I was asked recently for some tips on studying the Bible. Despite years in the church, many Christians have had no concrete guidance on how to begin studying a part of the Bible. I prepared the following rough guide as a response, which I’ll split into two posts on the blog.
Before you study any portion of Scripture, it’s important to be sure you have a rough idea of how and where things fit together in the Bible as a whole. As you continue to study, your own view on how the puzzle pieces are assembled will probably shift and deepen, but it’s always good to have a sense of the “big picture” so that you’ll be able to situate the book or letter you’re studying. After all, studying is secondary to reading: you can’t study well something you haven’t read first, and the purpose of your study is to come away with a better reading of a passage of Scripture. As the years pass, our studying and our reading will continue to go on side-by-side, but in an important sense you have to see the whole first before you can examine the parts.
The quickest way I know of to get such an orientation to the Bible is through, of all things, a retelling of the Bible for children, called The Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones. Reading along the lines of historic Reformed theology when it comes to the relation of the Old and New Testaments, this kids’ Bible gives you a good idea of how to read Biblical narratives, while also hinting at the place of poetry and the prophets in the Scriptural canon.
Of course, the best way to familiarize yourself with the whole of the Bible is simply to read it, read it, and read it again. A Bible reading plan that takes you through scripture systematically (whether a one year or a two year plan) is a good help here. One popular plan is M’Cheyne Bible Reading Plan many in our church now use. This kind of wide reading in the Bible will surely raise lots of questions (I dare you to read Joshua and Judges, for instance, without being plagued by rather large ones), but hey—that will just point you to the next part you’d like to study!
Assuming this basic Bible overview, you need to consider what kind of book you are studying. Is it in the Old Testament or the New? Is it a narrative or some other genre? In the Old Testament, non-narrative writings include the poetry books and the prophets. In the New Testament, there are the letters and the Revelation (belonging to a genre called apocalyptic).
Each of these bodies and types of literature has its own distinctive features that you need to keep in mind as you study. For instance, Christians read the Old Testament with the idea of anticipation always in our minds, so that as we read we will appropriately think of connections with the fuller revelation of God in Jesus Christ as we find it in the New Testament. In narrative portions of Scripture, we pay special attention to the large flow and themes of the story, while with the letters we may be focused on minute details of a paragraph’s particular argument. In general, you can expect to do closer analysis on letters than on narratives, due to the complexities of argument you find there. The step-by-step comments that will follow in the next post are intended as basic guidelines for all biblical study.