A practical guide on how to study the bible with tips, recommendations, and a beginner’s introduction to bible study methods.
Bible study can be overwhelming! Scripture certainly isn’t easy to understand. It uses language and symbolism that are rooted in cultures and times very different from our own. I often finish my studies even more confused than I started! But our readings are not just an exercise in literary analysis. The Bible is God’s Word, spoken from His Heart into our own. When we spend time studying Scripture, Jesus invites us to take our place in his story of love and salvation. And even in the times when we end up with more questions than answers, we can trust that God is right here, drawing us closer, and giving us the restoration we need.
No matter where you are in your bible study journey, whether you are just starting out or wanting to get back to basics, I hope you will find this guide on how to study the bible helpful and encouraging!
Where to start studying the Bible?
1. Begin with the familiar.
You don’t need to start reading your Bible from beginning to end. Most first time readers who try this find themselves breezing through the epic stories of Genesis and Exodus, only to get bogged down when they reach the rule lists of Leviticus. Instead, start with what you’re most familiar with. Try exploring the stories of Jesus in the book of Mark (the shortest Gospel in the New Testament) or Luke. Another great place to start is Acts or Paul’s letters.
2. Begin by chasing your curiosities!
Choose a topic you are interested in. You might want to know what the Bible teaches about marriage, or patience, or hope. Maybe you always wanted to learn more about prayer practices or the role of the Holy Spirit. We can even study the symbolism of water or fire in the Bible. Check your Bible’s subject index for more ideas.
3. Begin with a biographical study.
The Bible is a story of God and His people. These are real men and women, just like us, living out their faith and facing challenges. We witness their strengths and weaknesses. And when we study their histories, we see that God can do amazing things in and through ordinary people.
4. Begin with a book.
There are 66 books in the Bible written over a thousand years and in different literary forms. Each book has its own main themes and context. Our relationship with God is a developing one. God reveals Himself to us gradually. And what He tells people to do changes from one part of the Bible to another. God Himself doesn’t change, but as we grow He’s able to reveal more about Himself and His will for us. Through scripture the Spirit continues to reveal new truth that can speak directly to our current challenges. When we study the different books in the Bible, we get to witness this evolving relationship and allow these texts to bring new meaning into our lives.
How to Create a Bible Study Routine
1. Choose a time
With two busy children running around my house, it’s not always easy to find a quiet time to study my Bible. I find getting up a little early, before the kids wake up, works best. Spending some one-on-one time with God helps me start my day with more purpose and peace. When I’m facing a difficult situation or confusion, this meditative time can help me find the answers I need and direction for the tasks ahead. The Word nourishes my soul and gives me strength and perspective. Which ever time you choose, make a date with God and put it in your calendar. It doesn’t have to be everyday. The important thing is to be consistent.
2. Create your space.
Find a space in your home that is comfortable and free of distractions. Keep a basket with all your bible study resources at hand (see my recommendations at the end of this post!), a cozy blanket if it is cold, and good lighting to read by. Don’t forget to make some tea or a delicious smoothie to sip!
3. Open with prayer.
The Bible is a living and dynamic text. Opening in prayer reminds us that God continues to teach and connect with us through His Word. Prepare your heart by asking the Holy Spirit to guide and inspire your study and interpretations.
4. Choose a reading.
Check out the suggestions on “Where to start studying your Bible” above or choose a more formal reading plan. There are many free reading plans available online. Recently, the She Reads Truth Bible publishers have started creating chronological and thematic reading plans with free devotionals for each day. You can find their list of current and archived plans here.
5. Explore your reading’s book introduction.
Most study Bibles have introductions written by the editors to help you understand the author, audience, date, context, and major themes of each book. This sets the stage for what comes after and can give you a better perspective on your reading.
6. Choose a Bible Study Method
This is where we get to have some fun interacting with the text. There are different methods we can use to open up our reading. Choose what feels right for you. When you study this passage another time, try a different approach and see how that changes your understanding. Explore my top 3 bible study methods in the following section.
7. Close in prayer
Thank God for the blessing of this special time together and for deepening our understanding of His Truth.
