The Basics of Bible Study

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I recently began a sermon series called Plug In: The Spiritual Disciplines, where I plan on going through 10 weeks of study on different ways we can meet God, know more about Him, understand our faith, and grow closer to Jesus.  This was given as the first sermon in the series.  I realized after the service that it was too much to take in all at once (especially after a few people came up to me, breathing heavily, and told me so!).  Many people requested a copy, so what I’m going to do over the next few days is chop it up into more bite size pieces so folks can review it and, hopefully, learn more.

What is Bible Study?

I came up with my own definition that we can take apart.

Bible Study is “making the choice, under God’s direction, to methodologically spend time, energy and concentration to better understand God’s Word.”

“Making the choice”

Getting to know the bible better is a choice.  Anything we do that is challenging requires us to make a choice.  It does not happen merely by chance, or by osmosis.  Sitting through sermon after sermon, and going to various groups does not make you a student of the bible.  You need to make the choice to engage your mind, heart and hands in the process.  One must say, “I see value in knowing the scriptures, and therefore I choose to invest my time and energy into studying them.”

“Under God’s direction”

We cannot really understand the bible without God’s help.  Yes, we can learn about the people and places the bible speaks about, but we cannot truly be impacted by the full worth of God’s Word unless He works within us to help us understand it.  It is His letter to us, and when He is not involved in the reading of it, it becomes stale and fruitless.  If we don’t come to God before we study it, the bible will be foolishness to our ears, and produce nothing but guilt, showing us all the ways we don’t measure up.  But if we seek God when we come to His world, then inside of it we will not only find conviction, but also wisdom and freedom.

“Methodologically”

Like any other study, Bible study requires a plan.  This is a huge stumbling block to some people.  They don’t like being told what to do, or that they need someone else to teach them about the bible, so they try to make it up all by themselves.  But we need a guide to help us, a plan to complete the task, and a system by which we gather the knowledge.  If we come to the bible without techniques and tools, then we cannot say we are studying it, any more than a scientist can say they are studying something if they have no equipment, system, process, reports, or methodology.

“Time, Energy and Concentration”

Bible study will take your time.  This is probably the greatest expense to us, because our time is very valuable.  It seems that we would much rather spend any other resource we have than time.  Bible study will also take energy.  It’s not something we can do very well when we are tired at the end of the day, but it will require some dedicated energy.  And it will require concentration.  We have to choose… there’s that word again… to put our concentration into the study.  Anyone who has ever taken a class knows that you can sit through class, take notes, and even do the assignments, and not learn a thing because you’re just going through the motions to get the grade!  To get anything out of bible study you will be required to concentrate and invest.

“to better understand God’s Word.”

Our goal is to understand it, not to read into it, manipulate it or use it for our own purpose.  This is the Word of God that He has given to us.  Our agenda is to have God speak to us through it, and to bring us to an understanding of what God has said, and is saying, through it.

“Why is Bible Study important?”

People see the bible in different ways.  Some see it as an emotional antacid that you read only when your life has your stomach tied in knots.  As a sleeping pill that you read to cure insomnia.  Or, as an insurance policy where you may not have read the fine print but are hoping that by owning one you can get some help in the event of trouble.  Some see it as a holy book reserved for monks and gurus.  Or, as a story book filled with fables and fairytales.  Some perhaps see the Bible as ancient wisdom literature pertinent to a bygone culture, but not relevant for today.

What is your view of the bible?  Write down on your sheet… “The Bible is…what?  Now let’s ask a second question:   How do you treat the bible?   Do you treat the bible in the same way that you view it?  Does your use of the Bible… how much time you spend in it, the effort you make to understand it, and the authority level you give the words… correspond to your view of it?

Why is it important that we know this book, and become a people grounded in this book?   The answer is because this book contains the very words of God, given through human agents, to all of humanity, to guide us in this world, and ultimately lead us to salvation from hell and into eternal life.  If you believe that, then you need to study it that way.  It’s a very important book.  Now, if you don’t believe that, then you should study this book and determine for yourself whether these claims are true or not.  It’s still a very important book.

