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How to Do a Bible Character Study

Take a moment and think back to your English classes in school. Do you remember reading novels and then having to do crazy amounts of work describing the characters and why they did whatever they did? Yeah, I hated it too. But there was a reason our teachers asked us to do that work. It helped us to better digest the book as a whole and helped us to see ourselves in the characters. Well, what if I told you the same kind of work could help your Bible study? Yes, a Bible character study can help you dive deeper in your knowledge of God’s Word.

There is a reason why our teachers wanted us to do character studies. It helped us digest the information contained in the book, but it did so from a different angle. Often times when we read we just want the big picture. Lost to us are important things like character development, which play an integral part in how the story unfolds. The Bible is no different, and this is why we need to make Bible character studies a regular part of our Bible study.

In this week’s Bible study tip we will look at what a Bible character study is, why you should do it, as well as a deep dive into how it’s done. So, if you’re ready to learn more, let’s dive in!

What is a Character Study?

Before we dive into the depths of character studies, we must first define our terms. In its most general sense, a character study is an analysis of the traits and characteristics of a person or character, particularly as it pertains to literature.

Authors often conduct character studies on each character in their literary work. This allows them to “interview” the character so they can have a full understanding of who they are before they begin the task of writing. Once the author has a grasp of the characters in their story it is easier to piece together the narrative they wish to compose and how each character will react throughout.

In much the same way, readers of literary works must conduct character studies to extract this same information about these same characters. This requires careful reading of the material to uncover this material, as it it not always easily noticed.

When it comes to Bible study, a Bible character study involves much of the same work, but does so with the objective of seeing how the person relates and interacts with the larger meta narrative of Scripture. As we learn about the character we can learn about God, the gospel, and how we ought to conduct ourselves as believers.

Character studies allow you to interview and learn about characters in a narrative. Click To Tweet

Why do a Bible Character Study?

Now that we know what a character study is, let’s talk about why we would want to do a Bible character study.

When it comes to the Bible, there is a lot we can learn from studying the lives of different Bible characters. Not only do we get to learn about their lives, but we also get to learn about their character and how they relate to God and the people around them. From this, we can then apply this to our own lives and how we ought to live.

In the New Testament, Paul writes to the Corinthian church and tells them that so many of the things that happened in the Old Testament weren’t just happenstance. Instead, they were an example and written down for our instruction so we could learn from their decisions (1 Corinthians 10:11). This is why we do Bible character studies, they help us to dive deep into the lives of those who are written about in the Bible so we can use them as examples of how to live and how not to live.

Some Bible character studies are more involved than others, as it depends on how much is written about each character. For example, there are large amounts written about Abraham, David, or Jesus. But, there is less written about someone like Lot, Timothy, or Bartimaeus. Nevertheless, no matter the amount of information we have about a Bible character, we can learn about their lives and how we ought to apply their lives to our own.

How to do a Bible Character Study

The steps to doing a Bible character study seem quite involved, but are simple when you actually start the process. There are five steps to the process:

  1. Choose a Bible character to study
  2. Find the passages to study
  3. Study the character
  4. Organize your material
  5. Apply your findings

Now, let’s look at each step in detail.

Step 1: Choose a Bible Character

The first step is the most fun, simply picking a Bible character you want to study. This can come in the middle of something you’re already studying, or you can do it as a standalone study. The choice is completely yours and that’s where the real fun is.

For example, if you are beginning a study on the book of James, you might want to do a Bible character study on James to learn about him before you dive into his writings. Or, you could be reading in Genesis and want to do a deeper dive into the life of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. The possibilities are endless.

The bottom line: just pick a character, big or small, that you want to study.

Step 2: Find the Relevant Passages / Gather the Information

The second step in the process is just as straightforward as the first. Now that you have your Bible character, what you need to do is find all the relevant Bible passages related to your Bible character.

Depending on the character you’re studying, this process can prove to be more challenging than at other times. For example, you would find information about Sarah mostly in Genesis, but she is also mentioned in places like Galatians. But, for someone like David you need to read about him in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, as well as the Psalms, and anywhere else he is mentioned in the Bible.

