What follows below is some simple advice for reading your Bible and specifically how to understand a specific passage in depth. This advice is specifically geared towards teachers and similar to how I myself prepare to preach for our church. This post obviously does not say everything that could be said about Bible study, but it’s least a start. I hope it’s a help to the folks at my church and anyone else who reads it.
- First, understand the passage in its broader context.
Whatever the passage may be, gain a preliminary standing of the whole book that you are studying. Read introductory sections in study Bibles or introductions to the OT or NT that summarize and outline the book that you want to study. Know as much as you can about the author, audience, setting (time and places of author and audience), etc. Read the book for yourself several times, and outline the book passage by passage. If possible, identify key verses in which the author states his purpose for the whole book.
- Second, understand the passage itself.
If the passage is short enough, write it out by hand word for word. Narrative passages make this step difficult if the passage is longer, but reading it several times and taking notes can still be helpful. Once written, jot more notes next to your hand-written passage to identify each part of your passage and how its parts relate to others: (1) words – if a word could have multiple meanings, what does each word mean in this particular context? Are there connector words that tie what follows to what has gone before? (2) phrases – e.g., prepositional phrases – what word does this phrase modify? Are there parallel phrases that act as a series? A list? A progression of actions? (3) clauses – Is the clause subordinate to another clause? Is the clause independent (it makes for a sentence by itself)? Are the clauses assertions, commands, questions, etc.? (4) paragraphs – How does one figure out when the paragraph begins and ends? Are there repeated words? Commands? A theological theme? Are there transition words that begin one paragraph to the next? Usually what we think of as a “passage” is often a paragraph of Scripture, especially in the letters of the NT. (5) units – Do multiple paragraphs fit together? (6) whole Books – How does a paragraph or unit bring out the theme of a book? (7) testament – How does this passage and book fit within the storyline of the gospel in its testament? What time was this book written? Was it written before or after other books? (8) whole Bible – How does this passage and book fit within the Bible as a whole? How does it touch upon the gospel? What does it tell us about God’s rule over us and His desire to fellowship with us forever? Recognize if your passage touches on a theological theme that other parts of Scripture mention as well. How does this passage contribute to a broader theological theme? The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge is a great reference tool that is helpful for finding similar passages can be bought or found online for free.
- Third, if preparing to teach through the passage, make an outline of your passage and then make a succinct statement that captures the big idea of your passage.
Now that you have a good understanding of the passage for yourself, read a sound, exegetical commentary or two on your passage. Use Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias to look up names, key words, etc. Study Bibles will often give concise interpretations for difficulties in a passage. The MacArthur Study Bible is the first that I would recommend.
- Fourth, if preparing to preach through the passage, turn your big idea statement into something that people can hear and get the idea of the passage right away.
Turn your outline is to something easy to hear and follow – use alliteration, key words, etc. Figure out a title for your sermon that memorably captures the big idea in just a phrase. Then make your notes in such a way as to explain the text to someone who has never heard it before. Finally, practice and time yourself. Nothing quite matches the experience of actually standing before God’s people and preaching, but practicing and preparing always helps. As Paul told Timothy with reference to Timothy’s Bible study, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 ESV).
Your fellow Christians will notice your hard work and appreciate what you have prepared for them. They are not looking for perfection, but they can see progress. So, in both understanding what you study and doing the best to live out its truth in your own life, Paul has this to say as well: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:15–16 ESV).
Key Books and Resources to Read to Help Someone Teach or Preach without Seminary Training
Books of the Bible differ in how they are written. Some books are narrative and tell stories. Others are didactic and directly teach truth. Some are poetic, and others prophetic. Two books that help us know how to read through a given book and understand how that book presents God’s truth are…
- A shorter book: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.
- A longer book: Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard Patterson. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011.
If you wanted to take it a step further, you could even add these helpful three books to your reading:
- Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. Fourth Edition. Douglas Stuart. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
- New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors. Third Edition. Gordon D. Fee. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
- Exegetical Fallacies. Second Edition. D.A. Carson. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996.
A website that offers multiple videos for how to relate the parts of a passage together is BibleArc.com. This is John Piper’s arcing (pronounced ark-ing) system that he uses to relate words and parts of a passage together. Grammatical terms are explained and help identify the various parts of a passage and then relate them to others.
Two books that I recommend for learning how to preach and teach are as follows (and read them in this order if possible):
- Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Haddon Robbinson. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
- Invitation to Biblical Preaching: Proclaiming Truth with Clarity and Relevance. Donald Sunukjian. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2007.
When it comes to understanding the broader themes of Scripture, I highly recommend this set of books, written by one of my professors:
- A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity. 3 Volumes. Rolland McCune. Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010.
A great cross-reference resource for finding passages with similar thoughts to the passage that you are studying:
- Blayney, B., Thomas Scott, and R.A. Torrey with Canne, John, Browne. The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge. London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, n.d. (This book is in the public domain.)
I cannot keep up with the amazing Bible software that Christians have created to aid Bible study, but here are at least two that can be installed on a computer or on your smartphones via their apps.
- Logos: https://www.logos.com/ – I use Logos all the time, but it requires a good deal of money over the long haul to purchase resources. They have a vast website, however, complete with a trove of videos to teach you how to use the program.
- e-Sword: https://www.e-sword.net/ – e-Sword is another platform that allows you to download and add many resources, especially a trove of public domain resources. If you have limited funds, this resource is especially helpful. I used this platform during college and then discovered Logos in my seminary days.
Commentaries: For commentary recommendations, I lean on others and their good recommendations. Here are two good lists:
- Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary Book List
- 850 Books for Bible Expositors by The Master’s Seminary
Don’t get overwhelmed by the above. If you are just beginning to teach or preach in your church and have only one to two hours to prepare each week, here is what I would recommend:
- Read How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth and Biblical Preaching.
- Study the passage to the best of your ability.
- Use the MacArthur Study Bible and its notes to help understand your passage better.
- Use e-Sword and whatever sound resources it provides to help you study your passage further. If you don’t mind spending some money, buy Logos.
- Prepare well, and make the most of your teaching opportunity.
- Make use of your pastors. Ask them about your passage and check your conclusions. Having asked you to assist in teaching the Word, I would hope that they would be glad to help you rightly divide the truth among the flock that they shepherd!
Last updated: September 30, 2021