How to Study the Bible
Frequently Asked Questions
- What are the keys to studying the Bible?
- What does the Bible say about man's interpretation of Gods words?
- do you have any recommendations about where to start reading the Bible?
- Why does the God mentioned in the Old Testament seem to differ so much from
the God of the New Testament?
- Does God change His mind?
- What types of literature are found in the Bible?
As Christians we believe God speaks to us through the holy Scripture of the Bible.
It is our duty, then, to do our best to understand what the Bible says to us. Since
the Bible was written a long time ago, many of the cultural references and literary
styles used are unfamiliar to us today. To truly understand the Bible, we need to
understand the background of life and literature 2000 to 3000 years ago as the Bible
was being written.
There are four keywords to understanding any Bible passage - observation, interpretation,
evaluation, and application.1
- Observation: What are the facts? What do the words mean?
What comes before and after to put the passage in context? Who is speaking?
And to whom?
- Interpretation: What did the passage mean to the original
audience two or three thousand years ago? Are we making the mistake of interpreting
the passage through our own experiences rather than those of the original audience?
Is the passage using literary techniques like allegory, hyperbole, metaphor
or parable to make its point?
- Evaluation: What does the passage mean to us today? Can
it be applied directly today, or do we need to apply the underlying principle
to conditions very different than when it was originally written?
- Application: How should I apply what I learn from this
passage to live a more godly life? Do I need to change my attitudes or actions
as a result?
As an example, we can try using this method to understand Exodus 20:3-5 from
the Ten Commandments:
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an
idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on
the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow
down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, ...
(NRSV, Exodus 20:3-5)
- Observation: Looking back to Exodus 19, we see that the
Hebrew people had escaped from slavery in Egypt three months before and were
traveling to the Promised Land. This is the first of the Ten Commandments that
God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The passage forbids making or worshipping
idols or worshipping any other gods. Idols are images or symbols of false gods
that are worshipped. Most of the Hebrews' neighbors were pagans at that time
in history, and idol worship and worship of multiple gods was very common.
- Interpretation: When the ancient Hebrews got discouraged,
they often lapsed into worshipping the idols and multiple gods of the pagan
peoples they came in contact with instead of worshipping God. This Commandment
said that, even in hard times, they must put their trust in God alone.
- Evaluation: Most of us in Western culture are not tempted
to worship idol or other gods. So, does this Commandment mean anything to us
today? What are we tempted to substitute for God in our lives? Do we put our
trust in wealth more than in God? Do we seek power over others instead of seeking
God? Do we look for fulfillment in pleasure instead of in God? Many people believe
these things are the idols and false gods of today's world.
- Application: We may need to honestly and prayerfully examine
our priorities to see if God is really more important to us than anything else
in our lives.
The Observation and Interpretation steps are fairly objective, and Bible commentaries
and other study materials are very helpful. The Evaluation and Application steps
are very individual. It is in honestly and prayerfully considering these steps that
we can deepen our understanding and faith.
Literary Forms of the Bible
It is helpful to understand the styles of writing used in the Bible, especially
since some of those styles are no longer commonly used.
A parable is a simple story that helps us understand a spiritual or moral
concept. Jesus was the master of the parable, and a large part of His teachings
come to us in the form of the parables he told to his disciples and other people.
The plain facts of a parable story are usually meaningless in themselves. It is
by analogy or similarity with the story that we gain an understanding of the spiritual
or moral lesson of the parable. In the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-8)
Jesus tells a story about a man who sowed seed on a farm. Some of the seed fell
on rocks or pathways or among thorns where it could not grow. Other seed fell on
good ground where it produced a bountiful crop. However, the point of this story
has nothing to do with farming techniques. As Jesus explained in Luke 8:11-15, the
seed represents the Word of God, which is offered to all people. Like the seed that
fell in bad places, the Word of God does not produce good results in people who
reject it for one reason or another. But, like the seed that fell on good ground,
the Word of God grows strong within people who are receptive and it bears good (spiritual)
A simile uses "like" or "as" to give us a mental picture
of one thing by comparing it to something else. "As the deer pants for
water, so I long for you, O God." (Psalms 42:1) and "Woe to you, scribes
and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed
appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness."
