9 Simplified Steps To Understand Your Bible [LONG POST – BIBS]


Understanding your daily Bible reading is possible–even when you’re in Ezekiel (although I wouldn’t recommend starting there.) For me, it helps to have a system. When I get overwhelmed with all that goes into “Bible Interpretation,” I slow down. I break things down. I take smaller steps.

Here are the steps I learned a long time ago. These steps are the same basic steps I take almost every day in order to see the Big Idea of what God is trying to tell me through His Word.


Step 1: Read

The first steps are the simplest. Do you think you can handle this one? Are you ready for it? Here goes…

Step one: read.

That’s it. Just read your text. After you choose your text (see here on choosing a text), read it. Just read it. Your best tool will be reading. Try to get a broad idea of what it is saying.

Come on… you have been doing this since Kindergarten, right? Anyone can read. Unless you are listening to an audio version of this post right now, I know you can read. You can read websites… now go read the Bible.

Reading is so simple. It is such an easy step. Just read.

Read the text. Try to get something from it. Read carefully and deliberately. Do not just breeze through it, but really read it as if it is a letter from a friend. Read it as if it matters—because it does.

Step 2: Reread

Step Two gets a little more complicated: reread. Not too bad, right?

After you finish reading the text the first time, go back and read it again. It is just a few verses. Think harder this time. Try to get an overall idea of what is going on in the story. Try to notice words that repeat.

Ignore the voice in your head that says, “I don’t get this!” That dumb voice will show up every day if you let it.

Spend time rereading your text. Mull it over. Meditate on it. Think about it. Reread it 2 or 3 times, then 2 or 3 times more.

Start forming questions. Start thinking like the author. Why would he write this? What is he trying to get across?

Pull up your chair next to Paul as he is writing to Philemon, his old friend. Imagine Philemon as he is reading the letter from Paul. What is going on in Paul’s head? What is Philemon thinking? How does Paul expect the reader to respond?

Read and reread with all the vigor and excitement you put into reading a novel. I was an avid reader of fiction in high school. I would get immersed into a book. I would live in the story. I would feel what the characters felt and I would think like the author wanted me to think. I was carried by the words on the page.

Let that happen with the Bible. Let the words live in you. Let the truth carry you. Let the emotion of the Psalms be real to you. Let the passion of the author speak to you. Read, reread and reread some more.


Step 3: Flag Words

As you read and reread your text, you will come across words you do not understand. Flag key words or repeating words. Notice unfamiliar phrases or references. Either mark them and come back to them later, or get your tools out and look them up as you go.

Remember your tools from a previous post? Refer to your cross-references, concordance, study Bible, dictionary, atlas or online Bible for further insight.

Sometimes, the key that unlocks the puzzle of the whole text is in a simple word definition.  At other times, understanding a cultural reference or researching a strange phrase will clear up a confusing passage.

As you reread the text, notice the words that keep repeating themselves. Notice variations of the same word. Notice any restatement or definitions given in the text. Be alert to themes and be attentive to words that are unclear to you.

One benefit to working with online reference Bibles or computer software is the speed with which you can define words. One click reveals a pop-up window with the definition of any confusing word and a link to every verse that word is found in. What a computer can do in minutes requires much more time with a physical book.

The definitions of words are important. Do not ignore big words. Look them up.


A One-Question Pop Quiz

My father-in-law taught a biblical counseling class at a Bible college near his house. Each week he would give a quiz over the assigned reading.  One week early in the semester, the chapter title was called “Nouthetic Counseling.” The entire chapter talked about how to counsel from the Bible, how to be led by the Spirit, how to give hope in a counseling situation and how to give assignments that will bring lasting change to the counselee. The Bible college students walked into class having studied the ins and outs of the chapter. They knew the answers to all the questions the professor would ask.

When they received their quiz, they read one question: “Define nouthetic.

Almost everyone in the class failed. They had a general idea of what the word meant based on what the chapter was about, but no one had taken the time to look up the definition of the word.

Words are important. Do not ignore words.


Baby Steps

The first steps are baby steps. They are simple, short and easy to do. You have all the tools that you need and you have all the brains that you need.

Do you want to hear from God? Do you want to know what He is saying?

If so, commit to knowing Him through His Word.


I Can’t See the Tree!

Have you ever heard the saying, “Can’t see the forest for the trees?” It is an old saying that means you are losing sight of the big picture. It is as if you are standing with your nose stuck in the bark of a tree, saying, “There’s no forest! It’s a lie! I can’t see any forest!”

You have lost sight of the big picture. You have forgotten what you are looking for.

