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Lesson 15: Bible Study Methods

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When people go to the gym and work out, they often don’t see results for at least two reasons: For some, they do the same exercises over and over again. Our bodies adapt really well to repeated actions, and therefore, our muscles stop growing in endurance, strength, and size. For others, they simply have no plan at all. They aimlessly pick up this weight or work out on that equipment. Without any real plan, they don’t see much positive change. Both groups often become bored and discouraged with their workouts, in part for lack of results.

People often experience this in their Bible study times as well—going through seasons of dryness—not as interested, motivated, or fruitful. Sometimes this happens because of unrepentant sin in their lives, but often it is like people in the gym—they have no Bible study method at all (just picking random chapters and verses), or they do the same thing over and over again and have never changed. Often using a different Bible study method brings freshness to our study of Scripture—inspiring us and making our time more fruitful.

There are many Bible study methods, each with different aims and benefits. To have a balanced method of study, we need to both study the breadth of Scripture—seeing the big picture—and the depth of Scripture—seeing the details in every book, chapter, and verse. All methods have their benefits, and so it is wise to at times employ various ones. We’ll consider several different methods that can enhance our understanding and enjoyment of studying the Bible.

The Read The Entire Bible Method

The “read the entire Bible method” is just that: one reads the Bible completely every couple of months, once a year, or once every couple of years. It is important to read the entire Bible multiple times so one can understand the whole and how it relates to the parts. Without routinely doing this, one will be more prone to misinterpret and misapply Scripture. The Bible, though comprised of individual books, is a whole and must be understood as a whole.

How much time should it take one to read the entire Bible? Various Bible reading plans can be found, many of them on the Internet. In general, a person can read the Bible completely in a year if he or she reads 3.25 chapters per day (or, around twelve to fifteen minutes a day). Also, a person can read the Bible every three months by reading thirteen chapters a day (around fifty to sixty minutes per day). This could be done by having two thirty-minute Bible reading sessions a day, perhaps in the morning and in the evening.

We’ve considered the amount of time required; now let’s consider how one should read strategically through the Bible books. Again, there are many plans. Most people initially try to read straight through from Genesis to Revelation. However, though zealous at the outset, they often get stuck in the wilderness of a few hard books (like Numbers and Leviticus) and don’t pick it up again. To offset that possibility, many have found it helpful to read the Old Testament and New Testament concurrently—possibly a few chapters of the NT in the morning and a few of the OT at night. With that method, a person will repeat the New Testament, which has only twenty-seven books, several times, while simultaneously completing the Old Testament once, which has thirty-nine books.

The Expositional Method

The expositional method requires that one study a single Bible book deeply, to understand both the big picture and the details of the book, including verse meanings and applications. The word “exposition” simply means to “expose.” A good example of this method is found in the book of Nehemiah, when the Levites read the Book of Law to the Israelites and then explained it to them. Nehemiah 8:7-8 says:

Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah—all of whom were Levites—were teaching the people the law, as the people remained standing. They read from the book of God’s law, explaining it and imparting insight. Thus the people gained understanding from what was read.

Exposition is more than simply reading the words on a page. It is purposeful reading with the intent of finding the meaning and application of the whole book, including understanding verses in their context.

How should one study a book expositionally? (1) Choose a book of the Bible to study. (2) Before beginning to study it, read the introductory material about the book in a study Bible or commentary. This will help a person see the forest before the trees—the big picture before the details. (3) Read a portion of the book: a paragraph, half a chapter, or a whole chapter. Probably an entire chapter is ideal. (4) Apply the OIL skills (Observation, Interpretation, and Life Application) while reading—noting details, asking questions, performing research to answer the questions, and finding applications. (5) Read a commentary or expositional sermon series alongside one’s Bible reading to aid with understanding and application. A trustworthy free online resource is David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary. (6) Complete an entire book of the Bible this way—verse by verse, section by section, chapter by chapter. Then, tackle another Bible book.

The Topical Method

A topical study is the study of a specific theme or subject in the Bible, such as the names of God, the characteristics of God, prayer, or spiritual disciplines. A great illustration of this method is when the resurrected Christ approached the disciples on their way to Emmaus. The disciples were discouraged because the messiah had died, and they were confused. Jesus encouraged them by guiding them through a topical study about the messiah through the Old Testament. In Luke 24:25-27, he said this:

So he said to them, “You foolish people—how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures.

