Monday, October 15, 2007

How to Improve Your Personal Bible Study

How to Improve Your Personal Bible Study
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Author of the JesusWalk® Bible Study Series (

Every sincere Christian wants to have a more meaningful personal Bible study, to understand the Bible better. While learning the Bible is the joyful task of a lifetime, I'd like to offer several suggestions that can enrich your Bible studies.

Bible Reading vs. Bible Study
First, recognize that Bible reading and Bible study are both important, but different. In order to grow, you need to read the Bible every day as part of your time with God -- your devotions or Quiet Time. During this daily time with God I recommend prayer, wide Bible reading, praise, thanksgiving, confession, and meditation -- these are ways to reach out to God with your spirit. Bible reading is one way of letting God refresh your spirit and speak to your mind.

If you really want to learn the Bible, I recommend that you read broadly rather than narrowly. A one-verse devotional may be quick, but it won't really help you understand the Bible. I try each morning to read one chapter from the Old Testament, one chapter from Psalms or Proverbs, and one chapter from the New Testament. If I'm consistent, this will get me through the Old Testament once each year and the New Testament twice. That's an example of broad reading and takes five to 10 minutes a day -- 15 minutes if the day's chapters are long.

But Bible reading as part of your daily devotions should be separate from your times of Bible study. Let me explain.

Blocks of Time for In-Depth Bible Study
Bible study, as opposed to reading, concentrates on a single topic, Bible character, or book of the Bible for closer study.

For example, right now in the New Testament I'm reading the Epistle to the Hebrews. I'm realizing that though I've read it many times, I need to dig in and figure out what it's really saying. That's where Bible study comes in. Bible study takes a longer block of uninterrupted time. Perhaps you'll set aside 30 to 45 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday nights for in-depth Bible study, or an hour on Saturday mornings before the family is up -- or perhaps longer. Blocks of time are important to Bible study.

Learn to Ask Questions
The real key to Bible study is being inquisitive, learning to ask questions of the text. First, read the passage. Then be a detective; look for clues. What's going on? What stands out to you? What don't you understand? Look for anomalies -- things that you might not expect to find here. Consider, for example, the familiar dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus:

1 "Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, 'Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.'
3 In reply Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.'
4 'How can a man be born when he is old?' Nicodemus asked. 'Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!'
5 Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, "You must be born again." 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.'" (John 3:1-8, NIV)
Several questions occur to me as I read this:

Where does this incident take place?
What did members of the Pharisee party typically believe? How were they viewed in society?
What does it mean that Nicodemus is a member of the "Jewish ruling council" or Sanhedrin? What does this tell me about him?
Why did he come by night?
Why does Jesus respond as he does to Nicodemus' introductory remarks in verse 2? Isn't Jesus a bit abrupt or rude in verse 3?
Is Nicodemus' response in verse 4 mocking or is it a sincere question?
What does "born of water" mean in verse 6? What does "born of the Spirit" mean? What does "born again" mean in verse 3?
What does the wind analogy in verse 8 teach us about the Holy Spirit?
You get the idea. Your questions of this passage might be different than mine, but that's okay. There are no right or wrong questions. But questions are vital, since they provide direction to where you're going in your Bible study. Give yourself freedom to follow some "rabbit trails," to explore one theme and then another as you get acquainted with a passage.

The questions will vary depending on the passage you're studying, but here are some typical questions:

Who wrote or said this?
When was it written or said?
Where did this happen?
To whom was it written or said?
What circumstance or event prompted this incident or teaching?
Why did the person act as he did? Or say what he said?
How can I apply or emulate or obey what I learn in this passage?
You'll be able to think of more questions. The key is to develop a questioning mind, and you'll learn. You won't find answers to all your questions, of course, but over time many will be answered.

Take Notes on What You Learn
One main difference between reading and studying is writing down what you learn. This isn't just so you'll remember it later. The very act of writing requires you to formulate your thoughts clearly. Writing forces you to recognize fuzzy thinking for what it is and push beyond it. Write down what you're learning because it helps you understand it better.

I recommend that you begin a notebook in which to record your observations or research. Forty years ago I began taking notes on 8-1/2" x 11" binder paper. In the left margin I would record the date. In the top right corner I would record the book, chapter, and verses of the passage I was studying. This made it easy to file my notes in scripture order. I began with a single 3-ring binder, but now my binders fill a five-foot bookshelf and beyond. I look back at some of my early insights and am reminded of how the Holy Spirit has taught me over the years.

