Most articles about studying the Bible jump right into the topic at hand. This article will take a different approach by first asking the question, Why study the Bible? This is both practical and foundational. It is practical because we will learn real reasons why studying the Bible is important, but it is also foundational because it will prepare us for future discussions on the importance of Bible study.
While not an exhaustive list, below are eight reasons for studying the Bible:
One reason to study the Bible is for cultural literacy purposes. E.D. Hirsch writes, "To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world."1 Simply put, the Bible contains a wealth of cultural literacy. References to the Bible are found not only found in religion, but also art, music, philosophy, literature, law and more. Knowing what the Bible says is an important part of everyone's knowledge-base.
Many popular phrases and figures of speech also find their origin in the Bible including being a Good Samaritan, the folly of letting the blind lead the blind, going the extra mile, ethical maxims such as "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," manna from heaven, etc. Hirsch considers the Bible so important to cultural literacy that it appears first in his Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.
Another reason to study the Bible is to learn what it has to say firsthand. Whether one is a supporter or critic of the Bible, or perhaps just neutral or uninterested in the topic, history has demonstrated that the Bible cannot be ignored. Considering that the Bible is important to three major world religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – it is worthy of study.
In addition, the recent rise of hostile criticism towards the Bible itself and religion in general also makes it worthy of study. Sometimes the critics do not always quote the Bible correctly or in context. Knowing what it says firsthand and having some knowledge of the context is helpful in understanding not only current events, but key ideas the Bible addresses such as the nature and existence of God, the human condition, the biblical pattern of redemption and salvation and ethics.
For thousands of years the Bible has been read not only as history and God's Word, but also for personal edification. This, of course, is a more meaningful reason for studying the Bible for those who believe in God, but the Bible is also surprisingly edifying for those who do not believe. It is full of individuals facing moral choices, life challenges, and, frankly, situations that are applicable to us even today. As Paul wrote, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV).
The Bible is available for us to learn from not only on an intellectual level, but on a personal and emotional level.
But the Bible is not just for us to keep to ourselves as individuals. It is also useful in helping others. We gain centuries of wisdom and are thus able to help others by studying the Bible. Proverbs, for instance, contain general principles and ideas to assist anyone in living their lives in a way that is helpful and pleasing to God.
Studying the Bible in order to help others is not just for ministers, priests or pastors, but is something everyone can do. By knowing what the Bible says on different subjects, we can help others through difficult circumstances, encourage them and so forth.
For Christians the Bible culminates in the New Testament account of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some 2,000 years after the time of Christ, His life and ministry remain relevant even in our contemporary world. Regardless of how one views Christ, like the Bible, He cannot be ignored. Far from being a distant prophet or irrelevant figure in history, Jesus Christ is at the Christianity's foundation. Particularly studying the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John will help anyone gain a better understanding of Jesus and His mission.
For people the world over, the Bible is God's Word to us. People inspired by God recorded the words that make up the Bible, thus communicating what theologians call special revelation. In other words, God has chosen to reveal Himself not only through creation and conscience, but also specially through Jesus and through His Word. Studying the Bible, then, is a matter of course for those who love God and desire to follow Him.
Since the Bible is God's Word, studying it is a way to know God better. Through His words we come to know not only the nature and attributes of God, but we also come to understand His plan for each of us. In a larger sense, we also come to know God's plan in history, His sovereignty, His providence, His love and more. There is only so much we can learn about God apart from the Bible. But with it we can know God better.
Studying the Bible also helps us avoid theological error. The Bible tells us, "Watch your life and doctrine closely" (1 Timothy 4:16 NIV), adding that we "must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1 NIV). If the Bible is our authority for faith and life, then the inspired words it contains will help us to avoid error. In a pluralistic world with many religious and non-religious ideas competing for attention, studying the Bible provides us with a firm foundation in God's truth rather than the errors of the world. Knowing the Bible also helps us respond to error and answer questions that skeptics and others may have about it.
