Occasionally people ask me how to study the Bible. They sense that knowing the Bible and applying its principles to their daily lives could be life changing. But they don’t know how to get started.
So I have been thinking about how I learned to study the Bible. When I was in high school, a teen ministry offered beginner resources and small-group discussions. This early instruction enabled me to study the Bible by myself, which allowed me to be more discerning when presented with ideas from churches and ministries.
God can speak to you through experiences, conversations, literature, etc. But you can hear His voice more clearly if you get to know the Bible first. Drawing on my teenage years and what I have learned since then, here are a handful of ways to study the Bible:
Read and study selected passages
To study the Bible from a Christian perspective, I recommend starting with the gospels (that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). These books share the story of Jesus and His ministry, including interactions with the main 12 disciples, other followers, random people, and the religious people of that time. After getting this foundation, go forward to the rest of the New Testament or backward to Old Testament for stories leading up to Jesus’ birth.
Read just a few paragraphs at a time and extract meaning from those passages. As a writer who learns by expressing my thoughts, I find it helpful to keep a journal as I learn and you may find such a process useful also.
Develop a guide to studying scripture. For example, for each passage, answer these questions:
- Who is (are) involved in this passage? (Write their names and whatever you know about them, either through this reading, previous studies, and commentaries)
- How does God enter the story and interact with people? (Does He appear as the Holy Spirit or Jesus, or in some other form?)
- What action occurs?
- What promises or commands are made (if any)?
- How do people respond? (Note their actions and statements; plus imagine what they were thinking)
By reading and contemplating various sections, you will gain understanding. However, your study may lead to more questions, many of which you’ll be unable to answer. Very often, years after first studying a scripture, you will see a more nuanced meaning or another layer of meaning. You probably won’t change your mind about what you learned or understood initially. But you will see additional complexity that earlier went unnoticed.
As much as I hate to compare watching cartoons (like Looney Tunes or SpongeBob SquarePants) to studying the Bible, I think it’s a good comparison. As a kid, you giggle at the comical behavior. But as an adult, you laugh at the double entendres and marvel at underlying messages. You realize that even though you understood the story as a kid, you now grasp much deeper meaning.
The point, then, is not that you will instantly reach full understanding by reading a Bible passage. But you will begin to catch a glimpse of what God wants you to know.
Do a topical study
Create your own study on a specific topic. Select a subject you truly want to learn. God often uses a combination of our concerns and His word (the Bible) to speak to us. For example, you might pick “how to overcome fear and anxiety.”
To study fear and anxiety, find references to these words using a concordance. Many Bibles come with this feature tucked away in the back, a listing of verses associated with certain words or characters. Alternatively, access online resources, such as Bible Study Tools and search for references.
For example, you might find these verses:
- Psalm 118:6: The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?
- 2 Timothy 1:7: For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.
- Hebrews 13:5-6: Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Those passages may be comforting and plenty for you to ponder. But you may want more, such as specific techniques to overcome fear. Supplement by reading the stories that inspired many of the Psalms. Read about David’s evasion of Saul, who wanted to murder him, and other potentially terrifying events in 1 and 2 Samuel. Then, return to Psalms and read about David’s expressions of fear and courage.
Alternatively, pick up your Bible and start skimming each page for references to fear and anxiety. Each time you find a reference, read that section and possibly the one before and after in order to understand the context. Then draw conclusions based on these readings.
As with a traditional passage-by-passage study, keeping a journal of the relevant scripture and notes about their meaning may be useful. Also, study several sections, not just one or two, to get the full picture.
Again, you probably won’t gain perfect and comprehensive insights the first time around. But you will grow in understanding.
Reading helps you become familiar with the stories, characters, and themes of the Bible. You may be familiar with Adam and Eve, Noah, and the Good Samaritan, just like you may have heard of characters in a popular series like Star Wars or Harry Potter. By watching all the movies or reading all the books, you’ll get to know more stories and subplots.
Note that there’s a difference between reading for general understanding and reading for deeper meaning. You may be able to do both at the same time, but I never could. So, if you are reading the Bible for the first time, focus simply on reading, not delving for nuances of meaning.
Consider picking up a contemporary and/or paraphrased version of the Bible, such as The Message or The Living Bible. Paraphrasing involves interpretation so you may find subtle meanings in these versions that are different from (and occasionally contrary to) more literal, word-for-word translations. However, these versions may read more fluidly so you may be able to understand the stories more readily.
Using a more modern version can bring understanding in the way that SparkNotes for classic literature does for those who aren’t naturally drawn to plot lines and symbolism. Reading lays the foundation for further study. Get the gist of the story before diving into a more detailed analysis.
Get a Bible study book
Buy a Bible study (or find free resources) to guide your personal study.
You might choose something like Max Lucado’s Life Lessons‘ series that covers certain books of the Bible. Studies like these are typically segmented into lessons that cover specific themes or sections of the Bible. You read the passage, then answer a series of questions. Your thoughtful responses are designed to bring enlightenment or help you draw certain conclusions.
Typically, this approach is useful. Sometimes, though, the lessons are confusing (for example, I may disagree with the author’s stance). That can be frustrating but it’s okay. The idea is to spark new, original thoughts and reflection, not necessarily to give you all the right answers to life’s questions instantaneously.
Participate in a Bible study
Participating in a Bible study with a group can bring fresh, sharper understanding. Not only can you glean insights from your own study but you can also learn from others in your group. Someone else may be able to relate a personal story to a passage, and make the scripture more relevant to your daily life or a certain situation.
Some studies are more teacher-focused, where you listen to the leader discuss a topic. Others are more group-oriented with open discussion led by a facilitator. Either format is fine, though more formal studies tend to cover lots of information, which may be difficult for a beginner to absorb. More casual discussions often cover less ground but help you gain better, more personalized insights on particular passages.
One word of caution: The Bible will surprise you. There are many aspects of our culture that have been embedded in our belief systems that are not fully supported by scripture. For example, you may think of marriage and family as the Christian ideal but there are many passages that do not support this belief. Paul argued that it was better not to marry and Jesus told us that we should be willing to abandon our family for the love of God.
So, keep an open mind when you read and study. It’s unlikely that you’ll quickly become an expert. But you will learn. And, your thoughts and actions will start being more in line with how God wants you to live.