Swimming can be a confusing endeavor. Sometimes you do it for fun, and other times you do it to stay alive. Bible study is like that. Many Christians read the Bible for enjoyment, reliving favorite passages and the impact they had at different points in their life. However, serious Bible study can also save your life.
If you’re a Christian and want to follow the Lord, then you want to study the Bible and learn more about Him and his plan for your life and for all of humanity. Not only do you want to learn to swim, but you want to be able to take deep dives into the Bible, the Word of God.
The big question is, what is the best way to study the Bible to get the best understanding of what it means?
Swim Before You Dive
It may seem too obvious to mention, but no Christian can understand the Bible unless they have an overview of the people, history, and teaching. Don’t buy a Bible with notes for that. Don’t buy a Bible commentary. Don’t take a Bible Survey course either. None of these things were available to Christians until fairly recent times. The earliest Christians did well in living and spreading their faith without them.
Why did they do so well? Because Jesus promised that His Holy Spirit would come to guide and counsel (John 14:26). No one can comprehend the meaning of the Bible without the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14).
New Christians, and even some long-time Christians, must learn to swim before they start doing fancy dives off the high board when it comes to understanding the Bible and putting it into practice in life. Thus, it makes perfect sense to sit down and read the Bible. Sadly, people skip reading the Bible all the time. They seek to be Bible experts even though they only read parts of it.
We can overcome these issues by teaching new believers or old ones who have become stale in their faith to approach the Bible differently. Bible study is more than getting head knowledge. It is a way we tap into the power of the Holy Spirit.
Bible Reading is Not Difficult
Many people find Bible-reading daunting. This is especially true when they face the thundering diction, oddly used words and twisted syntax of the King James Version (KJV). Few people today read Shakespeare for the same reasons. It is not written in an idiom most people understand. Nevertheless, the Lord has allowed us to have other translations of the Bible, and they all have merit. Christians should find one where they get the sense of what is reported in its pages and read that translation. I recommend the English Standard Version (ESV) for readability or the New King James Version (NKJV). Some people prefer the New Living Translation (NLT) for an overview but avoid it for deep study.
Reading through the Bible should not be viewed as a challenge. Remember, your first reading is to discover what it is all about, not study or question it.
There are about 785,000 words in the entire Bible. That’s 600,000 words in the Old Testament and 185,000 words in the New Testament. Studies reveal the average adult reads about 250 words per minute, which means it will take the average reader only about 40 hours to read through the Old Testament and 12 hours to read through the New Testament.
So, the average person can read the entire Bible from cover to cover in about 52 hours. That’s less than 2.5 hours per day for three weeks, about the same rate that people read novels for entertainment.
When you read the Bible like this, you will have a greater understanding of the Bible than about 90% of Christians who may have studied part of it but never read all of it.
People who love the Lord Jesus Christ and desire to follow Him are not content to merely read the Bible in a general way. This reading is only for perspective. We all want to dive deeper. Here are a few techniques for doing that.
The Deeper Dive
There are many methods for diving deeply into the Bible, and you are free to select the one you like best. Here are three popular methods.
1. Reading and Meditation. After reading the Bible to get an overview of it, you want to reread it with a different purpose. Pick a part that you particularly liked (for me, the Book of Acts) and do a deeper dive. You read it slower and stop and mediate on each paragraph.
There is nothing magical about the word “meditate.” It simply means that you pause and give “considered thought” to what you just read.
You ask yourself what the passage says and means, and importantly what it means to you personally. Yes, this is a preliminary step in learning to dive deeply into the Bible (it’s like going off the low diving board), but it is an important skill to learn. The Christian faith is reasonable, and reflection about what you read, and asking the Holy Spirit for understanding, is a very desirable thing to do.
Some people like to keep a Bible study and prayer journal. You record what is happening in your life, and your Bible reading and prayer life’s impact on it. Unfortunately, I have never done this as consistently as I hope you will do, but occasionally I unearth a notebook or computer file of my own spiritual journey, and it always invigorates my faith. You can see and measure your spiritual growth by making notes about scriptures you read and your prayers to God.
2. Topical Study. The next stage for most Christians is to do a topical study of the Bible. You start wondering about a topic like “Anger,” for example. You want to discover all the passages, from Genesis to Revelation, that deal with the topic in one way or another.
How do you find these passages? Again, you don’t want to look at notes, footnotes, or cross-references in a Bible. You do not want to go to a commentary. You want the Holy Spirit to inform your understanding, not get it secondhand. Use a tool like Torrey’s Topical Textbook. It has 20,000 topics 30,000 Bible references. This resource tells you where to look for information on a topic in the Bible, not what to think about the topic. You can purchase a copy of this classic index or use free online versions like the one found here.
Once you review all the scriptures related to the topic, you think about what you have read. Feel free to write a summary and draw conclusions about the topic, such as anger in this case. Then, write an application. How will what you learned change your behavior? That is the purpose of a deep dive into the Bible.
3. Inductive Study. The deepest dive into the Bible is called Inductive Bible Study. Inductive Bible study is learning how to extract the information out of a portion of scripture in a systematic way.
With inductive study, you select a particular passage of scripture, the Gospel of John, chapter 14, for example.
Then, you observe what is in that chapter. Gather facts by asking, “Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?”
After that, you must ask, “What does this mean?” What was John (in this case) trying to say to his immediate readers? Everything in the Bible is best understood in its original context, and the message spreads from there into history. You ultimately want to ask, “What does this mean for my life” because you are part of history too.
The power of this kind of deep-dive is in observation. You want to wring out every bit of information and meaning by concentrating on every aspect of the content of each verse. Too often, Bible students start an inductive study but soon end chasing rabbits by skipping to other books of the Bible or interpretive books written by others. Avoid that. Squeeze all the juice out of the passage you have chosen before moving on. The Holy Spirit will inform your understanding.
Yes, there are other ways to study the Bible. But by swimming first by reading the whole Bible, then diving deep using these three methods, will put you on the fast track to spiritual maturity.
Seek Spiritual Truth
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is concerned with all things aquatic. They forecast weather, monitor oceanic and atmospheric conditions, chart the seas, and manage fishing, among other things. They even have advice for swimmers. The first question they want you to ask before entering the water is, “Can you swim?”
Swimming in the ocean isn’t like swimming in your local pool. Waves and wind can change and put you at risk before you are aware of what’s happening. You need to be a strong swimmer before entering the water.
The same is true of Christians. Your local church is like dog-paddling around in a kiddie pool. But when you go out into the world to live and share your faith, you must be a strong swimmer and a deep diver.
Donald L. Hughes is editor of ChristianWritingToday.com