How to Study the Bible – The Four Core Christian Disciplines

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I promised in my previous post that we would get very practical today, so let’s get going. Today I want to introduce you to the Tools and Techniques you can use to study the bible to make sure we get it right. We need two things: Tools and Techniques – let’s start with tools.

The Four Core - Bible Study

The Tools of Bible Study

There are a zillion good tools to use for Bible Study and it can get quite overwhelming when picking them, so let me give you some basics to get you started (I got some hep from this great article by Chuck Swindoll). Remember, you don’t need to buy all of these at first. To do so would be overwhelming. But as you grow and learn and practice Bible Study, as with any discipline and skill, you will develop the need for more and better tools to do it. So here’s an overview of the kinds of tools you can use to study the Bible:

ESV Study Bible Mock-Up 4
ESV Study Bible

First and most important is a Study Bible. A good study Bible is your best friend and most helpful resource. Every Christian should have a good study Bible. They are the toolbox you keep in your truck or in your furnace room with the hammer, crescent wrench, tape measure, box knife, a level, a flashlight and pair of pliers. Your toolbox doesn’t have every tool, and some of the tools aren’t perfect for the job, but you can get almost anything done with the basic supplies inside.

There are lots and lots of study bibles out there. Some are for specific kinds of studies – like topical studies or word studies. Some are by famous authors like John MacArthur or Eugene Peterson. Some have different themes like Leadership, Addiction Recovery, Apologetics or Stewardship. Others are geared for different age groups. Depending on which one you take you will gain or lose something.

If I had to pick one that covers the most bases for your average Christian adult, I would highly recommend the ESV Study Bible because it has the most (and best) tools I’ve ever found in any study bible. It has a readable, critically acclaimed and accurate translation. It has concordances to help you find individual words. It has theological articles to help you understand important doctrines. It has notes on many of the verses and cross references to help you see where the same concept is found in different parts of scripture. It has maps to help you ground your study in geography and history. It has diagrams based on the most recent historical and archaeological research. And special charts to show the various themes throughout scriptures.

If you are a young person or have no background on the Christian faith and want something with a few more notes for beginners, then they also have an ESV Student Study Bible which has special features for your needs. A study bible is an invaluable tool.

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Strong’s Concordance

The second tool is called a Concordance which contains an alphabetical listing of every word in the Bible and cross-references them with the verses in which they appear. A Study Bible has a basic concordance of many of the most common words, but a full Concordance will have eeeevery word! This is important for Bible Study because when we want to follow God’s thinking on a certain topic all the way through scripture, the Concordance gives us a great place to start. If you want to learn about “Joy”, look up the word “joy” and read all the verses about it. A good Concordance will even give alternative words and break down their uses for you.

Third are Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias. Christians believe that every word that we read in the Bible was specially chosen by God. God didn’t merely inspire the concepts in scripture, but every single word. The Bible was originally written in a few different languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, which means that when we translate it into English, we can lose something in translation. A Bible Dictionary is designed to give us the background on what the words meant in their original language and help us understand some of the nuances that are lost in the English word. For example, the Greeks had at least 4 different words for “Love” – it’s helpful to know which one they are using.

One special tool is called a “Strong’s Concordance” which is a numbered list of every original-root-word in the Bible. So if you are doing a word study, you can look up the exact word in the Strong’s Concordance and then find the exact definition of that root word in a Bible Dictionary. A lot of these resources can be found online – my favourite place is blueletterbible.org which links all these resources together easily.

Resolutions 2011
Bible Commentaries

The fourth tool are Commentaries which are like a longer version of a study Bible. Instead of small notes about individual verses, a commentary will give whole paragraphs and pages about individual verses and chapters, introduce themes, backgrounds, world history, give a biography of the author, the recipient, and much much more. They are most helpful when doing a book study – like if you wanted to learn lots more about Romans or Genesis.

I recommend starting with a commentary set of the whole bible first. My favourite right now is the “Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary” because it has lots of pictures! As a side note, remember that if you are going to study a book of the bible, it’s best to read different commentaries from different authors so you get a more complete picture. They all have their biases. It’s also best to use them after you had done your own personal study so that you have some idea of what you’ve already read. If you want a good website to find the best commentaries – because there are many, and some of them are no good – go to www.bestcommentaries.com.

