The Bible was written to change us, to lead us to a right relationship with God and other people. This is a compelling reason to study the Bible, but how do we do that? Elsewhere on this website you will find a number of suggestions and motivations for launching into Bible study. There are many fruitful Bible study methods. Perhaps you have experimented with several of them. You are ready to move to a deeper level of “wrestling with scripture.” Here is one solid method that will allow you to grasp the meaning of a book as a whole, along with its key themes. We’ll call it the systematic Bible study method. It has five steps.
1. Read through the whole book several times.
In this step you’re getting a general feel for the book. As you’re reading, pay attention to the topics the author covers, who the audience is, the purpose of the book, and anything the author says that pops out at you. Read the book at a normal pace and don’t spend too much time on the details. Those will come later.
2. Find the major divisions.
An author has several main points to make when writing a book. The goal of the second step is to find out what those points are and to determine where the author begins and ends his discussion of each point. Some clues to look for are places where he changes the subject, places where he makes a statement and then elaborates on it for several paragraphs, and places where he changes his tone of voice. If the book is a narrative, look for changes in the setting or character. Once you find the major divisions, look for the divisions within those. Or you could start with the smaller sections and put them together into larger ones. Keep in mind that your divisions might not fall in the same place as the beginning of a chapter.
3. Determine the function of each section.
In this step you are looking for the logical flow of the book. Does this section introduce a topic? Does it explore a conclusion that flows from the previous section? Is the author explaining several topics in a series? In a narrative, how do the events in this section follow from earlier events, and how do they lead to the events that follow? Have the characters developed? Clues to look for are logical connection words like for, since, because, and therefore; contrast words such as but and although; and series words like and.
4. Identify and study key words.
In this step you’re looking for the main themes in the book rather than trying to dissect every word. Observe how the author uses each key word throughout the book. How does he describe it? How does it relate to the other ideas in the book? How does he feel about this theme?
5. Summarize the book.
In your summary, include information about the book’s purpose, audience, main points, and practical applications. James Boice offers this summary of Romans: “This book was written to the church of Rome and also applies to other churches in other places. It’s a general statement of Christian doctrine. It says the human race is lost in sin. The answer to that predicament is the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ. Romans explains the gospel, and it applies doctrines to show how Christians are supposed to live.”
And there you have it! There are other important things to know about studying the Bible, but this method will get you off to a good start.
Of course, the point of Bible study isn’t simply to accumulate a pile of book summaries. The most important step in any method is application, the step in which you take the Bible’s teaching to heart and do what it says.
This article is adapted from “Five Keys to Studying the Bible” by James Boice, in Practical Christianity, edited by LaVonne Neff, Ron Beers, et al (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1987).