The first step in Bible study is observation. The goal is to slow down your reading and generate a list of questions that must be answered to understand the passage. I tend to break observation into the following 4 steps which generally correspond to my first few readings through the passage.
Step 1: Mark up the passage
During your first reading, print a copy of the study text, get a good set of colored pencils or highlighters, and mark up your passage. The mark up makes you slow down and notice what is in the passage. Here are the kinds of things I mark:
- Mark paragraph breaks and underline the topic sentence of each paragraph. (Underlining all verbs can sometimes help you identify paragraphs and thesis statements).
- Circle key words or phrases (these are the words you must understand to understand the main point)
- Color code repeated words and phrases (some of which may be circled as key words)
- Box connecting words that explain the logical connection and flow of thought
- Comparison (e.g. and, like, as, just as, also, so also, even so)
- Contrast (e.g. but, rather, yet, however)
- Purpose and/or result: (e.g. that, so that, in order that, as a result, with the result)
- Cause or inference: (e.g. because, since, for, for this reason)
- Explanation (e.g. therefore, because, for)
- Conditions: (e.g. if, if-then)
- Mark pronouns, names and places, watching for shifts and changes.
Step 2: Summarize the main point
Looking at your marked and color-coded passage, identify the topic sentence of each paragraph and the primary theme(s) of the passage. In other words, you’re seeking to identify and summarize the main point, the central truth or the “big idea”. Try to use your own words and boil it down to 1-2 sentences. If you find yourself stuck at this point, repeat or review your “mark up”.
Step 3: Create a list of Questions
Using the “5Ws and H” (who, what, when, where, why, how), create a list of questions generated by your “mark up” and your first attempt to summarize. For example, your questions might include:
- .. the author talking about? Or talking to?
- …accomplishing the action?
- .. is benefiting?
WHAT IS the
- …author’s meaning of each key word (not the modern English meaning)?
- …the significance of this word or phrase in this context?
- …the relationship between this phrase and the one before it? And the one after it?
- …the implication of this statement?
WHY did the author
- … choose this word/phrase/statement/command?
- … not say ____?
- …make this point to this audience?
- …make this statement at this point in his flow of thought?
- … does this passage relate to the previous passage? To what comes next?
- … does this continue/further/change the flow of thought?
- … was this action accomplished?
- … does this passage change my understanding? Or add to it?
- …will this situation occur?
- …was this action accomplished?
- …have I seen this idea before in this letter? In the New Testament? In the Old Testament?
Step 4: Dig for answers
Start answering the questions generated in Step 3. Use bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, grammars, word searches, research and commentaries to start putting it altogether. Re-write, refine and revise your summary from Step 2. Check off questions from Step 3 that you have answered and keep a list of those still needing work. As my understanding starts to crystallize, I start working on an Analytical Outline to clarify my conclusions and expose gaps in my understanding.
Part of the Series: Bible Study 101
Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.