Christians generally recognize they would do well to study their Bibles. They have been told over and over again by elders and preachers to do so; they perceive a need to be better acquainted with the message of Scripture. While some do not read because of a “heart problem,” not desiring, for whatever reason, to put the effort into Bible study, far more manifest a sincere desire to study their Bible and to understand God’s Word, but for whatever reason have some difficulties in understanding exactly how to go about studying the Bible. We thus do well to explore some basic principles of how we might effectively and profitably study the Scriptures.
What type of Bible study is beneficial for us at this time? All Bible study is not the same: there are different types of Bible study to suit different purposes in understanding. The three primary types of Bible study feature survey studies, textual studies, and topical studies.
Survey studies are useful when starting out or when trying to get a better understanding of the “big picture” of the Biblical story. In a survey study of the Bible, you get to see the whole Bible and the major themes contained therein. Survey studies, however, only scratch the surface of the text: the very broad scope of such a study, and the restraints of time, hinders any attempt to dig deeply into any given text. Having the “big picture” is very helpful, nevertheless, and there are many programs in which the student reads the Bible in one year to this end.
Textual study is the standard type of Bible study. In a textual study, a person selects a book of the Bible and begins to dig deeply into that text and try to understand everything going on in that text. While studying one book will not provide a broad picture of the entire Bible, such a textual study will fill in a part of that big picture. Just as one begins building a house by building a frame and then finishing each room in turn, it is profitable to first have an idea of the entire picture of the Bible and then fill in the details in good textual study (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
Topical study works well when attempting to ascertain what God desires for the Christian to do in regards to some specific element of life. A topical study is a study of all the various Scriptures that speak of a given topic. One must always try to keep the various contexts of the different passages in mind while engaging in a topical study, lest one come to a wrong conclusion, but topical studies on the whole can be very beneficial.
Once we have determined what type of study in which we want to engage, we must then dig into the text and try to determine what the text is trying to communicate to us. The first goal in any Bible study is to understand the text in context: once the text is understood in its own right, we can then derive appropriate applications. If we are to understand the text, we are going to have to ask questions of the text and seek to find answers to them.
We must first seek to learn what we can about the author of the text. Yes, God is the ultimate author of the entire Bible (2 Timothy 3:16), but the Bible was written by men “moved by the Holy Spirit” to write (2 Peter 1:21). Different authors wrote to different people at different times for different reasons. To understand any given text, therefore, we must determine who was the author, about what time was he writing, when were the events of which he writes, to whom is he writing, and why he is writing. While we read the text, we must continue to ask ourselves these questions as they relate to the specific context. Does the audience change while the author writes? Why does the author present the material in the way he does? What is so special about a particular speech or story? We must answer these questions according to the text itself based on what is explicitly written and what we must infer by necessity.
After gaining an understanding of the author, audience, and specific purpose of what we are studying, we can then go on to read and ask questions of the material.
Who is involved? Who is speaking or acting? Who is hearing or receiving the action? Many times we can get easily confused because texts feature many different people simultaneously. If this is the case, we do well to take a piece of paper, and write down each name we find, and begin to write down what the text says about that person: who s/he is related to, what s/he does, etc. In this way we develop notes notes to help us sort out who is whom in the text.
When are the events occurring? This question is easier to answer if we have already determined when the author wrote and when the events of which he wrote occurred. Nevertheless, texts on occasion will give you a big picture and then go back to fill in detail (e.g. Genesis 1:1-2:24), will present a collection of sayings that are not dated and may not have been presented in exactly that order in time (e.g. Isaiah 1:1-39:8), or the text may present a series of events in proper chronological progression.
What is going on? If we cannot understand the basic message of the text, we cannot make much sense of anything else about the text! We must establish a basic understanding of what the text is trying to relate. When there is a speech, what is the message of that speech? When there are events chronicled, what happened in those events? When these basic questions are understood, we can move on and gain a deeper understanding of the text at hand.
How do various matters relate? Why are things said or done as they are? Once basic understanding of the text is achieved, we can then try to relate the material in the text to itself. Why does a person respond to another in the way he does? How have previous actions led to the current situation, and what will be the result of the actions now taken? Why are various things said and done as they are? Answering these questions will help greatly in understanding the meaning of a text.
These are just some of many concepts that must be taken into consideration when studying the Bible. They are not necessarily easy, and they may require frequent re-reading of the text. It is important for us to get as many of these answers as we can from our own study of the text and from the text itself. May we come to a better understanding of God’s purposes in Christ and be workmen without need to be ashamed (2 Timothy 2:15)!
Ethan R. Longhenry