How to Get the Most Out of Studying the Bible
The Bible is a book unlike any other book. It is, in fact, a whole library of books, all bound together in one volume. These individual books were written by many different authors over an extended period of time. What makes the Bible so unique, though, is that its many human authors were all inspired by its one Divine Author—God Himself! The Greek word for “inspired” means “God-breathed.” These words that carry God’s breath are words that can change and transform our lives. 2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us that all of Scripture is “inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness ….”
If we want to understand who God is, what His purposes are, and how He has made Himself known to the human race, we cannot afford to ignore the Bible.
Whenever you purchase a complicated gadget it is usually accompanied by a set of instructions—a manufacturer’s handbook. Without this handbook you’ll find yourself having to just guess how it works. In a sense, the Bible is the “manufacturer’s handbook” for life. The One who created us has plans and purposes for us. If we don’t know the content of His “manufacturer’s handbook” we won’t know what these are or how to live as He intends for us to live.
Still, many people don’t put much effort into reading the Bible. Sometimes the problem is just laziness or a wrong set of priorities. But that isn’t the only reason. The Bible can be a difficult book to understand. While its most important teachings are understandable by a child, there is much in the pages of Scripture that is not easy to grasp without some extra effort and help. That’s where a Study Bible like this one comes in handy! It will provide you with some background material and theological explanation that will bring biblical truths into sharper focus. But don’t count on the Study Bible to do all the work for you. If you want to get the most out of the Scripture you need to learn to read it for yourself and learn to interpret it by giving a careful focus to the passage you are reading and by comparing what you learn there with the rest of what the Bible teaches.
Here are some things you can do that will help you to get the most out of your biblical study…
Though the Bible is an exciting book, you can’t read it in the same way you’d read a thrilling novel. If you race through the pages you will miss much of what it has to offer. Good Bible reading begins with reading slowly and carefully, and it is a good idea to have a pen and paper handy to jot down the things you observe. Or maybe you’ll want to write in the margins of your Bible. Mark down the things that inspire, challenge, or puzzle you. If there is a key verse or key idea you discover, you might want to underline it. You can make this Study Bible your own by recording in it the things you are learning from it.
As you read, pay close attention to words like if, then, and therefore, which will help you understand the relationships between the concepts it teaches. These little words may reveal requirements and expectations that you need to keep in mind. Many of the Bible’s promises, for example, are conditional. There are things you are expected to do if that promise is to become real in your life. And in the New Testament letters, the word therefore is often a signal that what went before is the doctrinal basis on which a truth can be embraced and applied.
Read and read again. You might even try reading aloud as a way of forcing yourself to slow down and take in every thought. Above all, don’t be in a hurry. Read slowly and think about what each sentence and paragraph means. Don’t just hunt for an inspiring nugget of truth. Let every sentence speak to you!
One of the common characteristics of children is that they are almost insatiably curious. They ask lots of questions, which can sometimes become exhausting for their parents! But it is the way they learn new things. One of the problems with adults is that they often stop asking questions as they grow older. So be more like a curious child as you read the Bible. Don’t assume you already know what it says. Keep your curiosity high and keep your heart and mind open. One great way to do this is by cross-examining the passage you are reading in order to make sure you are noticing all it has to say. See if you can answer these questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how? Exploring the answers to these questions will open new depths of understanding.
Pay Attention to the Context
Paying attention to context is extremely important if you want to accurately understand what the Bible is saying. Some people just search its pages for an individual verse that speaks to their need of the moment, without paying much attention to the verses that surround it. Reading this way is kind of like treating the Bible as a fortune cookie or as a collection of inspirational memes. As you read the Bible, sometimes a verse will stand out and engage your heart in a very personal way. But when that happens, it’s important to see how that verse relates to the verses around it. If you don’t pay attention to the context, you are in danger of trying to make the Bible say something that it doesn’t actually say.
Every verse of the Bible is part of a chapter, and every chapter is part of a book, and every book of the Bible is part of one larger God-inspired message that unfolds across its pages.
Many people don’t realize that the Bible wasn’t originally written in chapters and verses. Each book was one continuous text contained in a scroll, and it was not until the late Middle Ages that someone came up with the idea of dividing it up into chapters and verses to make it more convenient for readers and as a tool for helping people locate specific passages that they wanted to remember. One should keep that in mind before pulling a verse out of its context and applying it to your life.
So, as you read, pay attention to the immediate context of the neighboring verses and try to understand the main big picture point that the biblical writer is making. Ask yourself how it fits in the context of the entire book. You should notice if the passage you are reading is part of a larger story or a larger argument and who is speaking or being spoken to. There are, for example, places in the Bible that contain the words of Satan or of a godless leader, and we don’t want to treat those in the same way we’d treat the words of Jesus!
And as we study the Bible it is important to keep our focus upon the main points and the most important teachings, and not allow ourselves to be sidetracked too much by secondary issues. Make sure you understand the big picture through your telescope before you pull out your microscope to examine the details! The Bible isn’t a puzzle book or a coded message, so don’t look for complicated symbols and secret meanings. Ask yourself what it meant to the original readers and how that applies to you today.
