Here is a step by step guide to my personal Bible study method. It requires no knowledge of the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek).
I hope by explaining my process step by step, it will help anyone who wants to start studying the Bible personally for the first time.
I use James 1:2-4 as a sample text to explain this Bible study method. I am using Accordance Bible Software which I highly recommend to anyone who is doing personal Bible study for the first time.
Step 1: Prepare your soul.
Before I begin my Bible study, I confess my sins and ask God to remove any wrongful thought in me that would hinder me from understanding His Word. I ask for wisdom and teachability, humbly depending on the Holy Spirit for illumination. I pray that God gives me a heart that submits to the final authority of His Word.
Through prayer, I acknowledge to God that I need His Spirit to help me understand the truths of Scripture that are spiritually discerned.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 2:12–13)
Step 2: Choose at least 2 English translations.
I generally use three English translations for my Bible study.
The English Standard Version (ESV) is my primary English translation. I read the ESV daily, and I memorize Bible verses in the ESV. My church uses the ESV during our Sunday worship service.
The American Standard Version (ASV 1901) gives me another version to compare and contrast with the ESV. When I see difference between the ASV the ESV, I ask the question, “Why?”
The New English Translation (NET) is a translation that includes over 60,000 footnotes. The footnotes comment on textual issues and translation issues. Since I am not studying in the original Hebrew or Greek, the NET notes are very helpful. The NET Bible is available free online at lumina.bible.org.
The ESV and ASV are formal equivalent translations, also known as “literal” or “word-for-word” translation. Formal equivalence preserves the form of the original language as much as the new “receptor” language permits.
Another type of translation is a functional equivalent translation. Functional equivalence seeks to reproduce its meaning in good idiomatic (natural) English. Functional equivalence was originally called dynamic equivalence.
The NET is a mediating translation or intermediate translation. It represents a “middle ground” between formal and functional equivalent.
Your primary English translation for Bible study should be a formal equivalent translation that is mapped to Strong’s numbers so you can do word study in Step 7. Your second translation can be a mediating translation. I do not recommend purely functional equivalent translations or paraphrase translations for serious Bible study.
Translations that I use and recommend include:
Formal Equivalent Translations
- English Standard Version (ESV)
- New American Standard Bible 1995 Version (NASB 1995)
- King James Version (KJV)
- New King James Version (NKJV)
- New English Translation (NET)
- Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
- New International Version 2011 Version (NIV 2011)
Further Study on English Bible Translations
Step 3. Read the entire book.
It is important to gain an overall understanding of the book even if you are studying just one verse. To accomplish this, I read the entire book twice in my preferred English translation.
There are a few exceptions. I do not read all 150 chapters of Psalms to study one psalm, nor do I read the entire book of Proverbs to study one proverb. I might not read long books like Isaiah or Jeremiah twice if I have time restraints.
First reading: Read to understand the book’s background.
The first time I read the book, I look for information about the book’s background that is explicitly stated in the Bible text. Here is some background information I glean from reading the book of James.
- Who is the author? James, a servant of God.
- Who are the intended recipients? Jewish Christians.
- Where do the recipients live? The Jewish Christians live outside of Palestine because they were dispersed among the Gentiles.
- What is their current circumstance and historical situation? Some are undergoing various trials and afflictions.
- What is the author’s purpose? James writes to encourage Jews who are dispersed, possibly from persecution. He explains that true Christians will exemplifies godly behavior and living.
- What is the overall theme? One theme is a practical emphasis of godly living.
I will also supplement my background understanding by reading the book introduction in my study Bible or Bible dictionary.
Second Reading: Read to understand the book’s structure.
The second time I read the book, I think about the book’s structure and write a chapter summary. For the book of James, I write one sentence to summarize each of the five chapter.
- Chapter 1: Christians will endure trials, not blame God for temptations, and be doers of the word.
- Chapter 2: Christians do not show favoritism, but they will prove their saving faith by their works.
- Chapter 3: Christians must be careful with their speech, and they need godly wisdom.
- Chapter 4: Christians must control their passions and worldly desires and remain humble and dependent on God.
- Chapter 5: Christians need to pray and wait on God who judges the oppressive rich and restores those who have strayed.
Step 4. Outline the book using sections and paragraphs.
First, I look at the outline provided by my study Bible or my Bible software. If I have a compelling reason, I will edit the outline and adjust the definitions of the major sections of text. My section lengths range from 4-5 verses to up to 2-3 full chapters.
