How to Read and Study the Bible
The following is an excerpt from my book, "Got Questions? Jesus Has the Answers!" If you're interested in reading more, just pick on the "PJ's Books" link to the left of the page.
How Do I read and Study the Bible?
Simple Answer: You need to develop a habit of regularly reading and studying a good study Bible.
Reading vs Studying
The main difference between reading and studying Scripture will be found in how much you get out of your time with Scripture. Reading will allow you to progress through sections of Scripture faster than studying. It will give you an overview of the Bible, or the books that you’re reading, but without studying it’s easy to take what you’re reading out of context. That means that you might not understand the true intent of the author or the proper application of what you’re reading.
Conversely, studying Scripture will take longer as you dig deeper into the books, chapters, and verses of what you’re reading. You could spend weeks or months studying just one book of the Bible. As I teach through a book of the Bible in a Sunday school class, I plan on the study taking a year’s worth of Sunday school sessions. Often I have to add more weeks to the schedule because we’re not quite done with the study. We take the book section by section, verse by verse, or even word by word. We go slowly as we dig deeply into what we can learn from the Word of God.
Both reading and studying need to be part of the daily routine of a disciple of Christ.
In order to read and study the Bible properly you have to understand three key terms: exegesis, hermeneutics, and eisegesis. I realize that you may have never heard these terms before! There are different variations of definitions of these terms. I’m working off of the definitions that are presented in “How to Read the Bible For All its Worth,” by Stuart and Fee. I highly recommend this book if this is a topic that you’re interested in studying more.
Exegesis is “the taking out of the text.” It’s finding out what the original author intended to say to the original audience when it was originally written. Sorry, but the Bible was not written to you. It was written to specific people throughout history as the Holy Spirit inspired authors to write His words – which is why all of humanity has been able to find and apply God’s truth as they read Scripture. Without a dependence on the Holy Spirit we struggle to learn how to apply these ancient writings in a modern world. A proper study of Scripture begins with finding out what the original author intended to convey to the original audience during the original time period.
To do this we have to ask the traditional questions of inquiry:
• Who – Who did they write it to? It could have been a people group, a city, a church within a city, or certain people within the church – or different aspects of the writing applied to each of these separately, or in a combined manner.
• What – What was the culture like – in the church and in the city, or the region?
• Where – Where did these people live, and what was the author writing specifically to them?
• When – When did the author write the book? When was it received?
• How – How was the original audience to receive and apply the principles covered in the writing?
• Why – Why were they writing? To find out why we go back to the questions listed above. What were the primary points the author intended to convey? What issues were taking place? What false teaching was being corrected? What historic accounts were being transcribed?
Yeah, that’s a lot of information to investigate before you even begin to read a book of the Bible! That’s why most commentaries are much bigger than the Bible itself. I doubt that anyone reading this book is a Bible scholar who is an expert in Bible times, so a study Bible really comes in handy for each of us. Before each book of the Bible, there is an introduction to the book that tackles these questions of inquiry and helps us get an idea of how the original recipient would have received the writing. This front matter is an invaluable tool to properly understanding the context of any book of the Bible.
Next is hermeneutics, the “how to apply this to my life” part of studying Scripture. Now that we know what the original author was communicating to the original audience during the original time period I can begin to ask the question, “How does this apply to me in my life today?”
There are many passages of Scripture that will not apply to you specifically, but you can still gain some general thoughts and applications from all of Scripture. I like to say that I learned to do things by watching others either do them correctly or incorrectly. I strive to copy the pattern used by those who did them correctly and I strive to avoid the pattern of those who did them incorrectly. It’s the same with Scripture. I can learn a lot from the accounts of those who rejected God – and affirm that I don’t want to follow their patterns! And I can learn a lot from the accounts of those who followed Him – and affirm that these are the things I want to do in my life as well.
Much of the trouble interpreting and applying the Bible is found when we put these two key steps, exegesis and hermeneutics, in the wrong order. Sometimes we first draw out of the text how we think we should apply things to our life before we even ask the questions required to determine what the original author intended to say to the original audience during the original time period. In essence, we’re putting words in his or her mouth and defining Scripture our own way. This is dangerous to our spiritual formation and is one of the ways we have allowed much false teaching to seep into our lives. Once we allow a little false teaching to take root, we begin to build other theology upon it. Then, when we find out what the true interpretation or application of Scripture should be, all of the theology that we built on the false teaching comes down like a house of cards.
