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General Bible Courses > Living by the Book > Studying by the Book

Chapter 3: Effective Bible Study


IN THIS CHAPTER, you will discover:

*    The differences between Bible translations.

*    How to use the Living By The Book resource books.

*    The fundamental principles of good Bible study.

*    The role of the Holy Spirit in Bible study.  

AS A RESULT, you will be able to:

*    Knowledgeably use different translations of Scripture.

*    Study the Bible in greater depth.

*    Perform systematic Bible study.

*    Exercise spiritual gifts and graces in biblical interpretation.

Bible Translations

Key Scripture: “If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8).

Key Words: Majority Reading, Eclectic Approach, Formal Equivalence, Dynamic Equivalence, Paraphrase.

When the New Testament writers usually quoted the Old Testament or spoke about the nature of Scripture (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:15-17), their point of reference was not the Hebrew Old Testament but the Septuagint, its Greek translation. Translations were important then for the same reason they are important today — to communicate God’s message in understandable language.

The church has witnessed three major periods of Bible translation. The first, lasting from Pentecost until about a.d. 450, saw the appearance of the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible. In translating the Old Testament, the renowned biblical scholar Jerome used Hebrew manuscripts rather than the Septuagint. The Vulgate was the official Bible of the church for over one thousand years.

John Wycliff set the stage for the Reformation by publishing an English version of the Vulgate in 1380. During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the second era of Bible translation began. Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin sought to “democratize” Christianity by putting the Word of God into the hands of the people. The invention of the printing press by Gutenburg in 1454 made this a practical possibility for the first time. Luther published a German translation of the New Testament in 1522, and William Tyndale made the first English New Testament translation from the Greek in 1526. Miles Coverdale revised Tyndale’s work and added a translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew in 1535. Based largely on Tyndale’s translation, the King James or Authorized Version appeared in 1611.

Since the rise of the modern missionary movement in the nineteenth century, we have entered a third era of Bible translation. Portions of Scripture have been translated into more than two thousand languages, and English translations of the Bible number well over seventy.

Faced with such diversity, how are we to decide which translation to use? To answer this question we need to examine the problems associated with translating the Bible. We begin by looking at the process known as textual criticism. To critique a text does not mean to have a negative attitude toward it. Textual criticism involves the careful comparison of ancient manuscripts in an attempt to discover scribal errors and determine which reading is closest to the original.

In 1611 when the King James Version (kjv) was translated into English, translators favored the majority reading of texts. The form that a passage took in the majority of the ancient manuscripts was considered most likely to reflect the original. The problem with this approach can be illustrated if we imagine ourselves as observers in a fifth-century copy room. Suppose the lector, reading from an ancient manuscript, sees the word “scared” and reverses two letters in his mind to form the word “sacred.” He reads “sacred” to his twenty-five copyists and they write it down. There are now twenty-five texts that read “sacred” and one that reads “scared.” One thousand years later a majority reading of the texts will yield an incorrect understanding of the text. Only the older, better manuscript will show this. That is why textual critics today use an eclectic approach that focuses on the age and quality of available manuscripts rather than the majority reading.

Because of its emphasis on majority readings and the limitations of seventeenth century scholarship, instances of mistranslation occur in the kjv. In 1 Samuel 8:16, for example, the Hebrew word bqrykm (“your cattle”) was mistranslated bhrykm (“your young men”) because that is what appeared in the majority of late manuscripts used by the kjv translators. Also, the material given in John 5:3b-4 in the kjv has been identified as an explanatory comment made in the margin of a manuscript by an ancient translator. It found its way into the text itself in some later manuscripts. Similarly, 1 John 5:7 is an insertion found neither in early Greek manuscripts nor in early versions of the Vulgate. Because the translators of the kjv had to rely on manuscripts from the tenth century or later, such discrepancies appear throughout the 1611 Authorized Version. For this reason modern versions of the Bible are to be preferred over the kjv as study tools. Most modern versions are based on manuscripts from the second or third centuries.