As we have seen, studying the Bible is important for a number of reasons. Other articles in this series will explore how to study the Bible, devotional Bible study, family Bible study and in-depth Bible study. The Bible is not just for theologians and scholars. Rather, it is God's Word in plain language intended for everyone. Together, we will explore the importance of Bible study and its relevance to everyday life. Far from being a stuffy or boring book, the Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God, helpful in building us up so that we may serve, love and glorify God and His Son, Jesus Christ, as we are intended to do.
The question, How do I study the Bible?" is not just for new Christians. Anyone interested in studying the Bible will benefit from thinking about how to study it. In 2 Timothy 2:15, the Apostle Paul wrote, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (NIV). The Greek phrase translated "correctly handle" (orthotomeo) also means to "guide on a straight path." As we study the Bible, it's important we do our best to stay on the straight path when it comes to interpreting and understanding it.
But how can we go about that? This article will introduce several approaches and methods helpful in general Bible study. Other articles in this series will specifically look at certain types of Bible study such as personal or devotional study, family Bible study and in-depth Bible study.
A key foundation of Bible study is interpretation. Technically known as hermeneutics, biblical interpretation offers some basic principles to help understand the Bible. The most important principle is context. This means that when studying the Bible one must keep in mind not only the immediate context of the portion under study, but also other forms of context such as the cultural context, the literary context and more. Usually, however, it's enough to have a basic understanding of the immediate context of what is being studied. Reading what comes before the passage being studied, what comes after and what the Bible says as a whole about the topic being studied, are all key concepts to keep in mind. More often than not, errors or difficulties of interpretation when studying the Bible come about as a result of not having a proper understanding of context.
Another important aspect of Bible interpretation is not to base an elaborate theological teaching on the basis of an apparently obscure or isolated passage. If a passage or teaching is important, there are often multiple instances throughout the Bible where the topic is discussed more clearly. In such cases, looking at many parallel passages to understand a topic better is more helpful than fixating on a more obscure or difficult passage, when the answer to the issue at hand can usually be resolved by turning to clearer passages.
Also keep in mind the cultural context and genre of the passage being studied. Keep in mind that we are looking at biblical writings that are separated from our time by centuries – more than 1,950 years in the case of the New Testament and even longer in the case of the Old Testament. The Bible was also originally written in cultural contexts that are different from what we are used to. This, of course, does not mean that the Bible is not relevant to us, but when it comes to studying it and seeking to understand it, remember issues related to context.
Genre is also important. This has to do with what kind of passage we are studying in the Bible. For example, the Bible contains poetry, wise sayings, history, letters, prophetic writings, apocalyptic literature and more. Sometimes when studying the Bible, knowing what genre we are studying will help us. For instance, Proverbs contains many wise sayings intended as helpful, general advice, but this advice is not always absolutely binding in the same way that a promise of God would be.
The last bit of guidance regarding interpretation and Bible study has to do with interpreting the Bible literally or figuratively. This sometimes depends on context too. The Bible is full of rich language. Jesus, for instance, often used word pictures to help communicate his message such as when he would say things like, "I am the gate" (John 10:7-9 NIV). Jesus is obviously not a literal gate with a handle and hinges. This is a figurative passage meant to illustrate a point. Conversely, interpreting literal language figuratively can also be a problem because if we are not careful we could end up spiritualizing passages that are meant to be taken quite literally.
What, then, are some other Bible study tips? Reading the Bible slowly and carefully is preferable to reading it quickly and carelessly. In our fast-paced culture, we often want to try to get to a point of understanding as fast as possible. But the Bible is best read slowly, not quickly. Once a passage for study has been selected, read through it slowly.
Another tip involves asking some basic questions about the passage being studied. The typical journalistic questions may be helpful: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Try to determine the main subject of the passage being studied: who wrote it; who originally received it and in what context; is there a key verse that could sum up that passage being studied; what insights may hold a reference to God, Christ, human nature or behavior in general; or is there some aspect of the passage that is relevant on a practical level in your own life?
