Lesson 4 - How to Study Your Bible





Now that we have talked about many of the basic skills needed to properly study the Bible, let us pull them all together and actually discuss some practical steps to help you learn how to more effectively study God’s word.  All of the information presented in the first three lessons will be critical skills that you can call upon as you apply the techniques discussed in this lesson.  However, understand that being a good student of God’s word takes practice.  Do not get discouraged if at first you have a difficult time understanding what you study – or if you use these techniques and perhaps still have difficulty or trouble making practical use of it.  Keep trying – and keep praying that God will help you learn and grow so that the true meaning of scripture becomes easily discernable to you.  


Ways To Use Your Bible in Everyday Life


Before we get to specific steps towards studying God’s word, let us take a few moments first and begin with an overview of the many ways in which we can use the reading and the study of God’s word in our everyday lives – and why it is so important that we do so.

To Grow in Knowledge.  Peter commands us in 2 Peter 3:18 to grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Because the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us, we gain knowledge of God, his revelation to us, and his plan for our lives by reading and studying it diligently.  Through the study of God’s word, we learn of the history of God’s people and how that relates to our salvation and our circumstances today.  Bible study is essential to our growth in the knowledge of our Lord.

To Grow Spiritually.  Reading God’s word is essential to our spiritual growth.  There is something supernatural that happens as we read God’s word – we begin to grow spiritually.  The word of God is very powerful and a regular, consistent intake of God’s word has a life-transforming effect on the one who reads its.  The more you read and diligently study God’s word, the more the Holy Spirit reveals its meaning to you for application to your daily life. 

To Worship.  God’s word is full of praise and glory and doxology to God Almighty.  As we have our own personal devotional and worship time, part of that should be to worship God by reading his glorious revelation of himself to us.  The Psalms are especially useful in personal word-based worship.  As we read and study God’s word, we recognize and learn about these passages that are useful for our own personal worship.

To Use in Liturgy.  Just as God’s word can be used in private worship, it can also be used in public worship.  It matters not how informal or orthodox your worship services may be, the use of God’s word in your liturgy can be powerful.  Many organized responsive readings are taken directly from scripture.  As we read and study God’s word, the use of his word in corporate worship becomes more natural to us.

To Develop Theology and Doctrine.  God’s word is essential to the development of our theology and doctrine.  In fact, any doctrine that cannot be fully and completely supported through God’s word – or that in some way contradicts God’s word – should be rejected as error or heresy.  We can explain, defend, and even teach our doctrines more effectively when we read and study God’s word.  More importantly, it is critical that we read and study God’s word so that we can easily recognize error and heresy.

To Preach and To Teach.  God’s word is also essential to our preaching and teaching.  As pastors and teachers, we ought not to be preaching and teaching things that are not directly derived from the Bible.  While there may be a time and place for other forms of teaching, the church pulpit or bible study is not that time or that place.  Furthermore, Paul encourages us in 2 Timothy 2:15 to be sure that we study God’s word so that we are rightly handling (or dividing) God’s word.  No one wants to find out that they have been teaching error because they have not properly studied God’s word to know its truth.

To Minister to Others.  As a pastor, you will have many, many opportunities to minister to and counsel the people of your congregation.  God’s word is relevant to any and all situations we may face.  Our job as pastors is to study and know God’s word so that we know to use scripture to bring comfort, to correct, to encourage, or whatever else may be required by our ministry.


Make Sure You Have The Right Resources


The best way to ensure you are effectively studying God’s word is to make sure you have access to the proper resources – at least as many as you possibly can.  This must be your very first step in studying God’s word.  If your denomination/organization does not have a prohibition against the use of multiple translations of the Bible, it is best to begin with a number of different translations to use for comparative purposes.  If this is not permissible in your denomination – say for instance that your denomination only supports the King James Version of the Bible -  then try to make sure that you have a good study bible available in that translation.  Obviously, this may not always be possible, but if it is possible, it is an excellent start.

It is also important to have a good Bible concordance and/or topical index.  Bible concordances and topical indexes provide lists of scripture references related to various words or topics.  As you are studying, this will help you find other places in scripture that may address the same or similar topics you are dealing with in your study text.  There are numerous such concordances and topical indexes available on the internet.  The Designs For Hope Pastor Training Network reference section can provide access to some of these internet resources.

