by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Author of the JesusWalk® 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 studies.
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
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
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
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 him.’
3 In reply Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the
truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is
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,
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
- Why did the person act as he did? Or say what he
- How can I apply or emulate or obey what I learn in
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 years.
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
- 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
- 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).