I am going to rephrase the saying this way: “Can’t see the tree for the leaves.” Think of yourself way up in the limbs of the tree, straddling a thick branch with a microscope between your legs, focusing on one of the leaves. You are looking with one eye down the eyepiece of the microscope and saying, “There’s no tree! It’s a lie!  I can’t see a tree!”

No. You are so deep into the tree that you cannot see the big picture. It’s a tree!


Find the Tree

Bible study is not entirely about depth. It does not take a microscope to see a tree. Some people go so deep into Scripture that they lose sight of reality. It seems like they lose their common sense.

Sometimes you need to set the microscope aside. Stand back and look at the whole tree.

In this Bible study, your job is to find the tree.  Stand back and look at the text. Take in the whole picture. Form the Big Idea one step at a time.


The TRUNK – “What is God Talking About?”

In finding the tree, you are trying to answer the question, “What is God talking about?” What is this text about overall?

If the Big Idea is like a tree, then start with the main support—the trunk. Start broadly. The steps to study the text and find the trunk are as follows:

  • Boil it down to a word
  • Expand it to a phrase
  • Summarize it in a sentence


Step 4: Word

You have read and reread.

You have looked up confusing words and noticed repeating words.

Now it is time to play a game. Think of it like a word-association game. Or, think of it as the game you would play as a kid, staring up at the shapes of the clouds and blurting the first word that would come to your mind.

Step 4 is as simple as this: summarize the text in one word. As you read and reread the text, what is the one word that keeps popping into your mind? What word keeps repeating itself? What word seems to sum everything up?

Is the text about God? Is it about love? Or grace? Or sin? Or repentance?

Grab a sheet of paper and write down several possibilities. The BIBS process will eliminate most of your list, but at first, write down all possibilities. Answer the question: “What is this text about?”

The word might be a major Bible topic, it might be a person or it might be an idea. It might be about a sin, a temptation, a blessing or a concept. It might be positive or it might be negative.

What is the text about? What word comes to mind?


Try Step 4 for yourself. First, read, reread and flag words in the following text:

Psalm 117 O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. Praise ye the Lord.

Having read, reread and flagged words in that Psalm, what is one word that might sum up the entire text? What word is repeated? What is this text about?

In one word, we can summarize this two-verse Psalm: praise.

What is this Psalm about? Praise. What word was repeated over and over? Praise.

The one-word summary is not exhaustive. This Psalm is not telling us everything about praise, nor does the one word even tell us whom to praise. The one-word summary is not a complete definition of the text. It is just a start.


Step 5: Phrase

In Step 4, the word is meant to be a first reaction. It might change, because it is so broad.

If your word is praise, as it was in our example, a ton of questions should come to mind. What about praise? What kind of praise? Where do we praise? Who are we to praise? Who is praising? Why should we praise? Is praise good or bad?

Not every question has answers, but your questions will help you take Step 5 in the BIBS process: expand the word to a phrase.

Read (Step 1) and reread (Step 2) the text. Look up words you do not know (Step 3). Study and think. Come up with a word that the text is about (Step 4), and then expound on that word (Step 5).

You will not have a full sentence yet; merely narrow the thought. If the word is praise, read the text and find out what the text is saying about praise. If it is love, perhaps the phrase will be love God, or love others. If the word is sin, the phrase might be judgment of sin or the sin of mankind.

When you expand the word to a phrase, you might only add a word or two. You will not have a complete subject and verb.

Do not get ahead of yourself in the process. Resist the urge to write a long sentence or explain everything in the text. Keep it simple. Someone once coined the acronym K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid! The simplest way to sum up a text is to start with a word and then expand it to a phrase.

In Psalm 117, the word was praise or praising. Expand that to a phrase and it becomes praising the Lord. Simple and easy.

Let’s take it a step further…


Step 6: Sentence

We are moving from broad to narrow, like a funnel. We started with a word (broad) and are steadily limiting it (narrow). Now, more limiting than a phrase, here is Step 6: expand the phrase to a sentence.

A sentence is a complete thought. It has a subject and verb. It is a standalone concept.

If the question is “What is God saying?” then the sentence is the answer. “God is saying in this text that…” Whereas the word is expanded to a phrase, the phrase is expanded to a sentence.

At this point in the process, you are whittling down your list of words and phrases. This step will help you cull through the options and choose one or two.

The sentences can be long or short, but shorter is better. If your phrase has a subject, add a verb. If your phrase has a verb, add a subject or complement to make it a complete sentence.

Our example phrase from Psalm 113 was: praising the Lord. What about praising the Lord? Who should praise the Lord? Do not come up with the sentence on your own. Base it on the text.

Psalm 117 O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. Praise ye the Lord.

If you could boil this text down into a sentence, what is this text talking about? What is God saying?

