Bible Study Basics: How to Study the Bible

In this series of articles, you will learn how to study the Bible utilizing Study Bibles, Bible Dictionaries, and Concordances. We will be covering the following 7 steps for studying the Bible:

  1. Pray
  2. Read the Passage
  3. Paraphrase the Passage
  4. Make Observations
  5. Interpret the Passage
  6. Read and Write Out Any Cross References
  7. Write Any Practical Applications

Recommended Reading

For further study, we recommend:

  • Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods by Rick Warren.
  • Searching the Scriptures: Find the Nourishment Your Soul Needs by Charles Swindoll
  • Grasping God's Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall & J. Daniel Hays

Tools

The following Bible study tools are recommended:

  • Various Bible Translations: English Standard Version (ESV) or New American Standard (NASB), New International Version (NIV) or New Living Translation (NLT), Amplified Bible (AMP), The Message (MSG).
  • Study Bible: ESV Study Bible or The Reformation Study Bible.
  • Bible Dictionary: The New Unger's Bible Dictionary or Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words.
  • Bible Background: Halley’s Bible Handbook.
  • Concordance: The New Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible or The Strongest NASB Exhaustive Concordance.

You can also find free online resources www.biblegateway.com and www.studylight.org.

*Also, you will need paper and a writing utensil for this class.

STEP 1: PRAY FOR INSIGHT

Ask God to help you understand the passage. Ask Him for help to apply the Scripture you are studying, and show you specifically how He would like this to be lived out.

Pray for insight, wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.

STEP 2: READ THE PASSAGE

Read the passage over and over several times. Sometimes, that means reading it 3 times, or 5 times, or 25 times. Read the passage until you have a firm grasp on what it says. Be sure to read it in a few different Bible translations as well – like the ESV, NIV, AMP, and MSG.

STEP 3: PARAPHRASE EACH VERSE IN THE PASSAGE

Write out each verse in your own words.

STEP 4: MAKE GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

In this step you are looking in detail at every sentence and word, and then writing down everything you see. You are trying to answer the question, “What does it say?” or “What do I see?”

Understand, you are not yet considering questions like, “what does it mean?” Before you can begin to interpret the meaning of a verse or passage, you must first look at what it actually says.

The mark of good Bible students is that they have trained themselves to observe things in the text that others overlook. There are three reasons why we often overlook things and miss so much in the biblical text:

  1. We rush through a passage too quickly. So we need to slow down and not indulge in speed-reading.
  2. We don’t write down our observations. We need to write down what we see, and then we will begin seeing more.
  3. We give up too soon. The longer we squeeze a lemon, the more juice we get out of it — to a point. But unlike lemons, the Bible never goes dry. We can study a text a hundred times and never exhaust the riches that are in it. So we shouldn’t give up too soon.

The key to good observation, then, is a combination of diligence, patience, asking many questions, and writing down everything you see.

Here are some questions to ask, and some things to look for during this stage:

  1. Ask the six vital observation questions: What? Why? When? How? Where? Who?
  2. Identify who is writing.
  3. Identify who is being addressed.
  4. Identify any pronouns (i.e. he, she, they, etc.).
  5. Identify places on a map.
  6. Look for (and write down) repeated words and phrases.
  7. Look for (and write down) names of people.
  8. Look for (and write down) names of places.
  9. Look for (and write down) questions being asked.
  10. Look for (and write down) answers being given.
  11. Look for (and write down) commands.
  12. Look for (and write down) warnings.
  13. Look for (and write down) comparisons — things that are alike.
  14. Look for (and write down) contrasts — things that are different.
  15. Look for (and write down) causes and effects, and reasons for doing things.
  16. Look for (and write down) promises, and their conditions for fulfillment.
  17. Look for (and write down) the tone of the passage — emotional atmosphere.
  18. Look for (and write down) explanations.
  19. Look for (and write down) Old Testament quotes in the New Testament.
  20. Look for (and write down) paradoxes.
  21. Look for (and write down) the use of the current events of the times.
  22. Look for (and write down) verbs.
  23. Look for (and write down) nouns.
  24. Look for (and write down) subjects that are emphasized (by the space allotted for that subject).
  25. Look for (and write down) anything unusual or unexpected.

As a quick example, let’s a couple observations for Philippians 1:12:

12 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel

Philippians 1:12

[I] Paul.

[you] Christians in Philippi.

STEP 5: INTERPRET THE PASSAGE BY ASKING QUESTIONS AND FINDING ANSWERS

You interpret each verse by asking questions about meaning, and then finding the answers to them. While the last step, Observation, was about looking at “what does it say”, this step is about considering, “what does it mean”.

List any questions you have relating to words, phrases, persons, topics, and doctrines in that verse.

Interpretive questions include asking what or why. Here are some examples: 

  • Why did the writer say this?
  • What is the meaning of ____________?
  • What is the significance of ____________?
  • What is the implication of ____________?
  • Why is this important?
  • Who is ____________?