Start small, but take notes in a way that can be expanded easily. Another approach is to get a bound book that you can take notes in -- a kind of journal. (I've tried that, too.) Journaling has great value, but a bound notebook that contains many topics is difficult to organize or index in such a way that you can find your notes on a particular verse in the future. That's why I really like the binder paper approach. You could also take notes on a computer, naming the files in such a way that you can find them again or search an entire folder for a word or phrase. It's probably a good idea to print out your notes when you're finished and file them, however, since computer files have a way of getting lost after a few years.

I am so glad I began the habit of note-taking with my Bible study. Now when I study a passage again, I know what I learned the last time I studied it and what I need to explore next. For Bible teachers, small group leaders, and preachers, such a notebook of previous studies becomes especially valuable.

Get a Good Translation
One of the keys to learning the Bible is to get a good translation. You know, of course, that the Bible wasn't written in English, but in Hebrew (and a bit of Aramaic) in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament. A translation tries to render the original language into clear, accurate English. There are two types of translations:

Literal word-for-word translation. This makes for accuracy, but can be pretty wooden to read out loud. A good example of this type is the New American Standard Bible.
Dynamic thought-for-thought correspondence. Here the translator takes a thought in the original language and tries to translate it into the same concept in good English, without being tied to the exact words in the original. A good example of this might be Today's English Version (TEV).
The best study Bible contains a balance of both. You want a careful, accurate translation, but one that reads easily and clearly for family devotions or public worship.

Another issue is the underlying Greek and Hebrew text. The KJV translators worked with the best texts available to them in 1611, but in the last 150 years we have gained a much more accurate understanding of what the original text must have been. Nearly all modern translations are enriched by the translators working from the most accurate Greek and Hebrew texts possible.

Here are some of the most popular English translations. Your church or tradition may have a particular preference, but any one of these might be a good choice for you:

The King James Version (KJV, 1611) is, of course, the granddaddy of our English Bibles. For its day it was a very accurate translation and is still used in many congregations today. In 1984, the New King James Version (NKJV) was published as a whole Bible by Thomas Nelson. Translators modernized the language of archaic words substantially and removed most of the "thee's and thou's," through the original language basis remained the same as the KJV of 1611. For churches with a strong King James tradition, the NKJV is a popular alternative.
The New International Version (NIV) was first translated as a whole Bible by evangelical scholars in 1973, with revisions in 1983 and 1988. It is an excellent balance between readability and accuracy of translation. For years it has been the most popular newer translation in the United States, especially among evangelical churches.
New American Standard Bible (NASB or NASV), translated by the Lockman Foundation, was published in the whole Bible in 1971 and revised in 1977. Its big strength is its consistency in literally translating words and tenses. It is known as a very accurate translation, though perhaps not as easy to read aloud as some others.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989) and its predecessor the Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952) are careful translations in the King James tradition. Several Protestant denominations prefer the NRSV. It is both accurate and readable.
Of course there are many other modern translations, many of them good for serious Bible study, too numerous to list here. The original Living Bible and The Message are not translations, but paraphrases. They can be refreshing to read but aren't good Bibles for careful study.

Learning to Use a Study Bible
After you've decided what translation to use, I encourage you to purchase a study Bible, since it will contain a number of tools in one volume that can help you dig deeper. Nearly every Bible publisher offers a study Bible. Your local Christian bookstore can help you figure out which one is right for you. Here are some of the features that you'll come to appreciate:

Cross References. In a column next to the text, a study Bible lists several other verses with a similar idea or theme. For example, for "Nicodemus" in John 3:1, my Bible refers me to John 7:50 and 19:39 where he appears again. For "Rabbi" in verse 2, the cross references send me to Matthew 23:7 which has nine more references on this topic that I can explore. These cross references won't be comprehensive, but will point out the main passages that discuss this idea.
Bible Book Introductions. It's important to know something about the author, date, themes, circumstances, and intended audience of the Bible book or letter you're studying. In most study Bibles you'll find one to three pages of introductory comments for each book with a brief outline.
Study Notes or Annotations. Study Bibles have footnotes at the bottom of the page to help explain some of the more obscure ideas you'll run across -- a kind of mini-commentary. Remember, these aren't part of the Bible itself, but can often point you in the right direction in your study. These notes are usually indexed for easy reference.
Concordance. You've had a verse on the tip of your tongue, but don't know exactly where it is. A concordance helps you find a Bible passage if you can think of a key word or two that the verse contains. A concordance can also help you find other verses that teach a concept or use a word found in the passage you're studying.
Topical Index. In addition to a concordance, some study Bibles have a separate topical index that helps you find scripture references on a particular topic.
Maps. Part of understanding what's happening in narrative passages of Scripture is learning the geography, the location of cities, battles, mountains, valleys, enemies, etc.
Other features you may find include articles on various topics, a brief Bible dictionary, outlines of topics and Bible books, index of place names, time lines, and so on.