(Matthew 23:27) are examples of similes.
A metaphor is just a simile with the "like" or "as" left
out. "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11) is a metaphor meaning Jesus is our master and protector in the same way as
a shepherd is master and protector of his sheep. "You are the light of the
world" (Matthew 5:14) is a metaphor meaning
our good example can show others the way to Christ like a lamp shows us the
way in the dark.
Hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration to make a point and is very common in
the Bible. Examples include "Rivers of water run down from my eyes, Because
men do not keep Your law." (Psalms 119:136) and "And there are also many
other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that
even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (John
An Anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics or experiences to God.
Examples include "The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth
that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His". (2 Chronicles
16:9), and "For the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, And His ears are
open to their prayers; But the face of the LORD is against those who do evil. (1 Peter
3:12). These verses do not mean that God, who is Spirit, has eyes, ears and
a face like us. Instead, they tell us that God is always seeking righteousness among
us and opposing evil.
Irony is saying one thing but meaning the opposite. Paul's tongue-in-cheek
praise of the vain false teachers in 1 Corinthians 4:8 is an example of irony in
Apocalypse comes from a Greek word meaning "uncovering" or "revealing."
Apocalyptic literature uses elaborate visions, powerful symbols and numbers to reveal
heavenly secrets. The New Testament book of Revelation and parts of the Old Testament
books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah are written in apocalyptic form.
Most of the apocalyptic works were written during times of severe persecution.
The symbols were clearly understood by the initiated but not by the persecutors.
In Revelation, "Babylon" is used as a code word for Rome and the Roman
Empire (Revelation 14:8, 16:19, 17:5, 18:2, 10, 21). Hebrew letters were also used
for numbers, and the beast whose number is 666 (Revelation 13:18) is often assumed
to be a reference to the Roman emperor Nero because of the similarity of "Nero
Caesar" and "666" when written in Hebrew.
The Bible is not a collection of "one-liners." All verses must
be interpreted in the context of the verses that come before and after them, the
whole passage, the chapter, the book and even the whole Bible. It is the nature
of language that it takes many sentences or even paragraphs to convey a complex
concept. A single Bible verse or passage often tells us only one aspect of a topic.
We must look at all the Bible passages on a particular topic to get the true
picture. If we look at just one or a few verses, we can get an incomplete view or
even a totally wrong view of the Bible's teachings.
Paul writes to the Thessalonians:
For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in
the night. (NIV, 1 Thessalonians 5:2)
Taken by itself, it would be difficult to even guess what this verse means; it
could be interpreted many different ways. But in the context of 1 Thessalonians
5:1-6 as well as Matthew 24:42-44, Mark 13:33-37 and Luke 12:40, it clearly means
the second coming of Jesus will be sudden and unexpected.
John 3:16 is one of the best known and most loved verses in the Bible and is
an excellent one-sentence summary of the Christian faith:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever
believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV, John 3:16)
Some people think this means that all we have to do is believe in Jesus as God's
Son to assure our salvation. But in the context of John 3:16-21 as well as many
other New Testament passages (e.g., Matthew 7:21-23, 25:31-46, Luke 10:25-37, John
14:21-23, Romans 2:6-10, Hebrews 10:26-31, James 2:20-24), it is clear that the
word "believes" in John 3:16 also implies repentance and obedience to
Around 1300 B.C., the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt and spent 40 years wandering
in the desert before coming to their new homeland. God gave the original Old Testament
Law to Moses at that time. As the Jews developed a stable civilization, God sent
numerous prophets to correct their errors and to refine their understanding of Him
and His intentions for His chosen people. Finally, God sent His Son, Jesus, to accomplish
His plan of salvation.
