How to Improve Your Personal Bible Study
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Author of the JesusWalkฎ Bible Study Series
Every sincere Christian wants to have a more meaningful personal Bible study,
to understand the Bible better. While learning the Bible is the joyful task of a
lifetime, I'd like to offer several suggestions that can enrich your Bible
Bible Reading vs. Bible Study
First, recognize that Bible reading and Bible study are both important, but
different. In order to grow, you need to read the Bible every day as part of
your time with God -- your devotions or Quiet Time. During this daily time with
God I recommend prayer, wide Bible reading, praise, thanksgiving, confession,
and meditation -- these are ways to reach out to God with your spirit. Bible
reading is one way of letting God refresh your spirit and speak to your mind.
If you really want to learn the Bible, I recommend that you read broadly
rather than narrowly. A one-verse devotional may be quick, but it won't really
help you understand the Bible. I try each morning to read one chapter from the
Old Testament, one chapter from Psalms or Proverbs, and one chapter from the New
Testament. If I'm consistent, this will get me through the Old Testament once
each year and the New Testament twice. That's an example of broad reading and
takes five to 10 minutes a day -- 15 minutes if the day's chapters are long.
But Bible reading as part of your daily devotions should be separate from
your times of Bible study. Let me explain.
Blocks of Time for In-Depth Bible Study
Bible study, as opposed to reading, concentrates on a single topic, Bible
character, or book of the Bible for closer study.
For example, right now in the New Testament I'm reading the Epistle to the
Hebrews. I'm realizing that though I've read it many times, I need to dig in and
figure out what it's really saying. That's where Bible study comes in. Bible
study takes a longer block of uninterrupted time. Perhaps you'll set aside 30 to
45 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday nights for in-depth Bible study, or an hour
on Saturday mornings before the family is up -- or perhaps longer. Blocks of
time are important to Bible study.
Learn to Ask Questions
The real key to Bible study is being inquisitive, learning to ask questions
of the text. First, read the passage. Then be a detective; look for clues.
What's going on? What stands out to you? What don't you understand? Look for
anomalies -- things that you might not expect to find here. Consider, for
example, the familiar dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus:
1 "Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a
member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night
and said, 'Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no
one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with
3 In reply Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no one can
see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.'
4 'How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus asked.
'Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!'
5 Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, no one can enter the
kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh
gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You
should not be surprised at my saying, "You must be born again." 8
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell
where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the
Spirit.'" (John 3:1-8, NIV)
Several questions occur to me as I read this:
- Where does this incident take place?
- What did members of the Pharisee party typically believe? How were they
viewed in society?
- What does it mean that Nicodemus is a member of the "Jewish ruling
council" or Sanhedrin? What does this tell me about him?
- Why did he come by night?
- Why does Jesus respond as he does to Nicodemus' introductory remarks in
verse 2? Isn't Jesus a bit abrupt or rude in verse 3?
- Is Nicodemus' response in verse 4 mocking or is it a sincere question?
- What does "born of water" mean in verse 6? What does "born of the
Spirit" mean? What does "born again" mean in verse 3?
- What does the wind analogy in verse 8 teach us about the Holy Spirit?
You get the idea. Your questions of this passage might be different than
mine, but that's okay. There are no right or wrong questions. But questions are
vital, since they provide direction to where you're going in your Bible study.
Give yourself freedom to follow some "rabbit trails," to explore one theme and
then another as you get acquainted with a passage.
The questions will vary depending on the passage you're studying, but here
are some typical questions:
- Who wrote or said this?
- When was it written or said?
- Where did this happen?
- To whom was it written or said?
- What circumstance or event prompted this incident or teaching?
- Why did the person act as he did? Or say what he said?
- How can I apply or emulate or obey what I learn in this passage?
You'll be able to think of more questions. The key is to develop a
questioning mind, and you'll learn. You won't find answers to all your
questions, of course, but over time many will be answered.
Take Notes on What You Learn
One main difference between reading and studying is writing down what you
learn. This isn't just so you'll remember it later. The very act of writing
requires you to formulate your thoughts clearly. Writing forces you to recognize
fuzzy thinking for what it is and push beyond it. Write down what you're
learning because it helps you understand it better.
