Ministry Resources

Understanding the Bible

You are about to begin a very important activity: the careful, methodical study of the Bible. To understand the Bible, you must do more than merely read it. Reading it has value but often fails to make clear the relationship between different parts of the Bible. When you study the Bible with an organized plan in mind, you write down important findings that help you to see the unity that is present throughout the Scriptures. Series written by Dorothy L. Johns.

Topical Method of Study

A topical Bible study is a study that deals with a specific subject in the Bible. The main topic or subject of the Bible is redemption through the blood of Christ! The Old Testament explains how God related Himself to our fallen human race through Israel. Israel’s sacrifices, feasts, and offerings all pictured, in one way or another, Christ the Savior to come. He came when the time was right. The New Testament is the record of His coming. It tells of the events that followed His coming and those which will follow as time moves on. Other Bible topics support and explain the main topic.

You learned in Lesson 8 that people are topics in biographical study. But there are other topics besides people in the Bible. In Scripture you can read about music, occupations, customs, plants, animals, politics, geography, right rules for living, and many, many other topics that are both interesting and valuable to study. Learning the procedure for a topical Bible study will help you gain a better understanding of the Bible.

Topical Method of Study

Our list of Bible topics in the first part of this lesson included both the visible and the invisible. We find in Romans 1:20 a relationship between them which is valuable to topical Bible study: “Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made. So those people have no excuse at all!” This Scripture explains that God created the very nature that surrounds us, with the intent that we could learn about Him through our observation of it. God planned Israel’s location in Palestine (Deuteronomy 1:8). He planned its building materials (stones that would last for centuries to witness to the truth of His word). He planned its natural resources, the lay of its land, and even its climate. All these things have been used by God to illustrate truth in His power and nature.

The early and latter rains which water the crops of Palestine are the autumn rains (early) and spring rains (latter). These rains are used as significant illustrations in Scripture. (See Proverbs 16:15, Zechariah 10:1, James 5:7.) Any topic that is treated or mentioned in the Bible is a possible topic for you to study. This would include not only such things as clothing, housing, foods, etc. but also words; that is, how certain key words are used in Scripture. Your study would include themes such as faith, prayer, the second coming of Christ, and topics concerning Christian living. The study you will be making in the last section of this lesson, in the book of Ephesians, is of the last type. It is a study on an important aspect of Christian living: acceptable words.

There will be great differences in the amount of information available about various topics in the Bible. For some, there may be a wealth of information in just a chapter or a passage. For others, it may be necessary to glean information from many books in both Testaments to get the fullest possible meaning from the study. The more comprehensive your study, the longer it will take. I have heard of a man who is doing his own study of the Holy Spirit, using all of the Bible. This kind of study would be done using steps similar to those you will learn to use in this lesson. The study will probably take the man several years or a lifetime to do, depending on how detailed he makes it. So, the length of a topical study will depend on the amount of information to be found and the amount of time you wish to spend on it.

A long, complete study is made much easier if you have access to a Bible concordance or a Bible dictionary. Bible software is also available to speed up searches. In these concordances and dictionaries, words and topics mentioned in the Bible are listed in alphabetical order along with their Scripture references. These helps allow you to save time in finding all the places where a topic is mentioned. If such books are ever available to you, you will want to make use of them. However, topical studies can be done without such helps.

In fact, it is better in shorter topical studies to do your own reading and searching for occurrences of the topic you wish to investigate. This is true because in doing your own reading, you will not only find DIRECT references to the topics, but INDIRECT references as well. Direct references are those which actually contain the specific word or phrase you are looking for. Indirect references are those which refer to the theme or general idea of your topic. These indirect references are important for a more complete understanding of your topic.

Examples of Topical Studies

Nature Topic: the Sparrow

You saw, in your reading of Romans 1:20, that God uses nature to teach lessons to the human family. The lowly sparrow, or sparrow-like bird, which is so common around houses and gardens in many places of the world, is used a number of times in Scripture to illustrate truth.

Scholars tell us that the word sparrow is a translation of the Hebrew tzippor, which seems to have been a general term for all small birds or sparrow-like species. If you had time to investigate, you would find this word used more than forty times in the Old Testament—not always translated sparrow. Sometimes it appears as bird or fowl. A corresponding Greek word occurs twice in the New Testament. These small birds are used in Scripture to illustrate how very much God cares for His children. Consider Matthew 10:29-31:

For only a penny you can buy two sparrows, yet not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. As for you, even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows!

God is interested in sparrows. They are part of His creation. How vitally important it is for every child of God to have complete confidence and trust in the care of the Heavenly Father!

The Psalmist uses the little bird as an illustration of sorrow and loneliness. He writes, “I am like a lonely bird on a housetop” (Psalm 102:7). These small birds are known for their congregating in groups, noisy and chattering. To illustrate the intensity of his grief, the writer has contrasted the normal surrounding of these birds to that of the one alone on the housetop.

