What are the odds of one library containing multiple books that speak to multiple readers, throughout history, equally and without contradiction? To answer that question is to assess the beautiful uniqueness of the Bible. Sadly, many refuse to open their Bible and leave it to grow dusty and forgotten.
However, there are many others who try to study their Bible but find it hard to understand. Why is this? There are many possibilities: 1) The Bible was written a long time ago 2) Trained and helpful pastors are rare 3) Americans have shorter attention spans 4) It can be expensive to find good study tools – These reasons and more, have led to a culture deprived of God because it’s deprived of God’s word. Hopefully this brief survey of secrets will help jumpstart your zeal and understanding of God’s precious word. 7 secrets to your study success…
Secret #1 “Give Your Bible Adequate Time”
I know this doesn’t seem like a secret but it’s increasingly rare to find people willing to devote quality time to reading Scripture. In an age of 2 minute YouTube clips and nights wasted on Netflix, many people can’t string more than 30 minutes of logical thought, let alone study, together. On the subject of fading mental discipline, allow me to encourage you with one reminder; Are you truly living or merely consuming? What I mean, is that many people rush home to immerse themselves in a “pretend world” of media instead of building their own unique storyline; Years of life pass by, and they’ve nothing to show for it, and sadly they’ll arrive in heaven (or hell) with nothing to tell God on judgment day but, “I sure enjoyed Game of Thrones.”
The first step in knowing your bible is to devote time to it! The Bible requires diligent study (don’t let the word “study” scare you). I know you may be nervous about this, but you shouldn’t be… Remember, Jesus said you have a “Helper” the Holy Spirit, who will come alongside you. The primary reason that so many Americans get caught up in no faith, or an erroneous faith, is because they’re unwilling to read and meditate on what God said to His people. This failure to study has led to a host of modern “Christian” movements that don’t trust God’s word as entirely sufficient for their maturity – hoping instead to “feel” and “experience” God. Sadly, I’ve met many word-of-faith or signs-and-wonders pastors who admit privately that they lead and teach this way because they’re not 100% confident in their own ability to know Scripture! It makes sense doesn’t it? If the Bible is not your authority, and you aren’t sure of what it says, then you must come up with some reason for people to stick around and pay the bills.
Christ commanded us to “search” the Scriptures. The word “search” is an energetic word suggesting tough examination and investigation like an engineer who maps out a city and plans roads. That takes time and thought! Jesus also explained that it is possible to read the Bible and miss it’s meaning entirely. You may recall that the Pharisees did this… They read the Scriptures but didn’t grasp their meaning. Frightening.
This stands as a reminder that we need to set aside quality time to engage in methodical study, which analyzes the text closely, discerns to whom it is written, what is written, and then shower those implications over our life. The primary reason most people fail to enjoy the Bible is because they fail to make it their priority.
Secret #2 “Survey the Major Themes”
The next step in bible study is to know the overarching themes of Scripture. For example, the best way to study geography is by means of a globe of the world. Using the globe, one is enabled to get a good grasp of the sea, land, and general features, before working out the relative size of various countries. Bible study is similar, because once you understand that you’re opening a library of 66 books which all work together to manifest great themes, you’ll be better suited to examine each specific book inside.
The Bible is composed of 66 books: 39 in the Old Testament, 27 in the New Testament. 40 authors wrote it over 1600 years. It contains history, law, poetry, biography, drama, letters, prayers, speeches, prophecies, science, and philosophy. It is dogmatic, didactic, practical, and predictive. In essence, it is God’s university for mankind.
What are the large themes under which all-else fits? The overarching themes of all Scripture will include the glory of God over all creation, the redemption of the human race through God’s Son, and the various ways in which God has related to mankind’s changing condition throughout history.
The primary theme of Scripture, which you’ll come across constantly, is Jesus Christ. Just as “all roads lead to Rome” all “scriptures lead to Christ.” Luke wrote, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He taught to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” [Luke 24:27] The Old Testament leads to Christ just as the New Testament starts from Him; both meet in Christ.
It is vital to remember this while studying, especially when you’re reading through obscure books. Understanding large themes is a reminder that the Bible is not written about you or me, it’s written about God! Once we come to realize the awe-inspiring descriptions of God and His Son throughout the Bible, we’ll realize much about ourselves, but alas “we” are not the ultimate destination of Scripture, God is!
