Some time ago I read of a lady who was found dead in her expensive apartment. She had died of malnutrition. When her home was searched, a fortune in cash was found stashed away. She had the means to be well-nourished, but she died starving. It is possible for Christians to live like spiritual paupers, never valuing the riches of scripture. Don’t make that mistake.
The Bible is a collection of books, with each book forming a complete unit. People who start studying the Bible book by book are less likely to ignore the context when they investigate doctrines, characters, or themes. Therefore, begin by deciding which book of the Bible you intend to study.
Prepare yourself in advance by confessing any known sin to God. Ask Him for insight to understand the text and grace to submit to its teaching. Then begin your study.
Essential tools for Bible study are a Bible, a pen and paper (or a computer with the Bible and some form of word processing software). Other tools which will prove helpful include a few accurate Bible versions, a Bible concordance, Bible dictionary, Bible atlas, and reliable Bible commentaries.
Having selected your book, it is wise to read it through a number of times to familiarize yourself with its contents. The more you read it, the more aware you will become of the context of the passage you intend to study. It is also helpful to read commentary introductions, in order to learn more about the background and structure of the book.
Begin at the beginning of your book. While verses are helpful units for finding your place in the Bible, they are not beneficial for study. It is far better to study paragraph by paragraph than verse by verse. A paragraphed copy of the Bible is therefore useful.
As a memory aid, I am going to use STUDY as an acronym: each letter forms the start of a word relevant to our subject.
S – Scan
In each of your Bible versions read the paragraph you intend to study. What does it say? Observe:
To help us, we will apply this to Romans 1:1-7.
Theme: Paul is set apart for the ‘gospel of God’ (v 1), a message promised by God (v 2) about His Son (vv 3-4). Paul’s purpose is to bring people throughout the whole world, even at Rome (vv 5-6), to faith in Christ. The theme, therefore, is Paul’s relationship to the gospel.
Structure: This is the start of a letter. Paul says something about himself (v 1), his message (vv 2-4) and his purpose (vv 5-6). He concludes with a greeting to the recipients of the letter (v 7).
Words: Paul is an apostle (vv 1, 5). What is an apostle? What does ‘gospel’ mean? In a Bible dictionary look up any words you don’t understand, or would like more information about. Do not feel the need to look up every word — Bible translators are your friends; they have done this for you. You can normally trust the translation (especially when the Bible versions are in agreement).
Make notes on your observations. Take as much time to do this as you want, but don’t get bogged down.
T – Think
Having noted what the passage says, a second question is this: what does the passage mean?
What is the flow of thought? Ignore verse distinctions completely, as they tend to obscure the flow. Starting at the beginning of the section, try to paraphrase it in your own words. If you can do this, it is a good indication that you understand what is written.
Why is this section included? You have already learned about the background and content of the book — so how does this section fit into that context? Why, for example, is Paul’s relationship to the gospel so important to his Roman readers?
What are the difficulties in the section? For example, what does ‘according to the Spirit of holiness’ mean (Romans 1:4)?
Don’t forget to note down your thoughts. After you have done this, consult a commentary. Bible commentaries are not intended to create your thoughts, but they can be helpful to challenge, confirm, or clarify them. Reference to a commentary should only come after you have considered the passage yourself.
U – Unite
Studying inevitably focuses your attention on just one biblical passage. However, it is important to keep in mind the whole Bible. When we are enthused about a truth we have discovered, we may fall into the trap of over-emphasizing it to the detriment of other parts of Scripture. It is therefore wise to think about how other passages impact upon your own.
For an example, consider the Lord’s words in Luke: ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple’ (Luke 14:26). If left unqualified, this statement may cause a person to neglect his wife and family. However, believers are instructed elsewhere to ‘love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her’ (Ephesians 5:25). This passage clearly shows that the Lord’s words in Luke cannot be an encouragement to neglect family responsibilities.
After a passage of scripture is understood in its immediate context, it must be compared with the wider context of God’s word so that our interpretation is balanced and faithful to all God has revealed.
D – Delight
One way to be enthusiastic about Bible study is to record what you have learned about God. It is also good to note what you have appreciated of His blessings.
Take the time to turn your study time into worship and thanksgiving. Robert Murray McCheyne said, ‘Turn the Bible into prayer … This is the best way of knowing the meaning of the Bible, and of learning to pray’. Tell God what you have learned about Him; and thank Him for what He has done for you. This will help the truth you have discovered become part of the fabric of your being.
Y – Yield
This final step in Bible study is of supreme importance. Ask yourself, how does this apply to me? Once you have listed the personal implications, pray for grace to obey. Then, deliberately and decisively, align your life with what you have learned.
The Bible warns of the danger of becoming merely a hearer of the word rather than a doer (James 1:19-25). To grow as Christians, study must affect our lives. He who does what the Bible says ‘will be blessed in what he does’ (James 1:25). Try to form the habit of obeying what you learn, of yielding to the Lordship of Christ in every area of life.
If you study the Bible with this spirit, I can promise you that you will soon be able to join in praise with the Psalmist: ‘Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day’ (Psalm 119:97).