When I first started studying the Bible I was all over the place. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t even know how to approach the Bible. This is all I knew: I was a Christian & I was supposed to read my Bible. This led to years of aimless journeying in my faith. Why couldn’t someone come alongside & teach me how to study the Bible properly?
It wasn’t until I learned some basic Bible study principles that I began to grow from my time in the Word. Unfortunately, I had to seek much of this out on my own. I don’t want you to be in the same predicament. Today I want to share with you seven basic Bible study principles. Keep these guideposts in mind when you approach God’s Word and they will take you far in your Bible study.
The Bible is God’s Word
As Christians, we believe the Bible to be God’s Word. It was breathed out by God and penned by human men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Since this is true, we ought to treat the Bible as a special book. It’s a book to be cherished. The God of the universe wants his creation to know him, which is why he gave us the Bible. As such, we should not treat his words lightly.
Inasmuch as God spoke to a specific audience in the pages of the Bible, those same words to speak to us today. As Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteous, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” God gave us his word to learn from and live by.
If this is an area you’re shaky on, I highly recommend picking up a good systematic theology and reading its arguments for the authority and authenticity of the Bible.God gave us his word to learn from and live by. Click To Tweet
Pray for Understanding
We often forget that Bible study is a spiritual experience where we commune with God. It is a two-way channel of communication. We speak to God through our prayers, and he speaks through the pages of the Bible.
Since the Bible is God’s means of teaching us all things necessary for salvation and godly living, we would be remiss to ask him to commune with us when we approach the Bible. It’s possible to read the Bible all day and leave with nothing to show for it. This often happens because we do not ask God to speak and make himself known in his words.
I’ve read the Bible too many times & failed to ask God to speak. Those are the times I walk away asking myself, “What did I just read?” Don’t let that be you.
Ask God for the clarity needed to understand what you’re studying. The goal of our study is learning and greater holiness, so this is a prayer God is pleased to answer. He wants us to grow in our knowledge of the faith. Bible study is hard work, so why not ask God to make the process as easy as possible?
Context is King
It’s easy to get into trouble when you don’t take context into consideration. We often do this in our Bible study without realizing it. Therefore the next principle is this: Context is king.
Consider the familiar words found in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him [Christ] who strengthens me.” How many ways has this verse been used (or misused) and promoted within Christendom? Christians use it in ways both God and Paul never meant for it to be used, from a personal mantra for encouragement to a slogan for athletic success. Both of those applications are devoid of Paul’s context and circumstances. Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians from prison. It is in this situation that Paul is able to tell these believers that no matter what he faces, he will persevere in gospel ministry because Christ gives him the strength to do so.
Context is necessary for making sense of any passage of Scripture. Therefore, we should never isolate a verse or two from its surrounding context. Whenever you read a verse, read the entire section or chapter. And don’t forget how each chapter relates to the book as a whole. If you still have a hard time making sense of a passage’s context, that’s when it’s important to consult your study Bible or other Bible study tools. Likewise, as you read, be sure to take literary features into account and how they might affect your interpretation, which leads into the next point.Context is necessary for making sense of any passage of Scripture. Click To Tweet
Seek the Plain Meaning
Just as we ought to keep our readings within their proper context, we must also understand what we’re reading. We do this by reading the Bible plainly. Do not look for deeper or hidden meanings in the text and don’t read between the lines. Let the text speak for itself; otherwise our interpretation will run amuck.
We would be mindful to keep in mind pastor Alistair Begg’s words when he says, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” In other words, the main point of any passage should become clear as you read and reread the text. Unless it’s prophetic or apocalyptic literature, the Bible’s authors wanted their words to be easily understood by its recipients. Even with the trickier passages, we still must seek to find the most plain & obvious meaning. God is not trying to trick us or trip us up with the Bible.
Ultimately, our goal is to not read into or pull out anything that’s not in the text. Ask yourself, “How would the original readers of this text have understood it?” Look for the most straightforward and simple understanding of the passage and call it good.God is not trying to trick us or trip us up with the Bible. Click To Tweet
Find the Application
Once we’ve found the plain meaning of the text we can then look for application. This is our fifth Bible study principe.