Theological Topic: God’s Nature

The following is an outline of a topical study, similar to the kind of outline you will be making in your notebook for the study in Ephesians. At this point, just read the outline and look up the verses that are mentioned as you read. Notice the observations that are made for each reference. Notice the summary statement at the end. (All the references are from the book of Habakkuk.)

1:2 Habakkuk cries to the Lord, but the Lord does not answer. Since God is righteous, what does failure to answer imply? That God answers when ready and only then.

1:5-6 God is working; God is raising up Babylonians. What does this imply with regard to Habakkuk’s complaint? That God has been in the process of answering even before Habakkuk’s cry.

1:12 God is from the Beginning. God is holy, eternal. He is Habakkuk’s protector.

1:13 God’s eyes are too holy to look at evil. God cannot stand the sight of people doing wrong.

2:1 Habakkuk expects an answer from the Lord. What does this imply? That God is accountable.

2:13-14 The Lord must be the ultimate end of all effort. Knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth.

2:20 The Lord is in His holy temple. He is worthy of reverence. 3:3 God is holy and full of splendor.

3:5-6 The Lord is powerful.

3:13, 18 The Lord is concerned about salvation of people.

3:19 The Lord is strong.

Summary: By nature God is personal, eternal, holy, and righteous. He is supreme in power, fair in judgment, and patient in His administration of justice, and He is the Savior.

Ideas for Further Study

In the two subsections of the lesson that you have just read, you have examples of two kinds of topical study. As you can see they are quite different, yet both deal with a specific topic. The first example, the short study on the sparrow, is representative of the many topics of interest that can be found in the area of nature. Plants, animals and minerals are sometimes used in the Bible as illustrations and sometimes as symbols. These terms can sometimes be used interchangeably, but we will point out differences of usage between them that will help you to better understand the Bible.

An illustration of a truth pictures that truth in a way which makes it easier to understand. The mustard plant is an example of such an illustration. Because the mustard plant is known for growing an unusually large plant from a very small seed, Jesus used it to illustrate truth about the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 13:31-32) and faith (Matthew 17:20). A symbol is something that stands for something else. A symbol has one or more qualities that remind you of the object it stands for. For example, in Daniel 2 the “head of gold” was revealed to be a symbol of King Nebuchadnezzar himself (v. 38). In Daniel 8:1-8, a ram and a goat were used as symbols of kingdoms and kings who were to come.

When studying topics of this type, you will use the same steps that are outlined in the next section of the lesson. In addition, you will especially note the qualities of the topic which made it appropriate to use as either an illustration of truth, a symbol, or something else.

In addition to those already mentioned in this lesson, some possible topics from nature might include light, water, grain, herbs (such as cumin, Matthew 23:23) and many others.

The second example of a topical study that you have read, The Nature of God, deals with a topic that is a quality rather than a thing. Additional qualities that can be investigated are hope, love, faith, forgiveness, repentance, and eternal life.

Procedure for the Topical Method

List Occurrences

In this step you will make a textual outline similar to the one you made in the preceding lesson for biographical study. It will have to be made every time you do a topical study. You must choose a topic. You then select a book or passage of Scripture (or several passages) in which you have found some material related to the topic you have chosen. You read the Scripture with a pencil and paper at hand. Your paper should be divided into two sections, as you noted in the outline on The Nature of God. On the left is the section for the reference, and on the right is the section for your observation.

Each time you come in your reading to some information about your topic, you will list the reference along with the information you have found. (Leave space between items on this list for addition of later observations.) You may have found a direct reference to your topic (where the word or phrase you have chosen is actually used), or you may have found an indirect reference to your topic (where just the theme or general idea is given). Direct or indirect, you will list in order of appearance all occurrences of the topic.

If the information you find is a direct reference to your topic, you will simply write it opposite the Scripture reference. If what you find is an indirect reference, you will write it, followed by the question: “What does this imply concerning my topic?” Always remember that in Bible study, the Holy Spirit is ever present with you to reveal His truth to your mind. No matter what the method of Bible study, Scripture must always be approached with a prayerful attitude and an open, receptive mind. You never study God’s Word alone! He is with you.

Note: If you are not sure about information that you have read thus far, go back and work through this study textbook again.

Classify into Categories

In Step 1, you were directed to list all the appearances of your topic in the order of their occurrence. That means that in your first list, the Scriptures are in order as they come in the text. Now your task will be to examine all the information you have discovered about your topic, noticing how the information can be fit together in a logical or reasonable way. The information itself will suggest categories to you as you look at it. For example, if your topic were Furniture In the Temple, your information might be grouped according to areas within the temple; these areas would serve as categories. If your topic were from nature, your categories might be the different ways the topic is used in the Bible. What kinds of information are given about the topic? Is it used to illustrate some truth? Is it used as a symbol of something else? Historical topics would suggest categories of time: a beginning, a middle, and an end period of time. Each topic will probably have two or more categories which can be used to organize the information you find.

