Fun fact: I have’t always loved, or even liked, Bible study. Back before I knew how to start studying the Bible, I was a lost teenager who couldn’t tell Numbers from, well, a math textbook. I did my first Bible study online when I was 17, and I distinctly remember the teacher telling us to flip to Acts 2. “In which book?” I thought, confused as everyone in the video dutifully opened their Bibles to the same page. It was like she told me to open to “verse 2” and I was expected to find it.
That’s right — I was so new to the Bible that thought an “Act” was the word for a verse. Seven years later, and I have a degree in Religion with a focus on Biblical studies, and have written a few Bible studies myself. God sure does choose the strangest people.
This to say: I’ve been there.
Whether you’re a new believer, a lifelong Christian who’s just starting to explore the Bible, or just looking because you’re curious, reading the Bible by yourself for the first time can be intimidating. I know how hard it is to find resources that explain what you need to know without overwhelming you or making you feel like you’ll never, ever get it. But you can, and you will. Today, I want to show you a few different Bible study methods that can help you learn how to start studying the Bible. But first, let’s lay down some basics.
What to Expect From Your Bible Study
I heard this great anecdote from a YouTube video a few months ago. We often come to the Bible hoping or even expecting to get that amazing, awe-inspiring feeling of connection with God. But that moment is like going out to your favorite restaurant on your birthday — it’s exciting, memorable, and you look forward to it all year. But most of the time, your meal is simple, unmemorable, or even boring. Our everyday meals may not stand out, but our bodies notice if we skipped them.
By the same vein, we may not have an incredible moment of connection with God every time that we open our Bibles, but we still benefit from the everyday moments of Bible study that may feel less memorable. Every time you open your Bible, you’re opening yourself up to a deeper connection with God and your spiritual side. Just because you don’t feel much, don’t give up.
What to Expect From Yourself
And here’s another thing: if I had a dollar for every time I saw someone else’s Bible, all marked-up with notes and bleeding with highlighter, and thought “WOW! I want THAT!”, I could buy myself a fancy commentary set or ten! I love how encouraging it is to see other people’s Bible study photos and videos, but inspiration can turn to envy really quickly when we start comparing ourselves to others. (I especially notice this with Bible journaling.)
Especially when you’re new to the faith or new to Bible study, it can be damaging to hold yourself to the standard of someone else’s Bible study. Remember: this isn’t about having a “perfect” Bible or being a “perfect” person. God meets us where we are. We don’t have to climb the mountain or go to the temple to talk to God. We are blessed to serve a God who came to us — who put on skin and sandals to walk in our shoes, feel our pain, know our hearts. As Jordan Dooley said, we serve a God who stoops to meet us.
In the same way, you don’t need to mark up every inch of your Bible to spend time with God. You don’t need to read Hebrew or speak Greek — you can still gain important messages and lessons from “the Word” without tearing it apart. Focus on what you can do sustainably. If you can only spend five minutes a day, every day reading the Bible, that would be better than doing a huge two-hour study, but only being able to fit it in once a week. See what fits you, your life, and your learning style, and do what you can.
How to Start Studying the Bible
The only thing you really need to study the Bible is, well, the Bible. That said, there are a lot of tools that we can use to help enrich our Bible study and guide us in understanding the Word better. Here are a few things that may help you.
The Bible has been translated in many different ways, and a lot of the translations have different styles and histories. None of these is “better” or “worse” than another, and which one you use often is just a reflection of the community, family, or church you come from. That said, knowing which translations you like best may help you during your study, since you can look up different translations of the same passage if you’re confused.
Here are a few popular translations of the Bible in English (if English isn’t your first language, then try to find a translation you like in your native language!). This is kind of funny, but to help understand the relationship of these different translations, let’s talk about chocolate. Imagine that the original Biblical text in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, is cacao powder — the purest essence of chocolate. If some of the common translations were chocolate — versions of that essence that are made edible for the modern person — they could be described like this:
Dark Chocolate — the closest you can get to the original language in English
NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) – This is a very close translation that is used by most academics and Bible scholars. If you ever want a study Bible or want to see the closest translation of the text, this is a good place to go, but some of the language can be hard to understand for newer readers.
