Read from the beginning of the book
The best way to study the Bible is to start at the beginning. Either the beginning of the Bible (best) or beginning of any of its books. Do not jump in at random, for this will lead to many problems. For instance, if I were to read the first page of a thriller, where the hero drives a white car, then jump to page 200 and find the hero driving a red car, do I throw the book away in disgust, saying, “this book is full of contradictions”? No; for if I read straight through, I’ll discover that the car on the first page was his own car; he drives to the airport, flies to another country, and picks up a rental car, which happens to be red. No conflict. No contradiction. Read the book from the beginning to the end.
I suggest you use an inexpensive Bible handbook before reading a book. Some study Bibles already have an introduction to each book. A handbook, like the popular Halley’s Bible Handbook, will give you the key ideas and verses of the book, a breakdown of the book so you can follow the themes, and other information that will help you when going into an unfamiliar book.
You’ll encounter terms you’ve probably never read before, like atonement and sanctification. These foreign words will be taken care of by a Bible dictionary. Keep it ever at your side. Don’t use a regular dictionary for these words.
Here are some steps to take when you go through each chapter of a book.
Observe the flow of thought
Before you study a passage, first break down the flow of thought. We want to see how one event flows to the next; we want to know, for instance, why the speaker was saying what he or she was saying. Was Jesus speaking to people introduced in the last chapter? Was Jesus talking about (or responding to) a subject raised earlier in the chapter (or in a previous chapter)?
It’s normal for us to join a group in the middle of a discussion and not follow the train of thought, so we ask them, “What are you talking about?” That’s why we backtrack the passage: to see how it got started and to understand the flow of thought.
What follows is my breakdown for Romans 3. It tells me the flow of thought in the order it is given. I would be the worse if I had only read a portion of the chapter without understanding it’s relationship to the whole. It would be even worse if I did not continue the train of thought in the chapters before and after.
3:1-2 Main benefit for the Jew
3:3-8 If the Jew had failed, does God fail too?
3:9-18 Scriptural proof that Jews and Gentiles are under sin
3:19-20 We’re all guilty and there’s no way to make it right by good deeds
3:21-26 Therefore God freely grants us righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ
3:27-31 God justifies Jew and Gentile (makes us righteous) by faith apart from the law
Along with the flow of thought, identify the speaker and audience, if there is one. If reading the gospels, is Jesus speaking to “bad people,” or to his disciples? It makes a difference whether the words are to people under the law or people living by faith; those for God and those against him. You may conclude that a particular spoken warning must be applied only to unbelievers, but Jesus is actually addressing it to his own disciples!
Where was Jesus speaking, in the temple, in a home, outside? Pay attention to where the scene takes place. Our chapter breaks are not inspired by God; they were added later by translators. Unfortunately, they divide some speeches in the middle, even train of thoughts are cut off before they conclude.
Meditate on a portion of the chapter that stands out to you
Once you have the flow of thought and know what is happening, start meditating on what is being said. What is God saying to you? You want to build a bridge between two worlds, the world in the Bible and the world in your time. Though the cultures are different, the people are the same; therefore the lessons are the same. It may help to put yourselves in the characters’ shoes to understand them. They are not that different than us; they love, hate, believe, worry, and so on, just like we do.
Be careful to stay in context with what is written. Many people seize upon a word that reminds them of something and they completely forget the context of the passage and read into the text something of themselves. Try to resist this. We may inappropriately add something from our culture to theirs and misunderstand it.
Also, some readers may find a word in the text that reminds them of the same word elsewhere in the Bible and join them wrongly. For instance, let’s suppose a modern novel says on page one, “I went to the park.” Page 5 says, “I will park the car on the north side.” When you come to page 5 and see the word “park,” will you link it to the word “park” on page 1? After all, it’s the same word. Well, you can already tell that although the word is spelled the same in both places, they don’t mean the same thing. Of course, if you read the book straight through, you’ll find the hero entering an office park on page 1, then on page 5 he is talking on the phone to his wife telling her where he’ll park at the store to pick her up. Those are very different contexts.
Many students of the Bible make this mistake, linking verses together from different parts of the Bible based on a single word when the context is different and/or the meaning is different. You wouldn’t do this with a novel and you shouldn’t do it with the Bible, either. Before you link words, follow the first steps above for both passages to make sure they really are connected.
If you really want to focus on a single word in the passage, then it’s a good idea to read up on what it means in its original language and not rely on the translation. Several online Bibles allow us to do just that. Some books give us an overview of the Greek or Hebrew words, such as Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, and Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. They will not only give the dictionary meaning of the word, but give the sense on how it should be used.
Apply it to yourself
The Bible is meant to be applied to our lives. It is a living document that God uses to speak and direct us. When we obey what it says, we obey God himself.
It may correct our thinking or habits. It may provoke us to seriously pray over something in our lives. It may completely change our perspective of God, ourselves, and how we see the world. Don’t fight it. Let God lead. Above all, don’t use the Bible to justify your actions or lifestyle. Look for change.
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
As we see from the above, the Bible is life-changing. It gives us the truth about things, it points out what we’re doing wrong, shows us the right way, teaches us how to live for God, and equips us to be good servants of Jesus Christ. Approach the Bible this way; make these purposes your own when you study it. Pray beforehand that the Lord opens your eyes to its truths. Read the Bible on its own, not while watching TV or listening to music. Be still and pay attention to what God wants to say to you.
These steps have been helpful to me to understand the Bible, and the pages on this site are the fruit of following this approach of studying the Bible for more than two decades.