Most of my studies are Bible book studies and they are mainly narrative or (hi)story books. Many ideas I have listed here can be applied to other kinds of books in the Bible. I hope they will help you as you study the Bible.
I have offered some web sites for further information. I do not necessarily support all the points of view of each site.
- Read, read, read … read. Select a book of the Bible. Don’t take on too large a book to begin with. I wanted to study Christ’s life and ministry so I chose a gospel when I started studying the Bible seriously. Because it was my first book I chose the shortest, the Gospel of Mark. Don’t be discouraged even before starting. Start small and take it in “small bites”.
You might prefer studying a New Testament letter like Philippians. Read the book several times before taking notes. Get a feel for major themes and the general flow of the story or doctrine, and the period of Bible history in which the book took place. This will place the book in its context.
- Read other Bible books related historically to the book you are studying. For example you might read Acts if you chose Philippians because almost a whole chapter of Acts is about Paul’s visit there. If Philippians makes reference to people who appear in other Bible books it would be good follow that trail of information.
- Take notes, but every so often read through the whole book again. This will keep bringing the whole message of the book before you, and help you see how the sections of the book relate to each other.
- Meditate on what you have read and the notes you have taken. The more you read and study the more information you have on which to meditate.
- Purpose or dominant theme: Look for the purpose of the writing of the book and a dominant theme which is highlighted throughout the book. David Gooding points out that the Book of Judges is all about the strategy and tactics of spiritual warfare, illustrated by physical warfare, and that the purpose of the book was to teach Israel war, according to Judges 3:1-6. The lessons taught will teach the disciple of Jesus about spiritual warfare.
- Patterns: You may have noticed that the first 3 gospels have sections of teaching sandwhiched between sections of activity throughout the book. This helps break up the book into shorter more manageable sections. Gooding compares these divisions to movements in music. Once you notice these you then have to decide if a section of activity is “attached” in any special way to the section of teaching immediately before or after it.
- Repetition: Notice people, themes and other items that are repeated.
Joy (rejoicing) is a theme repeated in Philippians. The return of Christ is repeated at the end of each chapter of 1 Thessalonians. Righteousness is a concept repeated often in Romans. Mark’s Gospel opens with preachers, John the Baptist and Jesus, preaching; and ends with the apostles and Jesus’ followers commanded to preach, and preaching wherever they went. Notice how Jesus kept returning to Jerusalem for Jewish feasts, and the groups of people who believed, throughout John’s Gospel.
In Judges we see Israel constantly returning to their idols, and God disciplining Israel through the enemies he sent against her. As Israel repented, God mercifully continued to rescue her from her enemies. This cycle of experience is repeated in chapters 3 through 16 of the book of Judges.
- Comparison and contrast: Notice comparisons, things which are similar in some way, and contrasts, things which are different in some way. Some are pointed out; some are implied. Jesus compared and contrasted the action and the attitude of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up into the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). The comparison is that they both prayed; the contrast was in their very different attitudes as they prayed.
The Pharisee exalted himself and the tax collector humbled himself.
Jesus contrasted the various soils in the parable of the Sower, some soil was pathway, some rocky, some thorny, and some productive to increasing degrees, 30, 60 and 100 fold. Sometimes the contrasts and comparisons are implied and those are cases you will find in my studies on this site, and at other web sites.
Under point 9, below, is a chart of the third division of Mark. In the first column of stories in the chart you can compare Jesus’ power over the elements, demons and sickness/death. In the second column you can compare the rejection of Jesus, his discples and John the Baptist by three groups of people. In the third column you can compare the three conditions of the human heart, hard, faraway from God and contaminated. (http://www.keybibleconcepts.org).
- Progression: A theme with various aspects is developed throughout a book or section, or even a story. The theme “The Gospel of God (1:1)” with its major points of “The Wrath of God (1:18)”, “The Righteousness of God (3:21)”, “The Children of God (9:8 [9:1-8])”, “The Will of God (12:1-2)”, and finally again at the end, “The Gospel of God (15:14-16)”, provide a structure or pattern for Romans.
