How to Know and Study the Bible
by Pastor Bernie Diaz (adapted from Dr. John MacArthur)
We need to know how to study the Bible. That encompasses at least five things: reading it, interpreting it, meditating on it, memorizing it and teaching it
We begin with the premise that God is, He can be known, and that He has something to say to us. That something can transform our lives and lead us to do all God wants us to (2 Timothy 3:15-17). In other words, the scripture is all-sufficient, authoritative, necessary and clear.
Read the Bible (1 Timothy 4:13; Revelation 1:3)
Bible study begins with reading. Many of us may read books about the Bible or devotional materials loosely based on it, but don't read the Bible itself. Good Christian books and articles that supplement your Bible reading are fine, but there is no substitute for reading Scripture.
Try to read through the Old Testament once a year. There are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament, and if you read about twenty minutes a day, you should be able to finish it in one year. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, a comparatively simple language to understand. It doesn't have the nuances of Greek, the language of the New Testament. It isn't a theoretical or philosophical language with a lot of abstraction. It is very concrete and is basically a historical narrative interspersed with biblical laws, poetry, and prophecies. I suggest you read from Genesis straight through to Malachi, writing in your margin or a note pad or journal the passages you don't understand. What you can't answer in your reading, you can study later with a commentary or other source that will provide the meaning. For a historical flow, a chronological Bible order of reading (e.g. CCC-BRP) would be helpful for those who have never read the Bible before or who want a fresh perspective.
The important thing is to be reading through the Old Testament on a regular basis. You'll be amazed at what you learn, for as the New Testament says, "For whatever was written in earlier times [the OT] was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4).
The New Testament
Our major thrust should be reading the New Testament. It embodies all that was in the Old Testament. It summarizes the content of the Old Testament, and leads us into the fullness of God's revelation to mankind. So you must spend more time studying the New Testament because it explains the Old Testament. Also, it was written in Greek, a particularly complex language that emphasizes abstract concepts and subtle shades of meaning. Therefore, studying the New Testament demands greater diligence or effort.
You can read the 27 books of the NT chronologically, or in order as it appears in your Bible or vary from larger books to smaller ones. Whichever reading plan you select, read the Bible repetitiously. In that method, we recommend you stay with the same version and the same Bible. That way you will visualize the precise wording and location of a passage. However, once in a while, it's good to read your text from another version to get a fresh perspective. In order to understand the Bible word-for-word (formal equivalent) in its closest translation to the original languages, we recommend either the New King James Version (NKJV), or the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which are especially faithful to the Greek and Hebrew texts, and the English Standard Version (ESV), though relying on other textual families, is very well worded and easy to read. A lighter, paraphrased version (dynamic equivalent) like the New Living Translation (NLT), may be helpful for some devotional reading and some clarification in study.
By reading the Bible repetitiously, you will find that your total comprehension increases dramatically. That's because the Bible explains the Bible. God wants us to understand it.
Understand the Bible
Once you read the Bible and know what it says, the next step is to find out what it means. Only when you've correctly interpreted a biblical passage can you apply it to your life and bring glory to God. Nehemiah 8:1-6 shows us the science of interpretation at work. Reading the Bible is where understanding begins. That's what's involved in interpreting the text. Though the Bible is a God book, it’s also a human book. Each word, sentence, and book was recorded in a written language and followed normal, grammatical meanings, including figurative language. Therefore, the basic presupposition of interpretation (hermeneutics) is that God is a God of sense, not of nonsense. In other words, the most valid way to truly discover what the writers of scripture intended to communicate is to accept what is written at face value. By face value, we mean the normal, natural, customary sense of the text intended by the Author/author at the time it was written.
In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul says to "give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation [application] and teaching [interpretation]." That's what "handling accurately the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15) means. Anything else leads to misinterpretation, and misinterpretation is the mother of all kinds of heresies and false doctrine.
Something to Avoid:
Don't make the Bible say what you want it to say. Don't try to find verses to support a preconceived doctrine or idea. Be careful not to interpret the Bible at the cost of its true meaning.
Avoid superficial Bible study. To have a successful Bible study, someone has to study the passage beforehand to find out what it really means. Only then can you discuss it intelligently and apply it. Interpretation (exegesis) requires work. Don't take the easy way out and believe what everyone tells you the Bible says. Check the facts out for yourself like a good Berean (Acts 17:11). Don't assume there are many interpretations of a biblical passage. There may be many applications, but there is only one true interpretation. God's Word is precise. It is not ambiguous. God has given us the ability to discover its meaning.
Bridge the Gap (To interpret the Bible properly we have some gaps to bridge):
Language. We speak English, but the Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic (which is similar to Hebrew). Many of the Bible translations available today are excellent, but no translation can get across everything that the original language conveys. For example, the word slave (doulos in Greek), appears 124 times in the original text, but is correctly translated only once in the King James version. Most modern translations substitute the word ‘servant’ or some variation in its place, diminishing its impact describing the nature of a true disciple of Jesus Christ. That's why we need to bridge the language gap. There are some excellent tools available in print or on-line (see addendum). Several language helps are keyed to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, which has a numerical code to English definitions of all the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words in the Bible. You'll learn to trace how a particular word is used throughout the entire Bible, or just in the passage you are studying. Bridging the language gap will bring you to a new level of understanding.
