Studying the Word for Life
A Six-Week Plan for Developing
Lifelong Bible Study Habits and Skills
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Study Bibles inhibit Bible study.
This is the first principle.
The simple fact is, the footnotes tend to curtail our need to attend to the text, to read it with care, again and again, and thus they diminish our desires and abilities to pay attention to the details, to flow of a passage, the story, a song, a chapter or a letter or a book. (Besides, the footnotes might just be mistaken.)
So, to begin with, it is vital that you obtain a clean text of the Bible, or at least a clean text of the book you intend to study. If you invest in a Bible computer program or app, you should be able to copy and paste and format the text in your word processor so that the margins are wide enough for some of your own notes. I recommend 1.5 inches all the way around each page. I also suggest that the text be in two columns (with at least inch between columns), and delete any sub-headings.
Now for a second principle: Our discoveries made in and through our struggles to understand and apply the word of God usually are much more significant and lasting than those we are taught. In other words, when you do the work yourself, you’ll earn and own what you learn, even when others might help you along the way (which naturally will be the case for all of us).
Below is a suggested six-week study of Paul’s letter to Titus. In my experience over the last two decades, when someone engages in this sort of study, and follows through with some consistency, habits arise that change for the better the ways that person studies, hears, understands, appropriates, and applies the Bible. And I have seen these changes persist in people’s lives for many, many years.
May your own studies be just as fruitful in your life.
What You’ll Need
• A Bible that is not a study Bible, at least not for the first three weeks.
My current Bible is a rather sturdy wide margin NIV. (My only dislike is that it is a red-letter edition.) It is my first Bible with a cover that isn’t bonded leather. I’ve gone through a couple of the bonded leather version over the last two decades, as well as one of the less-expensive hardbacks.
I’ve considered switching to the ESV for a while. If I were to do that, I’d hope to save up for this one. It is expensive. However, just consider that Bibles of this quality can last a decade or longer, depending on how well you handle them. Here is a wide margin ESV.
• A notebook dedicated to this study.
You’ll write a lot in it, especially from the fourth week. Something like this one would do nicely.
• A good pencil, and probably a mechanical one.
Be careful: I’ve found that the 0.5 size more easily catches on a page in a Bible. Tearing a page can be very frustrating. Learn to write with care. But I’ve also found that I prefer using an 0.7 size pencil.
• A set of colored pencils.
I use this set, though they are an small investment. I’ve never broken a lead in these, and the carrying case is helpful for keeping them in good shape.
• A commentary.
Below I’ll recommend a selection of commentaries for several books of the Bible.
Week 1: Each day, slowly read through the book of Titus twice, once in the morning and once in the evening. You should not need to spend more than fifteen minutes per reading (and probably under ten). Take no notes as you read. The goal here is to gain familiarity.
On the last day of the week, attempt an outline of the book from memory. Chapter and verse notations are unnecessary since you are simply trying to get the feel of the book. (You should do this in your notebook.)
Note: One additional bit of work you should do either near the end first week, or the beginning of the second, is to look up all the New Testament passages that refer to Titus, seeking to see who he was, what he was like, and what he did in his life. The record is not robust, though such investigations can be enlightening. Here are the passages where he is explicitly mentioned: 2 Corinthians 2:13; 7:6, 13, 14; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18 [twice]; Galatians 2:1, 3; 2 Timothy 4:10; Titus 1:4.
Week 2: Each day, slowly read through the book Titus, once in the morning and once in the evening, this time jotting down some notes. Note such things as the repetition of words and phrases, your perceptions of the argument(s), the overall progression of thought, things you find quizzical.
This is where you’ll begin using your colored pencils as well, as you lightly mark repeated words and phrases. Again, write lightly right now, so you can erase any mistakes you make. Later you can darken your markings, perhaps during weeks 4-6.
Note your observations and unanswered questions in your notebook. You can revisit these later. Also, correct, revise, and/or expand your outline of the book of Titus. (Now is the time to order your commentary on Titus. See the suggested commentaries below.)
Week 3: Each day, slowly read Titus in the morning and 1 Timothy in the evening (or vice versa, depending on your preference). Note that 1 Timothy is longer, so your reading time will be a bit more for the day. (It might be helpful to carve out a couple time slots this week where you can look at both books together. I imagine these two times need not exceed 30 minutes each.)
Throughout the week make your own cross-reference edition of Titus with references to 1 Timothy. These cross-references should be written either between the columns or in the margins of your copy of Titus. Use a pencil, and write lightly at this stage (again, you can darken it up later, when you are more confident). (While you are not always able to do this with each book of the Bible, Titus and I Timothy have much in common since they address many similar issues in slightly different ways. They are written to two different people, in two different locations, facing both similar and differing issues.)
