– Thank you to Dr. Al Bean, PV Community Group leader and retired Old Testament professor, for major contributions to this resource.

The Bible is made up of sixty-six books, each with its own author, time and place of writing, and purpose.* So, studying the Bible book-by-book allows us to see the diversity of God’s written revelation and then to see how the books fit together. Using a good study Bible and a handful of additional resources, this is one effective strategy for studying a Bible book.

God gave His Word to us through the minds, mouths, and hands of real people living in real circumstances. His message came to an audience made up of His people: B.C. people (Israel) and A.D. people (the church). Our first task will be to understand what God said to the original hearers and readers which involves understanding their time and place, their needs and concerns, their faithfulness and sin. Once we understand what God spoke to them, we can see how God says the same or a similar word to us. So how do we tap into God’s written revelation?  Here are four reliable steps to studying a book of the Bible.

Identify the Kind of Literature

The first step in studying a book of the Bible is to determine what kind of book it is. Biblical books vary in type. Broadly speaking we have history, “law,” prophecy, poetry, letters, gospels, among others. Each kind of writing needs to be approached a little differently. New Testament letters, for instance, were written to specific persons or places, so we need to understand the situation addressed and the purpose of the writer.

For example, the book of Acts is historical in nature, as Luke recounts the work of the Holy Spirit in the early years of the church. It must therefore be studies accordingly, not as a primary source for developing doctrine, but rather as a historical narrative.

However, God didn’t inspire such books as Samuel or Exodus or Acts simply to tell us what happened in the past. He used history-writing to show us how He works, using godly and ungodly people and nations to accomplish His purposes.

Identifying the kind of literature a book is will help us determine our approach to the book and see how it fits within the larger theological structure of the entire Bible.

Most study Bibles include enough background and introductory information for each book to help you determine the type of literature it consists of.  Here are three suggested resources that address in greater detail how to read different kinds of biblical writing:

Read the Bible for Life, George Guthrie   |  Preview Video

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Fee and Stuart  |  Preview

40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, Robert Plummer

Understand the Writing Context

The second step in getting our minds around a biblical book is to learn what we can about the historical context of the writer and his audience. This is one of the more difficult steps and therefore the most overlooked. What was going on among or around the people of God? What were they doing, hearing, or asking? Often we can answer these questions by carefully reading the biblical book looking for clues.

For instance, why did Amos speak out about justice? It was because God saw injustice among His people. Paul wrote about love because some of the Corinthians did not love one another. We can answer questions about the historical context by using reference works, too. Bible dictionaries, commentaries, notes in Study Bibles, and internet resources are all helpful resources in understanding backgrounds. (Many public libraries have good biblical reference books.)

Understanding context is particularly significant is studying prophetic books such as Amos or historical books like Nehemiah. International events affected the people of God, as did the economy. We want to know about their religious life and their political life. Some books such as Psalms, Job, or the Gospels take a different sort of background reading. The point to remember is that God works in real time, addressing real situations.  In order to accurately read and interpret a book of the Bible, it’s essential to have at least a basic understanding of the context within which it was written.

Again, most study Bibles, and certainly commentaries, will provide basic background information for each book.  However, here are several helpful resources in better understanding the context of a book’s writing:

New Testament

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary: New Testament

Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Everett Ferguson

Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, Julius Scott

Paul’s Metaphors: Their Context and Character, David Williams

Old Testament

Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament

IVP Explore the Bible Series

Explore the Content

When we understand something of the setting of a book, we’re ready to work more with the content. We want to read the book carefully making sure we understand the words. While God’s Word was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic (a language similar to Hebrew), and Greek, scholars have provided us good English translations. In fact, scholars have given us so many translations we often wonder how to choose one to use in our study.  For study, as opposed to reading, devotions, etc., use a translation that tries to stay close to the original languages. The New American Standard Bible, The English Standard Version, The New King James Version, The NET Bible are examples of such a translation.

Online resources on choosing a Bible translation:

Why So Many Translations?How to Choose a Translation [videos]

Understanding Methods of Bible Translation

Synopsis of the Best Known Bible Translations and Versions

History of the English Bible

Suggested book:

How to Choose a Translation for All It’s Worth, Fee and Strauss

Whatever translation we use for study, as we read the book, we need to be alert to such things as:

  • The way changes in subject, repeated use of phrases, etc. show us the structure or outline of the book. You may even make your own outline as you read.
  • The logical flow of the book. For instance, in Amos 1-2, God reasoned that since He punished pagan nations that didn’t know Him, shouldn’t He punish Israel which claimed to know God? Paul often divided his books into two parts, the theological basis for his instruction and then the practical application itself.
  • Words the author seems to emphasize by reusing them, words such as justice, transgressions, law, grace, righteousness, etc. We may have heard these words many times, but what do they mean in the book we’re studying?

Again, we can use many of the same resources mentioned earlier to answer questions that arise, biblical encyclopedias, biblical dictionaries, commentaries, and various on-line resources. But our study of God’s Word should be our very own. The resources are simply tools to be used.

Suggested resources:

Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson

Living by the Book, Howard Hendricks

Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament, Kevin Vanhooser

Theological Interpretation of the New Testament, Kevin Vanhooser

Retain What You’ve Learned

By this time we have learned a great deal about our book, Amos, Galatians, or whatever book we’re studying. So we want to remember what we’ve learned. Various ways we can do this include writing a paragraph on the books setting, outlining the book, writing a “The Main Message is…” statement, working through a personal contemporary application of what we’ve discovered.  [Fee and Stuart’s, How to Read the Bible Book by Book, provides a good model for preserving the results of your study.]  Above all, we want to remember the Bible is God’s self-revelation, so the most important question we ask in Bible study is “What does this book tell us about God?”

How to Memorize Scripture: Tips and Ideas

 

Group Leader’s Toolbox Suggested Resources:

40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, Robert Plummer

Living by the Book, Howard Hendricks

Read the Bible for Life, George Guthrie

30 Days to Understanding the Bible, Max Anders

How to Read the Bible Book by Book, Fee and Stuart

How to Choose a Translation for All It’s Worth, Fee and Strauss

__________

* Each of the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles was divided into two parts because of their length. Also, Paul was the author of Romans-Philemon; but each of his letters has a particular focus, time, etc.

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