LCN Article
How to Study the Bible

May / June 2023

Wallace G. Smith

This is the first of four articles in a new “how to” series, each of which will discuss basic approaches to one of the spiritual disciplines: Bible study, prayer, fasting, and meditation. We hope that those new to the faith, and even those who have been walking the way of God for some time, will find these articles beneficial.

The Bible holds a special place in the life of every Christian. As the Apostle Paul told the young evangelist Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Today, most followers of Jesus Christ have access to copies of the Bible in their own languages—truly, one of the great blessings of the modern age.

The Church of God has found that those who seek to follow Christ benefit from the habit of spending some time, every day if possible, in God’s word—often in the morning, before the cares of the day “take over.” King David once wrote, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11). That daily time, spent devoted to understanding and internalizing the words of God, feeds the growing influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and keeps the flame of God’s gift active within us (2 Timothy 1:6).

But it can be intimidating! The Bible is a big book, filled with histories, sermons, poetry, prophecies, proverbs, and more—all organized in a particular manner, yet not one that makes it obvious how one should go about learning it.

With this article, we hope to help. There is no one way to study the Bible, and most people approach Bible study in multiple ways—varying their approaches depending on the goals of each study, yet remaining grounded in firm principles. We will summarize those principles and then describe simple approaches to studying the Bible to help you on your lifelong exploration of the word of God.

Seven Fundamental Principles

No matter what approach you use in any one Bible study, these fundamental principles will always apply:

Every word of God is true. Jesus said that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35) and that God’s word is truth (John 17:17). Any apparent contradiction is merely apparent.

Every word of the Bible is inspired. As mentioned earlier in Paul’s comments to Timothy, the words of Scripture are inspired by God, or “God-breathed” as some translations say. While God utilized the talents and proclivities of each human author, each one wrote under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recording what God wanted.

The Bible must be understood as a whole. Even though God’s word exists as a group of individual books, the Bible is one inspired unit from Genesis to Revelation. To gain a full understanding of God’s mind on a subject, we must consider all that the Bible says about that subject—precept upon precept and line upon line (Isaiah 28:10).

The context of each verse and book matters. Even as the Bible is an inspired whole, each book was written or compiled by one human author addressing a specific audience and for a specific reason. Understanding the context of an author’s writing helps to understand specific statements he makes.

There is no perfect Bible translation. While some translations are more helpful and accurate than others, it is simply not possible to perfectly translate from the inspired, ancient texts into our modern languages. Consequently, carefully choosing translations is important, and comparison among translations is often helpful.

We need God’s Spirit to understand His word properly. The Apostle Paul made it plain that “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). All who seek to understand the Bible should ask God to help them do so.

God provides teachers and ministers in His Church to define biblical doctrine and prevent confusion. God has always appointed people to help clarify difficulties in His law and commands (e.g., Deuteronomy 17:8–13; Acts 15:1–29). It is through this appointed ministry that the Father and Christ maintain unity in the Church and protect Christians from false teaching and doctrinal misunderstanding (Ephesians 4:11–16).

Choosing a Main Translation

Again, there is no perfect translation, but some are better and more helpful than others. Bible translations can be loosely arranged along a spectrum. On one end, you have a “word for word” approach, which seeks to be very accurate in translating the words of the ancient languages. With this approach, ideas can sometimes be hard to discern, since our modern languages convey some ideas through different idioms and cultural contexts. On the other end is a “thought for thought” approach, which sacrifices literal accuracy in the hope of communicating what the translators believe is the intended thought or idea. “Paraphrase” Bibles fit into this category.

The best translators seek a well-chosen balance between these two extremes. However, because translations using the “thought for thought” approach are too frequently vulnerable to interpreters’ biases and theological errors, we in the Living Church of God strongly favor leaning toward the “word for word” end of the spectrum. While ancient idioms or sayings can sometimes be strange, these can easily be learned without sacrificing doctrinal accuracy.

The Living Church of God uses the New King James Version as the main English-language translation in all of its publications. We believe the approach used in translating the New King James Version, or NKJV, is superior to that of many other translations, giving us a text that balances well the needs of accuracy, clarity, and readability. But it is not perfect—no translation is. In a few places, other translations provide a more accurate reading or a clearer understanding—but as a main Bible one can use as a central focus of his or her study, the NKJV has for decades served God’s Church very well.

What About Study Aids?

Many who are just beginning to seriously study the Bible ask about study aids that might help. Especially with digital and online resources that make entire libraries available, the selection can be intimidating—but it doesn’t need to be.

First, recognize that much profitable Bible study takes place without any aids. Most people throughout history have not had access to the resources now available, and the value in simply reading the Bible and meditating on its words has not diminished! Then, of course, the booklets, magazines, and other materials from the Church should be considered your first stop in seeking more information, not to mention the wonderful human resources the Church makes available in the form of your local ministry. As Mr. Richard Ames likes to say, “Don’t overlook the obvious!”

But what about materials from outside the Church? They may be helpful at times, but we must remember—they were not created by Spirit-filled individuals inspired by God. While their content may sometimes be helpful, it is sometimes dead wrong, especially in matters of doctrine and spiritual understanding. Therefore, their information should be considered with at least a grain of salt. Here are some examples of those resources.

Concordances: These references help you to find verses where various words appear. The most popular, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, includes every word appearing in the King James Version and assigns to each Hebrew and Greek word a number that is often used as a reference in other works. Online concordances, such as Bible Gateway, often utilize multiple English translations. Concordances sometimes contain information about the original Hebrew and Greek words used in Scripture.

