by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Author of the JesusWalk® Bible Study Series (www.jesuswalk.com)
Every sincere Christian wants to have a more meaningful personal Bible study, to understand the Bible better. While learning the Bible is the joyful task of a lifetime, I'd like to offer several suggestions that can enrich your Bible studies.
First, recognise that Bible reading and Bible study are both important, but different. In order to grow, you need to read the Bible every day as part of your time with God -- your devotions or Quiet Time. During this daily time with God I recommend prayer, wide Bible reading, praise, thanksgiving, confession, and meditation -- these are ways to reach out to God with your spirit. Bible reading is one way of letting God refresh your spirit and speak to your mind.
If you really want to learn the Bible, I recommend that you read broadly rather than narrowly. A one-verse devotional may be quick, but it won't really help you understand the Bible. I try each morning to read one chapter from the Old Testament, one chapter from Psalms or Proverbs, and one chapter from the New Testament. If I'm consistent, this will get me through the Old Testament once each year and the New Testament twice. That's an example of broad reading and takes five to 10 minutes a day -- 15 minutes if the day's chapters are long.
But Bible reading as part of your daily devotions should be separate from your times of Bible study. Let me explain.
Bible study, as opposed to reading, concentrates on a single topic, Bible character, or book of the Bible for closer study.
For example, right now in the New Testament I'm reading the Epistle to the Hebrews. I'm realising that though I've read it many times, I need to dig in and figure out what it's really saying. That's where Bible study comes in. Bible study takes a longer block of uninterrupted time. Perhaps you'll set aside 30 to 45 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday nights for in-depth Bible study, or an hour on Saturday mornings before the family is up -- or perhaps longer. Blocks of time are important to Bible study.
The real key to Bible study is being inquisitive, learning to ask questions of the text. First, read the passage. Then be a detective; look for clues. What's going on? What stands out to you? What don't you understand? Look for anomalies -- things that you might not expect to find here. Consider, for example, the familiar dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus:
1 "Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, 'Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.'
3 In reply Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.'
4 'How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus asked. 'Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!'
5 Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, "You must be born again." 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.'" (John 3:1-8, NIV)
Several questions occur to me as I read this:
You get the idea. Your questions of this passage might be different to mine, but that's okay. There are no right or wrong questions. But questions are vital, since they provide direction to where you're going in your Bible study. Give yourself freedom to follow some "rabbit trails," to explore one theme and then another as you get acquainted with a passage.
The questions will vary depending on the passage you're studying, but here are some typical questions:
You'll be able to think of more questions. The key is to develop a questioning mind, and you'll learn. You won't find answers to all your questions, of course, but over time many will be answered.
One main difference between reading and studying is writing down what you learn. This isn't just so you'll remember it later. The very act of writing requires you to formulate your thoughts clearly. Writing forces you to recognise fuzzy thinking for what it is and push beyond it. Write down what your learning because it helps you understand it better.
I recommend that you begin a notebook in which to record your observations or research. Forty years ago I began taking notes on 8-1/2" x 11" binder paper. In the left margin I would record the date. In the top right corner I would record the book, chapter, and verses of the passage I was studying. This made it easy to file my notes in scripture order. I began with a single 3-ring binder, but now my binders fill a five-foot bookshelf and beyond. I look back at some of my early insights and am reminded of how the Holy Spirit has taught me over the years.
Start small, but take notes in a way that can be expanded easily. Another approach is to get a bound book that you can take notes in -- a kind of journal. (I've tried that, too.) Journaling has great value, but a bound notebook that contains many topics is difficult to organize or index in such a way that you can find your notes on a particular verse in the future. That's why I really like the binder paper approach. You could also take notes on a computer, naming the files in such a way that you can find them again or search an entire folder for a word or phrase. It's probably a good idea to print out your notes when you're finished and file them, however, since computer files have a way of getting lost after a few years.
I am so glad I began the habit of note-taking with my Bible study. Now when I study a passage again, I know what I learned the last time I studied it and what I need to explore next. For Bible teachers, small group leaders, and preachers, such a notebook of previous studies becomes especially valuable.
One of the keys to learning the Bible is to get a good translation. You know, of course, that the Bible wasn't written in English, but in Hebrew (and a bit of Aramaic) in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament. A translation tries to render the original language into clear, accurate English. There are two types of translations:
The best study Bible contains a balance of both. You want a careful, accurate translation, but one that reads easily and clearly for family devotions or public worship.
Another issue is the underlying Greek and Hebrew text. The KJV translators worked with the best texts available to them in 1611, but in the last 150 years we have gained a much more accurate understanding of what the original text must have been. Nearly all modern translations are enriched by the translators working from the most accurate Greek and Hebrew texts possible.
Here are some of the most popular English translations. Your church or tradition may have a particular preference, but any one of these might be a good choice for you:
Of course there are many other modern translations, many of them good for serious Bible study, too numerous to list here. The Living Bible and The Message are not translation, but paraphrases. They can be refreshing to read but aren't good Bibles for careful study.
After you've decided what translation to use, I encourage you to purchase a study Bible, since it will contain a number of tools in one volume that can help you dig deeper. Nearly every Bible publisher offers a study Bible. Your local Christian bookstore can help you figure out which one is right for you. Here are some of the features that you'll come to appreciate:
Other features you may find include articles on various topics, a brief Bible dictionary, outlines of topics and Bible books, index of place names, time lines, and so on.
Obtaining a study Bible is the place to begin. But as your Bible studies increase, you may want to invest in some more specialised books. Some to explore:
If you need advice on Bible study books, ask your pastor or the manager of a Christian bookstore.
These days many Bible study resources are available online at no cost, such as Crosswalk Bible Study Tools (bible.crosswalk.com). You can also purchase excellent Bible study software for your computer.
It's possible to be so engrossed in Bible study that you forget the most important purpose of Bible study. It's not Bible knowledge for its own sake nor being able to quote verses and recite orthodox doctrine. Ultimately, the purpose of Bible study is to learn exactly what the Bible teaches so that you can apply its teachings to your life.
Perhaps the simplest approach to Bible study is to use the three basic inductive Bible study questions to ask of a Bible passage:
My prayer is that your Bible study results in a heart that is tender to listen to what the Spirit is saying to you through Scripture and a will that is determined to live out in your everyday life what you're learning.
Dr. Ralph Wilson is a California pastor, director of Joyful Heart Renewal Ministries, and author of more than a dozen free online Bible studies from the Old and New Testaments. Each Bible study is also available in e-book and printed format (www.jesuswalk.com/ebooks). Copyright © 2006, Ralph F. Wilson <firstname.lastname@example.org>. All rights reserved.