How to Study the Bible (part 1): Preparation and Observation

In part 1 of our crash course in how to study the Bible, we look at the foundational steps of fruitful Bible study: Preparation and Observation.

As we begin our year-long journey of reading through the whole Bible as a church, it seems like an opportune time to give a brief overview of how to study the Bible. Of course, a brief blog series can’t cover the topic of Bible study comprehensively. But, hopefully, it will help you begin to read the Bible the way it is meant to be read.

Preparation: Humility, Prayer, and Trust

The first step in Bible study is to realize that we need help. We must admit that our minds and desires are distorted and perverted, and that, apart from God’s help, we can do nothing (John 15:5; Luke 24:45). We must approach the Bible in humility and “receive with meekness the implanted word” (James 1:21). This admission of humility is the foundation of prayer. Realizing our utter helplessness should cause us to turn to God in total dependence. The Psalms provide an excellent model of prayer for us to follow:

  • “Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps 119:18)
  • Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain” (Ps. 119:36)
  • Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth” (Ps. 86:11).
  • Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Ps 119:27).
  • “I am your servant; give me understanding, that I may know your testimonies” (Ps. 119:125).
  • “Give me understanding according to your word” (Ps. 119:169).

We are completely dependent on God for our eyes to be opened and to truly savor and delight in God’s word. This is why we must pray, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Ps. 90:14).

Not only do we approach Scripture in humility and prayer, but also with trust in God. We must remember that God has promised to give us all that we need to do his will and be conformed to the image of his Son (Phil 4:12-13, 19; Rom 8:32). So as we read the bible, we need to read in faith: trusting God’s promise to instruct us and give us understanding (Psalm 25: 2, 8-9; Prov 2:6-7; 3:5-6; Ps 73:24; James 1:5-8).

Observation: Look, Think, Ask Questions

In the ordinary act of observing the text, we want to answer the simple question: “What does the text say?” Our goal is to discover what the original authors’ were intending to communicate. This happens by reading the text actively, rather than passively. We don’t just drift through the words like we’re scrolling through a Facebook or Twitter feed, simply waiting for an idea to pop into our heads. Rather, we must cultivate a habit of paying meticulous attention to the text and wrestling with it. We need to dig our way down into the text—not because its true meaning is hidden away for only the “smartest and brightest,” but because Scripture is an inexhaustible gold mine of truth. In the words of Gregory the Great (540-604 AD), “Scripture is like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim” (Moralia, inscr. 4).

Reading actively is what Paul in mind when he says the following:

When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4)

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Tim 2:7)

Asking Questions

One of the best ways to read actively and think over the text is to ask questions. This doesn’t mean we come to the text with skepticism and doubt. Rather, we humbly ask questions in order to understand, trusting that the Holy Spirit will illuminate the text to us. As you read, ask questions like:

  1. Who is speaking to whom?
  2. What are they saying?
  3. When is this happening?
  4. Where is this happening?
  5. Why?
  6. What does this word mean in this sentence?
  7. How does this phrase describe a person or action?

Asking these standard, simple questions are necessary for rightly handling the Scriptures. And the more you practice active reading, the more natural it becomes. The best part is, as we think over what is written, the Lord has promised to give us understanding (2 Tim 2:7)!

More Guidelines for Observation

Along with asking questions, here are some additional guidelines to follow when observing the text:

Pay attention to the context and genre. As we observe and interpret a text, we must know what comes before and after it to understand how the passage fits in the flow of the author’s argument. Along with this idea of understanding the context of a passage is observing what type of text you’re reading. Is it narrative, poetry, prophecy, or a letter?  Being aware of the context and genre of a passage is absolutely essential to interpreting a text.

Look for relationships between propositions. This means paying attention to the all-important linking words like for, but, if, and, therefore, so that, because, etc. These simple words are crucial for understanding the Bible.

Watch for patterns in the text. The Bible is ultimately one story. Moreover, being God’s inspired revelation to us, every single word, phrase, and story is there for a reason. Therefore, things like parallelisms, comparisons, contrasts, recurring words and phrases are important. Take note of persons, words, phrases, expressions of time, topography, and geographic locations (i.e., cities, people groups, mountains etc.).

Note any connections you see to other passages in Scripture. There are many themes and motifs that are woven throughout the entire biblical narrative. Scripture is constantly referring to people, places, details, phrases, themes, and events that are recorded in other places (for example, the theme of “exodus”). These connections could be direct quotations, which are direct references to another portion of Scripture, or allusions: indirect references to other portions of Scripture. For example, the book of Revelation has over 400 allusions to the Old Testament, which means knowing the OT is going to play a vital role in understanding it.

Take advantage of cross-references! Usually these quotations and allusions are noted in the text through the ever-helpful cross-references in the margins of most Bibles. Don’t overlook this incredible blessing. This will help you see how passages fit together with other passages.

Do Not Skip These Steps

When it comes to Bible study, it’s easy to want to go straight to application; We want to know how a passage applies to directly our lives right now. This, unfortunately, often leads us to treat the Bible like a fortune cookie. Or, we can pull the spiritual card and try to read a verse at random (and out of context), hoping that it just jumps out at us and gives us our “quick fix” for the day. Of course, there are verses that can immediately bring you comfort, assurance, and conviction. However, we have seen that Bible study is usually the most fruitful when we are actively engaged with the text, looking for the author’s intended meaning (not our own), digging down, asking questions, and noticing connections.

The steps of preparation and observation are mandatory for fruitful Bible study. We must approach Scripture prayerfully, with reverence, humility, and trust in God. We must think over what is written, for the Lord has promised to give us understanding (2 Tim 2:7). It is through the ordinary act of reading that we come to see, savor, and be transformed by the glory of the triune God!

In part 2, we will look at the last two steps in Bible study: interpretation and application. 

Further Reading

These two excellent books on studying the Bible are available as FREE PDFs:

Reading the Bible Supernaturally, by John Piper

Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God, by Vern Poythress