“How do you study the bible?”
This is one of the most important questions a Christian could ask, because:
“…faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17)
“…man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4)
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
With these truths in mind, it’s baffling to know how many people have only a surface level understanding of basic Christian doctrines (especially after being Christians for several years). Even though many people don’t care to go much deeper in the Word than just the surface, there are those who long for a deeper understanding of the bible, yet just don’t get it. The dilemma usually goes something like this: “I want to know the bible more, but I don’t know how to read it. I pray and read it all the time, but I just don’t seem to get the same thing out of it that other people do. It’s hard for me to put all the pieces together.”
There is much to be said about the subject of studying the bible, but for the sake of brevity let me give you some simple, practical tips that have helped me in my studies, as well as some things that I have found to hinder good bible study.
Tip 1: Read It
You’re probably thinking, “No duh!” but you may be surprised how many people neglect this first, most basic rule of studying the bible. By “read it” I mean consistent, dedicated, intentional reading of the bible. Every one of those words is important:
Consistent – Read the bible every day without fail. Jesus put a higher level of importance on the Word of God than He did on food in Matthew 4:4 (quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3). If you don’t go days without food, then you shouldn’t go days without reading God’s word.
Dedicated – Set your mind to reading the entire bible. Make up in your mind that this will be a life-long journey that needs to start today. God doesn’t yield the fruit of His word to the spiritually lazy. The more you read it, the clearer it will become. Just like reading anything else, the more gaps you have in your times of reading the more gaps you’ll have in your understanding of it.
Intentional – Don’t just read it when you get to it; set aside a specific time every day to read the bible. Studying the bible doesn’t just “happen”. Those who are very well versed in the bible have made intentional steps to prioritize the word of God over other things. Put movies, TV and Xbox down the priority chain, and move bible study up.
Tip 2: Pray About It
One error that many people make about the bible is over-spiritualizing it; making the bible seem as though it is some mystical book that only the elite can interpret correctly. This leaves the door open to people interpreting the bible any which way they want, rather than just drawing out the meaning from the plain reading of the text. This isn’t the case at all. The bible is a collection of 66 books that can be understood by following the same rules of interpretation as other books.
However, on the other hand, another way people err is by under-spiritualizing the bible; relying solely on intellect and human wisdom. Though the bible can be read, understood and interpreted by simply reading it in context the way it’s meant to be read, it is also a spiritual book that contains life-transforming, mind-renewing, soul-sanctifying revelation that is only discerned spiritually (1 Corinthians 2:14). We ought to pray Psalm 119:130 over ourselves before studying the bible.
Tip 3: Read The Bible One Book At A Time
One mistake many new believers make in studying the bible is that they’ll randomly open the bible to wherever it lands and then start reading. I admittedly did this before I was a Christian. When times got tough, I would get my bible, randomly flip to a passage, read it, and get absolutely nothing out of it.
A common mistake that many older Christians make is by relying too heavily on devotional materials. I thank God for great devotionals (small portions of scripture with reflective commentary), however I believe that there is a danger in devotionals. If you were to simply use devotionals as your primary source of biblical study rather than reading the bible chapter by chapter, book by book, then your understanding of the bible would more than likely be very choppy, and not put together very well. You can’t take random isolated passages and build a meaningful biblical understanding.
Remember, the bible isn’t just one book… it’s a collection of 66 books. Think of it as a box of different books teaching one subject from different angles. Imagine if someone gave you a box of 66 books on psychology and told you “read all of these books and you will know psychology”. It would be very foolish to pick up one book and turn to the middle of a random chapter and read a few sentences; and then the next day pick a different book and do the same thing. Eventually, even if you collectively read all 66 books in their entirety multiple times that way, you would never have a clear understanding of psychology. Your understanding would be choppy, and unorganized.
It’s the same thing with the bible. It’s a collection of 66 different types of books, covering different aspects of the same subject. You need to read each book as a whole before moving to the next book. Eventually, all of the pieces will start fitting together and your jigsaw puzzle becomes a beautiful picture that you can clearly see. So read the bible one book at a time.
Tip 4: Read in Context
Bad theology usually comes from a true scripture taken out of context. To take a scripture out of context means to take a verse or passage out of its larger group to make it say something it wasn’t meant to say.
