How Study and Navigate the Bible

This important and practical Guide shares a method for persons with no experience in reading the Bible to learn how to find things in the Bible and to use those tools in helping to understand how the Bible is organized. These skills, in turn, give a person a better ability to study the Bible with purpose and direction. Following the method will greatly reduce the stress and embarrassment of being in a Bible study group and not knowing how to locate the scriptures presented. Every youth and adult participating in the church will benefit from this plan, regardless of his or her present ability to navagate God's Word.

A special note of gratitude:

Rev. Billy McCauley, United Methodist evangelist, musician, and writer, founded and led Words and Music Ministries until his death in 1997 at the age of 41. He entitled one of his articles “How to Begin Reading the Bible”. “The Encourager” magazine published it in January, 1995. The article may be reprinted for non-profit usage. The following “How To:” guide draws considerably on Rev. McCauley’s article. A few of the statements below are quotes from his article. We gratefully acknowledge his work from which some of ours was drawn.

The Bible should serve as our source of inspiration, instruction, comfort, and help. It should not provoke frustration, confusion, or other negative thoughts or feelings. Above all, it should not serve as a catalyst for embarrassment when we need to locate particular passages under the stressful situation that a group study can create.

We envy those children who grow up learning early on how to “navigate” the Bible. Such knowledge will serve them all their lives. However, many teens and adults have never experienced a way to be familiar with the format and use of the Bible.

Basic Bible navigation is not difficult. With a few weeks of daily practice in the privacy of one’s home, a person can easily master the skill of understanding how this wonderful composite of books, letters, and poetry is placed together and how one can use this knowledge to learn the wisdom within God’s written word.

We often begin reading a book by looking at the “Table of Contents” and the “Introduction”. A good introduction does exactly what it says. It introduces us to the writer or writers. It tells us how and why the book was written. It presents us with the purpose of the book. And it guides us into an appreciation of the work before we ever begin the journey through the material.

Unfortunately, most Bible publications allow only a list of the sixty six books within the Bible as a “Table of Contents”. And worse, the “Introduction” is little more than the long and confusing explanation of grammar, abbreviations, etc. which we will see in the text(s). People often say they do not read the Bible because they are unsure where to start. And if they start at the first, they are soon bored, lost, and uninterested. So, using Rev. McCauley’s article as our guide, let’s write our own Table of Contents and Introduction. We shall see if you find it helpful.

Begin with this encouraging idea. All Bibles should be used. An unused Bible seldom helps anyone find or draw closer to God. As well, every person should have a Bible that becomes their own by daily use. That Bible, your Bible, should be written (translated) into your common, heart language. That is, it should be a version that, when you read it, speaks to you in clear, easy to understand words and concepts. Finally, and importantly, your Bible should be highlighted, notated, and written on by you—in colours, pen, pencil, and in every helpful way. It should contain your exclamation points, question marks, underlining, and have personalized comments all over it. This is the very best way for you to become involved with God’s written word—and to grow spiritually every time you look back on your written down thoughts as you delve deep into this precious book of books. This way, God will speak ever more clearly to you each time you study a Bible passage.

Learning what the Bible contains:

Now, let’s begin our “How To:” At the end you will find brief discussions regarding the different languages and literary forms used by the Biblical writers.

Begin by opening your Bible to that list of books in the “Table of Contents”. Take out a pen or pencil. You are about to begin your first “write on it” adventure.

1. At the top, alongside, or around the words “Table of Contents”, write “Textbook of Life”. The Bible consists of 66 books and letters. Each has a name and a purpose. Together, all of them point to God’s reaching out to us to redeem us from sin and bring us back into a perfect relationship with Him through his Son, Jesus Christ. Although not placed into our Bible in the order in which they were written, the order is none-the-less logical and with the purpose of pointing us to Christ.

A. The Old Testament (God’s original covenant or mutual pledge with his people)

2. Place a bracket around the first five books and label them “Early history and law of Israel”. These are also called the “Pentateuch” and, to Jews, the “Torah” or “Tora”. These books are traditionally accepted as writings of Moses.

3. Bracket the next twelve books together (Joshua through Esther). Label them “Story and more history of Israel”.

4. Bracket Job through the Song of Solomon. Label those “Inspiration and Poetry”. They consist of many kinds of writing but all together can be described as above.

5. Bracket the rest of the Old Testament (from Isaiah to Malachi). Label them “Writings by Prophets”. Prophets are persons who proclaim strongly, and often in the face of great opposition, the potential consequences of not living under the truths and expectations of God. In the Old Testament, God gave them unusual insight into what would happen to the Jewish people unless they returned to their loyalty to God. One or more in the same generation, they spoke over a long period of time in Israel’s history. And their “preaching” proved true. They spoke for God and God spoke through them.