You should be able to think of many other interpretive questions to ask. It is important to note that no question is too silly or not good enough. Always write down every question.

When we are looking at the meaning of the text, we want to first consider what it meant to the original audience, and then afterward, we can consider the implications for us today.

Therefore, we certainly want to ask questions like:

  • What did this mean to the original audience?
  • What was going on in their lives, or in their culture, that would inspire this passage to be written?
  • What is the setting of this passage?

Remember that the more questions you ask, the more you will draw out of the text.    

As you continue growing in Bible study skills, the type and number of questions you ask will improve and you will be able to discover more and more.

After you have listed all your questions of interpretation, you need to start finding some answers. How can you find the answers to the questions you have written down?

  • Check the context. You should always start here, for often the answers to your questions will be found in the verses preceding or following the text. Always interpret a passage in light of its context. To review the context, you may have to go back to your observations to answer these questions: Who is speaking? Who is being spoken to? When is it being spoken? Where is it being spoken? What is the occasion or circumstance? What is the main subject of the message? Is the aim of what is being said revealed? What other background material clarifies this statement? You can avoid a great deal of misinterpretation by first checking out the context of a verse.
  • Use Study Bible notes. Your Study Bible should have notes pertaining to some, if not all, of the verses in your passage. Read over the notes, and see if they help to answer any of the questions you have. Also, many Study Bibles have background information for each book of the Bible.
  • Use a Bible dictionary. A Bible dictionary will allow you to define words, and sometimes names and places as well, that are used in the passage.
  • Use a Bible background. A Bible background will provide historical, geographical, and cultural information for various portions of the Bible.
  • Use a concordance. Compare your text with other passages of Scripture. What does the rest of the Bible say in regards to what is addressed in the passage you are studying? There is a principle of interpretation that says, “The Bible interprets itself; Scripture best explains Scripture.” You can often interpret passages that are not clear by passages that are. Ask yourself, “How do other Scriptures relate to and explain this one?” You can use a concordance to look up cross-references for words in each verse.

As a quick example, let’s write out a couple interpretive questions for Philippians 1:12:

12 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel

Philippians 1:12

[my circumstances] What are his circumstances?

The answer can be found using a Study Bible’s book introduction for Philippians, or using a Bible background like Halley’s Bible Handbook.

He was imprisoned, taken from place to place, shipwrecked, and eventually under house arrest in Rome.

[greater progress of the gospel] How has this circumstance led to the greater progress of the gospel?

The answer can be found by looking at the context of this passage.

Paul specifically lists two things: [1] Everyone here knows I’ve been imprisoned for Christ’s sake (Philippians 1:13). [2] Most of the believers have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear (Philippians 1:14).

STEP 6: READ AND WRITE OUT ANY CROSS-REFERENCES

If there are any cross-references listed in the margin of your Bible for your verses, read them and write them down. Sometimes, you can also find cross-references in the notes of your Study Bible as well. If you do not have cross-references in the margin of your Bible or in your Study Bible, use a concordance and look for cross-references for key words in each verse.

Be sure to consider the context of the cross-references as you read them.

STEP 7: WRITE DOWN ANY PRACTICAL APPLICATION

Ask yourself, “What am I going to do about this now?”

The ultimate goal of all Bible study is application, not interpretation. 

You can’t really get to know the Word of God unless you apply it to your life. You can be a walking Bible encyclopedia; with your head crammed full of biblical knowledge, but it won’t do you any good if you don’t apply it practically in daily living. 

Some questions to consider while developing the practical application are:

  • How does this apply to Christians?
  • How does this apply to non-believers?
  • How might this play out in the local church?
  • Does it have any implications in the context of marriage or the family?
  • If I am living contrary to this scripture, what steps should I take to make things right?
  • What does it look like to actually live this out in our everyday lives?
  • Is there a promise from God’s Word we need to claim?
  • Are there sins we need to confess?
  • Does this passage include a command we need to obey?

Here are some tips for writing out practical applications:

  1. Your application should be personal — use words like “we”, instead of “you”. For example, it is better to say, “we need to …” than to say, “you need to …”
  2. Your application should be practical — it ought to be something a person can do – an action step. Plan a definite course of action to take. It is important to make applications as specific as possible.
  3. Your application should be possible — it should be something that can be accomplished. Be reasonable, without compromising the necessity to change.
  4. Your application should be provable — it should be measurable. There should be a way to determine whether or not a person has been successful in doing it.

Be as specific as you possibly can be. For example, “I am going to pray for 10 minutes every morning starting at 5:00AM”.

Also, consider general applications, such as those for fathers, mothers, married couples, children, parents, Christians, pastors, single people, wealthy people, poor people, etc.

The ultimate test by which we study and apply Scripture is the person of Jesus Christ. We have to ask, “Does this application help me become more like Jesus?”