each time asking yourself a relevant question and jotting down the answers you find as you read. Here are the most important questions to ask:
What is the central theme or emphasis of this book? What is the key verse?
Remembering the theme of the book, see how it is emphasized and developed. Look for any special problems or applications.
What does it tell me about the author and his circumstances when he wrote this book?
What does the book tell me about the people to whom the book was written and their circumstances, needs, or problems?
What are the main divisions of the book? Is there any outline apparent in the logical organization and development of the book? During this reading, divide the text into the paragraphs as you see them and then give a title to each paragraph. Draw a line down the right side of the outline and on the other side write any problems, questions, words, or ideas that require further study by comparison with other passages in the Bible.
6th and Successive Readings
Look for other facts and/or information that your earlier readings have suggested. By now certain words will stand out in the book. See how often they recur. (For example, as you read Philippians, you will soon find that the word “joy” occurs many times. This is one of the key words of the book, so note its occurrences and the circumstances surrounding it.)
BIBLE STUDY BY WORDS
There are two profitable and helpful ways of studying great words or subjects in the Word of God.
1. Word study by Bible books.
Certain words have special significance in certain Bible books. For example, after studying the Gospel of John as a book and by chapters, you’ll find it instructive and inspiring to trace the words “believe” and “belief.” They occur almost 100 times. By reading the book hurriedly and underlining each passage where the words “believe” and “belief” occur, you’ll understand why Bible scholars contend that the purpose of the Gospel of John is expressed by the author in John 20:31.
2. General word study.
The fine index and concordance in this Bible will be a great help. Through the study of great Bible words, you can soon become familiar with the great doctrines of the Bible and understand the great theological principles which the Bible reveals. With the concordance you might begin with the study of the word “grace.”
By tracing the occurrences of this word through the Old Testament and then into the New Testament, you will come to see that God has always dealt with His people in grace, and you will find in a concrete way the great truth of Ephesians 2:8.
BIBLE STUDY BY TOPICS
Closely related to the method of study by words is the study according to great topics or subjects: Bible prayers, Bible promises, Bible sermons, Bible songs, Bible poems, and so on.
Or one might study Bible geography by reading rapidly through and looking for rivers, seas, and mountains highlighted in Scripture. For example, the mountaintop experiences in the life of Abraham are a thrilling study.
Another challenging study is to read rapidly through the Gospels and Epistles looking for the Lord’s commands to us.
The list of Bible topics is unlimited.
First, for a topical study on prayer, look up the word “prayer” or “pray” in your concordance. Look up every form of these words and such related words as “ask” and “intercession.” After you have looked up these verses, study them and bring together all the teaching on prayer that you find. You will find conditions of prayer, words to be used in prayer, results to expect from prayer, when to pray, and where to pray.
BIBLE STUDY THROUGH BIOGRAPHY
The Bible is a record of God’s revealing Himself to people and through people. The Old Testament as well as the New is rich in such biographical studies. Here are a few:
- Noah: Genesis 5:32–10:32
- Abraham: Genesis 12–25
- Joseph: Genesis 37–50
- Deborah: Judges 4; 5
Let us summarize various methods for studying the great Bible biographies:
- Read the Bible book or passages in which this person’s life is prominent, for example, Abraham in Genesis 12–25, plus references to Abraham in Hebrews 11 and Romans 4 .
- Trace character with your concordance.
- Be careful to note indirect references to the person in other portions of Scripture.