What is Bible study?
Bible study is the practice—whether individually or within a group—of reading, interpreting, and applying Scripture to daily life.
Before the invention of the printing press in fifteenth-century Germany, the vast majority of Christians had never read a Bible. In the six centuries since, no book has been printed more than the Bible. Although there still are close to 2,000 languages awaiting translation1, most people who want access to the Bible can get a copy in minutes.
Yet the Bible’s accessibility shouldn’t be confused with its being simple to understand, interpret, and apply. Written between 3,500 and 1,900 years ago in a culture much different from our own, the Bible can’t be easily reduced to sound bites and postcards. At times, to encourage people to read or study the Bible in our biblically illiterate era, we can overpromise its simplicity. The basic message of the Bible is simple enough for a child to understand, yet it contains truths so deep it takes a lifetime to unpack.
That’s where Bible study comes in.
Why study the Bible?
We study the Bible because it’s our primary source of revelation about who God is and what he is doing in the world. Studying the Bible is an opportunity to sit at the feet of Jesus, whom the Gospel of John calls the Word “made flesh” (John 1:14), and learn from the creator of the universe.
Paul describes the purpose of Bible study in his second letter to Timothy:
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing people what is wrong in their lives, for correcting faults, and for teaching how to live right. Using the Scriptures, the person who serves God will be capable, having all that is needed to do every good work. (2 Tim 3:16–17 NCV)
Christians don’t study the Bible simply to amass information they won’t use. The point of Bible study is to know God and prepare believers to do God’s work in the world. Peter tells us to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:13). Studying the Bible helps us get ready for the opportunities God gives us to tell people about him.
Keep reading to learn how to study the Bible more effectively by answering three important questions—or jump to the ones that interest you most:
- What are the different Bible study methods?
- What are the stages of Bible study?
- What tools are needed to study the Bible effectively?
“The Bible is the greatest of all books; to study it is the noblest of all pursuits; to understand it, the highest of all goals.” ―Charles C. Ryrie
What are the different Bible study methods?
Below are just a few different Bible study methods. There are many more you can try though. Keep reading to learn more about what each one entails.
Verse by verse
In this method, you study the Bible by going through a book, chapter, or paragraph one verse at a time in sequential order. You apply all the steps of proper Bible study to one specific scriptural passage.
While someone using this method looks for the passage’s context in the rest of Scripture, they are primarily concerned with understanding the message of a specific verse, passage, chapter, or book of the Bible. Every passage of Scripture is a potential candidate for a verse-by-verse study.
This particular method’s strength is that it starts with the text itself. Some other methods of study start with a felt need like marriage or parenting, or even a topic like prayer or faith. Each method of study is a valid and needed part of a Christian’s Bible intake. That said, the verse-by-verse method can often be the simplest, regardless of which tools you have available, because the passage you’re digging into determines how you study it. You don’t need to recreate an extensive study system.
On the other hand, because this method doesn’t begin with the reader’s needs, it can at times be disconnected from application. Bible students who use this method should make sure they are always asking the question, “What does God want me to do because of what I have just read?”
In a topical Bible study, you search the Scriptures to discover what they have to say on a specific topic. The topic can be either an issue in the Christian life (such as vocation, obedience, honesty, finances, parenting, etc.) or a theological subject (such as faith, salvation, the church, etc.).
Most of the time when using this method, you employ a tool like a Bible concordance, cross-reference, or Bible software to find related verses and passages. Then you review those passages to discern what the author is saying and how it relates to the original topic.
It’s an ideal method for students looking to understand the Bible’s teachings on important topics of contemporary life. Many of those topics can’t be effectively studied through other methods because the related passages are throughout the Bible, not in one single spot.
Keep in mind that when you’re using this method, you still must use all of the principles of good Bible study. Verses must be studied in historical and cultural context. They must be reviewed within their specific biblical context as well. If you ignore context, you’ll stray into proof-texting, and your interpretation and application of the text will reflect your own biases and presuppositions rather than the meaning of the texts.
The biblical text includes many people whose lives model God-honoring faith—and others who warn us about the consequences of disobedience.
In a character study, you review the biblical texts related to these characters and discover, interpret, and apply these truths to your life. You can often learn truth from the lives of people in the Bible more effectively than in other kinds of biblical texts because you see yourself in their story. Ultimately, you can see glimpses of Jesus in the stories of each person’s life.