Keeping a journal often helps Bible study. This may be for devotional notes, theological questions and insights, questions you may have and more. It need not be an elaborate journal but a simple notebook where you can jot down insights you come across during your Bible study times.
Studying the Bible alone is helpful for personal, devotional times, but make sure your Bible study can involve others too. Find out if your church offers small group Bible studies and look for one that interests you. Many times other people will have the same sorts of questions about the Bible that you will have. As a result, studying and discussing the Bible with other believers will help everyone grow in their faith.
Try not to jump around too much in your study times. Instead of reading brief, isolated verses from different books of the Bible, try to concentrate on longer passages and books. You may wish to select a broad theme or topic to study, too, such as God's plan of redemption. In general, however, studying the Bible book by book is better than jumping around a lot from section to section. If your time is limited occasionally, but you would still like to study the Bible more carefully, try reading entire psalms or passages from Proverbs.
Studying the Bible can be a lifelong adventure. It contains both simple and practical insights, but also profound and moving insights that will help Christians of all kinds grow in their faith. Bible study should never become just an academic task, though that has its place. Always keep in mind that the overarching point of studying the Bible is to know God better so that He may be glorified. Along the way, we'll be edified, challenged and changed for the better. Learning to correctly handle "the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15 NIV) through Bible study can be enjoyable and rewarding.
"Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." –Acts 17:11 (NIV)
Were the Bereans of Acts 17 one of the earliest examples of an in-depth Christian Bible study group? Probably not in the sense of what we consider in-depth Bible study today, but they did indeed dig into God's Word deeply, examining it and making sure that what they read corresponded to the message Paul shared with them. Today, of course, we have a lot more in the way of resources to help us study the Bible in great depth. Not only do we have access to sophisticated Bible software, we also have the Internet and its many resources, not to mention almost 2,000 years of Christian history and wisdom we can incorporate into our studies.
While personal, devotionally-oriented Bible study is very important, as is family Bible study, in-depth Bible study by definition digs deeper into God's Word in order to gain a better understanding of the truths contained in it. This article will offer some tips for in-depth Bible study and also look at some of the tools available to the Bible student eager to gain a deeper understanding of the Bible.
It will be helpful here to reiterate what we shared in an earlier article in this series about why we should study the Bible. Some of the reasons include cultural literacy, to learn what it says firsthand, personal edification, to help others, to gain a better understanding of Jesus and His mission, because the Bible is God's Word to us, to know God better and to help us avoid theological error. All of these are excellent reasons to pursue in-depth Bible study that will help us grow spiritually.
Another key point to keep in mind has to do with interpretation or, in more formal terms, biblical hermeneutics. This is the foundation to any Bible study, but is particularly relevant when it comes to in-depth Bible study. Second Timothy 2:15 instructs us to correctly handle the Word of truth. Doing so requires us to interpret it as best we can, not reading into the text what is not there (eisogesis), but instead drawing out from it what it really means (exegesis). We also need to keep context in mind at all times, not just the immediate and broader context of the passage or book we may be studying, but the context in light of what the Bible teaches throughout its pages on a particular topic, as well as the cultural context, the intended meaning of the author and other matter such as the genre or type of biblical literature we are reading.
Since in-depth Bible study generally involves research into the authorship and dating of biblical manuscripts, as well as interaction with criticism of the biblical record, it's helpful to have or seek to pursue greater knowledge of the Bible so that we can study it better.1
Unless your in-depth Bible study equips you to read the original biblical languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), you most likely will be studying a translation. There are a variety of English translations available, some better than others and some taking a different approach than others. Focus on the Family maintains a list of recommended translations.