- Tables of contents in table format: This is an approach you can use to see an overview of a whole section of a book and see the relationships among all the stories in that section.
Following is a sample table from Mark’s Gospel. There are 9 stories or teachings and these form 3 columns of 3 stories each. They emphasize three contexts the universe, society and the heart. (Actually there are 10 stories but two stories are sandwiched together, with two themes that are closely related, sickness and death, 5:21-43, the woman with an issue of blood and Jairus’ daughter.) A major question is answered concerning where Jesus desired to establish his kingdom at that time, whether in the universe, society or the heart.
III. 4:35-7:23 WHERE DOES THE MESSIAH DESIRE TO ESTABLISH HIS KINGDOM?
4:35-41 The Storm
Power over the elements of wind and sea
6:1-6 Jesus in Nazareth
Jesus “rejected” in home town and amongst relatives
6:30-56 Apostles & Crowds
The “hard hearts” of the apostles
Power over thousands of demons
6:7-13 Disciples in the Cities
Warned of “rejection” in the cities where they preach repentance
7:1-13 Pharisees' Tradition
They honor me with their lips but their “hearts are faraway”
5:21-43 The Sick and Dead
Power over sickness and death
6:14-29 John at Herod’s Court
“John Is Risen” – John is “rejected” before Herod's court
7:14-23 From within Man
The sins of the “unclean heart”
Further examples can be found in Gooding’s books on Luke and Acts (http://www.keybibleconcepts.org).
- Chiasm: This is a literary device, used by the book’s author, which emphasizes and clarifies many parts of Scripture by placing stories and sections of doctrine next to or near one another in a crossing pattern. Simply put, a chiasm is a repetition of similar ideas in the reverse sequence. (http://bible->discernments.com/joshua/whatisachiasm.html or http://www.gotquestions.org/chiasm-chiastic.html) I first encountered chiasms and other structures found in the Bible and ancient literature, sometimes in modern literature, in the materials of David Gooding, see http://www.keybibleconcepts.org/index.cfm?id=1.).
- Juxtaposition: The placing of stories and sections of doctrine next to one another in such a way as to emphasize and clarify, whether the format is a chiasm, a table or some other arrangement. Often stories near each other have a lot more to do with each other than what first meets the eye. For example, the six stories in John 2:13-4:54, have a theme at the heart of each story which is related to spiritual life:
1) Spiritual Cleansing of the heart (cleansing of the temple, 2:13-25),
2) Spiritual Birth (conversation with Nicodemus about entering the kingdom, 3:1-21),
3) Spiritual Growth (John’s discussion with a Jew about purification, “He (Jesus) must increase; I (John) must decrease.” 3:22-36),
4) Spiritual Drink (chat with the Samaritan woman about living water to drink, 4:1-26),
5) Spiritual Food (talk with disciples about Jesus’ food being the doing of the will of the Father, 4:27-42),
6) Spiritual Family (healing the nobleman’s son followed by all the family believing, 4:43-54).
- Figures of speech: These are words placed together in such a way as to convey a certain meaning or emphasis, which is not their literal meaning. A few examples of figures of speech are simile, metaphor, hyperbole and irony. Simile is a stated similarity. A metaphor is an implied similarity. Hyperbole is overstatement, and so forth
(http://changingminds.org/techniques/language/figures_speech/figures_speech_alpha.htm, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figure_of_speech, http://grammar.about.com/od/fh/g/Figure-Of-Speech.htm).
Some of the main points in this file could be included under figures of speech but I have selected some of them in order to develop them and explain them more extensively.
Bullinger did a very detailed and extensive study of this topic, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (http://www.amazon.com/Figures-Speech-Used-Bible-Illustrated/dp/0801005590?tag=duckduckgo-d-20).
- Topical study and correlation: To add to your knowledge about themes appearing in the book you are studying you should look up the theme throughout the whole Bible with a Bible concordance such as Strong’s. Many concordances are available in electronic versions within online Bible study programs (The Bible Study App by Olive Tree Bible
Software, Eloquent, e-Sword, and others are free, while there are also programs for purchase). For example you might look up words like “gospel”, “kingdom”, “love”, “kindness”, “patience”, “power” or “wisdom”. The material you find in these searches, or by reading Bible books that relate historically to the one you are studying, will help you correlate the information you are gathering.
