We are pulled in many directions: work, family, ministry, fitness and many other activities tug at our schedules. The more we are tugged, the more we have to work to guard the time we give to personal study of our Bibles. When we are at last able to sit down to read, we want every precious minute to count. Whether we have 15 minutes or two hours, we want our efforts to yield the most benefit possible. But how can we make the most of the time we have to read and study?
It can be tempting to want our personal study time to fill our emotional tank for the day. We may rush to find an application point we can act on in whatever time we have. This may mean we limit our time in the Word to devotional reading—meditating on a passage and looking for a way to put it to immediate use. Devotional reading is beneficial, but it is not foundational, and its benefit actually increases exponentially as we grow in our foundational understanding of the Bible. So we must be sure to study the Bible with our minds, as well as with our hearts. As you read the Bible devotionally, seek to complement this with time in which you also build a basic knowledge of Scripture. Here are some suggestions to help you make the most of that time.
Take a Long-term View
Think of Bible study as a savings account rather than a debit card. Rather than viewing it as a declining balance you draw on to fill an immediate need, allow it to have a cumulative effect over weeks, months and years. You may not reach understanding of a passage or be able to apply it well after one day’s exposure to it. That’s OK. Keep making deposits into your account, trusting that in God’s perfect timing, He will illuminate the meaning and usefulness of what you’ve studied, compounding its worth. What if the passage you study today is preparing you for a trial 10 years from now? Study faithfully now, trusting that nothing is wasted, whether your study time resolves neatly in 30 minutes or not.
Rather than reading passages pulled from different parts of the Bible each day, choose a book and stay there. Topical study guides and devotional guides can leave us with a piecemeal knowledge of Scripture. We may grow very familiar with certain passages, but we might never learn their context. Reading a book of the Bible from start to finish helps us connect the dots in our Bible knowledge and generate a cohesive understanding of the text.
Honor the Context
Before you begin studying a particular book, research its historical and cultural context to prime yourself for proper understanding. Reading a book in light of its original audience and setting is a basic principle of interpretation. Who wrote the book? To whom was it written? When was it written? What historical and cultural factors prompted and informed its writing? Researching these questions guards us from interpreting in light of our own cultural or historical bias. A key resource to help you here is the ESV Study Bible.
The Bible is comprised of many different literary genres. It contains historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, wisdom literature and more. Each of these genres abides by certain rules. Each uses language and imagery in a certain way. We cannot read the Psalms the same way we read the Gospels, nor can we read prophecy the way we read wisdom literature. When you begin a particular text, learn about its genre and read it according to how that genre “works.”
Use Proven Tools
If your goal is to build foundational knowledge of Scripture, you’ll need good tools to do so. Choose tools that have stood the test of time: read the text repetitively, paraphrase verses in your own words to help you focus on their meaning, look up word meanings, annotate a copy of the text, check cross-references, read accessible commentaries. Each of these tools will help you build comprehension and move you toward sound interpretation and application.
Dwell in the “I Don’t Know”
We don’t like to feel lost in general, and we especially don’t like to feel lost when we read the Bible. But that feeling is actually a friend, an important step in the learning process. Until we feel the extent of what we do not know, we won’t push ourselves to pursue knowledge. We tend to minimize our feeling of being lost by rushing to various study helps. We read a passage, we feel the dissonance of not understanding it, and we immediately consult study notes to relieve the dissonance.
But that dissonance is actually what helps us retain understanding when we finally achieve it. Commentary, including sermons or the notes in a study Bible, is best used after you have spent time trying to understand a passage on your own. Push yourself to read for understanding, using tools such as those mentioned above, before you consult study helps. In doing so, you honor the command to love God with your mind, not someone else’s.
Study All of It
If “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16), hadn’t we better work to spend time in all of it? Determine to use your study time so that, over time, you gain exposure to all parts of Scripture, not just those that feel the most accessible or familiar. We need the Old Testament to fully understand the New Testament. We need Leviticus as much as we need James. Be careful not to avoid or hurry past sections of the Bible that seem boring or unhelpful. Even genealogies, strange prophetic visions and inventories of building supplies are profitable for our instruction, though it may take some work to discern how.
Remember That the Bible is a Book About God and His Grace
It is tempting to read the Bible as a road map for our lives or as a guide for “abundant living.” But the Bible, strictly speaking, is not a book about us. From Genesis to Revelation, it reveals and celebrates the character and work of God. We do gain self-knowledge, but only as we gain God-knowledge, learning to see our own character in relation to His. Read asking, “What does this passage teach me about God and His redemptive work?” Then see yourself in relation to Him: “Knowing that God is longsuffering causes me to reflect on how impatient I am. How then should I live?” Allow application of a passage to flow from seeing God in a particular light. A key tool to consider here is the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible, which shows, passage by passage, how the Bible is a unified message of grace for sinners.
We lack wisdom. Never are we more aware of this than when we embark on becoming students of the Bible. Pray before, during and after your study time. Ask God to give you ears to hear. Like the psalmist, pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Ps. 119:18). Acknowledge your limitations, and humbly ask God to grant you wisdom and insight as you study. He will not refuse your request.