How can you dig deeper into God’s Word? Understand it better? Apply it well? Keep these fourteen foundational Bible study principles in mind when you read.
1. Start with Prayer
Starting with prayer might seem obvious, but it is incredibly important. On one difficult Bible passage J. C. Ryle wrote, “All portions of Scripture like this ought to be approached with deep humility and earnest prayer for the teaching of the Spirit.” That is good advice for approaching tricky texts. But it is also good advice anytime you approach God’s holy Word. Such a prayer is traditionally called a prayer of illumination, which typically focuses on asking the Holy Spirit to help you understand and rightly apply the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. For example, you could use or adapt this prayer: “Spirit of God, I know that your inspired Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Renew my mind to understand these words, soften my heart to love you, and strengthen my will to follow in your ways.”
Pray before you read!
This ESV Scripture Journal, Study Edition is designed to facilitate in-depth study of Romans, providing all the guidance, tools, and space needed to dig deep into the biblical text.
2. Stay with Prayer
Let God’s Word lead you to pray. For example, after you read Jesus’s prayer in Matthew 11:25 (“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children”), thank him that he has revealed his “gracious will” (Matt. 11:26) to you. Praise him that you, through faith, are a child of God! You might also pray a Bible prayer directly, like the Lord’s Prayer. Or write your own prayer based on whatever passage you have just read. For example, after reading Jesus’s woes to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, pray that God would protect you from false teachers, keep you humble, and remind of you what matters most.
Let Scripture guide your prayers.
3. Look Godward
Often when we come to the Bible, our goal is application: “How should we live in light of what we have learned?” This is good, but, before you get there, turn your attention upward—Godward! Ask and answer questions like the following: What does this passage show me about God and his character? What does God do or say, love or hate, in this passage? What motivates God to do what he does?
When you read God’s Word, look Godward.
4. Keep Christ as the Center
How would you define the gospel? Take a look at Jesus’s summary to his first followers:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44–48)
To Jesus, the gospel is grounded in the Old Testament; witnessed in history; centered on his sufferings, death, and resurrection; and proclaimed to the nations so to require a response: to repent of sin and receive, through faith, the forgiveness of sins.
According to Jesus, the gospel about Jesus is the unifying interpretive center of the Scriptures. So, as you read, always ask this question: How does the section declare, reflect on, or apply the gospel?
5. Look for Biblical-Theological Themes
The Bible is not a disjointed group of sayings and stories that are randomly placed together, but it is a grand story of God’s work in the history of salvation. So when you read the New Testament, you must be aware that the story it presents (the Messiah has come!) is building upon the story of the Old Testament (the Messiah will come). Major themes include the kingdom, exodus and exile, priest and temple, and the covenant. These themes, and others like them, develop progressively. They follow a historical trajectory (e.g., God’s promise to bless the nations is fulfilled as the church makes disciples of all nations) but also include typological connections (e.g., Jesus is the Passover Lamb, whose shed blood saves us from God’s wrath) and analogical connections (e.g., Jesus is greater than the temple, because he is the great high priest, who sacrifices himself for sinners, and is the permanent presence of God on earth and in God’s people).
Your task in reading (a tricky task at times!) is to consider how these biblical-theological themes might be present in the passage you are reading and, as a result, how they might connect to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
6. Hear the Melodic Line
In music a melodic line is the tune within the tune—that is, a succession of notes that creates a distinctive sound. Those notes are repeated regularly and bring unity to the song. Each book of the Bible has its own unique melodic line, and our task as readers is to find these author-placed notes, understand them, and discover why they are played together. Think of the key notes as key words and the melodic line as the key themes. For example, a possible melodic line for the Gospel of Mark could be arise and follow the Son. The word Son is a key word, one that Mark begins with (“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark 1:1) and that he continues to come back to at strategic points. As we read through this Gospel, we learn that Jesus is the Son of God, the Son of David, and the Son of Man. The theme of Jesus’s identity matters to Mark. So too does the theme of discipleship—thus the first part of the suggested melodic line: “Arise and follow.” Throughout the pages of this Gospel Jesus calls people to follow him, and he details what that means (e.g., to deny self, to love others). Practically, knowing the melodic line helps us understand each passage better because we understand how it relates to the overall theme of a book.
So, as you read, keep an ear to the ground. Hear the melodic line.
When you read God’s Word, look Godward.
7. Trace the Argument
Not every book in the New Testament presents a linear and logical argument, as many of Paul’s letters do. But making logical connections between sections of a book, and within paragraphs and sentences, can help you understand the author’s message. There are many ways to trace an argument to find the flow of thought. A common suggestion is, first, to isolate the idea or assertion and, second, to notice the conjunctions and prepositions and try to make sense of their relationship with the idea. For example, in Ephesians 5:18–21, after Paul offers a command (“Do not get drunk with wine”) and the reason to heed that command (“For that is debauchery”), he introduces the main clause: “But be filled with the Spirit.” In the following verse he explains some specific ways to be Spirit-filled and/or to express that the Spirit is at work. Paul introduces four subordinate or supporting clauses:
a. “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”
b. “singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”
c. “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father”
d. “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Of course, not every sentence or section of Scripture is written in such a logical way, but as we read we should seek to find how an author has crafted his message and should hope to identify and understand how each paragraph relates to the preceding and following ones.
