Do you want to learn how to study the Bible? Learn 13 creative ways to get started, plus tips for choosing a Bible, what books are best to start reading, and how to study. Perfect for beginners or experienced believers.
I am an academic at heart. I like words; I like to study. This love of course extends to the Bible. I have a variety of Bibles at home, including my favorite study Bible, a chronological Bible, a moms' devotional Bible, and a journaling Bible, and a few of them are on my Kindle.
Why are there so many Bible translations? How do I know which one to use?
There are three main types of Bibles, and each one serves a different purpose:
- Word for word translations - These Bibles follow the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts most accurately because they're literally translated word for word. Examples of these include the King James Version, English Standard Version, and the New Revised Standard Version.
- Though for though translations - These Bibles have the most readable text. Ancient cultural slang, sayings, and expressions are replaced with modern ones that can be easily understood by today’s reader. They are not as accurate as word for word translations but still have the same basic verses. These include the New International Version and the New Living Translation.
- Paraphrased translations - These Bibles are considered the least accurate, but they still have a purpose. The authors of paraphrased translations are given a great amount of freedom in interpretation, so some passages may stray slightly from their original meaning. On the other hand, they are very easy to read in modern language. The Message is a very popular paraphrased translation.
What translation should I use?
That's a really personal choice.
Some people say that study should only be done in a word for word translation because they are the closest to the original text. I personally study in the NLT which is a thought for thought translation, and I still find my study to be rich and fruitful.
That said, I don't think you'd want to study in a paraphrased translation. Those are mainly just for reading to read.
What book in the Bible should a beginner start with?
I get this question all the time. I am not a Bible scholar, but I'll give you my two cents on the answer to this question. Take it for what it's worth.
I read the Bible, and I have for some time. If you're just getting started on that front, I recommend starting with Genesis (which is very very long but oh so good) and Exodus and then jumping to the New Testament. The Old Testament is the part of the Bible from the beginning of creation and leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. While it is beautiful and rich with lessons and wisdom, a lot of it is hard to read and (don't shoot me) monotonous. There are big sections in the middle which I just don't enjoy and don't really get much out of. It might be sacrilegious of me to say so, but there it is.
Now, having said that, the Psalms are really nice to read because they are poems and songs, and Proverbs is nice to read because it's all practical knowledge. Those are both pretty long books, and they too can become monotonous if you try to read straight through from the beginning to the end. But if you take them as poems and read just a couple here and there, they are beautiful and enjoyable.
Song of Solomon (also called Song of Songs) is one big love letter from a man to his wife, and it is wonderful to read and pretty short. Esther is the story of a queen who saved her people from death. It's also short and powerful and easy to read. I like Ruth a lot too because it's the story of a woman and her daughter in law and about the love of family. It's short and powerful too.
Having said all that, Genesis is the first book of the Bible and is an awesome place to start because it's the beginning of the universe where God created the heavens and the Earth and everything in it. Then it moves to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark, Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and of course Joseph and his brothers. (Joseph is my favorite Bible hero after Jesus himself of course; his story is wonderful and inspiring and full of encouragement and wisdom.)
Exodus is the story of how Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and through the desert for 40 years. Spoiler: eventually the people reach the Promised Land although it's Joshua and not Moses who gets them there.
Genesis and Exodus are rich with stories and wisdom and truths and not to be glossed over.
After Genesis and Exodus, I recommend you skip to the New Testament because that's where Jesus is born, lives, teaches, and dies. It's also where Paul spread the gospel all over the world.
In my opinion, the New Testament is easier to read because, like Genesis, the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are written in story form. A lot of the teachings of Jesus were told in parables or stories, plus the whole of each book is a story of the Messiah's life. Those four books are very easy to read.
After the gospels and Acts of the Apostles (the 5th book of the New Testament, also written in story form), most of the rest of the New Testament is composed of letters from various church leaders to new and struggling churches of the first century after the death of Jesus. They are full of wisdom and very nice to read.
How should a beginner study the Bible?
Studying the Word of God is a whole different proposition than simply reading because it is not something that has come naturally to me. I wasn't raised by parents who studied or read the Bible ever, and when I became a Christian, I didn't really know what to do.
I devoured books on Bible study including Jen Hatmaker's The Modern Girl's Guide to Bible Study (love that one) and Jen Wilkin's Women of the Word. I went through Beth Moore's Believing God online video study and workbook. I read and read and read in my study Bible, carefully studying all the footnotes and maps and introductions.
I have learned a few things about Bible study by reading about it, sure, but I have also learned about Bible study through prayer and attending church and talking to other Christians and reading blogs. It's been a work in progress for a long time, and I expect that it will continue to be so for a long time in the future (maybe forever?).
