Well we have been talking a lot in the last two weeks about Bible study. And we have a question today about how to read Scripture on a specific theme. Rosemary in Kentucky asks: “Hi Pastor John! Lately a friend and I have been discussing a specific topic that is prevalent throughout the New Testament. I have not done much personal study on the topic, and my first thought was: ‘I’ll just search for some articles about the topic on desiringGod.org, or The Gospel Coalition and find out what the Bible says about it that way.’ Though I have a tremendous respect for both organizations, and many others that teach sound doctrine, I feel like I am taking the easy way out in reading the conclusions other people have come to after studying the Scriptures themselves. So my question is this: How should I go about studying a topic in Scripture in a comprehensive way that would allow me to have a firm grasp on what the Bible has to say about a topic without relying solely on the study and teaching of others to establish my understanding? But to do this, where do I begin?”
I love this question because I think many people sell themselves short when it comes to what they are able to glean from the Scriptures for their own spiritual enrichment in depth and for their life in a complicated, morally complex world. I think most of us doubt our capacities to find answers for ourselves. Others of us are lazy — let’s be honest — and we want somebody else to do the work for us. And so, we try to get a quick answer from somebody else, rather than do it ourselves with rigorous study.
It is remarkable that the Bible, by and large, says it’s not going to give its riches to people who don’t dig. Listen to Proverbs 2:3–6: “Yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
“The Bible, by and large, says it’s not going to give its riches to people who don’t dig.”
That doesn’t sound like a lazy pursuit. It sounds like an old prospector in the gold rush, desperately wanting to find his fortune by working morning till night, panning for gold. That’s the picture that we’re supposed to see here. Search for it as for hidden treasure.
The flag waving over the Scriptures is the word from Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” I’m excited that we’re talking about the possibilities for just ordinary laypeople doing that. I love the question because of the hopefulness that’s in it. The advice I have to give for studying a topic on your own from Scripture is painfully simple. This just feels so, so simple. There may be complex aspects of the application of this principle, but in my life, this simple counsel and practice has made all the difference. Here it is.
Use a Concordance
Once you know the topic that you want to investigate — money, maybe, or marriage, or pick your topic, politics — pick out a few keywords that relate to that topic and use a concordance. That’s a book that lists all the uses of all the words in the Bible.
“Many people sell themselves short when it comes to what they can glean from the Scriptures on their own.”
Or better, have a simple Bible program — you can get them inexpensively or even free — that enables you to do word searches. Have a Bible program, and either with a concordance or with a word searching function of a Bible program, look up all those words in the Bible or in some part of the Bible. You might want to restrict your study to Romans or Matthew or everything Paul wrote or everything Peter wrote or the New Testament or indeed the whole Bible. Just don’t bite off more than you can chew at any one time.
Now, you have clicked your button or you’ve looked up the passage, the word in the concordance, and you have ten or fifty keywords in verses — fifty verses or so that you’ve got to read. Now, what do you do with that list? That’s the key thing: what do you do with it? I’m going to give you seven things to do with it real quick.
1. Make discoveries as you read them, and jot them down. You will make discoveries.
2. Make connections between the discoveries as you keep reading, and jot those connections down. This is where insight begins to really snowball, regularly. When I do this, I see this use of the word here in Romans. I see this use of the word in another part of Romans. I see this use of the word over in 1 Corinthians. I see this use of the word over in 1 Timothy. By that time, I’ve got five fresh insights about the reality I’m looking for. First, discovery. Second make connections.
3. Take time to think about these connections, and jot down your ideas. Many people have the notion that simply reading and observing the Bible causes insight and wisdom. It doesn’t. It doesn’t. You’ve got to think. You’ve got to think over. Paul said to Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding” (2 Timothy 2:7). First, discovery. Second, connections. Third, think.
4. Trace out the leads that you find. Trace it out into other Scriptures that shed lots of light on the verses. Now, what I mean here is there are things about your topic in other passages of Scripture that you can’t find by simply the word connections that you just looked up. You have to spot connections. The way you see them is, “In this verse, it says this.”
“I’m constantly writing because, when I write, I’m able to hold a lot more in my head.”
Now, you’ve got a new word to look up. You click on that word and you find five other verses that didn’t have your original word in it, and yet have lots of insights. Or you might see in a little footnote, a little a, b, c, or d attached, that says, “Look at these verses about this issue.” Trace out the leads that you find. Number one, discoveries. Number two, connections. Number three, think. Number four, trace.
5. Write these things down. Be writing, writing, writing, either in a file on your computer or, like I do often, with a folded half sheet of paper. I’m doodling and I’m constantly writing because, when I write, I’m able to hold more things in my head. Without writing, everything tends to be a muddle. It’s just so complex. People that aren’t writing really aren’t going to go very far in bringing a coherent picture of some reality.
If you’re really serious that you want to discover what the writers at Desiring God and the writers at The Gospel Coalition are saying, you’ve got to do your own writing. You can’t just hold it in your head. Only Einstein could do that. Einstein, they say, could look at the same thing from 118 different angles in a few weeks. Well, no way could I ever do that. I’ve got to write down those 118 things on paper if I’m ever going to do it. That’s number five: writing.
6. Now, consult some commentaries or Bible dictionaries or books written on the topic, because now, with all that you’ve seen, you will be a much more competent dialogue partner with this author. You will have a lot more confidence. You’ll know the kind of questions to ask.
7. The last thing I would say is preserve. Preserve what you’ve seen, either in the document, in a file that you’re creating online, or on a piece of paper you’re going to file somewhere. Because how sad to do an hour or two or three of study on something, have lots of wonderful insights, and a week later, or a year later, you don’t remember anything that you saw. That’s really, really sad. That’s bad stewardship. Preserve it.
But underneath those seven pointers is a main point; namely, use the word search feature of a Bible program, or use a concordance. Nothing yields more fruit in a coherent understanding of a topic across the Scriptures than looking at all the different ways the Bible speaks about it, and you find those with word searches.