Jesus and His disciples radically reinterpreted the Old Testament Law; they brought
a new era of the rule of love and spiritual truth instead of rule by law (Luke 10:25-28,
John 1:16-17, 13:34-35, Romans 8:1-4, 1 Corinthians 9:20-21, Ephesians 2:14-18).
If we are looking for guidance on a topic, we must consider which Bible teaching
reflects the most recent revelation from God. The Bible's teachings about retaliation
and revenge are a good example of progressive revelation. First, at the time of
Abraham, unlimited revenge for a wrong done was considered normal and proper (Genesis
34:1-2, 25-29). Later, the Law of Moses limited revenge to an equal injury for any
If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him:
fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other,
so he is to be injured. (NIV, Leviticus 24:18-20)
Finally, when Jesus came, He said we should not take any revenge at all:
You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But
I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right
cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take
your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one
mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away
from the one who wants to borrow from you. (NIV, Matthew 5:38-42)
Exegesis vs. Eisegesis
Exegesis means drawing out the true meaning of a Bible passage, and it
should be the goal of all Bible study. It means understanding the meaning of all
the words in a passage. It means putting the passage in the proper historical and
textual context to determine what it meant to its original audience. Finally, it
involves thought and prayer to determine how it applies to today's world and to
our own lives.
Eisegesis means reading one's own ideas into interpretation of the Bible.
We all have our own beliefs, world view and biases, and letting them influence our
interpretation of the Bible is an ever-present danger! Sometimes we think we understand
a passage and unintentionally read our own meaning into it without going through
the steps required for proper exegesis. Emotionally charged topics like abortion,
sex, salvation and church doctrine pose a great temptation to prove a point by quoting
a verse out of context or quoting selected verses while ignoring other relevant
passages. But we must let God speak to us through the Bible and not try to make
it say what we would like to hear.
Where to Start?
Logically, we should read the Old Testament first since it serves as the background
for the New Testament, but the life and teachings of Jesus and His apostles are
most important for Christians to understand. So, for understanding the most important
lessons of the Bible, we recommend reading in this order:
- Luke is possibly the most complete story of Jesus' life and teachings. Matthew
and Mark are similar.
- Matthew Chapters 5, 6 and 7 contain Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount -
the heart of Jesus' ethical and moral teachings and the basis of Christian living.
- John is a very different Gospel from Matthew, Mark and Luke. Its theological
perspective gives us a view into the spiritual meanings of Jesus' life and ministry.
- Genesis contains the earliest recorded history of the Jewish people and
tells their beliefs about God and their relationship with Him. Christianity
had its beginnings with the Jews, so our understanding of Christianity cannot
be complete without an understanding of the roots of Judaism.
- Exodus tells of the Jews' escape from captivity under the leadership of
Moses. It contains the essence of the Jewish laws, including the Ten Commandments.
Like Genesis, it serves as important background for Christianity.
- Romans is the best summary of the teachings of the apostle Paul, the first
and most influential interpreter of Jesus' life and works.
After reading these six books, you should know enough about the Bible to decide
what to explore in greater depth.
Which Bible Version is Best?
Traditional English Bible translations, such as the King James Version, are revered
for their majestic style, and their archaic English gives them an air of authority.
Unfortunately, the English language has changed a lot since the KJV was last updated
in 1769. Many KJV words and phrases, such as Lord of hosts, sabaoth,
emerods and concupiscence, would not be meaningful to most people
today. Worse, other KJV words, such as charity, trespass, cousin,
profit, and remission, have different primary meanings today than
they did in the KJV, and that could tend to mislead the reader.
For Bible study, we need a Bible that accurately conveys
the meanings of the ancient Hebrew and Greek Bible manuscripts to the modern English
reader. We recommend reading from a modern English translation in place of or in
addition to the KJV. Here is a list of some excellent modern translations, in alphabetical
The New American Bible (NAB) is the official Catholic version
of the Bible in the United States, and it is written in very modern English.
The books of the Apocrypha are incorporated into the Old Testament of
Catholic Bibles. Otherwise, this translation does
not differ significantly from modern Protestant Bibles.
