Why You Should Consider a “Markup Bible”

Every scientist worth his safety goggles has a laboratory. Professional athletes have personal gyms. In the same way, if you’re serious about studying God’s word, you should consider using a markup Bible.


George Bannister (2008), Creative Commons License

Define Your Terms, Sir!

By a markup Bible I mean a Bible set aside for study. This is not a Bible for church or an heirloom to leave to your children. Like the gym or the lab, a markup Bible is an intense work environment. If you plan to be a lifelong student of God’s word, this Bible will contain your Spirit-guided efforts for years to come. But be warned: this book may end up unreadable.

When an expert chef pours himself into a special meal, he isn’t worried about the mayhem he creates along the way. At the end of the evening, there may be flour on the counter and batter on the cabinets. But the messes don’t matter if the dishes are delicious. A markup Bible is your chef’s kitchen, and the fare you prepare (by God’s grace) is a loving heart and obedient life which point to your Father in heaven (Matt 5:16).

What is the Advantage?

If you study the Bible using the Observation-Interpretation-Application (OIA) method, you must get your hands dirty. You need to grapple with the text again and again. What does it say? What does it mean? How should I change?

To answer these questions, you should interact with Scripture carefully and vigorously. You might do this in a notebook, in a word processing document, or even on a smart phone. I prefer to write, draw, underline, and circle directly on the Bible text. This helps me boomerang back to God’s word instead of getting caught in my own speculations.

To make applications personal and memorable, I often end my study times by writing in a notebook. But I move through the OIA stages more easily if I begin by marking up the relevant Bible passage.

Do I Need to Spend Money?

To be honest, you probably don’t need another Bible. Most first-world homes contain more Bibles than Bible students. Instead of a new purchase, consider converting one of your old or current Bibles into a markup Bible.

You may not need a separate Bible at all. I’ve often used print-outs from Bible Gateway for my initial studying and marking. Since printer ink and paper cost money, this approach is not free, but buying another book is not necessary.

However, as I have written before, when people enjoy their tools they are more likely to use them. Having a Bible devoted to markup and study may set this activity apart as special for you. For this same reason, some people designate a chair, notebook, or bench for the purpose of prayer. (If you are considering making a purchase, stay tuned for my next post.)

How Should I Use a Markup Bible?


J.A. Medders (2014), used by permission

Getting started with a markup Bible is easy. Make observation and interpretation notes in your Bible. Highlight and underline. Draw circles, boxes, and arrows. Locate repeated words and connectors. Use a color code, so that all repetitions of the same word share a color. Diagram the structure of the passage and tease out the main point. There is no single correct approach to follow, and each person will develop their own system of symbols and marks. (Note: a markup Bible doesn’t negate the usefulness of these OIA worksheets. I suggest using them to summarize and organize your thoughts after first marking up the passage.)

A markup Bible eliminates the need to preserve the book you are studying. You don’t have to treat it gingerly. Focus on the words of God instead.

It’s Worth It to Know Your People

I used to meet with a guy to study the Bible. He was a quick learner and teachable, and he became a good friend. In general, our Bible study was not extraordinary, but quite good nevertheless.  I remember, however, the day the Bible study went from being merely quite good to being great.

The girl of this young man’s dreams had just broken up with him. He had the guts to meet with me anyway; in his place, I would have chosen to stay home in bed. Instead of having our regular discussion, I took him out and bought him the tallest mocha he could handle. Then we walked it off along a busy road and spoke of life, love, hurt feelings, and how God’s word spoke to us in those painful moments. Our time in the word paid back many dividends that day and launched us into weeks of richer study than we had yet enjoyed together.

According to the Lord’s perspective, no Bible study will succeed unless the leader loves the participants (1 Cor 12:27-13:13). In this case, I did something anyone would do, which was simply to listen, encourage, and enter this fellow’s life. Most of the time, however, I’m too stingy to pay the cost of loving others. Love feels like an interruption. It requires more forethought or creativity than I’m willing to invest. And it takes me away from other, more “productive” tasks on my to-do list.

Jerm (2008), Creative Commons

Jerm (2008), Creative Commons

One of the best ways to love the people in your group is to get to know them. In a pristine world, we might be motivated to do this simply by knowing it’s what God wants us to do. But God has no problem motivating us to obey with the promise of reward, so neither will I.

