How To Study The Bible Without Going To Seminary

Last year you resolved to become more familiar with Scripture. You started on Jan. 1 with “In the beginning . . .” and made it all the way to the generations of Noah before other priorities slipped in the way. As of Dec. 31, the only passages you could recite from memory were John 3:16, the 23rd Psalm, and “Jesus wept”—and frankly, you’re not even exactly sure where to find that one (John 11:35).

Don’t despair. It’s a common conundrum, one I’ve heard over and over in my job as a Christian Education Director: “I’d like to know more Scripture, but I don’t know where to start.”

Sound familiar? Just in time, here are some suggestions for making this the year you start to get to know the Bible:

1. Start with a Bible you can use.

Find a translation you feel comfortable with and have reference sources at the ready. Many people find a study Bible with a dictionary, concordance, maps and other supplemental materials to be very useful. Whether these extras are built-in or in separate volumes, have some tools at the ready for when you ask, “What the heck’s a cubit?”

2. Find out how you study best.

If you learn best in dialogue with others, investigate joining a Bible study group. Even if you can’t make an ongoing, weekly commitment, many churches and study groups offer short-term studies. Internet groups are available for those whose schedules can’t accommodate an in-person study. Over two thousand groups are listed on Yahoo Groups, and many churches offer similar on-line programs for their congregations.

If you are an independent learner, check out the various Bible study guides available for personal study. If you don’t have experience with regular daily or weekly study, try a short-term survey of a particular book or theme. Study guides can be found on-line, borrowed from many church libraries or purchased from Christian booksellers. These study guides will give you some direction and a study plan, as well as providing context and background material on the scripture readings.

3. Start with the familiar.

Whether you are selecting a group to join or a printed study for individual use, it is a good idea to start with what you know. Even if you feel you have an inadequate grasp of Scripture in general, you are somewhat familiar with some part of the Bible. A rudimentary knowledge of the life of Christ can start you into the Gospels; poets and musicians may feel particular resonance with the psalms or Song of Songs; just having seen the movies “The Prince of Egypt” or “The Ten Commandments” gives a basic entrée to the book of Exodus.

Studying passages with familiar stories and characters will allow you to recognize nuances and truths formerly unexplored, while allowing you to become more comfortable interacting with your Bible and study materials.

4. Don’t just read the Bible when you study the Bible.

Part of understanding the Bible and its relevance in our daily lives is appreciating the variety of contexts in which the books it contains were written.

No matter how complete, no one study Bible is going to be able to answer all your questions. Along with reference tools and a study guide, supplemental texts about the history of the Bible or contemporary scholarship provide insight into what the Bible means for contemporary Christians. Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ is just one example of an examination of contemporary biblical scholarship that is accessible to a general audience. A&E has produced excellent documentary series on the history of Christianity and on “Who Wrote the Bible?” that require no previous knowledge to understand.

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5. Judge not the text, or yourself

Try to keep an open mind when reading the text you are studying. Don’t assume that you know what a passage means, even if you have read it dozens of times in the past. Endeavor to understand its meaning in the circumstance in which it was written, and its importance for you.

Don’t beat yourself up if you get off track in regular study, or if you struggle repeatedly with a certain text to no avail. These impediments have been known frustrate a studier to the point of standstill. God forgives us our failures; forgive yourself and press on in your study.

6. Seek help from others, but rely on God.

Whether studying alone or with others, you will encounter teachers and authors giving input on the meaning of the Bible. These insights can be extremely valuable as you expand your own knowledge, but remember that only God has the final authority. God’s insight is the most important in revealing the importance of Scripture in your own life. Be prayerful, and keep your focus on seeking God’s will through your study of His Word.

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