We must ensure that we are building our faith on sound doctrine!
The third term we need to learn is eisegesis, or “reading our own ideas into the text.” This is the most dangerous term in Bible study. Here we go into our Bible reading thinking that the Bible should say something, and we look for passages of Scripture that will support our thought or opinion. This almost always leads to false teaching because we are inserting human thought into the very Written Words of God, or we are finding very short passages that say what we want to hear and then we take them out of context. We are always going to find false teaching when we engage in eisegesis.
“Taking them out of context” means that we’re not asking the questions of inquiry found in the exegetical process, but we’re answering those questions for ourselves. We’re defining what the original author meant and we’re almost always selfishly thinking that they were writing to us today. They weren’t. We must see the lessons of Scripture through the original intention of the author, and then take steps to apply the principles we discover into our daily lives.
Consider these examples of eisegesis:
The Bible says, “There is no God.” Psalm 14:1. So why should I even believe in Him?
The Bible says, “The blessing of the Lord brings wealth.” Proverbs 10:22 (NIV). See, if I go to church then He’s going to make we wealthy. If I pray then He’s going to give it to me.
Jesus said, “You shouldn’t judge others.” Matthew 7:1. See, you have no right to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do in my life.
In each of the cases, we are taking a small portion of Scripture that says just what we want it to say. BUT, when we zoom out a bit we see…
Psalm 14:1 actually says, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.” Ah, that’s a little different!
One of the things we learn in Proverbs is that living a godly life is blessed by the Lord. God is the one who defines the wealth that He blesses us with. Relationship with God is the biggest blessing He provides. Too many times we are obedient to a limited extent thinking that this obedience will somehow unlock His blessing in material ways, and we miss that His first blessing is in relationship with Him. Perhaps our interpretation of this verse will change as we are spending time with the Lord. Suddenly we see all that He’s given to us as abundance, realizing that we don’t deserve anything from Him, beginning with the relationship that He’s blessed us with. In Matthew 6 Jesus tells us that God will provide all of our needs. We realize that we truly are wealthy when God provides all of our needs for us. Popular American theology is that God will provide all of our wants. This is an eisegetical addition of biblical teaching and is not supported by Scripture.
When Jesus was talking about not judging others in Matthew 7, He was talking about making unfair judgements on a person’s walk with the Lord He was condemning the way we look down at people when we think that we’re better than they are. He was not saying that we shouldn’t make judgments about a person’s life to help them grow closer to the Lord. This, in fact, is a responsibility all of us have. I like to think of how we can use our judgement to put people down, or lift them up to be closer to Christ. I choose to make judgements on a person’s life as an indication of their walk with the Lord so I can better help them grow in their faith. There are plenty of biblical examples of how this is in fact wise leadership.
We have to take all of what Jesus said in the context of everything that Jesus said. Many of us have flawed theology of the teachings of Jesus Christ because we have taken small portions of His words (the red letters) and have ignored others. There are many unpopular things that Jesus said that cut at the heart of how we live our lives! You won’t hear sermons on them, you won’t read about them in “Our Daily Bread,” and you’re not going to see them cross-stitched on a pillow. Consider these statements by Christ:
• “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” John 15:6.
• “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15.
• “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” John 14:24.
• “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” John 8:47.
• “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.” Luke 14:26.
• “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away.” Luke 14:34-35.
• “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15.
There are many other passages of hard teachings by Christ. We cannot understand what He was talking about if we look at them individually. We have to look at them as a whole, in context with each other, and with the rest of Scripture.
The Bible is not Designed to be Read From Cover to Cover
The entire Bible tells the story of God’s love for man, as well as His great plan of redemption through Jesus Christ, but it is not intended to be read cover to cover. The Bible is an anthology – a collection of writings that were written by 40 different authors over a span of hundreds of years. These writings span a variety of different genres of literature that convey different intentions. You will find books of history, Law, instruction for Old Testament priests, wisdom, poetry, prophecy, parables, first-person accounts, epistles (both general and pastoral), romance, and apocalyptic literature. Each of these genres are to be read, interpreted, and applied differently.