Similarly, a good Bible Dictionary is necessary.  A Bible dictionary will help you know the meaning of various theological terms, words, or concepts used in the Bible.  As with Bible concordances and topical indexes, there are some good Bible dictionaries available online. The Designs For Hope Pastor Training Network reference section can provide access to some of these internet resources.

Finally, it is very important to have access to good Bible study commentaries.  There are many, many commentaries available.  The best thing would be to have one or more good Bible commentaries in your personal library that go into great depth.  Usually the best commentaries have separate books or volumes dedicated to each book of the bible.  Other, less detailed commentaries may provide an overview of the whole bible in a single volume or in several large volumes.  If you do not have access to commentaries, there are several available in the Designs For Hope Pastor Training Network reference section that are available for your use.


Determine the Basic Meaning of the Text


The first step in studying God’s word is to determine the meaning of the text you are studying.  Avoid the temptation to jump immediately into a commentary to find out what it has to say about the text.  Instead, first attempt to determine the meaning of the text yourself.  You will always have time later to review the commentaries.

Begin by meditating and praying over the text.  The Holy Spirit plays a very vital role in helping us to understand scripture.  Therefore, pray that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will illuminate your mind and your heart regarding what the text has to say.  

Commit to reading the text multiple times.  As you read the text multiple times, focus on and emphasize different aspects of the text.  Consider even emphasizing different words in the text differently to see how God reveals meaning to you.  As an example, consider John 3:16.  Read the following and, as you read it, put greater emphasis on the words that are highlighted to see how the verse’s meaning is enhanced by that emphasis.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life


Do you notice how the meaning of the verse comes alive when you do this? Continue to do this for all of the key words in the verse.

If your denominational doctrine permits you to do so, consider reading the text in multiple translations.  Even if your denomination officially uses only one translation, it may be beneficial to you to read the text in other translations just to see how other believers may have translated the passage.  It can help enhance your understanding of the text.

As you take these steps, keep in mind that your goal is to determine the essence of the text.  While scripture has many layers of understanding and meaning, we can always look at any given text and summarize its primary meaning.  Make an effort to write down the basic meaning of the text in one sentence.  That one sentence essentially establishes the literary context for that passage.  As you study the passage, therefore, this summarization of the text will help you stay focused on the core meaning of the text so that you do not accidentally put meaning into it that was not intended.

Speaking of putting meaning into the text that was not intended, there are a number of Bible study mistakes that you need to avoid, but four in particular we will discuss here.  Most of these we have discussed at length in other lessons, so they will only be briefly reviewed here. 

The first of these is to avoid reading into a text what you want the text to say.  As pastors preparing our sermons, we often have in our minds something important we want to say in our upcoming sermons.  To help make that point, we will try to find texts of scripture that reinforce our intended message.  When we do that, we run the risk of inadvertently inserting a meaning into the text that it was never intended to say.  Remember that the text had an original meaning to those who were to read it.  We must always start with that meaning.

You also need to avoid making mistakes related to context.  As we discussed in Lesson 3, there are a number of contexts that need to be considered when determining the meaning of the text, including Biblical context, literary context, and cultural context.  Although texts may have meanings that go beyond these contextual meanings, be careful not to develop an interpretation that cannot be supported by the context.

As you look at these different contexts, you need to avoid making mistakes related to cultural differences.  Differences in how cultures view certain things can create the tendency to bias our interpretation – and ultimately our application - towards that view.  Without proper resources to help us, this may be difficult to do, but we need to at least make an attempt to review our understanding of the text based on the culture of the original time rather than on the culture of our own day.  It is in application, not in interpretation of original meaning, that we allow our own culture to influence our study.

Finally, avoid making mistakes related to misapplying the genre of literature.  It can be very easy to look at a psalm or a proverb and think that what we are reading may be commands or promises that apply directly to us.  That may be true – or it may not be true.  It could just be an expression of emotion by the author or a good principle to follow as opposed to a direct command.  Make sure your interpretation of the meaning of the text is consistent with the genre of the text.


Expand Your Understanding of the Text


Once you have determined for yourself what you believe the text means, the next step is to both confirm and expand your understanding of the text by seeing what others have said about the text.   This is when it is appropriate to review other commentaries, study materials, and resources.  However, we need to be very careful about our use of these resources.  Commentaries are simply one person’s (or a team of people’s) view about what a particular text of scripture means.  There is no guarantee that their understanding and view of the passage is accurate.  To help protect against this, be sure that you absolutely trust the commentary that you are using.  The best approach is to make an effort to review and compare a number of different commentaries to see how they view the text.  Commonalities in interpretation across multiple commentaries – while no guarantee – can provide some comfort that you are pretty close to discerning the proper meaning of the text.  Used with your own interpretation, it can confirm and expand your personal knowledge of the text.