8. Read through the Lens of Love
In his classic work De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine) Augustine said that the goal of biblical interpretation is determined by the church’s “rule of faith”; that is, our understanding of Scripture must always be guided by our love for God and neighbor. Put differently, if we think a text is saying something that would keep us from love, then we have the wrong interpretation. Of course, Augustine’s direction is based on Jesus’s answer to the question “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36), namely,
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt. 22:37–40)
The whole of the Old Testament (“All the Law and the Prophets”)—and, we can add, all the New Testament too (see Paul on love’s fulfilling the law in Rom. 13:8–10)—should be read through the lens of love. Of course, the laws of God (not stealing, not committing adultery, and so on) are law of love—the way we love God and others is through keeping all his laws.
So, let the Lord’s lawful love lead!
9. Let Scripture Interpret Scripture
Because we believe that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), we expect that the Bible’s recording of historical people and events is accurate, it's narrative cohesive, and it's theology coherent. One of the great truths rediscovered in the Protestant Reformation was Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres, which is Latin for “Sacred Scripture is its own interpreter.” Scripture interprets Scripture! The principle is that we use explicit or clear sections of Scripture to help us understand a more implicit or less clear section.
As you read the Bible, let the Bible itself help you understand its proper meaning and application.
10. Be Changed by Your Bible Reading
Reading the Bible should change us. Before Paul writes “All Scripture is breathed out by God” in 2 Timothy 3:16, he teaches us that “the sacred writings” can “make [us] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). Put differently, the Bible is designed to give its readers saving faith.
That is one of its goals. The other is to train us “in righteousness” and to equip us “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). Bible reading should strengthen our faith and equip and encourage us to live out that faith in the church and the world.
Therefore, we should “be doers of the word, and not hearers [or readers!] only” (James 1:22).
11. Think of the Original Readers
It is easy, but wrong, to read the Bible and think that everything an author says to his original audience is meant for you today. Sometimes a text is directly applicable. We should love our neighbors today just as much as Jesus’s first followers did then. But other times the author, or a character in the author’s narrative, is addressing only his first hearers. For example, when our Lord predicts the destruction of the temple in his Olivet Discourse and then commands “those who are in Judea to flee to the mountains” (Matt. 24:16), he means that the Jewish Christians who live in or near Jerusalem in AD 70 should run for their lives and hide in the hills when the Romans come to town. And the next command (“Let the one who is on the [flat] housetop [common in that time and place] not go down to take what is in his house”; Matt. 24:17) has nothing to do with you, your house, and some escape plan!
If we seek to interpret the Bible rightly, our interpretation must be based on the author’s (or speaker’s) original intention to his original readers. The text cannot mean something to us that it did not first mean to them.
12. Grasp the Genres
A genre is simply a type of literature. Some of the prevalent genres in the Bible include narrative, poetry, epistle, proverb, and visionary writing. Each genre comes with its own rules of interpretation, which can be overwhelming!
But take heart—the more you read the Bible with an eye open for the different genres, the more you will start to see that different books should be read differently. For example, you will come to understand that visionary writing uses images and metaphors as symbols—and thus that the depiction of Jesus in Revelation 1 (with “a sharp two-edged sword” coming from “his mouth,” Rev. 1:16) symbolizes something about Jesus as judge. In contrast, Jesus’s washing his disciples’ feet in John 13 is a literal historical record of an event that happened.
So when you read a passage, consider what genre it is in order to discern what it is emphasizing and how you should apply it to your life.
13. Study the Context
As you read, seek to understand who wrote a book, when it was written, to whom it was written, and why it was written. That is the historical context, and the book introductions will cover such significant details. Also, use the study notes when you need light shed on people, places, and events far removed from our day. For example, when the Gospels talk about “lawyers,” they are referencing “experts in the Law of Moses” (the first five books of the Bible). The literary context is important as well. Literary context simply refers to what surrounds a text (what is said or happens in the verses before and after) and where the text is found in the whole of the book.
For example, Jesus told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), in part, as a rebuke and warning to the Pharisees, who Luke informs us “were lovers of money” and who “ridiculed” Jesus (Luke 16:14) after he taught the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1–13), which concludes: “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
In sum, if you know the historical and literary context of the passage, you will have a better understanding of its meaning.
14. Read in Community
The Word of God is for the people of God and is meant to be read, studied, and lived out in community. So, like Israel of old, God’s people should gather around God’s Word to be instructed by God’s appointed leaders. (After “all the people gathered” to hear from “the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel” [Neh. 8:1], the Bible was read “clearly” and explained as the scribes “gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading,” [Neh. 8:8].) And, like the early church, we too should devote ourselves to “the apostles’ teaching” (what became the New Testament) as we fellowship with each other (see Acts 2:42). So bring your Bible to church and listen and learn from good teachers and preachers. Also bring it to Bible study, share your thoughts, and let others help you discover truths you might have missed.
As you read together, you will grow together!
This article is by Douglas Sean O’Donnell and is adapted from the ESV Scripture Journal, Study Edition.
We study the Bible because it is God’s word to the world. We want to hear him.
If we truly believe that our very spiritual lives depend on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4), we will make the time to study God’s Word.
It is a great blessing that God has revealed himself and that we have access to that revelation and Bibles in our own language.
How does the Bible restore our lives daily? I find no better explanation of what I have learned than the words of Psalm 19.