Bible Study Methods
Bible Study Methods
When people go to the gym and work out, they often don’t see results for at least two reasons: For some, they do the same thing over and over again. Our bodies adapt really well and, therefore, stop growing in endurance, strength, and size. For others, they simply have no plan at all. They pick up this weight, work out on that equipment, etc. Without any real plan, they don’t see much results. Both groups often become bored and discouraged with their workouts, in part, because of a lack of results.
People often experience this in their Bible study as well—going through seasons of dryness—not as interested, motivated, or fruitful. Sometimes this happens because of unrepentant sin in their lives, but often it is like people in the gym—they have no Bible study method at all (just picking random chapters and verses), or they do the same thing over and over again and have never changed. Often using a different Bible study method brings freshness to our study of Scripture—inspiring us and making our time more fruitful.
There are many Bible study methods—each with different benefits. To have a balanced method of study, we need to both study the breadth of Scripture—seeing the big picture—and the depth of Scripture—seeing the details in every book, chapter, and verse. All methods have their benefits, and so it is wise to at times employ various ones. We’ll consider different methods which can enhance our understanding and enjoyment in studying the Bible.
The Read the Entire Bible Method
The read the entire Bible method is where one reads the Bible completely every couple of months, once a year, or once every couple of years. It is important to read the Bible completely through over and over so one can understand the whole and how it relates to the parts. Without continually doing this, one will be more prone to misinterpret and misapply Scripture. The Bible, though full of individual books, is a whole and must be understood as a whole.
How should one read the Bible completely? There are various Bible reading plans—many of them can be found on the Internet. In general, a person can read the Bible completely in a year if he or she reads 3.25 chapters per day (or around twelve to fifteen minutes a day). Also, a person can read the Bible every three months by reading thirteen chapters a day (around fifty to sixty minutes a day). This could be done by having two thirty-minute Bible reading sessions a day—in the morning and at night.
We’ve considered the amount of time, but how should one read strategically through the Bible books? Again, there are many plans. Most people initially try to read from Genesis to Revelation straight through. However, though zealous, many get stuck in the wilderness of a few hard books (like Numbers and Leviticus) and don’t pick it back up again. Because of that, many have found it best to read both the Old Testament and New Testament simultaneously—possibly a few chapters of the NT in the morning and a few of the OT at night. With that method, a person will repeat the New Testament, which is only twenty-seven books, several times while completing the Old Testament once, which is thirty-nine books.
The Expositional Method
The expositional method is when one studies a single Bible book deeply—both to understand the big picture and the details of the book, including the meaning and applications of the verses. The word “exposition” just means to “expose.” A good picture of this is seen in how the Levites in the book of Nehemiah read the Book of Law to the Israelites and then explained it to them. Nehemiah 8:7-8 says:
Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah—all of whom were Levites—were teaching the people the law, as the people remained standing. They read from the book of God’s law, explaining it and imparting insight. Thus the people gained understanding from what was read.
Exposition is more than simply reading. It is reading with the intent of finding the meaning and application of the whole book, including understanding verses in their context.
How should one study a book expositionally? (1) By picking a book of the Bible to study. (2) Reading introductory material about the book before beginning to study it, which can be found in a study Bible or commentary. This will help a person see the forest before the trees—the big picture before the details. (3) Reading a portion of the book: a paragraph, half a chapter, or a chapter. Probably a chapter is ideal. (4) Using Observation, Interpretation, and Life Application skills while reading—noting details, asking questions, preforming research to answer the questions, and finding applications. (5) Reading a commentary or expositional sermon series alongside one’s Bible reading to aid with understanding and application. A good free one is David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary. (6) Completing an entire book of the Bible this way—verse by verse, section by section, chapter by chapter. Then, tackling another Bible book.
The Topical Method
Topical study is when one studies a specific topic in the Bible like the names of God, the characteristics of God, prayer, spiritual disciplines, etc. A great picture of this in Scripture is when the resurrected Christ approached the disciples on their way to Emmaus. The disciples were discouraged because the messiah had died, and they were confused. Jesus encouraged them by essentially taking them through a topical study about the messiah through the Old Testament. In Luke 24:25-27, he said this:
So he said to them, “You foolish people—how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures.
