Beyond the simple reading of God’s Word (which is enough to uplift the soul), or deeper thinking (meditation, which yields fuller insights), learning the discipline of study can help the follower of Christ grow stronger yet in their walk of faith. Study shouldn’t be left only to the scholars.
But how do you actually study? Here are eight ideas to explore.
1. Search Out A Study Bible
Everyone should own a study Bible, which provides a small library of very useful resources, like interpretation notes, verse-by-verse “cross references”, maps, a Bible dictionary, or a great tool called a concordance. Study Bibles are like cereal or toothpaste choices in a store – almost too many to choose from. Here’s a good article that will help you find one that suits you. The quickest and easiest way to start studying is to use a study Bible.
2. Consult A Commentary
The Bible is the world’s most scrutinized book ever. One of the proofs of this is commentaries, which are books scholars have written over the centuries that literally go chapter-by-chapter, even verse-by-verse, through the Bible, offering comments and critique about the text. Many classical commentaries are literally at your fingertips through the website biblehub.com.
Professor Jordan Peterson gave a famous lecture series on the book of Genesis in 2017 – as an unbeliever – and was floored when he discovered the existence of commentaries. (Here’s a short clip where he describes the awe he felt in discovering this resource.) If you’re someone who’s grown bored with the Bible, you should look in on some of these lectures. Petersen’s intent with the series was simply to examine these stories through the grid of psychology, not faith. But you can watch with your own eyes as faith begins to awaken in him. “There’s so much wisdom flying at you!” Peterson marvels of the commentaries.
3. Muse On A Map
Maybe geography is not your thing. But on a recent hike with my wife in Shenandoah National Park, when our phone died in the last mile of our 8-mile trek, along with the trail map we were using, then we walked out of the woods at the wrong place and couldn’t find our car, as the sun was setting, mind you, then a park ranger misled us on where to go, and we ended up hiking 10 miles instead of 8 (and started seeing the glowing eyes of hungry bears following us in the wood), we were reminded of the usefulness of having a map nearby.
In Psalm 42, David is in a funk, and he writes, “My soul is cast down within me. Therefore God, I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.” On a whim, I looked at a map where these places were. What I could see visually from the map was that each of these places was further and further away from Jerusalem. At once I knew why David was in a funk. If you move further and further away from God, that’s the end result. Score one for the map!
4. Work On A Word-Study
This is where you take a Bible word that catches your interest – for example, the word “heart” or “faith” or “sin” – and you ask yourself, “I wonder what that word really meant to the Bible writers?” (For it’s a very lazy habit to assume that you – a 21st-century reader – fully grasp what a writer from 2,000 years ago was thinking.)
How do you find out what a given word means? A Bible dictionary is a quick and easy tool to help. Or you can do something that takes a little more time, but personally can be very rewarding. You use a tool called a concordance (or you can cheat and just Google it) and look up other places in the Bible where that word is used. Let David tell you what the word “heart” means. Let Paul tell you what “faith” means. Let Jesus teach you about “sin”.
Back in 1981, I asked myself, “I wonder what the Bible says about itself?” I needed to settle once and for all whether I could build my life on this book. Biblehub.com didn’t exist, and Google wasn’t a thing. So I picked up an actual concordance, and looked up every reference I could find for “Word of God” or “Scripture”. Then I broke them into categories, and finally wrote each verse out in my quiet time notebook. I ended up with 23 pages of verses.
I assure you, doing that word study changed my life. I never doubted from that point forward the Bible’s truthfulness and authority, or that I needed to spend the rest of my life reading it, studying it, and teaching it.
5. Chart Out A Chapter
Be mindful of the structure and flow of what you are reading. The author of the book you’re reading had a purpose behind how he wrote the book. See if you can find it. A good study Bible will outline each book for you, but try to do some of that work on your own.
Pay attention to how Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John construct their gospels. Follow Paul as he writes his letters to the Romans or Corinthians, not only chapter by chapter, but paragraph by paragraph. Pay attention to the arguments he’s making, and how they build on each other. When you read a psalm, which are songs, zero in on its structure. In many of the psalms, the writer takes you on an emotional journey through its progression of stanzas. See you if you can join them on the journey.
6. Cling To The Classics, Old And Modern
While the Bible is to forever be your primary reading material, the anchor of your quiet times, and the words that you memorize, you should always be reading other spiritual books.
I’m so glad that John Maxwell has written down everything that God has taught him about leadership. And Pete Scazzero on what God taught him about emotionally healthy spirituality. And Josh McDowell on everything he’s learned about apologetics.
On our website, we have a section under “Resources” where we are compiling a section listing books which we encourage every disciple to read. (We’d love to hear from you what books have been impactful for your faith journey.) There’s a reason “Pilgrims Progress” has been a best-seller for five centuries. C.S. Lewis’, “Mere Christianity” will never go out of print, and his “The Problem of Pain”, and of course “The Chronicles of Narnia”. (And pretty much everything else C.S. Lewis has written. I’ve often thought to myself, “If someone hasn’t read Lewis, are they even a Christian?”)
Leaders are readers. That rule will never change.
7. Dive Into A Doctrine
A type of book that should be on every Christian’s shelves is known as a “Systematic Theology” book, where the writer takes all the major Christian doctrines and explains what they are, and why we believe them, and where Christians may differ in their interpretations of a given doctrine.
Where in the world did the doctrine of the Trinity come from? Why do we believe that Jesus is fully human, yet also fully God. God-Incarnate? What evidence is there that the Bible is the “inspired by God”? Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? What is “atonement”, and why should that word set every Christian dancing.
Paul exclaimed in Ephesians 3 that the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge.” He prays that we’ll have the strength to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of it all. So dive into a doctrine, because there’s nothing like biblical Christianity, and you’ll never in a thousand years capture all of the beauty, truth, and splendor of our faith.
8. Hang Out With Heroes From History
You may love history or hate it, but everyone knows the line: Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Forty generations of Christians have walked the earth before us. Except for our clothing and technology, we’re just like them. We have the same sinful hearts. The same need for redemption. We live on the same sin-broken world, and each desperately need Jesus Christ.
So face down the Gnostics with Irenaeus, or appeal to Caesar with Tertullian, or sit with Augustine in the garden where he was converted, or write rules with Benedict, or pore over theology with Acquinas, or watch Luther nail up his theses, or Calvin his Institutes, or listen to Wesley or Spurgeon preach. Let those voices from the past speak to you in your study, and it will change your life.
God wants you to love him with your whole heart, soul, MIND, and strength. So believe in that great, big, beautiful brain that’s between your ears. And study.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest – “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes – all available through Amazon.