Studying the Bible can seem daunting for many of us when we first come to the text. And yet, these tips aren’t necessarily the easiest, but will hopefully help in moving “study” from being daunting to being an exciting investigation. These tips won’t cover everything, but I put together this free document for readers on “Biblical Interpretation Overview” that may have tools and discussions that can be helpful. Additionally, I linked some resources at the bottom of this article.
That said, here are my thoughts on “5 Quick Tips for Studying the Bible.”
1. Work first, consult later
It is easy to jump into a passage and immediately start consulting commentaries, journals, articles, etc. In fact, it’s far too easy, especially with a study Bible! Instead, put away all of those aids and work through the passage as much as you can by yourself. Force yourself to sharpen your skills of observation and asking questions about the text (with prayer of course!). This means putting aside those things that tell you the interpretation of a text, and instead using those background resources (such as dictionaries) and going through the text noting anything that seems like it is significant to the text. The document I linked at the beginning of this article has a good chunk on “types of observations” that may be helpful here.
While this can seem intimidating, it will help you become more comfortable with the text as you sharpen your interpretive skills. When you have an idea of your conclusions, then consult commentaries and see where you land in relation to commentaries and others who have studied the passage. From there, think through the commentaries and reason through how a given commentator came to the conclusion they did.
The reasons for doing all this are simple: 1) Doing the work yourself will sharpen essential skills that will make you more competent in interpretation later on. 2) Doing the work yourself will help you memorize the content of what you read and studied more so than if you get a quick answer and move on. 3) Doing the work yourself is where those ‘deep’ aha moments are – where knowledge clicks into understanding. 4) Doing the work is blessed according to Christ (Mark 4:24) and will deepen your fellowship as you spend time in prayer, engaging in the word. Jesus points out that the more care you put into hearing the word, the more you will be given. The Lord says, “the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” In other words, what you put in is what you get out, “reward will be out of proportion to the virtue, the knowledge acquired to the study devoted to the subject” (Wuest). Notice, it is not just “hearing,” but “pay attention,” think about what you hear. With the measure you use in focused, thoughtful attention, you will reap in gain of the same measure. Fruitful gain is matched by the attention paid. Not only this, but Jesus tells us, “and more will be given to you.” We will acquire the knowledge in accordance with attention given, and on top of this, we will be blessed still, and more will be given to us. All in all, wrestling through the text yourself is the first tip.
2. Study Passages, not verses
I’ll be honest. I don’t like studying Bible verses.
If you read the above statement and made a face, it is because that sentence lacks context. Yet, the point is made in precisely that observation! Studying verses is not only illogical when we think about how a biblical author is putting together a narrative or an argument, but it is often a shortcut to proof-texting and ripping verses out of context. It is much better to pick a target passage and work through it. It is also helpful to see how your target passage is fleshed out later on in a given work, and thus it becomes highly beneficial to read the book you’re working through as a whole before studying a particular passage.
3. Be the Audience first
We like jumping to the application as soon as possible; what does this text mean for me? But often, this means we are interjecting our current situations into the text to draw out applications. This tendency (called “readers response”) also gives off the impression that there are unlimited interpretations of a text. The reality is that a text has one interpretation and many applications. This is not to say that individuals don’t disagree on how a text is interpreted, but the bottom line is that there is still a single (maybe multifaceted!) interpretation under those disagreements. And a text can be applied in numerous ways. Sometimes our applications can be Biblical but still betray the proper interpretation of the text. Our first point in interpretation is asking what the text meant to the original audience and what applications the original audience had; then, we build a bridge between the two. This principle becomes particularly helpful when we consider our tendency to jump across various books of the Bible. What I mean is, sometimes, when we are reading James, we’ll jump into Romans and interject Romans into James. So an additional helpful approach is remembering that the original audience of Romans likely did not have access to other NT writings we have. Therefore, Romans stood on its own first and foremost. After we come to conclusions regarding Romans, we can seek to understand how Romans works with other books of the Bible. The same goes with Genesis. How was Genesis 1 understood originally before we move into progressive revelation? Be the audience first and foremost, and when you find out how an author applied the word to their audience, you can build that bridge of application to our contemporary setting more readily.
4. Use a Bible Dictionary
A good Bible dictionary is one of the most helpful tools, if not the most helpful, in studying the Bible. You can very well find many that are single volume (like the Holman Bible Dictionary linked below), and if you’re feeling bold, you can pick up a multivolume set. A Bible Dictionary takes various nouns (person, place, or things) and describes them. Want to get the Historical Background of the Herodian dynasty, the Temple, or the Temple Mount? Look it up in a Dictionary and get the historical background. Not only is this background essential in aiding other interpretive skills (such as 2 and 3), but it profoundly enriches one’s study and opens up awe in the historicity of the Bible. It makes the historical background of the Bible, which is essential for point 3, much more digestible without relying on a study Bible (that can often be a crutch for interpretation, pt. 1).
