“A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t,” said the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon. Navigating the Christian life requires you clasp your Bible and use it for guidance in relationships, work, and spiritual life. When you study God’s word, you obey God. He told his people, “Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do” (Joshua 1:8, NLT).
Perhaps you want to know God better through his Word, but are not sure how to study the Bible. Bible study is not just for preachers; it is for everyday people. One way you can study the Bible is by following a simple three-step process.
Observation: What does the text say?
Most Christians can’t read Greek or Hebrew, so we depend upon Bible translations by modern scholars. The translations available to us typically fall into three categories: (1) rigid translations (word-for-word) which include translations such as KJV, ESV, NASB, etc; (2) dynamic translations, which tend to be middle-of-the-road translations that try to be true to the original text while softening idioms and making them more manageable for modern readers and include such translations as the NIV and the NLT; and (3) paraphrases (which do exactly that) including the Message, the Voice, etc. A good starting point to a thorough bible study would be to read one of each of these types of translations before digging deeper. That way you can get the widest range and picture of what is actually presented in the original ancient text.
For the three-step bible study process to begin, the first question to ask is, “What does the text say?” This is called “observation.” In his book on bible study methods, Searching the Scriptures, Chuck Swindoll writes, “Just as a knowledge of the ingredients is a prerequisite for making a delicious meal, a careful reading of the Scriptures is required for proper understanding.” In this critical first step of Bible study, you describe what you see in the text.
I’d like to show you an example of how to make observations from even a well-known verse. Below is the verse with some of my observations.
OBSERVATION EXAMPLES: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28, NLT)
“And” is a conjunction that connects to equal parts of speech.
“God” likely is a reference to God the Father, because the Holy Spirit is mentioned in verses 26 and 27 and the Son is mentioned in verse 29.
“Causes” is in the present tense, which means it is going on continually. It’s not something God does occasionally or just when he feels like it. It’s a constant action.
When I was studying this verse for a sermon I recently preached at our church, I filled up an entire sheet of paper with more than 17 different observations.
The first step of bible study is basic. You’re not trying to solve Bible mysteries or discover truths unknown to others. Nor are you trying to apply things to your life. You must discover what the text says. The goal is awareness of what is in the text, not what it means (step two) or how to apply it (step three).
Interpretation: What does the text mean?
In this step, you go deeper in your Bible study. In the interpretative phase, you ask, “What does the text mean?” Some resources to help you better study the interpretation are 1) a Bible concordance (a list of biblical words and in which passages they occur based on the translation you are using – some study Bibles include a basic one within their pages); 2) a Bible dictionary (I prefer the New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, and again, some study Bibles also include helpful definitions in their footnotes but aren’t exhaustive); and 3) a commentary (such as the Bible Knowledge Commentary, Warren Wiersbe “BE” series, or J. Vernon McGee’s “Thru the Bible”) where other well-known or popular theologians share their deeper knowledge of their longtime study of the text. If you prefer technology to hard copy, you can purchase bible study software such as Logos (which I use) or Olive Tree.
If you don’t have all these types of references at your fingertips right now, that’s okay too – there are also several good phone apps and other free software available online that you can access immediately such as YouVersion, Bible Gateway, or E-Sword. Some publishers also offer additional online study resources with the Bible they produce. For example, the Filament Bible offers not only a nice-looking Bible in an accessible translation (NLT), but also offers interactive features for in-depth study, supplied by the Bible Project.
Interpretation of a passage requires hard work, which is why you use a Bible study process to accurately study God’s Word. Often when we approach Scripture we jump to the question, “What does this passage say to me?” But instead, we should be asking, “What does this passage say” (observation) and then ask, “What does this massage mean to the original audience it was intended for?” And since the Spirit has been active and present in every cultural moment of the church’s history, we could also ask, “How has this passage been interpreted by the Church throughout history?”
Each person comes to a Bible passage with his own culture, language, and historical understanding. Sometimes we use these to interpret the Bible, but the hard work of bible study requires that you get rid of those things and interpret the passage by allowing it to speak for itself in its own language, cultural context, and historical background. In other words, interpretation is hard work because you are trying to to discover what the passage meant to its (original) audience 2000 years ago (even though we are reading it today). Helpful for getting more out of your interpretation is reading in context, as in not only isolating one passage in your study. Even though my example is outlining the work on a single passage of scripture, make sure to also read around each passage to gather the full breadth of what is being said and to bring out the fullest enrichment and overall meaning of the text.
The late Howard Hendricks, who taught bible study methods at Dallas Theological Seminary, used to teach his students that, “’Meaning’ is not our subjective thoughts read into the text, but God’s objective truth read out of the text.” Having a specific Bible study method, such as the one I am describing for you in this article, helps you discover one meaning of the passage.