Best 3 Bible Study Methods
1. The Västerås Method
This method was developed by a Swedish pastor for small group study, but it works just as well for personal study. There are 5 steps which encourage us to think deeply.
1. Read aloud
Begin by reading a short passage out loud. Our Bible was meant to be heard. These stories originated in the oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation. I sincerely believe that reading our Bible aloud helps us become more active participants in the story.
2. Mark your passage
Mark your passage with the following symbols to highlight questions, insights, and ideas. Don’t hesitate to add notes to your Bible!
💡 Look for lightbulbs! These are the ideas that ‘shine’ and really resonate with you. Mark any phrases that give you new understanding or encouragement. Maybe there was a phrase that seemed to speak to a challenge you are facing. I love these ‘aha!’ moments.
❓ Mark your questions. Underline or add a question mark next to any text you don’t understand. Write down any other questions or points you want to learn more about in the margin. Now, try and answer them!
i. Read your Bible’s footnotes. These notes include helpful information about cultural and historical context. The world of the Old and New Testaments are very different from our own. Your footnotes give important details about the customs and symbols you come across, along with word studies and explanations of terms.
ii. Use the cross-references list. These cross-reference notes are often found alongside the biblical text. They direct our attention to another place in the Bible where we can find a similar theme. Many topics are repeated in the Bible. Using the cross-reference allows us to explore these topics as a whole. How does comparing your passage with other passages change your interpretation?
If you still have questions, try consulting a study guide reference book, discussing with a trusted Christian friend, or sending a note to your pastor.
❤ Find the hearts. This is the main message of the passage. Look for phrases that tell you about God and His good news for us.
➡ Follow those arrows. Draw an arrow next to any action or application points you found in your reading.
2. The Inductive Bible Study Method
Another well loved approach to Bible study is the Inductive Bible Study method. It’s a detailed 3 step process which emphasizes how our understanding of the biblical text can transform our relationships and actions.
1. Observation: What does the text say?
Mark key words and main themes.
Circle keywords or names that are repeated and seem essential to the text’s message. You might want to create a color code that you use throughout all your studies. Red for love, yellow for joy, blue for salvation, a cross for Jesus, and so forth. Also be on the look out for lists. For example, Galatians 2:22-23 lists the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). James 3:13-17 explores the difference between earthly wisdom and true wisdom. These lists can reveal important concepts and truths. Looking for these details helps us discern the biblical author’s intended purpose. When you are done, try to sum up the chapter theme in one or two sentences.
Note your passage’s structure and form.
What type of literary form is your passage? Narrative? Wisdom literature? Poetry? How is the passage structured? Look out for comparisons (linked with words “like,” or “as”), contrasts that are made ( search for the word “but”), conditional statements (find the “if”), and conclusions (“therefore,” “thus,” “so then”). Are there any time words that help us understand the sequence of events or ideas? Watch for words such as “after,” “as soon as,” “later,” “now,” “when,” or “until.” All this ‘grammar’ can help us identify the author’s main and supporting points.
Be a detective and ask the “5 Ws and an H”.
With your passaged marked up, re-read the text and ask Who? What? When? Why? and How? Make notes in your study journal whenever you come across information that can help answer these questions.
- Who? Who is talking in this story? Who is he/she talking to? Who are they talking about? Who is the author? Whom is the author speaking to?
- Where? Where is this story taking place or will take place?
- When? When was this passage written? When did these events happen?
- What? What is the context? What are the main events? What are the characters doing? What was the author’s purpose?
- How? How did something happen or will happen?
2. Interpretation: What does the text mean?
Respect context: To responsibly interpret the Bible, we must reflect on both its historical and literary context. Use your footnotes to appreciate the cultural context of our author. Is your interpretation consistent with its book’s purpose and themes? (Check your book introduction for some clues). Does it match your author’s intent?
Let Scripture interpret Scripture: Explore the cross-reference notes to show how our current passage relates to other passages. It’s important to avoid interpreting our passages in isolation. Let our “scripture interpret scripture.” Reflect on what comes before and after and how it fits within the larger biblical narrative.