I carefully review the sections before and after the text that I am planning to study. This helps me understand how my Bible text relates to the rest of the book.
Next, I look at the paragraphs of each English translations that I am using. I will compare the paragraph divisions of the ESV, ASV and NET. I make final decisions on how I would like to define the paragraphs of the text. I make sure each paragraph develops one main thought. The typical length of my paragraphs are 1-5 sentences.
My James 1 Outline
- James 1:1 – Greeting
- James 1:2-18 – Have Joy in the Face of Trials
- Paragraph: James 1:2-4
- Paragraph: James 1:5-8
- Paragraph: James 1:9-11
- Paragraph: James 1:12-15
- Paragraph: James 1:16-18
- James 1:19-27 – Live as Doers of the Word
Once I have defined my paragraphs, I study one paragraph at a time applying Steps 5-7. For our text in James 1:2-4, it is contained as one paragraph. It is preceded by James’ greeting in James 1:1. James 1:2-4 is the start of the section of James 1:2-18 that covering “having joy in the midst of trials.”
Step 5. Examine the grammar.
This fifth step is the beginning of my deep dive into the biblical text. I will print out the passage using the English Standard Version (ESV), my preferred formal equivalent translation. As I read each sentence in the passage, I do the following:
- For each sentence, I label the subject, verb, and direct and indirect object.
- For each noun, I will try to see if it is singular or plural.
- For each verb, I will try to define its tense and mood.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2–3)
- Subject: you, my brothers (plural)
- Verb: count (present imperative, command)
- Object: joy (singular)
“And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:4)
- Subject: steadfastness (singular)
- Verb: have (imperative, command)
- Object: effect (singular)
Other things I commonly do in my grammar analysis:
- Link every relative and personal pronoun to its antecedent, determining what each represents.
- Link every adjective to the noun it modifies.
- Link every adverb to the verb it modifies.
- Link every prepositional phrase to the noun or verb that it modifies.
Step 6. Make a sentence flow diagram.
I will divide each sentence into its clauses (groups of words with subject and verb), and I make a sentence flow diagram. This exercise helps me to understand the logical flow of each sentence.
By creating a sentence flow diagram, I have the framework for my provisional outline.
- Command #1 – “Count it all joy, my brothers”
- Occasion – “when you meet trials of various kinds”
- Reason – “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
- Command #2 – “And let steadfastness have its full effect”
- Purpose – “that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Step 7. Analyze significant words.
I use a simple process for doing my word study:
- Step A: I will use Strong’s number to identify the Greek root word. Most word in my ESV is mapped to a Strong’s number. In my Bible software, I can see to what Greek word the Strong’s number is mapped.
- Step B: I look up the definition of the root Greek word in a Greek-English dictionary.
- Step C: I look at how the root Greek word is used in other parts of the book and New Testament using Strong’s concordance or my Bible software.
Example: “trials” in James 1:2
Step A – Look up the Strong’s number: G3986 – peirasmos
Step B – Look up the definition in the Greek-English Dictionary: “A putting to the proof, proof, trial; direct temptation to sin; trial, temptation; trial, calamity, affliction.” (Mounce’s Greek Dictionary)
Step C – Look up the other occurrences of “peirasmos” in the Greek New Testament: It is used 21x in NT, 2x in James. Below are a subset of my findings.
- “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)
- “Serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews;” (Acts 20:19)
- “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
- “Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness,” (Hebrews 3:8)
- “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)
- “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials,” (1 Peter 1:6)
- “then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment,” (2 Peter 2:9)
I repeat this process for other significant words. Choosing what words to study is subjective. Ideally, you want to study less common words that are important to fully understand. Other words I might choose to study in James 1:2-4 include:
- “count” (v.2)
- “various” (v.2)
- “testing” (v.3)
- “steadfastness” (v.3)
- “perfect” (v.4)
- “complete” (v.4)
This method of Bible word study does not require any knowledge of the original languages. You do not need any specialized knowledge in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek to complete this step.
Step 8. Research historical-cultural background.
I explore the historical and cultural background that might be related to my Bible text. To do this, I read relevant articles in my Bible dictionary.
From reading the entry on the Epistle of James in my Bible dictionary, I obtain the following additional information.
- Author is probably James, Jesus’ younger brother.