Broadly speaking, there are two usual approaches to Bible translation. The New International Version, for instance, takes a dynamic equivalency approach, while the New American Standard Bible follows more of a formal equivalency approach. This means that the NIV is often more readable and flowing in English, while the NASB is more of a literal, word-for-word approach (though given the limitations of English even translations that take the formal equivalency approach cannot literally offer a word-for-word translation because the resulting translation wouldn't make a whole lot of sense in English). Keep in mind that using multiple Bible translations will sometimes help you understand passages better, but other resources such as Bible commentaries, addressed below, will help you even more.
If you have a good study Bible, often these resources are indispensable when it comes to addressing most common questions readers will have. While a study Bible is not essential to in-depth Bible study, it will help immensely by providing what is essentially a mini-commentary on various passages you encounter. Two helpful study Bibles include the NIV Study Bible and, more recently, the ESV Study Bible (the English Standard Version is more along the lines of a formal equivalency translation such as the NASB). These types of study Bibles are in a sense annotated Bibles, full of notes by various scholars.
Commentaries are also quite useful to in-depth Bible study. While commentaries used to be largely available to academic biblical scholars, they are now fairly common in Bible study software. Also, if you happen to live near a Christian seminary, you might look into accessing their library for more in-depth research, as they tend to have numerous commentaries available. A commentary is fairly simple to use. If you have a question about a particular Bible passage, you consult the relevant Bible commentary and look up the passage and what the commentator has said about it. Sometimes you will find a great answer to a puzzling question you've had, while other times you will find a blank space in the commentary. If you don't find what you are looking for, you can consult other commentaries or resources.
One helpful Bible commentary is known as The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Zondervan). A couple of helpful mini-commentaries addressing Bible difficulties and seeming contradictions include Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer and When Critics Ask by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe.
If you are involved in a word study, a Bible dictionary and concordance are quite helpful. A printed concordance will help you easily look up key words and passages where they appear. A Bible dictionary will help you understand specific terms and how they are used in certain passages.
With the advent of Bible study software, in-depth Bible study is even more accessible to the layperson or budding scholar. Keep in mind that even if you do not have Bible software, you can utilize free online resources such as Bible Gateway (http://www.biblegateway.com/) to search and read a number of Bible translations.
There are far too many Bible study software packages available for us to go into any detail about them here. Logos Bible Software (http://www.logos.com) is quite popular on Windows-based operating systems, while one option for Macintosh systems is Accordance Bible Software (http://www.accordancebible.com). You may wish to consult with your pastor to find out what software they recommend.
Also, be aware of some of the dangers of Bible study software. While properly used Bible study software is a great tool for in-depth Bible study, it's easy to get lost in the many features and options the software offers.
"These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." –Deuteronomy 6:6-7 (NIV)
When Moses shared these words with the people of Israel, he specifically pointed out the necessity of active and regular parental involvement in the spiritual lives of their children. God has revealed great truths to us, yet often we do not engage as a family in seeking to learn about and understand these truths. Various studies indicate that more than 90 percent of American homes have at least one Bible in them, but there is a difference between owning one and reading one. There's also a difference between owning a Bible and being actively involved in family Bible study.
In Christian homes it's not so much that parents don't desire to help their children understand God and His truths; rather, it's usually a matter of finding time combined with not knowing how to go about family Bible study. The time problem is symptomatic of our fast-paced culture and resulting lifestyles. We are so used to the hectic pace of our daily lives that it becomes difficult to fit "one more thing" into our schedules. Unfortunately, when it comes to family Bible study, it should not be viewed as one more thing but as a central focus of our devotion to God. It is a parental responsibility commanded by God, and it also provides a wonderful opportunity to help build and strengthen bonds between family members.
One key step, then, in laying the groundwork for edifying family Bible study is making a commitment to set aside specific and regular time to gather together as a family.
But how does a family go about studying the Bible together? There are no set rules, however Deuteronomy 6:6-7, quoted above provides some guidance that we can apply to our contemporary lives. We are told that these commandments are to be, first, upon our own hearts. This means that as parents we must strive to know God and His Word better in our own hearts. The Hebrew word translated as hearts in the passage is lebab. It refers to more than the organ of the heart, meaning also "the inner person, self, the seat of thought and emotion: conscience, courage, mind, understanding."1. In other words, God's commandments are to infuse our entire being and, as a result, everything we do. That's easier said than done, but it is the ideal we are to strive for with Christ's help.
