How to read the Book - Rev. R. Schouten

Text copied with permission from "Clarion", Volume 20, No. 21, 22 (1992)

Ministers often make remarks in sermons about the need for personal and family Bible reading and Bible Study. Their exhortations are based on the conviction that faith and godliness depend on listening to and understanding the Scriptures. If the Word of God does not dwell richly in the hearts of church members, the church becomes weak, susceptible to a host of spiritual diseases.

It may be that you have taken the encouragement of your preacher to heart. You have resolved to be more diligent in reading and studying the Bible. So it happens one night that you open your Bible to Genesis and read a whole chapter or two. Perhaps you choose instead to start with Matthew one.

For several days or even a week or two, you make reasonably good progress. After a while, however, you start to run into problems. You find a really difficult passage which doesn't make any sense to you at all. You have no idea what God is trying to convey to you through it. So you loose the keen enthusiasm you had at the start. Now the nightly reading becomes a chore. Eventually, you give up the practice altogether.

You might ask: when the preacher encouraged the congregation to read and study the Bible, did he have any idea how difficult this task was?

It is true that Bible Study is hard work. Preparing for Young People's Society is hard work. However, these are not impossible works. If we follow some basic guidelines, we can definitely grow in our ability to read and understand God's Word.

The larger context

One of the basic rules for Bible study is to pay attention to the context. Preachers sometimes remind each other that "a text without a context is a pretext." If we don't pay attention to the material that surrounds our text, we are likely to go astray in the making of sermons.

Also for personal Bible Study and for Young People's Society, context is a basic concern. In the first place, we may think of the context of the whole book which you have chosen to study. It is my belief that nothing will be more helpful and exciting than starting to see the passages you study as part of a whole book. The Bible actually consists of a whole library of books, sixty-six of them. Each book has a character of its own and a unique message. The books of the Bible were meant to be read as a unit. When we only read a few verses here or there or only a chapter or two, we violate the unity of that book and are very likely to miss the point altogether.

Thus, I would suggest that when you are going to study a particular book of the Bible for Young People's Society start by reading through the whole book in some quiet place of your home. If you think about it, this should not take too long. Many books of the Bible are very short and can be easily read within one hour. Others are a bit longer, but even the longest are far shorter than an average novel.

During this first reading, it is important not to allow yourself to get bogged down in all kinds of problems. If you don't understand something immediately, don's worry about it. Just keep reading. Your goal during this first reading is not comprehension of all the details, but only a general "feel" for the book. You want the wide-angle lens picture. Later, there will be ample opportunity for close-up shots. Therefore, keep up a good speed.

Some of you who read this article will one day be called to serve as elders in various congregations. Part of your task then will be to ensure that the preaching in your church is faithful. How can this task be fulfilled if you are ignorant of the Bible?

After you have read through the whole book, wait a day or two and then do it again. Yes, read the whole book a second time! This time, you can go a bit slower. Now it's time to start asking some questions. Too many people read the Bible in the same way they watch TV; passively. If we want to honour the author of Scripture, we will have to read actively and that means asking many questions. During the second reading, you want to ask yourself questions like this: When was this book written? To whom was it written? What does the book tell us about the author? Why was the book written? What was the purpose of the author? What kind of literature do we find in this book? Is it poetry? Is it drama? Is it historical writing? Is it a letter?

During this second reading, it is also important to watch for the major divisions of the book. Watch out for points when the author seems to move into a new topic or a new phase of the discussion. Incidentally, it will be very helpful to have a Bible with paragraph divisions as we find these, for example, in the Harper Study Bible. When you read an older KJV Bible, you see only a mass of numbered verses without any break whatsoever. This makes reading more difficult.

After you have read your chosen book for the second time, it's time to get out your special Bible Study Notebook. At this point, your task will be to write a paragraph or two which describes the overall message of the book. The point of this exercise is to state the key thoughts of the book. When you read a novel, you should be able to summarize the plot. If you read a short story, you will be able to state the theme of this story. In the same way, a very important part of personal or group Bible Study in Young People's Society is the ability to state the theme of the Bible book in discussion.

