We all like to think we are great at Bible Study. You pull out your trusty [insert name of favorite translation here] Bible flip it open randomly (hey let’s be real, we all do it) or use your favorite reading plan and get cracking. In the best of times, I’d like to think that I read the Bible with a keen eye and open heart, that I am ready and willing to hear from God, and that I “rightly divide the Word of truth” so that God can truly speak to me.
But if I’m honest, I think that is really probably rarer than I’d like to admit. Most of the time, if I’m honest, I read the Bible like a shotgun trying to hit something and hope that it sticks on my heart. In reality (that is, in the back of my mind) I know that nothing I’m reading or studying in the Bible that day is going to make it past the next 15 minutes…but at least I can pat myself on the back and say I got into God’s Word that day, right?
Whether your experience is more like my idealized version in the first paragraph or the more down to earth version in the second, I think every Christian can admit that at some point they have struggled with Bible Study. That’s what this post is all about. What does it really take to be successful at Bible Study?
What does it really take to be successful at Bible Study?
What do the greatest teachers, preachers, and professors do that make their teaching so powerful, dynamic and convicting? How do they take the Bible a book that is notoriously hard to understand and make it so…down-to-earth?
These are the 4 principles of powerful Bible study…and one bonus. I want to throw in the teaching part too. This can be tricky, and you’ll see why later. For now, let’s just dive right in.
1 | Listen: Be ready to hear from God and anticipate His conviction.
This probably seems like a strange thing to start with. Aren’t we talking about Bible Study? What does that have to do with listening? I’m not suggesting that you should only use audio versions of the Bible. I’m talking about listening to God.
At the end of the day, that’s what Bible study is all about: hearing what God wants to say. Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” It was one of His favorite phrases and every time it signaled that Jesus was about to drop some serious truth on the scene. It was a “Truth Drop.”
I think what Jesus was saying is, “Listen! You need to hear this with your soul.” Before we ever read a page of the Bible, write a single word, or even start thinking through a passage, we have to listen because we need to hear with our soul. Soul hearing is hard. It doesn’t come naturally to us because we are sinners.
It’s the same reason God says throughout the Old Testament that the Israelites had hard hearts. Their problem was that they didn’t know how to listen with their soul. God could speak all day long but it rarely penetrated deep enough to actually affect their hearts.
Newsflash friend: That’s you and me. We have a hard time hearing with our hearts!
As I described above, when my Bible study goes off the rails, 9 times out of 10 it’s not because I didn’t come up with the right application or because I didn’t read the right Bible passage; it’s because I wasn’t ready to hear. I hadn’t truly done the hard work of preparing my soul to listen to what God truly wanted me to hear.
How do you get yourself ready to listen? Humility. Coming to the Bible with the expectation that God will speak and that I want to hear it. Make this your prayer each time before you start your Bible study. Or it can be some simple statements of truth to yourself. Ultimately, it is a core belief that you have to remind yourself of: you are a sinner and you need to change.
The greatest enemy to our Bible study is the lie that we don’t need to change.
2 | Read: The Bible is a Book, that Means You Gotta Study.
Once your heart is ready to listen, jump in with both feet. One of the things that I think about often is all of the ways that God could have used to communicate His truth to us:
- A viral YouTube video
- A Tweet
- Photos on Instagram
- A literal shout from heaven
- Statements written on a wall (that actually happened once)
- Crop circles
- and much more
My point is, there are a million ways that God could have chosen to communicate truth to the human race. But the one way that He chose was a book. Let that sink in for a second. God specifically chose to communicate His truth through a book. What does that mean?
I think it means that it takes rigorous study to understand His truth. Granted, there are parts of the book that are easier to understand, but there are parts that are hard to understand. Some portions of the Bible are dense, others are beautifully written, some are stories, and some are non-fiction. All of these are found within literature and therefore are also found in the Bible.
But the takeaway here is that there isn’t a shortcut when it comes to Bible study. There are no Bible cliff notes. There’s no substitute for real Bible study because the Bible is a book, and to truly understand a book takes real, rigorous study, and learning.
There are no shortcuts for understanding the Bible. It takes hard work.
I’ve heard dozens of people tell me over the years that they don’t like to read or that they aren’t a “book person.” Some say they aren’t into non-fiction or learning from a book. You might think it isn’t fair, but you can’t deny the truth. The Bible is a book. That means all of those statements are excuses that need to be wiped out. You might not be a good reader, you might be bad at studying. You might hate reading deep theological books or find it impossible to get through a commentary on the Bible. You might be dyslexic and have a learning disability. You may have done terribly in school or have never finished a book with more than two hundred pages.
Please hear me: The Bible is a book. That means you have to study and read. There is just NO WAY around it. To truly understand the Truth (with a capital “T”) you have to read and understand the Bible as a book. But God did it for that reason- to force you to take His truth seriously.
All of those other ways to communicate that I mentioned above are easy to ignore. They come and go and are forgotten quickly. But the Bible is the bestselling book of all time. It has remained over the centuries and it becomes fresh every time you read it. The key to reading the Bible for Bible Study is the actual act of studying.
Take your Bible study to a new level by making a commitment to truly study the Bible.
3 | Meditate: Prolonged reflection on a single passage.
Once you’ve prepared your heart to truly listen and you’ve put in the hard work of really studying the Bible and trying to understand what it means, your next step is meditation. Meditation is a prolonged reflection and deep consideration of a single passage or topic in Scripture.
Meditation is where the “magic” happens in Bible Study.
By default, I normally go with my first interpretation or idea of a Bible passage. I think it’s an inherent laziness that we all have. My first impressions tend to be what I gravitate towards. If I’ve previously heard a sermon on a specific topic or a passage in the Bible, what I heard will be what I think. If I’ve previously studied a passage I will just assume that I did a good job the first time around and assume I know what it means.
