Bible Study Beginnings:
Breathing in the Words of Life
Rev. Dr. Zac McGowen
I love studying the Bible. When I open up a passage and dig in to be reminded of something I have read before, or better yet, I discover something I had never seen before—that’s exciting!
But I understand that for many people studying the Bible is something other than exciting.
For many people approaching the Bible is intimidating, and they feel it is just too hard to understand. When that happens the temptation to leave the Bible on the shelf is strong. This temptation is not new… In fact, some of Jesus’ earliest followers fell to that temptation with his own teaching.
In John 6, Jesus began talking about himself as the bread of life, and in vs 53-55 he actually told people that they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood! As a result, the people said, “This is a hard saying: who can listen to it?” And many who had been following Jesus left. It was an overwhelming lesson, and Jesus was known for this kind of confusion.
The importance of studying the Bible
What about the rest of the disciples; how did they react to these perplexing moments? “Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’(John 6:67-69). You see for those who were closest to Jesus, the words he spoke, as befuddling as they could be, meant more to them. They meant life itself!
This life-giving idea is not just reserved for the red-letters of Jesus’ teaching either. The early church leader, Paul, when writing to his protege the young pastor, Timothy, writes of the Bible in this way, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) What is so cool about the way Paul describes Scripture is that he actually invents a Greek word – theopneustos – combing the words for God and breathe to underscore how important the Scriptures are for the believer. It’s like being offered the life-giving access to the very breath of God.
The image of taking a deep breath is perhaps more significant now than it has ever been before. With Covid-19 wreaking havoc on millions of people’s lungs, causing pneumonia and complications that force many on to ventilators, the magnitude of having access to the very breath of God in Scripture is striking. Now, I could go on and on about the significance of this image in the Bible (see Genesis 2:7 and John 21:22 as two examples), but it’s enough to say that if the life of God is offered to us as we breathe in and are filled up with Scriptures we ought to pay attention to.
The fact the Bible is confusing is no excuse, because spiritually speaking, studying God’s Word means life or death.
Where to begin
Excuses aside then, how do we start studying the Bible? I have gone snorkeling a few times in my life, and it’s always nice, but before I go, I have to make sure I have all the right equipment. I check my mask, the snorkel, if I’ll need fins, or other tools so the journey is more enjoyable and I don’t… you know… drown. Breathing in the Words of Life from Scripture requires some equipment too, namely a Bible or two. But what kind?
Select a good translation (or two) of the Bible
If you are just starting out reading the Bible, then it is really important to get a translation of the Bible that you can actually understand. All those “if it ain’t King James, it ain’t Bible” folks out there, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew (for the Old Testament) and Koine Greek (for the New Testament), and each English translation is making decisions based on a set of priorities from the translators, and the King James Version of 1611 is no different. We are an incredibly blessed generation and culture to have literally scores and scores of English translations available to us for FREE, so it’s not wise to ignore the blessing of easy access and understandability.
Choose a version that is easier to understand if you are new the Bible, and if you want to take a further step, compare what you read in one version to another. Websites like biblegateway.com or the Bible App make it incredibly easy to look at two to four translations at once. But one word of caution, the choices can get overwhelming, so I suggest picking one or two and sticking with them for a while. I consult a variety of translations when studying the Bible, but I have two that I go to more frequently than others: The English Standard Version, and the New International Version.
What makes one translation different from another? That’s a post for another day, but whatever you do, make sure you are reading something that is accessible for you.
Select a good “Study” Bible
A study Bible is a Bible with additional, well-researched notes that help explain some of the more confusing parts of Scripture. A “study” Bible can be so helpful in increasing our understanding of what we are reading, and again, we are so blessed to live in a time with many many options. If you are just starting out, I recommend a study Bible that is more broad in its approach. For example, the ESV Study Bible has wonderful notes, and articles that have a more general interest than say the Cultural Background Study Bible. Many of the study Bibles today also give access to great online resources, and some may be available less expensively as an e-book than their traditional counter-parts.