Secret #3 “Know the Historical Timelines”
One thing to remember in your Bible study is that God has worked with men in different ways throughout history. For example, God dealt with man before the curse far differently than after the curse. Likewise, God also deals with the modern church much differently than He did ancient Israel. God worked with Adam and Eve, God then provided conditions for the early Patriarchs, God then gave law through Moses, God now relates through Christ and His church, Christ will soon enact judgment, and will one day rule visibly on earth. Knowing that God has worked differently throughout time (and provided truths to man in a variety of ways throughout time) helps us remember that, “All Scripture is written for us, but not necessarily to us.”
This simple truth “All Scripture is written for us but not to us” is a guard of protection in your Bible study because it protects you from taking a truth given to the ancients and immediately applying it to your life. After reading a portion of Scripture you can ask, “In which age was this written?” Your answer to this will guide how you obey and follow its instructions. For example, just because God told Abraham to up and leave his home, doesn’t mean you must pack up and move. Or, just because the early apostles were given special powers to declare God’s word (because God’s word was not yet written down) this does not mean you must try to prophesy.
Ultimately, expect this perspective of biblical eras to bring peace and joy to your study because you aren’t living under ancient expectations, laws, and shadowed understanding. It is remarkable to me that many modern “Christians” agree that they do not live under former law yet believe they possess former powers, gifts, and authorities. Each age of God comes with specific conditions for relationship, and we as students of God’s word, must properly assess our current age, learn from those who’ve come before, and live in hope accordingly.
Maybe you’re asking why God did it this way? Of course no one knows except God but it does seem that only God could come up with such a brilliant means to provide objective truth to man, written over the course of 1500 years, that distends to a multitude of people groups, progresses alongside the development of history, including the arrival of His Son, and maintains both it’s non-contradictory integrity and specific application to every human, of any time, on any part of planet earth. And, for the kicker, remains a perfect word, which can still be utilized at the return of Christ and on into the new kingdom. Splendid.
Secret #4 “Distinguish the Two Testaments”
After you’ve come to terms with the major themes and historical settings of Scripture then you want to discern the differences between the Old & New Testaments.
When I was eight years old my father encouraged me to read the gospel of Mark each night and take notes in a small journal. I’ve since done the same with my own children; starting their early years of bible study in the New Testament, and then slowly advancing them into study of the Old Testament. Why start with the New Testament? Because the NT describes the new (and current) relationship between Christ and His church, it is written specifically for the time in which you and I live.
One frustrating element for many young Christians is to begin reading entirely in the Old Testament. I’ve met with many people who start studying in Genesis and end up quitting by Leviticus! We must remember that the Old Testament provides us much foundational and correlating truth to expand our understanding of God and His plan for mankind, but it is the New Testament that stands as our immediate rules of faith and practice.
One way to remember how the New Testament expands upon the Old is the maxim, “The New is the Old contained; the Old is the New explained.” Remarkably, if you take out every OT quotation from the NT, you have only twenty of the original 260 chapters remaining! The NT mentions the OT approximately 640 times showing us that God truly has one avenue of truth for His children. Sometimes I visualize the NT as the color paint applied to the black and white frame of the OT.
Furthermore, the two testaments are structured similarly: The structure of the OT gives the general foundation of the old covenant (Pentateuch) while the NT outlines the new covenant (Gospels), the OT gives history of the old covenant (History) while the NT outlines the development of new covenant (Acts), the OT describes the spiritual development of saints (Poetic), while the NT describes spiritual development of the church (Epistles), finally the OT prophesies what is to come for Israel (Prophets), and the NT concludes with a prophecy of what is still to come for all mankind (Revelation).
There are even more fascinating similarities between the OT and NT. Let’s look at a few: The OT describes darkness while the NT manifests the light, the OT contains bondage while the NT contains liberty, the OT describes temporary law while the NT describes eternal law, the OT observes external commands while the NT observes internal beliefs, the OT describes paradise lost while the NT concludes with paradise regained, the OT portrays God as master while the NT portrays Christ as friend.