I came up with 5 reasons why Christians need to study the bible, but I’m sure that there are many more.

First, without bible study we soon forget God’s promises.

If we are not in the word regularly, we can forget what God has done for us, and is doing through us.  We can get bitter, afraid, confused, or prideful if we are not reminding ourselves of the presence and promises of God regularly.  We need these kind of reminders often.  And it’s amazing how when we are going through a devotional guide, or a bible study, how often God will use the content to remind us of His goodness, greatness, love for us, and tell us what we need to hear that day.

Second, we become an easy target for the devil’s schemes.

When the banks, or tellers, or the RCMP study counterfeit money, they don’t spend time memorizing all the ways that a 20 dollar bill can be counterfeited, they spend their time memorizing what the real thinglooks like.  That way anything that differs from the authentic note, must be a counterfeit.

Think of the Garden of Eden.  What was Satan’s opening line there?  The first line he ever spoke to humanity in Genesis 3:1 “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  He challenged God’s word.  And Eve fell for the trap of dialoguing with Him.  Then she modifies what God says, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”  She changes the word of God ever so slightly…

And then Satan says, “You will not surely die… For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.””

The whole conversation was based on God’s word.  Can you trust God’s word?  What did God really say?  Can God’s word be modified for this situation?  When Jesus was facing the same temptations in the desert, He didn’t even speak His own words, or dialogue with the tempter at all.  He merely quoted the truth of the bible and shut down the conversation.  Most of us don’t know our bibles enough to shut down the conversation, and so we get drawn into the dialogue, and ultimately fall.  If we don’t know our bibles… if we don’t know the truth… then we are open to being deceived.

Third, we become closed-minded.

We get stuck on one or two verses or ideas that define how we conduct our lives, our church, our families, and our friendships.  Some people learn Matthew 7:1, “judge not lest ye be judged”, and never get past it.  And therefore never speak to anyone about anything they are doing wrong.  They never pull aside a brother or sister in Christ and tell them to get right with God.

And that’s because they’ve never gotten as far as Hebrews 10:24 which says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”  The words “spur on” literally mean “irritate, provoke and incite”.  Or what about Proverbs 27:17 which says, “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”   Or, Matthew15:15where Jesus says, “If your brother sins go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”  We are commanded in scripture to figure out how we can lovingly challenge and confront one another until we are caring for each other properly and doing the right thing.

We need the whole counsel of scripture to have a greater picture of what it means to be a Christian, not just picking and choosing a few favourites that fit with what we want to believe.

Fourth, we won’t be able to, as 1 Peter3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

I’m convinced that this is a big reason why people don’t share their faith.  It’s because at some point they were told the truth, and they believed it, but they never locked away that truth inside of them to share with others.  They are afraid that questions will come up that they won’t have answers for, so they don’t start the conversation at all.  But if we are good students of the bible, then we will have the answers to many (not all, but many) of those questions, and have more confidence when we tell the story of what Jesus has been doing in our lives, and in this world.

And  fifth, without diligent study we can be led, and lead others into heresy. 

The word heresy literally means, “to choose other beliefs.”  It is the opposite of the word “orthodoxy” which means “same thinking”.  If God’s word is a revealed word, then it was revealed for a purpose, with a meaning in mind.  There is a right way to read it.

2 Peter talks about the importance of reading what the Bible says and taking meaning from it, rather than putting meaning into it.  Turn to, and listen to the words of 2 Peter 1:16-18, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.  And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.  Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation.  For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

Peter says, “Listen, we didn’t make this stuff up.  And the prophets of the Old Testament didn’t make it up either.  They weren’t interpreting things the way they saw them, or putting down their own ideas.  They were simply writing what God told them to write.”  That’s makes the bible a very special book.

We can’t say that these people wrote and taught this stuff to be popular or to make money.  Most of the people who wrote the books of the bible lived difficult lives and were brutally murdered for what they believed.