Next the verse tells us to "impress" God's commandments upon our children. Making such an impression on children generally requires a recurrence, meaning repetition. For children to absorb God's truths, regular times of family Bible study, devotion and worship are important. Memorizing portions of Scripture also becomes important in making a godly impression on children. The verse also instructs parents to "talk about them," meaning that we are to engage in conversation with our children that includes God and His commandments. The implication of the rest of the passage is that we are to do this everywhere – at home, when traveling, when resting, when facing each new day, etc. Too often we set aside one day or a portion of a day for church worship then neglect the reality of God in our daily lives the rest of the week. But if we truly believe in God and His truths to the point of committing our lives to His service, then we need to make God a part of everything we do. Again, this is easier said than done. Nevertheless, the broader point here is to include God in our daily lives as an example to our children.
While there are no definitive techniques or methods to family Bible study that will apply to every family, here are some general principles.
First, remember to set aside a specific day and time for your family Bible study and stick to it as best you can. Young children in particular appreciate regular schedules and routines. If your family can get into a habit of having a regular Bible study time, you'll find that your children will often come to appreciate it and miss it if it doesn't happen as scheduled.
Second, keep your family Bible study times relatively short. This is particularly important if there are young children in your family. Older children in general have better attention spans, while younger children don't.
Third, pick an area, passage or topic of study that is helpful and relevant without being too difficult or challenging for children to grasp. So, for instance, you really don't want to have a family Bible study about the Documentary hypothesis and its implications regarding biblical inerrancy! But a topical study about specific biblical figures might be a good place to start, such as learning about Noah, Moses, David, Jesus, etc. This should be fairly straightforward and simple, sharing perhaps some key biblical stories about these individuals. You may wish to find a good children's Bible and read some stories from that edition. Pick some short biblical passages to read too. If your children are old enough to read, help them read certain passages aloud so they are actively engaged in your study time. Below are several family Bible study tips offered by Pastor Donald Hoke:
Fourth, you'll also want to include prayer in your family Bible study. Pray as you are moved to before your study time and perhaps during and after.
Finally, don't become legalistic about your family Bible study times or beat yourself up about missing a scheduled time. As a parent, strive to be a role model to your children about the importance and reality of faith in your life, but do so without being a negative example. Making God a genuine reality in your daily life is more important than sticking to a strict schedule. Prior to Moses offering insights regarding parental involvement in the spiritual lives of children, he writes, "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5 NIV). Jesus, too, repeated this phrase in the Gospels (see, for instance, Matthew 22:37).
We must first commit our lives to God before we can effectively pass on our legacy of faith to our children. This commitment must begin with our love for God with every aspect of our being.
"Now devote your heart and soul to seeking the LORD your God." -1 Chronicles 22:19 (NIV)
For the Christian, devotional Bible study is not an option. In a very real sense, every kind of Bible study we are involved in must, on some level, be devotional. The ultimate goal is to know God better through His Word. That's why devotional Bible study is extremely important. Too often, however, we don't approach Bible study with the knowledge or inclination necessary to get the most out of personal times of devotional study. This article will provide several helpful devotional Bible study tips.
Consistency. One important aspect of devotional Bible study is consistency. Make it a habit to set aside a regular time and place for your devotional reading. If a regular time and place is not possible due to your schedule, strive for consistency anyway by keeping yourself on track with your devotional reading on a regular basis. Don't be legalistic about your devotional reading time, though, as that misses the point of seeking and knowing God better through His Word.
Prayer. Another point to keep in mind is to remember to pray about your devotional reading. There is no set formula for how to go about praying for your reading time. You may wish to pray before, during and after, or perhaps a mixture of these options. Ask God to help you understand what you are reading and to apply it to your life without disregarding the meaning and context of the original passage and its intent.
