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. Hint: Read slowly and try to be aware of what assumptions you’re making.
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.
Next: What to Observe
Series: Bible Study 101
Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.