Want to learn how to study the scriptures more effectively and dig deeper than ever before? Here’s a systematic process designed to help you achieve this goal. No scripture study session is ever the same as another because the content of what you are examining and the way you might be led to approach it will differ with every verse, or even every word. As such, the infographic below and the explanation below it are general guidelines where you can use what applies and skip what doesn’t.
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Any time you begin a study session, it will be much more productive to begin with, and have a constant prayer in your heart asking God to reveal to you a deeper understanding of the things you are studying and pondering on. There is no phase of studying that doesn’t involve God’s help. Pondering is a form of prayer that involves faithful thinking. Instead of filling your mind with doubt, fill it with faith and trust that God is going to reveal more to you than you have previously understood. Think about what you are reading instead of skimming over it. Don’t just let the words pass through your head, but stop and think about each word and phrase and what it means and implies. This process takes work and effort on your part, but no victory of knowledge ever came about by laziness. At the conclusion of your session, it would also be wise to pray and offer thanks to God for what you’ve learned.
There are many ways to determine what to study in the scriptures. You might be reading through a book from beginning to end, or randomly opening the book to put your finger on a verse. You might be examining a topic you want to study further. Whatever method you are using, you are guaranteed to get more out of your session if you follow the steps below.
The first step in seeking understanding is to make sure you are using correct definitions for the words in the text you are reading. Then you will want to understand how that word is used in a variety of places in the scriptures to ensure you are capturing a fuller sense of the meaning.
If you aren’t sure what a word means, a great source is Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary which you can access online for free. Click the link for a brief tutorial and links to access the dictionary. Webster’s dictionary is amazing and it’s great for any word definitions you need whether studying the Bible, or other books you value as scripture.
If you are examining the Bible and want to get back to the original Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) meanings for words, use James Strong’s Concordance of the Bible. It’s available for free online and contains every word’s original definition.
Once you have definitions for words, another important exercise is to look for other verses that use the word and see how it is used. Oftentimes, searching across the scriptures for all the word usages is exactly how to study the scriptures based on the way God hides knowledge. There’s a piece here and a piece there and only by seeking knowledge from all the locations can you put a comprehensive picture together. Here’s an example on searching across the scriptures.
Lets look at various ways to search:
A word search is simply looking for other uses of the same word in other verses of scripture. If the result set is small, you might want to expand it with a wildcard search, or just use the results to study from. Sometimes the results are large and you want to reduce the set by using additional words in the search so results get limited by the presence of other words. The next few items explain these options.
A wildcard search is when you take a word and want to see variations of it that don’t change the meaning. For example, if you are searching for justify, and wanted to maximize your results, you might do a search for fewer letters of the word with an asterisk after it such as:
This allows you to pick up all the variations of the word. If you review your results and see extra word variations that you don’t want, you can remove them from the search results using the minus key (-). So for example, you might search:
This would return just, justify, justified, and justification, but drop all verses with justice in them which has a different meaning.
Another way to limit search results is to use 2 or more words. This can significantly reduce results of a search because you are specifying multiple words that must be in the correct order. For this type of search, you use quotes around the search to ensure they are in the same order, like this:
"judgment and justice"
This will only find that exact phrase.
Sometimes while reading you notice two or more key words in a verse and wonder where they might be used together in other verses. They may not be in the same exact order, so we do a search for these words like this:
This finds every variation of execut such as executeth, as well as requiring that “justice” be in that same verse.
If you want to dig deeper on a topic for things that mean the same thing, you might try a search for synonyms for the word. Look them up on a search engine, or a dictionary (like Webster’s or Strong’s).
Antonyms are the opposite of a word. If you’re studying faith, you might do a search for doubt and see what warnings are given related to the opposite of faith.
Is there a Chiastic structure in the verse, verses, or chapter that you can find the middle point? If you are unfamiliar with Chiasmus, it’s where an author describes everything twice, first forward, then hits a middle point, and then backward like A B C B A. Point C is the main point they are trying to make. Here are some great examples.
Other resources available to you such as a Bible Dictionary will give both definitions, and a broader context to the word as it is used across the scriptures. That’s why it’s drawn in the middle because it’s part of both areas.
Once you have an understanding of what everything means, you can start to ask deeper questions.
Good, specific questions, lead to good, specific answers. Vague questions lead to vague answers. Spending the time necessary to write down better questions will be a productive use of your time and give you a better harvest.
Get a notebook or use a digital tool like Scripture Notes and start writing down all the questions you can about the verse. It’s easiest to get the surface questions out of the way first. These questions usually, but not always, start with who, what, where, when, why, which, can, is, do, must, should, could, and would.
Often, but not always, deeper questions that dig into the doctrine and intent of scriptures, start with how and why. Asking these questions usually causes deeper thinking, but it doesn’t stop a deep question from starting with one of the words shown in 3A.
When examining verse, or a word in a verse, write questions that focus on everything you can ask about that verse or word. This is small scope questioning like why is that word used, and more granular questions.
When performing searches for a word across multiple scriptures, you will want to ask broader questions that get at the overall heart of the topic. The questions will be more contextual and what implications you can infer from the varied use of the word in the scriptures.
Now that you have identified and written good questions, it’s time to search for answers and do your homework to broaden your understanding. Depending on the questions asked, you may be examining quite a variety of topics and need to do research across many areas. This is really how to study the scriptures. It’s not just questioning things, but seeking and finding answers. As you research you will develop more questions. Write them down! Keep good notes.
There is no specific order to seeking answers. It entirely depends on the nature of what the question is asking for. As such, these broad areas are just things to research to assist you in digging into the subject. Lets get started!