The beautiful reality is that the New Testament [lit. “The new covenant” Heb 9:15] is the fulfillment of God’s plan for the ages. If you picture the human timeline as a skyscraper, the foundation of the building and lower floors are the beginning of mankind and journeys of Israel as documented in the Old Testament. Then mid-way up the building, prophets begin writing of a coming Messiah. Suddenly, near the top, Christ arrives, and the building thrusts it’s pinnacle of the church age towards the sky, with only the book of Revelation and Christ’s consummation of the age still to come at it’s peak.
These truths are why we start our studies in the New Testament allowing the truths of Christ to take us back into the Old Testament to learn the foundations of why He came.
Secret #5 “Begin with the New Testament”
After you’ve begun to grasp the major themes of the Bible, and the uniqueness of each Testament, then its important to analyze the author and purpose of each specific book in God’s library. [To accentuate the flow of logic, the following books may not be in English translation order]:
Matthew. Matthew launches us into the Gospels, four distinct views of Christ’s time on earth. Each of the Gospels treat the Messiah with equal reverence but describe varying details. Matthew presents Christ from a Jewish point of view, showing that Jesus was the promised Messiah through the kingly line of David.
Mark. Mark was written for the Romans, presenting Jesus as the mighty worker, the faithful “Servant of the Lord,” doing the perfect will of God.
Luke. Luke writes a gospel for the Greeks who idolized humanity. He emphasizes Christ’s humanity as “Son of Man” and tracing his genealogy through Adam.
John. John displays the deity of Christ; his genealogy goes back past David, and even Abraham, establishing Him as “the beginning” pre-dating history itself.
Acts. The purpose of Acts is to give an account of the origin, nature, founding, and growth of the early Christian Church. Although it has prescriptive details for the church age, it is largely descriptive in it’s nature; describing a unique moment in early church history.
1 & 2 Thessalonians. Paul wrote these books to correct false impressions, which were working mischief in the churches. These books begin our entrance into the Pauline epistles and discourse material, meant to develop the theological and ecclesiological activities of the church. It is good at this point to simplify each author’s focus: Paul’s chief theme is faith, James’ chief theme is evidence, Peter’s chief theme is hope, John’s chief them is love, and Jude’s chief them is growth.
1 Corinthians. Paul wrote to Corinth in order to reform abuses, which were threatening the morality of a church.
Philippians. Paul wrote this book, and potentially Hebrews (author?) to encourage churches, which were passing through trials.
Colossians & Ephesians. Paul wrote these letters to crush heresies, specifically those relating to the person and office of Christ and His church.
Galatians, Romans, 2 Corinthians. Paul wrote in order to combat Judaism in the church, insisting that faith in Christ be sufficient for salvation, and that his role as apostle be upheld and respected.
1 & 2 Timothy, Titus. Paul wrote these letters to strengthen fellow pastors and workers, advising them on matters of church conduct, leader qualification, and administration.
James. James teaches that a professed Christian creed without a corresponding Christian life is vain and worthless. He wrote to void the antinomian error of trusting a dead faith.
1 Peter. Peter’s first epistle speaks against the dangers from outside the church, specifically suffering for righteousness under persecution.
2 Peter. Peter’s second epistle urges Christians beware of dangers from inside the church, specifically false teachers and erroneous beliefs.
1, 2, 3 John. John’s epistles are written to combine spiritual belief with loving living, to never forget the beliefs, which propel love.
Jude. Jude exhorts fellow believers to contend earnestly for the faith explaining that certain men have come into the congregation and are teaching lies.
Revelation. The apostle John is given a glimpse into the future church age, impending judgment of earth, and return of Christ to rule for one thousand years.
Secret #6 “Incorporate the Old Testament”
Once you’ve begun to be comfortable with the New Testament truths pertaining to Christ and His church, it is important to study the Old Testament, discerning the chosen people of God, and Jewish heritage of Christ the Lord.
Let’s take a sweeping look at the Old Testament, and each of the books therein, helping you gain clarity for study: The OT is composed of four types of literature; The books of Law (Pentateuch), Historical books, Poetical books, and Prophetic books. Under each of these headings (which are not in chronological order) there are a number of books. Let’s briefly summarize each, so you can enter study prepared. [To accentuate flow of thought, some books may be different from their order in an English translation]
Genesis. Genesis begins the Pentateuch, meaning “five rolls” which contain the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) connected by the uniting Hebrew conjunctive “vav.” Genesis portrays the call of Abraham, father and founder of the chosen Israelite nation. A careful survey of the books introduces a nation chosen by God to be the channel of His grace and repository of revealed truth. All but eleven of its chapters contain truths about Israel, showing advancement from one human, to an entire nation, all under God’s theocratic rule.
