How to Study the Bible

What you will need:

Things that help:

  • Cross-references
  • Concordances
  • Commentaries
  • Bible Dictionary/Encyclopedia
  • Maps

Studying the Bible can be a one-time event, but is best done every day so God can give a a fresh word to apply and ponder that day.  There are two basic approaches that people employ when studying the Bible: topical and textual. Topical studies are designed to address a specific issue such as baptism, faith, or marriage, or things such as this. This approach looks for verses that speak to the given topic and reads the verses that are at hand. The other approach is textual studies that selects a text and lets the text dictate the topic. While topical studies are inherently bad, they can be dangerous—one could select a verse about a topic and read the verse out of context or read meaning from a verse that is not inherently there. If one wants to do a topical study, it would be better to do a textual topical study – that is find text that speaks to the topic at hand and study the text as if one was doing a textual study. This way you’re sure to let the text speak to the matter. Perhaps the best way to study the Bible is to systematically work through a book of the Bible a piece at a time. Having a particular book constantly on one’s mind helps one ponder a given text within the context of that book. This helps read every passage in the given book in the context in which it was written. Topics are brought up in given text too, so one does get to deal with topics, but the text dictates the topics rather than the topics dictating the text.

When studying a text, there’s three layers of inquiry one applies in the form of three questions in this order: “What does it say?”, “What does it mean?”, and “How does it apply?”.

What does it say?

“What does it say?” is asked to ascertain what a passage says literally without trying to actually interpret what is being said. If a man says, “It’s raining cats and dogs”, asking, “What did he say?” is not looking for the interpretation of the idiom, but the literal rendering: “It’s raining cats and dogs”. This is where a word for word translation of the Bible is handy, in that it attempts to stay close to the original text as possible.

Here’s the original Greek of John 3:16:

ουτως γαρ ηγαπησεν ο θεος τον κοσμον ωστε τον υιον αυτου τον μονογενη εδωκεν ινα πας ο πιστευων εις αυτον μη αποληται αλλ εχη ζωην αιωνιον

For someone who does not read Greek, this is useless. A literal translation like the NASB renders this fairly closely to the original text:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

If one were to superimpose the original language on the translated words, it would look like this:

ουτως γαρ (For) ηγαπησεν (loved) ο θεος (God) τον κοσμον (the world) ωστε (that) τον υιον (Son) αυτου (his) τον μονογενη  (only begotten) εδωκεν (gave) ινα (that) πας ο (whoever) πιστευων (believes) εις (in) αυτον (him) μη (not) αποληται (shall perish) αλλ (but) εχη (have) ζωην (life) αιωνιον (eternal)

Without going any further, this is about as close as one could get to the original language in English.

What does it mean?

This is where interpretation comes in. The aforementioned idiom, “it’s raining cats and dogs” does not means that that cats and dogs are falling out of the sky, rather it means it is raining hard. When one begins to interpret a text, one does well to look at a spectrum of things from a narrow context to a broad context and consider many things because, like the idiom, simply reading the text without understanding it in context can misrepresent the text.

This chart asks a number of questions related to the “Wh” words that need to be addressed in a narrow context and a broad context. A narrow context would be the text or subdivisions of the text chosen for study. The broad context would consider things not included in the text but pertain to the text such as other related texts, history, geography, ideologies, and social contexts.

Narrow Broad
Who? Who are the individual characters? What groups of people the characters were associated with?What historical figures were alive during the events of the text?Who was the text/book addressing?Who wrote the text/book?
What? What is the topic of discussion in the text?What difficult words are in the text?What literary genre is the text? Where is the topic discussed elsewhere in the book and the bible?How are difficult words used elsewhere in the book and Bible?
When? When did the events of the text happen in relation to other events in the book? When did the events take place in relation to other biblical events, local history and world history?
Where? Where did the event take place? City? Region? Nation? Where in relation to other biblical events and world events did the events of the text take place?Is there any historical significance to the site of the event?
How? What happened in the text? What lead up to the events in the text?What happens after the events?
Why? What is the text trying to communicate?What is the immediate context? What is the book trying to communicate?How does the text help accomplish the goal of the book?How does the book fit into the whole of scripture?

Another column is added here though to talk about the implications these questions have on how one understand the text. One does not have to answer all these questions, nor does one have to formally fill out a chart like this. Having a form such as this when one begins to study the Bible is helpful, and as one does it more these questions become habitual. One should consider the full scope of a text from the individual words all the way to the full scope of the scripture. A study of John 3:1-21 may look something like this. This looks at the narrow and broad context of the the text.

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Bible Study tools can help one understanding it. Here’s an overview of bible study tools and their uses:

Cross-References – It’s been said that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible. Many major Bible publications nowadays have cross references in the margins and footnotes. Thompson’s Chain Reference and Treasury of Scripture Knowledge are two classic publications that are rich with references

Concordances – Concordances index words so one can find all or many of the places in scripture a word is used. They can serve purpose of finding how words are used in the scripture and for finding scriptures that speak to a specific topic. A concordance of the original languages can be most helpful because it shows how words were being used in the original language. Strong’s Concordance is one of these, and it uses Strong’s Numbers, a system devised by Dr. James Strong in the 1800’s to help students index words in the Scripture according to the original language. Software can search the entire Bible for words or phrases serving the same purpose.

