This article is part of the How to Study the Bible with Jen Wilkin series.
Study the Bible with Purpose
Every good endeavor should be done with purpose. Without a clear sense of purpose, our efforts to do a good thing well can flounder. But with a clear purpose, we are far more likely to persevere. This is certainly true of building Bible literacy—it takes effort to build, but maintaining a clear sense of purpose sustains us in our labor. How can we begin to be more purposeful in the way we approach Bible study? It might seem terribly obvious to say that we should study the Bible with purpose.
Certainly, we all have some purpose in mind when we begin to study: to make us feel a certain way, to help us make decisions, to help us with self-discovery. But we want to have in mind the purpose that the Bible itself intends us to have when we open its cover. No lesser purpose will do. We have already considered that the Bible is a book about God, but now let’s consider that truth in more specific terms. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is telling us about the reign and rule of God. This is the Big Story of the Bible, the purpose for which it was written. Each of its sixty-six books contributes to telling this Big Story—a story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
The Bible purposes to tell us this Big Story in a thousand smaller stories, from its first page to its last. It follows, then, that our purpose in studying must be to look for that Big Story each time we go to the Scriptures. We should study asking not just what a particular portion of Scripture wants to tell us, but how that portion of Scripture is telling us the Big Story of the Bible as a whole. Studying the Bible with purpose means keeping its overarching message in view at all times, whether we are in the Old Testament or the New, whether we are in the Minor Prophets or the Gospels. In order to do this, we must “zoom out” from any one particular book or passage and gain an appreciation for how it plays its part in unfolding the Big Story.
Study with Perspective
Learning to orient ourselves to the metanarrative of Scripture gives us a clear purpose for our study: to behold the reign and rule of God as revealed in his Word, thereby better understanding our own place in the Big Story. Once we have determined our purpose in these broad terms, we are ready to consider the second P of sound study: perspective. We move from asking, “What is the general framework for the Bible as a whole?” to “What is the particular framework for the portion of Scripture I am studying?”
Not only do all sixty-six books of the Bible tell one sweeping story, but each of those sixty-six books tells its own story, reflecting the character of God through a particular historical and cultural lens. This lens gives us the necessary perspective we need to understand a text correctly. If we take the time to learn the cultural and historical perspective for a book of the Bible, we will better understand how to interpret and value it.
Study with Patience
Bible study, like most skills of any value, requires discipline. If you have ever had to learn a skill, you will probably remember the frustration that accompanies it—the feelings of inadequacy, the monotony of repeating a process until you have learned it, the strong desire to quit or to find an easier way. Learning to study the Bible well introduces all of these same feelings, which is why our third P of sound study is a reminder to let the learning process take its course. In addition to studying with purpose and perspective, we must study with patience.
Gaining Bible literacy requires allowing our study to have a cumulative effect—across weeks, months, years—so that the interrelation of one part of Scripture to another reveals itself slowly and gracefully, like a dust cloth slipping inch by inch from the face of a masterpiece. The Bible does not want to be neatly packaged into three-hundred-and-sixty-five-day increments. It does not want to be reduced to truisms and action points. It wants to introduce dissonance into your thinking, to stretch your understanding. It wants to reveal a mosaic of the majesty of God one passage at a time, one day at a time, across a lifetime.
- Choose a book that’s short and application-driven.
- Get a copy of the text that you can mark up (either print it off or get a notebook).
- Read through the entire book from start to finish (at least once).
- Answer these five basic questions: Who wrote this?, To whom was it written?, When was it written, In what style was it written?, and What is the main theme of the book? (Note: You can use a commentator’s notes (or the ESV Study Bible book introduction information) to help shape what the book is saying and take notes that you’ll refer back to.
- Stop and look up words in the dictionary as needed.
- Be patient. Read and reread the text, looking for new things.
This article is adapted from Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds by Jen Wilkin.
To start this 5-day devotional via your browser or as a daily email, simply visit ESV.org.
Download a bookmark outlining the 6 Ps of Sound Bible Study here.
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