This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. Studying the Bible matters because God matters.
We study the Bible because it is God’s word to the world. We want to hear him. We want to slow down and carefully, thoughtfully, and reverently hear what he has to say to us.
How valuable are these words? “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10). Two of the greatest pleasures our world pursues—money and food—and the Bible satisfies us more than both.
The apostle Paul wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Just as you “breathe out” every word of yours, God “breathes out” every word in the Bible. It alone is inspired in this sense. We cannot say this about any other book on any other shelf anywhere in the world—only the Bible.
2. Studying the Bible is different than reading the Bible.
When we read the Bible, we move through a text at a natural reading pace. But when we study the Bible, we slow down and we think things through. We ask questions and we search out meaning. We consider implications.
You may read Ephesians 1:1-14 in thirty seconds, but you can study it for years. You may come to the end of reading the gospel of John in two hours. But you can never come to the end of searching its depths.
This means we can expect a lifetime of happily moving deeper and deeper into God’s word.
3. Studying the Bible requires diligence and dependence.
We give ourselves to study—that’s diligence. But we must also pray for God to open our minds to understand—that’s dependence.
Paul said to Timothy, “think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7). We do the thinking, God gives the understanding.
When the evangelist George Whitefield became a Christian, he started to read the Scriptures with intense, daily devotion. Notice his humble posture: “I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books and praying over, if possible, every line and word. . . I daily received fresh life, light and power from above.”1
Whether we choose to kneel when we study or not, that should be the posture of our hearts.
We do the thinking, God gives the understanding.
4. When we study the Bible, we seek the author’s intended meaning.
We honor people when we seek to understand them. We dishonor them when we carelessly put words in their mouths. We express our love for God by seeking to know what his word actually says, not what we wish it to say.
Every text in the Bible has two authors—the divine Author and the human author. The divine Author ensured that the human author’s words were exactly as he intended. Peter wrote, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Pet. 1:21). Our task is to seek the divine Author’s meaning by discerning the human author’s meaning.
5. A key to studying the Bible is asking the right questions.
We often leave our time studying the Bible with answers to the questions we asked. In light of this, one of the best ways to make progress is to learn to ask the most fruitful questions. Here are five:
- What does this word mean?
- What is the author’s flow of thought?
- How did the author organize and structure this text?
- What is the author’s purpose, or aim, in writing this to his audience?
- How does this text connect to the gospel and the larger storyline of the Bible?
6. Literary context is crucial.
Another important question: “How does my text fit in with the larger literary context of this section in the book?” In other words, “why did the author write this here?”
If you received a three-page letter from a distant friend, you wouldn’t just read page 2. You could spend all day “studying” that page, but until you read pages 1 and 3, you will not fully (or perhaps even rightly) understand your friend’s message.
The human authors of the Bible organized their books intentionally. So, we step back and think through the author’s flow of thought. Studying the Bible involves thinking paragraph-by-paragraph, section-by-section, and seeing how everything fits into the overall structure and flow of the book.
7. The Bible leads us to God’s heart.
Thomas Goodwin wrote that the Scriptures were written “to bring down and lay before us the heart of God.”2 The whole of Scripture puts God’s multifaceted glory on display. It shows God’s heart that we might trust him with ours.
Paul wrote, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). God aims to instruct us not as an end itself, but to encourage our hearts with hope. He gave us the Bible because he loves us, and he wants us to feel loved by him. He wants us to hope in him and know, deep down, with an unshakable confidence, that we are his.
8. The goal of studying Scripture is to see the savior.
All lasting growth in the Christian life happens as a result of beholding God’s glory in the face of Jesus: “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). Therefore, as we pursue spiritual growth, we do it by “seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (4:4).
We study the Bible to see Jesus more clearly. And as we behold God’s glory in Christ, we become like him. But this takes work—we labor to study the Bible to remove all our wrong conceptions of Christ. We study because we are discontent with a foggy vision of him.
The goal of studying Scripture is to see the Savior and become transformed by that satisfying sight of him.
9. Studying the Bible is a community project.
We make progress in studying the Bible when we do it together, working through questions and sharing insights. And this includes not just face-to-face conversations, but also reading the reflections of others. Bible study guides assist us with insights and questions to provoke deeper reflection.
What about commentaries? If I was studying the book of Romans, and John Stott was also sitting at the table with me, I would unhesitatingly ask him for his take on the text. I cannot do that; but I’m grateful he wrote down his own reflections in his commentary. If we believe that the Spirit leads us to make progress in our study, then we should also assume he’s helping others along as well. A proper reliance on the Holy Spirit in study, then, doesn’t lead us into isolation. It leads us to learn from others.
10. Studying the Bible leads to true flourishing.
What can we expect from studying the Bible? We can expect to flourish in the ways that matter most. Psalm 1 speaks of the blessed, or happy, person who meditates on—not just reads through—God’s word. The one who meditatively studies God’s word is “like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not whither” (Psalm 1:3).
Who doesn’t want to be truly happy? Who doesn’t want live a life of flourishing? The God who made us shows us the way: from morning to night, meditating on his word with great delight.
- Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, 1:81.
- Goodwin, Works, 4:208