But this “default first” mentality is a major problem when studying the Bible. That’s exactly one of the reasons that we often don’t listen. Instead, God wants us to come with a fresh and new perspective each and every time. I’m not saying that every passage of Scripture has a deeper meaning. Some passages are pretty straightforward, but others are not. Some passages have so many layers of deeper meaning we will never fully understand them this side of heaven.
I can think of a few dozen times when Jesus quoted scripture only to explain its meaning in a completely different way then the people of the time. How are we supposed to unlock these deeper meanings? How can we uncover the hidden truth in the Bible? How do we get past our lazy ideas to truly understand the Bible? Meditation.
It’s only from deep continued reflection on a single passage of Scripture that we can unlock its true meaning.
It’s only when studying the same Scripture again and again and again that we can truly get a deeper application and the powerful meanings that we miss because of our sinful hearts.
One exercise that is helpful for this is to read the passage 10 different times. Each time, make notes about what it means and how to apply it to your life. You may not get anything new the fourth time or even the fifth time. But just watch what happens the ninth and tenth times. Often the best ideas and the richest application are only unlocked the tenth time through the passage.
This simple exercise is one way to force yourself to meditate on the Bible. It’s a perfect example of what true meditation really looks like. At its core, meditation for Bible study is simply taking the time to stop all of your other thoughts and focus on a single truth or passage of Scripture. Consider it from every angle. Discover hundreds of different applications for it. Even if you think you know everything about a Bible passage, push yourself to think about it until you find something new.
Here’s the “catch” when it comes to meditation. It takes time. That’s why many of us don’t do it. If you plan to schedule some time for deep meditation in your Bible study it’s going to take a lot of time. There’s just no way around it. There’s no substitute for simply thinking through a passage dozens of times. For going through it over and over again. All of that takes time.
It’s why the Apostles in Act 6 chose to elect the first deacons. They realized that their most important job was “prayer and the ministry of the word.” The Apostles had been serving the people alongside their normal duties, but they found that their time was continually being taken up with Bible study and time in prayer. They had to add people to the ministry so that they could focus on the ministry of the Word.
To truly meditate on God’s Word, expect to spend hours- not minutes- in Bible study.
Think of meditation as the process of trying to learn a person. You can start with a list of questions like “what is your favorite movie,” or “why do you always chew gum like a horse?” Even if you get all the answers to a list of prepared questions, do you really know a person? It takes more than just answering some simple questions to truly know someone. In the same way, it takes more than just some simple exposition to truly know the Scriptures.
In fact, we are told that the Bible is more than just a book. It is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). We are told that “the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). I think this passage tells us something important about the Bible that we often overlook in our Bible study.
The Word is a person. The Truth is a man. The Scriptures are living because they are the living One.
Jesus cannot be separated from the Bible. When we meditate on the Bible we are meditating on Him. When we study the scriptures, we are learning His personality and heart. That process takes time and it takes meditation. It can’t be rushed in the same way that getting to know a friend takes time. Approach the Scriptures as a living person and it will transform your Bible study.
4 | Apply: Looking at your life from God’s Perspective.
Although every piece of this process is important, this step is where life change actually happens. This is where God speaks the loudest. It’s where we are convicted and shown how we need to change.
Application is where who you are meets who God wants you to be.
What I love about application is that it can almost be infinite. There might be only one meaning of a given passage of Scripture but there are almost limitless applications. The question is, what does this truth look like in real life? For every situation, there is an application. For every person, there could be hundreds. For a group of people, like a church or a Bible study group, there could be thousands!
But where I go wrong with application is tending to apply truth to everyone else but myself. UGH! That defeats the entire purpose of God’s Word. Remember when we talked about listening? This is where listening begins. After I’ve put in the hard work of studying and the time of meditation to gain a true understanding of what the passage is saying that is where God wants to jump in and change me. He wants to speak into my life and tell me how to be more like Him.
Let me be honest for a second here. It’s way easier to think of the application for everyone else than for myself. It’s easy to see how this truth applies to my wife, or my kids, or my co-workers. But it’s a lot harder to see how it applies to ME! Yet I am the person that God wants to change in Bible study.
Applying the Bible to our lives is derailed by trying to apply it to other people.
I’m sure you’ve had this experience too. I’m spending time thinking about how something applies in everyday life and all I can think about are all the people that really need to hear this. If only my neighbor could understand this. If only my Pastor would preach this it would really solve a lot of the problems in our church. Yep, that’s what we do. Instead, God wants us to ignore everyone else and just focus on ourselves.
We have to humble, we have to stop worrying about other people’s obedience and ask God to show us how it applies to our own personal life. That’s where change happens. And obedience. This takes a certain amount of self-awareness. Can you be honest with yourself?
Can you look at your life and evaluate if this is something that you’re practicing? That’s why all the other steps of this process are so vital. If you’ve come this far, hopefully, you are ready to truly change. But self-awareness is hard. The Bible says “the heart is deceitfully wicked…who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). What I love about that passage is the verse that follows it, “I the LORD search the heart” (Jeremiah 17:10). Yes, our hearts lie to us. They stop us from seeing ourselves the way we really are. But God knows our hearts more deeply and intimately than we could ever.
God uses Bible study to show us the truth about what lives in the deepest part of our hearts.
Sometimes our hearts can be really ugly because of our sin. But the Bible uncovers those things, shows them to us, and tells us how to change in the power of the Spirit.
At the end of the day, that is what Bible study is all about. It’s not about gaining spiritual knowledge. Bible fatheads never did anyone any good. In fact, the Bible says that “knowledge puffs up.” Instead, God wants His people to be laser focused on application and change.