On the other hand be very careful whenever there are significant differences in your understanding of the text and what you read in the commentary.  If your own understanding of the text is very different from the majority of the commentaries that you review, then perhaps you need to re-evaluate your interpretation of the text.  Maybe you just misinterpreted the text and seeing the discussion in the commentary clears up the mistake.  However, it is possible that perhaps you have been taught that particular meaning of the text – and have believed it for many years – but you are only just now seeing that others do not agree with that interpretation.  As you study God’s word and grow in Christ, this is not an uncommon situation.  This may be a clue for you to dig deeper into the subject to confirm or reassess your beliefs on this particular doctrine.

You may also find that some of the commentaries disagree with each other on the proper interpretation of the scripture.  If you review multiple commentaries and find that there are significant discrepancies in meaning from one commentary to the next, then this is a clue to you that there are significant theological differences in interpretation associated with doctrinal principles behind the text.  This is where the various levels of doctrinal importance discussed in Lesson 1 can come into play.  When you see such significant differences in meaning, you need to determine whether – for you personally - the issue is an absolute doctrine, a doctrine of conviction, an opinion, or a legitimate question of interpretation. 

Generally speaking, when large differences of opinion occur in various commentaries, the issue is probably not one of the absolute doctrines.  Most legitimate commentaries will agree on the main aspects of those issues.  That means the issue at question is probably one of conviction, opinion, or question.  You will need to determine how significant of a doctrinal issue it is to both you and to your denomination.  For that reason, it may be a good idea to review your denominational statements of faith and other denominational resource to see what your own denomination may have to say about the subject – if anything.  If it is an important doctrine to your denomination, it will probably be addressed in your doctrinal statements.  If your denomination has not taken a strong stand on the issue, then it is likely that there are differences of opinion even within your own organization.  Study carefully and form your own opinions as appropriate, but be very careful about how dogmatically you present those interpretations to others as truth.

Another way in which you can expand your understanding of the text by performing word studies.  Locate key words in the text and do some research on those words.  Use concordances and Bible dictionaries as necessary to help you learn more about those key words.  Many times this can give you a much greater and fuller understanding of what the writer was trying to communicate.  Sometimes we find out that our cultural understanding of a particular word has a slightly different meaning than it did during the time the text was originally written.  Knowing how the word was originally intended to be used can help correct a potential incorrect understanding of the text.  As an example of this, consider the word love.  In Western, English cultures, the word love – in particular as it is used in scripture to describe God’s love for his children - has a completely different meaning than it did in the original biblical texts.  In fact, love has so many different meanings in English.  You can love you wife; you can love your friends; you can love your home; you can love a good hamburger; and you can love your dog – and yet each of these meanings of love are different.  In general, the exact meaning of the particular use of word love is understood based on the context.  However, how are we to know which particular meaning for the word love is meant in scripture – for example when the bible tells us to love our neighbor, what specific version of love is intended.  We might be tempted to think it means the same as loving our friends, but we would be wrong.  As you study the use of the word love in scripture, you find that the original language actually used several different words that all get translated into English as love.  In the original Greek, therefore, the meaning was always clear.  In the case of loving one’s neighbor, the meaning is actually to have a completely selfless, completely giving, unending concern for the well-being of our neighbor – which ironically has no similarity to any of the Western culture understandings of the word love.  Word studies help us identify these potential difficulties in understanding of scripture.