Specialized Tools for the Next Step
Obtaining a study Bible is the place to begin. But as your Bible studies increase, you may want to invest in some more specialized books. Some to explore:

Bible Handbook. Provides a great deal of information about each book of the Bible, life in Bible times, history of the English Bible, etc.
Bible Dictionary. Brief articles on each significant subject, word, and person in the Old and New Testaments. You'll often find helpful summaries of Bible teaching.
Bible Concordance. While study Bibles provide an abridged concordance, you can find an unabridged concordance that helps you find every occurrence of a particular word in the Bible. The best-known of these is Strong's Concordance (based on the KJV) which identifies each Greek and Hebrew word, and gives it a brief definition and a number. Now concordances are available for the NIV and NASB containing Strong's numbering system.
Bible Commentary. Bible commentaries provide an overview and running explanation of each book of the Bible. A good place to start might be with a fairly recent one-volume commentary on the whole Bible. There are also a number of inexpensive commentary series available that cover each book in the Bible, if you want to study a particular book in greater depth.
Word Study tools include an interlinear New Testament that shows the Greek text on one line and a literal English translation below it. A Greek-English Lexicon provides clear, precise definitions for each Greek word in the New Testament. Some of these are keyed to Strong's numbers so they can be used by students who haven't learned to read Greek letters. Similar resources are available for Hebrew as well.
Topical Bible. A topical Bible will give a great many scripture references listed by topic. Great if you're doing a topical or thematic Bible study.
Bible Atlas. An atlas contains more than detailed maps. It also describes the geography and places of the Bible, usually with fascinating illustrations and archeological details.
If you need advice on Bible study books, ask your pastor or the manager of a Christian bookstore.

These days many Bible study resources are available online at no cost, such as Crosswalk Bible Study Tools ( You can also purchase excellent Bible study software for your computer.

Don't Forget the Most Important Step
It's possible to be so engrossed in Bible study that you forget the most important purpose of Bible study. It's not Bible knowledge for its own sake nor being able to quote verses and recite orthodox doctrine. Ultimately, the purpose of Bible study is to learn exactly what the Bible teaches so that you can apply its teachings to your life.

Perhaps the simplest approach to Bible study is to use the three basic inductive Bible study questions to ask of a Bible passage:

What does it say?
What did it mean to those reading it in Bible times?
What does it mean to me as I seek to apply it to my life?
My prayer is that your Bible study results in a heart that is tender to listen to what the Spirit is saying to you through Scripture and a will that is determined to live out in your everyday life what you're learning.


Dr. Ralph Wilson is a California pastor, director of Joyful Heart Renewal Ministries, and author of more than a dozen free online Bible studies from the Old and New Testaments. Each Bible study is also available in e-book and printed format ( Copyright © 2006, Ralph F. Wilson . All rights reserved.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Learn To Lean

Author Unknown

It took me forever, Lord, to learn how to lean.
To leave my friends — as you lovingly began to wean.
I know I was stubborn, and I dug in my heels,
And when you applied pressure — did I ever squeal.

It was a concept, Lord, that I just hadn't learned,
And obviously . . . I was not too much concerned.
But as my old leaning-posts were taken away,
Routine confidence . . . began rapidly to fray.

Then your Holy Spirit, made it abundantly clear,
To you alone, Lord, must I unltimately adhere.
Only in your word and Spirit, may I ever grow strong,
As you continue to teach me, a blessed new song.

It is not in friends and others, that I will understand.
All my strength and wisdom, must come to me firsthand.
No longer can another, walk me through the task,
For only in Your guidance, may I safely bask.