The order in which you find the various books of the Bible is intentional. The Old Testament contains books detailing early Jewish history, the Law, instructions for priests, poetry, wisdom, and prophecy. The New Testament begins with four Gospel (or “Good News”) accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. Then we read the history of the early church, the apostles’ writings to the early church, and the book of Revelation.
Each of these books stands alone and is part of the bigger revelation of God to man. All of them point to God’s holiness, His desire to have relationship with man, and the redemptive plan of sending Jesus Christ, as well as points of application for our daily lives.
Differences Between Translations and Paraphrases
We also have to realize that the Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. Three languages that I cannot speak or read – and I doubt you can as well! So, how did we get the Bible in English, or other languages? There are two different categories for English Bibles: translations and paraphrases. Translations are “word by word,” “sentence by sentence,” or “concept by concept” copies from the original language into English. This is done with a team of translators. This team is comprised of experts – not only experts of the language, but of the culture in which the original book of the Bible was written. Any member of the team is an expert in a book of the Bible, or a section of the Bible. No one person translates the entire Bible.
Good examples of translations include: the English Standard Version (ESV), the New International Version (NIV), the New Living Translation (NLT), the American Standard Version (ASV), the King James Version (KJV), or the New King James Version (NKJV). My personal favorites are the ESV and the NLT. Many people believe that recent changes to the NIV have compromised the latest version of this translation. However, I still use the 1984 version. You can find the process the translation team used by reading the “Front Matter” section at the very front of your Bible.
A paraphrase is different. It is usually written by one person or a small team. It’s like they are putting the Bible into their own words. Some paraphrases begin with the original languages; others are done from English translations of the Bible. Good examples of modern paraphrases: The Message, The Living Bible, or The Story.
Paraphrases are good for finding an easier way to read the Bible to understand the big themes, but they should never be used for Bible study. Translations must be used for Bible study.
Why are There so Many?
There will always be a need for new Bible translations and paraphrases because language changes over time. The original text remains unchanged! The way any culture uses language is different from the way previous cultures used language – or the way it will be used in the future. The meanings of words change over time. The way people talk changes. The means of communication changes as well. New translations and paraphrases are designed to more clearly communicate the unchanging truths of God’s Holy Written Word.
My Favorite Bible Reading Plan
Simply Google “Bible reading plans” and you will see that there are dozens of recommended ways to read the Bible. You will find daily reading plans that will allow you to read the Bible in a year, two years, five years, and ten years. Most of these plans have an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, and a Psalm to read.
Sorry to disappoint you – or offend you – but I am not a friend of daily Bible reading plans that will help you read the Bible in X number of years. You don’t find daily reading plans for the latest New York Times best seller! I don’t know of anyone who read the Harry Potter books that took 1, 2, 5, or 10 years to work through any one of them! That would be ridiculous! Most people pick up those books and can’t put them down because they want to read them!
It should be the same with the Bible. You should read it because you want to read it and once you start you should see a growing desire to continue reading.
Here’s my recommended Bible reading plan:
• Set an hour aside.
• Pray and ask the Lord to speak to you through His Written Word.
• Read for an hour with the plan listed below.
• Pray and thank Him for how He’s spoken to you.
• Repeat again tomorrow.
For those who have never read through the Bible before, I recommend that you begin to read the Bible with the Book of John, read through the rest of the New Testament, then read from Genesis through the end of the Bible, skipping over sections that seem irrelevant or contain long lists of people’s names. The passages for the priests, the repetition of the law, and the genealogy sections are not meant to be “read,” but are meant to be referenced, or studied. I know of many people who have started to read the Bible from cover to cover, have gotten to these difficult, repetitive passages, and have given up long before they got to the sections that are more applicable to their own lives.
When you’re first beginning to read the Bible I give you permission to skip over sections that aren’t making sense to you to find sections that are making sense to you. I recommend that you begin with the book of John because it’s a great account of the life and teaching of Christ. Then, as you move forward in this reading plan, you will read about the founding of the Christian Church, and hear its founders convey how to apply the implication of what Christ did for us into our daily lives.
