How I Study the Bible III

How I study the Bible This is the “fun part” of the three-part series on how I study the Bible. The previous two posts were preliminary. In this post, I actually share some of my methodology.

Bible Study Notebook

Next to the Bible itself, I think your notebook is the most important tool in Bible study because this is where you personalize the Word and make applications. This is where you practice “rightly dividing the word of truth” and lay the groundwork for being a doer of the Word and not just a hearer/reader.

One of the first questions you might ask about a Bible Study notebook is whether it is best to have a hard copy or a digital copy. I have very strong opinions about this: hands down, a digital version is best. Why?

First of all, I prefer a “notebook” on my computer because of convenience. It is easier to misplace a literal notebook than it is to misplace my computer.

Second, I can type so much faster than I can write by hand. I vaguely remember that it was difficult to transition from a hard copy notebook to a computerized version. I had to train myself to “think on computer” versus thinking on paper. I almost aborted the process in the beginning and stayed in my comfort zone doing it the same way I had always done it—writing all my notes by hand. I am so glad I pressed through, though. I can get my thoughts down faster, and I can add to them neatly and in an orderly way. No more scribbling and drawing arrows to point to a previous point. Just place the cursor where I want to start typing and go!

Third, and most important, the reason I prefer a digital notebook to a hard-copy notebook is because of the ease with which I can search. I have many, many Bible study notebooks from the dark ages when home computers were not prolific. Let’s say I want to go back to my notes on a specific passage I studied in Matthew. First of all, I have to find that particular notebook with my Matthew notes. Once I find the notebook, then I have to find the right chapter (providing that I remember what chapter I’m looking for). Then I would have to read every page of notes for that particular chapter in order to find a certain note. Very time-consuming, very hit and miss. Not to mention the strain of deciphering my handwriting from years gone by.

With my computerized notebook, I just have to remember a key word, do a “search” (Ctrl + F, the shortcut keys for the “Find” function), and then review the highlighted instances where that word was used until I find the one I had in mind. For me, this is, by far, the most important reason for keeping my notes in a digital notebook. I know there is value in taking notes just for taking notes sake (it helps to internalize the material), but what a waste to only take notes and not have a means of recalling them for future reference!

Finally, you can save your digital notes “in the cloud” by filing them in Evernote or Dropbox or any number of similar tools. Thus, you never have to be concerned about losing your notes, even if your computer crashes or is stolen.

My format for filing my notes is simple. I have a main folder labeled “Bible Study,” and I have a separate Microsoft Word file for each book of the Bible that I have studied.

How To Study

The most important thing to remember as you study the Bible is that this is not a course in which you will be tested to see how much you “know.” Remember why you study—to transform your life and to get to know the Author better! So start with the premise of “what does God want to say to me today?”

In the last post, I encouraged to read the Bible through in order to get a sense of context and history. In this post, I want to concentrate on really digging in to a particular book of the Bible. For a beginner, I think one of the smaller New Testament books would be a good start. A small book, such as Philippians, will help you get used to the Bible study methods that I will share in this section, and it will also create a sense of momentum for you as you will be able to complete the book fairly quickly. However, don’t get in a hurry! Don’t taint the process with haste. This is a relationship, not a course in school.

I like to start a study by first doing a little background research. Nothing too elaborate, just the general who, what, when, where and why questions. Mainly, I like to know the context of the book. For instance, it gives much meaning to the book of Philippians to know that Paul wrote it from prison.

The only book I can recommend for this purpose is an older one: Talk Through the Bible by Bruce Wilkinson and Kenneth Boa. I like it for its simplicity and brevity. I’m sure there are other similar books and probably there is even such information included with Bible software, but I cannot recommend any because I am not familiar with it. The main thing is to not become overly involved in this portion of the process, as it is just background. It is not the study itself. Just get an overall idea of the basics—who wrote it, historical setting, major themes, context, etc.

Two Ways to Study

I once read a description of the different ways to study a mountain. You can fly over and get a picture of the overall landscape and the lay of the land. You can also get down on your hands and knees with a magnifying glass and examine the foliage, the bugs, the dirt, etc. I keep that analogy in mind when I am studying. I don’t want to become engrossed with the bugs, for instance, and have no concept of the kinds of trees on the mountain. Thus, in my Bible study, I try to have a balance of both.

Analogous with the flight over the mountain, I like to begin a study of a book of the Bible by reading through it quickly. I want to get that broad overview of the characters in that book, the main events, and the context in general. I call this process “the quick read.” I take only a few notes on this initial read through, but the one thing that I do note is repeated themes and/or words. For example, I am currently reading the New Testament book of James, and in my quick read, I noted the repeated use of variations of the words deceive, patience/perseverance, faith, etc. I listed these words at the very beginning of my notes. This is my reminder to myself to take note of these themes later. I also use colored pencils to color code these repeated words in my Bible. This provides me a good visual of the themes.