I recommend that you begin a notebook in which to record your observations or
research. Forty years ago I began taking notes on 8-1/2" x 11" binder paper. In
the left margin I would record the date. In the top right corner I would record
the book, chapter, and verses of the passage I was studying. This made it easy
to file my notes in scripture order. I began with a single 3-ring binder, but
now my binders fill a five-foot bookshelf and beyond. I look back at some of my
early insights and am reminded of how the Holy Spirit has taught me over the
Start small, but take notes in a way that can be expanded easily. Another
approach is to get a bound book that you can take notes in -- a kind of journal.
(I've tried that, too.) Journaling has great value, but a bound notebook that
contains many topics is difficult to organize or index in such a way that you
can find your notes on a particular verse in the future. That's why I really
like the binder paper approach. You could also take notes on a computer, naming
the files in such a way that you can find them again or search an entire folder
for a word or phrase. It's probably a good idea to print out your notes when
you're finished and file them, however, since computer files have a way of
getting lost after a few years.
I am so glad I began the habit of note-taking with my Bible study. Now
when I study a passage again, I know what I learned the last time I studied it
and what I need to explore next. For Bible teachers, small group leaders, and
preachers, such a notebook of previous studies becomes especially valuable.
Get a Good Translation
One of the keys to learning the Bible is to get a good translation. You know,
of course, that the Bible wasn't written in English, but in Hebrew (and a bit of
Aramaic) in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament. A translation
tries to render the original language into clear, accurate English. There are
two types of translations:
- Literal word-for-word translation. This makes for accuracy, but
can be pretty wooden to read out loud. A good example of this type is the
New American Standard Bible.
- Dynamic thought-for-thought correspondence. Here the translator
takes a thought in the original language and tries to translate it into the
same concept in good English, without being tied to the exact words in the
original. A good example of this might be Today's English Version (TEV).
The best study Bible contains a balance of both. You want a careful, accurate
translation, but one that reads easily and clearly for family devotions or
Another issue is the underlying Greek and Hebrew text. The KJV translators
worked with the best texts available to them in 1611, but in the last 150 years
we have gained a much more accurate understanding of what the original text must
have been. Nearly all modern translations are enriched by the translators
working from the most accurate Greek and Hebrew texts possible.
Here are some of the most popular English translations. Your church or
tradition may have a particular preference, but any one of these might be a good
choice for you:
- The King James Version (KJV, 1611) is, of course, the granddaddy
of our English Bibles. For its day it was a very accurate translation and is
still used in many congregations today. In 1984, the New King James
Version (NKJV) was published as a whole Bible by Thomas Nelson.
Translators modernized the language of archaic words substantially and
removed most of the "thee's and thou's," through the original language basis
remained the same as the KJV of 1611. For churches with a strong King James
tradition, the NKJV is a popular alternative.
- The New International Version (NIV) was first translated as a
whole Bible by evangelical scholars in 1973, with revisions in 1983 and
1988. It is an excellent balance between readability and accuracy of
translation. For years it has been the most popular newer translation in the
United States, especially among evangelical churches.
- New American Standard Bible (NASB or NASV), translated by the
Lockman Foundation, was published in the whole Bible in 1971 and revised in
1977. Its big strength is its consistency in literally translating words and
tenses. It is known as a very accurate translation, though perhaps not as
easy to read aloud as some others.
- New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989) and its predecessor the
Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952) are careful translations in the King
James tradition. Several Protestant denominations prefer the NRSV. It is
both accurate and readable.
Of course there are many other modern translations, many of them good for
serious Bible study, too numerous to list here. The Living Bible and
The Message are not translation, but paraphrases. They can be refreshing to
read but aren't good Bibles for careful study.
Learning to Use a Study Bible
After you've decided what translation to use, I encourage you to purchase a
study Bible, since it will contain a number of tools in one volume that can help
you dig deeper. Nearly every Bible publisher offers a study Bible. Your local
Christian bookstore can help you figure out which one is right for you. Here are
some of the features that you'll come to appreciate:
- Cross References. In a column next to the text, a study Bible
lists several other verses with a similar idea or theme. For example, for
"Nicodemus" in John 3:1, my Bible refers me to John 7:50 and 19:39 where he
appears again. For "Rabbi" in verse 2, the cross references send me to
Matthew 23:7 which has nine more references on this topic that I can
explore. These cross references won't be comprehensive, but will point out
the main passages that discuss this idea.