However, we must constantly remind ourselves that these narratives are generally descriptive and not prescriptive. They describe the work of God in the lives of his people, but they don’t necessarily prescribe or prohibit us to act in the same ways. Unless the text tells us that the character’s behavior is good or bad, we cannot assume we should follow it as a model.
While all Bible studies aim for application, a devotional study centers around application (and communion with God). When you’re doing a devotional study, you focus on a specific passage. You read the passage and meditate upon it, asking God to help you apply it to your life. You continue to read and pray believing God will show you what he wants to do in your life through the passage.
The devotional Bible study method is beneficial for Christians to employ during consistent times of personal study. Because it centers upon prayer, this method can help Christians bridge the gap between the text and God’s purposes for their lives. While other methods typically focus on the intellect as the student tries to discern the history, culture, and grammar of the passage, the devotional method centers on the heart of the believer and their position before God.
Of the four Bible study methods listed here, the devotional method tends to be easier for some passages than others. Because you’ll likely be doing less research on the context of the passage in this method, it works best when that context is clearer.
See how the Logos Bible app can help you study the Bible more efficiently.
What are the stages of Bible study?
While everyone approaches Bible study differently (and that’s okay), a few general principles tend to be present in effective Bible study.
When starting a Bible study, it’s important you know where you’re going, whether you’re studying the Bible on your own or with a group. A Bible study plan can take on various forms, but it centers on two questions:
- What text will I study?
- At what pace will I study the text?
If you’re looking to begin a daily personal Bible study, the answer to that first question could be anything from the entire Bible to a biblical theme to a single chapter of Scripture. Once you determine what you want to study, you’ll decide how quickly you want to study it. Typically, the longer you take to study a segment of Scripture, the more time you’ll have to dive into the details. But, on the other hand, a faster pace can help you study more passages, thereby growing the breadth of what you can learn.
Once you answer those two questions, the simplest approach is to divide the amount of text you want to study by the amount of time you plan to study it (whether in days, weeks, or some other timespan). You may also decide upon a more nuanced approach where you spend more time in a specific portion of the text you’re studying. A Bible app like Logos can help you create a Bible reading plan in a snap—or it provides many pre-created plans.
In the observe stage, you ask the same questions of the text that a journalist might ask:
- Who are the authors, audience, and characters (if a narrative)?
- What is the text saying (in as simple of terms as possible)?
- When was the passage written, and when did the events in the passage occur?
- Where did the events in the passage happen? Where was the intended audience residing? Where did the author live?
- Why was the passage written?
- What is the genre and the tenor of the text?
As you observe the text, note any repetition, which often signals the passage’s emphasis. If a concept shows up multiple times in a short space in the text, you can bet it’s something the author wants you to note.
In this part of the process, you’ll also want to note key words that you need to understand better. If you have a background in biblical languages, you can review lexicons and grammar guides to get more information about the word and its usage. Even if you don’t have original language experience, many English to original language lexicons can help you understand the word better. You can also use a concordance to discover other verses that have used the word (which can help you understand how the biblical writers may be intending the word). A Bible app like Logos can help those without formal language experience better understand the individual words in the passage they’re studying.
This stage of Bible interpretation may be the most difficult part of any effective study. Often called the interpretive bridge, this is where you begin to move from the historical experience of the text’s original audience (which we did in the observation stage) to our context (in the application stage).
While the Bible is certainly written for us, it wasn’t written to us. We are not the original audience of any biblical text. The 66 books that make up the Protestant Bible (and 73 books in the Catholic Bible) were written to cultures at least 1900 years ago. When the original readers of the text read it, they would have likely understood it differently than we do.
In this stage you’re answering the question, “What would those original readers have understood the text to say?” To do that, you need to do all you can to learn about the context of the passage you’re studying. That means consulting tools like commentaries, atlases, and other reference materials that provide insight into the biblical world.
As we do this, we try to answer these three questions:
- What is different between the original readers’ world and our own?
- What is the basic theological principle that the text is communicating?
- Does the main theological point of the text fit with the broader picture of Scripture? (If it doesn’t, you’ve outlined the wrong theological point.)
While it is always important to review other sources, the most basic rule of hermeneutics (the process of interpreting Scripture) is that the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from others’ interpretive work. But it does mean that we start by trying to understand biblical passages in the light of other biblical passages—and then we move on to other resources.
Application is the goal of all Bible study. Bible study that doesn’t change our hearts, both immediately and over time, is a waste of time. As mentioned above, 2 Timothy 3:16–17 teaches us that Scripture is “useful for teaching, for showing people what is wrong in their lives, for correcting faults, and for teaching how to live right.” Application is the deepest, most biblical component of Bible study.