INTERPRETATION EXAMPLE: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28, NLT)
Through studying, we might reflect on our Triune God, i.e. the Father sent the Son, and the Son sent the Holy Spirit (John 15:26). While all three members of the Godhead are equally God and submit to each other, Jesus told us, “I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will” (John 6:38 NLT). So one interpretation is that when our life situations are worked out for good, we have God to thank for orchestrating that goodness in our lives.
While this process may feel extensive, detailed, and difficult, you must remember that you have a helper for bible study. He’s a personal tutor, of sorts. He’s there to guide you along and to step in when you get stuck. He’s the Holy Spirit.
This is the doctrine of illumination. Illumination is the Holy Spirit’s ministry helping you understand God’s truth. The Holy Spirit was at work in you as you became a Christian and now as you seek to grow in God’s word. Shortly before Jesus died, he told the disciples,
“There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’ (John 16:12-15, NLT)
This is how the Holy Spirit works through our lives in bible study. When we study his word, he shows us its meaning and how it applies to our lives (2 Corinthians 2:12,14). Like I said, interpretation is hard work. Because it is hard work, the Holy Spirit helps us to understand God’s truth.
I don’t want to give the impression that we are “searching for a hidden meaning” in Scripture. Scripture is available for everyone to study and grow. However, the process of in-depth Bible study requires hard work. To open your Bible and read a passage in your devotional time is something anyone can do. But if you want to deepen your walk with God, there will be times you need to engage in a systematic study of passages of the Bible.
Now that you have made many observations of the passage and discovered the interpretation, the final step in the Bible study process is finding an application.
Application: How do I apply the text?
The last step gets personal. “How do I apply the text to my life?” This third step is based on what you see (observation) and what the text means (interpretation). Howard Hendricks said, “Scripture was written not to fatten geese, but to train athletes and equip soldiers for the realities of life.” Good bible study ends with application.
Find specific applications. Don’t say, “I will stop worrying.” That’s too general. Say, “When I start to worry about something, I will quote Philippians 4:6-8 and focus on God.” Here’s an example from the verse I’ve already showed you observations and an interpretation from:
APPLICATION EXAMPLE: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28, NLT)
I am going to memorize this verse so that the next time I talk to a Christian who is in a difficult situation, I can share it with her and encourage her.
Some say bible study without application is not bible study, but we also can’t discount the potential of the Holy Spirit to shape and change us merely by our engagement with the Word of God – such as devotional reading. But what makes application so important is that it adds an element of choice and desire for growth or change on our part. This type of study is not like the years of formal education that taught you to learn what will be on the test at the end of the semester. When you study the Bible, the question you ask should not be, “God, what do I need to know for your exam?” It should be, “God, how am I supposed to live?”
Start your Bible study process
Bible study is hard work. It requires time and focus. God chose and used Ezra to restore his people in the city of Jerusalem “because Ezra had determined to study and obey the Law of the LORD and to teach those decrees and regulations to the people of Israel” (Ezra 7:10, NLT).
There are many things that pull for our attention. But when we direct our attention to God’s word and study it, it’s worth it. Those of you who are married, think back to when you first started dating each other. You probably looked forward to getting to know one another. You spent time together, and that’s how you developed a strong relationship. The same thing happens with Christ. When you spend time with him, you get to know him and love him more. While you can spend time in God’s creation appreciating his beauty, or with him in prayer, you can also get to know him more intimately through his Word.
Time won’t magically appear for you to study the Bible. So, wake up early in the morning and study or stay up late after everyone is asleep. Do whatever it takes to carve out time for your study.
A child of the president of the seminary I attended told a story of how their family was staying in a motel during summer vacation. The child woke up during the night and noticed the bathroom light on. He approached the door and opened it to find his dad sitting on the edge of the bathtub in his pajamas with a pad of paper, pen, Bible, and various bible study tools laid out. Do whatever it takes to find the time to study your Bible.
In addition to time, focus is also required for bible study. Silence your cell phone and turn off the TV. Grab a journal, pen, your Bible, a couple resources to help you study, and a cup of coffee, and focus on God and his Word.
You can study the Bible at any time. Pastor Chuck Swindoll says, “A Bible that’s doing its job becomes well worn and well marked. Its pages begin to fray, just like a favorite family cookbook. The more we study God’s Word, the better acquainted with it we become.”
This is one method for bible study that provides a step-by-step process that will help you learn God’s Word, guide you towards an intimate relationship with the Savior, and help change your life in the process. Wear out that Bible you have!
I opened this article with the Charles Spurgeon quote about how if it looks like your Bible is falling apart, then your life won’t. I don’t want to sound flippant or curt. I don’t want to give you a “get out of pain quick” false sense of problem solving. (We already have too many get rich quick schemes around us.) The Christian life is hard work. It’s not easy. But through regular and systematic study, you can come to know our Lord in a deeper way than you ever have before. And when you go through struggles, you can know that a strong relationship with God is there for you based on your time spent with him in his Word.