It’s a natural and practical question. When you’re studying the Bible, how much should you study at once?
On this blog we write a lot about studying the Bible. But most of these articles presume you already have a section of Scripture to study. Today we’ll talk about choosing that section of Scripture.
As you read, keep in mind this is more art than science. What you’ll find below are suggestions, not rules.
Units of Thought
Though inspired by the Holy Spirit, the biblical authors were humans. In some ways, their writing is similar to ours.
Recall your most recent email. Though your message had an overall purpose, each paragraph had its own function. So it is with the biblical texts. Authors usually have one overarching point for writing. But the author builds his case for that main point by assembling arguments and examples. At the smallest level, think about these as units of thought—an author stacks and arranges these units to form larger points, all supporting the main point of the book.
When mapping out a Bible study, this is where I begin. Study complete units of thought.
The length (number of verses) will vary across genres, and remember, there’s no right answer. Your small group might study five verses in an epistle or two chapters in a historical book. The key is to identify and respect these units of thought.
Here’s a simple example. Suppose an author’s main point rests on supporting points A and B. Perhaps A is established by a, b, and c, while B is established by d and e. Your Bible study might consist of just the text for point a (one unit of thought) or for points a, b, and c (three units of thought forming one larger unit). I’d advise against studying the texts for points a–d all at once.
Finding the Units of Thought
If an author’s units of thought are so important, how do we find out what they are? The simple answer is to read the entire book as many times as possible. This is part of what we suggest when completing a book overview.
The more you read the text, the more you’ll understand the author’s flow of thought. You’ll see the transitions and the divisions in the text will become clearer. Some of these markers are obvious—a change of location or main character, a shift in topic, a transition word. Some authors use structural cues to signal their units of thought. These were more obvious to the original audiences of the writing, but we have to work a bit harder to see them.
Here are two of the often-overlooked structural tools used in the Bible.
- Inclusio — An inclusio occurs when an author places the same idea, word, phrase, or character both at the beginning and end of a unit of thought. What falls between these two markers should be included (inclusio!) in the same unit of thought. Without the space to explore this further, I’ll point you to these two pages for more explanation and examples.
- Chiasm — In a chiasm an author presents a series of ideas and then repeats them in the opposite order. This can be used to mark off the text or to emphasize the point in the middle. The structure might look like A-B-C-B‘-A’. In this case A and A’ would share something in common, as would B and B’. This would help the reader identify the author’s focus on C. (Here’s a short reference on chiasms.)
Wisdom from Others
When you’re trying to decide how much of the Bible to study at once, don’t be afraid to ask for help! God has placed us in a body of believers across space and time, so we’re not in this by ourselves. Here are some resources to consider.
- Book outlines in your study Bible or in other reference material can help you see a book’s structure.
- Bible commentaries can be a great aid. Devotional or pastoral commentaries are usually more helpful than academic commentaries on this front. (Check out our recommended list of commentaries.)
- The chapter divisions in the Bible can be helpful. They aren’t divinely inspired, but they weren’t inserted at random either.
- Don’t ignore your church! Ask your elders, friends, and family for help in setting up your Bible study. In addition to offering you wisdom, sometimes talking through the matter with a friend can help you understand a book more clearly.
In Service of the Main Point
Deciding how much of the Bible to study might seem like a small matter, a tiny decision before you get to the “important stuff.”
But in fact, this is one of the key parts of studying the Bible! If your divisions follow the author’s flow of thought, you’ll be swimming with the current of the book, making it easier to see the main point of each passage.
And if you can understand and apply the main point of a Bible passage, genuine change in your life is next!