When you've read the Bible for a while and have begun to get a sense of its flow and message you may want to progress to the next level in your knowledge of it and what it reveals about God. The distinction between Bible reading and Bible study is a blurry one, but simply put, Bible study is just a more methodical and concentrated form of Bible reading and meditation in which you're more likely to write things down as well as think them. King David, the most famous Old Testament king captured the spirit of the joy of Bible study when he exclaimed: 'O how I love Thy law! It is my study all the day.'
What is ‘Bible study’? How does one do it, and what is it good for?
Bible study starts with good Bible reading. In a way it can be considered as a kind of intensive form of Bible reading which might include things like taking notes, exploring historical background, looking up difficult words, and making comparisons and links with other, related passages of Scripture.
Why would someone want to do it? Because if it is true that the Bible is God’s message to man, designed to be read and understood, then there are not many more valuable things that one could do in this world than to spend time with it to ensure one has extracted the maximum possible value. You can make the comparison with nature. Nature is beautiful and impressive on the surface. But as you explore more, whether in terms of understanding its various cycles and many sub-systems, or by grabbing a microscope and looking at the intricacy and beauty with which it’s all put together, there is so much more that is revealed. It’s exactly the same with the Bible. There is a surface meaning, which is impressive enough. But underneath there are all kinds of other wonderful details, links, sub-plots, allegories and the like.
In short, if God bothered to leave a written message, then we should probably bother to give it our rather close attention.
Back to Basics
Bible study does not require you to be an academic, professorial type. It does not require a vast array of books or special equipment. All it really requires is a Bible, a paper and pen to organise your thoughts and record what you discovery, and a concordance (see Reference books can be very useful too. You can easily extend this list – a Bible with marginal references is a great idea – see Choosing a translation, and a Bible dictionary and a couple of extra Bible translations can also be helpful. But that’s really all you need.
If you think Bible study is boring, then you might not be doing it in the right way.
Bible Study is Bible Reading
Good Bible reading isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds! Because the Bible is so big, it takes a good while to get an overall perspective and a context. It’s easy to develop pet theories, to generalise or extrapolate unfairly from one passage, or to miss the wood for the trees.
Good Bible reading involves having a sense of context and setting (for example not mistaking a parable or a symbolic picture for literal truth), and it also involves paying close attention to what the Bible actually says (which isn’t always the same as what we might think it says, or what we might want it to say!).
This paying attention to the details of what the Bible actually says is sometimes called close reading. It involves thinking about symbols and images and why they might be used; it involves asking ‘Why does it say that?’ or ‘What’s the point of that?’ It involves noticing links, patterns and repetitions – and going beyond merely noticing them to ask why they are there and what the message is which God wants to convey. The Bible is a highly elaborate and complex book which deserves close attention.
Because of the importance of Bible reading as the foundation for Bible study, you might want to review some of the points on the Hints and Tips page.
Paper and Pen
People think in different ways (some people even draw while reading the Bible to get those creative juices flowing!) For most people, it helps to write things down. For instance, if you are studying a particular chapter, you might want to note down, in very simple terms what takes place in the chapter and how it breaks down into sections. You might go on from this to think about questions like:
- Why did the events happen in this particular order?
- Is there a theme or message in the way the contents are organised?
- Do the things taking place in this chapter remind me of anything else?
- How does this chapter link to what came before and what follows after?
- Are there any parallel accounts to the things recorded here?
- Is there anything in modern life that this reminds me of?
- What might these things teach about God and about human nature?
Not all of these questions will be relevant to every passage, but you get the idea.
Having got a general sense of the passage, you might then want to note down if there are any repeated themes, words or ideas. The Bible often uses the repetition of key words to emphasise its points, so it’s always worth looking out for these.
You might want to home in on any marginal references or parallel passages. For instance, if you’re looking at a passage in Matthew, you might consider whether the event is also recounted in any of the other gospels. If it is, are there any interesting differences? You might wonder whether there are any links between what you are reading and what happens elsewhere in the Bible. For instance, there are lots of links between what happens to Peter and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, and what happened to Jesus during his ministry. If you happened to spot a couple of these, you might then wonder whether there are any others, and set out to compile a list. The bigger question then would be what these parallels are meant to teach or show. You might find there are links between a New Testament event you are looking at and something that happened or was prophesied back in the Old Testament. Again, marginal references can be a good starting point here.