In choosing a study Bible it is necessary to consider readability as well as accuracy. The original purpose of the kjv was “to deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue they can understand.” But the elegant Elizabethan English of the kjv often obscures rather than expresses the meaning of the text for today’s reader. Two examples are: “I prevented the dawning of the morning” (Ps. 119:147) and “Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own bowels” (2 Cor. 6:12).

At its best, an English translation should express itself in the language of the day, while faithfully representing the meaning of the original text. The three main types of Bible translations are: formal equivalence (highly literal), dynamic equivalence (idiomatic), and paraphrase (free translations). To illustrate their differences, here is 2 Corinthians 5:16 in three contemporary translations:

Formal Equivalence: “Therefore from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer” (New American Standard Bible).

Dynamic Equivalence: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer” (New International Version).

Paraphrase: “So stop evaluating Christians by what the world thinks about them or by what they seem to be like on the outside. Once I mistakenly thought of Christ that way, merely as a human being like myself. How differently I feel now” (The Living Bible).

Each type of translation has merits and drawbacks. All things considered, it is probably best to use an accurate dynamic equivalence translation such as the New International Version for your main study Bible. Enhance your feel for the original languages by referring to a formal equivalence translation such as the New American Standard Bible, and stimulate your imagination by looking at paraphrases such as the New Testament in Modern English or The Living Bible.

Key Concepts: [See above for answers]
1. The Greek translation of the Old Testament that served as Scripture for the New Testament writers was the ______________________________.
2. For one thousand years the ________________, a Latin translation of the Bible done by Jerome, was the Bible of the Western church.
3. _______________________________ published an English translation of the Vulgate in 1380, setting the stage for the Reformation.
4. The invention of the _____________________________ in 1454 made it possible for the first time to distribute Bibles to the public.
5. ___________________________ made the first English New Testament translation from the Greek in 1526.
6. The ________________________ Version, although a masterpiece of Elizabethan English, is incomprehensible to children and many modern readers.
7. The process of textual criticism is one in which (a) the inspiration of the Bible is disproved; (b) ancient manuscripts are compared to establish the probable original reading of a text; (c) the “majority reading” of a text is confirmed.
8. The three types of modern English translations are ___________ equivalence, ______________ equivalence, and free ___________________.
9. Most modern versions are based on manuscripts from the ____________ or _____________ centuries.
10. The ____________________ reading of a text reflects the number of manuscripts, not the quality.
11. Most textual critics use an __________________ approach based on the age and quality of the manuscripts.

Life Application: Take your favorite passage of Scripture and read it in the King James Version, the New International Version, and The Living Bible. Which one presents the main thoughts most clearly? What is the most important insight you gained from each version?

Basic Tools of Study

Key Scripture: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

Key Words: Exhaustive Concordance, Interlinear Bible, Harmony, Transliteration.

Using the NIV Topical Study Bible (NIVTSB)
Begin by reading the Table of Contents, especially the list of charts at the bottom of the page. Review carefully the section entitled “How to Use The NIV Topical Study Bible” beginning on page viii. Browse through the NIVTSB noting the theme charts that connect each book. Familiarize yourself thoroughly with the symbols and uses of the following features: Theme Notes,Topical Notes, Prophecy Notes, Time Links, Topical Ties, and the “Begin” symbol and arrows (p. xi). Observe how these symbols appear in the Topical Index. Notice the list of General Charts on page xiii, especially the reference to the “Old Testament in the New” charts. Beginning on page 1443 is a Topical Ties Index that contains useful listings for doing topical studies.

Following page xvi is a chart identifying the Symbols and Abbreviations used in the NIVTSB. These book abbreviations differ from those in the Study Guide, which uses a less academic style of abbreviation. Should there be any confusion, these abbreviations are explained on page xv of your NIDB. The Concordance follows the Topical Ties Index. Concordances help to locate passages of which you can only remember a word or phrase. They are also helpful in doing word studies. Students who have memorized scripture using a translation other than the niv may have to try synonyms to find the target passages. Since the NIVTSB concordance is not an exhaustive concordance (that is, it does not index every word in the Bible), you will eventually want to purchase one. Strong’s and Young’s are popular exhaustive concordances keyed to the King James Version. An exhaustive concordance for the niv is also available. The Maps following the Concordance will greatly aid you in visualizing the geography and politics of Bible times.