And because of this, we need to remember that when we read the bible, we are not reading opinion, but we are reading the words of God, and we let them speak to us.  If we stop reading the bible, or start reading into the bible, we will begin to introduce heresies… or “other beliefs”, that can lead us and others away from the truth.

Listen to how serious God takes heresy as I continue to read 2 Peter 2:1-3, “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.”

We need to have good bible study habits and consistent accountability or we run the risk of promoting heresy, and what we think about a subject, rather than what God thinks.

 So let’s get practical.

What are some methods we can use to study the bible to make sure we get it right?  We need two things: Techniques and Tools.  I only have time here to talk about the techniques.  I brought some tools this week for you to see later.

 There are 4 basic kinds of bible study that we can do: Topical, Exegetical, Biographical, Favourites.

 Topical basically means that we pick a subject like salvation, heaven, hell, joy, judgement, prophecy, love, sacrifice, or grace and we see what the bible says about that topic.  We find verses about that topic, and look up those words in a concordance to see what comes up.  We read topical helps that talk about that subject.

 Exegetical study means that we go verse by verse through the bible.  We pick a book and study it chapter by chapter, verse by verse, word by word.  This is generally how I preach when I go through a book.  We go verse by verse, finding the key ideas, seeking out the context, and learning what the individual words meant then, and what they mean today.

A Biographical study is the study of a person.  Moses, Ruth, Nehemiah, David, Solomon, Jesus, Paul.  Pick a person and read all the books, verses and topics about them.  Identify with them in your own life.  Read their ups and downs.  Study where they lived, and what their life was like.  How did they live?  How did they die?

And the fourth is a junk-drawer word I’m just calling Favourites – just picking and choosing a favourite passage.  This would be studying the Lord’s Prayer, or Psalm 23 or 51, or all the definitions of love from 1 Corinthians 13.  It’s mostly exegetical, and a little bit topical, and a little bit biographical.

How To Do A Bible Study

But what do you need to do?  No matter what kind of study you’ve chosen, whether it’s topical, exegetical, biographical or a favourite, you’re going to come at it in the same way.   Rick Warren has a great book called “Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods” and it has lots of different ways to go about doing a bible study.  But it all boils down to three things you need to do:

Observe, Interpret, Apply.

First we Observe.

Cross References in the NLT Study Bible

This is where we build our foundation of understanding the content.  This is where we ask the “5W’s and an H” – Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Here are some questions you can ask when looking and observing a passage:

1. What does it say?

What is the most obvious thing that this verse says.  First impressions.  Most basic, obvious observation.  Let’s grab a difficult verse like John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  First impressions.  Well, the NIV has the word “Word”capitalized, so it must be a proper name.  And that proper name is probably a person who… wasn’t a human… but then became a human… and then lived among other humans.  Ok.

2. What are some key words that I need to understand?

This requires a word study.  What did the word mean back then and what does it mean today?  Well, a few obvious words we need to understand are “Word”, “Flesh” and “Dwelling”.   Let’s pick the word “Dwelling”.   I went to www.blueletterbible.org and found the original text and learned that it is the Greek word SKENOO which means “Tabernacle” or “Tent”, and occurs 5 times in the bible.  Once in John and 4 times in Revelation.  I also remember that the Old Testament had a “Tabernacle”… I wonder if there’s a connection…

3.  What’s the literal context?

What words are surrounding it?  Who’s talking?  Who is being spoken to?  Well, we’d have to read the whole chapter and find out.  What is the main idea that the author is trying to get across in this book, and in this paragraph, and in this sentence.  And if God inspired the writing, then each word is important.  Why did He choose that word, and what did that word, and sentence, and paragraph mean to the people then?

And what kind of literature is this?   Knowing what kind of literature this is will help me interpret it.  If you’re reading a poem, and you treat it like an encyclopaedia, you’re going to mess up the meaning.  In the bible there are many kinds of literature.  There are teaching sections, Legal writing, Narrative stories, Allegorical stories, Poetry and Prophecy.  It’s important to figure out what kind of style you are reading before you interpret it.