5. Consult Other Translations
It is easy to stick with what we know, and yet…sometimes a familiar translation is easy to glaze over or “burn through.” A good step in deeper study is comparing your translation with other translations on the “translation spectrum” (See what that is in the doc). That means consulting a more dynamic translation (NET, NLT, NIV) alongside your formal translations (ESV, NASB). You can often access these other translations for free online, but the benefits are clear. Not only will you get a better or more full understanding of what the text is saying broadly, but you can also often catch things you may have missed simply because of familiarity. Sometimes using a different translation is enough to make us slow down and think through the text more. Additionally, you can get some insight into the nuance underneath our English text without necessarily needing to learn the original languages by consulting different translations.
Bonus tips: Don’t always study and when you do, start small
This sounds ridiculous. Don’t study the Bible?! But it really is recognizing that there is a place for studying the Bible and reading the Bible in the Christian life. Be sure you’re reading through the Bible, not just studying a single passage! The study process is rich, but much slower, which means there is a significant lack of exposure to the Bible as a whole. In truth, reading through the entire Bible casually will improve your Bible study time by giving you the whole narrative of God’s Kingdom and Redemption together. When you’re studying the Gospels after having read Leviticus, things click more than you’d realize! When you’re reading through Paul after reading through the Prophets, you get it and see the Bible’s interconnectedness. While some think that reading through the Bible in a more ‘casual’ or ‘paced’ manner is not very beneficial, I would challenge that by saying that it allows you to have more familiarity and exposure to the whole counsel of God. When reading, grab a pen and notepad and write down those questions you have to come back to later rather than getting bogged down and getting behind in your reading. Of course, going down those rabbit holes is inevitable, but keeping a notepad to revisit after a day’s reading, is incredibly helpful for meeting goals or your reading plan.
This all said, when you do begin to study…Start small! Pick an epistle like 1 John, James, or Philippians to work through. You certainly don’t want to begin by tackling Isaiah or Romans. This isn’t necessarily about the difficulty of the books either, but about the length as well. Working on observation in a smaller epistle, that you can also read in whole in one sitting, is excellent practice.
– How to Read the Bible for All its Worth (https://amzn.to/3bjIq5m) – Extremely accessible, doesn’t read like a textbook, and helpful for sharpening tools.
– Grasping God’s word (https://amzn.to/3Bs5yZQ) – Typically used as a textbook, but is very accessible and has built in ‘assignments’ or exercises. It presents a process that can act as an interpretive outline.
-Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (https://amzn.to/2XX5R1c) – The hardest read on the list, with a lot of information. If you like a heavier read, this would be a solid choice.
-(FREE) “A Guide to Bible Study Methods” (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/bible-study-methods/mark-strauss) – A short free course on interpretation!
-(FREE) “Biblical Hermeneutics” (https:// www.biblicaltraining.org/biblical-hermeneutics/robert- stein) – A more intensive course on interpretation.
-Holman Bible Dictionary (online: https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd.html or print: https://amzn.to/3mnBcTX) – I’m not sure if both of these are identical, but the Holman bible dictionary is one of my favorites for historical background on various topics. It’s accessible and being single volume makes it convenient.
– The IVP Bible Dictionary Series – if you like multiple volumes this series is also great. Since it is multivolume it can be pricey/overwhelming though. The two I use the most are Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (https://amzn.to/2XR1VPk) and Paul and his Letters (https://amzn.to/3Epm4M9)
– Encountering the Old Testament (https://amzn.to/3mmwJRx) – a survey of the Old Testament that is great to give you familiarity with the historical background, context, and contents of the Old Testament. While it is a textbook it is accessible and can be used as a great reference work.
– The New Testament in Antiquity (https://amzn.to/310LEIQ) – A New Testament Survey that puts a particular emphasis on historical context. Like Encountering the Old Testament – it is a textbook, but can be used as a great reference book. (Note: this one has some things that are disagreeable like egalitarian leanings, however, its emphasis and scholarship on historical context are excellent)
-(FREE) A list of Survey courses from the Old Testament and New Testament (https://www.biblicaltraining.org/search/node/survey)
-(FREE) Bible.org – has amazing articles on books/ passages/backgrounds for free. You can search for what you’re looking for or use their “Study” option where you can select a book, topic, verse, or author.
-(FREE) Netbible.org – a free bible study website connected to bible.org with a lot of free resources, I especially find the free NET notes and language tools to be helpful. Parallels, maps, article, etc.
-(FREE) Blue Letter Bible – has a number of free resources such as commentaries, some lexicons, dictionaries, etc.
-(FREE) Bible Study Tools
-(FREE) Bible Hub
Nick resides in Texas with his wife, daughter, and son. After meeting Christ in 2012, Nick began a blog in order to teach things that he found interesting. Eventually, this blog would become a podcast in 2017 and Christ is the Cure would grow significantly in its scope and mission. The vision was to teach the scriptures and theology while facilitating a love for God, his word, and critical analysis of hard issues.