After the quick read, I then start back through the book. This time around, I take my time (as you might expect, I call this “the slow read”). I may only do a few verses at a time during the slow read. I often read a particular verse in several different versions; I look up many words in the Strong’s Concordance. I’ll copy and paste the meaningful variations of verses into my notes. I underline verses that “speak to me.” I might write a definition in the margin of my Bible. All of these are ways that I “internalize” the Word, ways that I make it mine.

Your Notes

In addition to all the definitions and reading various translations, I take generous notes as I study. I expect the Holy Spirit to teach me as I read, so I come prepared to record what I learn! I also use writing as a means to sift through my own thoughts. If I don’t write these thoughts down, I may have a “general” idea of what I have just read, but it is only in the writing that I get to the “meat” of the idea.

I have noticed over the years that my Bible Study Notebook is not only a record of what I am reading and learning, but it is a personal record of my journey, as well. If I am truly reading for the right reasons (for personal transformation), then this happens inadvertently. It is a by-product of my study. My notes contain references to personal struggles, decisions, relationships, etc. that I am currently dealing with. Only when I stay “in my head” and slip into reading for knowledge do my notes become dry and start to read like a textbook.

A Peek Inside My Notebook

But what kind of notes to take? Mine usually begin with me trying to summarize in my own words what is being said. But because I am always thinking, “how does this apply to me” [and because I lead a group of women in my church, I also think of them as I read], my notes naturally flow into a more personal tone. To illustrate, I will give you a peek directly inside my Bible study notebook. Below are my comments on James 3:16.

3:16 “Disorder” (NIV) is defined in Strong’s: from <G182> (akatastatos); instability, i.e. disorder :- commotion, confusion, tumult

Note, once again in this short book, James’ use of the word stability (or its counter). Other translations translate as confusion, disquietness, disharmony, unrest, anarchy. This is what it looks like when everyone is out for himself, trying to ‘one up’ everyone else.

I suppose the “wisdom” described in verse 14 would be totally acceptable in the world’s system. It is expected that every one look out for himself, strive to outdo his fellow man in order to climb the ladder of success. That’s why James sarcastically calls that “wisdom” (noted by the use of the quotes), “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven…” And that’s why he commands NOT to brag about it. It’s easy to get sucked into the world’s mentality that “I am just a very driven person.” To claim such a label is indeed to deny the truth—the truth that will set you free.

(Aside: This is a principle for Biblical Psychology 101!)

So the application for everyone reading this (the book of James, not my notes!)—including myself—is: What labels do you claim? What labels do you embrace? Obsessive, addictive, lazy, undisciplined, ADHD, depressed, bipolar, workaholic, etc. Is this the connection between the tongue at the first of the chapter and then the sudden apparent shift in verse 13? We cannot say that God redeems and transforms and at the same time say that I am [insert label]. This is denying the truth! This is allowing fresh and salty to come out of the same “stream.”

Obviously, much of what I wrote will not make sense to you, as I have simply copied and pasted a very small portion of some notes from my study of James—without context—from my notebook. However, these particular comments do demonstrate some of the points I have made in this post, and I would like to point those out.

First thing, you see that I have copied and pasted a definition from Strong’s concordance for the word disorder. “For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” You also note that I have bolded and underlined the word instability. In previous chapters and verses in James, I have begun to see a pattern regarding this theme (stability/instability), and so I am adding this verse to the list to substantiate that pattern.

The next couple of paragraphs are pretty much my interpretation of what I have read, but then in the final paragraph, you see that I begin to personalize and internalize the scripture. “What labels do you claim?” I  often write questions like that in my notes. It’s a basic way of “bringing it home.” I list some labels that come to my mind. Some of these are personal, but others are ones  that I have heard “my ladies” claim (the women that I lead). As a leader, I am constantly thinking of them when I study, too. They are always in my heart! And you can bet that the truths that I glean in this study will show up at some time or other in my teaching. First I internalize and personalize it for myself, but then I pass it on to others.

At times, if I am really grappling with an issue, I will spend much more than a few sentences on internalizing. As I wrote earlier, my notebook often resembles a journal. I feel this is as it should be.

I could write more details about how I study, but I think I have covered the factors that will help you get started for yourself. And that’s what these three posts have been targeted at: helping those who don’t know where to start. In short:

  1. Just do it (that is, make Bible study a priority, make it a habit).
  2. Read for the right reasons.
  3. Internalize and personalize.
  4. Record what you learn.

I would love to hear your feedback concerning these three posts. Did you learn anything? Do I do something in my study that you don’t do? Do you practice a Bible study method that I have not shared? Do you have any questions that I might could address in a future post? Please leave a comment.

Photo compliments of Mark Hunter via Compfight

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