Steps in Studying Scripture
1. Read through the whole book in as close to a single sitting as possible. The gospels and Acts can be read in 1-2 hours. Other books range in length, but most New Testament books won’t take much more than a half hour.
2. A) Take note of recurrent motifs, words or themes that come up again and again in your reading. For the book of Acts, for example, you might note the presence of a number of sermons telling the story of Jesus to various crowds. For James you might note the theme of the tongue or the fact that it is made up of a number of proverbial sayings.
B) Take note of any structural patterns you see. The gospels might strike you as being divided into two large chunks, the first focused on Jesus’ ministry, the second on the events leading to his death. In Ephesians you might note that the first half seems to deal with theological teaching and the second half with more practical matters. These types of notes will be helpful as you study through your book.
C) Make an outline of the whole book. Now that you’ve noted some themes and patterns, you should be able to start making a broad outline of the whole book. Don’t worry about details at all here—paint with large strokes.
3. Read an introduction to your book from a Bible Dictionary or Encyclopedia. This is one place where reference books can be a very useful help. It’s also a place where you can learn the value of doing your own work before going to the “experts.” If you’ve made the notes suggested in step 2, you are already getting a feel for the book you are studying. A Bible Dictionary usually gives you a few pages that focus on the main issues in studying a book: it will talk about the background of the book (what period of history it was written in, who wrote it, what circumstances likely prompted the writing, and so on) and will usually provide an outline of the book with key themes noted.
Standard evangelical Bible Dictionaries:
- Marshall, Millard, Packer, Wiseman, eds.
New Bible Dictionary
- Third Edition (the 2
- edition is also sold as
The Illustrated Bible Dictionary
- Merrill C Tenney and Moises Silva, eds.,
Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible
- Geoffrey Bromiley, ed
. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Books especially focused on theological themes:
Kevin Vanhoozer, ed. Theological Interpretation of the New Testament
Kevin Vanhoozer, ed. Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament.
This step should confirm some of what you noted in step 2, but also will probably alert you to some key aspects of the book that you may not have noticed yet. By this time, you’ll be getting a pretty firm sense of the outline of the book. This will help you track where each passage fits in the larger whole as you work through passage by passage.
4. Take note of the contexts of your passage. Contexts are generally thought of in three categories:
- A. Historical context: What events provide the historical setting for your reading? At what point is history do the events take place, or under what circumstances was the passage written? For example, the historical context for Acts 5:33-39 will consider messianic figures of the first century; for 2 Timothy you will need to consider Paul’s life situation as an old man in prison as writes
- B. Geographical Context: Where does the passage take place? The Old Testament can be overwhelming with its sheer number of place-names, but the New Testament is not much better! A feel for the places will be helpful (consider the significance of Jesus’ trip from Galilee to Judea in the first three gospels). Look up any unfamiliar places in your Bible Dictionary.
- C. Literary context: What comes before and after your passage within this Biblical book? How does your passage relate to what precedes or follows it? Take note of any quotations from the Old Testament as well—look them up and take note of how they are used in your passage.
5. Make an outline of the passage. What seems to be the main point or idea in this text? How does the rest of the passage fit with that main point? Sometimes diagramming sentences can be helpful here, especially when you’re dealing with the letters. You might paste the text into a Word document and put each phrase on a separate line. Indent the phrases that seem to support the main points. Let words like “for,” “because,” “since,” “therefore,” and “so that” guide you in understanding the flow of thought.
6. Explore the Theological Issues:
- A. Humanity/the World: What problem does the passage address? Passages in the Bible usually point to something about the world or human condition in its fallenness that needs to be addressed. This is a big clue about how the passage might speak to today’s readers, and also puts a guard against inappropriately reading our situation or assumptions
- Bible texts.
- B. God: What does the passage tell you about God: his character, his actions, his words, etc.?
7. Having done these steps, try to summarize the meaning of the passage as a whole in your own words. Note any questions or difficulties that remain.
8. Taking that list of remaining questions or difficulties, consult a good commentary or two for help and pointers. It’s important to hold off on commentaries until this stage so that you can have a genuine “conversation” with these other reference works. You will get much more out of them when you carry your own work and thought with you.