When I struggle with the call to invest in relationships with people (Mark 1:17, 1 Thess 2:8, 2:17-3:13), I try to remember why it’s worth it. In particular, why is it worth it to build relationships with people outside of the Bible study meeting?

  1. It makes your application more relevant. When you know what’s going on in people’s lives, you’ll be more equipped to help them make specific application.
  2. It shows them Christ. When people know their leader cares for them personally, it’s easier for them to believe Jesus cares for them.
  3. It sharpens your insight. You’ll know their highs and lows, and you’ll be able to steer the Bible study discussion toward those very things they have on their minds.
  4. It bolsters your credibility. When they know you care about them, they’ll trust you. When you speak hard truths from God’s word, that trust helps the truth sink in more deeply.

Of course, we should love people because God wants us to. And he made the world to work in such a way that everyone benefits from honoring him. When you struggle to believe love is worth the inconvenience, remind yourself of how much more you have to lose than a bit of time or forethought.

What Did It Mean to Them?

Last week, Tim Challies reflected on the “One Indispensable Rule” that must guide our interpretation and application of Scripture.

Proper understanding and interpretation is dependent on one indispensable rule: Before you ask, “What does it mean to us now?”, ask “What did it mean to them then?” In other words, before you attempt to apply the Bible to your life and circumstances, anchor it in the lives and circumstances of its original recipients. Application must be related to meaning.

Challies gives an example of a common error. In our efforts to get practical, we read verses apart from their context and arrive at applications the original audience never would have known. Sometimes our applications might still be good, but false teachers can use the same methodology to promote evil ends. It’s worth it to learn to read the Scriptures well!

Challies’s short article is well worth reading. Check it out!

One Vital Behavior Determines the Success of Your Teaching Ministry

Have you attended a Bible study with a leader who had no people skills? Have you been to Bible conferences where the speakers refused to hobnob with the proletariat? Have you taken a Bible class where everything you heard was true and precise, but you wondered if the professor had ever interacted with a live descendant of Adam?

What you do outside your Bible study meeting is just as important as what you did during it. You can reinforce the lessons you taught, or you can undermine them with your own hands. You can guide softened hearts into beneficial spiritual disciplines, or you can subsidize the calluses that deaden people to the very truth you proclaim.

It all depends on whether you live to serve the teaching, or whether the teaching exists to help you serve others. This goes for small groups, youth groups, Sunday school classes, and sermons. It goes for conference talks and classroom lectures. It even goes for 1-on-1 mentorship. Your teaching ministry matters, but it will be counterproductive if you don’t care about the people you teach.

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Heb 13:7)

One Vital Behavior

I’ve spent many weeks focused on the mechanics of leading a Bible study. I’m a firm believer in a strong ministry of the word, and I affirm that bad (shoddy, false, ignorant) Bible studies are costly and dishonoring to God. But I also deny that the ministry of the word is limited to the truthful and precise words that pour from a leader’s mouth. The ministry of the word is incomplete apart from the love and mercy that pour from the leader’s heart.

Therefore, to all who want to learn how to lead a Bible study, I commend one vital behavior above all others: Love your people. Get to know them. Learn their names and their histories. Find out what in life encourages them and what discourages them. Ask about their disappointments, dreams, and values. Make sure you understand them before you disagree with them. Find out why they come to the Bible study. Ask them regularly how they think it’s going and how you can improve. Ask them what God is teaching them through it.

You’ll never be able to do all these things during the meeting itself. Love requires investment; a price must be paid. You’ll have to spend time with them (both in groups and 1-on-1). You’ll have to learn what they do for fun so you can learn to have fun doing it with them. You’ll have to express your love in ways they feel loved, which won’t necessarily be the same ways you like to express love. I write “you’ll have to…you’ll have to…you’ll have to…” not because your righteousness depends upon it, but because love has the inscrutable power of compulsion.

The Cost of Failure

Simon Webster (2011), Creative Commons

Simon Webster (2011), Creative Commons

The success of your Bible study—or of any teaching ministry—depends upon this one vital behavior. Is that a naïvely bombastic claim? I think not.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Cor 13:1-2)

I’ve performed in orchestras when the gong and cymbals crashed at just the right time. Few earthly experiences are as moving as such powerful musical climaxes.

I’ve also performed in orchestras when the percussionist dropped the cymbals on the floor during the concert. Few earthly experiences are more embarrassing, more useless, or more counterproductive.