You should realize that the book of Revelation is a very difficult book to read the first few times you read it. Just read it, and allow the Lord to speak to you through it, and you can dig deeper into its meaning another time when you have a chance to study it with the help of a good commentary, or a spiritual mentor.
I Read it – Now What?
After you’ve read through the Bible the first time, I recommend you take one of the following approaches to get more out of your Bible reading:
1. Read an entire New Testament book of the Bible in one sitting. Think of how you would read a letter that you received from a friend. You would probably read it all the way through and then go back and look more carefully at certain sections. You might even read it two or three times in a row to better understand the main points. You might write down a few notes, a few questions, and you would begin to write a reply. It’s the same with the Bible. The authors were intending people to read it from start to finish, and then go back in and read it again, study it, and work on figuring out how to apply what they were talking about to our daily lives.
2. Study a book of the Bible. Studying is different than reading. When you study, you take more time figuring out the connection a passage has to the rest of the Bible, you’re digging deeper to see how big God is, how much He loves us, and what implications your reading has on your everyday life. You can either pick up a study on a book of the Bible (there are plenty to choose from!), you can study with a spiritual mentor, or you can join a Bible study group.
3. Read a book of the Bible that covers a topic you need to learn about or have a special interest in. A simple Google search on a topic will give you suggestions as to where to read to learn more about it. You can also find printed guides as to where you can find certain topics in the Bible.
4. Read the four Gospels one after another, or side by side. Look at the different ways the four Gospel writers conveyed their experiences with Christ. See how their own unique perspective highlights the different aspects of Christ’s life and ministry.
5. Take on a Bible reading challenge! Try to read the New Testament in a week, or try to read the entire Bible in a month. The biggest challenge I took on in my own personal Bible reading was to read the New Testament in a day. I set an entire day aside, free from all distractions, and read from Matthew through Revelation in one day. I saw things in that reading that I had never seen before! Another challenge that I took was to read everything Paul wrote in the order that he wrote them in one day. I was amazed to hear the repetition in Paul’s writing and to see his own personal emotions come through his writings. We miss much of the treasure in God’s Word because we spread out reading out over too much time!
6. Do a “word study.” Look at all the places a word, or a certain term, occur in the Bible. For instance, look for the term “Kingdom of God” in the New Testament, see how many times the Bible talks about love, dissect all the times Jesus talks about prayer, look at the parables of Christ, look for the appearances of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament, look at all the “one another’s” in the Bible, study the commands of Jesus Christ, or study another word or theme that you’re interested in.
7. Read each of the divisions of the Psalms in one sitting. The psalms are usually divided into five sections. Find out more about why these divisions exist and then read each of them in one sitting.
You Need a Good Study Bible
There is a difference between reading the Bible and studying the Bible. When you read the Bible you’re seeing the major themes and you’re gaining a general overview. When you study the Bible you’re digging deeper into its meaning and personal application. A study Bible helps you answer exegetical and hermeneutical questions. It contains notes at the start of each chapter, and on just about every verse as you read through the chapter. Some study Bibles are more academic than others. Some focus more on application than others. Some are focused on themes, such as apologetics. All of them are like having a pastor sitting next to you as you read the Bible, explaining what you’re reading as you read.
My four favorite study Bibles are:
• The ESV Study Bible.
• The John MacArthur Study Bible.
• The NIV Study Bible – using the 1984 NIV version.
• The Life Application Study Bible is good for a beginner.
Maximize Your Bible Study
I challenge you to consider doing your own regular Bible reading and study, to be part of a small group or Bible study that is learning together, and to be in a one-on-one discipleship relationship with a spiritual mentor. Each of these Bible study modes will teach you in different ways. All of them, together, will give you the opportunity to gain a good, working knowledge of the Bible and its application to your daily life.
For further study in how to read the Bible, I suggest you read, “How to Read the Bible For All It’s Worth” by Stuart and Fee. This is a great book for the beginner, as well as for someone who has been reading the Bible for a while.
James E. Bogoniewski, Jr.