How to Study the Bible

Last week we established how and why God’s word should challenge us and change us. Obviously, if you want to be challenged and changed, you have to spend time in the word. You have to read it, you have to meditate on it, you have to think about it, you have to discuss it with others, and you have to hear it preached.

What I want to do right now is share something with you that I feel will enhance the time you spend reading and studying the Bible. What I am about to share with you is basically a behind the scenes look at the process I use when preparing to preach a sermon. It contains 4 determinations and then 5 steps. Here we go…

Whether I am reading the Bible for personal study or getting ready to preach, I am always making my way through a certain book of the Bible. I don’t like to jump from book to book; I believe the best way to truly get something out of God’s word is to take it one book at a time. Think about it: when the believers in Galatia received a letter from Paul, they probably didn’t read the first twenty sentences and then stop until the next day or the next time they met. Most likely they read (or had read to them) the entire letter in one sitting. Does this mean that I would preach the entire book of Galatians in one sermon? No, not necessarily. But I would preach straight through the book of Galatians, mentioning every single verse, in the span of a few months. I would encourage you to do the same thing in your personal study of God’s word. Pick a book and read straight through it. If it’s a short book like Galatians or Ephesians, read through it in one sitting. If it is a longer like Genesis, take a week to make your way through it.

Before you begin making your way through a certain book, there are 4 determinations you need to make about it:

1. Determine the Author

Yes, whichever book it is you have chosen is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it has a human author as well, and knowing as much as you can about that person will be very helpful. Why? Because God allowed each human author’s personality and background to come through in their writing. Think about Luke, for example, who wrote Luke and Acts and possibly Hebrews. He was a physician, and you can see that in the many medical terms he uses in his books.

2. Determine the Audience

Not only is who wrote the book important, but also who it was addressed to. Now some books, like 1-2 Kings, may not have a specific audience, but all of the Old Testament Prophetic books do, and every New Testament book definitely has a specific audience in mind. Why is it so important to know who a book was written to? Because they were real people and they were involved in real situations and the biblical authors took that into consideration when writing. Take the gospels of Matthew and Luke for example. Matthew had a Jewish audience, an audience who was familiar with the Old Testament, so he arranged his gospel around several Old Testament passages. Luke, on the other hand, had a Gentile audience who was not very familiar with the Old Testament, therefore he didn’t quote it near as often as Matthew. Another example is the letter of Philippians. Philippi was an old battle ground, and many retired military families lived in that colony. Paul knew that and used a lot of battle terminology in his letter to them.

All of this is important, but it is of utmost importance to understand who the audience was because we need to know how they understood this letter. Why? Because what it meant to them is what it should still mean to us today. The best thing we can do as readers of these ancient documents is put ourselves in the shoes of those original recipients and understand what it meant to them. Have things changed since then? Of course. But has the meaning of God’s word changed? Not at all. The application may be different, but application is different from meaning, and we will talk more about that later.

3. Determine the Genre

At the beginning of last week’s post, I listed several different genres of literature that are found in Scripture (narrative, letter, prophecy, poetry, apocalyptic, etc.). Knowing what genre of literature you are studying is important, because each genre has its own rules of interpretation. Think about it: would you read a love letter from your spouse the same way you would read a letter from the IRS? Do you read a biography the same way you read a fiction novel? Probably not. In the same way, we can’t read 1 Samuel (history) the same way we read Revelation (prophecy/apocalypse) or 1 Peter (epistle) the same way we read the psalms (poetry).

4. Determine the Canonical Context

Basically, this means to determine where in the biblical storyline the book you are studying is found. Is it in the Old or New Testament? Did the events you are reading about happen before or after the death of Christ? Always keep in mind the grand context and narrative of Scripture when studying a certain book (remember, each book is just 1 of 66 parts).

Once you have made these 4 determinations about the book you have chosen to study, it is time to dig in to the text itself. Like I said earlier, I wouldn’t preach or teach through an entire book in one sitting, I would take it one chapter or one paragraph at a time. For each of these sections, there are 5 steps I take.

1. Make Observations and Ask Questions

The first thing to do is to read through the passage, making observations about it. Are there any words or phrases the author uses multiple times? Are there any figures of speech (similes, metaphors, exaggerations, etc.)? If you are reading a New Testament passage, are there any Old Testament quotations?