Fifth are Doctrines and Systematic Theologies. These are a lot more involved than a Commentary or Study Bible and are most helpful for learning about big bible themes like salvation, hell, heaven, the characteristics of God, the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, the Church, etc. You won’t want to start with one of these, but as you study you’ll find yourself coming up to some big questions, and these types of books give you a biblical answer to those big questions.

Sixth are Bible Study Computer Programs like Logos or BibleWorks. They are really expensive, but they take everything we have been talking about and make it easy to click through and jump back and forth. These two companies do really good work and add lots and lots of new titles regularly, all linked together in a bazillion different ways. I would love to get into the Logos program, but the starting price for the Base package is around $300!

Seventh are Bible Study Websites. I’ve already mentioned a couple, but some of these websites are great. They keep track of your notes, give you daily devotionals, links to study guides, commentaries, concordances and more resources, have blogs to read more, can be interactive and use social networking, and make simple study a lot quicker. The downside is that there are some real garbage sites, sometimes they are hard to manoeuvre around, and a person can get very distracted by their computer if they aren’t careful. My favourite sites are: BibleStudyTools.com, BibleGateway.com and BiblePlaces.com.

The Techniques of Bible Study

So there’s some tools. Let’s talk about techniques. Once we have our toolbox full of tools, what are we supposed to do with them?

Types of Study

There are 4 basic kinds of bible study that we can do: Topical, Exegetical, Biographical and what we can call Favourites. One of these might be more interesting to you than the others, and that’s ok. Start with one that resonates with you and then try another one.

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 doctrines and systematic theologies about them. This series I’ve been preaching has been a topical series, as was Resolving Everyday Conflict and the Spiritual Disciplines series.

Exegetical study means that we study systematically, going verse by verse. We pick a book and study it chapter by chapter, verse by verse, word by word. This is usually how I preach, like when we went through Mark or Psalm 15. Start at the beginning and go verse by verse finding the key concepts, studying the context of each part, learning what the individual words meant then, and what they mean today.

A Biographical study is the study of a person like Moses, Ruth, Nehemiah, David, Solomon, Jesus, Paul. I preached biographically when we went through the Hall of Faith together a while back. 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. This would be where we grab a well known passage that we are curious about – like the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23 or 51, or all the definitions of love from 1 Corinthians 13 – and just learn all we can about them. It’s partly exegetical, and a little bit topical, and a little bit biographical.

Observe → Interpret → Apply

So that’s the 4 basic kinds of bible study. But what do you need to do? No matter what kind of study you’ve chosen, whether it’s topical, exegetical, or biographical, you’re going to come at it in the same way: Observe, Interpret, Apply.

Let’s go through this together so you can see it done, using John 1:14,

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

First we Observe. 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.

magnifying glass

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. 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 made of flesh yet, so probably wasn’t human… but then became flesh — 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 which means you break out your Concordance and Dictionary. What did the word mean back then to the people who first read it? What does that tell us today?

Well, a few obvious words in our passage might be the words “Word”, “Flesh” and “Dwelling”. Let’s pick the word “Dwelling”.  I went online to BlueLetterBible 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 seem to recall that the Israelites in the Old Testament had a “Tabernacle”. I wonder if there’s a connection.

3. What’s the literal context? What words are surrounding the passage you’re looking at? Who’s speaking? Who is it being spoken to? What is the main idea 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, so why did God choose that word, and what did that word, and sentence, and paragraph mean to the people then?

And what genre of literature is this?  Knowing what kind of literature this is will help us interpret it. If you’re reading a poem and you treat it like an encyclopaedia, you’re going to mess up the meaning. If you think a fictional parable is a true-story, then you’re missing something. The Bible contains 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.

What we’re looking at right now is the introduction to a Gospel (which is a genre of letter intended to teach people about history) where the author is using metaphor to describe something historical. He’s using a word picture to talk about something historical, but it was so incredible that he can’t describe it without using a word picture. That’s important to know and will colour how we read the passage.

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 the recipient a church in a rich city, a slave owner, or is this a chronicle of events meant to be kept in a library for reference? Cultural context is critically important for understanding the bible.

