There is a reason why the Bible is the most widely-read book in human history. There is a reason why nations have been founded upon it; universities have been started to study it; and men and women of different cultures, races, and social classes risk their lives in order to possess, read, and own it. Those today who want to understand the Bible better are embarking on a life-changing journey.
Studying the Bible begins with reading a good translation regularly. For a person to understand what they are reading, they must learn about context, like the author and setting (tip: Study Bibles can really help with this). Ultimately, the point of reading the Bible and learning its context is to apply it.
What are the best translations to read for those who are just beginning to study the Bible? What aspects of the context are important to know and why are Study Bibles such a great resource for this information? How can a reader apply the Bible? What are some examples? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
1. Choose a Bible Translation and Read It Regularly
The authors of the Bible wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The authors of the Old Testament wrote in Hebrew, though a few passages in Ezra and Daniel are in Aramaic. All of the authors of the New Testament wrote in Greek. Thankfully, English readers today have a number of trustworthy translations from which to choose.
Some Bible translations are centuries old (e.g. KJV). Others appeared just a few decades ago (e.g. ESV). Translation precision and reading level are two important factors when choosing a Bible translation.
The comparison table below will point new readers in the right direction concerning which translation is best for them. (For the sake of comparison, most newspapers in America are written at a 9th-grade reading level, though some like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, are higher than that.)
|English Standard Version (ESV): Published in 2001, the work of over 100 translators, the ESV combines translation precision with literary quality.||8|
|King James Version (KJV): The KJV, the most read translation in history, first appeared in 1611. The 1769 edition is the most popular today. Because of its older style of English (e.g. thee, thou, cometh, giveth), many today read other translations.||12|
|New American Standard Bible (NASB): Many consider the NASB, the work of 54 translators, to be the most precise English translation available today.||11|
|New International Version (NIV): The NIV, the work of 115 translators, has been a very popular translation since it first appeared in the 1970s. It balances precision with ease of reading.||7|
|New King James Version (NKJV): The NKJV, the work of 119 translators, was published in the early 1980s. It attempts to update the KJV.||7|
|New Living Translation (NLT): The NLT, the work of 90 translators, was completed in 1996. It is the easiest translation to read among those on this list.||6|
|New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): Published in 1989, the work of 30 translators, the NRSV is a word-for-word translation and an update of the RSV.||8|
The task of a translator, or as is often the case, a translation committee, is to be faithful to the original languages, yet render the text in an understandable way to English speakers. A translation’s precision refers to how closely it aligns with the original languages. Its readability refers to its reading level.
- When a translation’s precision rises, its readability falls
- When a translation’s readability rises, its precision falls
- Without precision, a translation is unreliable
- Without readability, a translation is not understandable
Tip: To be clear, lower precision doesn’t mean a translation is inaccurate, and a high readability score doesn’t mean a translation is unclear.
“I don’t know which one to choose”
If a person is an average reader, the NIV, ESV, NRSV, and the NKJV are recommended. The NIV is the most popular among the four, yet the ESV has gained a significant amount of readership in the last two decades. If a person doesn’t read much, the NLT is recommended.
The KJV and NASB are best suited for advanced readers, but if a person is new to reading the Bible, there is wisdom in selecting either the NIV, ESV, NRSV, or NKJV.
Tip: “Before and after you read the Scripture, pray earnestly that the Spirit who wrote it may interpret it for you, keep you from unbelief and error, and lead you into the truth.” – Richard Baxter
What is a Study Bible?
Study Bibles are excellent resources that new Bible readers should strongly consider. Study Bibles contain explanatory notes to help people understand what they are reading.
They commonly include maps, charts, timelines, and pictures. Every major English translation has a Study Bible and most have multiple options. Recommendations include (links go to Amazon):
- The NIV Study Bible (thousands of notes; full-color pictures, maps, etc.)
- The ESV Study Bible (thousands of notes, dozens of articles; fewer pictures)
- The NLT Study Bible (thousands of notes, incredible visual aids)
2. Study the Context of Each Biblical Book
To understand the Bible, a reader needs to interpret — i.e. understand the meaning of — books, passages, and verses. Those who are just beginning to study the Bible will benefit from a Study Bible (see links above), which will significantly aid them in understanding each book of the Bible.
Tip: Studying the Bible in a community such as a small group or Sunday school class can be helpful as well. When a person discusses what they are studying, it improves their understanding and retention.