After that, it is time to ask questions about the text. The 5 W questions are always good ones to ask: Who? What? When? Where? and Why?

2. Understand the Context

Say you are studying Luke 18:15-30. Even though that text is your focus, you have to keep in mind that something was said before that point in the story, and more is said afterwards. Context is so important. When it comes to real estate, the saying is “Location, location, location!” When it comes to understanding the Bible, the saying is, “Context, context, context!”

Context is so important because words and phrases derive their meaning from what surrounds them. If I ask you to think of a trunk, what comes to mind? The trunk of a car? The trunk of a tree? The trunk of an elephant? See, you need context to know what kind of trunk I’m talking about. The same think is true when it comes to understanding the Bible.

In Luke 18:15-17 Jesus talks about receiving the kingdom of God like an infant or a little child. Well what exactly does that mean? It is helpful to know that in the previous passage, Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a self-dependent Pharisee and a humble tax collector. The point of the parable is to be like the tax collector, not the Pharisee. In the next few verses, 18:15-17, Jesus relies on what He has just said when talking about infants. Infants are very dependent on their parents, and as a result, they should also be very humble (they don’t have anything to brag about because they haven’t done anything…Everything is done for them). So what it means to receive the kingdom like an infant or little child is to be humble and confess your dependence on God. Hopefully you can see how the context helps give meaning to this passage.

3. Find the Meaning of the Text

Once you have made observations, asked questions, and gotten a handle on the context, it is time to put it all together and figure out what the passage at hand is saying. The question you need to ask is this: “What did this mean to the original audience?” Whatever it meant to them is what it should still mean to you. Once again, this is not application. Application comes at the very end (see step 5).

Besides the guidance of the Holy Spirit, there are some helpful tools you may want to check out: commentaries, Bible handbooks, Bible dictionaries, and Bible atlases, just to name a few. Some publishing companies that have good Bible resources are Baker, Eerdmans, Zondervan, and Broadman & Holman.

4. Find the Theology of the Text

In this step you need to ask what the passage at hand says about God, Jesus, and/or the Holy Spirit and also what it says about mankind. The thing about theology is that it must not be culturally or temporally specific. Theology spans the gaps of time, language, and culture.

5. Find the Application(s) of the Text

Finally, we come to the end, and it is time to make application of the text. This is where we ask the question, “What is this passage saying to me?” These applications take the original meaning and the theology of the text and impose them on our twenty-first century lives. This is where we figure out what God’s word is challenging us to do and how it is showing us what we need to change.

The problem is, most people, including myself at times, try to jump straight to this step before doing any of the others. But when we try to apply God’s word to our life before we figure out what it actually means, we can make it say some off the wall things that God never intended, and that is dangerous!

Now I know this seems like a lot. You’re probably thinking, “If I do all of this, I’m going to have to double the amount of time I spend in God’s word each day just to get anything out of it.” Well maybe so, but probably not. Once you get the hang of this, it will become second nature to you. You won’t have to sit there and say, “OK, now I’m on to step 3…” Yes, it might take some getting used to, but give it a try and see if it enhances your time studying God’s word!


Challenge and Change? How and Why?

In my opening post I mentioned how it is my desire for myself and others to be both challenged and changed by God’s word. In this post I want to spend some time discussing why God’s word challenges us and how it can change us.

Q: What is the Bible?

A: It is an ancient, Holy Spirit inspired collection of books comprised of narratives (e.g., 1-2 Samuel), poems (e.g., the book of Psalms), letters (e.g., Galatians and Ephesians), laws (e.g., Leviticus), genealogies (e.g., Ruth 4:18-22; Matthew 1:1-17), prophecies (e.g., Micah 5:2; Malachi 4:5-6), censuses (e.g., Numbers 1-2), etc.

Q: Why in the the world would reading something like that challenge us?

A: Because the lessons learned and the precepts set forth from these documents go against who we are as human beings.