It is good for us to earnestly desire teaching gifts and to diligently develop teaching skills. But let us never forget: There is a still more excellent way (1 Cor 12:27-31).

Did Jesus Offend the Canaanite Woman?

In Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus responds to a needy woman in a manner most of us would consider offensive. He ignores her. He calls her a dog. He denies her request for healing.

How are we to understand Jesus’ words?

At the Gospel Coalition, Jimmy Agan has an excellent article addressing this question and more. Agan models good observation of the text, tracing the flow of thought from one episode to the next, considering the context, and answering interpretive questions from the text.

Check it out!

No Substitute for God

In the kitchen, some food substitutions work better than others. Swap oil for applesauce? Sure! Use almond or soy milk for your lactose-sensitive friends? Unnoticeable. Cut some butter in favor of plain yogurt? Absolutely.

But other replacements don’t cut the mustard. Gluten-free bread doesn’t behave like bread. Fat-free cheese won’t melt. Tofu? No thanks.


Tim Sackton (2012), Creative Commons License

But the altar is unlike the oven. Though we know nothing measures up to God, our hearts are prone to wander. How does God react to his children’s idolatry? Isaiah 31:1–9 gives us a glimpse.

The Alliance With Egypt

In a previous post we saw Judah seek protection from Assyria through a sinful alliance with Egypt. Isaiah tells us that Judah turned to “horses,” “chariots,” and “horsemen” instead of looking to God (Is 31:1). Why did Judah trust Egypt? What are the consequences of that misplaced trust?

Isaiah writes that Judah “trust[s] in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong” (Is 31:1). Were the chariots and horsemen of Egypt really stronger and more able than God? Judah’s betrayal was that they did “not look to the Holy One of Israel, or consult the Lord.”

God’s reaction to this treason springs from his character: he is “wise” and he “does not call back his words” (Is 31:2). He will turn against Egypt, the “helpers” who “work iniquity.” We read the obvious contrasts: “the Egyptians are man, and not God, and their horses are flesh, and not spirit” (Is 31:3). Isaiah highlights these disparities both to emphasize the inability of Egypt to resist “when the Lord stretches out his hand” and to finish the rebuke begun in Is 31:1.

Notice that Egypt and Judah share a fate: “they will all perish together” (Is 31:3). As we saw when studying Isaiah 30, God often punishes sin by bringing about its natural consequences. Judah sinned by aligning with Egypt, so they will share Egypt’s demise. The alliance they pursued for life has resulted in death.

Like a Lion, Like Birds

We read of two similies for God’s posture toward his people in Is 31:4–5. In Is 31:4, Isaiah compares God to a lion who “growls over his prey.” The “band of shepherds” (Egypt) tries to rescue the prey (Judah) from the lion, but the lion “is not terrified by their shouting or daunted at their noise.”

Does it bother you that God compares Judah to a lion’s prey? God is jealous for his people—he will discipline them as he pleases, with no unwanted interference.

This same “Lord of hosts” (repeated in Is 31:4 and Is 31:5) who will wage war on Mount Zion (Is 31:4 NASB) will also protect Jerusalem like hovering birds. God will “protect and deliver” and “spare and rescue” his people, a fourfold blessing of protection.

A natural question is, from whom/what is God delivering Judah? On the one hand, God is rescuing his people from their earthly enemies. But put these two figures together—if Judah is like a lion’s prey, then God is also sparing Judah from himself.

Can you see your Savior here? In Jesus, God rescues us from his own just wrath. The Father spares us by devouring his son like lion’s prey. We are protected because Jesus was not.

Turn to God!

In Is 31:6 NASB, Isaiah exhorts Judah to return to God from whom they have “deeply defected.” What an accusation! Defected means Judah has not merely forgotten God or somehow grown apathetic, but they have turned against him! A defector doesn’t quit military service, he wages war against his former allies. “Defector” is the charge leveled against idolators. If we worship anything other than God (and we do), we are traitors.

Isaiah tries to persuade Judah to return to God in Is 31:7 by writing that “everyone shall cast away his idols.” Is this a convincing argument?

There is no doubt about the sinfulness of idols: we see “idols” twice along with “sinful” and “sin” in Is 31:7 NASB. But the glory of the Lord will be so great “in that day” that “everyone” will discard their idols. If that is true about this glorious, future day, why not start now? You’ve defected from him—waste no time in turning back!