After you have come to your own preliminary understanding of the part of Scripture you are studying, it will be time to get out your Bible Study toolbox. In this toolbox, you will find a number of reference books which can help you to grasp the message of the Bible. One of the most helpful volumes at this stage of your study will be a Bible Dictionary. The standard Bible Dictionary is called The New Bible Dictionary (2nd edition), edited by J.D. Douglas, and published by Tyndale (retail cost around $30.00). If you or your Young People's Society have saved some money, a very excellent tool is the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (5 volumes, edited by Merrill C. Tenney, published by Zondervan, retailing for about $195.00). Other items in your toolbox might include study outlines published by InterLeague-PublicationBoard or other commentaries and outlines. Most of these have introductory chapters which you should read. You can also read the introductory articles to each Bible book in Study Bibles like the New International Version Study Bible.

At this stage of your research, you are still interested in the wide-angle perspective. For example, if you plan to study Genesis, you can look up the articles under "Genesis" in your dictionaries. Or, if you are studying 1 Corinthians, you can look up articles under "Corinth" (city), "Corinthians, Epistles to," and even under headings like "Paul." Or, if you are studying Daniel, check articles under "Daniel," "Babylon," "Nebuchadnezzar" and so on. If you are going to study the Psalms, check the Bible Dictionary for a description of the characteristics of Hebrew poetry and for a classification of the different kinds of Psalms.

Finally, in order to finish this stage of the study, you may wish to get out a Bible atlas, or at least take a good look at the maps in the back of your Study Bible. Try to figure out where the action is taking place. Often this will really increase your understanding of what is being said in a particular book.

In the first article, we paid attention to a preliminary phase of serious Bible study. It was stated that it is very important to begin Bible Study by paying attention to the whole book you are studying. There are no shortcuts in this regard. People who want to honor the Author of Scripture will simply have to take the time to carefully read the whole book at least once and preferably twice. After you have done this, you will be able to really profit by reading articles in Bible Dictionaries, Study Bibles and Bible Handbooks.

Thus, the point of the first article was to encourage people to come to grips with the overall message of each book they study. I spoke about this as the wide-angle perspective. Now it is time, however, to take some close-up shots.

The smaller context

Once you have developed a "feel" for the book you are studying, it is time to move on to more focused study of individual units.-In order to do this, you will need to decide on the divisions of the book. Hopefully, you will have noticed the basic structure of the book when you read it from beginning to end. For example, if you read Genesis a couple of times, you will notice the repeated phrase "these are the generations of ...." You can use this phrase to make an outline of Genesis. Does the job of making your own outline sound too difficult? In that case, use one provided by the various Study Bibles or Study Guides. If you read such an outline without having first read that book carefully, it will seem rather uninteresting. If, however, you have first read the whole book through and through, the outline will really come alive and will be of great help in your Bible Study.

So now you have your outline. At this stage, you can begin serious study of individual passages of Scripture.

Read the first section indicated by your outline (usually this will be a chapter or two, though sometimes longer). Get out your Bible Study Notebook. Write down in a few sentences what seems to be the main point of the first section of the outline.

After this, it will be very helpful to divide the first section of the outline into even smaller units, namely, into paragraphs. Again, write down the key thought of each paragraph. Don't be afraid to write in your Bible. For example, you can number the paragraphs in each section of your outline. Or, you can number the central points in each section of the outline, which show the flow of thought.

So far, you have divided the first section of your outline into paragraphs. To take your study further, you now analyze each paragraph into sentences. Who or what is the subject of each sentence? What is the main verb? Often this will be obvious, but still, taking the time to think about it may clear up some confusion.

The last stage of analysis brings us to the level of individual words and phrases of the text. If there is a word you don't understand, you simply must look it up in a Bible dictionary (or, in some cases, in a regular dictionary). Now ask yourself some questions about the individual words. Are there certain words which are repeated in the course of the book? Are there key words which take you to the heart of the book? Perhaps you could make a list of key words for each book you study. These would be unique words which center around the theme of the book.