Christ took the disciples through the Old Testament passages, including prophecies and typologies, which showed how the messiah would die and enter glory. For example, Isaiah 53 talks about how the messiah would be crushed for our iniquities, die, be buried, and be raised again. Psalm 16:10 (NIV) also describes how Christ, God’s holy one, would not see decay. In order for the disciples to understand God’s purpose in Christ’s death and resurrection, they needed to study what Scripture said about those things topically.
Similarly, we gain great benefit from studying topics in Scripture as well. It starts with asking questions like, “What does the Bible teach about God’s providence, spiritual disciplines, the church, creation, the resurrection, etc.?”
How should we do a topical study? Start with (1) a topic (2) use a concordance to look up relevant verses on that topic 3) study those verses by using observation, interpretation, and life application skills and looking at commentaries on them 4) and finally study books that have already thoroughly gathered and systemized information on what the Bible teaches on those topics. Systematic theologies, Biblical encyclopedias, popular Christian books, and even websites like Bible.org or gotquestion.org will often be helpful. For most, working backwards will be the best method to study a Bible topic. Find books and articles that have systemized the biblical information on that topic first (again systematic theologies, articles, etc.). Then, study the verses they point to in detail. As Christ encouraged the disciples through this type of study, we’ll often be greatly encouraged as well.
The Biographical Method
Another way that one can enrich his or her Bible study is by simply studying a Bible character. The person’s strengths, weakness, victories, failures, and life changing experiences should all be studied in order to gain insight for one’s own life. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us.” The “therefore” in the verse points the readers back to Chapter 11 which focuses on Old Testament heroes of the faith. These Old Testament saints lived as pilgrims on earth as they awaited God’s promises; they did mighty feats and suffered, all while trusting in God. The author of Hebrews saying considering the faith of these great saints helps us get rid of anything hindering us, including sin, and run our divinely given races with perseverance. God specifically chose the Old Testament characters—including their failures and successes—to help us faithfully live our lives. Unfortunately, OT character studies are often reserved only for children, but adults need to continually study them as well. In addition, there are many good New Testament characters to study like the apostles and their associates.
How should one do a biographical study? (1) Again, study all the major passages covering the character’s life. (2) Focus on the character’s strengths, weaknesses, failures, successes, and impactful events. (3) Discern life principles that can be applied from their lives. (4) Read books or expositions that focus on the character’s life. Again, one can also work backwards by studying the books that have systematized the biblical material first and allowing them to point us to verses, experiences of the characters, etc., which we can study in depth. Chuck Swindoll has a series called Great lives from God’s Word series. Gene Getz has the Men of Character series. John MacArthur has a book on the 12 disciples called Twelve Ordinary Men. The Bible Teacher’s Guide has books on Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Nehemiah.
The Bible Memory Method
A commonly neglected method of studying the Bible is simply memorizing it. In Psalm 119:11, David said this, “In my heart I store up your words, so I might not sin against you.” By memorizing Scripture, David found strength to conquer temptation. Similarly, when Christ was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he continually contested each temptation with the corresponding Scripture. Since Scripture is so important for standing against sin and temptation in the Christian life, it is very clear why so many fall to temptation—they simply don’t have God’s Word hidden in them. They can’t call upon it when encountering a lie of the enemy.
Bible memory is not easy. It’s takes repetition to memorize a verse and repetition to keep it memorized. However, the cost is worth it. It’s important for victory in our own spiritual life and in helping others have victory. If a person memorizes one verse a month that equals twelve a year, one every two weeks equals twenty-six a year, and one verse a week equals fifty-two a year.
The Meditation Method
This method is based off Psalm 1:2 where David describes how God blesses the person who “meditates” on God’s law, day and night. As mentioned, when considering how to develop Observation skills, the word “meditate” was used of how a cow chewed its cud. Since the cow has a four chambered stomach, it chews, digests to one chamber, regurgitates, chews again, digests to second chamber, and so on. The cow does this to get all the nutrients out of that one bite. Similarly, in the meditation method, a person reads one verse, or a couple verses, over and over again, noting key words, repetitions, the context, the grammar, etc., in order to understand, apply, and pray Scripture.
For example, one might read Psalm 23:1 (ESV) in the morning and meditate and pray on that for fifteen to thirty minutes. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” The person would consider what it means for God to be “The Lord,” what it means for God to be a “Shepherd,” what it means for God to be “my” personal Shepherd, what it means to “want,” what his or her “wants” are, etc. Throughout the meditation, the person would typically write out questions, insights, applications, and prayer requests. The person may also consider how other versions translate the verse and what commentaries say about it. They would continually chew on the verse, talking to God about it, and bringing requests before the Lord over it (for him or herself and also for others). At night, or the next time the person reads, he or she would do the same with Psalm 23:2.
