Proper Bible study must always be preceded by thorough reading. Most mistakes in interpretation are caused because the context of the passage is neglected. In most cases, the context is neglected because it is not read.
Often new Christians are introduced to certain “narrow” types of Bible study (memorization, Bible study guides, etc) without having any idea of what the Bible as a whole is all about. This causes several problems. First, someone could “study” the Bible for years in this fashion without ever really learning. Secondly, this ignorance is seldom dealt with because it is hidden behind an impressive array of Bible quotes. When a Christian quotes a passage out of Hosea from memory, it rarely occurs to others to wonder if he has ever read Hosea. If he hasn’t (as is frequently the case), he cannot know the context of the passage he quotes. This is because he learned it off a little white card and the card has no context.
What then is the first step in learning what the Bible has to say? Suppose you want to learn the New Testament. (I think it wise for a new Christian to start with the N.T. When you are ready, you should approach the Old Testament the same way.) You should first get a good modern language copy of the New Testament. You are now ready for step one.
Step 1: Read it, cover to cover. Step 2: Read it again. Step 3: Switch to another translation and read it again. Step 4: Go back to your original translation and read it again.
Contrary to first appearance, this is not a gigantic task. If you only read about twelve pages a day (varying with different versions and copies), you would finish the New Testament in a month. Four times through would take you four months.
When you have read and reread the New Testament, you will have a good working knowledge of its general context. This knowledge should be reinforced by continual reading, but at least now you have the foundation laid.
The only way to learn the Bible the way you should is to read and reread it. This brings us back to the point made earlier: proper Bible study must be preceded by reading. After you are familiar with the context of Scripture, you will be able to build on your knowledge through more specialized study methods. But until you have that familiarity, such study methods should be scrupulously avoided. Until you have the proper foundation, do not memorize any Bible verses. This may seem odd to some of you and sacrilegious to others. Does not the Bible say, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11).
Yes, we are to store God’s word in our hearts. Yes, it will keep us from sin. But we are not instructed to cram His Word into our hearts sideways or upside down. God’s Word cannot be properly hidden in our hearts when it is misunderstood. And it cannot be understood apart from context.
If you memorize a verse without knowing the context, it often creates an inability to understand the verse memorized. This is particularly the case when the verse in question is part of an argument. Again, until you understand the context of a passage, do not attempt to commit a portion of that passage to memory.
You will probably discover that the more you read, the more you will have in your memory. I call this contextual memorization. You not only know the verse, you know where it is on the page and how it fits into the argument. It is true that you sometimes won’t be able to remember the chapter and verse but that is all right. If you have to choose, it is better to have the context than the exact location. Besides, better minds that ours have said, “But there is a place where someone has testified . . .” (Heb. 2:6).
This article was originally published in The Hammer (Vol. 4, No. 2, 1985), a publication of Community Christian Ministries in Moscow, Idaho.