HOW Should One Study the Bible?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, December 11, 2009 at 4:31pm
A FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: How can a Christian who has no formal training in Bible backgrounds and Bible languages get the most out of studying the Bible? An earlier note addressed the question of WHY study the Bible; now the question is, what are some practical suggestions on HOW to study the Bible?
MY REPLY: We acknowledge that Bible study is not necessarily easy; that’s why it is called a “spiritual DISCIPLINE.” It takes discipline and effort to pursue it. Here are some suggestions on how to do this. First, arrange a specific time and place for such study. Not everyone will arise at 4 a.m. and study the Bible for two hours before breakfast, like a few hardy souls I have known. But we should begin with at least a half hour or one hour per day, or on most days. This does not necessarily have to be the same time on each day. By setting a definite schedule ahead of time, we can identify the particular time slot on any given day when there are least likely to be distractions.
Second, what version or translation of the Bible should be used? Actually I believe that in doing serious Bible study one should have several versions on hand, one for the primary focus of study and the others for consultation and comparison. Although no English translation of the original Hebrew and Greek texts is perfect, some are better for study than others, for various reasons. The main consideration is to use a version that is as comfortably close to the original texts as possible.
This being said, I would recommend that one’s primary version for study be either the New American Standard Bible (NASB) or the English Standard Version (ESV). These translate the original texts more precisely and are closer to the wording and meaning of the original texts than most. Other versions for secondary comparison can include the New King James Version (NKJV), the New International Version (NIV), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Versions that are paraphrases, such as Today’s English Version, the New Living Translation, and The Message, can be occasionally consulted but cannot be depended upon for serious study.
Third, it’s okay to focus on those portions of the Bible that are more relevant to Christian living today. All Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable in some way for our spiritual lives, but not all Scripture is equally profitable. Bible books such as Leviticus, 1 and 2 Chronicles, and Lamentations, while not being ignored, need not be high on our list of priorities. Those near the top should include Genesis, Psalms, Proverbs, the Gospels, Acts, and the New Testament epistles.
Fourth, the actual procedure for study should begin with prayer—not a prayer for God to REVEAL the meaning of a passage to our minds, but a prayer that God will enable us to use all our thinking processes (analysis, logic, memory) in the most accurate and beneficial ways. There should also be a prayer for wisdom on how to apply the passage to our lives (James 1:5).
The next step is to read the day’s text several times from the primary Bible version, and to compare it with some of the other versions if there is time. Next, I recommend that one have on hand some basic reference works which can be consulted before, during, or after the reading of the text itself, as needed. What reference works may be used? Sometimes a student of the Word asks which “study Bible”—a Bible with introductory notes and brief explanatory comments—should be used. My basic answer is: do not use any of them. There are so many choices, many with a specific doctrinal agenda; thus often the notes cannot be trusted doctrinally. If one simply must have a study Bible, I recommend the “ESV Study Bible,” published by Crossway, as long as the student stays on guard against its Calvinism and faith-onlyism.
I actually prefer a very fundamental study tool, “Halley’s Bible Handbook.” It gives a brief introduction to each Bible book, and a brief summary of the main points of each chapter in the Bible. Also, one should have on hand a Bible dictionary—preferably one published by Moody, Zondervan, or Baker. A Bible concordance (Young’s, or Strong’s) can help one to find other texts using the same words as the text being studied. (Modesty ALMOST prevents me from recommending that a copy of my systematic theology, “The Faith Once for All,” be on hand for consultation [using the table of contents and indexes] regarding the general Biblical teaching on specific subjects addressed by the studied text. I said ALMOST.)
The key to successful Bible study is to develop a real LOVE for the Bible. To work on this, I recommend a continuing reading and study of Psalm 119, David’s 176-verse hymn of praise to God’s Word, and his expression of his own love for it.