The New American Standard Bible (NAS), published in 1971,
is a scholarly update of the 1901 American Standard Version. Sponsored by the
Lockman Foundation, the translators used the best available Greek and Hebrew
texts as a guide.
The New International Version of the Bible (NIV), a completely
new translation of ancient Greek and Hebrew texts sponsored by the New York
International Bible Society, was published in 1978. Its clear, direct modern
English makes it easy to read and understand.
The New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), published by
The National Council of Churches in 1989, is an update of the highly regarded
Revised Standard Version of 1952. The language is very modern, but the style
is more traditional than the NIV. The NRSV uses gender-inclusive language in
places where it would have been understood that way in the original language. The
NRSV is also available in Catholic editions and Anglicized Editions.
The Revised English Bible (REB) is a British edition published
by Oxford University Press in 1989. The translators have written in a style
suitable for use in worship, while maintaining intelligibility for people of
a wide range of ages and backgrounds.
Today's New International Version of the Bible (TNIV), is an
update of the NIV. Unlike the NIV, it uses gender-inclusive language in places
where it would have been understood that way in the original language.
In addition to the translations above, there are a number
of paraphrased Bible versions which were translated "thought-by-thought"
instead of word-by-word. The translators have written in a style that is thoroughly
modern and these Bibles are suitable for all ages and very easy to understand. By
nature, though, these paraphrased versions involve some interpretation that is subject
The Living Bible (TLB), published in 1971, is a popular paraphrased
version written by Kenneth N. Taylor, who began this version to help his own
children understand the New Testament Letters of Paul.
The New Living Translation (NLT), published in 1996, is a thought-by-thought
translation by 90 Bible scholars from various theological backgrounds and denominations.
It is similar to The Living Bible, but the language is more traditional.
There are also several Bible editions that include helpful study
The Catholic Study Bible Second Edition contains the complete NAB Bible plus
a Reading Guide for each book, study notes and short essays to help with
Life Application Study Bible is available in NIV, NLT and NASB editions.
It contains the complete Bible plus extensive study notes emphasizing application
to everyday life.
NLT Study Bible contains the complete NLT Bible plus extensive study notes
to help with understanding.
Bible Study Helps
The Bible was written a long time ago in a culture very different from the modern
world, and it often seems confusing and contradictory. Good Bible study references
are tremendously helpful for understanding the Bible as it was originally intended.
The reference books below provide accurate and unbiased information.
William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, Westminster Press, various
dates. A series of 17 books that give historical background, interpretation
and commentary on each section of each book of the New Testament. The First
and Second Editions were published in the mid 1950s. The Revised Editions, edited
by Rev. James Martin, were published in the mid 1970s.
Bruce Barton, et. al., Life Application New Testament Commentary,
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2001. Verse-by-verse explanation of each book
of the New Testament with emphasis on application to everyday life.
Dianne Bergant, ed., The Collegeville Bible Commentary - Old Testament,
Liturgical Press, 1992. A collection of section-by-section explanations of each
book of the Old Testament. Follows the Catholic arrangement of Old Testament
Robert J. Karris, ed., The Collegeville Bible Commentary - New Testament,
Liturgical Press, 1992. A collection of section-by-section explanations of each
book of the New Testament.
Herbert Lockyer, Sr., ed., Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary,
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986. Commentary on people, places, things and doctrines
of the Bible, arranged by topic. Includes references to relevant Bible passages.
I. Howard Marshall, ed., New Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, Intervarsity
Press, 1996. Commentary on people, places, things and doctrines of the Bible,
arranged by topic. Includes references to relevant Bible passages.
James L. Mays, ed., Harper's Bible Commentary, Harper, 1988. Section-by-section
commentary, interpretation and historical perspective on each book of the Bible
from a scholarly viewpoint.
G.J. Wenham, et. al., New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition,
Intervarsity Press, 1994. Section-by-section explanations of each book of the
Related articles: Should the Bible Be Interpreted Literally?,
Which Bible Version Is Best?
1 Adapted from Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary (c)1986, Thomas