To answer doctrinal questions, look for ways to apply the teachings to your life. Look for covenants that are discussed or at play in the lives of the individuals you’re reading about. Are they under a covenant curse or receiving blessings for their actions? List out the gospel doctrines, then the principles which often contain a promise or curse in association with them, and see how it fits into gospel theory.
Lots of resources are available to help you understand the scriptures and find answers to your questions. There are some great commentaries available for free online or you may purchase something that you value for the insight or authority it gives you. You may have conference talks you can reference for material or great quotes you find online. Search engines can also be a real boon to you. Just search for a verse, phrase, or whatever you are researching and see what comes up. There’s also topical guides that list many scriptures dealing with a topic which could be useful.
If your studies include an individual or group of people, you might consider some things like what they are an example of (like Job for patience and faithfulness). You might look up what tribe someone is a member of. Their relationship to other people in the story you’re reading. You might substitute yourself in for that person and imagine if you were in their shoes and how you would feel. You can also consider the symbolism of their position in the story. Are they a type of Christ and have certain parallel characteristics in their story that matches Christ’s in some way.
Does the verse contain a physical object or property? Look up and understand the geography of the area for a city. Look at maps and check out the distances to surrounding areas. What do those terms of measurement or coinage mean? What’s the population and it’s characteristics? Do you know anything about the economy, military, or other aspects of the people?
Is the thing you’re reading about symbolic in some way such that you can take it to a whole new level? Is there a color or number involved? Can you look up the meaning of a name? Does the object have other meanings to it or represent something else? Is its use a type or shadow of something else?
If there is an element of time involved such as when something took place, is there a value in learning about the historical context and what was happening in that region at that period of time? Who authored this book and what was their position in being a record keeper? Who was their audience? Can you step out of the picture a little and zoom back to see if the events taking place are a macro-view of another story or some type of parallel between what’s happening here and something that took place elsewhere in the scriptures?
As you do your research, it is critical that you give proper weight to your sources. Your primary authority is always the scriptures themselves. Don’t twist what something is saying to suit your own beliefs. The next level of authority would be those recognized as authorities within the gospel, modern day prophets and apostles. After them would come non-authoritative individuals who have spent much time studying the scriptures and seeking to understand them. Last would be the non-believer who could be someone with a passing interest or might be an apostate seeking to tear down beliefs. Generally, you will get no value from what they say, but occasionally on a web search for something I have found some minor value in something I have found from one of these people, but then you always have to check what you find very carefully and ensure it fits within the framework of greater authority.
Scriptural integrity is critical when you are evaluating a new thought or piece of research that has come to you. If the meaning won’t hold across all the scriptures, it’s something to set aside on the shelf till greater light and understanding come and help you to revise your thinking. True doctrine and principles fit across all verses. Not all verses say everything about a doctrine though. Someone might say, “look at this verse – there is no mention that they had the laying on of hands to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Yet in another verse it clearly states it was bestowed by the laying on of hands. Therefore, we can infer that in the first situation, it also happened but wasn’t mentioned. A far better position than believing in the second situation it was falsely justifying the action.
Now comes the critical component. You might think when you seek learn to study the scriptures that your primary goal is to research and find answers. That is very important to the process, but one of the greatest things you will ever do is write and record your research. The spirit will work with you to further enlighten you when you are WRITING your research out. The process of organizing your thoughts and typing out your answers (possibly in the form of preparing a talk or sermon or manuscript) is vital to letting the spirit work with you. Not only do you preserve the insights that have already come to you, but you also show God that you appreciate what he has given you and invite MORE revelation into your study as well by pondering, praying, and recording what you have received. This is one of the most enlightening things that will happen. Answer your questions, even the challenging ones, to the best of your ability, making your best attempt to feel the truth as you write. Revelation will come and assist you as you do this.
There are different ways to record your answers. The margins of your scriptures are not one of them. They’re too small to capture the length of what you have learned. A physical notebook works for some people but that notebook will eventually gather dust and never be looked at again. There is no searchable index for it, and therefore, the value is minimized. A digital notebook is better for our day and age, but recording your research without associating it to specific verses or collections of verses is problematic when you want to retrieve something specific and you’re sure you typed out a note to accompany a verse…
This is why I created Scripture Notes. Scripture Notes lets you record all your thoughts about a particular verse, or about collections of verses, in an extremely flexible interface. It has powerful search features that let you do research in ways you can’t with other programs. You can tag and categorize your collections and organize your research in a variety of ways. Getting started with the program there are tutorials that will help you quickly master the basic interface, and then you’ll be ready to do greater digging into the scriptures than you have ever done before. Try it out for free for a month and see what you think.
There are many ways to approach a study of the scriptures but the most important thing is to begin. The journey is worth the effort. Just get started and don’t let anything deter you. Be in the scriptures every day, even if it’s just for a little while. Build that friendship and don’t let it fall apart from neglect or abuse. Expect God to open up the windows of your understanding and new doors for you to walk through into new worlds of revelation to explore. It happens when we act. I know this from personal experience and I know you can experience it as well.
If you simply read the scriptures, you are not getting everything from them that God intends for you to get from them. Reading without digging is like starting a garden by putting seeds on top of the soil. You’re not planting anything and if it happens to rain, nothing is going to sprout. You have to dig a little and intentionally water it and pull up weeds and help that seed to grow. When the harvest arrives, you’ll be glad you did.
Revelation and inspiration come in God’s time. Some things have not been revealed yet, but you can ask God to reveal those things to you and you can keep a record of your questions. It may be that in a few years as you circle back and see that question again, that new information has come to light that will answer your question.
Did I leave anything out? Leave a comment below and help me improve my thinking!
(Featured Image by Sin See Ho @ 123rf.com)