How to study the bible

According to John MacAuthur, Jr., we should observe three basic principles for Bible Study…

·      Observation

·      Interpretation

·      Application.

While you may find the following material a bit lengthy, it’s incredibly valuable and helpful to all who wish to follow God.


Observation is the initial step in Bible study. An interpreter must avoid the temptation to jump immediately into interpreting the specific elements of a passage. Traina defines observation as

essentially awareness  the general function of observation is to enable one to become saturated with the particulars of a passage so that one is thoroughly conscious of their existence and of the need for their explanation. Observation is the means by which the data of a passage become part of the mentality of the student. It supplies the raw materials upon which the mind may operate in the interpretive process.4

Observation includes a broad awareness of the terms, structure, and literary form of the passage.

Observation should be careful. Traina relates the following story to illustrate the importance of exactness in observation:

Sir William Osler, the eminent physician, always sought to impress upon young medical students the importance of observing details. While stressing this point in a lecture before a student group he indicated a bottle on his desk. “This bottle contains a sample for analysis,” he announced. “It’s possible by testing it to determine the disease from which the patient suffers.” Suiting actions to words, he dipped a finger into the fluid and then into his mouth. “Now,” he continued, “I am going to pass this bottle around. Each of you taste the contents as I did and see if you can diagnose the case.” As the bottle was passed from row to row, each student gingerly poked his finger in and bravely sampled the contents. Osler then retrieved the bottle. “Gentlemen,” he said, “Now you will understand what I mean when I speak about details. Had you been observant you would have seen that I put my index finger into the bottle but my middle finger into my mouth.”5

Observation also needs to be systematic. Martin Luther likened his Bible study to gathering apples: “First I shake the whole tree, that the ripest may fall. Then I climb the tree and shake each limb, and then each branch and then each twig, and then I look under each leaf.”6

Observation must also be persistent. To repeat, extended time in observation is a must for an expositor. He must resist the temptation to plunge immediately into commentaries and other study helps. Nothing can replace firsthand observation. At the risk of seeming to violate my own guideline of keeping illustrations short, I offer the following lengthy story about the great nineteenth-century scientist Louis Agassiz and how he taught one of his students an unforgettable lesson about the importance of observation. The principles it teaches can be applied to our Bible study.

The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz

By the Student

It was more than fifteen years ago that I entered the laboratory of Professor Agassiz, and told him I had enrolled my name in the scientific school as a student of natural history. He asked me a few questions about my object in coming, my antecedents generally, the mode in which I afterwards proposed to use the knowledge I might acquire, and finally, whether I wished to study any special branch. To the latter I replied that while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.

“When do you wish to begin?” he asked.

“Now,” I replied.

This seemed to please him, and with an energetic “Very well,” he reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.

“Take this fish,” said he, “and look at it; we call it a Haemulon [pronounced Hem-yuµ lon]; by and by I will ask what you have seen.”

With that he left me, but in a moment returned with explicit instructions as to the care of the object entrusted to me.

“No man is fit to be a naturalist,” said he, “who does not know how to take care of specimens.”

I was to keep the fish before me in a tin tray, and occasionally moisten the surface with alcohol from the jar, always taking care to replace the stopper tightly. Those were not the days of ground glass stoppers, and elegantly shaped exhibition jars; all the old students will recall the huge, neckless glass bottles with their leaky, wax-besmeared corks half eaten by insects and begrimed with cellar dust. Entomology was a cleaner science than ichthyology, but the example of the professor, who had unhesitatingly plunged to the bottom of the jar to produce the fish, was infectious; and though this alcohol had “a very ancient and fishlike smell,” I really dared not show any aversion within these sacred precincts, and treated the alcohol as though it were pure water. Still I was conscious of a passing feeling of disappointment, for gazing at a fish did not commend itself to an ardent entomologist. My friends at home, too, were annoyed, when they discovered that no amount of eau de cologne would drown the perfume which haunted me like a shadow.

In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the professor, who had, however, left the museum; and when I returned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upper apartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as if to resuscitate it from a fainting-fit, and looked with anxiety for a return of the normal, sloppy appearance. This little excitement over, nothing was to be done but return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half an hour passed, an hour, another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face—ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarters’ view—just as ghastly. I was in despair; at an early hour I concluded that lunch was necessary; so, with infinite relief, the fish was carefully replaced in the jar, and for an hour I was free.

On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the museum, but had gone and would not return for several hours. My fellow students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish; it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp its teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned.

“That is right,” said he; “a pencil is one of the best of eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet and your bottle corked.”

With these encouraging words he added,—

“Well, what is it like?”

He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me: the fringed gill—arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshy lips, and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fin, and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment,—

“You have not looked very carefully; why,” he continued, more earnestly, “you haven’t seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!” and he left me to my misery.

I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the professor’s criticism had been. The afternoon passed quickly, and when, towards its close, the professor inquired,—

“Do you see it yet?”

“No,” I replied, “I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.”

“That is next best,” he said earnestly, “but I won’t hear you now; put away your fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish.”

This was disconcerting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying, without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be; but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.

The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw.

“Do you perhaps mean,” I asked, “that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?”

His thoroughly pleased, “Of course, of course!” repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. After he had discoursed most happily and enthusiastically—as he always did—upon the importance of this point, I ventured to ask what I should do next.

“Oh, look at your fish!” he said, and left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned and heard my new catalogue.

“That is good; that is good!” he repeated, “but that is not all; go on.” And so, for three long days, he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. “Look, look, look,” was his repeated injunction.

This was the best entomological lesson I ever had—a lesson whose influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the professor has left to me, as he has left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part.