Let me explain. Ever since God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the garden of Eden, there have been two “voices” speaking to mankind. There is the voice of God, which always speaks truth, but there is also the voice of Satan, speaking lies. And whose voice did our ancient ancestors listen to in that garden? God’s or Satan’s? Satan’s. And because they listened to Satan’s lies and ate fruit from the forbidden tree, it is not our natural desire to listen to the voice of God. Instead, everyone born from that point forward (you and I) inherited a sinful nature. Romans 5:12 states, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned” (HCSB). We are born sinners. We are born with a disposition turned away from our Creator.

This is where God’s word enters the picture. His word, inspired by the Holy Spirit and penned by human authors, sets forth the truth and exposes the lies. Are there grey areas? Sure. But is there absolute truth? You better believe it. And that truth is what challenges us. Let me give you a few examples of how the Bible challenges popular thought…

The world (under the influence of Satan) tells us there are many ways to heaven, but Acts 4:12 says of Jesus that “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (NASB). Also, in John 14:6 Jesus stated that He is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (HCSB).

The world also wants us to believe in universalism, the idea that all people will be saved, but Jesus made it very clear in Matthew 25:46 that some “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Our society and even our federal government and courts want us to accept same-sex marriage, but Romans 1:26-27 suggests that such relationships are “unnatural” and “shameless.”

I know that the examples I have just presented are more general, so what about some more personal ones? The world encourages you to make the most of yourself and to make sure that everyone around you knows all the wonderful things you have done. The world wants you to exalt yourself. Yet Jesus said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11 and 18:14; Yes, He said the same thing twice…It is that important!). In a world dominated by self-exaltation, we are challenged to live humbly.

The world teaches you to spend all your time with people that are just like you. Your friends should be those who dress like you and make close to the same amount of money as you and those who can do for you what you do for them. But when Jesus was sitting around the table with a group of Pharisees in Luke 14:12-14, He said, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, or your rich neighbors, because they might invite you back, and you would be repaid. On the contrary, when you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Jesus challenges us to step outside our circles and be open to those who might not look or dress like we do.

I could go on, but I think it is easy to see why God’s word should challenge us. Now, in conclusion, on to how it should change us.

I mentioned above that you and I were born with a sinful nature. Sin angers God and He does not tolerate it. This being the case, you and I were born into a broken relationship with God, a relationship in need of mending. Thankfully God has given us His word, which as we have seen, challenges our moral and spiritual fibers. It also tells us of the solution which mends our broken relationship: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When a person places their faith in Jesus and is forgiven of their sin, they are changed forever. Yet we all know that people still sin, they still make mistakes. But the goal, through a process known as sanctification, is for us to sin less and less. The goal is for us to be changed from the inside out, to become less like our old selves and more like our Savior. And how does that happen? It happens as we read and study Scripture and apply it to our lives.

In Romans 6:19 Paul wrote, “For just as you offered the parts of yourselves as slaves to moral impurity, and to greater and greater lawlessness, so now offer them as slaves to righteousness, which results in sanctification.” My prayer is that God’s word would not only challenge us, but that we would truly be changed by it as well.

Hello and Welcome!


Hello everyone,

My name is Travis Flanagan. I have been married to my beautiful wife Tess since April of 2013, and have been the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Gainesville, TX since September of the same year. I am a two-time graduate of Criswell College in Dallas, TX, where I have received a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies (2013) and a Master of Arts in Theological and Biblical Studies (2015), both Summa Cum Laude. I am passionate about preaching the word of God verse-by-verse.
Every Sunday morning before I begin expositing God’s word, I pray with the congregation, and many of the church members have probably noticed that I always end those prayers the same way: by asking God to challenge us and change us as we study His word (hence the name of this blog).
As a recent college and seminary graduate, I have spent semester after semester writing numerous papers, book reviews, etc. Not wanting to let go of my writing, I have decided to begin this blog. Limiting myself to one post per week, my goal for this blog is to spell out my thoughts and convictions concerning what God’s word says and also how we as believers should study it. As I read and study God’s word on my own, it is my desire to be challenged and changed. I want to share with you the ways I go about digging into God’s word and what I find when I do so.
I also plan to keep you up to date on sources I use for biblical studies, books I am reading, and good Christian movies that may be coming to theaters soon.

My hope is that as you read week after week, you too will be challenged and changed, not by my words, but by the convicting truth of Scripture.

Be challenged and changed,