Let the passage speak for itself: We often think the bible is something mysterious and spend a lot of time looking for hidden meanings! Trust in the message the Spirit is telling you. Interpret symbolic language in its historical context as the author intended its use. And although it can be difficult, try not to read your own opinions into the text.
3. Application: Live the message.
The last step in the Inductive Bible Study method is to apply our interpretations to our everyday life. How can you put the message you have received into action? How does this revelation change your attitudes and opinions? What have you learned about your relationship with God and other people?
3. The Topical Bible Study Method
The topical bible study method encourages us to meditate and pray over a particular problem, question, or subject.
1. Choose your topic
Start by asking yourself, “I want to learn more about ….” This could be a word, person, or attribute you have been curious about or a challenge you are seeking a solution for. Keep it simple and try to narrow it down to one word or concept.
2. Look it up
The concordance at the back of your study Bible is a great place to start. A concordance is an alphabetized list of words found in the Bible and the main scriptural passages they can be found. You can also look topics up online. Check out this list of online concordances from biblestudytools.com, just remember, a concordance is translation specific so be sure to pick the one that matches your Bible. Some Bibles also include cross-reference notes in the margins next to each passage. Another interesting study can be comparing the same verses in different Bible translations!
3. Record your passages
Choose several verses to compare. Write them down in your study journal.
4. Get the context
Now take some time to explore each of your passages in context. Read the verses that come before and after. Ask questions about who the author is, who they were speaking to, and their purpose in writing.
5. Look for patterns
Summarize the main points in each passage. Reflect on your notes and consider the relationship between these verses and their meaning as a whole. What is God telling you about this subject? Note what is the same and what is different! These differences can give you a more nuanced understanding.
6. Bring it to life!
How can you apply this teaching to your life? Come up with one or two practical steps you can take today to put this message into action.
Your Bible Study Basket: Recommended resources to get started
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Create a Bible Study Basket of resources to inspire and assist you in your Scripture interpretation. Here are some ideas to get your started:
A good study Bible is like a treasured friend and travel companion as we venture into God’s Word. Look for a Bible published by reputable editors with features like book introductions, study notes, topic articles, translation notes, maps, a good concordance or cross-reference note system, and lots of space to add your own questions and reflections. Check out my post on the 5 Best Study Bibles for Women with tips on what to look for in your new study Bible, how to choose a bible translation, and reviews of my favorite Study Bibles for Women.
As mentioned above, a Bible Concordance is a reference tool that lists in alphabetical order words found in the Bible and their Biblical references. For instance, if you wanted to learn more about doves in the Bible, your concordance would lead you to passages like Matthew 3:16 and Genesis 8:8. Most study Bibles have a condensed concordance in the pages at the back. This is a great resource! For more intensive topical Bible Studies, a separate and fuller Bible Concordance can help you explore less common topics. Again, just remember that concordances are specific to your Bible translation and purchase one to match.
A Bible Dictionary can be another helpful reference tool in your Bible Study Basket. You can use your dictionary to understand more about the people, customs, events, and words you come across in your reading. They will often include not only a concise definition of the word but articles that go deeper to help us fully understand related topics, Hebrew or Greek origins, and pronunciation guides.
Get a new perspective by adding a devotional or stand-alone guide to your bible study. You may want to explore an in-depth study of a Bible book like in the Ecclesiastes: Wisdom For Living Well Guide by Courtney Joseph, or follow a devotional with reflection questions and a daily reading plan like The Bible in 52 Weeks: A Yearlong Bible Study for Women by Dr. Kimberley Moore, or be inspired by biblical figures in studies like Elijah: Faith and Fire by Priscilla Shirer. The possibilities are endless! Just do a search for Bible study guides on Amazon or ChristianBook.com for some ideas.
Pre-cut, self-adhesive book tabs can be added into your Bible to make make it easier to navigate through the different books.
Choose a journal that inspires you to keep your notes and interpretations. Looking back at previous journals can show you how much you have grown in your relationships and understanding. Tip – pick a journal with a hardcover design to help protect your pages and a lay flat format. I like spiral bound notebooks best.