How to Study the Bible

From time to time, people ask me: How do I study the Bible?

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Get a familiarity with the whole Bible. I recommend reading through it or listening to it in its entirety. However, I would also try to get a bird’s eye view of what the books of the Bible are. Another way to approach is, what is the historical flow of the Bible? How did it all come together? The books of the Bible are not always in historical order in our Bibles.
  2. Move to an individual book and familiarize yourself with the overall structure of that book. It would be good to try and read the whole book before studying its parts so you know where each section is heading.
  3. Discover the individual sections of the book. These sections are not necessarily the chapters, though it’s no problem to study it chapter by chapter as we are going to do. Other ways to divide it include different speeches as in the prophets, distinct psalms, categories of proverbs, a story or account as in the narratives, or a part of an argument or answer to a question as in the letters of Paul. Don’t get too bogged down in this. Sometimes this is an arbitrary division. For example, the Sermon on the Mount can be seen as one section, but you can clearly focus on the individual parts such as the parable of the wise and foolish builders.
  4. Once you have a section, then you have something to work with for teaching or study. You can then proceed in one of two ways. You can look at what are the parts of it are. For example, in a story, who are the characters, what is the scene, and how does the action proceed? If it is an argument, like in Romans, how does the Apostle support his argument? If it is a poem, what are the major sections of the poem? Again, don’t get stuck looking for the absolute right answer here. Get something so that you can move forward to the meaning.
  5. Ask: what are the parts of the section I don’t understand? Do I know what a denarius is or where Jericho is, for example? Why did James recommend not eating the flesh of strangled animals in Acts 15? Use a Bible dictionary, Google, or a commentary to look these things up, if you have questions. If you don’t, just keep going. For finding the answers, I would recommend Bible Gateway or Study Light. At Study Light, there is a huge list of online commentaries. I’ve found this compilation very helpful.
  6. Once you have a clear sense of what is going on, then ask, what is the purpose of this text? Why is it here? Why did the author speak this to a particular audience? This keeps you from just inserting your own ideas onto the text. So, in the case of the wise and foolish builders, why would Matthew want this recorded for the early church? In the case of John’s Gospel, you have the overarching theme in the text itself (John 20:31).
  7. Next, ask yourself, how is this purpose of this text relevant to human beings in our day? Let’s take the example of the wise and foolish builders. The purpose was to teach people that they should listen to the Word of God and put it into practice so that they would have a firm foundation on which to build their lives. Once you realize that this was the original purpose, then you have an obvious modern purpose: modern people, too, should build their lives on the Word of God.
  8. For teaching and your own application, I would ask another question. How does the answer or purpose of this text answer a question that modern people ask. For example, in the case of wise and foolish builders, aren’t people looking for guidance and purpose? Don’t they wonder why they are here? Don’t people ask, what is really the best way to live? Don’t they wonder, how do we know things are going to turn out well? The answer that the story of the wise and foolish builders gives us is that the Word of God gives us the guidance, purpose, and the right way to live that we are all looking for.
  9. In teaching, I would then do #7 & #8 in reverse order. Start by helping people see the question using examples from daily life, current events, or your own life. Be creative and have fun with this.
  10. Finally, it is good to envision what it would look like if people actually believed that the Bible’s answer was correct or put it into practice. Don’t assume that people can do this. Help them do it. If people really believed that the appropriate foundation of their lives was listening to and putting into practice the words of Jesus, what would that look like?