The Bible has diverse historical, geographical, and literary contexts. The Bible’s unifying message centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Rom 6:23). The Old and the New Testaments present this message in different ways. For example:
- There are different styles of writing in the Bible (e.g. biography, history, poetry)
- There are different periods of time in the Bible (e.g. ancient Egypt, ancient Israel, ancient Greece)
- There are different themes in biblical books (e.g. forgiveness, wisdom, redemption).
- There are different authors of biblical books (e.g. Moses, Daniel, Peter, Paul)
Learning the context: author, setting, title, and more
Below are five questions to ask about the context of each book of the Bible. (Reminder: If answering the questions below feels overwhelming, remember that a good Study Bible, like the three recommended above, can provide the answers to these questions.)
- What is the literary style? The style, also called genre, refers to the way that the writer tells a story or teaches readers. Biblical writing styles include historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, biography, epistles or letters, and more. For example, Psalms is poetry and Ephesians is a letter.
- What is the historical and social setting? The setting refers to where and when the stories take place, such as the country (Israel, Egypt, etc.), the date (3rd century B.C., 1st century A.D., etc.), the environment (town, desert, etc.), and much more. For example, the setting for most of Exodus was ancient Egypt. The setting for Acts was the Roman Empire.
- What is the title of the book? Book titles don’t reveal a lot of information, but knowing what they mean can give readers a helpful starting point. For example, “Genesis” means “in the beginning” and “Philippians” refers to the church in the town of Philippi. Knowing the meaning of a title helps with identifying the setting, message, and sometimes the author, of each book.
- Who is the author of the book? Identifying the author of each book gives the reader valuable background information on what they are reading. For example, Solomon wrote many of the Proverbs; Paul wrote Romans; and John wrote Revelation.
- Who were the original recipients of the book? Knowing the original receipient(s), and their social setting, practical challenges, and background, is necessary to understanding a book and applying it today. For example, Paul wrote 1 and 2 Corinthians to the church at Corinth, and 1 and 2 Timothy to his apprentice in ministry.
What is the key to growing as a student of the Bible?
The most important part of studying the Bible is reading it consistently and prayerfully over time. Like any other skill set a person develops like accounting, teaching, or coding, understanding the Bible takes time and effort.
Will studying the Bible always be hard? No. The majority of people who study the Bible find that it gets easier the more a person does it. After all, the setting of Ruth, the author of Galatians, and the meaning of James don’t change. Taking notes, journaling applications, underlining key verses and phrases, discussing what one reads, and praying for insight and understanding can aid comprehension as well.
However much time, energy, and sacrifice of other activities it takes, understanding the Bible is worth the effort. It not only changes a person’s life, but because of Jesus Christ, it can impact their eternal life.
Insight: “We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not 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.” – Pastor and theologian R.C. Sproul
3. Apply the Bible to life today
Pastor D.L. Moody once said, “The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge, but to change our lives.” After readers answer questions regarding context, “What did this book, passage, or verse mean to the original readers?” they are ready to answer the question regarding themselves, “What does this book, passage, or verse mean to me?”
What does it mean to apply the text? Applying the Bible refers to what a person says, does, believes, or thinks in response to what they read. Applications of the Bible are infinite.
- Applications can be big or small (e.g. sell a car or write a thank-you note)
- Applications can be one-time or ongoing (e.g. confess a sin or exercise daily)
- Applications can be internal or external (e.g. release a grudge or donate to missions)
What is the goal of Bible study? The point of understanding the Bible is applying its teachings to life today. If the text isn’t applied, then the Bible is merely a history book and not “living and active” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible is inspired by God and useful for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” today (2 Tim. 3:16).
Below are five questions readers can ask to help them apply what they read in the Bible.
- What does the text teach me about God?
- What does the text teach me about people?
- What does the text teach me about prayer?
- What does the text teach me about the church?
- What does the text teach me about the cross?
Three more tips for applying the Bible:
- Pray for applications
- Share them with family and friends
- Keep track of them in a journal and revisit them often
Tip: “I still maintain that much of Scripture is plain and straightforward in its meaning. Our problem continues to be more of a lack of action than comprehension. The words of Scripture must be understood to be applied, but until we apply them, we don’t really understand them.” – Donald Whitney (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 1991, p. 59)
5 Bible Verses on Studying the Bible
- Joshua 1:8, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
- Psalm 119:11, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
- Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”
- Proverbs 3:1-2, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you.”
- Acts 17:11, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
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