Christ took the disciples through the Old Testament passages, including prophecies and typologies, which showed how the messiah would die and enter into glory. For example, Isaiah 53 talks about how the messiah would be crushed for our iniquities, die, be buried, and be raised again. Psalm 16:10 (NIV) also describes how Christ, God’s holy one, would not see decay. For the disciples to understand God’s purpose in Christ’s death and resurrection, they needed to know what Scripture specifically taught about those themes.

Similarly, we also gain great benefit from studying topics in Scripture. It starts with asking questions like, “What does the Bible teach about God’s providence, spiritual disciplines, the church, creation, or the resurrection?”

How should we implement the topical study method? (1) Select a topic. (2) Use a concordance to look up relevant verses on that topic. (3) Study those verses by applying the OIL skills and consulting pertinent commentaries. (4) Finally, study books that have already thoroughly gathered and systemized Biblical information on those topics. Systematic theologies, Biblical encyclopedias, popular Christian books, and even websites like Bible.org or gotquestions.org, are helpful resources. For most, working backwards will be the best method to study a Bible topic. Gather books and articles that have systemized the biblical information on the topic (systematic theologies, articles, etc.). Then, study in detail the verses they cite. Just as Christ encouraged the disciples through this type of study, we’ll often be greatly encouraged as well.

The Biographical Method

Another way that one can enrich his or her Bible study is by simply studying a Bible character. Researching that person’s strengths, weaknesses, victories, failures, and life-changing experiences can provide insight into one’s own life. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us.” The “therefore” in the verse points the readers back to Chapter 11, which focuses on Old Testament heroes of the faith.

These Old Testament saints lived as pilgrims on earth as they awaited God’s promises; they did mighty feats and suffered greatly, all while trusting in God. The author of Hebrews teaches us that contemplating the faith exhibited by these great saints helps us remove anything that hinders our spiritual journey, including sin, and inspires us to run our divinely given races with perseverance. God specifically chose the Old Testament characters—including their failures and successes—to help us faithfully live our lives. Often, OT character studies are reserved only for children, but adults need to study them as well. In addition, there are also many New Testament characters to consider studying, such as the apostles and their associates.

How should one do a biographical study? (1) Study all the major passages covering the character’s life. (2) Focus on the character’s strengths, weaknesses, failures, successes, and impactful events. (3) Discern life principles that can be applied from their journey. (4) Read books or expositions that focus on the character’s life.

Again, one can also work backwards by first studying the books that have systematized the biblical material, and using them to point to verses or experiences of the characters which can be studied in depth. Chuck Swindoll published a series called Great Lives from God’s Word. Gene Getz wrote the series, Men of Character. John MacArthur published a book on the 12 disciples called Twelve Ordinary Men. The Bible Teachers Guide has books on Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Nehemiah.

The Bible Memory Method

A commonly neglected method of studying the Bible is simply memorizing Scripture. In Psalm 119:11, David said, “In my heart I store up your words, so I might not sin against you.” By memorizing Scripture, David found strength to conquer temptation. Similarly, when Christ was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he continually contested each temptation with corresponding Scripture. Since Scripture is so important for prevailing against sin and temptation in the Christian life, it is very clear why so many succumb to temptation—they simply don’t have God’s Word hidden in them. They can’t call upon it when encountering a lie of the enemy.

Bible memory is not easy. It takes dedication to memorize a verse and repetition to keep it memorized. However, the investment is worth it. It’s important for victory in our own spiritual life and in helping others have victory. If a person memorizes one verse a month, that equals twelve a year, one verse every two weeks equals twenty-six a year, and one verse a week equals fifty-two a year.

The Meditation Method

This method is based on Psalm 1:2, where David described how God blessed the person who meditated on God’s law, day and night. As mentioned, when considering how to develop Observation skills, the word “meditate” was used of a cow chewing its cud. Since the cow has a four-chambered stomach, it chews, digests to one chamber, regurgitates, chews again, digests to the second chamber, and so on. In this way, the cow extracts all the nutrients out of that one bite. Similarly, in the meditation method, a person reads one verse, or a couple of verses, over and over again, noting key words, repetitions, the context, the grammar, and other elements of the text, in order to understand, apply, and pray Scripture.

For example, one might read Psalm 23:1 (ESV) in the morning and meditate and pray on that for fifteen to thirty minutes. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” The person would consider what it means for God to be “The Lord,” what it means for God to be a “Shepherd,” what it means for God to be “my” personal Shepherd, what it means to “want,” what his or her “wants” are, and so on. Throughout the meditation, the person might write out questions, insights, applications, and prayer requests. The person may also read the verse in other Bible translations and read what commentaries say about it. They continually “chew” on the verse, talking to God about it and bringing requests before the Lord over it (for him or herself and also for others). Then, the next day, he or she would repeat the same process with Psalm 23:2.

