My Study Process
This is part 2 in a series on my personal process of studying the Bible (read part 1).
The first step in my process of studying the Bible is quite obvious. It is to choose the text. Although it is obvious and seemingly trivial, I some times wrestle with this step. I’ve learned to ask the Lord before choosing to begin to work on my heart and prepare it for a text so that the choice is not so difficult.
There are many reasons to choose one text over another. For example, if you are asked to teach from a particular passage, then your decision might be made for you. If you are short of time, like I often am, then you will study whatever it is that you need to be prepared to teach. There is only so much time in the day and you need to be fully drenched in the text. I try to make the most of my studies when this happens. However, this is not all that often.
Most of the time, I am free to study what I want. And, if I don’t ready myself to choose a text, I can get like a child standing before an ice cream truck indecisive because it all looks so good. There is nothing like starting a treat and half-way through it feeling like you should have picked another flavor. I have done this with books of the Bible before. I started some books and realized that I was not ready to study them since they required much more skill than I had acquired at the time. So, I pray ahead of time and ask the Lord to move upon my desires so that I am fruitful in which books I study.
It may be worth the while to mention that I rarely study a theme of the Bible. The only exception is when I’m asked to teach on a particular subject – but that is once in a blue moon. Studying a theme means that I have to be familiar with much more of the Bible than I am. This is because we must jump from text to text which requires jumping from context to context. And, unless you have a lot of time and knowledge of the Bible, this can be very difficult. There is so much to miss in the Scriptures since there is no thoroughness and completeness from the writers.
With all that out of the way, here is how I’ve progressed through the years. When I was young, I was drawn to a particular character in the Bible. He is known as the disciple with both feet in his mouth. It is Peter. He sounded like a guy who was not so different from me. There was a sense of familiarity. I was comfortable with him and thought that I would learn a bit more about him by studying his first letter.
Since I was amateur I used a lot of sermons, commentaries and a handful of resources on biblical words, meanings, history, and more. I relied heavily on John MacArthur’s works. It took me about a half of a year to get through 1 Peter – which, in hind-sight is very fast. I was actually learning how to study by using the resources that I had and reading the commentaries. I was paying close attention to how conclusions were made. I read the the text over and over until I was nearly memorizing it. Looking back at my writings during that time, I was generally capturing the ideas of others rather than coming to these thoughts on my own. But it is was very helpful.
After 1 Peter, it made sense to move on to 2 Peter. There, I did the same thing, but was much more comfortable with Peter’s writings and the context of the letter. I tried to wing myself from sermons and commentaries but kept them nearby to check myself and measure my skills. I was still handicapped, so they were very close.
While studying 2 Peter, I found myself in Jude more than often. The two books are very similar. In fact, some of the verses were almost identical. Therefore, it was simple for me to choose what to study next. I moved on to Jude.
Studying these three books helped me get my feet wet. And, they gave me a sense of accomplishment. I was able to say that I had studied all of the writings of Peter and Jude! Granted, they didn’t write a whole lot, but it did feel good to me. Also, Jude is a tiny book. So there is less information to keep in the front of the mind when studying.
I felt like I was ready to start studying on my own. This is not to mean that I didn’t use my resources as I once did. I would still use them, but now I was ready to try and study like for myself – generate my own ideas and frame my own conclusions. I was ready to put what I learned to practice. My goal was not to come with different conclusions, but to arrive at the same conclusions on my own – that is a big difference. The faith is inherited, passed down from generation to generation. It is not changing. So I needed to arrive at the same end, but get there on my own. All of us stand on the shoulders of others who have more knowledge and training than we do, so good commentaries are essential.
This was a big step and I didn’t want to get too far in the deep end. I needed to stay close to the shore line in the event that I might need some saving. So, I searched for a small book. And, now that I knew Peter, I wanted to know Paul. I chose 1 Timothy. It resembled 1 Peter in that it one of two and written by the same person. I also came to know that Paul’s letters to Timothy were instructions on pastoring and leadership. This was also appealing to me.
So I studied 1 Timothy. Then, I studied 2 Timothy. Now, if you didn’t know this already, there are three books of the New Testament called “pastoral epistles” and they are 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, which was also a short book. Thus, the choice was easy. Titus was next. And, when I finished Titus I felt accomplished again. I had studied all of the pastoral epistles.
An interesting thing happened to me toward the end of my studies in Titus. I was drawn back to 2 Timothy. It was such a rich book and I wanted to get another pass on it. So I studied it again. It was much more meaningful. It was changing my life at a rate and depth that I had not yet experienced. When I finished, I was discontent with how much I gleaned. So I studied it again and then once more. I stayed in 2 Timothy for over two years. It was where my heart was and I didn’t want stop it. I just flowed with what God was teaching me and stayed there until I felt the freedom to move on.
While in 2 Timothy throughout those years, I was getting quite curious about the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. I purchased a book that set the four gospels in chronological order and jumped quickly into a study of those narratives immediately after finishing 2 Timothy. But, I was overwhelmed. I had spent the last several years on “teaching” texts and the shift to a narrative was too much. Plus, there was so much Hebraic history that went into the gospels – even in the opening chapters. I felt my motivation to study dwindle and didn’t want to see that happen. So I moved on to another text.
I needed to rebound from my experience in undertaking the gospels, and ran to a short book. I was in the mind of Paul and so I picked up his little letter to Philemon. It was by far the easiest book I have ever studied – even today. But it was rich with truths nevertheless.
In the midst of all of this studying, I was asked to teach a small group. In order to not overwhelm myself, I decided to just teach whatever I was studying. Of course, my studies were much further than I was with the group. I needed to stay ahead. This also meant that I needed to get familiar with my studies again and again. So I found myself lightly studying the texts that I spent the prior years agonizing over. It was a good time for me because it allowed me to talk about what I learned and how I learned it as well as give me a good reason to review and review again.
This went on for a couple of years and thought I would give the gospels another attempt. The life of Jesus was coming up a lot during our small groups and I wanted to be sure that I understood it. A new year was beginning and I prayed for the Lord’s help. I was afraid of what the gospels would do to me. I didn’t want to lose my drive. I needed to get through them.
Needless to say, the Lord answered my prayer. I jumped into the gospels and dwelled on them for almost two years. The funny thing was, that I only reached the end of Luke’s first chapter – the beginning of Jesus’ birth. I stopped and moved on to James because I was asked to prepare some small group material on it. This was a year ago and I have yet to return to the gospels but I am excited about going back.
If there is something to learn about all of this, it is to let yourself naturally move toward texts of the Bible. Stay with a book. Start small. Build your skills and confidence. Dwell as long as you can. Be patient. And ask the Lord to help you in your development and motivation. He will answer.