Culture. Parts of the Bible may have been written as long as four thousand years ago. Times have certainly changed since then! If you don't understand the culture of the time in which your passage was written, you'll never understand its meaning. John 1:1 says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Why didn't John simply say, "In the beginning was Jesus"? By studying the culture of the time, we discover that the term "the Word" [Gk., ho logos] was highly significant to both Greek and Hebrew culture. To the Greeks, it was a philosophical term representing the sum total of cosmic energy, or that which causes everything to exist. To the Hebrews, the Word of the Lord was the personal expression of God. John drew in both audiences by describing Jesus as the personal manifestation of the Almighty Creator. Similarly, if you don't know anything about the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other aspects of Jewish culture, you won't understand the synoptic gospels in the NT. If you don't know something about Gnosticism, it will be difficult to understand the book of Colossians.
Some books to help bridge the culture gap are The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim (updated edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, July 1, 1993) and Eerdmans's varying handbooks on Bible culture.
Geography. There are many geographical references in Scripture. For instance, we read of going down to Jericho and up to Jerusalem. In 1 Thessalonians 1:8 we read, "For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth." From other portions of Scripture, we learn that Paul was just recently in Thessalonica. Knowing something about the geography of the area explains how the word spread so fast. Do you see how an understanding of geography can enrich your comprehension of the text? Consult a good Bible atlas as well as the maps in the back of your Bible and reap the benefits.
Context. The above exegetical methods of study including history, all come together to make up perhaps the most essential aspect of Biblical interpretation, which is context. Think “background” or “total surroundings,” when you think of context. Simply, context involves knowing specifically who is being addressed in any given passage, the historical setting, and the circumstances in which the passage is given. As a principle, we can say that “a text without a context is no more than a pretext.” In addition to the exegetical methods of study above, context also includes interpreting a passage in lieu of:
- The verse(s) immediately before and after a passage.
- The paragraph and book in which the passage occurs.
- The message of the entire Bible.
Big Idea: always let scripture interpret scripture. Interpret difficult passages in light of the clear passages. Since there are no contradictions in the scriptures, the difficult passages must harmonize with those that are clear in their meaning. Therefore, compare your interpretation with the totality of Scripture. This vital principle of interpretation is what theologians called analogia (analogous) Scriptura, meaning that all Scripture fits together. One part of the Bible doesn't teach something that another part contradicts. So when you read 1 Corinthians 15:29, which speaks of baptism for the dead, you know it can't mean one can get someone out of hell and into heaven by being baptized on his behalf. That interpretation contradicts the clear teaching of salvation by grace through personal faith in Christ alone.
Application. Once you have found what a text says and understood what it means by what it says, you must then learn what to do with what it means by what it says. Reread the text and find out what spiritual principles there are that apply to you and fellow believers in Christ. You can do that only after you have literally interpreted your passage, analyzed its context and compared your interpretation with the totality of Scripture.
Ask yourself three questions:
1. What does this passage teach concerning a holy life in Christ?
2. How does my life measure up to the teaching of the passage?
3. What definite steps of action do I need to take to obey the teaching of the passage?
What about difficult issues of conviction and conscience?
- Will it build me up?
- Will it bring me to bondage?
- Will it help or hurt others?
- Will it glorify God?
Meditate on the Bible
Don't be in a hurry when you study God's Word. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 says, "These words...shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up." In other words, God's Word ought to occupy your mind all the time. And if you're steadily reading through the scriptures, that's exactly what will happen!
Meditation is the process that molds the individual parts into a cohesive comprehension of biblical truth. It's another word for deep thinking and reflection. Meditation--in the biblical sense of the word--is a contemplative, intelligent process, where Eastern meditation attempts to disengage the thinking processes.
Psalm 1:1-2 says, " How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night. " Like a cow chewing its cud, something it does over and over, we should repeatedly meditate and reflect on Scripture.
Teach the Bible
Often times, the best way to retain something is to give it away. That's because the only way you can effectively explain a subject is if you thoroughly understand it first. As a teacher, you are forced to master your subject. Find someone with a desire to learn who knows less than you do, and pass on what you know in a systematic way in discipleship. By feeding someone else, you'll feed your own heart. The motivation for studying Scripture will largely come from one's responsibility to disciple someone else or others.
Now that you've learned some practical steps to reading, interpreting, meditating on, and teaching Scripture, the charge to you is to make Bible study a lifelong habit. But should you begin thinking you know it all, remember Deuteronomy 29:29: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God." We can only scratch the surface of the infinite mind of God, but even that is a worthy pursuit because He has given us His Word so we might know Him. Our purpose in learning the Word of God is not to have knowledge for its own sake. As Paul said, "Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Our purpose is to know God, and to know God is to learn humility, and then in humility, to love God, love people and make disciples for the kingdom of God.
Addendum: Top 16 on-line resources and tools for Bible study.