This is the meditation method. One is trying to gain all the insight and nutrients possible from one verse or a few verses. When God’s people do this and delight in it, God blesses them (Ps 1:1-3).

The Bible Mapping Method

In this method, a person will: (1) Choose a book of the Bible, for instance, Matthew. (2) Read Chapters 1-7 every day for seven days (or fewer chapters). (3) While reading each chapter, outline it, noting the major topic of the chapter, themes of paragraphs, flow, events, and significant verses. (4) Repeat this process with Chapters 8-14 for seven days, and so on. In four weeks, all twenty-eight chapters will be mapped out and the reader will have read Matthew seven times.

What’s the benefit of this method? Many Christians can be called “concordance handicapped.” They often say to themselves or others, “There is this verse… It says something like this… Where is it located?” By reading Matthew and outlining it seven times in a month, the map of each chapter will begin to stick in a person’s mind. For example: In Matthew Chapter 1, we have Joseph’s genealogy, Joseph being told about Mary’s birth, and his marriage to her. In Chapter 2, we have the travels of the Magi to see Christ, Herod’s anger and murder of innocent babies, and Joseph’s family fleeing to Egypt. In Chapter 3, we have John the Baptist’s ministry, which includes Jesus’ baptism. Because of the repetition, a person’s mind begins to store up and organize information and operate like a concordance.

There is great benefit in studying each book of the Bible this way. One’s mind will develop a map of each Bible book and cease to be as dependent upon secondary resources (or other people) to navigate through the Bible.

The Devotional Method

This Bible study method is very popular. With it, Christians allow a devotional book to direct their Bible study. Each chapter of the devotional book focuses on a verse or verses to read, providing a devotional article that gives practical insights about that Bible passage and possibly a prayer that the reader can lift up to the Lord. The primary purpose of this method is not necessarily to gain a deeper Scriptural knowledge, but rather to find immediate encouragement and strength for the day. There are many popular devotional books. One of the most popular is Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest.

Though the devotional method is extremely popular, it should not be the only method used. It tends to make the reader more dependent upon the secondary resource (the devotional book), rather than the Bible. It is best used as a supplement to one’s regular Bible study.

The Bible Survey Method

The purpose of the survey method is to gain a general understanding of every book of the Bible. Typically, one would read a Bible survey book that gives introductory material to every book of the Bible including: author, audience, date, historical background, major themes in the book, and even any controversial passages. As the survey guides the reader to noteworthy insights or passages in the book, the Bible student would then read those Bible passages and briefly study them. Popular survey books include Tremper Longman’s Introduction to Old Testament, D.A. Carson’s Introduction to the New Testament, and The MacArthur Bible Handbook. With that said, like the devotional method, the survey method is best used as a supplement to one’s regular study, as it depends heavily on secondary resources rather than Scripture itself.

Conclusion

Each method has its benefits and weaknesses. Using each method in different seasons will help a person develop a fuller understanding of Scripture. We need to understand both the breadth and depth of Scripture—the forest and the trees. The more we know Scripture, the more God can use us for his kingdom (2 Tim 3:16-17). What are the various methods?

  1. The Read the Entire Bible Method: It focuses on seeing the Bible’s big picture by reading the entire Bible over a period of a few months, a year, or longer.
  2. The Expositional Method: It focuses on studying a single book deeply.
  3. The Topical Method: It focuses on understanding what the Bible says about a single topic like prayer, discipleship, or parenting.
  4. The Biographical Method: It focuses on studying a single Bible character to learn from his or her traits and experiences.
  5. The Bible Memory Method: It focuses on continually memorizing Scripture for encouragement and to conquer temptation.
  6. The Bible Mapping Method: It focuses on reading a Bible book over and over again and outlining the chapters to develop a mind map of that book—functionally making one’s mind a concordance.
  7. The Devotional Method: It focuses on reading a devotional book to gain insight and encouragement.
  8. The Bible Survey Method: It focuses on studying a Bible survey book to understand generally what happens in each Bible book, including introductory material and major themes.

Reflection

  1. In the reading, what method stood out most to you and why?
  2. What do you typically do for Bible study? Is there a favorite study method that you use?
  3. Which method do you most want to try and why?
  4. What do you typically do to break out of periods of dryness in your Bible study?
  5. What other questions or applications do you have from the reading?

Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Holy Bible, New International Version ®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible.

All emphases in Scripture quotations have been added.

BTG Publishing all rights reserved.

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Bible Study Methods, Bibliology (The Written Word)

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