- Bible Book Introductions. It's important to know something about
the author, date, themes, circumstances, and intended audience of the Bible
book or letter you're studying. In most study Bibles you'll find one to
three pages of introductory comments for each book with a brief outline.
- Study Notes or Annotations. Study Bibles have footnotes at the
bottom of the page to help explain some of the more obscure ideas you'll run
across -- a kind of mini-commentary. Remember, these aren't part of the
Bible itself, but can often point you in the right direction in your study.
These notes are usually indexed for easy reference.
- Concordance. You've had a verse on the tip of your tongue, but
don't know exactly where it is. A concordance helps you find a Bible passage
if you can think of a key word or two that the verse contains. A concordance
can also help you find other verses that teach a concept or use a word found
in the passage you're studying.
- Topical Index. In addition to a concordance, some study Bibles
have a separate topical index that helps you find scripture references on a
- Maps. Part of understanding what's happening in narrative
passages of Scripture is learning the geography, the location of cities,
battles, mountains, valleys, enemies, etc.
Other features you may find include articles on various topics, a brief Bible
dictionary, outlines of topics and Bible books, index of place names, time
lines, and so on.
Specialized Tools for the Next Step
Obtaining a study Bible is the place to begin. But as your Bible studies
increase, you may want to invest in some more specialized books. Some to
- Bible Handbook. Provides a great deal of information about each
book of the Bible, life in Bible times, history of the English Bible, etc.
- Bible Dictionary. Brief articles on each significant subject,
word, and person in the Old and New Testaments. You'll often find helpful
summaries of Bible teaching.
- Bible Concordance. While study Bibles provide an abridged
concordance, you can find an unabridged concordance that helps you find
every occurrence of a particular word in the Bible. The best-known of these
is Strong's Concordance (based on the KJV) which identifies each
Greek and Hebrew word, and gives it a brief definition and a number. Now
concordances are available for the NIV and NASB containing Strong's
- Bible Commentary. Bible commentaries provide an overview and
running explanation of each book of the Bible. A good place to start might
be with a fairly recent one-volume commentary on the whole Bible. There are
also a number of inexpensive commentary series available that cover each
book in the Bible, if you want to study a particular book in greater depth.
- Word Study tools include an interlinear New Testament that shows
the Greek text on one line and a literal English translation below it. A
Greek-English Lexicon provides clear, precise definitions for each Greek
word in the New Testament. Some of these are keyed to Strong's numbers so
they can be used by students who haven't learned to read Greek letters.
Similar resources are available for Hebrew as well.
- Topical Bible. A topical Bible will give a great many scripture
references listed by topic. Great if you're doing a topical or thematic
- Bible Atlas. An atlas contains more than detailed maps. It also
describes the geography and places of the Bible, usually with fascinating
illustrations and archeological details.
If you need advice on Bible study books, ask your pastor or the manager of a
These days many Bible study resources are available online at no cost, such
as Crosswalk Bible Study Tools (bible.crosswalk.com). You can also purchase
excellent Bible study software for your computer.
Don't Forget the Most Important Step
It's possible to be so engrossed in Bible study that you forget the most
important purpose of Bible study. It's not Bible knowledge for its own sake nor
being able to quote verses and recite orthodox doctrine. Ultimately, the purpose
of Bible study is to learn exactly what the Bible teaches so that you can
apply its teachings to your life.
Perhaps the simplest approach to Bible study is to use the three basic
inductive Bible study questions to ask of a Bible passage:
- What does it say?
- What did it mean to those reading it in Bible times?
- What does it mean to me as I seek to apply it to my life?
My prayer is that your Bible study results in a heart that is tender to
listen to what the Spirit is saying to you through Scripture and a will that is
determined to live out in your everyday life what you're learning.
Dr. Ralph Wilson is a California pastor, director of Joyful Heart Renewal
Ministries, and author of more than a dozen free
online Bible studies from the Old and
New Testaments. Each Bible study is also
available in e-book and printed format (www.jesuswalk.com/ebooks). Copyright ฉ
2006, Ralph F. Wilson <firstname.lastname@example.org>. All rights reserved.