Once you stand up from your study, your goal is not to leave those truths in the Bible, but to carry them away inside of your heart for a life time. One of the best ways to solidify truth in your heart is to meditate on it throughout the day. Biblical study is also not simply a devotional and spiritual exercise. Bible study also requires that we love God with all of our minds, which means we also need mental and cognitive tools to be able to extract Biblical data from the text as well.
One of the saddest truths in the American church is that we have so many resources to study and learn the Bible and yet there is so much Biblical illiteracy. This article is my humble attempt to equip Christ’s church to study the Word. I want everyone who reads this post to feel encouraged and equipped to study the Bible with an easy “step by step” guide that will aid and enrich their time in Scripture. May the Lord be praised as we study His Word!
What is Bible Study?
Bible study is a lot like paleontology. The first step is to go out into the field with all of your tools and begin collecting the raw material. You carefully dig through the sand, sediment, rock, and earth to collect bones, fragments of bones, and fossils that you will one day examine, assemble, and put on display for the world to see. In the same way, Bible study begins with specific tools that are designed to help you collect the raw Biblical data (This is called the Observation Phase). Once you have that data, you will examine it and attempt to assemble it into meaningful and coherent thoughts (This is called the Interpretation Phase). And then, once you have some concrete thoughts on what the passage means, you will begin displaying that truth so that you and also others can benefit from what you learned (This is called the Application Phase).
With that example in mind, let us consider the three phases of Bible study, beginning with the Observation Phase.
Step 1: The Observation Phase
As we said above, there are specific tools that are going to help you extract the Biblical data from the text. Remember, this is not just an academic exercise but also a spiritual exercise. So, let us begin by sharing some tools that will help you engage with the Bible spiritually.
The Spiritual Tools for Observation
Spiritual Tool 1: Read the Passage 10 Times
This may sound like an arbitrary number, but reading the passage multiple times will peel back various layers and help you get to the heart of the text. My recommendation is to use various faithful translations of the Bible (like the ESV, NASB, KJV, etc.) and then read the passage in each of these different translations. As you do that, like a good paleontologist, jot down notes in your journal. Take note of differences and word changes between the translations. Note questions you have about the text. Jot down any new insights that you gain or see. And then move on to the next step.
Spiritual Tool 2: Pray Through the Passage
What you want to do is read a few words and then turn those words into a prayer to God. For example, in Psalm 23 it says: “The Lord is my Shepherd”. Take those words and pray them back to God like this: “Lord, thank you for being the one who leads me, protects me, is guiding me, and looking after me like a good and faithful shepherd. I am like that poor sheep that keeps falling off cliffs and getting stuck in large cracks, but you are always faithful to find me and keep me safe”.
Once you have spent some time in prayer, move on to the next tool which is confession
Spiritual Tool 3: Confess Through the Passage
The goal of Bible study is not dead knowledge, but a thriving relationship with the living God. And in that relationship we need repentance. It is the lifeblood of serious devotion and no serious relationship can survive without it. By repentance we mean acknowledging our sin to God, asking God to help us kill that sin, and then turning away from it in courage to a life without that sin. Here are some pointers for you as you do that.
As you read the passage, list any sins that your Bible passage exposes. Sometimes those sins will be spelled out explicitly in the text and sometimes the Holy Spirit will use implicit truths to reveal your sin to you. However this happens, take an account of what the Spirit is revealing to you.
Take a moment and confess that sin(s) to the Lord in prayer.
Remember that Jesus has triumphed over this specific sin on the cross.
Remember that the Spirit has raised you to new life and has given you the power to
make war with this specific sin.
THEREFORE, repent and turn away from this sin, lay it down, and ask the Lord to help
you stay away from it moving forward.
Spiritual Tool 4: Worship Through the Passage
Remember that you have been forgiven. When you lay your sin down and repent from it, resist the temptation to remain in sullen shame, but instead celebrate the forgiveness you have in Jesus! Praise Him. Sing a song of victory. Let your heart be stirred that your sins have not been counted against you because they were poured out on Christ. And as you see that, let your love and affections be multiplied for your savior who loved you so much to be treated as you have deserved.
