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Be an Active Bible Reader

Think about the words, take notes, ask questions

Doug Britton, MFT

Part 2 of a 5-part series on “How to Study the Bible”

Part 1      Part 3      Part 4      Part 5


It’s easy to skim over a chapter of the Bible without letting the words sink in. To get the most out of God’s word, be an active reader, one who thinks about what you read. As Paul wrote to Timothy, do your best to correctly handle the word of truth.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

Ask God to help you as you read

Reading the Bible can be much more than learning a lot of facts or studying great literature. Ask God to direct your thoughts and help you know him better. Ask him to help you understand his ways.

Teach me, LORD, the way of your decrees; that I may follow it to the end. Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart. Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. (Psalm 119:33-36)

Make it personal

1. In your own words, what do you think the author of the above prayer from Psalm 119 is asking God to do?

Focus on the words

Actively think about what you are reading. Train your mind not to drift. If you catch yourself quickly reading through a few verses without thinking about them—perhaps to fulfill a commitment to read the Bible—stop, pray, and start over again.

Read for the plain meaning

In general, it’s a good idea to read the Bible for its plain meaning. If it says “don’t steal,” then do not steal. If it says “pray often,” then pray often.

Remember that sometimes key points in the Bible are made using parables, figures of speech, and symbolism. At these times—such as when Jesus said to pluck out your eye if it offends you (Mark 9:47)—God is emphasizing an important point (the importance of dealing with sin), not telling you literally to pluck out your eye.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you read:

  • What is the main message in this passage?
  • What does this passage tell me about the character of God?
  • Does this passage help me better understand Jesus’ plan of salvation? If so, how?

Look at the big picture

When you read, don’t simply focus on one verse in a chapter. Instead, also think about the verses before and after it to better see the big picture and how that verse fits in.

In addition, the Bible often deals with the same topic in different places, sometimes emphasizing one aspect in one place and a different aspect in another place. By becoming familiar with several passages that deal with the same topic, you can see how they fit together.

What do you think?

2. What does it mean to “look at the big picture”?

3. Read the first sentence of Ephesians 4:26 (“In your anger do not sin.”) If you only read this sentence, what would you think it means? Now read Ephesians 4:26-32. Does reading this larger passage help you better understand the first sentence you read? In what way?

Make notes and underline key passages

You are more likely to remember what you read if you underline passages and jot down some notes. Don’t worry about “defacing” your Bible. Also consider writing insights or questions about a passage in a separate notebook or journal.

Make it personal

4. Do you take notes as you read the Bible? Why or why not?

5. What type of note-taking has been most effective for you?

Ask (and answer) questions

As you read, asking specific questions can help you grasp what you are reading. For exampl:

  • What do you think is the key message of this chapter? Explain why you think this.
  • What did you learn from this chapter?
  • Which point in this chapter spoke to you the most? How did it affect you?

You can read many more types of questions in the following Bible study:

Related: Questions for Bible studies

Use Bible study aides

Since the world was very different from ours when the Bible was written, it can be helpful to know something about the time periods when it was written. For example, when we read about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:5-15), the idea of washing feet could seem weird if we did not understand that this was common at that time.

Some Bibles have notes or “commentaries” at the bottom of the page that explain issues that otherwise could be confusing. In addition, numerous books and online ministries provide in-depth commentaries, Bible dictionaries, maps, and other resources that can help us see the larger picture.

Make it personal

6. What are some Bible study aides you have found helpful?

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t remember much

For some time after becoming a Christian, I often had the frustrating experience of reading a chapter of the Bible, and then forgetting what I had just read.

However, after a few months, I found myself quoting verses I didn’t realize I knew.

When you eat food, you aren’t aware of each step of the digestive process. You never know when the food becomes part of your body. Reading the Bible is somewhat similar. Even if you can’t recall everything you read, over time it will become part of you, transforming and renewing you.

Don’t be upset if you do not understand a passage

You may find passages of Scripture that confuse you or seem contradictory to other passages. If you do, don’t be alarmed. There are many truths in the Bible that are easy to understand, such as salvation through faith in Jesus (Romans 10:9-10) and the commandment to love God and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). But the Bible also has great depth. You could study it for a lifetime and still not completely understand it all.

Here are some steps you could take if you don’t understand a passage:

  • Pray for understanding.
  • Ask a pastor or mature Christian friend for help.
  • Ask your church or local Christian bookstore for commentaries or other Bible study books.
  • Put the passage “on the shelf” and come back to it a few months later to see if you can understand it then.

Memorize and meditate on verses

Memorize selected verses, then meditate on (or think about) them throughout the day. Don’t feel bad if you have trouble memorizing Scriptures. Many people do too. But work at it. You will benefit from whatever you are able to accomplish.

I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11)

Once you memorize Bible verses, think about them when you need to make a decision. You will discover that your knowledge of God’s word helps you make wise choices.

The upright give thought to their ways. (Proverbs 21:29)

Digging deeper

For a great discussion about how to approach studying the Bible, read Psalm 119. Underline and discuss each verse that deals with God’s decrees or laws.

Memory verse

The upright give thought to their ways. (Proverbs 21:29)

Personal Application

1. What does it mean to be an “active reader”?

2. How good of an active reader are you? How can you improve?

3. Review the two examples of taking things out of context. What lessons can you learn from these examples?

4. Is it wrong to write notes in your Bible? Why or why not?

5. What are the three suggested questions to ask yourself when you read a passage in the Bible?

6. Find a Bible commentary and look up John 3:16. What is one thing it says about this verse?

7. Why did the writer of Psalm 119 say (in verse 11) that he has hidden God’s word in his heart?

8. Do you think hiding God’s word in your heart would be helpful for you too? Why or why not?

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About Doug Britton, MFT

Doug Britton, Bible-based Marriage and Family Therapist, has helped hundreds of thousands of people as a therapist, clinical director of a treatment center, seminar speaker, radio cohost, and author of over twenty books that show how to apply God's truths in your daily life. (Visit www.dougbrittonbooks.com.)

Copyright © 2020 Doug Britton. Permission granted to print for personal use. (Scripture verses are from the New International Version, copyright © 1984.) See reprint policy.

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