What do you need to start studying the Bible?
If you are just getting started in Bible study, here's what I think you should have handy:
- Your favorite study Bible
- A pen
- A Bible highlighter (they make these specifically so that they don't ruin the pages of your Bible)
- A journal
- A Bible dictionary/commentary (see below)
Here are a few additional resources and commentaries that I have on my shelf and use from time to time. The MacArthur Bible Handbook is my favorite, but I do like them all.
- MacArthur Bible Handbook
- The MAP: Making the Bible Meaningful, Accessible, and Practical
- Then & Now Bible Map Insert
- Women's Devotional Guide to the Bible
- Essential Bible Companion
- New Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance
But what are you supposed to do with all these resources once you have them? How exactly DO you study the Bible?
Let's get to that:
13 Creative & Unique Methods to Study the Bible
First the creative and artistic methods
- Bible journaling. Bible journaling is the name for a form of study where you draw and color in the Bible in response to a passage of scripture. It is a little controversial because some people think that writing in the sacred Word of God is sinful, but I personally think it's a beautiful way to study and react to God's Word. (I don't journal in my study Bible; I have a special Bible just for journaling.)
If you object to writing and coloring in your Bible, you could get a notebook or sketchbook and do your artwork in that. I've seen lots of people do that, and they enjoy it just as much as those of us who do our work on the actual pages of our Bibles.
I love Bible journaling, and I have been doing it for a couple of years. You can read my best tips for getting started Bible journaling here.
To get started Bible journaling, you will need a Bible with margins wide enough to draw and color and stamp. I personally have the HCSB Notetaking Bible and, while I do love the formatting, I do not love the HCSB translation. When I was looking for a journaling Bible, there were not many available and none at all in the NIV or NLT. So I went with HCSB on a friend's recommendation. There is now a nice NIV Journaling Bible and even better, an NLT Journaling Bible (NLT is my favorite translation). If I was getting started now, I'd get one of those.
- Color scripture. Another option, if you're intimidated by journaling on blank pages, is to get a coloring Bible like the Beautiful Word Coloring Bible which I have seen in person and can verify is lovely. That one is an entire Bible with coloring sections and panels. There are literally hundreds of Bible coloring books for adults available on Amazon, so that's an option too if you want to start smaller. This is less controversial because you're not actually writing or drawing on top of the Bible text but in pre-drawn sections specifically intended for that purpose.
- Write scripture. While I was doing Katie Orr's Everyday Peace Bible study, I started writing Philippians 4 in my journal. I found it interesting and rewarding and it helped me to pray the scripture as I wrote it out. I will definitely be doing this again. There are whole journals you can get devoted to writing out scripture, including Lara Casey's Write the Word journals, but I don't have anything fancy. I just choose the passage and write it in a journal I already have.
- Draw or doodle scripture. I recently discovered Kari Denker's Journal and Doodle Bible studies, and I am totally in love with them. She has published in traditional book form a study for Philippians (which is my other favorite book of the Bible along with Genesis), but she has ebook versions of several others available on her website. If you subscribe to her newsletter, you can even get her Ephesians study for free. I did that, and I can't wait to dig into it. It looks fun and interesting.
- Sticker your Bible. I love the Illustrated Faith line of stickers and tapes and tools from Dayspring because they are beautiful and interesting. Illustrated Faith has its own website where there are files you can print on sticker paper to add additional thrifty stickers to your journaling. Alternately, you could get any kind of planner stickers or scrapbook stickers and use those to highlight verses in your Bible or journal.
Now for more in-depth and academic methods.
- Start with a Bible study for beginners. A Grateful Heart, the study that I wrote earlier this year, is intended to guide you through the process and help you to study in a focused, topical way. It uses the SOAP method (see #8 below) and helps you to read, write, and understand the selected verses and passages.
- Listen to scripture. There are lots of audio Bibles available on Amazon, but really, I don't know why you would pay for one when you can get the full text of most major translations (NIV, NLT, ESV, and others) in the YouVersion Bible app on iOS. My favorite reader is the NLT (New Living Translation), but the NIV is pretty good, too.
Listening to the Word gives you a whole new perspective on it. It's great if you're able to listen and follow along in your Bible at the same time, but listening in the car or on walk is great, too.
- Try the SOAP method. The SOAP method is very easy - Scripture (read it and write out any key verses), Observation (what do you notice), Application (how does it apply to you), and Prayer (ask God to reveal His message). Choose a passage and write out the parts in your journal. The only hard part is deciding where to start! More on that below.
