Where Do I Begin?!: How to Effectively Study the Bible

Landon ChapmanChristianity8 Comments

2 Timothy 3:16-17  “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”

I once heard it said that the Bible is the only book someone reads in which they are encouraged to start somewhere other than the beginning.  Sound familiar?  I think to truly understand the value of that comment, one must understand exactly what the Bible is and what it’s not.  This article from the Resurgence sums it up very well:

“The New Testament speaks of the Old Testament as “Scripture,” translated from the Greek word graphe meaning “writing,” while the word bible comes from the Greek word for book.
Holy Bible means the “Holy Book.” It contains sixty-six separate books (thirty-nine Old Testament and twenty-seven New Testament), written in three languages (Hebrew, Greek, and a bit in Aramaic), over a period of more than a thousand years, by more than forty authors of varying ages and backgrounds who wrote on three continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe).  

Authors of the Bible include kings, peasants, philosophers, fishermen, poets, statesmen, and scholars. The books of the Bible cover history, sermons, letters, songs, and love letters. There are geographical surveys, architectural specifications, travel diaries, population statistics, family trees, inventories, and numerous legal documents. It covers hundreds of controversial subjects with amazing unity. It’s also the best-selling book of all time and is now available in nearly three thousand languages.

The Old Testament was written on papyrus—a form of paper made out of reeds; the New Testament was written on parchment (prepared animal skins). Because both forms of documents easily degrade under hot and dry conditions, it is providential that we have so many copies of ancient manuscripts. Incidentally, the various chapter and verse divisions in the Bible were not part of the original books. A lecturer at the University of Paris created the chapter divisions in 1228. Its current chapter and verse divisions were not fully developed until 1551.”

Based on that description, the reason you don’t need to start the Bible from the beginning is because the Bible is a collection of books, not one book with 66 chapters.

I went years of calling myself a professing, Bible-believing Christian but if I’m honest, I never cracked open those onion-skin pages of Truth outside of the usual Sunday morning church service.  It’s not something I’m proud of, but it would seem I’m not alone.  In a June 2013 LifeWay survey on “Bible engagement”, it was found that only 19% of Protestant churchgoers personally read the Bible each day.  Yet, 90% of those surveyed said they “desire to please and serve Jesus in all I do.”  (We’ll ignore the 10% who don’t want to please Jesus for the purposes of this column.)  The fact that only 19% of churchgoers are in God’s word daily is absolutely shocking to me, and a good indication as to the Bible illiteracy running rampant in our churches.

“Bible engagement points people toward maturity and maturing Christians have practices that correspond to Bible reading,” said LifeWay Research president Ed Stetzer. “Almost all churchgoers want to honor God, but more than a third indicate obedience is not something they have done when it is costly to them.”

The physician Luke noted in Luke 14:25-33 “Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them,  “If anyone comes to me and  does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters,  yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.    Whoever does not  bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.    For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not  first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?    Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him,    saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’    Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not  sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?    And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.    So therefore, any one of you who  does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

When contrasting what Luke had to say with what Mr. Stetzer said, it’s apparent that many followers of Christ are not prepared to “count the cost” when it comes to devoting their lives to Christ, myself previously included.  In this post, I’m going to set aside this sad reality to try and address the situation from the perceived root of Biblical illiteracy.

Looking back, there were many factors at play as to why I was not in my Bible outside of church, not the least of which was pure laziness.  Considering that Christ was tortured and slaughtered for my sins, how could I have such a cavalier attitude to studying His Word?  Further, I begged God through prayer to speak to me and guide me in my life, yet I was ignoring the most important way God speaks to us; through His Word.   That said, my laziness was simple to edify because every time I cracked the Bible open, I was overwhelmed and would immediately give up.  It wasn’t until I began seriously seeking out how to study the Bible and implementing that method that the Word began to come alive for me.  I couldn’t imagine a day without it at this point.

John MacArthur, a well-respected Bible teacher and scholar of MacArthur Study Bible fame, divided Bible study up into five simple steps.  These steps have been invaluable to my study of the Word of God and I’m certain they will be for you as well:

  1. Reading
  2. Interpreting
  3. Evaluating
  4. Applying
  5. Correlating

Reading the Bible effectively begins, like anything in life, with a plan.  If you have a plan in place, you are more likely to stick with reading your Bible on a regular basis.  I used to think that there wasn’t much point in reading the Bible because I often didn’t completely understand what it was saying anyway.  I then purchased the ESV Study Bible and my Bible reading and comprehension skyrocketed.  In fact, I went from having to force myself to read, to craving my daily reading time!  The difference is that with a good study Bible, you first read the chapter in the original text and then read the notes provided by the Biblical scholars.  The comprehension level increases dramatically and your daily reading becomes more enjoyable and more fruitful.  That said, simply reading the Bible each day allows you to familiarize yourself with what Dr. MacArthur calls its, “themes, history, and contexts.”  In other words, though you may not be able to fully understand the real life applications of your reading, you’re still benefiting greatly from being in the Word.

Interestingly, and as I mentioned above, unlike most books you are probably not going to read the Bible from the beginning cover-to-cover.  What most fail to realize is that the Bible is not organized chronologically.  When I began to realize this was the case, I was very surprised while at the same time quite liberated.  The beauty of this arrangement is that you can begin reading whichever book you’d like!

Dr. MacArthur recommends you read through the entire Old Testament at least once each year while noting in the margins of your Bible any truths you want to remember or things you don’t understand.  Often times when reading the Bible, the Bible itself will answer your questions.  The questions the Bible does not answer become a natural starting point for more in-depth study using commentaries and the like.