Time to read
Well, almost… Once you have the Bible, studying it is not just about reading, reading, reading. Just like going snorkeling isn’t just about having a good mask, fins, and snorkel and then jumping in any old body of water, a good study of Scripture involves a lot more than the right equipment and the ability to read.
Because studying the Bible is not about retaining knowledge or gaining interesting religious facts, it’s about transformation; praying that the Holy Spirit opens up the meaning of a text to us is key. We call this a “prayer of illumination,” and it doesn’t have to be a long or drawn out. Rather the prayer just acknowledges that our own sin keeps us from understanding and living into the Bible, and it calls for God to give us wisdom from whatever we read.
Something like this which comes from the book of Psalms:
Lord God, Make me to know your ways, O LORD;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all the day long. (Psalm 25:4-5)
Typically, I’ll also add something specifically related to the part of the Bible I am studying, and I am careful that whenever I come to something that is really difficult to wrap my mind or heart around, I’ll pray again. Study notes and commentaries can be helpful tools, but God breathing in us is where transformation happens.
There are a lot ways to plan your Bible study, but at the very least, you need to know when you’re going to take time to study Scripture, and what you are going to study in the Scripture. My suggestion is look at your weekly calendar, and carve out a little time every day, and more significant amounts of time once a week. Maybe it’s your lunch break, or just before bed, or first thing in the morning; whenever it is, put it on a calendar like you would any other appointment. I know that seems like it can get a bit routine, but we tend to prioritize what we plan, and the more consistent we are the less intimidating studying the Bible can be.
Also, finding a reading plan takes the guess work out of what you will read. Our church participates in the Community Bible Reading Plan which organizes itself around two or four chapters a day and provides guides to aid the studying process. Others have chosen to just focus on one section at a time—like a slow reading through the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), or the gospels. The advantage to that is it is more conducive to deeper study. Which plan you choose is less important than having a plan of what you will study.
Read and reflect
Now, it’s time to actually read. Read the passages carefully, slowly, prayerfully, and then ask questions of the text. As I said before, the CBR plan and journals have leading categories based on prayer which aid in the reflection process. The study notes of the aforementioned study Bibles can add clarity to those questions and provide direction for answers. Journaling and outlining from the text can open you up to the ways the passage is communicating something special to you.
And don’t keep your Bible study to yourself. Get in a community that is reading and studying and praying along with you. At FPC, our Community Bible Reading participants are encouraged to get into groups where they can text or email others their personal reflections on the text. In the Agape Bible Class, I facilitate. We read the Psalms together and share thoughts in the sessions or in emails through the week about what we have read and questions we may have. The community makes the reflection of Bible study all the richer, and we may see application that we wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.
Bible study is breathing deeply from the very breath of God, and when we breathe that deeply, we are made more alive.
Rev. Dr. Zac McGowen
Rev. Dr. Zachary McGowen was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but moved all over the world during his formative years. For nearly 25 years, Zac has been preaching and teaching God’s Word, and he loves inspiring congregations to reach their friends and neighbors for Jesus Christ while utilizing technology to communicate the gospel message more effectively. During his years at Florida Southern College (FPC’s neighbor to the north) he led the largest entirely student-run ministry on campus called BEYOND. Since 2001, Zac has served the Lord in the PC(USA), beginning with the First Presbyterian Church, Haines City, Florida, before taking his current call in Lakeland. Zac came to FPC Lakeland in 2013, and he has served on the board of The Fellowship Community, the Presbytery of Tampa Bay’s Commission on Church Vitality, as well as being active with PEACE (the ecumenical county-wide justice ministry). He holds an M.Div from Reformed Theological Seminary and Doctorate of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. Zac is married to his beautiful wife, Julie, and together they have two wonderful children, Caleb and Hannah. Zac likes to spend time with his family at one of the area theme parks (he is a major “Disnerd”), go for a run, stay current on tech-related news, and watch college football – especially his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide (ROLL TIDE!).