God Fights for His Own

Along with a return to God and the smashing of idols, in that day “the Assyrian shall fall” (Is 31:8). We saw God’s willingness to fight for his people in Is 30:32 and we see it again here with the repetition of “a sword, not of man.” God’s sword will slay the Assyrian.

In addition to death, God will bring slavery, panic, and terror to the Assyrians (Is 31:8–9). God is not to be opposed. If you wage war against his people, you may feel his “fire” or be subject to his “furnace” (Is 31:9).

Return to God through his Son

Isaiah’s message is clear. Do not trust in replacements for God. Return to God—he will discipline, protect, and deliver his people. But we take no Christian meaning from the chapter unless we consider Jesus.

Jesus died for our idolatry. The Lord “stretch[ed] out his hand” against Jesus in terrible judgment. Though he had opportunity (Matt 4:1–11), Jesus never (not once!) trusted anyone except his Father.

Jesus makes it safe for deep defectors to return to God. Because Jesus (the faithful, loyal one) was treated as a traitor, we are welcomed as sons and daughters of God. For those who are in Christ, we are no longer enemies of God, and God will take vengeance on our behalf (Rom 12:19).


Consider these questions as you apply the truths of this chapter.

  • How can we identify our replacements for God? How can we help each other identify these replacements?
  • What are the barriers we might face to helping each other in this way?
  • How should we call each other to return to God? How can we be the sort of people that can be called back to God by our friends?

A Brief Note about Prayer in Bible Studies

There is a time not to pray. In fact, there are many such times.

Stefano Corso (2008), Creative Commons

Stefano Corso (2008), Creative Commons

Imagine this: A coworker invites you to his house for dinner and a movie. Somewhere after the beef and potatoes, but before the surround sound explosions begin, he unrolls a few small mats. He says that before you can get to the evening’s fun, you’ll have to kneel with him and face toward Mecca to seek Allah’s favor on your evening. The expectations are heavy, and he’s not asking your opinion on the matter. How would you feel?

Let’s not forget how others would feel if we expect them to take part in our religious rituals as well.

Now, I am not saying that there are more gods than one. Nor am I saying that all religions are equally valid. I am saying, though, that love and respect should drive us to reconsider our customs so as not to set up unnecessary stumbling blocks.

By all means, let us pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17). But that doesn’t mean our prayers have to be out loud. The Bible does not command us to begin every Bible study with corporate prayer.

If your Bible study focuses on reaching non-Christians, I strongly suggest not praying during the study. The gospel is already weird. Why make your attempt to reach out any weirder than it needs to be? Book discussion groups are pretty common these days. Why not have a “book discussion” group that discusses the best-selling book on the market? Most people attending such a group would expect to engage with ideas, but they would not expect to pray at the meeting.

Clear Book Overviews

One of the most common errors in Bible study takes place when we parachute in to a certain passage, dig around a bit, secure the asset (a nugget of truth for the day), and then pursue extraction. In other words, we study Bible verses and Bible chapters, but not Bible books. But without a larger context, the passage often doesn’t make sense, and we give up in frustration, wondering whether Bible study is something best left to the experts.

The simplest solution usually lies in a good book overview. When you see the Bible as a collection of books, and you work to understand each book within its historical context (identifying the author, audience, occasion, and purpose for the book), smaller passages within the book come alive. For example, “Rejoice in the Lord” (Phil 4:4) takes on a new light when you see it’s one step in the reconciliation process between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2-9), which itself is a prime example of the joyful unity Paul seeks for the church (the main point of the letter of Philippians).

Without doubt, the best way to become at home within a Bible book is to read the book over and over. When I preach or teach a book, I usually read the entire book at least 5 times before the first session.

But sometimes we don’t have enough time for that much reading. And sometimes, we gain useful information from other sources gathered by others. So I’m always on the lookout for good articles and resources that present useful Bible book overviews.

I recently began following the blog of Jeffrey Kranz, who has given himself to creating clear and helpful overviews of every book of the Bible. I signed up for Jeffrey’s free course, where he sends a weekly email with an overview of one book of the Bible. The first one was on Psalms, and I must say I was impressed.