Exodus. Exodus shows us the growth of this (Israelite) household or clan into a great multitude, fulfilling God’s promises to Abraham.
Leviticus. Leviticus continues the history, organization, and development of the chosen nation, laying emphasis on its religious aspects.
Numbers. Numbers shows progress in organization of the chosen nation, including tribes and encampments.
Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a recapitulation of the law given the special nation, from the beginning of their selection, until they prepare to enter the Promised Land.
1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles. These books are often termed the books of history (or kings) and are generally books of historically religious purpose. Some have termed them history with a theological focus. These books deal with the inception, rise, development, decline, and disruption of the Kingdom of Israel – The book of Kings with both kingdoms and the book of Chronicles with Judah only. The books cover about 500 years; 75 connected to Samuel, 120 connected to the unified kingdom, and 365 of division. Many of the prophets we’ll look at later deliver their messages during the period of these Kingdom Books.
Job. Job begins what are often called the poetical or wisdom books offering subjective rather than historical material. In essence, they deal with the inner experience of the individual, rather than the outward historical developments of a nation. Job itself answers the seeming contradiction of how a man can be satisfied in God when earth itself has crumbled around him.
Proverbs. Proverbs instructs one to obey God and keep His commands as the highest wisdom and secret of happiness.
Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes shows us Solomon, wicked and godless, yet apparently happy, and prosperous, until the end, where all vanity is fleeting and God alone brings joy.
Psalms. Psalms is considered lyrical worship and is a praise book of the Hebrew people; there is no book on earth, which so strongly touches the human heart and shows a life internally consumed by God.
Song of Solomon. Song of Songs may be a book for spouses (scholars disagree) but has historically been held as an early typology of Christ and His church, showing how true wisdom enters relationship with Christ.
Lamentations. Lamentations is a book that places national pride or patriotism after loyalty to God. It is a deep reminder that God humbles those He loves.
Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Isaiah. These prophecies were written to save Israel and Judah from destruction by Assyria circa 840BC.
Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Nahum, Habakkuk. These prophecies were written to save Judah from the Babylonian Captivity circa 640BC.
Ezekiel & Daniel. These prophecies were written to preserve and encourage a faithful remnant who should be the nucleus of a coming spiritual kingdom circa 600BC.
Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. These prophecies were written to encourage the people to rebuild the temple and resuscitate national fervor circa 535BC.
Secret #7 “Ask for God’s Help”
Always remember that you’re studying God’s word, and because you are a sinful person, will only be receptive to His word if the Holy Spirit guides you. You need His help! In my case, it takes 15-30 minutes of prayer each morning to confess sin, and be ready for His illumination of the text. It may take you more or less time, but make sure your heart is aligned to His, before and during your study.
Furthermore, remember that study isn’t your end goal, meeting Christ is! John once wrote, “These things are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Christ…” As you study, keep the end always in mind: to acknowledge Christ as Savior and Lord, bringing Him glory with your life. Now that you know where each book sits in the library and how it points forward to Christ (OT) or back to Christ (NT) you will find yourself stunned at how Scripture comes to life.
Be sure to get a good commentary (i.e. MacArthur, Expositor’s, Bible Knowledge) to coincide with your reading, as this will help you synchronize your study to the larger themes across Scripture. Lastly, don’t give up! Bible study is just like building a house; the foundation goes in slowly, but once the foundation is laid, the frame starts going up fast. Soon, the builder knows his or her tools, and is adding ornate décor to the home. Build your foundation right; don’t give up, and in one year’s time you’ll be stunned by the glory of Christ across the pages of your Bible.
How to Get the Most Out of God’s Word by John MacArthur
From God to Us by Normal L. Geisler
Know Your Bible by Graham Scroggie
Why Scripture Matters by John Burgess
Explore the Word by Henry Morris
Outline Study of the Bible by William Evans
Major Bible Themes by John Walvoord