One of the things I like to do with this process is enlist the help of my Bible software because it can make the process so much easier. Logos Bible Software makes this extremely easy with their Facebook tool. Simply type in the name of a Bible character and you will get a full breakdown of everything you need to know about this character, including every place in the Bible they are mentioned, including places where they are not directly named. This is helpful for someone like Abraham (Abram) or Paul (Saul) who go by multiple names in the Bible.

Once you have your list of Bible passages, you’re ready for the next step.

Don't forget to look beyond the narrative text when doing your Bible character study Click To Tweet

Step 3: Study the Bible Character

With your Bible character and passages in hand, you’re ready to begin the actual work of studying your Bible character. This step involves a combination of reading all the Bible passages about your character and additional Bible study tools, like Bible dictionaries. The third step is an all-inclusive study of your character and learning everything you can about them.

We can break this step down into the five basic questions we were taught in school: who, what, where, when, why, and how?

Step 3a: Who?

The first question we want to ask about our Bible character is “who are they?” In this step, you want to ask a series of questions like:

  • What does their name mean?
  • Who are their parents?
  • What’s their lineage?

To answer these questions, you will often want to look to your Bible handbooks and dictionaries for help, especially when it comes to learning what their name means.

For this question, let’s use Isaac, one of the patriarchs. The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary tells us that his name means “laughter.” He is named as such because of his parents disbelief in the Lord’s ability to give them a child. Isaac’s parents are Abraham and Sarah, and he is their first and only child together. From reading Isaac’s narrative, we know that he is one of the patriarchs of the Israelite people (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) whom God called to follow him.

This is very basic information we were able to glean from both a Bible dictionary lookup and from reading about him in Genesis. With this information in hand, we have a basic understanding of who our Bible character is.

Step 3b: When? 

The next question we need to ask is “when.” This question involves asking more questions like:

  • When did they live?
  • What other events were going on in the Bible?
  • What else was happening in world history during this period?

Answering these questions will give you a better picture of the events that shaped this person’s life. For example, my grandfather lived during the Civil Rights movement, which played a key role in shaping his life and the man he became. In much the same way, characters in the Bible were shaped by the events that happened in their life. Paul was able to do much of his ministry work and keep himself safe from Jewish plots because of his Roman citizenship under the Roman empire. That would not have been the case if he had lived at a different time.

To find the answers to these questions you can again turn to your Bible, handbooks, and even world history books. Seriously, let Wikipedia be your friend, especially when it comes to world history.

Step 3c: Where?

Location, location, location. After who and when, where is the next question up to bat.

  • Where did this Bible character live?
  • What impact did this have on their life?
  • Is there anything notable or important about this location?

Just like the timeframe is important, location is just as important to know. Is the action happening in Egypt, the Promised Land, or Rome? This information plays a pivotal role in understanding the character you’re studying and how their circumstances affected them. It’s important to know that Paul wrote many of his epistles from jail or that Luke wrote while traveling with Paul on his journeys. Likewise, where Jesus ministered, especially outside of Jerusalem, is important information to know.

Along with reading Scripture, this is a time when Bible maps can be a helpful aide to your studies, so make liberal use of them alongside your other Bible study tools.

Step 3d: What?

Who, what, and where are the preliminary questions we need to ask. These are the questions that give us the basic background about the character we’re studying. When it comes to learning about the characteristics and qualities of our person, we need to start asking other questions. The first question we ask is “what,” which includes questions such as:

  • What do we learn about this person?
  • What’s their character? The good, bad, etc?
  • Are they a good or bad example?
  • How did this person affect others?

We get the answers to these questions by reading the passages that reference our Bible character. It’s here that we find out all we need to know about the person’s character and how they interact with those around them.

If you find this part of your study moving slow, that’s okay. Answering this question is where you will likely spend the majority of your time because it requires the most reading, note taking, and thought. It also requires you to wrestle with the text of Scripture as you try to learn everything you can about your Bible character. So, don’t rush through answering this question, otherwise you will miss out on the benefits that come with grinding it out. That being said, don’t be afraid to lean on your Bible commentaries to help you out when you get stuck or when it comes time to double check your findings.

Step 3e: How?

