The Bible: A Brief Guide to Better Bible Study

I. Introduction

A. What does it mean to aim for “better” Bible study? Not a bigger quantity, but better in terms of accuracy. We want results that are based in the text itself, not in our preconceived

B. We want a method that helps us ask the questions that are more likely to give us meaningful answers. There is no magic formula for right results, but some methods do give consistently good results.

C. Most words have more than one meaning – we cannot know which meaning is intended unless there is a context. (for example: “bear”)

D. In Bible study, we look at three contexts: historical, literary, and personal.

II. Historical context – three types

A. Military and political history: who is ruling, and how do people feel about it?

B. Cultural context: language, economy, customs, etc. This is involved whenever one person interacts with another.

C. Specific situation: why was this written down?

1. This usually involves reading between the lines, forming a hypothesis, and testing it to see if the pieces fit.

2. Often, there are two historical settings: first, when the event first happened; second, when it was written down.

3. It’s important to ask questions of the text, especially why and how. These help us look at the text from different angles.

III. Literary context

A. In analyzing any communication, we are concerned with sender, receiver and method. We have already looked at the sender; now we focus on the method of communication: the written words.

B. The most basic question: what is the genre of this literature? Is it poetry, story,  exhortation, parable, etc.?

1. Sometimes words mean the opposite of what they say – e.g., 1 Cor. 4:8.

2. We need to know not just the meaning of the words, but also the way those words are being used.

C. We should consider the main themes of the book we are studying – an author may use a word with a different emphasis – e.g., Luke’s use of “poor.”

D. Third, we need to look at the passages just before and after the one we are studying. How does one lead to the other? For example, Jesus cursed the fig tree in Mark 11.

E. Be aware of the limitations of “word studies.”

1. The meaning of a word is determined by the way it is used, not by its “original” meaning, or by its root words.

2. Dictionaries usually list several meanings; we cannot add them all together as if the word meant all of them at the same time.

3. If we don’t know the original languages, then we need to rely on translations.
Fortunately, it is easy for us to compare many experts – we should not rely on only one translation.

4. Strong’s Concordance is often misused.

a) Strong’s is organized by English word, when we really need to study how the Hebrew or Greek word is used, no matter how it is translated.

b) Strong’s word list in the back is not a dictionary. When we don’t even know the rules of Greek grammar, we are not suddenly empowered to challenge standard translations.

c) A concordance can help us study individual words, but what we really need to
study is entire concepts.

5. The translations usually give us the right meaning. Rather than challenging the
meaning, our time will be better spent asking about why this particular word has been used, and what it contributes to the passage.

F. We need to read carefully, taking notes each time, at least six times. Then write down the

  1. A one-sentence summary of the entire passage.
  2. A summary of how the political history is relevant to the passage.
  3. A summary of the relevant cultural differences.
  4. The specific situation that caused this passage to be written.
  5. The type(s) of literature found in this passage.
  6. Whether this passage contributes to the main themes of the book.
  7. Note how the previous passage prepares the reader for this one.

G. A structural outline can also be a very helpful tool.

IV.  Our personal context affects what we see, and what we tend to overlook.

A. Our culture and subculture affect what we think is “normal” or “obvious.”

B. As believers, we read the Scriptures with certain expectations.

  1. We should resist the idea that an author is self-contradictory.
  2. We should favor readings that are in agreement with the gospel.

C. The Holy Spirit is needed (1 Cor. 2:14), although this cannot be quantified.

D. Scripture should be studied in a community – with insights from people who lived in the  past, and with people who are now in our fellowship of believers.

E. Since our context is always changing, and timeless truths may have different applications in new circumstances, there is always a need for new study.

A Bibliography for Better Bible Study

Historical resources

  • An introductory text: F.F. Bruce and David Payne, Israel and the Nations
  • A more detailed reference work: Craig Evans and Stanley Porter, eds., Dictionary
    of New Testament Background

Cultural resources

  • A.S. van der Woude, The World of the Old Testament Albert Bell, Exploring the New Testament World
  • James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament
  • More advanced: Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • John Walton et al., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament
  • Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament

Information on specific books

  • Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible Book by Book
  • David and Pat Alexander, Zondervan Handbook to the Bible, rev. ed.
  • More detailed: David A. deSilva, Introduction to the New Testament

Literary analysis

  • Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman, A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible
  • James Bailey and Lyle Vander Broek, Literary Forms in the New Testament

Word studies

  • D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies
  • William Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words


  • Edward Goodrick and John Kohlenberger, The NIV Exhaustive Concordance
  • Richard Whitaker and John Kohlenberger, The Analytical Concordance to the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament
  • John Kohlenberger and James Swanson, The Hebrew English Concordance to the Old Testament With the New International Version
  • John Kohlenberger, Edward Goodrick, and James Swanson, The Greek English
    Concordance to the New Testament With the New International Version


  • R. Laird Harris, Gleason Archer, and Bruce Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the
    Old Testament.
    2 vols.
  • Concise descriptive definitions: Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida, Greek-English
    Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains.
    2 vols.
  • Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament
  • Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New

  • Verlyn Verbrugge, The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words
  • Most scholarly and expensive: Walter Bauer and Frederick Danker, A
    Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature

Bible study

  • Easiest: Oletta Wald, The Joy of Discovery in Bible Study. Inductive method.
  • David Thompson, Bible Study That Works. Also uses the inductive method.
  • Kay Arthur, How to Study Your Bible. Also uses the inductive method.
  • John Stott, Understanding the Bible
  • Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
  • Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, Understanding Scripture: How to Read and Study
    the Bible
  • More advanced: Michael Gorman, Elements of Biblical Exegesis
  • Gordon Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors


  • Jack Kuhatschek, Taking the Guesswork Out of Applying the Bible
  • Dave Veerman, How to Apply the Bible
  • Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible

One-volume commentaries

  • Gordon Wenham et al., New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition
  • James Dunn and John Rogerson, eds., Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible

Commentary series

  • Terry Muck, ed., The NIV Application Commentary
  • Tremper Longman and David Garland, eds., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary
  • Leander Keck, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible. Uses both NRSV and NIV.

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