Keep on teaching me Lord, and keep me close to you.
(For without you beside me — I haven't got a clue.)
I belong to you Lord — I am your creation . . .
I want only to praise you — without cessation!

Just For Today

Trust God one day at a time!
Just for today! I will begin the day by praying: "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Psalm 118:24)
Just for today! I will say, "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:13)
Just for today! I will not worry about my needs, for " God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:19)
Just for today! I will not fear, "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity; but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline." (II Timothy 1:7)
Just for today! I will not harbor doubt and lack faith, for "...without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." (Hebrews 11:6)
Just for today! I will not lack strength, for "...the Lord is the stronghold of my life - of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1b)
Just for today! I will not admit defeat, for God "...always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ, ..." (II Corinthians 2:14b)
Just for today! I will not lack wisdom, for, "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask Cod, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." (James 1:5)
Just for today! I will not feel condemned, for "..., there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:1)
Just for today! I will not be worried or frustrated: "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you." (I Peter 5:7)
Just for today! I will not be depressed, "...for his compassion's never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3:22b,23)
Just for today! I will not feel alone for Jesus said, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:20b)
Just for today! I will not be discontented, "...for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances." (Philippians 4:llb)
Just for today! I will not feel worthless, for "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (II Corinthians 5:21)
Just for today! I will not be confused, "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace…" (I Corinthians 14:33a KJV)
Just for today! I will not let the pressures of life bother me, when Christ said, "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33b)
Just for today! I will not feel like a failure, when "…in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." (Romans 8:37)

Monday, October 8, 2007

Anxious About Nothing

Anxious About Nothingby Donna L. Watkins
"Do not be anxious about anything ... " Philippians 4:6a
Our world has become an excellent place to fear all .... when God says, "Fear Not!" Advertising, media, news, and listening to other people's fears have caused many Christians to join the world in its quest for control.
We've come to think we can control our daily lives and future by making choices based on fear. God tells us He will take care of us and that we are to trust in Him.
"When I am afraid I will trust in You." Psalm 56:3
I already know this writing is going to be a bit rough and tough, but hang in there with me. Together we may grab hold of something that will bring us to a better place in Him.
When I approach an important event I begin to fear that I will miss some great detail. A few months back our son was coming to visit for four days. I had so many things I wanted to do during that time, such as specific foods to make, places to see, music for him to hear, topics to discuss, etc. I became anxious that it wouldn't go the way I'd planned, so I made meticulous lists to make sure I had my desires all laid out.
I didn't count on a couple of rainy days.
Isn't God good at showing us we can't control our own lives? Why do we keep trying when we know in our hearts and minds that He does a better job?
The visit was better than any plans I could have, because it rained the first day, I decided then that I wanted the time to go God's way. He had better things than I could ever think of for my list. Those were the important things of the visit. I might have missed them in trying to keep to my "schedule" of how life should be for those four days. I certainly would have missed a lot of joy and peace while I stressed over making the list happen.
Consider these words from Hanna Whitall Smith:
"Nothing so greatly hinders the work of God's unseen spiritual forces, upon which our success in everything truly depends, as the spirit of unrest and anxiety."
Please read that again!
Somebody once said, "All things come to him who knows how to trust and to be silent." This is so true! Our anxiety creates an energy that 'pushes away' the great things in our lives that could happen. It also pushes away people. Peace attracts, but anxiety repels.
We are so caught up in striving and worrying that we don't see the better things happening. God promises to make all things good for us if we love Him. Loving Him is obeying Him. He would rather have obedience than sacrifice. (I Samuel 15:22)
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Philippians 4:6
Present them! Give them to Him!
Did you notice what you need to do before that? It says in every thing ... and it says with thanksgiving!
Do we thank Him for everything? I Thessalonians 5:18 says, "In every thing give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you."
We have become too controlling and self-centered in the way we deal with life. We think we can handle it and that we deserve better. All the time we are getting the best! Trials and tribulations are for our good and if we approach them that way, and thank God IN them ("IN every thing give thanks"), not FOR them, we can rest assured God will use them for our good.
In the worst of circumstances, if you will get still and ask God to show you, you will be able to list good things already happening from the bad.
People purchase all kinds of things to find peace. More clothes, newer cars, nicer furniture and decor items, more food, more security. Some people buy cell phones for themselves and children solely based on fear. Home security systems are installed to keep all the stuff protected. Antibacterial soaps are used even though research now shows them to be creating health problems. Chemical cleaners promising to kill germs on contact are sprayed without thought of what the chemicals are doing not only to us, but to our children and pets.
Insomnia is a major health problem. Why do we continue to think that if we worry long enough over something that it will make it better? The Bible says that we must "trust in Him" to have peace. Trusting in ourselves is what produces the anxiety and worry.
We are a nation of debtors which causes much of the anxiety and insomnia, with people "having to buy" many things that are considered needs when they have only been pushed upon us by media and fear. Is it working? We are busily trying to eliminate God from the equation and nothing is getting better. The promises of the advertising are not coming to pass.
God is being pushed further and further away.
It's all about trust and belief. Do we believe God loves us and has the best for us? The best is not the picture we would paint for ourselves. We would not have thought that the best for Jesus was the cross.
The strongest trees are those growing on the side of a mountain daily struggling with the heat and winds and cold of exposure.
We have a purpose on earth before we get to live bliss in Heaven and it's not to have everything go according to our own mental lists. Read this Scripture again and what follows it.
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Philippians 4:6
Philippians 4:7 gives you the results from obeying the previous verse: "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."
Wow! What a purchase we can buy with only obedience. God even gives us directions on how to make this happen in verse 8. Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy ..... think on these things.
What do you think about all day and all night? Thoughts have power. If you wonder why things are happening in your life, take a look at how they relate to your thoughts.
Seeds produce a harvest. What kinds of seeds are you sowing? Thoughts, words and deeds are seeds! You will harvest what you sow. If you continually worry and think fearful thoughts, you will harvest trouble and fear.
Make the switch. Renew your mind. Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Take control of your mind. Think on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy.
Write them on index cards and carry them with you and place them around the house. We can do it! We can be obedient to Christ and sow good seeds for a good harvest.