For the new testament, Dr. MacArthur recommends reading one book at a time, repetitiously, for one month or more.  Doing so will allow you to more easily recall information without needing to rely on a concordance as often.  To give this method a shot, start with a short book like 1 John and read it in its entirety each day for 30 days.  When that time has passed, you will know the book very well.  I like what Dr. MacArthur has to say on this subject, “Write on index cards the major theme of each chapter. By referring to the cards as you do your daily reading, you will begin to remember the content of each chapter. In fact, you will develop a perception of the book with your mind’s eye.”

When you come to a longer book, divide it into sections.  For instance, the gospel of John contains 21 books.  Divide this into three sections of seven, reading one section every 30 days.  When 90 days have passed, you’ll be complete with the gospel of John and you will know it.  Following this plan, you’ll read the entire New Testament in just under three years; but you will really KNOW the New Testament.  In order to avoid burnout, alternate long and short books as you go along.
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Interpreting the Bible is of immense importance.  This is the practice of asking the question, “What does the Bible mean?”  It is not acceptable to simply read the Bible and immediately try to apply it in your life.  The problem is that your interpretation may be incorrect thus leading you down a path growing further from God, not closer to Him.  This is the folly with many mega-church pastors today, they either nefariously or unknowingly twist scripture to fit the message they are trying to convey.  The problem is without proper hermeneutics the misinterpretation of Scripture is more harmful than someone flat-out shunning the Bible.  In other words, Semipelagianism is immensely more dangerous than Pelagianism because the former presumes to know the truth and thus leads his well-meaning flock astray.  The latter, however, makes no effort to even pretend to adhere to scriptural truth and is therefore easier to discern and avoid.

So how does the average congregant discern between scriptural truth and scriptural error?  The simple answer is to let the Holy Spirit be your guide.  1 John 2:27 says, “But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.”  

There is one very basic principle of interpretation that could and should be used when reading scripture called the analogy of faith – use the Bible to interpret itself.  This is where you make use of concordances, commentaries, Bible references and notes to cross-reference the passage you’re trying to interpret with other parts of the Bible in order to define exactly what the term, phrase, or verse you’re studying actually means.  If you are still struggling with a passage or book, consult your Pastor or other Godly men who have studied and written on the issue(s) at hand.

The other key to scriptural interpretation is something Chris Rosebrough with Fighting for the Faith dubs as the “Three principles for sound Biblical exegesis: context, context, and context.”  The key here is to realize that very rarely can you properly interpret what scripture is telling you without understanding the time, place, and to whom it was written.  So, always be sure to read at least four verses before and four verses after the verse you’re studying.  This tactic is especially helpful when testing a Pastor’s scriptural references in a sermon to ensure they are treating the text properly and not removing the verse from its context in order to further the point they’re wanting to make.
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Evaluating the Bible is the practice of referencing others’ work to ensure you’ve properly interpreted what you’ve read.  The key thing to remember, says Dr. MacArthur, is that “the Bible never contradicts itself.”  So, if you’ve felt as though you’ve found a contradiction, immediately consult your Pastor, other Godly men, or commentaries to determine where you might be misunderstanding the text.

The key thing to remember when evaluating what you’ve learned is that the Bible may not always tell you what you want to hear.  In fact, reading the Bible thoroughly might even cause you to have to reevaluate beliefs you’ve held all your life.  At the most extreme, it may force you to completely change the direction of your life.  Welcome these possibilities as they will begin to set you on the path of growing towards the one true and living God.
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Applying what you’ve learned to this point promises something great from Jesus.  John 13:17 says, If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”  If you carry your Bible study through to this point, Jesus himself has said blessed are you!  How great is that?!>

Now that you’ve read in detail and begun to properly interpret the Bible, Dr. MacArthur notes, “you will have at least a basic understanding of what the Bible says, and what it means by what it says.”  With that as your foundation, it is now time to begin to apply what you’ve learned.  Your scriptural knowledge should enable you to grow spiritually and as you let God’s truth penetrate your soul, you’ll begin to feast on the banquet of knowledge you’ve prepared.  I think Dr. MacArthur sums it up best when he says, “If there is a command to be obeyed, obey it. If there is a promise to be embraced, claim it. If there is a warning to be followed, heed it. This is the ultimate step: submit to Scripture and let it transform your life. “
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Correlating the Bible is the final step in scriptural understanding and wisdom.  This is the practice of connecting all the doctrine you have learned with the divine truths you read about and combining them to form one big picture.  Keep in mind what I mentioned before that the Bible is simply a compilation of 66 books.  So, the principles and truths contained within are repeated and taught over and over again in a myriad of ways.  By correlating what you’ve learned, you’ll build a very solid doctrinal foundation on which to build your faith and on which to live.
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If you’ve made it this far in the post, congrats!  Please feel free to bookmark this page and refer to it as you begin truly digging into God’s Word.  I’ve provided links to define uncommon terms and also to quickly move about the five steps of scriptural understanding so you may quickly reference the step you’re working on.  Much of what was covered in this article can be found in more depth in, “How to Study the Bible” in The MacArthur Study Bible. Copyright 1997, Grace to You. All rights reserved.

I sincerely hope by simplifying these steps here, you will be able to immerse yourself in the Word of God and begin to understand the incredible and divine truths printed on its onion-skin pages.  After all, that is what Christ called us to do.

Landon Chapman

Landon Chapman

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Founder of Entreating Favor, writer, and host of the Fire Away! podcast. He is an architect by vocation and professes the Bible to be the infallible, inerrant, Word of God. He and his wife Holly have two children.