A further step of study involves concordances. There are many of these on the market. The key is to find one that corresponds to the Bible translation you use. If you use the RSV, it won't be terribly useful to have a New International Version concordance. The point of concordance study is to discover the range of meaning a particular word might have. For example, if a verse in your passage uses the word "preach" you can look up other occurrences of this word. Usually, you won't have time to look up every instance, so you can confine yourself to a certain part of Scripture. For example, if you find the word "preach" in one of Paul's letter, you can look up all other instances in only Paul's letters, leaving out for the moment, the letters of Peter, John, James, Jude and the Gospels. However much time you devote to concordance study, it will definitely help you to get the flavor of different words.

Most good study Bibles have a reference column. You can use this tool to find other passages which use the same words, phrases or express the same thoughts as found in the verse you are studying. It can be very helpful to write out a number of these cross references in your Bible Study Notebook.

The Bible as literature

In the various steps of Bible Study, we need to be concerned about two questions: first, what is the author saying? (content) and second, how is he saying it? (method, style). Of course, these two can never be separated. Often we don't know what an author is saying until we pay attention to his style. For this reason, I would urge you to become more sensitive to matters of style. We need to learn to read the Bible as literature.

Here we find a strong incentive to take English class seriously! In English, we learn to analyze and understand different types of literature. We learn about drama, poetry, short stories, novels etc. We learn about symbols, allegories, imagery, metaphors, repetition, parallelisms, hyperbole, theme, climax, and much, much more. Understanding literature is important for many reason, but also for this reason: the Bible is literature! When you sit in English class, you may think that poetry is irrelevant. But then I would remind you that it has pleased the Lord to speak to us also by way of poetry. If you want to understand the Lord's revelation (and who dares say he doesn't), you will simply have to grasp the basics of poetic style and form. When you do, the poetic parts of Scripture really open up and become exciting for you! You start to appreciate how lovely the Scriptures are!

Study-Guides and commentaries

We come now to the final stage of your study. This will involve reading the various commentaries and/or study guides you have available. Notice that this is the last step of serious Bible Study. I have no objection if you from time to time quickly consult a commentary to get a clearer view of a passage read, for example, around the dinner table. But in your serious Bible Study, such as the kind you should do for Young People's Society, consulting study guides of any sort will be the last step! Otherwise you will get lazy and will never develop your own ability to hear the Word of God.

The big question is: what commentary of Study Guide should I use? For a general one volume commentary, the New Bible Commentary is still hard to beat (published by Eerdmans, editor D. Guthrie and J.A. Motyer, cost around $30.00). Besides interesting introductory articles on topics like "The Authority of Scripture," "Revelation and Inspiration," "The History of Israel," and even, yes, "The Poetry of the Old Testament," this Commentary contains short comments on every passage of the Bible which are often helpful to clear away difficulties.

If you have the New International Version Study Bible, the study notes alone make this publication worth its price (around $50.00). In many cases, the study notes in this Bible are better than most existing non-academic English commentaries.

As far as individual study-guides or commentaries on specific Bible books are concerned, I would encourage you to keep an open eye for the many volumes published by the Inter-League-Publication Board. Recent publications include a substantial study guide on Romans by the Rev. J. Francke, a revised two-volume study guide on Revelation by Prof. J. Selles, and a volume on the Minor Prophets by Rev. P. Lok. When you see these advertised, buy them! In this way, by the time you are thirty, you will have a very useful reference library. Most of the socalled study guides available in evangelical book stores are quite useless and do not reflect a Reformed view of Scripture. For example, the majority of them are infected with dispensational nonsense.

One "commentary" series which deserves attention is entitled The Bible Speaks Today (O.T. portion edited by J.A. Motyer, N.T. by John R.W. Stott). I have looked through the volumes on Revela tion (Michael Wilcock) and 1 Peter (Edmund Clowney) and have found them to be characterized by accuracy and restraint. They take the text of the Bible seriously and yet refrain from sermonizing. They are easy to understand for average church members. This series is published by Inter-Varsity Press. Another series with many excellent volumes is the Westminster Daily Study Bible. For example, the two volumes by Peter Craigie on the Twelve Prophets are well worth your money.