Memorization. In our fast-paced contemporary culture, people don't often stop to memorize things anymore. We think it's so easy to just look something up online. But when it comes to devotional Bible study, internalizing God's Word through memorization is important. If you find this daunting, start with short and simple passages that you may already be familiar with, then move on to more extensive passages. It may be helpful to write your memory verses on index cards, but that's up to you. Proverbs 3:5-6 is a good place to start: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight" (NIV). Try to understand the context of the passage you are memorizing, such as its historical and cultural context, what comes before and after the passage and what the author originally intended by it.
If you find memorizing Scripture a challenge and a chore, don't be discouraged. Remember, this is not about being legalistic regarding your Bible study time, but about helping you know God better and, as a result, growing in your faith.
Keep in mind four key aspects of your devotional Bible study time. First, look to be edified. You want to be growing in your faith and maturity level as a Christian, no matter how long or short a period you have been a believer. You are not trying to score "points" with God during any sort of Bible study time. Rather, seek to be edified and also to know the Bible better so you may edify others.
Second, engage the reading. This means you want to be actively involved in what you are reading, looking for what God may want to teach you through your reading time. To this end, try to structure your devotional Bible study time in a quiet area as free from distractions as possible. If you have a cell phone around, turn it off. The same goes for other possible distractions such as radio, television, the Internet, etc. If you are feeling active, you may wish to incorporate your personal Bible study time with a brisk walk or a visit to a park.
Third, devotional Bible study should equip you to face the challenges of your daily life, no matter what they may be. Look to God's Word to nourish you and prepare you to serve Christ throughout your day.
Fourth, devotional Bible study time should also prepare you for evangelism. This does not necessarily mean that God is calling you to be a street preacher, hand out tracts or become a full time pastor. But it does mean that your personal Bible study time should equip you to share the good news of Christ with others.
Also keep in mind that devotional Bible study time does not mean that you have a license for loose or shoddy interpretation. Remember to keep in mind the context of the passage and the author's original intent. Don't read into a text what is not there. Instead, seek to draw out from your reading what is intended in the passage.
Basic biblical interpretation skills such as the ones described in the previous paragraph will help you keep your study times rooted in the reality of what God would like to teach you through His Word.
At times you may come across puzzling phrases, ideas or just things that you do not understand at the time you are reading. Try to keep your devotional reading time in mind and not get side-tracked by these distractions. Jot them down in a notebook and research answers to your questions during times of more in-depth Bible study (see the final article in this series). It's fine to have questions as you read biblical passages, but often it's helpful to set aside those questions for a different kind of Bible study time rather than interrupting your devotional time.
You may also wish to set aside some of your devotional Bible study time for personal reflection or meditation. This doesn't refer to non-Christian types of "meditation" that is not Christ-centered, but biblical meditation that has God as its focus. Read Psalm 119 to get a good idea of biblically-based meditation and reflection. Note that the object of meditation is God, His Word, His decrees, His nature, etc.
There are a lot of resources about devotional Bible study. In fact, one might say that there are so many that it's hard to know where to start or what to use. As you become active in regular devotional Bible reading, make sure you aren't carried away by any particular technique. This is not to say that all these sorts of techniques are bad, but if you decide to try one approach and it doesn't seem to work for you, try something else. Keep Christ as your focus, not any technique or approach to Bible study. Christianity is reasonable and relational, so try to maintain a healthy balance in your study time.
As 1 Chronicles 22:19 so aptly puts it, "Now devote your heart and soul to seeking the LORD your God (NIV)." God has blessed everyone with the ability to know Him better through His Word. This does not mean we are all Bible scholars, but it does mean that God expects us to use the abilities we do have to actively seek and engage His Word on a regular basis. Do your best to remain consistent in your devotional Bible study time, remaining prayerful and seeking to internalize God's Word so that it becomes second nature and part of who you are.