With all the “W” questions out of the way, the only question left to answer is “how?” The focus of this question is looking at the biblical text and seeing how this person’s life illustrates biblical principles. It is also focused on how God moved (or didn’t move) in their life.

  • How did God move or interact with this person during their life?
  • What biblical principles can we glean from their life?
  • How is the gospel displayed in this person’s life?
  • What does this person’s life teach us about our relationship with God?

This question helps you go beyond the obvious and makes sure you’re not forgetting the Bible’s most important character: God. If we fail to see how God is moving and working in someone’s life, then we are missing a key aspect of our Bible character study. Whether it is obvious in the text or you glean it from principles, we should be able to see how God worked. Even with a book like Esther where God’s name is never mentioned we can see him working.

Who, what, where, when, why, and how questions are your best friends when doing a Bible character study. Click To Tweet

Step 4: Organize the Material

Once you’ve finished reading about your Bible character and answered all the questions, you must organize your findings. Your notes won’t make much sense when you look back on it in the future if it remains a jumbled mess. This is why you should take time to rearrange your notes into something intelligible that you can use as a reference tool. Here are some ideas for things you might want to have in your notes or organize:

  • A chronology or timeline of the character’s life & ministry
  • The major events in that person’s life
  • Key Bible verses or chapters that summarize or highlight their life
  • Principles you learned based on their life
  • Why they are important in the biblical narrative

With everything you’ve studied, you should be able to write a brief character sketch summarizing your Bible character study, which you can then file away for future studies.

Step 5: Find the Application

Given everything we’ve learned about our Bible character, the last step of our Bible character study is figuring out how we will apply it all to our lives. So, as we wrap up our character study, we should ask the following questions:

  • How will we live differently after learning about this character’s life?
  • How should we respond to this person’s example?
  • Are there things I should start or stop doing after learning about this character?
  • What does this person’s life teach us about our relationship with God?
  • How can I better worship God after learning about this person?
  • How does this character affect how I will share and live out the gospel?

The goal of all Bible study is twofold: 1) learning about God, and 2) applying what we’ve read so we can grow to look more like Christ. So, we must make sure our Bible character study ends with application of the biblical text. If what we’ve learned does not affect our lives in some way then we have missed the point. Even if the application is simple, we should find at least one thing we can take away from a Bible character’s life, no matter how much or little is written about them.

Application is an important part of a Bible character study. How does that Bible character change how you live for God? Click To Tweet

Dangers to Avoid

As we wrap up this Bible study tip on how to do a Bible character study, I want to close with a few dangers to avoid while doing your character studies.

Disconnecting the Text

One of the biggest pitfalls we can fall into is looking at a Bible character’s life and only look for application. Too often in our studies, especially in the Old Testament, we look at someone like Joseph or Samson and immediately put ourselves into the picture. What pattern for living should we learn from this person’s life? In doing this, we disconnect the character from the rest of Scripture. While Paul encourages us to view them as an example, they are not only an example for us to follow. They play a bigger role in the biblical narrative and are more than a pattern to follow.

Reading into the Text

A big temptation when doing a Bible character study is reading too much into the text. We must be wary of embellishing the Bible to say something it does not say about a person or how they live their lives. While we should use our imagination to paint the picture of that person’s life, our imagination should be informed solely by what the Bible says and nothing more. We can easily fall into a trap of dreaming too big and missing the point entirely of what that person’s life is all about. So, as much as possible, stick to the text.

Forgetting the Gospel

Remember this: all of the Bible is about Jesus. Therefore, if we fail to see how a given person is connected to the Savior, then we have also missed the point. No, it might not always be immediately obvious, but that should not stop us from seeking to find the gospel & God’s redemptive work within that person’s life. Everyone in the Bible is meant to point us to the Savior, plain and simple.

What Bible Character Will You Study?

Now that you know how to do a Bible character study, who’s the first person you’ll learn about? I’d love to hear about. Leave a comment below or send me an email with your answer.

Weekly Study Prompts

This week, meditate and journal on the following passages:

  • Monday – Mark 16
  • Tuesday – Luke 24
  • Wednesday – John 20-21
  • Thursday – Matthew 28
  • Friday – Acts 1
  • Memory Verses: Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8

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