B. Now we move to the New Testament (God’s new covenant or mutual pledge with his people).

6. Bracket together the first four books, known as the Gospel according to: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Label these as “The Gospels”. Add the word Kerigma if you wish. The word gospel (from early English “godspel) simply means “good news”. Kerigma is the old Greek reference to “the act of proclaiming” news.

7. Bracket Acts (“The Acts of the Apostles”) by itself. Label it “Early church history”. More than just stories of the apostles, it is actually the story of the beginning and expansion of Christ’s church. When you include with Acts the final chapter in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the final two chapters of John, you have the complete story of the earliest churches from the very beginning by the command of our resurrected Lord, Jesus Christ.

8. Bracket Romans through Jude. Label those books “Letters to churches and Christians”. These are letters written by Paul, Peter, John, and others to various churches, groups of churches, and individuals. They cover many subjects, were written to meet many different needs in the churches, and reflect the individual personality and writing style of each author.

9. Bracket Revelation (“The Revelation to John”) by itself. Label it “The secret letter of love to the churches”. Revelation was such a powerful and dangerous document during the early persecution of Christians and their church groups that God led John to write it using special code language and symbolism that spies of the pagan Roman government would not understand, while the Christians would easily interpret under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. It includes great encouragement to them in face of grave danger, wonderful advice and counsel that we need today, and the most indescribable visions of God’s heaven and what awaits us in eternity.

Finding your way into the Bible:

If you truly want to learn to easily navigate the Bible by quickly locating books and passages, we strongly suggest that you obtain a Bible with a hard cover and with a “cloth-sown spine which will relax and open easily. Most importantly, it should not have written notations or a concordance. It should have as few other extra pages as possible. It may not be in your favourite version but that may not be possible. Bibles designed for “Bible drills” should be available in English and several other languages. Inexpensive, these are designed for competitions in rapid selections of scripture and will work well for your training. They are most commonly found in the King James Authorized Version.

1. If practical, stand up and hold the Bible in front of you. Place your hands on either side of the covers with your thumbs coming together over the pages. Practice opening the Bible to the middle. You should arrive somewhere near Psalms, chapter 90 if your Bible contains only the Biblical text. Do this over and over. Note which books are nearest Psalms so you can simply move a few pages forwards or backwards to locate those books: Job, before and Proverbs, after.

2. Now take the first half of the Bible and open it to the middle (you will be at the end of the first quarter of the Bible. You will be approximately at 1 Samuel, chapter 14, or about in the middle of the books on Jewish history. Practice and look around that area as suggested above.

3. Take the last half of the Bible and open it to the middle. Flip a few pages forward and you will be exactly where the Old Testament ends and the New Testament begins. Note that the two basic parts of the Bible are the Old Testament (first part) and the New Testament (second part). And now notice that the Old Testament occupies the first three quarters of the Bible text. The New Testament occupies only the final quarter of the text. Again, check out those final small books of the prophets that conclude the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament which locates the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

4. Take the final quarter (the New Testament) and open it to the middle. You will find yourself looking in the middle of Acts, about chapter 14. Many of the churches that shook their world so profoundly were home churches, just like yours. Check the surrounding books. Backwards you have the Gospel of John, perhaps the most read and loved book in the Bible. What a writer! On the other side you find Romans, the profound and wonderful book (written by Paul) of the doctrines we believe and the great encouragement to go out and win the world for Christ.

5. Think about what you have learned. Take the Bible and open it to the middle. (Psalms. Inspiration! Story of Job before and the instruction of Proverbs just after). Open the first half to the middle. (History, leaders, kings, war and glory!) Open the last half to the middle. (Small books of the prophets on one side and the stories and teachings of Jesus on the other!) Open the final quarter, the New Testament, to the middle. (The middle of Acts—the vibrant story of the rise of churches that turned their world upside down!)

6. Now, on your own, find the middle of every quarter and then the middle of those. You will be surprised at how easily you learn to locate sections of the Bible.

Notes on studying the Bible:

Annotated or “Study” Bibles

Annotated Bibles (those that come with notes already added—usually by famous Christians) may be helpful in understanding the scriptures. However, those notes consist of the opinions of whoever wrote them. They contain several disadvantages for your Bible study. One, the notes, however good, are the work of humans and do not form part of the God-inspired Bible. Too often, we forget that fact and begin to see the notes as Biblical text. Second, they are often intrusive in that they keep you focused on the notes to the detriment of your seeking the direct voice of God’s Spirit in your mind and heart. Third, the space that they cover adds much to the bulk of the Bible—thus distorting the location of the books of the Bible. This makes it more difficult for you to become familiar with easily finding Bible books by the mere feel of the location within the whole text. Fourth, the space taken by the printed notations could be space used by you for note taking in your own spiritual journey.