Other reference material includes the classic Promise and Deliverance, by S.G. DeGraaf and translated by Dr. H. Evan and Elisabeth Wichers Runner. Unhappily, this four volume set, published by Paideia, is now out of print. If you can find a copy, it is very helpful reading for Old and New Testament historical passages. C. vanderWaal's ten volume set Search the Scriptures, translated by Dr. Theodore Plantinga, is still available and is a very helpful general guide to the structure and theme of each Bible book. In addition, these ten volumes constantly stimulate you to compare Scripture with Scripture so that you build up a sense of the unity of the Bible as the one covenant book of God (Published by Paideia Press, St. Catharines, ON.).

Another very good way to build up a systematic knowledge of Scripture is to make some notes for yourself when your minister has a series of sermons on a certain part of Scripture. Later, if you undertake careful study of that Bible book, your notes will be very helpful!

Undoubtedly, I have missed some good material. I could yet mention Dr. William Hendriksen's series on the New Testament, published by Baker Book House (since Hendriksen's death, this series is being completed by Dr. S. Kistemaker). Generally, these are helpful, but frequently verbose and often going to great lengths to explain fairly trivial points. I could also mention the nine volumes of the Korte Verklaring which have been translated and now published by Paideia/Zondervan (Genesis -Ruth, Isaiah, Matthew) under the title Bible Student's Commentary . If you can still obtain these, by all means do so, but it seems that no further volumes will be brought to the press.

If you are still unable to find a proper commentary or Study Guide for the book you have chosen, you may wish to consult your own minister for some advice. Speak to your local Christian Book Store concerning availability of any of the titles I've mentioned.

Having given our attention in previous articles to the wider and narrower context in Bible Study, we will now go on to address a different matter: the personal context. The Bible does not speak in a vacuum. It is addressed to certain people. We say that the Bible is a covenant book. This means that it speaks directly to you who are God's covenant people. It is your book!

Well, when God's people read this their Book, they soon notice that it is not a message which you can ignore. Instead, it is a Book which makes demands of the reader. It commands them, comforts them and challenges them. It never leaves them neutral. From beginning to end, this is a Book which needs a response, not just an intellectual response, but a response arising from the depths of our hearts.


I hesitate to use the word "application" because of its misuse in certain circles. In various kinds of evangelical publications (even in "study Bibles"), you find all kinds of attempts to "apply" a certain part of Scripture to our lives today. For example, I just heard a "sermon" about King David and the matter of Uriah the Hittite (by a wellknown evangelical preacher). The basic point of this sermon was: if you tell one lie, you'll soon be telling a lot more. This is the kind of "application" we don't need. The Bible was not written to teach a great number of moral "lessons." If you find a commentary which takes this approach, it probably isn't worth your while.

Also, I think we should resist the idea that "application" is a special component of Bible Study which we always do at the end of our study. Often, as we are studying Scripture, we will find ourselves overwhelmed by the majesty and glory of our God. The salvation He works in history is astounding. What greater application can there be than to fall down in reverent wonder before Him who is the Holy One?

All the same, there is place for a separate consideration of application.

Allow me to suggest the following questions as a guide. Ask yourselves: What does the Lord show us about Himself in this passage? What promises are given in this passage, whether explicitly or implicitly, which ask for our faith? Ask yourselves: do we really believe these promises? What does this passage show us about my Saviour (whether explicitly or implicitly)? What warnings are there in this passage? With what sins in our own lives does this passage confront,us? What commands of God are there in this passage which we must obey? What must change in our lives because of what we have learned in this passage? What does this passage say about the task of the church?

In thinking about "application," we must remember that the Bible is the account of God's mighty deeds. Not man, but God is the central character. What God does comes to a focus in the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we may ask at any given time: where is Christ the Lord in this passage? Once we can see an answer to this question, we will soon know the answer to a further question: where am I, a Christian in this passage? For where Christ is, there are His people, too.

The whole Bible, although it contains a library of 66 books, is really one story, the true story of the saving work of God in Christ Jesus. When you come to understand this, you soon feel yourself caught up in the story. When the Lord speaks about Christ, He is addressing you, too!