You may also want to acquire an interlinear Bible to assist you in advanced word studies. Interlinear Bibles provide you with the Hebrew or Greek text and show how each word translated. (Hebrew and Greek root words can be identified by using an exhaustive concordance.)

A harmony allows you to study easily the four gospels, because it arranges in parallel columns the evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’ life.

Using the New International Dictionary of the Bible (NIDB)

This reference work contains an alphabetical listing of information about important biblical terms, names, doctrines, history, geography, and culture. Note that the correct pronunciation of proper names is also given. A transliteration of Hebrew and Greek words is supplied. This tells you how the word is correctly spelled in English letters. Italicized words are either translations or transliterations of foreign words. Further information on Abbreviations, English Pronunciation, and Transliterations may be found on pages xv-xix. Additional color maps may be found at the end of the volume.

Bible encyclopedias provide more information than the short articles included in your Bible dictionary. If you decide to expand your library to include one of these, the five-volume Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible and the four-volume International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Revised are good choices. You also may want to purchase a Bible atlas, such as the MacMillan Bible Atlas or the NIV Atlas of the Bible.

Using the International Bible Commentary (IBC)

Commentaries are essential for responsible Bible Study. They supply the historical, doctrinal, and linguistic information necessary to interpret a passage properly. The International Standard Bible Revised states: “The primary function of a good commentary is to furnish an exact interpretation of the meaning of the passage under consideration; it should also show the connection of ideas, the steps of argument, and the scope and design” of that passage (1:737). Commentators often supply homiletic observations with scholarly data, or they may note that different interpretations have been suggested concerning the passage in question. In any case, a good commentator will clearly state where scholarly information ends and speculation begins. The student should never ignore the former, and exercise discernment regarding the latter.

When studying a particular passage, it is useful to understand the overall design and intent of the book from which it comes. To aid you in this, consult the introduction and outline preceding each book in the IBC. Your IBC also contains a number of scholarly articles before the Old and New Testament sections. Based on the quality of these articles, the Biblical Archaeologist, a scholarly research journal, recently named the one-volume IBC “the best of the conservative commentaries.” Both the casual and the determined student should sample these articles. They contain a gold mine of academic information and insight. Students who wish to pursue specialized research beyond the IBC should consult the works listed in the bibliographies at the end of each book. Multi-volume conservative commentaries known for their excellence include the Tyndale Old Testament and New Testament Commentary series, and the Expositors’ Bible Commentary.

Key Concepts: [See above for answers]
1. Academic abbreviations are (shorter, longer) than popular abbreviations.
2. A _____________________________ is helpful in finding a verse when you remember only a word or phrase.
3. An __________________________ concordance indexes every word in the Bible.
4. A ______________________________ is the correct English spelling of a Greek or Hebrew word.
5. A _____________________________ supplies the historical, doctrinal, and linguistic information on a biblical passage.
6. An _______________________ Bible supplies both the Hebrew or Greek text and its English translation.

Life Application: What is your feeling about Bible commentaries? Positive? Negative? Do you feel they infringe upon the role of the Holy Spirit in Bible study? Have you ever used an auto repair handbook to fix your car or a step-by-step guide to home improvements? Think of Bible commentaries in the same light as other reference books to help you get the job done.

Five Fundamentals of Good Bible Study

Key Scripture: "Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).

Do Original Investigation 

The Bereans illustrate the proper attitude of good Bible students. They were not content to take what Paul said at face value. They personally analyzed his message to see if it agreed with the rest of Scripture. As you become more familiar with God's Word, you deepen and expand your relationship with God. No one should be satisfied with a secondhand relationship. To know your spouse or children closely requires your direct personal contact. Similarly, there is no substitute for time spent personally questioning and exploring God's Word. You should not be content with vicarious insights gained through a pastor or Bible teacher, no matter how good they are. Only through direct contact with Scripture can you discern the truth or falsehood of the doctrines or opinions you bring there to test and judge. 

