A MASTER TOOL SET ON BIBLE STUDY FOR BEGINNERS
Studying the Bible can feel overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. Use this process to enrich your study of God’s word.
When I first became a Christian, I had no idea how to study the Bible.
That’s why I went on a wild quest to understand this book.
I abandoned my previous lifelong goals of attending West Point and instead applied last-minute to a Bible college, where I learned Greek and Hebrew in order to read the Bible in the original languages. And add onto that an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in theology and, 14 years later, it was very clear to me:
Bible study doesn’t have to be complicated.
Yes, of course, the Bible is a bottomless ocean of mystery, historical complexity, and documentary fragmentation. However, its divine author preserved it in exactly the form he desired across millennia of authors and scribes, jumping parchment to parchment, from Paul’s parchment to our smartphones.
Here, I am going to explain to you a very simple way of reading and applying the Bible in a way that you can understand, which will grow with you as your understanding of Scripture grows.
- What the Bible is
- Why the Bible is hard to understand
- How to make the Bible easier to understand
- Bible study tools
- How to personally deepen Bible study
Let’s dig in!
1. What the Bible is
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The Bible is God’s word.
It is inspired — as the author Timothy says, it is “God-breathed.” This means that the original sources of Scripture were inspired, and we have a very accurate replication of the original text. By way of scribes, archeological work, and documentary criticism, we can look at the Bible we hold in our hands and know that what we hold is the word of God.
This doesn’t mean that there is some mystical meaning that we must deduce from the text, but rather that God, over the course of thousands of years, through diverse authors, he guided the minds of the authors to write authoritative truth. The author of Hebrews writes: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2).
We are meant to understand the meaning of these texts by investigating what is the original meaning of the text—the original author’s intent, language, personal history, circumstance, and socio-cultural context.
And so, we can read the Bible at two levels. We can first discern what were the authorial intentions of the human authors of Scripture. But we can also take a bird’s eye view of the entire canon of Scripture and see God’s hand at work to manifest exactly the purposes he intended.
2. Why the Bible is hard to understand
“He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).
When you introduce difference, you introduce confusion. We have a hard enough time making sense of our own intentions. Understanding those of others can be even more difficult.
The distance between the Bible and our 21st century experience is enormous. There are many obstacles to understanding these ancient texts correctly. We are historically, personally, theologically, chronologically, culturally, and geographically removed from the Bible’s authors.
3. How to make the Bible easier to understand
In order to better understand the Bible, it is important to understand the minds of these authors and the purposes of God throughout history. One of the things that all biblical authors had in common was that they loved the Bible. They loved reading it, referencing it, playing with metaphors from old texts of Scripture, and making connections.
One very easy way to make the Bible easier to understand is to read the Old Testament several times. Getting a grasp of the storyline, central metaphors, critical conflicts, and disputed grievances illuminates the New Testament books with such clear detail that this will become a proven method for you in advancing your biblical studies—returning to and rereading the Old Testament narratives, prophetic idiosyncrasies, and wounded genealogies will highlight just how much of the Old Testament themes and concerns are replicated in the New Testament many times over. This makes it so much easier to understand topics like tithing in the Bible.
4. Bible study tools
Most commentary series are for a very specific audience. For example, the New Testament Greek Text Commentary is a highly technical series that would be indiscernible for anyone who has not studied Greek for more than two years. On the other hand, the NIV Application Commentary series is intended for everyday students of the english Bible—to help them understand and apply the text.
Make sure, before you purchase an expensive commentary, to investigate the series on the publisher’s website to ensure that your expertise level is appropriate for the commentary you publish. This way, you’ll get the most bang for your buck on a dollar-to-depth level.
StudyLight.org is a fantastic free online tool to help you study the Bible, its words, and cultural commentaries that help you understand the historical context of a passage. I use this often to compare quick english Bible ideas because it equips me to easily process massive biblical data with a simple user interface.
b. Digital Bible Study Tools
Digital Bible study tools are for serious Bible study practitioners. I would only recommend purchasing a tool such as Logos or Accordance if you are a regular preacher, serious hobbyist, or professional interpreter.
The enormous value of these tools is the capacity it gives you to compare texts, manuscripts, versions, and commentaries synchronously within a single user interface. The downside is that many of these companies offer packages that contain mostly unusable material.
c. The Languages
I will recommend two books for those interested in learning the languages. For New Testament Greek, I recommend Reading Biblical Greek: A Grammar for Students, by my friend Constantine Campbell and his colleague Richard Gibson. For Old Testament Hebrew, I recommend Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar by Gary Pratico and Miles Van Pelt.
You can also use a service such as BibLing or join one a seminary language cohort for a summer to keep you accountable. This route is only recommended for those who can carve out 5+ hours per week for the next year or so, as ancient language learning takes significant time, and using these languages for biblical interpretation is only an increasingly complicated task the more deeply you explore.
5. How to personally deepen Bible study
Here are a few practical ways that you can deepen your experience of studying the Bible.
The lectio divina is an ancient four-step process of reading the Bible that helps you to liturgically walk through your Scripture reading each day. The four steps are as follows:
1. Lectio (“read”)
The Apostle Paul writes: “These are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:9–10).
2. Meditatio (“meditate”)
The Apostle John writes: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you.” (John 14:27)
3. Oratio (“pray”)
The Apostle John writes: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14).
4. Contemplatio (“contemplate”)
King David writes: “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Ps. 46:10).
Use this exercise to give your spirit rails on which to run as you establish a daily habit of deepening your Bible study time.
Over to you
Use these concepts and methods to enrich your reading of God’s word. Studying the Bible doesn’t always pay off in the way we would like, but it always nourishes us with what we need.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, God speaks to our minds directly when we read his word, and he sows seeds of hope, joy and, when we are fortunate, a deeper glimpse into the incomprehensible mystery that God became man, died, and was raised for our sins, of which we are certain because he told us in his word.
Paul Maxwell, Ph.D., is the Content Strategist at Tithe.ly. Find him at paulmaxwell.co.