Milk Chocolate — a close translation that is easily understandable for modern readers
ESV (English Standard Version) – A translation that tries to combine literal translation with being easy to understand in everyday modern English. This translation is common with mainline protestant communities.
NIV (New International Version) – A translation that tries to combine literal translation with being easy to understand in everyday modern English. This translation is common with evangelical communities.
HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible) – A translation that tries to combine literal translation with being easy to understand in everyday modern English. This translation is common with evangelical communities.
White Chocolate — a loose translation that emphasizes understanding over literalness
The Message (MSG) – This is a translation of the Bible that focuses on being understandable for a modern-day audience over being an exact translation of the text. This can be a great, easy-to-read supplement to your Bible reading to help you understand your verse in modern English.
Websites and Apps
The following apps and websites are great free add-ons to your Bible study that may help you gain more context or information from your reading.
BibleHub is a great resource that lets you look at a variety of translations of the same text side-by-side. They also pull up some notes from study Bibles and cross-references. If you scroll to the bottom of a page for a particular verse, you can find commentaries on it, but a lot of these commentaries are older and written in an old-fashioned style of English that may be hard to understand.
Logos is an iOS and Android app that lets you look up Biblical passages and commentaries. I personally love Logos for the sleek design and easy-to-use interface, but it has fewer commentaries than some other apps.
Blue-Letter Bible is a popular website for Biblical commentaries. I personally find the website harder to navigate than some others, but appreciate how many commentaries they have freely available.
BibleRef is a newer website that has easy-to-understand commentaries on some, but not all, books of the Bible. I’ve found the commentary they offer to be really useful and understandable, but because the website hasn’t covered the whole Bible yet, it may not be useful for all parts of this study.
This part is pretty simple — use what you have and what makes the most sense for you. I like using the following tools as add-ons to my Bible study:
- A notebook or journal
- Pens and pencils
Some people also like using stickers, stamps, washi tape, or other decorative elements to help them dig in. Whatever helps you get to it is what will be the best fit for you!
So with that said, let’s look at a few methods you can use to jump straight into studying your Bible.
Quick-Start Method for Bible Study
There are a ton of methods for how to study your Bible below, but the best one is the one that works for you. For many of us, that means a Bible study method that:
- Isn’t confusing
- Doesn’t overwhelm us
- Helps us understand and grow
If that’s what you’re looking for, this quick-start guide can help you.
Set a time. Set aside some time to read your Bible. If you’re just starting out, try for fifteen or twenty minutes. You can always build up to more.
Gather your materials. Grab your pens, pencils, highlighters, or notebook. Put your phone on silent. Get ready.
Pray. Gather your thoughts. Ask God to help you with your Bible study today.
Read. Read that day’s selected verse once, slowly. You can use a Bible study, Bible reading plan, or book you’re reading. If you don’t have a plan, I like the ones by Jordan Lee Dooley to get started.
Write down thoughts and questions. Now reread the passage and pay attention to what it’s saying. Is it telling you a fact, or setting up to tell a story? Is someone speaking? Who? Are there words or phrases that stand out to you as important, strange, or interesting? Write down your comments and questions, either in the Bible or in a separate notebook.
Optional: Look up the answers to your questions using Google or a commentary. For some people, the notes they take on who’s speaking and what they’re saying is enough. But others want to learn more, and if you do, the resources above in the Websites and Apps section will help you learn more. Look up the passage you’re reading in one of the commentaries, or Google a phrase that interested you with the passage next to it (Like this: “A city built on a hill Matthew 5:14”). Remember that what you find may be helpful, but it’s not always definitive — not everyone giving advice on the Internet is right. Find the sources you trust, and see what they have to say that can help you.
Reflect. When you’ve worked through the passage, put down your pen or highlighter and reflect on what you’ve learned. What does this passage teach you about God or yourself, if anything? How could you act its message out in your day-to-day life? See if you can summarize what you learned in 1-2 sentences. You may also choose to turn to God and say a prayer of gratitude for what you learned, or ask for guidance in helping to understand the passage.