- Try the APPLE method. In this method, you write out 5 things about the passage - Attributes of God, Promises of God, Principles for life, Lesson learned or sin to avoid, and Example to follow. This method was created by a blogger named Arabah Joy.
- Do a word study. Word study is a great way to get in-depth with a passage and to fully digest God's meaning in it. Essentially, you look at a word from a Bible verse, find out what it meant in the original Hebrew or Greek, locate it throughout the Bible, summarize your findings, and then apply that word to your life. A Bible commentary (like those I linked at the very top) is very helpful to this method.
- Do a topical study. Along the same lines as a word study, you could select a topic and find all the Bible passages related to that topic. This is especially useful if you need guidance on a specific area or have a specific problem that you want God's guidance about or if you desire a deeper understanding of God's wisdom on a topic. (Don't forget prayer in your strategy!) This is different from the word study method above because you don't actually look up the word in the original language; you just focus on the English translations. But you should look at the verses in several different translations. (I think that is always a good idea no matter which method you choose.) A Grateful Heart is an example of a topical study; it's all about thankfulness and gratitude.
You can buy a topical study in book form or choose a topic yourself and look at the Concordance in the back of your Bible. Almost every Bible has one. It lists topics and tells you what verses in the text talk about each one.
- Try the verse mapping method. In this method, you select a verse or passage, look it up in several different resources, break the passage down in the concordance or in a Bible dictionary, and study the meanings of the different words and how they fit together. You end with a personal application to tie it all together.
- Try the chapter study method. This is most often done as part of a larger study of an entire book, but it can be done as a stand-alone study as well. To do this, you would read the chapter several times (at least five) and identify a series of elements from the text, including a descriptive title, the main points, a key verse, the key words, questions/problems/challenges you notice, some of the cross references from the chapter, central lesson, and application. This method comes from Rick Warren.
- Try the Lectio Divina method. This method is very old, dating back centuries. The latin means "divine reading" or "holy reading." There are four main parts to this method of study - reading (reading carefully and choosing a word or phrase that really strikes you), meditation (thinking about that word or phrase and why the Holy Spirit chose it for you), prayer, and contemplation (sitting in quiet reflection on the message that God has for you; waiting for God to respond).
No matter how you choose to study the Bible, the important thing is that you do it. Our Heavenly Father wants to be in a relationship with you, He wants to speak into your life, and He wants to give you His wise counsel. The main way He does this is through His written Word.
I think all these Bible study methods are useful and interesting in their own way. Honestly, I haven't tried them all, but I have tried most. The neat thing about having so many options is that you will discover different things about a passage depending on which method you use, so it is helpful to use multiple methods on a single section of the text.
Questions I am often asked about studying the Bible:
What is the correct way to study the Bible?
There isn't a "correct way." Any method that gets you reading, interpreting, applying, and learning God's Word is correct.
As I wrote above, Bible journaling is a bit controversial, but aside from that, all of the above methods are perfectly valid and helpful and productive ways to study the Word that are widely accepted and practiced.
What's the best method for a beginner to start with?
If you're going to make me choose one, I'd probably say SOAP. That's why I used SOAP as the method for A Grateful Heart.
The reason I like SOAP is that you write out the scripture, then you think about what you understand about the words and their meaning, then you apply that to your own life, then you pray. I think it's the perfect framework for a new or experienced believer to consider and apply the wisdom of the Bible to his or her life.
How do you study the Bible effectively?
I think the key to effective Bible study is practice. Do it every day if you can, or at least a few times a week. Like anything, Bible study is a skill that you need to repeat often to learn and become good at.
Choose a method and get started. Stick with it for a few weeks and then re-evaluate. If you don't think it's working for you after a couple of weeks, try something different. But make sure you give it a real chance before you jump ship.
Where do you start when studying the Bible?
That's a good question without a really good answer, but I'll try.
There's a big difference between reading the Bible to read and learn the stories and reading the Bible to study the text. When you're reading to read, you don't stop and consider the meaning of individual verses. You just read the stories and reflect on them as whole units.
When you're reading to study the Bible, you look at smaller pieces, a chapter or even a singular verse, and you really dig in and figure out what it means in the Bible and what it means in your life.
Because of this difference, I don't recommend starting to study in the books I talked about at the very beginning (Genesis, Exodus, and the gospels).
When I first started studying the Bible, I bought topical Bible study books written by famous teachers like Beth Moore, Jen Hatmaker, Priscilla Shirer, and Lisa Harper and let them tell me where to study. I still buy books from those wise women when I feel aimless and need some direction and guidance.
What I do most of the time is to find a list of Bible verses like this one and scan down through it until a verse sticks out to me. Then I read that verse and usually the chapter it's in and then do SOAP on that verse or the larger passage around it.