Lexicons – Lexicons are dictionaries that contain the original languages of the Bible and their respective translations. One who is familiar with the original language find these helpful in understanding words, what they mean, and how they are used. Many classic works contain Strong’s numbers such as Brown-Driver-Brigg’s Hebrew Definitions (BDB), Thayer’s Greek Definitions, Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary, and Vine’s Expository Dictionary.  Two excellent works are the Theological Word Book of the Old Testament (TWOT) and Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT). These works give detailed explanations of the words in the Bible.

When studying specific words, don’t *just* look at a word’s definition, look at its usage and tense too. Hebrew and Aramaic as languages are largely context driven in that the meaning of a passage is communicated by more than just a single word or phrase. Greek is partially context driven, but Greek words, particularly the verbs, pack lots of information into the word through its tense and usage. Bible translators of word for word translations generally go through a painstaking process to ensure that words rendered in the target language closely represent the original language. The products of their labors are represented in works like TWOT and TDNT and these dive deep into word studies.

Bible Dictionaries/Encyclopedias – These references materials help give background information on people, places, events, and ideas that are articulated in the Bible. Two classics are the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia and Easton’s Bible Dictionary, which is available online and through many software packages. Also the website offers a plethora of resources online that provide bible backgrounds.

Commentaries – As a rule, consult commentaries last. Commentaries are not bad, but most would be surprised how much they can uncover on their own by grappling with the text themselves. Defaulting to commentaries can make one lazy. After doing the work by one’s self, consulting commentaries can help deepen one’s understanding of a text too by providing additional theological insights, background information, and insights into the original language.

How does it apply?

Generally, this is the step that draw all the understanding together. One is looking for a central theme that one can take away and apply to one’s life. This theme should relate to all that is uncovered when one understands the text. Generally, one will want to make it personal and a point of prayer so that it can be applied to one’s life. One might say something like this for John 3:1-21 “Lord, help me to better understand by your Spirit the message of salvation so I can teach it to others.” This encapsulates the illumination of the Holy Spirit and the message of salvation that goes out to the entire world.

The devotions at Abide attempt to implement these study principles to help understand God’s Word!

Narrow Broad How does this help me understand the text?
Who? Nicodemus: A Pharisee, a “leader” of the Jews (somebody in charge of religious affairs), a teacher (John 3:10), and a member of the Sandedrin (John 7:47-49). He gave a large donation of embalming supplies (John 19:39)Jesus: “The Son of Man” and “the Son” of John 3:16. He must be “raised up”. Pharisees: a Jewish religious sect with zeal for the Law. They were seen as among the most pious Jews.Pilate, John the Baptist, and others were alive. </p>

John was written to an undisclosed audience by the Apostle John.</td>

Nicodemus had education and was religious, but could not understand what Jesus said. Jesus says that understanding of heavenly things comes from those from heaven such as himself and the Holy Spirit.
What? Being, “Born again” and reference to salvation.Salvation in General by believing in Jesus </p>

The work of the God in helping one understand spiritual matters is being discussed.


Moses  making a brazen snake (Numbers 21:1-9)


God  loved “the World”.


Jesus mission was to save, not judge.


John is writing prose and gospel literature.</td>

Illumination by the spirit is discussed in 1 Corinthians 2. Heavenly matters can only be understood if one is enabled to understand them by that which is from heaven, namely God.The “world” refers to people either evil people in reference to sin ( 1 John 4:5, John 15:19, Romans 12:2, Ephesians 2:2, Colosians 3:2) or all people in reference to salvation ( 2 Corinthians 5:19-20, Matthew 5:14, Matthew 13:38, John 1:29, John 4:42) Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus meant by being “born again” Jesus says this is because he had not received the testimony because the Spirit had not enabled him. Jesus explains it from an Old Testament story were God was passing judgment, but offered an out by those who looked upon a brazen serpent. Jesus was to be lifted up in the same manner. They were already judged because of their unbelief. Jesus did not come to pass judgment, but to save the world by those who believe in him.
When? Actual date is uncertain. This is sometime before Jesus went to the cross and after he had performed signs and wonders because Nicodemus recognized the signs and wonders.Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. John 19:39 recalls this. This happened before his conversation with the woman at the well in John 4 and baptizing in the Jordan in the latter part of chapter 3. Nicodemus was apparently not among the majority opinion about Jesus among the Pharisees. He probably came at night to avoid being seen. He makes a more public front in John 7 and John 19. Perhaps the message of salvation had emboldened him.
Where? The location is undisclosed, but probably Jerusalem as the disciples left there and when into the Judean country side. (3:22) Other events outside of John are unknown, but obviously it happened before John was beheaded. Jesus’ testimony had yet to be revealed in its fullest. Jesus would later declare he would draw all men to himself. John 12:23, John 12:32
How? Nicodemus makes an observation about Jesus.
Jesus answers, “You must be born again”Nicodemus does not understand.Jesus explains why. He does not have the illumination of the Holy Spirit.</p>

Jesus explains the gospel and his mission.</td>

Jesus went out from the interview and started baptizing in the Jordan. John explains to many who Jesus is.
Why? The text is communicating the nature of worldly things compared to heavenly things and the plan of salvation. The book was written so some might believe (John 20:30-31). This explicitly lays out the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit The gospel message is the fulfillment of what was promised in Old Testament times and it goes out to the entire world so that all peoples will worship before the throne in heaven.