Spiritual Tool 5: Journal Through the Passage
A journal is one of the most important tools you will have. Not only should you record any questions you have, or the list of sins you will be repenting of, but you should also write down some initial thoughts about the passage. What do you think it means? What are the implications for your life concerning this passage? And even be thinking about ways you could communicate this truth to others.
Spiritual Tool 6: Meditate Through the Passage
Once you stand up from your study, your goal is not to leave those truths in the Bible, but to carry them away inside of your heart for a life time. One of the best ways to solidify truth in your heart is to meditate on it throughout the day. Here are some tips for you as you practice this discipline.
Revisit the thoughts on lunch break.
Set an alarm to read through your journal or pray through the thoughts you discovered.
Calendar a reminder to think through the questions you still have.
Try seeing situations in your day where you can implement the truths you discovered that morning.
Try avoiding things in your day which will tempt you back into old patterns of sin
Pray for a real opportunity to share these truths with someone else.
The above 6 items are very helpful tools that will get you thinking spiritually about the text. BUT, Biblical study is also not simply a devotional and spiritual exercise. Bible study also requires that we love God with all of our minds, which means we also need mental and cognitive tools to be able to extract Biblical data from the text as well. So, below I list out some tools that will help you study the Bible academically.
NOTE: Not every tool is the right tool for every text. Some may be helpful in one scripture but not very helpful in another. With time you will learn how to intuitively employ each of these tools, but for the time I want to list them out so you will have them and can begin using them.
The Study Tools for Observation
Study Tool 1: Identify Key Terms
With this first tool, you will seek to identify key words, phrases, parts of speech (like nouns, adjectives, and verbs) and any word that sticks out to you in the text. For instance, in John 6:44 it says:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them”.
With this verse, you could grab a journal and list the following key terms with a few words of explanation as to why these particular terms stood out to you.
“No one” (Noun) – All humans have a fundamental inability caused by sin.
“Can come” (Verb) – That renders our actions incapable of getting us to God on our own.
“To me” (Preposition) – The only hope of salvation is through coming to Christ and we are incapable of this on our own.
“Unless” (Conjunction) – God provides a condition that could allow us to come to Jesus.
“Father” (Proper Noun) – That condition is that God can use His perfect ability to choose us in our inability.
“Draws” (Verb) – The way God chooses us and gets us to Jesus is by dragging us to Christ… Since, we were so unwilling and stuck in our sin, praise God He grabbed and dragged us to Christ!
Study Tool 2: Identify Authorial Emphasis
With your journal, jot down a few notes on why you think the author is writing this and what the author is trying to emphasize to us. What is the underlying theme of this passage? And why is that important?
Study Tool 3: Identify Repeated Words
Sometimes, an author reveals his intended emphasis by repeating a word and using it multiple times in a passage. For instance, in John 8, Jesus and the Pharisees are engaged in a detailed argument. And as you read it, it would be easy to get lost in the mix of the details and miss the overarching point of what is going on. To avoid that trap, we look for repeated words and see that the word “father” and other familial words like that are used 8-10 times in this chapter. As we look more closely at the word Father and how John is using it in John 8, we see that both the Pharisees and Jesus are claiming God as their Father and both are appealing to various evidences to prove it. This lets us know that the passage is about who has a true relationship with God? Is it the one claiming to be the Son of God? Or is it the religious leaders who claim to speak for God? Once we know that this is the authors emphasis, we can see how Christ is the only solution!
Study Tool 4: Identify Cause and Effect Relationships
Whenever one event causes a particular response you have a cause and effect relationship. And these can be incredibly important whenever you see them and you should get into the habit of noticing them and noting them in your journal. For instance, look at Romans 8:28, which says:
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
In this passage God is promising to call men and women according to His purpose and bless them with His good. The point is very simple, if we have been called by God unto salvation (The cause) then everything must and will work out for our good (God’s desired effect). Knowing this will encourage us as we look at situations in our life that do not feel good, but in some way, are good and are working good according to the Father. Knowing this will allow us to lay down our definition and expectation of good and accept His.
Study Tool 5: Identify If / Then Relationships
This is a specific kind of cause and effect relationship called an “if / then” relationship, which is much simpler to identify. Essentially it looks like this: “If____ happens, then ____ will be the result.