Record What You Learn 

Keep a notebook of the insights and questions that occur to you as you study and meditate on God's Word. Such insights are personally moving, hard-won, and sometimes very elusive. By recording them, you solidify and come to "own" them. Often deeper illumination will occur while organizing, recording, or reviewing your thoughts. You will be surprised at the wealth of associations that recur as you reread notes made during previous study sessions. Patterns and themes may emerge over time that lead to further insights or topics of inquiry. Keeping a study journal will multiply the fruit of your Bible study greatly.

Also, do not hesitate to write in your Bible (but strive to do so neatly). As a phrase from The Book of Common Prayer suggests, we are to "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" the Scriptures. The marginal references you make will serve as signposts for future understanding.

Be Consistent and Systematic

To become a "panner" rather than a "nugget prospector," you must pursue Bible study consistently and systematically. To acquire consistency, set aside a regular time each day when you can work with your study materials without interruption. Also, choose a place to work that is both comfortable and practical.  If you are faithful in your commitment to study, just coming to your "special place" will put you in the mood to study. 

A cardinal rule of Bible interpretation is that individual scriptures must be interpreted in light of Scripture in its entirety. Matthew 19:3-9, for example, clearly shows that Moses' teaching on divorce is best understood in light of Jesus' commentary. Rather than basing your understanding on one or two isolated verses, you should always learn what the Bible as a whole has to say about any particular issue. To study the Bible systematically means to proceed in an organized way to acquire a unified knowledge of Scripture in its totality.

Pages 135-39 of your textbook contain seven-year and ten-year plans for studying the entire Bible. After completing "Studying The Book," you may choose to use these or other approaches to systematic study. In any case, while it is good to have a study pattern or plan, remember to work slowly. Quality, not quantity, is the goal of good study. Our aim is to "inwardly digest," not to get spiritual indigestion!

Share Your Insights

We are creatures who live to praise, and who spend our time looking for things to admire and enjoy. Enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise in a healthy individual. Delight is incomplete until it is expressed, and it is multiplied when that expression is shared with others. For this reason, we all need to be part of a group in which we can share the fruit of our Bible study. The spiritual truths we pass on to others become more real for us. 

Apply What You Learn  An ancient Greek philosopher once said, "Knowledge, if it does not determine action, is dead to us." The knowledge that you gain studying Scripture should not only be informational, but also transformational. Discussion periods in group Bible studies often help us connect scriptural truths with the needs of others. Make the consideration of practical application part of your study journal routine. Begin and end your Bible study with a time of prayer. 

Key Concepts: [See above for answers] 

1. The ____________________ personally examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 

2. Deeper __________________________ will often come as you organize, record, or review your thoughts in a study journal. 

3. To pursue Bible study consistently you must set aside a regular ____________ and ________________ to work. 

4. To study the Bible _________________________________ means to acquire a knowledge of Scripture in its entirety in an organized way. 

5. _______________, not quantity, is the goal of good Bible study. 

6. True or False.  It is not necessary to share the fruit of our Bible study with others. 

7. Knowledge gained while studying Scripture should not only be informational but also _________________________________. 

8. Begin and end your Bible study with _________________.

Further Study: Read Psalm 90:12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Ephesians 5:16; and Colossians 4:5 regarding the proper use of time.

Life Application: Follow the practical suggestions given above with action. Choose a time and place for your Bible study today. Discuss your study needs with family members to enlist their cooperation in deciding what time and place is best. Purchase a notebook to record the questions and insights that occur during Bible study. Start or join a Bible study group.

The Role of the Holy Spirit in Bible Study

Key Scripture: “He [God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).