So, Step 2 can be stated this way: Classify each occurrence of the topic according to the way it is used. Use categories that grow naturally out of the material you have found. When you get into Ephesians in the application section, you will be looking for instances of the topic that concern words that are acceptable to God. You will discover that Paul often gives opposites in the same sentence: “Don’t say this . . . but do say that . . . ” When you have noted several of these references, your mind will begin to think in terms of two main categories for that particular topic. Your categories might be: “Wrong Words” and “Right Words,” or “Words to Shun” and “Words That Please God”. The finished outline will break down into four or five categories, but they will be related to the two that immediately come to mind.

Examine Context

Back in Lesson 1 you learned that context means “all the words that surround a particular word you are considering.” In this course you have also learned the importance of careful observation when studying God’s Word. Step 3 will put your powers of observation to the test. You will have listed all the occurrences of your topic (Step 1). You will have organized them into several categories, according to the ways they are used (Step 2). And now you will not only read the verse or sentence where your topic is mentioned, but you will read the verses which surround it in order to be sure to have the correct meaning intended by the Holy Spirit.

As you read the context (surrounding sentences) you may need to adjust, or add to, your original observations. Step 3, then, is to examine carefully (analyze) the various usages of your topic, taking the context into account. If you see changes or additions that should be made in your original observations, write them down on your Step 1 outline.

Summarize Each Category

To summarize means to reduce information to a shorter, more concise way of saying it. It means to use fewer words while keeping the essence of the meaning.

In Step 4, you will read all the observations you have made for each grouping (or category) and summarize each one in as brief a way as possible. For example, let’s suppose your topic was sheep. Your list of references would be long, for sheep are very prominent in Scripture. After making this list in your first step, your second step would have been to group the items you had found into categories according to usage. In other words, references that are related in some way would be grouped together. Some of the headings you might have chosen for references to sheep probably would have simply described them as animals. “Livestock” and “Habits and Characteristics of Sheep” are examples of such headings. You would also probably have found references where sheep are used as sacrifices, symbols, and illustrations of God’s people. Jesus called Himself “the good Shepherd” (John 10:11). Your third step would have been to examine the context of each reference to get its complete, true meaning.

Your fourth step is summarizing each category. If your topic is sheep, you will state in condensed form all of your observations concerning sheep as animals. You will do the same for the references that discuss sheep as sacrifices. You will summarize all the information about sheep as they are used symbolically, and then summarize the ways sheep are used as illustrations of Bible truth. Step 4 is to make for each category of your outline a summarized restatement of the observations you have made in previous steps.

Compare Summary Statements

Step 5 is not primarily a writing step, but a looking and thinking step. It is a time for considering what has emerged from your study. It is a time for meditating upon the truth you have seen in the Scriptures. It is a time when you prayerfully consider all the information you have gathered, allowing the Holy Spirit to help you to see all of the details and their relationship to the total impact of the verses.

In the looking and thinking you do in Step 5, you will decide on the best order in your topical study outline for your categories. In Step 1, you listed all the occurrences of the topic in the order in which they came in the passage you studied. Now when each category has been summarized, it may seem better to have one certain category come before or after another for reasons of time sequence, or because of relative importance. You may want to put the most important category at the end.

Summarize Entire Outline

In Step 6 all findings are tied together. You draw conclusions in a master statement that includes the summaries you have made of each category. It is a master summary that is the outgrowth of your thinking and meditation in Step 5. In this final step you will synthesize, or put together, a master statement from your summary definitions.

There are two cautions to keep in mind, however. First, avoid overgeneralizations. A generalization is a broad, overall conclusion, rule, or statement that is not detailed but is made to apply generally. When summarizing Scripture, it is easy to be “carried away” by the wonderful insights that come, and make statements that go too far. Draw your conclusions only as broad as Scripture permits. Try not to make them say more or less than Scripture says.

Second (and this is related to the first caution), keep in mind the limitations of Scripture. There are two kinds of limitations: implicit (something that is implied or understood, but not directly expressed), and explicit (something directly stated). Scripture limits us both ways. The Bible directly states many things. Direct statements limit us because we cannot change those things to suit ourselves. The Bible limits our conclusions by its implicit teaching also, ideas that are implied but not directly stated. When something is implied in Scripture, you can say that it is implied. But you must limit yourself to that, unless other references give direct teaching on the subject.