Finally, it is proper that Bible Study ends in prayer. In such a prayer after Young People's Society or after your personal Bible Study, you will thank the Lord for the new or renewed insights you have received and you will ask Him to give you His Spirit to help you think and live in the light of the Scriptures.

It goes without saying, of course, that Bible Study should also be preceded by prayer. We ask that the same Spirit who inspired the Word would also illumine our minds and prepare our hearts to receive the Word. At the very beginning of our study, we need to confess that understanding the Bible is possible only for spiritual people (1 Cor. 2:14,15). All the methods and tools described in the previous articles will not help those who do not first seek the help of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus.

Is Bible study necessary

Some of you might be inclined to say: this kind of Bible study is great for ministers, but not for me. I'm just an average person.. I'm not able to do all the things about which you have written.

In answer to such concerns, it may be said, first, that we don't have to read the Bible in this way all the time. There is still a very important place in our Christian lives for regular, daily Bible reading, for example, at meal times. At these times, we won't always have opportunity to really delve into the Scriptures or to get out our Bible Study toolbox.

But we are saying that in addition to daily Bible reading, there must also be serious Bible study. Often this will take place via a Bible Study group. If you go to Bible Study after preparing in the ways described in these articles, you are guaranteed a very fruitful and edifying discussion.

To go to Bible Study without preparing yourself in the way described (not necessarily in exactly the same way) would be irresponsible. When people fail to pay attention to the larger, narrower and personal context of Scripture, they will be prone to twisting it or, at the least, missing the point that is being made. Serious, persistent Bible Study honors the Lord who took such a special care in having the Bible written for us.

Furthermore, if only ministers are studying the Word of God, how can church members test their preaching? Some of you who read this article will one day be called to serve as elders in various congregations. Part of your task then will be to ensure that the preaching in your church is faithful. How can this task be fulfilled if you are ignorant of the Bible?

To further commend to your heart the importance of Bible Study, I would suggest you read the following passages: Deut. 6:4-7; Joshua 1 :8; Psalm 1 :2; Col. 3:16; 1 John. 2:14. I'm sure you can find other passages which bring a similar message.

Is Bible study possible?

There may be those who still insist that this kind of Bible Study is only for ministers of the Word. In answer, I would point out that the kind of study done by ministers reaches even further. For example, ministers base all their study on the original text of Scripture which comes in the form of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages. Furthermore, ministers as a rule have much more time available for this kind of work. Then, too, they have more study tools at their disposal which may be too complex for many church members without theological training (not to mention that they are usually too expensive!). We should also consider the fact that the minister has been ordained to preach. His study is usually directed to the proclamation of the Word in the midst of the congregation.

In principle, however, the method of study used by a minister is indeed the same one which you must use in your preparation for Young People's Society. Therefore, another title for this series of articles could be: "A Day in the Life of a Minister." That there is similarity between what you do to prepare for Young People's Society and what a minister does in his study need not really surprise anyone.

If you want to understand a novel, you will have to learn something about the methods used by a professor of English literature. Indeed, it takes a number of years of training in elementary and high school to learn how to read ordinary books properly. The more you learn about literature, the more you will appreciate or abhor the novel you are reading. Therefore, I would also say that the best training school for serious Bible Study is the preaching of the Word in your own church. All the points that have been made in these articles will receive ample illustration from your own minister.

Is Bible Study hard? Of course it is. Everything really valuable is hard. Does it take a long time to learn this method?

Well, it does take more time than it takes to watch a hockey game.

But to those who are thinking, "I'll never be able to master all the procedures and methods described in these articles," I would say: don't you remember what it was like when you learned to drive? At first, when you had to look over your shoulder in order to change lanes, you swerved all over the road. Trying to coordinate the clutch and the gearshifter proved nearly impossible. Whenever you tried to turn on the heater, you started the windshield wiper instead. But now that you have been driving for a year or two or more, you hardly think about all the different things you have to do. Instead, you can relax and enjoy the experience of driving.

So it is with Bible Study. You must first learn and practice the rules. This can be frustrating for a while. Even ministers of the Word have to work very hard to gain understanding of Scripture. If you persist, however, you will eventually have the exhilarating experience of reaching new levels of understanding God's Word.