It might be even better to begin to look for the topic about which you want more information within the book you are studying, then look for it in books related to that book historically. If you are studying a gospel, you might look for the topic in the other 3 gospels. If you are studying an epistle, look for the topic in the Acts.
If you study an epistle, the Old Testament is a treasure trove of stories illustrating spiritual life. Remember, the Bible is its own best interpreter.
- Implicit: We must exercise care with implicit teaching, because we can form wrong doctrines if interpretation is based on a single story of the Bible. It is essential to find and compare any ideas arising in the study of narrative with passages of doctrine that can be found in other books, such as the Epistles. A careful and robust biblical interpretation is based on more than one portion of the Bible, especially if it is a narrative passage. Bible stories illustrate and add color to "dry" doctrine. Perhaps it is for this reason that almost 70% of the Bible is composed of stories.
- Commentaries: Do some reading in Bible commentaries, dictionaries and encyclopedias. These can help you with difficult passages or ideas and “prime your pump” with new thoughts. If you do not agree with the commentator, think about why, and renew your search in the Bible for reasons why you disagree.
- Observation: Some teachers would say that observation is the first step of three in Bible learning. The other two would be interpretation and application. Most of the preeceding points have to do with observation. A fourth step might be correlation, the step you take as you begin to observe other passages of Scripture in relation to the book or passage you are studying. Correlation could be a subpoint under observation.
- Interpretation: What did the teaching and examples in the Bible book I am studying mean to the people to whom the book was first written? Then, what do the teachings and examples mean to me?
I mentioned earlier Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying. Because Jesus chose the theme of prayer it implies prayer was important to Jesus, and we know from the Bible that the Jews prayed and practiced prayer. The implication is that prayer should be important to us. But Jesus also commended the attitude in prayer of the tax collector and condemned the attitude in prayer of the Pharisee.
The implication for the people of that time was that they should pray with the same attitude as the tax collector, who humbled himself, and not as the Pharisee, who exalted himself. Jesus told this parable against those who trusted in their own righteousness and looked down on others. We should do likewise.
But are we to go up to the Jewish temple to pray? If the temple still existed in Jerusalem we might very well go there to pray if we were Jews, and Jews still do though there is no temple. However, it was revealed to the Jewish apostles of Jesus that Gentiles did not have to observe Jewish customs (Acts 15). It was also revealed that the church as a body, as well as, each disciple are temples of the Holy Spirit (1Corinthians 6:19; 2Corinthians 6:16).
Jesus taught that a time was coming when the Father looked for those who would worship him in spirit and in truth, not in Jerusalem nor in that mountain in Samaria where he was speaking to the woman at the well (John 4:19-24). Alone, or as we gather to worship in local churches, we can as it were “go up into the temple to pray”.
- Application: How does what I am learning apply to me, my family, church, and world? How am I to think and act in response to the commands, examples, and many other things I find in the book I am studying?
Let us return to the theme of prayer in the story of Jesus about the Pharisee and tax collector who prayed. I need to start praying if I am not praying regularly. I need to follow the attitude of the tax collector as I pray, and not that of the Pharisee. I need to trust God’s righteousness, not my own, and not look down on others.
Take time to think of anecdotes or situations in your own life and that of others in which you need wisdom, or of stories that illustrate the application or lack of application of lessons in the Bible book you are studying.
- Prayerful study: Maybe this should have been mentioned first! Bathe your study in prayer. Ask God for help as you choose the book to study, persevere in study, exercise wisdom to understand challenging concepts, and be alert for ways to apply what you learn to your own life.
Sometimes I have gone for three years coming back constantly to stories which related to one another but I had not found the link yet. Then suddenly one day while praying and meditating the answer came! What a joy! The table of the third division of Mark under point 10 illustrates some of those relationships among stories which took me so long to see.
A big temptation will be to try to apply the Bible to others and not to myself. Primarily I must apply the Bible’s teaching to myself.