How To Study The Bible

By Brian Anderson

The Bible is the most popular book the world has ever known. Year after year more Bibles are printed and sold than any other book in the world. In spite of the Bible's popularity, however, comparatively few people actually read it. In the February 1, 1990 edition of USA Today, a poll taken only three months previously was cited indicating that only eleven per cent of Americans read the Bible every day, and more than half read it less than once a month or never at all. Why would the world's most widely published and distributed book be read so infrequently? I believe the answer lies in the fact that many people don't believe they can understand the Bible, and thereby derive any benefit from it. They find themselves mystified and perplexed by the Bible's contents and unable to discover its meaning. Thus, in spite of the fact that they understand how important and valuable a book it is, they allow it to sit on their tables and gather dust month after month, year after year. In spite of the fact that the Bible was written over two thousand years ago, in ancient languages, and in a very different cultural setting than our own, it can be understood and applied to one's life with great spiritual profit. In order to understand the Bible, however, you must do more than read it; you must study it. Over the years, I have discovered a seven-step method of personal Bible study, which will enable the serious student to understand and apply the truths of Scripture to his own life; these seven steps consist of preparation, orientation, observation, interpretation, correlation, examination, and application.


The first step in Bible study is what I like to call the preparation step. It is thus called because in this stage the individual prepares himself spiritually to receive the truth of God's Word. The individual must first be born again of the Spirit of God, for the Bible itself declares that a natural man (a non-Christian) does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. Therefore, he who would profit from reading the Bible must first commit his life without reservation to Jesus Christ, praying that God would open his eyes and give understanding as he reads. In addition, one must come to the Bible with a commitment to apply the truth he discovers in it. Without such a commitment, a person is only making himself more responsible before God for the truths he is learning. To know much Biblical truth, but to refuse to apply it only increases one's accountability on Judgment Day. Therefore, come to God's Word ready to obey all that it declares. If you open the Scriptures in this fashion, you can be sure that you are in the right frame of mind to profit from them.


Having prepared yourself spiritually to study the Scriptures, the next step is the orientation phase. In this stage of Bible study, you will orient yourself to the particular book of the Bible at hand. You will need to determine what kind of literature you are reading. The Bible consists, among other things, of narrative, poetry, prophecy, songs, letters, and apocalyptic literature. It is very important to understand what particular kind of literature you are reading, for each kind of literature must be interpreted according to its genre. For example, someone reading 1 Samuel would need to interpret it differently than he would the book of Revelation; the former is historical narrative while the latter is apocalyptic prophecy. Furthermore, you will need to understand something of the historical setting of the book you are reading. Many study Bibles include an introduction to each book which will give you this pertinent information. If not, you can consult a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. Your goal is to discover the answer to several questions at this point. Who is the author? What compelled him to write this book? Did he have a specific purpose? Was there a problem he intended to solve? When did he write it? Where was he when he wrote it? Who is he writing to and what are their cultural uniquenesses? What is the key theme of the book? Who is the audience? Record what you have learned about the background of the book in a journal for future reference.


The third stage, and the one I enjoy the most, is the observation stage. In this stage, the student immerses himself in the text. At this point, you will want to read and re-read the passage of Scripture you are studying many times, until you can really feel the pulse of the author. In the observation stage, the interpreter becomes a detective looking for clues. Just as a good detective will notice anything and everything about the scene of the crime, including the blood stain on the carpet, the fingerprint on the doorknob, and the torn drape, the good interpreter must learn to notice everything he possibly can from the text. "What do I see here?" is the question at hand. One of the first things you should observe is the central idea of the passage you are studying. Every passage has a central idea; identify it early in your exploration of the text. Also, it is important at this point for you to note the repeated words or phrases in the passage. For example, if the word "faith" or "believe" occurs eight times, and the word "justify" or its equivalent occurs seven times in Galatians 3:6-14, the central idea of the passage is clearly justification by faith. Notice also the main persons, places, and time words of the text. Who are the main characters, where are they, and when is the story taking place? Furthermore, pay special attention to the connective words of the text like "and", "but", "for", "because", "then", "that", and "if". These words will alert you to the flow of the author's thought. Continue observing the text until you have exhausted all its clues. The best interpreters are aware and thorough. Finally, under the observation stage it is very helpful to construct your own outline of the passage at hand. Now that you understand its central idea, and leading features, divide the passage into its major parts, making sure all of these parts still relate to the one central idea. Having done this work, you will have a high degree of confidence that you are beginning to understand the Biblical author's intended message.