Topical Study of Ephesians

You will need your notebook and Bible for this section of the lesson. The learning activities presented here will help you to apply the six steps in the procedure for a topical study. You will be working in Ephesians 4-6.

Note: It is very important that you do the exercises independently before you look at the answers! Your findings do not have to be exactly like the ones in the textbook to be correct. When you do finally compare your answers with the ones given, feel free to add to your information or adjust it in whatever way you desire, but try to retain your own words and your own insights as much as possible. Our aim is to help you have confidence in your own study of God’s Word. God speaks to us as individuals. He will speak to you just as surely as He has spoken to others. The more you study, the more insight you will receive. The key is to give time to methodical study.

The topic for this study is Acceptable Words. The theme is taken from Psalm 19:14, “May my words and my thoughts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my refuge and my redeemer!” In the book of Ephesians, the Holy Spirit has used the apostle Paul to give us much detail about the kinds of words that are acceptable to God. (It also reveals some kinds that are not acceptable to Him.) If you wonder just how important this topic is to spiritual life, think about what James says: “The tongue is like a fire . . . spreading evil through our whole being. . . . it is . . . uncontrollable” (3:6, 8). For more about the tongue, read James’ entire passage (James 3:1- 12) on the subject. Of course in this passage, the tongue is used symbolically of the words we speak. It is evident that only when we are made new creatures in Christ Jesus (and follow Him in obedience) can the tongue begin to be pleasing to God.

Your first preparation for Step 1 is to divide about three sheets of notebook paper into two columns each, the wider column on the right. Write REFERENCE at the top of the left column and OBSERVATION at the top of the right column. Now read Ephesians 4, 5 and 6 with pencil in hand. As you come to any reference to the topic words, you will write the reference in the left column and your observation about it in the right column. If the reference is a direct reference, just write your observation down and go on. If the reference is an indirect one, write your observation down, followed by the question, “What does this imply concerning words?” Then try to answer your own question briefly. Some of the later steps will give you opportunity for reflection and meditation; so don’t spend too much time at this point, trying to extract every bit of meaning from the text. You can do that later.

Be sure to include instances of unacceptable words as well as acceptable words. They can teach what is acceptable through the literary device of contrast. If a verse has both positive and negative ideas in it, use “a” then “b” with the verse to distinguish between these ideas.

When you have finished the reading and outlining necessary to complete the preceding exercise, compare your outline for Step 1 with the one that is given for this exercise in the answer section.

Now in Step 2 you will arrange the items you have discovered into some meaningful organization based on “usage.” You will group related items together to form categories. In almost any body of information, there will be more than one logical way of grouping ideas together into categories so that the whole can be understood more clearly. You will be shown one suggested way to organize this material. Other ways might be different but are not necessarily wrong. If you like your heading better, use it! (Use a separate sheet of paper in your notebook for answers to the next six exercises of Step 2. Leave about 5 lines of blank space between answers.)

Upon completion of the preceding exercise, you should have a notebook page containing five headings or categories that are similar to these and in this order:






Now in Step 3, you will go back to your textual outline made in Step 1. Read each reference you have listed as well as its context (verses before and after it). Write down in the observation section of this outline any additional insights that come to you from the contexts of these references.

As you begin to work with the texts you have selected, it is very important to adhere (stick closely) to what the Scripture actually says about the topic. If you go beyond what the text really says, you are being unfair. Furthermore, you must correctly interpret what it really does say! We have heard others voice opinions which are not really based on the Word of God. As you begin to interpret Scripture, it is vitally important never to bring preconceived ideas into your statements. If you find that the Bible does not agree with some of your previous ideas, you will have to search the Scriptures and find out where you are in error. Your task is to find out what the Bible says, and stick to that.

Continue in this manner, examining each reference and extracting from the Word of God as much detail and meaning as you can. The more time you have to spend, the more complete your study will be.

Now in Step 4, you will prepare a summary statement for each the five categories you formed in Step 2. Keep in mind that a summary attempts to include all the important points, stating them in as brief a way as possible. Write your own summaries before looking at those listed in the answer section.

Now in Step 5, you will compare your five summary statements. Remember that this is not primarily a writing step, although you may add to your notes if necessary. It is mainly a step of prayerful, careful meditation as you consider what has emerged from your study. Reread your original outline and each observation you have made. Note the categories you have chosen and the summary statements you have made. Notice how Paul’s material builds toward his concluding remarks. Notice how he has used the contrast of bad words with good words to strengthen his teaching.

Now in Step 6, you are ready to synthesize a master statement from the five summaries you have written. Avoid overgeneralizations. Keep in mind the limitations, implicit or explicit, imposed by the context and by the text itself. Write your own master summary statement about acceptable words, as taught in Ephesians 4, 5, and 6. Keep in mind that yours does not have to be exactly like ours in order to be correct.

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