I thought, “Surely he’ll ignore the fact that the Psalms are organized into 5 books.” I mused, “I’ll check this out this first article, but if he missed the fact that Psalms 1 and 2 set the tone for the entire book, I’m not sure I can trust that he really understands the book.” I wondered, “Will he realize that the sons of Korah shouldn’t even have existed apart from God’s amazing grace (Num 26:11)?” (Okay, I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I’ve just seen too many “Bible overview” articles that are not really very helpful.) But Jeffrey delightfully crossed my expectations on every count. Not only did he include details I expected (always pleasantly affirming); he also gave much information I hadn’t realized, which inspired me to jump back into the Psalms!

I can’t wait to see what he does with the other 65 books of the Bible. I’m happy to recommend this resource to you. If you’d like to receive Jeffrey’s emails, just sign up on his site here.


Other resources I recommend regarding book overviews:

  • The book introductions found in the ESV Study Bible.
  • Articles at bible.org by Daniel Wallace on every New Testament book. I’ve found nobody better than Wallace at mapping out the occasion and flow of thought of a Bible book, and I consult him every time I study a NT book.

Check ‘em out!

How to Encourage Heart-Oriented Application

Practical application often has a bad rap among Christians.

Some people read the Bible and believe they’ve done the work of applying it if they come away with a list of truths about God. “But that’s not practical,” many object. “When does the truth get out of your head and into your life?”

Others read the Bible and believe they’ve done the work of applying it if they come away with a list of behaviors to carry out the next day. “But you can’t reduce the knowledge of God to 10 easy steps,” the first group objects. “It doesn’t matter what we do if it’s not grounded in the truth of the gospel.”

And both groups are right, after a fashion.

What is Application?

Applying is believing. John wrote his Gospel with one purpose: “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). Have you studied that book lately? You may find each chapter pretty repetitive, and fresh or innovative application will seem like a long-lost dream until you move to another book. I once had a guy stop coming to a Bible study in John for this very reason.

Applying is doing. James wrote his epistle to highlight the “doing” life of the scattered people of God. “Be steadfast under trial.” “Be doers of the word.” “Show no partiality.” “Do not speak evil against one another.” And so on. Theology is not absent from James, but it covers itself in thick layers of action and imperative.

Capturian (2010), Creative Commons

Capturian (2010), Creative Commons

Let us not forget, however, that applying is also loving and cherishing. We can know the truth and still be far from God (James 2:19). We can do all the right things and yet not come to the only one who can give us life (John 5:39-40).

As we lead Bible studies, we do well if we help people to believe and do. But we must not neglect the opportunity we have week in and week out to help them deepen their love for God and be conformed to the image of his Son. Our application should target the heart.

How to Target the Heart in Bible Study Discussions

It’s not rocket science, but it does need forethought and intention.

1. Show them how to do it. “Follow the leader” isn’t merely a game for preschoolers. Your group members play it every week. You must apply the Bible to your heart, and you must do so publicly with your group. Only then will they see how it’s done and that it’s not so scary (Heb 13:7, Phil 4:9, 1 Cor 11:1). Figure out why vulnerability is so hard for you, and repent.

2. Ask about obstacles or hindrances. When we hit a good, solid “do” application from the text, I find it helpful also to ask people, “what keeps us from doing this thing God wants us to do?” When people answer that question honestly, they’re usually cracking open the door to their heart. It often reveals what they value more than obedience, or more than the Lord himself.

3. Suggest options. Getting to the heart is not as complicated as some may think. We love something other than God, and good leaders can expose those loves and offer more godly alternatives. Are you concerned with what people think of you? What would happen if you didn’t get that [promotion, mobile device, spouse, child] you want?

4. Celebrate progress. We get more of what we reward, and we foster micro-cultures in the process. So when someone gets it and identifies character deficiencies or expresses desires for deep-seated change, I’m all over it. If I give more air time to those folks than to the folks who want to discuss their third cousin’s upcoming surgery, the latter folks learn quickly how to target their own hearts as well.

Don’t Get Too Familiar with the Bible

I was delighted to partner with Desiring God through a guest post entitled “Don’t Get Too Familiar with the Bible.” The article warns against the wrong kind of Bible familiarity that leads us to assume things that aren’t in the text and miss things that are. The article elaborates and illustrates what I’ve written on this blog about why familiarity is the greatest enemy of observation.

Where is Jesus in the story of David and Abigail? Name the woman who ate the forbidden fruit. How old was Jesus when he died? Remember the time when Jesus walked through a wall?

Check it out!