A good example of a scripture that’s commonly taken out of context is Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not, that you be not judged”). People commonly quote this verse to prove the point that we should never make any type of judgments about people. All one would have to do to understand the meaning of what Jesus meant when He said this would be to keep reading (Matthew 7:1-5). Jesus point was not to condemn all types of judging, but rather hypocritical false judgments.
Think about it this way: the bible has a specific message that God wants to convey. That message is given to us in a collection of 66 books. Each book has a specific message, and each chapter found in each book builds upon that specific message. It’s impossible to get the message of a book without understanding the message in each chapter. This is called reading in context. Each chapter of a book builds on one-another, and collectively you get the point of the book.
A couple good examples of books in the bible that could be horribly misunderstood by reading them out of context would be Ecclesiastes and Job. If you simply read 3 or 4 consecutive chapters in the middle of either of these books, you would be very confused as to why they were in the bible. The reason why is because these books were not meant to be read simply one chapter at a time, but rather as a whole in order to convey one specific point. So pick a book, stick with it until you read it all the way through, and read it in context.
Tip 5: Do a Little Research
With access to all of the resources we have, and the availability of the internet, there is no excuse for any American to have a shallow knowledge of the bible. There are several resources available (even FREE resources) that would allow you to go very deep in your study of the bible. Before reading a book of the bible, ask the following questions:
- Who wrote this book? Who did he write it to?
- Why? What was the purpose of this book? What was the main idea he wanted to convey to the recipients?
- When was this book written? What was the author’s setting like? Was this before, or after Jesus?
If you have a study bible, these questions are all typically answered in the introduction to each book. Good bible introductions will not only give author and setting information, but they will also give an outline of the book, letting you know the main idea behind each section. This information is very helpful to know when reading a book of the bible, and it only takes about 5 minutes to skim through it.
Here are some really great FREE resources
http://www.e-sword.net/ – free bible software allows you to download multiple translations, bible dictionaries, commentaries, concordance, and maps
http://www.biblegateway.com/ – every translation of the bible for free, with study tools and audio bible
http://www.biblica.com/niv/study-bible/ – free bible book introductions
https://www.bible.com/ – the YouVersion app allows you to have the bible in several different translations on your mobile device… there are also bible reading plans, audible bible, and highlight and social sharing features.
Tip 6: Take Notes
I’ve heard it said that the difference between bible reading and bible study is a pen and paper. When I was new to the Lord, I was very hungry to learn about God, but I had a very short attention span. I found it difficult to read the bible because by the time I got to the second chapter, I already forgot what I read in the first chapter. One of the things I found very helpful in retaining information was to write down a summary of what I just read. I would start by reading a few sentences, and then summarizing those sentences in my own words. I would do this with one to two chapters a night, to start. This was probably the most helpful thing I could have done in my early stages of studying the bible. I then got comfortable writing directly in my bible. I had a highlighter and a pen on hand always, and I would mark up my bible with circles on verses that stuck out, question marks on verses I didn’t understand, underlines on verses I wanted to remember, and notes on verses I felt that God was giving illumination on. Even secular studies have shown that our minds retain more information when we write down information, even if we never refer back to the writing.
Tip 7: Talk To People About What You Learned
When I first started gleaning riches out of the Word of God, I was so excited and would talk to everyone about it. I would talk to fellow lay-people, and elders. By elders, I don’t necessarily mean those old in age, but rather those who have a mature and refined understanding of the bible. I was very fortunate to have a close friend that knew the bible well, so I would talk to him all the time. When I had questions, I would ask him. When I learned something new, I would talk to him about it. I would bounce my ideas off of him and pick his brain probably to the point of annoyance. I also met frequently with other Christians that were more mature in their faith and understanding than I was.
However, I didn’t just talk to pastors and elders, I would also talk to lay-people and even non-believers. That’s right, non-believers! Often times what I found was that what I learned from the bible would either be refuted or questioned. Guess what happened as a result… I was forced to study more! If someone refuted what I got out of the bible, I wanted to know that that I was either right, or I wasn’t. If I was right, I wanted to be able to prove it from the bible. If I was wrong, I wanted to be corrected by the bible. If someone questioned what I believed from the bible, I wanted to be able to answer them truthfully… so talking with people helped force me to get my roots down deep.