Once we’ve observed what’s going on in the text and interpreted what it meant to the original readers, we must determine what it’s telling us to do today.
Historically, most Christian scholars have insisted that while only one faithful interpretation of each text exists, we can apply texts in multiple ways. Application can come in many forms as well. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and Bible Study Methods, suggests nine different questions that can spur Bible application:
- Is there a sin to confess?
- Is there a promise to claim?
- Is there an attitude to change?
- Is there a command to obey?
- Is there an example to follow?
- Is there a prayer to pray?
- Is there an error to avoid?
- Is there a truth to believe?
- Is there something for which to praise God?
While those questions won’t fit every text, at least one will fit most texts.
Keep learning how to study God’s Word with these Bible study resources.
Rick Warren’s Bible Study Methods
Regular price: $15.99
How to Study the Bible and Enjoy It
Regular price: $8.99
Inductive Bible Study: Observation, Interpretation, and Application through the Lenses of History, Literature, and Theology
Regular price: $25.99
Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics
Regular price: $34.99
Types of Bible study tools
Our most important Bible study tool is the Bible itself. If the Bible were the only tool we had at our disposal for Bible study (which is the case for the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages), we could learn much.
Before studying the Bible, we must first determine which translation we’ll use. Even deciding to read the Bible in its original languages doesn’t solve this problem. (We have various original language texts to choose from, as well.)
Most translations follow one of three strategies.
- Word for word (or formal equivalence)–Translators try to match each word in the Greek/Hebrew text with the appropriate word in English (or other language). Example translations include: KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV, and CSB.
- Thought for thought (or dynamic/functional equivalence)–As the category name implies, this translation philosophy attempts to match each original language thought with an appropriate English thought. By doing this, the translation is typically more smooth and readable for a wider variety of readers. Example translations include NIV, NLT, and GWT.
- Paraphrase–Technically, paraphrased Bibles aren’t translations. Though they are often taken from the original languages, the authors of the paraphrase aren’t seeking to match words or phrases. Instead, they are trying to put the biblical message into contemporary language. The focus of paraphrases is readability. Example paraphrased Bibles include: The Message, The Living Bible, and The Amplified Bible.
The best way to think through your English Bible options is to consider them upon a continuum. On one end are more literal translations, and on the other end, paraphrases. Formal and dynamic equivalence translations are typically the best options for effective Bible study, yet there are times when a paraphrase can be particularly helpful to review as part of your process, particularly if you’re doing a devotional Bible study.
All translations—even the most literal—are interpretations of the ancient texts. Translators make interpretive choices as they choose the words they use. But generally speaking, the closer a translation is to word for word, the fewer interpretive choices the student will have to make.
Narratives based in a specific time and place make up much of our Bible. Bible atlases are critical in helping us understand the places where biblical events take place. Often the place is more central to the meaning of the text than the average reader truly understands. The Bible’s lands are unfamiliar to us. An atlas helps us understand the geography of these lands so we can study our Bibles better.
If you are using a physical Bible, you can often start with maps included with your Bible. But these maps are typically small and don’t provide much detail.
Because an atlas isn’t limited to presenting large areas of the biblical lands on a few small pages, it allows you to dig deeper into the geography of your Bible. You can choose from a large variety of atlases, from the general to the specific. Although the maps are the focus of most atlases, many also include a plethora of information on geographical issues related to your study of the Bible.
Maybe more than most biblical reference items, you’ll want to scan through an atlas before purchasing one. You want to find an atlas that matches your study process, so peruse the maps inside to ensure they are digestible, clear, and helpful. Often it’s helpful to start with a more general atlas and then add more specific versions later.
For many people new to theological and biblical studies, the term “Bible dictionary” can be confusing. Most Bible dictionaries have more in common with encyclopedias than dictionaries. Each word in the dictionary has a corresponding article. Most general Bible dictionaries contain alphabetized entries on significant (and even some obscure) biblical characters, doctrinal issues, biblical places, biblical books, and more. Often these entries also include related scriptural addresses.
Bible dictionaries can be a good starting point for Bible studies. As you come to a term or concept that you need further clarification on, these resources will help you fill in important gaps in historical, cultural, and theological information.
Bible dictionaries come in various sizes and depths. Some smaller dictionaries will include entries of a sentence or two. Others will include several pages of content about some of the most important biblical topics (such as Jesus, God, salvation, faith, etc.).
