A meaningful Bible study is an essential part of the Christian’s life. After all, God gave His Word to use as the principal means of knowing him and understanding his work throughout history. Studying God’s Word is the primary way to draw closer to him and to know how to worship him rightly.
However, sometimes studying God’s Word isn’t easy. After all, we aren’t all scholars with seminary degrees. But in general, God made the Bible clear. Sure, some sections are difficult or confusing, but overall it isn’t hard to understand. With a little support, all Christians should be able to dig into a text and mine riches from God’s Word.
1) Summarize the Text
Begin your Bible study with summarizing the text. Start with a verse or two, or maybe even a short paragraph. Read the text through several times. It will give you a sense of what the author is saying.
Summarizing a paragraph into a sentence or two will help you find the places within the text that might take a little more work. It could also help you come up with questions such as how phrases in a verse correspond to each other or how to think about similar or contrasting thoughts within the text.
2) Learn the Context
You have probably heard a realtor or business owner repeat the expression: “Location. Location. Location!” Well, if you spend enough time with a pastor or Bible professor, you will inevitably hear them sound off: “Context. Context. Context!”
No verse or paragraph is an island secluded all by itself, but it sits within a larger context of an entire section of Scripture or even the whole book.
Ripping a single verse or phrase out of context can often disguise its true meaning or it can cause a person to think it is saying something it isn’t really saying.
For instance, Philippians 4:13 says,
“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (KJV)
Some have taken this to mean that they can accomplish anything because God will give them the strength or the ability to do it. Like a self-help book, they will convey the idea that “if I just try hard or work hard enough I can do whatever I desire.”
However, the context of this verse is being content in all situations (vss. 10-12). The apostle Paul said he can be content (“do all things” through Christ who gives him strength, whether he is being brought low (such as being imprisoned) or things are going well (enjoying a feast with friends).
We must find the context of our text. If the text begins with “therefore,” we need to look back and see what it is “there for.” If it begins with “but,” we must see what contrast the author gives.
In addition, we may need to understand the cultural context of the passage. Passages about slavery in the NT mean something different than a text about Israel enslaved by Egypt in the book of Exodus, as well as the forced slavery in the early years of the United States. Understanding these cultural context differences will help when studying the Bible.
3) Find the Keywords
We’ve already talked about keywords such as “therefore” or “but” that let us know we need to look back at the context of our chosen passage for study. Now look for other keywords that will help us understand the meaning of the text.
Going back to the book of Philippians, we can find an easy example of a keyword in chapter 3, verse 2,
“Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision.”
It isn’t hard to figure out that we should be looking out for something. Paul uses repetition to emphasize that there is something important of which we need to be watchful (namely those Jews who were promoting a different gospel than the one Paul preached).
Perhaps there is another word that you are curious about. Paul wants the Philippian believers to be on the lookout for what he calls “dogs.” Well, everyone knows what a dog is, but maybe you’d like to investigate why he chose that word.
There are many tools that help us understand this better, even if we don’t know biblical Greek. For example, Strong’s Concordance gives a number to every word in the Bible. Those numbers help us know which Greek word is being used.
We can also go to a Bible dictionary that uses Strong’s number system and find the correct number. Tools like these and others can be found online or in different software programs, as well.
Once we find the correct “dogs” in the Bible dictionary we learn that “dogs” was a term that Jews used for Gentiles as a term of derision. From their perspective, the Gentiles were impure people, not followers of God. So, the Jews saw them as scum—as dogs.
How astounding, then, that Paul would use this term for Jews in this passage. It helps us understand more fully how important it is to look out for them and how awful it is that they are preaching a false gospel.
One way to look for important words in your passage is to look at it in different translations.
If you find a phrase or word that is translated into two or three different ways in different English translations, you may have found a keyword that you’ll want to study further.
4) Remember the Literary Genre
The genre of the book you are reading might not seem that important, but it can come in handy when plowing through unusual language or reading something that is symbolic.
While it is important to read, study, and interpret the Bible in a literal way, we must also remember that the Bible uses symbolic and metaphorical language. It doesn’t mean we won’t find figures of speech or hyperbole.
For instance, we understand that in Psalm 6:6, David didn’t literally flood his bed with tears or drench his couch with weeping. We intuitively know this means he cried a lot! The same could be said for much of the symbolism in Song of Solomon. This is poetic language, and it is good to remember we are reading poetry when we read those books.
The book of Proverbs is filled with, well—proverbs. These are proverbs, not promises. They are pithy statements that are generally true and wise, but not necessarily how things will always play out.
There are many well-intentioned Christian parents who have raised up their child in the way they should go, but they departed from it when they grew older (22:6). And sometimes, it’s a good idea to answer a fool according to his folly, but other times, it’s a bad idea to answer a fool according to his folly (26:4-5).
Apocalyptic Scripture, such as that found in Revelation, can be hard to understand, but it is helpful to remember it is this type of literature when studying it.
It is not only written in symbolic language but also likely futuristic. Other genres found in the Bible include narrative literature, prophetic, the law, wisdom literature, Gospel and Epistle (letter).
5) Use Commentaries
A commentary is an invaluable tool for a Bible study that helps you dig deeper into God’s Word. God has blessed his people with men and women who are gifted at biblical languages, adept at scholarship and have great minds for theology.
A commentary is a resource that uses their knowledge to explain different books of the Bible. They provide comments on each verse to help you attain a deeper grasp of the richness of God’s Word.
Commentaries come in a range of styles. Some are technical in nature, giving concise information on grammar, syntax and biblical languages. Others are more pastoral in nature, helping a preacher or teacher know how to best relay this knowledge to others. Still, others are more devotional in nature, giving practical application or worshipful thoughts along the way.
If you do not have access to a commentary or find them cumbersome, a study Bible, which contains historical and theological notes at the bottom of each page, can also be a helpful resource in learning the context of a verse or passage.
There are many aids, such as books or websites, that give advice on the best commentaries for each book of the Bible and level of difficulty of each commentary.
Bonus Tip: Mark Up Your Bible
We pray that these 5 tips for meaningful Bible study will help you to grow in your faith. But here is one more bonus tip: Write in your Bible! Circle, use Bible highlighters, take notes, or start art journaling.
So many people are afraid of doing this. However, it is helpful to have all your notes and thoughts and work that you have done in a Bible study at your fingertips.
It is amazing to look back at that work and remember what you learned. It will encourage you afresh in all the Lord is doing in your life. Years later, you’ll have something to pass on to your children, grandchildren, or other relatives who might inherit your Bible from you. Then, your years of study will encourage them.
So, mark away! We don’t think you’ll regret it.