In the same way, we can also expand our understanding of the text by perform topic studies on key themes that we find in the text.  As you read the text, identify key themes that appear to be important and then set out to study the meaning and significance of these themes. Concordances and Bible dictionaries are also useful in these studies, but so is a good topical index.  When studying topics like this, however, we need to be careful to make sure that we discover what those topics meant in the days the original scripture was written, because sometimes the understanding of such themes can change over the years or can be different in different cultures.  Consider, for example, the concept of hospitality.  Hospitality is clearly commanded in numerous places in scripture and it is a requirement for elders and pastors.  In modern Western culture, hospitality means opening up one’s home to entertain and fellowship with friends.  This, however, is not the meaning of ancient biblical days.  In biblical days, hospitality meant showing kindness to strangers and aliens in the land.  The Mosaic Law taught the Israelites to show kindness and mercy to strangers.  Jewish homes were often built with special rooms that were maintained with the sole purpose of allowing strangers and travels to stay in their homes.  When Jesus sent out the 72 into the mission field (Luke 10), they were instructed to find such homes to stay in when they entered new towns.  The room that Jesus used for the Passover meal on the night before his crucifixion was likely such a room – as was the upper room that the disciples were staying in at the time of Pentecost.  When scripture is teaching us of hospitality, therefore, it is not teaching us to be friendly and fellowship with our own friends and families – although we ought to be doing that as well for completely different reasons.  But in terms of showing hospitality, scripture is teaching us to show kindness and mercy to strangers – however that may be accomplished in your particular setting.  Topic studies can help us discern such differences in meaning.

Finally, we can expand our understanding of the text by performing studies on key people and key places.  As you are reading the text, make a note of the key people and the key places.  Sometimes this requires a broader understanding of the context of the scripture – perhaps even at the entire book level.  For example, the Book of Philippians is a letter written by Paul to the Church at Philippi.  When studying a passage in Philippians, it may be good to understand more about who Paul is, when he wrote the letter, who the Philippians may have been, where was Philippi and what was its significance.  It may also be helpful to understand any prior interactions between Paul and the Philippians so that you have a better frame of reference for his letter to them.  Good commentaries and Bible dictionaries can help us find the answers to these questions and how they might apply to the particular scripture we are studying.


Apply the Text to Your Current Situation


Once we think we have a good understanding of the text, then – and only then – can we begin to apply the text to our lives.  Many of us may have a tendency to want to jump right in after a single reading a text and draw a conclusion about how to apply that text to our lives.  However, as we have seen, there are many ways in which our initial cursory read of scripture can lead us to a false or incomplete understanding of its meaning.  And a false or incomplete understanding of the meaning of a scripture can lead to a false or incomplete application of that scripture to our lives.

One of the first things you may want to consider doing before applying the text to your life is to memorize key verses in the scripture.  Scripture memory plays a vital role in applying God’s word to our lives.  When we memorize God’s word, the Holy Spirit will bring those verses back to our memory when they are needed.  Here is the beauty of it, though.  When the Holy Spirit brings those verses back to our memory, we don’t just recall the verse, but we also recall all of our understanding of its meaning – including its full meaning within the context of the broader passage.  It is one thing to memorize scripture, but if all we do is memorize scripture, then that is all that will come to mind when we recall those verses in certain situations.   However, as we study and learn the meaning of larger blocks of scripture, memorizing key verses within those blocks of scripture gives us a type of indexed recall mechanism to the meaning of the entire passage.  In other words, as a situation arises, the Holy Spirit brings to our minds the verse we have memorized, and then along with that verse comes the full meaning of the broader passage.  This is a great advantage in applying scripture to everyday situations and helps protect us against the danger of unintentionally applying a verse out of its proper context.

As we begin to develop the application of scripture to our lives, though, we need to be very intentional about first trying to determine the original application of the passage to its original readers.  Just as a scripture cannot mean to us what it did not mean to its original readers, it is unlikely that a passage of scripture will apply to us in a manner that is inconsistent with how it was applied originally.  Of course we know God’s word is timeless and crosses all cultural boundaries.  However, the application of a particular scripture will never apply to your specific culture in a way that is inconsistent or contradictory to the way it applied originally.

Once we have identified the original application, we can begin to evaluate to what extent the original application has similarities to the present situation.  In some cases, it may be possible to directly transfer the application from the original situation to today. However, even if that is not possible, there is generally some principle reflected in the text that crosses the time and cultural distance. For example, when Paul charges Timothy in 1 Timothy chapter 4 to be ready at all times to preach and to teach God’s word, that was a charge made from one pastor to another pastor.  Certainly there is a direct transfer of application from the situation in that letter to all pastors today.  We must be ready at a moment’s notice to stand and proclaim the word of God. This is an essential part of our calling as pastors.  But there is also an indirect application to all Christians from this passage.  Not all Christians may have the ability to be ready at a moment’s notice to preach God’s word, but we all must be ready at all times to give a testimony about what Christ has done in our lives.  We may not all be preachers, but we are all ambassadors of Christ.  Each person needs to understand that the world around us is looking to us – either for answers or to discredit us.  We must be ready for both.  We know this is a proper application of this scripture to us today because it can be supported through other scriptures, such as 1 Peter 3:15, which tells us to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with.”  In other words, find both the direct application and the general principles.  Sometimes you will only have one or the other of these, but sometimes you may have both.