You can also benefit from multivolume dictionaries that provide additional depth on biblical topics. Sometimes the different volumes are divided alphabetically. Other times these dictionaries are divided by topic. For example, the IVP Dictionary Series includes volumes for each section of the Bible (Pentateuch, wisdom literature, Gospels, etc.).
Again, start with simple, general Bible dictionaries that provide small entries for many topics. This would be a good place to start when building a biblical reference library too. Then, as you add to your library, you can get more in-depth dictionaries.
Lexham Bible Dictionary
Regular price: $0.00
The Dictionary of Historical Theology
Regular price: $35.99
The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land
Regular price: $20.99
Dictionary of Bible Themes
Regular price: $28.99
The IVP Bible Dictionaries (8 vols.)
Regular price: $249.99
Biblical commentaries provide historical, cultural, theological, and textual insight into specific scriptural passages. They are typically organized by the canonical order of the Bible. Multivolume commentaries will have volumes dedicated to specific books of the Bible or several books of the Bible. You can also find single-volume commentaries that will provide insight based on chapters of the Bible.
Most commentaries focus on the interpretation stage of Bible study. They provide the biblical background that helps you understand what the text meant for its original readers. A few commentaries explicitly focus on application, such as The NIV Application Commentary and The Life Application Bible Commentary.
Commentaries tend to be big investments. Before adding a set to your library, review the content it provides to ensure it’ll help you study. For example, some commentaries can be technical and center on the original language texts. Without a significant background in those languages, those commentaries won’t help much.
Also, you may want to have some idea of the theological commitments of the commentary. Whether you want to stick closely to your own commitments or build a more diverse library, you’ll want to have some idea before purchasing. Resources such as John Evans’ A Guide to Biblical Commentaries and Reference Works can help you sift through your options.
Study Bibles are another type of compact commentary that helps with Bible study. Study Bibles include notes related to specific verses and passages of the Bible. You’ll also find short articles on important biblical themes and Bible book introductions to help you understand the context of the passages you’re studying. Some study Bibles (though not all) have specific themes (apologetics, women, the Reformation, global ministry, Spirit-filled, etc.) Others focus on the study notes of specific leading Bible teachers (John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Charles Ryrie, etc.)
As a final caution on commentaries, it’s usually best to use them late in your interpretive work so that you don’t short-circuit your own interpretation. Commentaries should help you inform your understanding of Scripture (and ensure your interpretation isn’t outside the bounds of orthodoxy). They shouldn’t be used for interpreting Scripture on their own.
NIV Application Commentary | NIVAC: Old and New Testaments, 44 vols.
Regular price: $999.99
The Life Application Bible Commentary (17 vols.)
Regular price: $125.99
A Guide to Biblical Commentaries and Reference Works, 10th ed.
Regular price: $19.99
Woman’s Study Bible
Regular price: $27.99
Reformation Study Bible (Bible and Notes)
Regular price: $24.99
ESV Global Study Bible (Bible and Notes)
Regular price: $17.99
Spirit-Filled Life Study Bible
Regular price: $35.99
The Wesley Study Bible
CSB Spurgeon Study Bible Notes
Regular price: $23.99
Ryrie Study Bible: King James Version
Regular price: $29.99
Technology is rapidly changing how today’s church approaches Bible study. Technological tools have given us an unprecedented selection of biblical resources to do Bible study online—and the portability to take that library anywhere.
Powerful online Bible study tools, such as Logos, bring your entire library—including all of the types of resources above—to the palm of your hand. By leveraging artificial intelligence, these tools can guide you as you study and point you toward the right resource at the right time.
You can enhance each stage of the Bible study process, from planning to observation to interpretation to application, with the right online Bible study tools. For example, Logos includes a handy Bible study plan feature that helps you plan your Bible reading. With the Factbook, you’re always a single click away from accessing your entire library’s insights into the background of a passage’s key terms.
Plus, the free version of Logos comes with many resources, including the Faithlife Study Bible, Lexham Bible Dictionary, and commentaries.
Don’t wait to start studying your Bible
Bible study and prayer are two of the most important spiritual disciplines we can develop in Christian journeys. Today we have more biblical tools and resources, both in print and digital, than we’ve ever had. But the next step is on us. Will we use the tools we have to engage deeper into God’s Word and let it transform us into fully devoted followers of Jesus?
First Peter 2:2 tells us, “Like newborn infants, desire the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow up into your salvation” (CSB).
Let the strategies, methods, and tools described above help you drink God’s Word deeply so you can grow in your salvation!
See how the Logos Bible app can help you study the Bible more effectively.
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