Like seeking the plain meaning, application is not done willy nilly. It is done with purpose. A passage can be applied any number of ways, but it must remain faithful to the meaning of the text. As such, there are at least two levels of application to look for in Bible study: universal and personal.
Universal application is the overarching takeaway from the passage. When we know how the original audience would have understood the passage, we can then ask ourselves, “What would they have done with this text? What did they do after hearing the message?” With that answer in hand, we have the original application.
Now, does it still apply today? If so, good, we’ve found our universal application. Otherwise, we need to dig deeper and figure out how one might universally make application of the text. As an example, let’s use Paul’s talk about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. In our western culture, head coverings aren’t necessarily a sign of anything. At that point, we must look for the general principle. In this case, Paul wants husbands & wives to respect one another in church. With head coverings potentially being a sign of marriage, wives dishonored their husbands when they removed their coverings. The issue at hand is a matter of respect and order. Therefore, the overall principle is that spouses should act in such a way that brings honor & respect to the other. Even in general, we ought to have and show respect for others, married or not.
With the universal application in hand, we can then personalize it. In the context of the 1 Corinthians 11 passage, these are some applications I would personally have:
- Marriage is important and a reflection of Christ & the Church (Ephesians 5), so I will honor my wife at all times, including at church
- I will make sure both my wife & I are dressed appropriately so as to not bring dishonor to our marriage
- I will act and speak in such a way that it is obvious to others that I am married and love my wife
With application always move from specific to universal to personal.With application always move from specific to universal to personal. Click To Tweet
Let Scripture Interpret Scripture
Though there are many ways to study the Bible, interpretation is best when we let the context of passages speak for themselves. Some refer to this as “using Scripture to interpret Scripture.” The way we do this is by using cross-references, which is our sixth Bible study principle.
Cross-references point the reader to related content which further define and contextualize what you’re reading. For example, when studying a difficult passage, a cross-reference resource will point you to associated passages—many times relating to the topic you are reading, and sometimes similar situations across the Biblical timeline.
The general principle in letting Scripture interpret Scripture is this: interpret the difficult passages in light of the clear or plain ones. This means we look for related Bible verses where the understanding is not in dispute, which we use to help interpret the difficult passage.
The bottom line is the Bible is better at interpreting itself than any commentary we can read. Therefore, our Bibles should always be the first tool we turn to when interpreting scripture.Our Bible should always be the first tool we turn to when interpreting scripture. Click To Tweet
Test the Scriptures
Finally, our last Bible study principle is to test the Scriptures. There are lots of people who use the Bible in their teachings, and we should not take everything they say as fact. Everything we read, hear or see must be tested against the Bible to determine its truthfulness.
The Bereans are a perfect example of this principle being practiced, which we find in Acts 17. While in Berea, Paul preached the gospel and referenced many things from the Old Testament. While the Bereans eagerly listened to everything Paul said, they went back and fact checked his words against the Scriptures to see if they were true. In like manner, we need to do the same. 1 Thessalonians 5:22 tells us to “test everything” and to “hold fast what is good.”
What does that mean for us? It means we cannot listen to our pastor on Sunday morning and take everything he says as fact. We must go back to our Bibles and make sure everything lines up with what it teaches. The same is true for any book or commentary we read, podcasts we listen to, and so on. If someone is proclaiming God’s Word it needs to be fact checked with the Bible. If it’s good, we can hold onto it; but, if it’s bad, it needs to go.
We always need to ask: is our understanding backed up by the entirety of the Bible? If not, we must question its validity.
Bible Study Principles: Guideposts to Fruitfulness
While not exhaustive, these basic Bible study principles are ones we would be wise to keep in mind whenever we approach God’s Word. Are we viewing it as God speaking to us? Have we prayed? Are we keeping the context in mind? Have we sought the plain meaning of the text? Is our application right? Did we let Scripture interpret itself? Did we test it?
If these principles aren’t part of your Bible study, you are doing yourself a disservice. Implement them today and watch the fruitfulness of your study increase.
Weekly Study Prompts
This week, meditate and journal on the following passages:
- Monday – Nehemiah 13
- Tuesday – Malachi 1
- Wednesday – Malachi 2
- Thursday – Malachi 3
- Friday – Malachi 4
- Memory Verses: Psalm 51:17; Colossians 1:19-20