In Illumination
In our discussion of the inspiration of Scripture, we mentioned that the Bible, like Jesus, has both a human and a divine nature. Bible study also has both “human” (or intellectual) and “divine” (or spiritual) dimensions. To understand the Bible fully, we must educate ourselves about its historical, cultural, and linguistic background. Yet because the Word of God is living, active, and spiritual, we also need the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit.

Recall Paul’s teaching that the natural man, lacking the presence of God’s spirit, cannot discern spiritual truth. Both Paul and Jesus emphasized the crucial role that the Holy Spirit plays in communicating spiritual insight to the minds of believers. Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as a counselor, teacher, and guide who came to dwell in us and act as our spiritual compass, leading us to all truth (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13). Paul taught that just as the human spirit has direct access to the thoughts of the human mind, God’s Spirit knows the mind of God and reveals it directly to us (1 Cor. 2:10-14).

If we reflect for a moment, we can see why the Holy Spirit plays such an indispensable role in clarifying the meaning of the Bible. No matter how inspired or infallible the Bible is, it will only be an ordinary book to the spiritually unawakened. What good is inspired Scripture to an uninspired reader? It is as useless as a glorious sunset to one who is color blind, or a sumptuous feast to one with no sense of taste. For this reason the same Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture goes on to illuminate it. Illumination is the necessary complement and corollary of inspiration. When the reader is spiritually prepared, the Word of God can be transmitted and received: revelation occurs. This is a genuinely supernatural phenomenon. Just as Scripture must be considered inspired in a different sense than a concerto by Mozart, illumination is more than human intelligence raised to a higher power. In illumination the human mind is directly touched by the mind of God.

We must, however, carefully balance our appreciation for the importance of illumination with a keen attentiveness to the plain meaning of the biblical text. To return to our central analogy, the church teaches both that Christ’s human nature cannot be separated from His divine nature and also that the two natures should not be confused. Either extreme distorts the reality of the Incarnation and leads to heresy. Similarly, we must be careful neither to separate the spiritual word of God from the written words of Scripture, nor to confuse or simply equate the two. The first extreme leads to the reception of endless, subjective “revelations.” The second leads to bibliolatry — making the Bible itself into an idol. In the latter case, it is usually one group’s interpretation or version of the Bible that is venerated.

In Interpretation
There are definite roles that the Holy Spirit will not play in biblical interpretation. The Holy Spirit is not the initiator of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). As the author of Scripture, He will never contradict Scripture. Through illumination He will never reveal a new doctrine or suggest a moral position that is contrary to what is written in the Bible. He will never reveal something mystically that contradicts sound exegesis.
It is sometimes difficult to discriminate between divine illumination and human imagination (or even diabolic inspiration). Professor Wilson’s example of the birth of the “Oneness” Pentecostal movement could be multiplied from the annals of church history many times over. For this reason, the overall process of interpretive discernment is a task best exercised by the universal church. The doctrinal traditions of the historic church and the modern insights of believing Bible scholars are witnesses we dare not ignore in interpreting Scripture. Reluctance to do so is a sign of presumption and spiritual pride (Prov. 13:10).
While we cannot equate an academic understanding of the Bible with spiritual understanding, neither can we simply substitute spiritual illumination for disciplined and informed Bible study. This is not the meaning of 1 John 2:27, as professor Wilson points out. Good exegesis faithfully unveils the original meaning of a text. Since the Holy Spirit is the source of that message, biblical interpretation, done correctly, is a process in which the Holy Spirit is “allowed” to speak. The role of the biblical expositor can be equated to that of a master of ceremonies, who carefully introduces an important speaker and then hands the podium over to him.

In Application
Through the Holy Spirit we experience the connection between our own inner life and God’s inner life. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Rom. 8:16). God and we are family (1 John 3:1-2)! As we come to know our heavenly Father by listening to Him, by being disciplined by Him, and by simply spending time with Him, we are “transformed into his likeness” (2 Cor. 3:18). Our hearts and minds reflect God’s character more and more (Rom. 12:2). The Holy Spirit sanctifies us by teaching us to love the things God loves and to hate the things He hates. He helps to turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God. By leading us into a deeper personal understanding of God, He promotes the transformation of spiritual knowledge into spiritual fruit.