Tip 8: Listen to Teachers
It is true that as New Testament believers we have the Holy Spirit living in us to teach us everything we need to know (John 14:26; 1 John 2:27). However, this is no contradiction to the fact that God has given the church teachers for a reason. We have to remember that the believers in the early church devoted themselves to the apostles teachings (Acts 2:42), and that God has blessed the church with teachers to equip us for service (Ephesians 4:11-12), and the confusion produced by false teaching is a real danger (Matthew 24:24). Therefore we would be foolish to neglect this blessing.
There is a caution to this, though, because teachers are human and subject to error. Here are some common mistakes many people make when listening to teachers:
1) Taking everything teachers say as truth – remember, every Christian, no matter how smart or charismatic they are, are subject to error. Whether it’s your pastor or a preacher on TV or the internet, test everything they say by the word of God. Every good pastor will tell you the same thing – “don’t take my word for it, look it up yourself”. Acts 17:11 is the attitude we ought to have. They “received the word with great enthusiasm” meaning they didn’t have a negative attitude towards the teacher, but were very interested and open, “but they examined the scriptures daily to see if what Paul told them was true”, recognizing that Paul was a man and anything he said would be subject to the scriptures.
2) Listening to one teacher, or one type of teacher – if all you do is listen to one guy, or one group, then you are going to automatically be predisposed to thinking exactly like them. You are pigeonholing yourself, and subjecting yourself to be brainwashed by a specific denomination or movement. You’ll think that all they talk about is all that should be talked about, and miss other important aspects of God and Christian living. Remember, the church is a body consisting of several different parts. Each preacher and group represents a small portion of Christ’s body. Listen to several different types of teachers in different, even conflicting, camps. Diversify your understanding of different viewpoints from your brothers and sisters in different denominations.
3) Making a teacher your functional savior – it’s a very real temptation to put a preacher on a pedestal that only Jesus should be on. When you idolize a preacher, you tend to stick up for them and defend them, even if they’re probably wrong. We can tend to see them almost as if they are exempt from fault. This causes many dangers; probably the most dangerous being that it causes a dullness to discernment. When you idolize a preacher, you aren’t naturally going to be listening for error. This is how all cults start – followers are dependent on the leader for their understanding and interpretation of scripture. God never wanted us to be dependent on anyone, but Him. That’s the point of 1 John 2:27 – we don’t need teachers, but we can benefit from them. When you get to the place to where you are dependent on them, then you are in trouble.
Don’t deny yourself God’s blessing of good, solid bible teachers; however be careful for the dangers that many have fallen victim to. I myself am not exempt from being tested. Everything I’m teaching in this article ought to be examined by the scripture to see if it’s biblical.
One of the things I found helpful in my study of the bible was to take my pastor’s notes (he would print out an outline of his message for everyone to follow along with) and then look up EVERY scripture he quoted. I went home and read all of those verses in context (reading the verses before, and after the one he used) and made sure that the point he was making lined up with the scripture he used in context. Not only did it help me know if the points were true, it also helped me retain the information.
Now that we’ve gone through some of the basic tips on how to study the bible, I believe it would be helpful to briefly mention two things that I have found get in the way of properly understanding the bible:
1) Feeding Your Flesh
The dog that grows is the one you feed. If you feed your flesh more than you feed your spirit, you are likely to be very dull in your comprehension of the bible; or at the very least, not as sharp as you could be (Romans 8:5). How do you feed your flesh? Simply by ignoring the leading of the Spirit in order to gratify your worldly desires. Galatians 5:16.
A presupposition is a position you hold to before the truth is examined. A presupposition is formed by many things: tradition, teachings, influences, our own desires, etc… We all have them, and you have to learn to lay some of your presuppositions to the side in order for God to speak clearly to you through His word. Remember, God is not contained in a box, so do not form a box of your own presuppositions and expect God to reveal Himself to you inside of it. Romans 11:33-34
There is obviously a lot more that can be said about how to study the bible, but I hope these tips help you. I pray that God would grant you eyes to see, and ears to hear what He is saying through His word.