Other Methods for Bible Study
This is a foundational method for Bible study, but there are many others that could be helpful for you. Don’t be afraid to try one of these each day on that day’s passage to see what you learn.
Bible Verse Mapping
If you’re a visual learner, Bible verse mapping may be right for you. The basic idea is taking a single verse of the Bible and breaking it down visually. There are different ways to do this; here are a few examples from my experience and from the internet. You can read about more of them here.
Trace a circle into your journal and write your verse inside it. Now, using a ruler, make different sections around it on the page. The different sections can be whatever you find most useful, but I like using these:
- Translations — other translations of the same verse where some keywords may be different.
- Keywords — words that stood out to me and what they mean.
- Context/History — information about where in the story of the Bible this takes place, or about the historical context of this time period (Logos is a great resource for this kind of information).
- Promise/Lesson — What is God promising me here? What does this verse teach me about God, Jesus, or myself?
- Walk — How can I walk out the message of this verse in my daily life?
- Summary/Response — What did I learn from this passage? What do I pray God will teach me about this passage?
There are so many of these amazing acronyms to help you with your Bible study. The one I’ve seen most often is SOAP (Scripture, Observation, Application, and Prayer), but there are dozens of others that you can try. I don’t personally use one of these methods right now, so I’m not the right person to guide you through them, but this guide is a thorough walk-through of 11 of these methods.
Digging In: How I Study the Bible
This is the method I use when I really want to go all-out and learn as much as I can from my Bible. For this, I’m essentially using the Quick-Start Method but adding multiple layers of research and study.
First, I read through the passage slowly, underlining interesting phrases, putting boxes or circles around major keywords, and adding squiggly lines under things that confuse me or that I find curious.
Then I slowly go through the passage, looking up every keyword, sentence, or phrase using my Logos app and sermons that I find online.
Next, I take notes in the margins and box them off, with arrows pointing from the section of scripture to my notes.
I imagine if I were the one writing this story, in a bare-bones way. Are there things the Biblical text is telling me that I wouldn’t add myself, if I were just relaying the story? If so, those things are probably important.
One example is John 4:1-2: “Jesus knew the Pharisees had heard that he was baptizing and making more disciples than John (though Jesus himself didn’t baptize them—his disciples did).”
If I was relaying the basic story, I would have just said “Jesus knew that the Pharisees had heard he was baptizing and making more disciples than John.” The fact that the author adds “though Jesus himself didn’t baptize them” means that there’s something important there.
I did some Googling/research and it turns out that that’s actually a really important note! It seems like Jesus didn’t perform water baptisms so that no Christian could lord their status over another, because we are all of equal status in Christ (Galatians 3:28). By paying attention to what stands out, I’m able to notice little details that I wouldn’t if I just looked at the big picture.
I also note “big ideas” that stand out to me theologically.
For example, many Jewish people walked around Samaria because of their disdain for Samaritans, so when the Bible says that Jesus “had to walk through Samaria,” it doesn’t mean geographically — maybe it’s because he knew he had to meet the Samaritan woman to give her this new beginning.
So what that teaches me is that God will out of His way, into the darkest places, to meet people and offer them rebirth.
Then I highlight the scripture portion, arrow, and box of notes all in the same color so I can stay organized. I don’t color-code for the most part (my one exception is that I always use the same shade of orange to note cross-references, when one voice references another). This is so that I don’t become beholden to my own system, and instead let the focus of my study be on learning and not following my own color-coding guide.
After I finish a page or reading section, I write my personal takeaway on a post-it note. Usually it’s a lesson I can apply to my life or something to remember that I learned about God that day.
How do you study the Bible?
That’s all I’ve got for now. I hope that these methods will help inspire you to find what works best for you in your own Bible study. Thank you for taking the time to read this guide to how to start studying the Bible. If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to comment below. Let me know: how do you do your Bible study?