4. What is the cultural context?

Where was the person when he wrote this?  Who was he writing to?  What were the political, social, economic, religious conditions during that time?  Was there persecution?  Famine?  Was the author in prison like Paul?  Or the leader of a country like Nehemiah?  Or on the run like David?  Was it being written to a church in a rich city, or a person who was a slave owner, or is this a chronicle of events to be kept in a library for reference?  Cultural context is critically important for understanding the bible.  What did it mean then?

My study bible says that John was a Jewish man, who wrote his book to both Jews and Gentiles.  So he must have used the word “Tabernacle” to bring up something important in the minds of the Jewish and gentile readers, who understood about the tent that moved around with the people of God in the wilderness as they searched out the Promised Land.

And John uses that word to describe what Jesus did for us!  The presence of God, in a fleshly tent, just like in the days of Moses.

5. What cross references apply?

Now we leave the verse we are studying and look around the bible for other verses or ideas like the one we are looking at.  We always study difficult to understand verses in the light of verses that are easier to understand.  If we can’t get it, then find another place in the bible that is more clear.  The Bible will never contradict itself, but will always interpret itself rightly.  Now, if we have learned that “the Word”, which we understand to be referring to Jesus, “became Flesh”… then does that mean that He was no longer God?  Does that mean that he was sinful like other humans?  We need to look at other passages to see.

  • Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
  • 1 John 3:5, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”

Ok, now we’ve covered that part a bit.  Cross references are very necessary in figuring out what’s going on, and a good study bible will help you find these cross references.

Now it’s time to Interpret.

In other words, ask the question,  “What does it mean?”  Based on your observation and all that you know about the context, meaning, words, cross-references, author and the rest:  What did it mean then, and what does it mean now?  What’s the main point God is getting across?

 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “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.” 

Is this passage teaching me doctrine?  Is this passage rebuking me and telling me of a sin I have in my life, or that is in the world, that needs to be avoided and repented of?  Is this verse correcting me and straightening out something that I’ve gotten wrong, or that others have gotten wrong?  Or is this verse training me to do something like help someone, fix something, serve someone, or encourage someone?  What does it mean?

Well, the main point of our verse seems to be that Jesus is God in the flesh, and chose to become one of us.  Jesus, “The Word”, became human, and took on a “tent” of flesh, and decided and chose to live among us.

If we kept studying this we’d discover things like Jesus existed from eternity past, and was never created, but chose in love to become a human, for our sake, to take our penalty, because only a human could take the punishment for another human.  And only a perfect human could take on Himself the wrath of God against sin for all humanity.  And we would learn to identify the “Words” of God with the power of creation.  Calling Jesus “the Word” represents Him as having the full power and majesty of God, the very power to create the universe.

We would also learn that in Greek culture “The Word” was considered to be an abstract, impersonal force, like the principle of reason or knowledge that gave order to the universe… but Jesus was not an impersonal “Word”, but was a very personal God who had the power to give order to all things through His very words.  It is by His hand all things are sustained.  That’s a powerful truth.

Now, interpreters have been studying this passage for 2000 years, so we’ve only just scratched the surface of what it means.  But already we’ve learned something powerful. But so what?

Now we Apply what we’ve learned.

This is why we don’t end with Observation and Interpretation.  It’s great to know what it says and what it means, but… what does it mean to me?  This is God’s book.  It is not written just to others, but to you and me as well.  We need to ask “What does this passage really mean?” and then follow it up with, And now what must I do?”

What do I need to change?  What encouragement can I take from this?  Who do I need to tell this to?  What plan can I make to learn this lesson, and open my heart to God helping me to live more like Jesus.  I’ll leave this part up to you today.  What does God want you to do with this?

Observe, Interpret, Apply.

Bible Study is a rich and wonderful exercise, and I want each of us to be a person of the word.  We need to work alone on this, and together in our groups.

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