By the end of the third week you will know the book of Titus well enough to engage a commentary thoughtfully (now even earning the right to argue with a commentator, if not disagreeing with them). Next you will tackle a chapter of Titus each week for the next three weeks, working your way through the commentary.
Week 4: Work through the first chapter in the commentary throughout the week (not each day; throughout the week). Take your time. Look up the Old and New Testament passages noted in the commentary, and make cross reference notes of those you judge best for understanding Titus (but you must have good reasons for your selections; not all cross-references are of equal value).
In addition, a good commentary will provide you with brief discussions of various issues (debates, disagreements, various interpretations, etc.). In your notebook, summarize the issues addressed in the commentary, as well as any reasons you think one option is better than the others (if you come to have any particular sympathies – which you likely will and even should). Make sure your reasons for adopting or sympathizing with one (or more) options are coherent and warranted. Explain your thoughts in your notebook. Effectively, here you are creating your own running commentary on Titus.
Note: Probably sometime in this first week you should work through the introductory material in the commentary. Here the commentator will discuss the book’s date of writing, various controversies about it, its authorship and themes and such. These are helpful to know. It also is helpful to make some notes for your own developing commentary.
Week 5: Repeat #4 but with a focus on the second chapter of Titus.
Week 6: Repeat #4 with a focus on the third chapter of Titus.
At the end of the sixth week, summarize your notes by writing a few sentences expressing the main argument(s)/theme(s) of the book (no more than one or two pages long, at most), along with your final outline (this time with chapters and verses noted). Then consider writing up two or three pages detailing what you’ve learned in your study – something like key observations, most convicting elements, points that have liberated you, what you’d most like to share with others, what you found most satisfying, etc.
Life after Studying Titus
If there is one thing you can do in the seventh week, it is to explain this process to one or two or three other people, perhaps sharing this outline with them. If they are inclined to engage a study of Titus, meet with them for 15 minutes (at most!) a week (for the first three weeks) to review their progress and encourage them. But be careful not to short-circuit their learning experience by telling them too much of what you’ve learned in your own study of the book. It is absolutely vital that they experience the joy of discovery for themselves. It is the experience of discovery that motivates many people to further study. So, ask questions and listen with glee.
Your Next Bible Study
What should you study next? Personally, I recommend an Old Testament book. While Christians affirm that the Old Testament is the word of God, we typically fail to appreciate its significance. Our ignorance of the Old Testament perpetuates a false sense of knowing the New Testament.
In fact, reading the New Testament without a pretty decent and growing familiarity of the Old Testament is like someone watching the movie Shrek who is not otherwise familiar with the fairy tales, nursery rhymes, Disney films, and pop culture features peppered throughout. One might still grasp the plot and laugh at the slapstick comedy, but one would not understand why others are regularly giggling or bursting with laughter throughout the film. The film would be flattened, with its colorful humor desaturated.
So, you could study a shorter book, like Habakkuk (for six weeks, using Gowan or Robertson, with special reference to Douglas – see the commentary recommendations below), or a very fundamental book, like Deuteronomy (for six months to a year, using McConville, Tigay, and/or Miller, with some reference to Millar). And after you finish Deuteronomy, I recommend returning to the New Testament with a study of Galatians (for about twelve weeks, using Hays, Witherington, and/or Dunn, with special reference to Longenecker and/or the excurses found in Martyn or Witherington).
Obviously, for longer books of the Bible, the six-week format should be expanded to accommodate the increased material. For example, it may take two or three days, or a week, to read consciously through Deuteronomy or Genesis. In that case, read as large a section as possible each day while taking notes regarding the content. The key to grasping the basic content and overall argument of the book is repeated reading, close attention to detail, and note-taking – in short, familiarity is the foundation for gaining understanding.
Now, in a home Bible study we hosted over the course of several years in Colorado, we started with Titus for six weeks, then did Deuteronomy for one year, then did Galatians for about eight weeks. Our study of Titus taught us to lean into the text. Our study of Deuteronomy was transformative, introducing us to what we came to see as the backbone of the Bible. It simply was fabulous! And our subsequent study of Galatians was thus very satisfying, like a rich, robust dessert.
If I may, I would suggest that all along in our studies we keep in mind two things: (1) major purposes of God’s revealed words are that we would come to share his affections and aversion – to love what he loves, to avoid what he finds deplorable; and (2) throughout Scripture we find that God disapproves of idolatry, immorality, and injustice – often at the same time, as seen in the same events, and as enacted by the same people. I’ll add a third: (3) what we term “faith” is better understood as trust, or even as allegiance or loyalty – think fidelity. And I’ll add a fourth point to keep in mind: (4) Love is less a feeling and more a posture towards others wherein we genuinely seek to enhance their well-being. Oh, there is so much more I’d like to note but I’ll leave off here.