One Man's Quest To Follow the Bible - Literally

A.J. Jacobs has always been intrigued by religion and, after he became a new father, wondered if he was missing anything. So, for a full year, the “Esquire” magazine editor-at-large followed the mandates of the Bible as closely as possible and wrote it about it in a new book, “The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.” Here's an excerpt:
IntroductionAs I write this, I have a beard that makes me resemble Moses. Or Abe Lincoln. Or Ted Kaczynski. I've been called all three.
It's not a well-manicured, socially acceptable beard. It's an untamed mass that creeps up toward my eyeballs and drapes below my neckline.

I've never allowed my facial hair to grow before, and it's been an odd and enlightening experience. I've been inducted into a secret fraternity of bearded guys — we nod at each other as we pass on the street, giving a knowing quarter smile. Strangers have come up to me and petted my beard, like it's a Labrador retriever puppy or a pregnant woman's stomach.
I've suffered for my beard. It's been caught in jacket zippers and been tugged on by my surprisingly strong two-year-old son. I've spent a lot of time answering questions at airport security.
I've been asked if I'm named Smith and sell cough drops with my brother. ZZ Top is mentioned at least three times a week. Passersby have shouted “Yo, Gandalf!” Someone called me Steven Seagal, which I found curious, since he doesn't have a beard.
I've battled itch and heat. I've spent a week's salary on balms, powders, ointments, and conditioners. My beard has been a temporary home to cappuccino foam and lentil soup. And it's upset people. Thus far, two little girls have burst into tears, and one boy has hidden behind his mother.
But I mean no harm. The facial hair is simply the most noticeable physical manifestation of a spiritual journey I began a year ago.

Follow the link to read the rest of the story

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Understanding God More Fully

Ephesians 4:10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe. (NIV)
How can we understand the infinite? How can we even begin to understand a tiny spark of the infinite when a tiny spark of the infinite could consume the entirety of our universe? God knows we have a limited understanding of Him. In God's wisdom and in His love, to help us understand Him more fully, God sent love into the world in the form of His only Son. To understand God more fully, we must understand love. The substance of God is love and the substance of love is God. Love called Christ to die for us. Love calls us to surrender our all for Christ. So much of life is absent in love. So many lives are tragically lived with no love. When we think we do not know God or God does not know us, all we need do is look within our heart. Within our heart we can find God. Within our heart we can hear His tender voice of love calling our name. Within our heart we can see He walks and talks with us every hour to tell us He loves us.

Some Food For Thought

Worship is not for our entertainment. God is the audience.