Ever start reading the Bible and feel like you just aren’t getting anything out of it? While it’s great to have mentors and ministers to help us along the way, there comes a point in time when we need to move from milk to meat and begin to feed ourselves. Our faith cannot be founded only on what we hear from others – we must seek truth from the Lord’s words.
When we invest time and effort in building our own knowledge of His Word, we strengthen our faith, prepare ourselves for service, fall more in love with the Saviour, and free ourselves from the threat of lies and false teaching.
To get you started, here is a breakdown of how you can begin to really search and understand the Bible for yourself on a deeper level:
1 | START SMALL
I suggest picking a book to study through when you are doing your own personal study. However, if you’re completely new to study – please don’t just jump into books like Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation or Romans! Instead, choose a book with simpler language and concepts – for example: the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John), Acts, or James.
2 | DON’T RUSH
Read passages several times over. Again and again. You don’t have to read several chapters – you can simply focus on a few verses a day, or whatever you can digest in the time you have available.
AS YOU READ:
- Divide the text. Do your best to divide the text into meaningful blocks of Scripture (hint: the divisions in your Bible are not inspired and therefore not always accurate!). For each block of Scripture, write a sentence. Then group the blocks of Scripture and write a sentence to summarise the group of blocks. Finally, write a sentence to summarise the entire book you’ve studied. You’ll be amazed at how this will cement your understanding of what a book is about!
- Look out for running themes. For example, the book of 1 John gives many descriptions of Christ (life, eternal life, light, Son of God, advocate, propitiation, etc), as well as many descriptions of our relationship to God (children of God, righteous, free from sin, victorious, confident, etc.). Other examples would be looking for all the verbs (action words), commands, names, parallel/antithetic thoughts (especially in the Psalms/Proverbs), or reoccurring phrases/ideas in a passage. Highlight them or write them down in a list as you find them and reflect upon what the author was trying to convey.
- Look up the meaning of words you don’t understand. Look up the meaning of the words in both the original language (Greek or Hebrew) and in an English dictionary.
“By all means, bring eagerness into your study time. Yes, bring hunger. But certainly bring patience–come ready to study for the long term.” –Jen Wilkin, Women of the Word
3 | ASK QUESTIONS
A | What did this verse mean to the original audience?
Too often we are tempted to come to this 1st Century document (even earlier if we’re talking about the Old Testament) with 21st Century glasses – which creates significant problems. We need to remember that the New Testament was written to Christians that were living in a completely different culture, speaking a different language, and dealing with problems pertaining to their culture and time.
Looking at culture and the original language will help us to realise that shaved and uncovered heads were a problem because of how they were perceived in that culture and time (1 Corinthians 11:5, 16), conscientious Jews/Christians often abstained from grape juice so that they didn’t give the appearance of gluttony (“wine” can mean both wine and grape juice in both Greek and Hebrew; cf. 1 Timothy 3:8; 5:23; Titus 2:3), and Jews had issues with wanting to make the practice of circumcision mandatory (Galatians 2:3-5; et. al). Such problems and ideas may seem strange to us – and so we are tempted to interpret them with 21st Century glasses. Sometimes it will take a bit of time to uncover or understand the historical context – but it will help you immensely in your interpretation and understanding of Scripture.
Yes, the Bible is ageless in its advice – but if we don’t give the cultural and historical context a look, we will find ourselves in deep trouble when it comes to Bible interpretation. Read it in the historical context, understand what it meant to them, and then, if that specific thing isn’t applicable to your culture, make the application of the principle to yourself today.
B | What do the surrounding verses add to the meaning of this verse?
Sometimes misunderstandings in interpretations can be prevented by simply taking a little time to look at the verses on either side of the verse you are studying. Look for connecting words and themes. Try to find the larger context and fit the verse into it.
For example, when you look at the immediate context, “faith like a grain of mustard seed” is not talking about how a little faith is enough, but rather about our faith’s enormous growth potential and how we have to believe in God’s ability to work His purpose and plan through us (Matthew 17:19-20; click this link for a full explanation).
C | What are some simpler verses that can help me better understand this verse?
Difficult verses that pretty much always have a corresponding verse that says the same thing in a simpler way. Always, always cross-reference. If your interpretation of a verse plainly contradicts what another, simpler verse is saying – you’ve probably come to the wrong conclusion. Sometimes we are presented with difficult or challenging concepts and confuse ourselves, but God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). God’s will does not change from book to book – it stays the same.
To find corresponding verses, search through your memory banks, a concordance, or a Bible dictionary. My go-to resources are Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge, Strong’s Concordance, and Thayer’s Lexicon (these are all free on e-sword.net).
D | What does this verse tell me about God?
The Bible is not about us – it is about God and His beautiful plan of redemption. Therefore, if we are truly seeking to know Him through His Word and serve Him by keeping His commandments (1 John 2:3), we will ask ourselves what we are learning about God through the passage we are studying. Does this verse show His mercy? Kindness? Goodness? Severity? Love? Justice? Jealousy? Write down your findings and reflect upon what that means for you, as His child who is seeking to serve Him and walk in His light.
“And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. Whoever says “I know Him” but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps His word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in Him” (1 John 2:3-5).
E | What do I need to change in light of this verse?
Sometimes the application of a verse will simply require a change of thinking – other times it will require a change in action or even a complete change in life’s direction. Is there a direct command – something to do or avoid? Is there a principle on display? Is there a matter of wisdom to be considered? Is there an idea I had never considered or truly taken to heart before? Take care to consider what God is communicating to you through this passage.
Reflect deeply upon what this verse is saying and what it means to you. If we simply read the Bible and never change, we are just like that man who sees a flaw in the mirror and walks away without changing it (James 1:22-25).
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:22-25 ESV).
4 | REWRITE THE VERSE
Summarise what the verse/passage says in your own words and make sure you write this down somewhere. When revisiting a text, reading my summary of what the passage says has been one of the most useful things of all.
5 | CONSULT GOD AND OTHERS
After you have worked out what the verse says for yourself, then consult other people and sources for further clarification and understanding. Read your summary of the verse to them and see if it makes sense to them as well. Find out whether your interpretation conflicts with any Bible truths. See what further information various commentaries have on the subject.
At the end of the day though, consult God’s Word and make sure that any mentors you choose speak in accordance with God’s Word as well. There is wisdom in many counsellors (Proverbs 11:14) but the highest, truest, purest wisdom comes from God – and God alone (Proverbs 2:6). Make sure you ask Him for wisdom and ask to help you open your heart to receive His counsel, remove all preconceptions you have, and open your eyes to the truth – before and after you study, every time (James 1:5).
“For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity” (Proverbs 2:6, 7).
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).
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