Suggested Resources for Your Studies
There are so many excellent resources I could recommend for each of the following books. What I do recommend below is based simply on my own experiences, my own reading. But as you’ll see, there are new items that have come to my attention that I’m anxious to point up to you.
The commentaries on Titus, or the Pastoral Epistles, written by Gordon Fee (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus), John Stott (The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus) and George Knight (The Pastoral Epistles) are helpful. Knight’s is more scholarly, as is William Mounce’s (Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary vol. 46 ). Fee is a good middle ground; a great first commentary to have for Titus. Stott is a bit lighter, though very helpful if you ever teach the book. Knight and Mounce are comparable to each other, though Mounce’s discussions tend to be longer. Personally, I’d insist on using Fee your first time through the book. If you then have an opportunity to teach a class on it (e.g., Sunday School), you must pick up Stott’s volume. And if you want just one big reference commentary, then I would suggest Mounce.
Donald E. Gowan (The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk) and O. Palmer Robertson (The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah) are helpful commentaries. Though he does not address Habakkuk, the discussions of covenant dynamics in the prophets found in Douglas Stuart’s work (Hosea-Jonah, Word Biblical Commentary vol. 31) are fabulously enlightening and useful, especially if one has studied Deuteronomy. Gowan is much less detailed than Robertson, though he provides insights that Robertson does not. At the same time, Robertson provides details that Gowan does not. Personally, I’d recommend using Gowan your first time through. If you have an opportunity to teach a class on Habakkuk, then Gowan will be a great help. And if you want just one big reference commentary, then I would suggest Robertson.
There are many good commentaries on Deuteronomy. Notable are those by Christopher J.H. Wright (Deuteronomy; Understanding the Bible Commentary Series), J. G. McConville (Deuteronomy; Apollos Old Testament Commentary 5), Patrick Miller (Deuteronomy, Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), and Jeffrey Tigay (Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary – note: Tigay is not a Christian, though his comments are often profoundly insightful, and the excurses at the end of his commentary are worth the price of this rather expensive volume). A special study of Deuteronomy is found in J. Gary Millar, Now Choose Life: Theology and Ethics in Deuteronomy. Personally, I’d recommend using Wright your first time through. If you have an opportunity to teach the class, Wright’s work will be helpful, as would much of the material in Millar’s book, as well as the excurses in Tigay. If you want to invest in just one big reference commentary, then I would suggest Tigay.
UPDATE: While I’ve not read the following titles, I am familiar with many other works by Daniel Block. Honestly, I imagine I would highly recommend Block’s commentary, as well as the other two volumes: Deuteronomy, The NIV Application Commentary; The Gospel according to Moses: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Book of Deuteronomy; How I Love Your Torah, O LORD! Studies in the Book of Deuteronomy. Honestly, these later two volumes by Block will be in my library within the month, Lord willing.
There are several commentaries on Galatians that are quite useful: Ben Witherington (Grace in Galatia), James D.G. Dunn (The Epistle to the Galatians; Black’s New Testament Commentary). A specialized study of Galatians is found in Bruce W. Longenecker (The Triumph of Abraham’s God: The Transformation of Identity in Galatians), as well as in James D.G. Dunn (The Theology of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians; New Testament Theology). In addition, J. Louis Martyn (Galatians, The Anchor Bible) supplies a series of excurses throughout his commentary that are enlightening and provocative (though I tend to appreciate Martyn’s survey of the relevant issues in his excurses, most often I disagree with his conclusions). Dunn and Witherington are both very useful, though Dunn’s exegesis is more tidy while Witherington’s excurses are quite instructive. Personally, I’d recommend using Witherington your first time through. If you have an opportunity to teach a class, then I’d suggest combining Witherington with Dunn’s Theology of Galatians. If you want to invest in one big reference commentary, then I would suggest Martyn.
UPDATE: Though relatively new to my library, my appreciation for the following volume is likely to surpass the others as my primary recommendation for a first commentary on Galatians. It is that promising: Peter Oakes, Galatians; Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament. And as for a scholarly commentary, Douglas Moo’s recent commentary on Galatians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) would be a superb selection. So, start with Oakes, then Moo, keeping in mind Longenecker and the scholarly excurses in Martyn.
Copyright 2004-2017 Kevin James Bywater. All rights reserved.
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If you would care to hear sermons that offer the fruit of my own studies of the Bible, here are a few:
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