- James ministered to the circumcised (Galatians 2:9), so the letter is likely a Jewish-Christian audience.
- According to Josephus, Jesus’ brother James died by A.D. 62, so the book was written before that date.
- The audience is poor and oppressed. There appears to be frequent conflicts between the rich and poor.
- Perhaps anxiety for personal safety prompted some to believe glib confessions of orthodox faith are sufficient for God’s approval, substituting them for a morally rigorous life.
My Recommended Starter Bible Dictionaries
If time permits, I may also read the entries in a background commentary. The most popular starter Bible background commentary is the IVP Bible Background Commentary. There is one volume that covers the New Testament; a second volume is also available that covers the Old Testament.
Step 9. Review Cross References.
I use the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge to review relevant verses to see how other parts of Scripture relate to the Bible text I am studying.
This step guides me to other portions of Scripture to help me interpret my study text. During this step, I found a relevant Bible passage that adds insight to James 1:2-4.
“But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:13–16)
Step 10. Look for Application.
I create a list of applications for the original audience first.
Step A: Application for original audience
- Original audience should not be surprised. They will face trials and afflictions.
- Original audience should be joyful in trials.
- Original audience should understand that God allows trials to test their faith.
- Original audience exhorted to endure their trials.
- Original audience should know that God brings trials so they can be perfect and complete.
Then, I formulate my personal applications for the 21th century.
Step B: My personal applications for today
- I should expect trials.
- I should be joyful amidst trials.
- I should remember that trials test my faith.
- I should endure trials until the end.
- I should trust God that He will use trials to make me perfect and complete.
Step 11. Package to Meditate and Communicate.
Finally, I summarize my learnings to promote meditation and communication. This consists of an updated outline that is easy to communicate and remember.
I often use alliteration or a pattern to help make the outline more memorable. The outline helps me meditate on the truths of the Bible text I have just studied. The outline also prepares me to communicate the truths to another person.
How We Should Response to Trials (James 1:2-4)
- Response of trials: We are to be joyful when we face trials. (James 1:2a)
- Reality of trials: Trials certainly will come, and they come in various forms. (James 1:2b)
- Reason for trials: Trials are intended to test our faith. (James 1:3)
- Remaining under trials: We are called to remain steadfast and endure trials. (James 1:4a)
- Result of trials: Trials will make us perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:4b)
Step 12. Resolve to Obey.
The purpose for Bible study is not gaining knowledge, but instilling obedience. I need God’s grace and enablement to obey His word, so I end my Bible study time with prayer. I pray that God will help me obey His word and apply the principles I have learned to my life today.
Having completed my Bible study, I resolve to obey and apply the truths God has just revealed. I leave excited to study another portion of Scripture soon.
Review of 12 Steps to Personal Bible Study
- Prepare your soul.
- Choose at least 2 English translations.
- Read the entire book.
- Outline the book using sections and paragraphs.
- Examine the grammar. (Grammatical Study)
- Make a sentence flow diagram. (Syntactical Study)
- Analyze significant words. (Word Study)
- Research historical cultural background.
- Review cross references.
- Look for application.
- Package to meditate and communicate.
- Resolve to obey.
Bible Software: Accordance 12 Lite
My personal Bible study process can be entirely completed using Accordance 12 Lite. I highly recommend this free Bible software package for anyone desiring to do personal Bible study. This free software includes the following:
Formal Equivalent English Bible Translations
- English Standard Version (ESV)
- King James Version (KJV)
Bible Dictionary: Easton’s Bible Dictionary
- Useful to gain a background understanding of each book of the Bible.
- Useful to gain historical–cultural background information.
Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Condensed)
- This is a classic, concise commentary that covers the entire Bible.
- Provides some basic background and historical–cultural information.
- Helpful if you want to read what Matthew Henry wrote about any chapter or verse in the Bible.
Outline of Bible Books
- Provides outlines for each book of the Bible to gain understanding of the book’s structure.
Word Study Tools
- ESV with Strong’s Number searching (equivalent to the ESV Strong’s Concordance)
- Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary
- Strong’s Greek Dictionary
- Treasury of Scripture Knowledge
By using a basic Bible software package like Accordance 12 Lite and following a basic method like the one I described, you will be well equipped for your personal Bible study.
Follow the example of the Bereans when Paul brought the gospel to them. They received God’s word, but they also personally studied and examined them.
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11 ESV)