The Holy Spirit brings specific personal applications of scriptural truths to mind. Jesus promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit would “remind you of everything I have said” (John 14:26). Clearly the Holy Spirit (being omniscient and omnipresent) makes an outstanding prompter. And indeed, this is one of His primary roles in the life of the Christian. From God’s perspective, all that we do unto others we do unto Christ (Matt. 25:31-46). If God is concerned even over the fall of a sparrow (Matt. 10:29-30), He assuredly has much to show us about the effect of our behavior on others! Revealing how we can do the will of God is part of the Holy Spirit’s mission to “lead us into all truth.” If you want to hear the voice of God, read your Bible and then be attentive to the Holy Spirit as He speaks to your conscience.

Remember, too, that as your divine enabler the Holy Spirit gives you the spiritual fruit and gifts necessary to become a good Bible student. At times you may need a spiritual gift such as wisdom or knowledge; at other times you may need a fruit of the Spirit such as patience or meekness to persevere in your studies. When you feel the need for these gifts or fruit, consciously ask for them and receive them in faith.

Key Concepts: [See above for answers]
1. Like ______________, Bible study has both “human” (or intellectual) and “divine” (or spiritual) dimensions.
2. _____________________________ is the necessary complement and corollary of inspiration.
3. We must carefully discriminate between divine illumination and human ___________________________.
4. ________________________ occurs when we ignore the spirit of God’s Word and make the written letter of the Bible into an idol.
5. As the _________________ of Scripture, the Holy Spirit will never reveal something through illumination that contradicts Scripture.
6. According to 2 Peter 1:20, the meaning of Scripture is not a matter of _________________ interpretation.
7. The _____________________ of the historic church and the insights of believing Bible _______________________ are two witnesses to use in judging the accuracy of our individual interpretations.
8. True or False. Spiritual illumination is a substitute for academic Bible study.
9. The Holy Spirit is (a) constantly revealing new doctrines to Christians; (b) constantly revealing new applications of spiritual truth to Christians; (c) both.

Life Application: Do you regularly allow the Holy Spirit to speak to your spirit through Scripture and through the silence of expectant, God-centered prayer? If not, begin to do so. Record the Spirit’s promptings to your conscience in your study journal. This practice can help you maintain continuity between your prayer life, spiritual development, and Bible study.

Take the quiz

Quiz Instructions

Review Questions

1. The Greek ____________________ was the Scripture for the early Christians.



2. Jerome’s Latin Bible translation was the _________________.



3. ___________________ published an English translation of the Vulgate.



4. The invention of the ___________________________ made it possible to mass distribute Bibles.

Printing Press


5. _____________________ translated the first Greek-to-English New Testament.



6. The ______________________ Version, although a masterpiece of Elizabethan English, is incomprehensible to children and many modern readers.

New Living Translation

King James

7. The three types of modern English Bible translations are formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, and free _________________.



8. The _________________ reading of a text reflects the number of manuscripts.



9. Most textual critics use an _____________ approach based on the age and quality of the available manuscripts.



10. To study the Bible __________________________ means to acquire an overall knowledge of Scripture in an organized way.



11. A _____________________ is the correct English spelling of a Greek or Hebrew word.



12. Scripture knowledge should not be merely informational but ______________________.



13. ______________________ is the process whereby the Holy Spirit reveals new applications of spiritual truth.



14. We must discriminate between illumination and ________________.



15. ________________ makes the written letter of the Bible into an idol.



16. As the author of Scripture, the ______________ will never contradict Scripture.

Holy Spirit


17. The meaning of Scripture is not a matter of __________________ interpretation.



18. Two witnesses that help judge the accuracy of our individual interpretations are church _________________ and believing Bible scholars.



19. True or False. Spiritual illumination is a substitute for academic Bible study.



20. An __________________ concordance indexes every word in the Bible.



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