Be Ready to Obey
Applying what we read in the Bible to our daily lives is the highest purpose of Bible study. We don’t study it so that we can win theological arguments or impress people with our knowledge. We read it so that God can use it to transform our lives. Therefore, we should read the Bible with humility and an open heart, being ready to be challenged and changed by God’s Word. We should read it with an open mind, not assuming we already know what it means. The more you read the Bible, the more new and fresh truths you will discover in its pages. It is inexhaustible.
The Bible speaks with God’s own authority, so the proper response to such authority is obedience.
James 1:22 tells us that the Bible is a mirror in which we can catch an honest glimpse of ourselves. As you read, you can perceive where you are falling short, where you are making improper compromises, where you are following your own desires instead of God’ best, and where you are placing your cultural prejudices over God’s truth. So, as you read Scripture, hear…and then obey.
Since the Bible is a spiritual book, it must be approached spiritually. You approach studying the Bible spiritually by bathing your study in prayer. In this way, the Holy Spirit can illuminate your mind as to the meaning and application of its truth to your life (1 Corinthians 2:9-16; Ephesians 6:18).
THE BIG STORY AND ALL THE LITTLE ONES
The Bible is filled with history, biographies, miracles, prophecies, songs, poems, letters, and practical teaching. Each element deserves your time and attention, and each book contains wisdom and guidance for your life.
But as you read and study, you should never lose sight of the big over-arching story of the Bible, which is the story of God’s redemptive love and His desire to be present to His people.
It is a Kingdom story, about a King who will be go to any lengths to invite His people into relationship with Him and to join Him in advancing His kingdom agenda in history.
The Old Testament tells the story of how that relationship grows and changes over time. It focuses upon the story of the Jews, a people specially chosen by God to establish and advance His kingdom for His glory. He works with His people in different ways through each of the covenants He makes with them. The New Testament contains the fulfillment of these promises and covenants in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh. The Bible tells a story with a big narrative arc, and that arc points toward God’s increasingly intimate dealings with His people. That’s why it is important to pay attention to where you are in the big story as you read through the Bible.
The Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) tells of the creation of the universe, the fall of humanity, the calling of Abraham to be the father of a chosen people, how God used Moses to deliver the people from slavery, and the giving of the Law as a sign of the covenant God was making with His people. These five books are the foundation for everything that follows in the establishing and expansion of God’s kingdom.
The Historical Books
The Historical Books (Joshua through Esther) record the many victories and failures of God’s people—Israel. It is often not a pretty story! The historical books record the conquest of the land God had promised, the era of the Judges, the rise of the monarchy, and the constant struggles against the temptations toward idolatry and immorality. They also tell of how Israel underwent a civil war and was divided into a northern kingdom (Israel) and a southern kingdom (Judah). This led to destruction and exile, and the last few books reveal what happened when the Israelites finally emerged from exile.
The Books of Poetry
The Books of Poetry (Job-Ecclesiastes) were written at various times during the history of Israel, though the lion’s share were penned during the high points of the monarchy under David and Solomon, who are traditionally considered to be the authors of much that is in these books. Job struggles with the question of why there is suffering in the lives of good people, Psalms is a book of songs, praises, and prayers, Proverbs offers bite sized nuggets of wisdom for living, The Song of Solomon reflects upon human and divine love, and Ecclesiastes centers on the meaning of a truly good and purposeful life. Since poetry is less straightforward than prose, these books take a different path to revealing important truths about God and our walk with Him.
The Prophetic Books
The Prophetic Books (Isaiah-Malachi) record the stories and messages of the men God raised up to challenge Israel for its unfaithfulness, injustice, and hypocrisy. The prophets challenged the status quo and pointed toward the future with hope. They gestured toward a time when God will powerfully intervene in history and make Himself known. Included in these books are prophecies of the coming Messiah, as well as the coming realization of the Kingdom of God upon the earth.
The Gospels (Matthew-John) give us four different, but complementary, perspectives on the life of Jesus. We see in them the story of the One who embodies the Kingdom of God and who offers a path to salvation based upon His love, His sacrifice, and His grace. The Gospels also record Jesus’ teaching and His establishment of the church through His disciples.
Acts is the story of the early church, focusing especially on the ministries of Peter and Paul. It shows how the power of the Holy Spirit was unleashed upon God’s people so that they could bear witness to the truth—by miracles, healings, and especially by the powerful proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ and His kingdom program.
The Epistles (Romans through 3 John) are a collection of the letters of Paul and other early church leaders, written to inspire, instruct, and encourage the church…as well as to challenge false teachings that were beginning to creep into the early congregations. They give us a picture of the early Christian community and offer much practical advice about living the life of faith.
Revelation is the last book of the New Testament, and the last book of the Bible. Unquestionably the most complex and difficult biblical book to interpret, it has spawned a variety of different interpretations. But whatever interpretation you embrace, the central message is the same—that a day is coming when God will defeat all the powers of darkness and establish His Kingdom among His people. This is the great and grand hope of Revelation.
As you read and study each book of the Bible, remember that the big story is a story of God’s love and redemption, and His desire to dwell with and in His people. The King is establishing a Kingdom where He can rule in every heart, and where His grace will be the basis for relationship. Every page of the Bible is, in some way, pointing toward this ultimate hope.