My study bible says that John, the author of the Gospel, was a Jewish man who wrote his book to both Jews and Gentiles. So he must have used the word “Tabernacle” on purpose to bring up something important in the minds of the Jewish and Gentile readers. Those readers would have known about the tent – which was called a Tabernacle – that moved around with the people of God in the wilderness, after the exodus from Egypt, as they journeyed to the Promised Land. So when John uses that word, He’s describing something – He’s using it on purpose to describe what Jesus did for us! Jesus is the presence of God, in a fleshly tent, journeying with us in this world, just like in the days of Moses.

5. What cross references apply? This is where we leave the verse we are studying and look around the Bible for other verses that contain the same words, concepts and ideas as the one we are studying. When we come across a difficult verse, we always go to verses that are easier to understand to get clarity. If what we are looking at isn’t clear, then we go to where God is clear to help us interpret.

The Bible never contradicts itself, but often gives various sides of something so we can learn about it in different ways. The Bible will always interpret itself rightly.

So when it says, “the Word” which we understand to be referring to Jesus, “became Flesh”, then that causes us to ask some important questions. Does that mean that He was no longer God? Does that mean that he was sinful like other humans? What are the implications of God becoming human? We need to look at other passages to understand that. For example, 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.” That helps.

Cross references are an important part of figuring out what’s going on in a passage we are studying.

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Second: Interpret

So now we’ve observed what we are studying. Now it’s time to Interpret it. In other words, ask the question, “What is the main point (the plain meaning) passage?” Based on your observation and all that you know about the context, meaning, words, cross-references, author and the rest: What’s the big-idea God is getting across to us? What was the author trying to tell those who read it the first time? What is God sharing with us today?

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 training me to do something like help someone, fix something, serve someone, or encourage someone? Why was this written and what does it mean?

Remember: the main point of every study, every chapter and verse, is to teach us about Jesus, so we must ask the question: What does this teach me about Jesus? Is it teaching me about His mission, His character, His plan, His nature, His Gospel? The whole book is about Jesus, so what does my study teach me about Jesus? If we Observe and Interpret without asking this question, we have missed the whole point of our Bible Study!

Well, the main point of our verse seems to be that Jesus is God (the Creator) 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 – in an even greater fashion than He did in the Old Testament to the Israelites. It is the continuation of the great story of salvation and the presence of God with His people.

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 importance of the word “Word” and associate it with the power of God in Creation – That calling Jesus “the Word” tells us that he has the full power and majesty of God, the same power that spoke the universe into being.

We would also learn that in Greek culture the word “Word” was considered to be exactly the opposite. Words were an abstract, impersonal force – like the principles of reason or knowledge that gave order to the universe. This would speak volumes to the Gentile listeners as they learned that God was not an impersonal creator who used words, but was very personal. It is by His hand all things are sustained. That’s an important truth for us today too.

Of course interpreters have been studying this passage for 2000 years, so we’ve only just scratched the surface of what it means, but we’re already learning something powerful.

Just do it
Third: Apply

But so what? This is why we don’t end with Observation and Interpretation, we must Apply what we have learned. 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. How can this truth manifest itself and become real in my life? How does the Holy Spirit want to use this to change my heart, my behaviour, my outlook on life, my relationship with Jesus, my relationship with others?  We cannot end with knowledge, we must bring that knowledge to action.

I’m going to leave that to you to figure out this week. Talk about it with your family, your study group, your friends.

What does it mean to you:

That the person and force which created the universe, the person who spoke all things into being, who said “let there be light”, came into the His creation and walked among us.

That the same God who guided the children of Israel with a pillar of fire and smoke, who dwelt in the holy of holies, was present in the person of Jesus Christ?

That the omnipotent became flesh.

That the ultimate source of glory humbled himself to become nothing.

That the Author of the universe entered into His own story.

What does that mean to you?

I invite you to spend some time meditating on that idea. Pray through it. Think about it. Talk about it. And then take when you get from God and apply it. Let that truth change your life and your behaviour and affect your day-to-day living.

6 thoughts on “How to Study the Bible – The Four Core Christian Disciplines

    kristy mapp said:
    June 26, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Excellent!

    aldeschsrAllan Descheneau Sr said:
    June 28, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    That took me back to my Basic Theology Courses from Briercrest.
    Great job. You nailed it!
    Al Descheneau Sr.

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