If you are looking at prophecy, you might think about how the prophecy fits the historical context in which the prophet lived (Bible Toolshed should be able to start you off with some background here). You might think about whether there have been any other fulfilments of the prophet’s words – for instance, whether they apply at all to the life of Jesus, or whether they might be relevant to God’s plans for His future kingdom.
Since so much of the Bible (including the Old Testament) has a message about the work of Jesus, it is always worth keeping a special eye out for any links or echoes to his life. Joseph, way back in the book of Genesis, for instance, has many things happen to him and behaves in many ways which are just like things that we can read about Jesus in the gospels. This is an absolutely fascinating study. Sometimes instead of parallels there are contrasts. Samson, for instance, in some ways parallels the life of Christ, but in other ways he is a contrast figure. Topics like this are always worth exploring.
Details and Difficulties
You will sometimes find that you come across a verse, phrase or word which stumps you. Don’t be alarmed by this – you should expect that it will sometimes happen! What to do? There are a number of strategies. One is to compare different Bible translations. Don’t assume that the easiest to understand is necessarily the right one (you can’t pick a meaning just because you happen to like it!), but this exercise will help you understand how translators have looked at the passage and what the options are. Sometimes simply making a list of the different ways the passage could possibly be interpreted (and then hopefully eliminating some of them) can be very helpful in itself, and can help lead to an answer or at least better scope the nature of the difficulty.
Comparing marginal references can also help here, and then you can explore the words of the passage in a concordance. If you trace the original word underlying the difficult English, then with the help of a tool like Strong’s concordance you can locate other passages where that word occurs. This can help give a clue as to what a word is likely to mean. Remember though that there are no hard and fast rules. Just because a word means one thing in one passage doesn’t necessarily mean that it means the same thing in another (just think about how we use the word ‘drive’ in expressions like ‘hard disk drive’, ‘warp drive’, ‘you drive me crazy’, ‘drive the cattle’ – although there is an underlying connection, the word drive refers to very different things in each of these passages, and you can’t take the context of one and force it onto another.
Word studies can be fascinating and very valuable. With a concordance and other tools, you can discover all kinds of wonderful connections between passages that you may not have expected, and you can illuminate the meanings of difficult words. Some people do studies of Bible words almost at the expense of deeper thinking about the passage, however, and this is a mistake. A Bible text means more than the sum of the meanings of its individual words (as is the case for any sentence). Studying Bible words is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
When you find a difficult passage and you have spent time trying to get to grips with it yourself, it can be helpful to consult a Bible commentary. Sometimes it can help immensely, sometimes you may only get more confused! Remember that commentators are interpreters too, just like you. While they should have had special training in the original languages, as well as lots of experience in interpreting the Bible, they may have agendas of their own which colour their interpretations. The best and most rewarding Bible study is that which you do yourself.
If you find something which is difficult, note it down. A scientific researcher wouldn’t expect to find all the answers to a new field of study on his first day. Learning about God and His word is a process of discovery. If you do write down things which puzzle you it can concentrate the mind and give you something to discuss with others who are interested in the Bible. You’ll also be surprised to find that, with a little experience, you can return to your original ‘problem list’ and find many of the difficulties have subsequently evaporated!
Hopefully one thing has become clear. The essence of Bible study is about reading the Bible carefully, letting it roll around in your mind as you think and meditate upon it. Bible study is about asking good questions of the Bible. We’ve mentioned many of them already, but as a recap, you can think about:
- Why is this recorded in the Bible?
- What would God want me to learn from this?
- What does this teach about God and man and their relationship?
- Does this remind me of anything else in the Bible?
- Does this cast any light on the life and work of the Lord Jesus?
- How should I change my life as a result of this?
In due course we hope to be able to add some examples of Bible studies you could try. In the meantime you’ll find a pdf with lots of questions on each chapter of the gospel of John that could be used as a basis for a good Bible study on the Compass page on that book. But the essence of it all is close reading – paying attention to and meditating on the Biblical text – and bringing to it the right questions which can help with spiritual growth.