The fourth stage in Bible study, interpretation, follows logically on the heels of the observation stage. In this step the interpreter begins to ask general questions related to meaning. Instead of asking, "What do I see here?" he will ask, "What does this passage mean by what it says?" If there are any words in the passage you are unsure of, determine their meaning by looking up the original words in a Greek lexicon. Ask yourself how the same author uses these same words in his other writings. By consulting a Greek concordance, you can quickly identify every occurrence of a particular Greek word. By this means, you can discover how a particular Greek word is used throughout the New Testament. These reference books can be purchased at any Bible book store, or borrowed from any seminary library. In the interpretation stage it is also important to determine the relationship between the Biblical passage you are studying and what has preceded it and what follows it. Understanding this relationship, called the context of the passage, is extremely important in understanding the meaning of the text. Seek to understand the author's flow of thought. Ask yourself the question, "What is his argument and how is he proving it?" Additionally, it can prove very helpful to paraphrase the passage in your own words. During the interpretation stage, be very thorough and objective. Let the text challenge your thinking. You may have come to the text with wrong ideas, that the Scripture will need to correct. Don't impose your own understanding upon the text of Scripture; rather, allow the Bible to mold your views.


The fifth stage in Bible study is the correlation stage. This is the point where you should test the validity of your tentative interpretation of the passage by correlating it with other portions of Scripture. Although the Bible is made up of sixty-six individual books, penned by many different human authors, all the books have a single Divine Author, and thus will be consistent with one another. At this point you need to determine if your understanding of the text harmonizes with the rest of the Bible. "How does this relate to all of Biblical truth?" is the question you must ask at this point. The best way to determine this is by doing some cross-referencing. Many Bibles include cross-references to other verses of Scripture in its margins. Read these cross-references, noting whether your interpretation is consistent with its teaching. In addition to using the cross-references in your own Bible, you can consult a book called The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge to great profit. This is the most exhaustive book of cross-references available today. Furthermore, you can cross-reference the theme you are studying by using a Topical Bible. By looking up the particular theme your tentative interpretation falls into and reading other passages of Scripture which fall under that theme, you can quickly scan what the rest of the Scriptures teach about that particular subject.


The sixth stage is the examination stage. At this point the student examines the fruit of others' studies, by reading their commentaries. A Bible commentary is a book in which an author has commented on a particular book of the Bible. Good commentaries are helpful in that they do a little bit of each of these steps for you. However, most commentaries are not intended to be exhaustive, so their primary value is in testing your findings (a kind of checks and balances), not in doing the work for you. If you consult commentaries too soon in the process, you will short-change yourself, because you will deprive yourself of the joy of discovering the truth firsthand. Remember, also, that though a good commentary may be written by a more proficient scholar than yourself, no commentator is infallible. If you find that you disagree with the author, attempt to discover why. If, after checking yourself, you are still persuaded that you accurately understand the text, move on. Remember, you are accountable to the text. It is probably becoming obvious by now, that to be a serious student of the Bible, you will need to accumulate some reference books. Don't allow this to overwhelm you at the beginning; simply purchase one reference tool at a time as you are able. A goal you may wish to pursue might be to one day possess a commentary on each book of the Bible.


The final stage in Bible study is the application stage. This is the step in which you ask general application questions as you seek to apply the meaning of the text to your own personal life. This step is an extremely important one, as God's Word should never be studied simply to be understood without a commitment to obey it. Therefore, this step is the goal of all the previous steps, and is the necessary response to the truth that has been discovered. "How does this apply to me?" is the question you must pose at this point. Are there commands to obey, promises to believe, or truths to understand in the text? Are there actions to take, sins to forsake, or examples to follow? Are there things to avoid or new thoughts about God to assimilate? Ask yourself what action you must take, now that you understand the message of the text.


Though, admittedly, the method of Bible study that I have detailed will require much time and hard work, it will also bring a great sense of joy and fulfillment as you begin to discover the truth of God's Word for yourself. If it is really true that the Bible is God's Word, can you be nonchalant about its truths? Truly, if the message of everlasting life can be found in the Bible, it would be the height of insanity for any thinking person to neglect it. I urge you, therefore, to begin to read and study the Bible for yourself instead of letting it gather dust on your coffee table. There's no greater joy or more important activity that you can pursue!