Suggestion? If possible, obtain two or three sets of devotional type commentaries on the Bible. Most are available on the Internet for computer use. And Internet-based stores that sell Christian books now sell used commentaries at very low prices. Or, check with colleges and seminaries with Christian libraries. They quite often offer duplicate commentary sets to the public for minimal cost. Use the commentaries for studying the insights of several great Bible scholars to help you in your search for Biblical clarity and truth.

Biblical Languages

All of the following comments regarding the topic of languages were derived from The New BIBLE Dictionary. J. D. Douglas, ed. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962, pp. 710 – 716.

The Old Testament: Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. The books of Daniel and Ezra were probably written in Aramaic.

Hebrew belongs to the western group of Semitic languages. It takes its name from the name, Shem, the eldest son of Noah. As in any language, Hebrew gradually changed over the years of Old Testament writing. It also varied from place to place where it was spoken. However, in the forms from which it is translated today, it was uniform enough to not present major translating problems. Translating from any language to another, especially one that relates only in very basic ways, calls for considerable interpretation. Hebrew is written from right to left. In written form it contained only consonants until vowel signs were added in the 6th century, A.D.

Aramaic is a kindred language to Hebrew (think roughly of French and English). It became more used by the Israelites during and after their exiles to the areas of today’s Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

The New Testament: Most, if not all, the New Testament was originally written in Greek. By the time of Jesus, the area of Palestine had long been brought into the control of the Roman Empire. As in most areas under that influence, the commercial language and usually the common language consisted of closely related forms of Greek called “koine”. In Jewish Palestine, Hebrew was still taught in the religious schools and used in worship. It was probably also used in many homes and often mixed with Greek. Aramaic was also spoken by some and used in some writing. Over the years, some scholars have tried to make cases for some of the New Testament having originated in either Aramaic or even Latin. Yet, most continue to believe that Greek served as the language for the New Testament. One can easily see throughout the New Testament a strong influence of Jewish thought, habits, and history. Such influence gives those writings a decidedly Hebrew flavour, as we would expect, especially among the writers who were born and educated as Jews.

The Septuagint: This is the name given to numerous Greek language translations of the Old Testament. By the fourth or third centuries before Christ, Greek had taken hold of much of the area around the Mediterranean Sea. So, most important books were being translated from Hebrew and other languages into the common Greek. Unfortunately, no official Greek version was possible. Parts of it were translated into Greek by many different people from all over that part of the world. However, its use in Jesus’ time was very common. In fact, when Jesus quoted from the Old Testament, He often quoted from versions of the Septuagint, probably because it might have been more familiar to the common people. They would have likely used the Greek Old Testament passages in their home studies, blessings, and quotations. This is why, when you compare the Old Testament quotations uttered by Jesus to the verses referenced in your own Old Testament, they will often not match up word for word. This is because your Old Testament was probably translated from Hebrew and the quote came from Greek.

Literary forms found in the Bible:

We will not go into detail on all the many types of literature found in God’s Word. Simply be aware that much of the richness of the Bible comes from its full use of styles of writing. In the Old Testament, the books of Jewish law read like law books. They should. Stories of Ruth, Esther, Job, and others are in narrative format. Psalms reads like Jewish poetry because the psalms consist of words to songs that they sang. As well, remember that Hebrew poetry did not rhyme—even in Hebrew. Poetry was formed from the rhythm of saying something and then reinforcing it in the next line by saying it in a different way and changing the focus just a bit. It should be read that way: double line by double line. It is quite beautiful that way—and certainly gives a strong impact to the reader or listener to hear it said twice.

Proverbs were teachings. They, too, often were presented in Hebrew poetic form. However, they were much less linked together into long discussions like the music of the Psalms. You can gain much from them in smaller bites.

The prophets preached. Read their works like sermons (however disjointed some of them seemed to be). However, Isaiah stands alone in the Old Testament in a quality of depth, beauty, and complexity. It contains every aspect and concept of a modern symphonic composition. Many composers have written concert works based on parts or all of Isaiah because it is a natural for that.

The New Testament also contains many forms of writing. We have already mentioned the unique writing of Revelation—which has some connection to the styles found in Ezekiel and portions of a few other Old Testament books of prophesy. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called synoptic gospels because they present the story of Jesus in brief form with special historic emphasis—though each one uniquely. John’s gospel is more narrative in style and, as he said, designed to bring the reader to believe in Christ as Saviour and Lord. Acts, again, is the running story of the rise of churches. Written by Luke, it continues where Luke’s gospel leaves off. Paul’s letters, along with those of Peter and others, are each unique. Yet they are all teaching and encouraging missives to individuals, churches, and groups of churches. John’s three brief letters seem to be of a different style than most of the others. However, they fall into the same category. Hebrews was written in a more complex form of the Greek language than any of the rest of the New Testament. It also bases it’s teaching on a much deeper pool of Jewish history and theology. It, too, has much to teach us in defense of the Lordship of Christ.