Five Tips for Improving the Way You Study the Bible
By Wes McAdams
When we study the Bible, we often think that means asking a question that begins, “What does the Bible say about…” Then, we proceed to ask a question that might be foreign to Scripture, a question neither the original audience nor the original authors had in their minds. It isn’t that these questions are wrong or should never be asked, but we must learn to take our Bible study beyond asking these types of questions. If you want to become a better Bible student, here are five tips for improving the way you study the Bible:
Scripture was written by prophets who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). The Bible is, in the truest sense of the word, “spiritual.” Meaning, Scripture is from — and empowered by — the Spirit of God. In 2 Timothy, Paul used a very unique word to describe Scripture. He said all Scripture is “theopneustos” (2 Timothy 3:16). This means that all Scripture has God’s “breath” in it.
If all Scripture has God’s breath in it and was written by men who were carried along by God’s Spirit, then it stands to reason we should ask for God’s help when trying to read, study, and understand it. Like the Psalmist, we should pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).
2. Read Whole Books of the Bible
If you know me at all, you know this is my soapbox. I even wrote a book about how reading one book of the Bible at a time changed my life. I emphasize reading everything in context for one simple reason, the Bible wasn’t written to be read in verses (or even chapters), but as whole books.
Modern Christians have a tendency to look for “Bible verses” to prove our points or answer our questions. The problem is, we are often taking those verses completely out of context. A Bible verse can seem to have an obvious meaning, but that meaning often shifts completely when read it in the context of the entire book.
If you want to be a better Bible student, don’t use a verse to prove a point unless the entire book supports that point.
3. Ask Better Questions
As we discussed briefly in the introduction, much of our Bible study begins with a question, “What does the Bible say about…” We try to answer that question by searching the Bible for verses that seem (at least on the surface) to address the question we are asking. Then, we attempt to harmonize all of those verses into a cohesive answer to our question.
This approach to Scripture isn’t inherently wrong and even has its place in Bible study. However, this is what we call “deductive Bible study.” The goal of deductive Bible study is to seek out the answer to questions that came from our own mind. The problem with deductive Bible study is that we are beginning with a huge assumption, that the Bible actually addresses the question we are asking. Contrary to popular belief, the answer to the question, “What does the Bible say about…” is often, “Nothing. The Bible doesn’t specifically address that question.”
The form of Bible study that is superior, in many ways, to deductive Bible study is inductive Bible study. With inductive Bible study, you do not begin with your own question, you begin with the text and let the text inform you as to what your questions should be. Inductive Bible study has three steps:
- Observation (What does it say?)
- Interpretation (What does it mean?)
- Application (What does it mean for my life?)
The best types of questions come directly from the text. Questions like these:
- Who is saying this?
- To whom is this being said?
- What does the author mean by this?
- Why did he say that?
- What does this word mean?
- Why does he keep using this word/phrase over and over again?
When we begin with the text, rather than with our own questions, we minimize the possibility of reading our own thoughts into the text. When we begin with the text, we allow Scripture to inform us about what questions are actually relevant. Along the way, we may discover that many of our original questions were simply not relevant.
4. Seek Understanding Before Application
As I mentioned in the previous point, inductive Bible study has three steps: Observation, Interpretation, and Application. I believe we often have a tendency to jump too quickly (or even immediately) to “application.” We act as if Scripture is always speaking directly to us, when it isn’t.
This is a silly example, but Genesis 6:14 says, “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.” However, most of us don’t go around saying, “Everyone needs to build an ark, the Bible says so!” We understand that, in context, God is speaking to Noah and not commanding everyone to build an ark.
The same is true with countless passages of the Bible, God is instructing a specific people at a specific time about how to do something. We must not automatically assume every verse of the Bible is equally applicable to everyone today. This is why we have to prioritize understanding what a passage means (what it meant in its original context) before we try to apply it to our own lives.
I believe every passage of Scripture has value for our lives, but I don’t believe any passage of Scripture is applicable without understanding it in its original and proper context.
5. Listen to Other Views
Finally, I have to mention the value of listening to others when it comes to reading, studying, and understanding the Bible. It is only within the last 500 years or so that individual Christians have had access to their own private copies of the Scriptures. For the first 1,500 years of Christian history, the Scriptures were read together within the church family.
I’m certainly happy the Bible is so readily available to people today, but we need each other’s help reading and understanding the Bible. We not only need the teachers, evangelists, and elders within our own church family (see Ephesians 4:11-14), we can also benefit from those who have written books and commentaries, exposing us to even more information that can help us understand the Bible. Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament Scriptures were meant to be read in isolation. The Scriptures were always intended to be read in community and fellowship.
Just consider the fact that unless you can read ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, you need the help of translators just to read the Bible. Furthermore, just because the meaning of a passage seems obvious, doesn’t mean you have all the facts. By listening to others, you have the opportunity to gain insight that might truly unlock the meaning of a passage for you.
I hope and pray these suggestions are a blessing to you as you continue to study the greatest collection of books on earth!
I love you and God loves you,