Atlases: A Bible atlas contains maps to help you understand the locations of various biblical events and peoples.

Dictionaries: Like small encyclopedias, Bible dictionaries contain information about ancient cultures, customs, and history. They sometimes comment on archaeological finds related to biblical peoples or events.

Lexicons: These resources specialize in the meanings of Hebrew and Greek words, and contain more detailed information about these words than concordances do.

Commentaries: Collections of the perceptions and opinions of scholars on Bible passages, commentaries can be helpful sources of insights, but must be handled carefully and are vulnerable to the scholars’ biases. Dr. Meredith often highlighted that commentaries tend to err when they discuss the supposedly “immortal” soul, the purpose of man, the identity of Israel, the concepts of law and grace, and the meanings of prophecies. If you refer to a commentary, do so cautiously, with these concerns in mind.

Approaches to Bible Study

With those principles and considerations in place, we can look at several approaches to Bible study. A healthy relationship with God’s word will, over time, involve multiple approaches, varying over time, circumstance, and need. These are not the only approaches, but basic approaches to help you on your way.

Reading and Meditation: We shouldn’t fail to mention the most basic approach of all: simply reading a passage and meditating on it! While it seems “too simple,” there is great value in reading straight through a passage of Scripture—say, Matthew 5 or Psalm 23—then reading through it again more slowly, taking the time to pause occasionally and meditate on what it is saying and how it relates to your life. Comparing the passage via multiple translations can be helpful, as well. Reading through the historical sections gives us much in the way of testimonies, so we can learn lessons of history and from the experiences of others. Simply reading the whole Bible through gives one a good overview of and basic familiarity with it, and schedules can be found to keep you on target to read through it in a year.

The Tomorrow’s World Bible Study Course: Again, it may seem an obvious choice, but many overlook it. The Church’s 24-lesson Bible Study Course, written by the late evangelist Mr. John Ogwyn, has been carefully planned to take you through some of the Bible’s most important teachings. Following the course’s instructions by looking up, and even writing down, the scriptures presented to answer the course’s questions not only makes for engaging and enlightening Bible study, but also results in a valuable personal resource.

Topical Study: Topical studies involve picking a topic—the Sabbath, patience, mercy, heaven, forgiveness, etc.—and looking up all that the Bible has to say about it. A concordance can help with this—or a digital, searchable Bible—by allowing you to search for a word or group of related words (say, “forgive,” “forgiveness,” “forgiving,” etc.) and read the passages you find. Sometimes nuances of translation may mean some passages are missed if you search for English words instead of Greek or Hebrew, but that doesn’t mean you are “doing it wrong”—and remember, your relationship with the Bible is lifelong. Further study will likely fill in any gaps.

The Church’s many booklets, articles, and recorded sermons provide ready-made resources for topical Bible study. For example, if you would like to study the Bible on the topic of life after death, Mr. Ames’ booklet What Happens When You Die? is an ideal guide! Our booklets cite biblical passages to back up their teachings, and taking the time to look up each scriptural reference as you review a booklet makes for an organized, thorough Bible study on its topic.

Book Study: While we can’t fully understand a topic without considering what the whole Bible says about it, there is great value in sometimes focusing your study on just one book. For instance, you might study the book of 1 Corinthians. Other resources, as mentioned above, can help you understand where and when the Apostle Paul wrote the book, and what situations in the congregation he was dealing with as he wrote. An atlas can show you where Corinth was and illustrate Paul’s journeys that brought him into contact with the Corinthians. With those contexts in mind, you can then begin reading the book, taking time to look at connections between 1 Corinthians and other books of the Bible, such as other letters of Paul. For instance, reading about Apollos in 1 Corinthians 1:12 might prompt you to see where else he is mentioned—and a concordance or a search on a digital Bible would reveal references in Acts and Titus.

Word Study: Similar to a topical study, a word study generally focuses on a specific Greek or Hebrew word and how it is used and translated in the Bible. This may involve looking up the passages in which the word is used and consulting a lexicon to see the different meanings that the word can convey.

Character Study: The Bible tells of many lives, and those lives hold lessons for us. You might choose, for instance, to study the life of Abraham by taking the time to slowly read and meditate on the chapters that detail his life and then following up with additional references to Abraham that add to our understanding of how God sees him. Or you could choose a figure who appears only briefly, such as Nabal, whose life is covered in one chapter (1 Samuel 25), but whose example still brings lessons worth learning!

The Journey of a Lifetime

No matter what approach you take in any particular study, you will often find that one study plants the seeds of several future studies. Perhaps your study of the book of Genesis will lead you to a character study of Abraham. Seeing that Abraham “believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6) might later prompt you to do a topical study on belief, or a word study on “righteousness.”

As you progress with your Bible studies, you are sure to come upon questions you can’t answer. Be sure to note them! They can lead to great discussions with your spouse or your parents, or they might prompt you to look into Church literature for an explanation. If an answer still eludes you, your local minister might enjoy chatting with you about it. Of course, God sometimes chooses not to reveal an answer to a question (Deuteronomy 29:29), and sometimes answers might not come until years later! But we can rest in faith—knowing that one day, all will be revealed (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Few endeavors in life promise us what regular Bible study does. So we hope these basic principles, approaches, and tips will help you make the most of your efforts as you begin to develop this spiritual discipline—or take a long-established discipline to a new level in your life. And as you seek God in the pages of His word, rest assured that He will faithfully draw near to you (James 4:8).

Once you decide you want to understand this book of books, you embark on the journey of a lifetime!