If reading the Bible can be compared to cruising the width of a clear, sparkling lake in a motorboat, studying the bible is like slowly crossing the same lake in a glass bottom boat. Sherlock Holmes told his trusted side-kick Watson; “you see but you do not observe”. This statement is true when it comes to the difference between Bible reading and Bible study. Reading gives us breadth but study gives us depth.
Let’s look at three examples of a heart to study the Word of God. The first is the Old Testament figure Ezra: “For Ezra devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). There’s an instructive significance to the sequence in this verse. Ezra (1) devoted himself, (2) to the study, (3) and observance of the Law of the Lord, (4) to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. Before he taught the Word of God to the people of God, he practiced what he learned. But Ezra’s learning came from a study of the Scriptures. Before he studied, however, he first devoted himself to study. In other words, Ezra disciplined himself to God’s Word.
A second example is from Acts 17:11. Missionaries Paul and Silas had barely escaped with their lives from Thessalonica after their successful evangelistic work had provoked the Jews there to jealousy. When they repeated the same course of action in Berea, the Jews there responded differently: “Now the Bereans where 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.”
My favorite example of a heat to study the truth of God is in 2 Timothy 4:13. The Apostle Paul is in prison and writing the last chapter of his last New Testament letter. Anticipating the coming of his younger friend Timothy, he writes, “When you come bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” The scrolls and parchments Paul requested almost certainly included copies of the Scriptures. In his cold and miserable confinement, the godly apostle asked for two things: a cloak to wear so his body could be warmed and God’s Word to study so his mind and heart could be warmed. Paul had seen Heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-6) and the resurrected (Acts 9:5), he had experienced the Holy Spirit’s power for miracles (Acts 14:10) and even for writing Holy Scripture (2 Peter 3:16); nevertheless, he continued to study God’s Word until he died. If Paul needed it, surely you and I need it and should discipline ourselves to do it.
Then why don’t we? Why do so many Christ followers neglect the study of God’s Word? R.C. Sproul said it painfully well: “Here then, is the real problem of our negligence. We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, no t so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work. Our problem is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of passion. Our problem is that we are lazy.”
The basic difference between Bible reading and Bible study is simply a pencil and a piece of paper. Write down your observations about the text as you read and record questions that come to your mind. If your Bible has cross-references, look up ones that relate to the verses that prompt your questions, then record your insights. Find a key word in your reading and use the concordance found in the back of most Bibles to review the other references that use the word, and again note your findings. Another way to begin is to outline a chapter, on paragraph at a time. When you finish the chapter, move on to the next until you’ve outlined the entire book. Before long you’ll have a far stronger grasp on a section of Scripture than you had by just reading it.
As you advance in the study of the Book of God, you will learn the value of in-depth word studies, character studies, topical studies, and book studies. You’ll discover a new richness in the Scripture as your understanding grows of how the grammar, history, culture, and geography surrounding a text affect its interpretation.
Don’t let a feeling of inadequacy keep you from the delight of learning the Bible on your own. Books, thick and thin, abound on how to study the Bible. They can provide more guidance regarding methods and tools. Don’t settle only for spiritual food that’s been “predigested” by others. Experience the joy of discovering biblical insights firsthand.