This is the meditation method. One is trying to gain all the insight and nutrients possible from one verse or a few verses. When God’s people do this and delight in it, God blesses them (Ps 1:1-3).
The Bible Mapping Method
In this method, a person will (1) pick a book of the Bible like Matthew (2) read Chapters 1-7 every day for seven days (or less chapters). (3) While reading each chapter, outline it—noting the major topic of the chapter, themes of paragraphs, flow, events, and significant verses. (4) They will do the same thing with Chapters 8-14 for seven days, and so on. In four weeks, they would finish all twenty-eight chapters and therefore had read Matthew seven times.
What’s the benefit of this method? Most Christians can be called “concordance handicapped.” They often say to themselves or others, “There is this verse… It says something like this… Where is it located?” By reading Matthew (and outlining it) seven times in a month, the map of each chapter will begin to stick in a person’s mind (including the main topic, significant events, verses, etc.). For example: In Matthew Chapter 1, we have Joseph’s genealogy, Joseph being told about Mary’s birth, and him marrying her. In Chapter 2, we have the travels of the Magi to see Christ, Herod’s anger and murder of innocent babies, and Joseph’s family fleeing to Egypt. In Chapter 3, we have John the Baptist’s ministry, which included Jesus’ baptism, etc. Because of the repetition, a person’s mind begins to operate like a concordance.
There is great benefit in studying each book of the Bible this way. One’s mind will develop a map of each Bible book and cease to be as dependent upon secondary resources (or other people) to navigate through the Bible.
The Devotional Method
This Bible study method is very popular. In it, Christians allow a devotional book to direct their Bible study. In each chapter of the devotional book, there will be a verse or verses to read, a devotional article giving practical insights about the Bible passage, and possibly prayer that the reader can lift up to the Lord. The primary purpose of this method is not to understand the Bible deeply but to find immediate encouragement and strength for the day. There are many popular devotional books. One of the most popular is Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest.
Though the devotional method is extremely popular, it should not be the only method one uses. It tends to make the reader more dependent upon the secondary resource (the devotional book), rather than the Bible, and tends to not be that deep. It is best used as a supplement to one’s regular Bible study.
The Bible Survey Method
The purpose of the survey method is to gain a general understanding of every book of the Bible. Typically, one would read a Bible survey book that gives introductory material to every book of the Bible including: author, audience, date, historical background, major themes in the book, controversial passages, etc. As the survey points the reader to interesting insights or passages in the book, the Bible student would then read those Bible passages (and potentially briefly study them). Popular survey books include Tremper Longman’s Introduction to Old Testament, D.A. Carson’s Introduction to the New Testament, and The MacArthur Bible Handbook. With that said, like the devotional method, the survey method is best used as a supplement to one’s regular study, as it depends heavily on secondary resources rather than Scripture itself.
Each method has its benefits and weaknesses. Using each method in different seasons will help a person develop a fuller understanding of Scripture. We need to understand both the breadth and depth of Scripture—the forest and the trees. The more we know Scripture, the more God can use us for his kingdom (2 Tim 3:16-17). What are the various methods?
The Read the Entire Bible Method: It focuses on seeing the Bible’s big picture by reading the entire Bible in a few months, a year, or longer.
The Expositional Method: It focuses on studying a single book deeply.
The Topical Method: It focuses on understanding what the Bible says about a single topic like prayer, discipleship, parenting, etc.
The Biographical Method: It focuses on studying a single Bible character to learn from their traits and experiences.
The Bible Memory Method: It focuses on continually memorizing Scripture for encouragement and to conquer temptation.
The Bible Mapping Method: It focuses on reading a Bible book over and over again and outlining the chapters to develop a mind map of that book—functionally making one’s mind a concordance.
The Devotional Method: It focuses on reading a devotional book to gain insight and encouragement.
The Bible Survey Method: It focuses on studying a Bible survey book to understand generally what happens in each Bible book including introductory material and major themes.
What stood out most to you in the reading and why?
What do you typically do for Bible study? Is there a common method that you use?
Which method do you most want to try and why?
What do you typically do to break out of periods of dryness in your Bible study?
What other applications or questions did you take from the reading?