Likewise in performing this evaluation, be very careful not to apply a genre of scripture in a manner that is inconsistent with the purpose and intent of that genre.  This may be the single most important consideration when looking to make an application from the text.  When we looked at the various genres of scripture in Lesson 3, there were a number of questions presented that you should ask yourself when reading those genres.   Those questions serve as great tools to help you figure out the proper application of the particular scripture.  Here are some other questions to ask as you are reading the text.

Is there a truth to learn?  Does the scripture teach us an important truth – either about God or about ourselves - that we need to learn?  If so, how can we use the knowledge of that truth in our daily lives?  Do we truly believe the truth?  If so, then what can we change – or what do we need to change – now that we understand that truth?  How do we live our lives knowing that truth?  What in our lives prevents us from being able to live in the knowledge of that truth?  This may also lead to the need for confession and renewal on our part for not having faith in that truth.

Is there a promise to remember?  Does the passage give us a promise from God?  If such a promise exists within the text, does it apply to us the same way it applied to them?  How does knowing this promise affect our lives?  Are we living in faith as a result of that promise or in ignorance of it?  How can we be more faithful in our daily walk because of the promise.

Is there a particular command to obey?  Does the scripture lay out specific commands that are to be followed?  If so, does the broader context of the text suggest that these commands are primarily intended for the original application or more universally applicable to all Christians?  In the same way that it is important with interpretation, this gets once again into the question of context from Lesson 3.  Perhaps the commands were only relevant for a specific situation.  If, however, the commands identified are determined to be universally applicable to all Christians, we must ask ourselves whether we are faithfully following those commands?  If we are not following those commands, why are we not following them?  What do we need to change in our lives in order to follow them?

Even more directly, is there a sin to repent of?  Perhaps the text gives us a direct example of a sin committed by someone in the passage that we may need to confess ourselves?  Even if the passage does not specifically point out someone’s sin, perhaps something else in the text indirectly convicts us of some sin that is present in our lives.  Maybe we need to confess this sin immediately and recommit ourselves to obedience.  Whether we need to confess it or not, what can we do to prevent this sin from being a problem in our lives in the future?

Is there an attitude to change?  Maybe there is not a sin, per se, to repent of, but just a change in the way you have been looking at your present situation.  Often as we read scripture, we notice the attitudes of those in the stories and we can ask ourselves if our attitude is appropriate.  Perhaps we need to look at our situation from a different perspective and so adjust an inappropriate attitude.  Even stories that have no relevance whatsoever to our present culture and situation often have something to teach us about how to respond to circumstances with a good attitude.

Finally, is there an example to follow – or perhaps NOT follow?   Sometimes we just need someone to show us how to be faithful in our given circumstances.  The Bible is full of wonderful examples – both good and bad – from which we can learn.   In the same way that stories from the Bible can teach us about proper responses to various situations, they also can show us examples.

In asking these questions (and others like them), we will be able to identify the principles that cross the time and cultural boundaries so that they are beneficial in our time and in our cultures.  We can then develop and understand the right application of the scripture that implements those principles in our lives today.

Finally, we must make a commitment to put into practice what we have learned about the scripture that we have studied.  James 1:22 says “be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.”  James goes on to say that the one who hears the word and does not do it is like the person who looks at himself in a mirror and then goes away forgetting what he looks like.  It does us no good to study God’s word if we do not actually put into practice those things we have learned from God’s word.  It is essential therefore that we immediately apply the lessons that we have learned in a real and practical way.  Make a plan for how you can actually do the things you have learned.  Pray that God will give you strength and discipline to follow through with that plan.   And remember that it is perfectly natural and OK that we may have to learn the same lessons multiple times.  It is all part of the sanctification process.


These techniques are just some of the basic skills we can develop to make sure that we have a proper understanding and application of God’s word.   Whether we are experts or not does not matter.  Whether we have access to the best possible tools or not does not matter.  What really matters is that we dive deeply into God’s word and study it.  Only then can it fully transform us and help us to grow in our knowledge and faith in God.