A year afterward, some of us were amusing ourselves with chalking outlandish beasts upon the museum black board. We drew prancing star-fishes; frogs in mortal combat; hydra-headed worms; stately craw-fishes, standing on their tails, bearing aloft umbrellas; and grotesque fishes, with gaping mouths and staring eyes. The professor came in shortly after, and was as amused as any, at our experiments. He looked at the fishes.

“Haemulons, every one of them,” he said. “Mr. ______ drew them.”

True; and to this day, if I attempt a fish, I can draw nothing but Haemulons.

The fourth day, a second fish of the same group was placed beside the first, and I was bidden to point out the resemblances and differences between the two; another and another followed, until the entire family lay before me, and a whole legion of jars covered the table and surrounding shelves; the odor had become a pleasant perfume; and even now, the sight of an old, six-inch, worm-eaten cork brings fragrant memories!

The whole group of Haemulons was thus brought in review; and, whether engaged upon the dissection of the internal organs, the preparation and examination of the bony framework, or the description of the various parts, Agassiz’s training in the method of observing facts and their orderly arrangement was ever accompanied by the urgent exhortation not to be content with them.

“Facts are stupid things,” he would say, “until brought into connection with some general law.”

At the end of eight months, it was almost with reluctance that I left these friends and turned to insects; but what I had gained by this outside experience has been of greater value than years of later investigation in my favorite groups.7

The same kind of prolonged pondering of the Scriptures will eventually pay even longer dividends, stretching into eternity.[1]


Proper interpretation… is largely concerned with bridging the gaps that exist between the Bible writers and the present day. At least four such gaps exist:

         1.         The language gap. The Bible was written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Therefore, to interpret it correctly, one needs to understand the original languages. English-based word studies, such as Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words and Colin Brown’s The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology are helpful for those who do not know Greek.8 Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words and R. Laird Harris et al., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (which is keyed to Strong’s Concordance) are useful for those who know no Hebrew or Aramaic. Commentaries are also a good source for word studies. Of course, no substitute is comparable to working in the original languages for those who know Greek and/or Hebrew.

         2.         The cultural gap. The cultural setting in which each part of the Bible was written is very different from our twentieth-century western culture. To interpret each part properly, one must understand the culture of its time. For example, understanding the Old Testament requires a knowledge of ancient Judaism and pagan culture, just as comprehending first-century Jewish culture is important in interpreting the Gospels. A comprehension of first-century Greek and Roman culture helps the interpreter grasp the New Testament Epistles correctly.

The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah by Alfred Edersheim is an excellent source of background material on the Jewish culture of Jesus’s day. The Daily Study Bible Series by William Barclay, although theologically blurred, is a very helpful source of information on the cultural background of the Gospels and the Epistles. Barclay’s theology is suspect in many areas, but he provides good insights into the culture of the first-century world.

         3.         The geographical gap. Understanding the geography of Bible lands is sometimes essential in unlocking the meaning of a passage. In 1 Thess. 1:8, for example, Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith toward God has gone forth.” The amazing part of that statement is that Paul had left Thessalonica only a short time before writing 1 Thessalonians. How had their testimony spread so rapidly through the surrounding area? A study of the geography of the region reveals that one of the major highways of the Roman Empire, the Ignatian Highway, ran right through Thessalonica. Thus, travelers along the Ignatian Highway could rapidly spread the Thessalonians’ testimony far and wide.

A good Bible atlas, such as The Macmillan Bible Atlas or the Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands, is indispensable in understanding Bible geography.

         4.         The historical gap. Knowing the historical setting of a passage often helps immeasurably to understand its meaning. A major effort of research to develop the historical background of a passage often is the major key to its interpretation. For example, understanding the history of Pilate’s relationship with the Jewish leaders helps explain why he gave in to their demands to crucify Jesus, though he had pronounced Jesus innocent. Pilate had already antagonized the Jews by some of his policies, and they had reported him to Caesar. Pilate feared that another complaint might get him into serious trouble with the Emperor. He was in no position to refuse their demands.

Bible encyclopedias, such as The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible or the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, contain helpful articles on matters of historical interest. New Testament History by F. F. Bruce and The Bible as History by Werner Keller are also helpful. Books on biblical archaeology are important sources for historical information as well.[2]


After observation and interpretation comes application. Bible study is not complete until the truth discovered is applied to life situations. Application answers the question, “How does this truth relate to me?” The following questions will help apply the truths discovered in Bible study:9

         1.         Are there examples to follow?

         2.         Are there commands to obey?

         3.         Are there errors to avoid?

         4.         Are there sins to forsake?

         5.         Are there promises to claim?

         6.         Are there new thoughts about God?

         7.         Are there principles to live by?

Meditation is an important, final step in the process.10 Meditation entails focusing the mind on one subject, involving reason, imagination, and emotions. It is a natural overflow of the discovery process in Bible study. Concentrated meditation on the truths of God’s Word weaves those truths into the fabric of our lives. Perhaps, Paul had this meditative process in view when he told Timothy to be “constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6).

Excellent Bible study skills are the foundation upon which good expository sermons are built. The expository preacher is, by definition, a skilled Bible student. He interprets Scripture accurately, applies its truths in his own life, and then proclaims them to his congregation. [3]


[1]MacArthur, J. (1997, c1992). Rediscovering expository preaching (211). Dallas: Word Pub.

[2]MacArthur, J. (1997, c1992). Rediscovering expository preaching (215). Dallas: Word Pub.

[3]MacArthur, J. (1997, c1992). Rediscovering expository preaching (217). Dallas: Word Pub.

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