Expanding the phrase to a sentence is simple: “We should praise the Lord.” That is a full sentence—a complete thought. It is definite. It is concise. It is a rock (the Big Idea: it is easier to catch a rock than a handful of sand).

To move from phrase to sentence, all we had to do was add a subject and verb. Asking a question like, “Who should praise the Lord?” makes us reread the Psalm to find the answer. It is written to God’s people—us—so we should praise the Lord. The opening and closing sentence to the Psalm is a command, so the sentence will be worded like a command: “We should praise the Lord.”

Your sentence might be a command to obey, a truth to believe, or a sin to cease. It might be a doctrine to understand or a story of encouragement. It might be a pithy proverb or an in-depth dissertation. Any way you look at it, the sentence is the basic answer to a basic question: what is this text about—what is God saying?


Not Just a Trunk

A tree is not just a trunk. A tree without branches is called a fencepost or a telephone pole. Or dead.

A healthy tree has branches. The whole tree is made up of the trunk and branches. You cannot have one without the other.

If the trunk answers the question, “What is God talking about,” the branches answer this question: “What is God saying about what He is talking about?”

The trunk would be barren and boring without the branches. The branches add bulk and beauty to the tree. The branches fill out the tree and carry the smaller details of the tree.

In Bible study, stopping at the trunk would be a shame. In your study, you will discover rich details and deep truths that will not exactly fit into your trunk. So what is their purpose?


Beauty in the Details

The purpose of all the details of the text is to act as branches to the tree. The details add bulk and beauty. They keep the text from being a barren and boring truth.

God could have chosen to convey His truth in a series of commandments and principles. At times He did just that (think of the 10 commandments). But imagine if the whole Bible were a series of one-line commandments. Phew! That would get boring. That would be like a forest of tree trunks—not very glorious.

Beauty comes through details and emotion. The Psalms would be horrible if they were missing details. The emotion of David’s songs would be lost if he were to boil the Psalms down only to a trunk. Instead of the 23rd Psalm, we would read a simple commandment: Thou shalt trust the God who cares for you. It is not so beautiful when it is put that way.

The beauty of Psalm 23 is in the imagery and emotion. The Shepherd’s care warms the heart. His protection calms all fears and His guidance gives courage. His provision is overwhelming, and His goodness gives hope.

Psalm 23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

The truth may be simple—perhaps as simple as the trunk “The Lord cares for you”—but the branches are where the beauty and bulk come from. The branches are the offshoots. They are the supporting ideas. They are the truths shaped by beautiful word pictures. Rather than plain black and white, God’s nature and nurture is portrayed through pictures of sheep, meadows, storms, feasts and rest.

Every text will have main ideas and supporting ideas. This chapter is about figuring out how to summarize the supporting ideas—the branches.

If the trunk asks the question, “What is God talking about?” then the branches ask the question, “What is God saying about what He is talking about?”

The trunk is general—word, phrase, sentence. The branches are specific.

The sentence (trunk) talks about the text. The supporting materials (branches) talk about the sentence.


Don’t worry. It is still a simple process.

As before, we want to put the text through a simple process. Small step by small step. Little by little. To find the branches, the steps in this chapter are as follows:

  • Turn the sentence into a question
  • Find the answer(s)
  • Combine the trunk and branches (full tree)

If the Big Idea is a tree and we have already found the trunk, let us fill in all the branches—all the little details that describe or enhance the trunk.

Here’s how…


Step 7: Question word

If you could turn your sentence into a question, what question word would you use? Is this a who, what, where, when, why or how text?

The first step to adding branches to the trunk is to turn the sentence into a question. Figure out what type of question is being asked.

  • Who? Is this a text about someone? Is it directed to Christians? Non-Christians? Pastors? Demons? Is this a who text? Example: Who should praise the Lord?
  • What? Is the text giving examples or things to know? Is it about something in particular? Example: What does a praising person do?
  • When? Is the text giving specific times or instances? Is it teaching about a season or a timeline? Is it prophecy? Is it history? Is it time-sensitive? Is it related to circumstances? Example: When should a person praise God?
  • Where? Is the text about a place? Is it a location-specific truth? Is it a text about where to find certain truths? Example: Where should a person praise the Lord?
  • Why? Does the text give reasons or examples? Does it answer the question why? Example: Why should we praise the Lord?
  • How? Is the text explaining how to do something? Or how to think or act? Or is it perhaps a how often question? How questions can often be similar to what Example: How should we praise the Lord?

You might think of other question words to use, but these are the main ones. Run your sentence (from Step 6) through these question words and figure out which one best fits the text.



Once you have figured out which question word to use, rearrange the sentence into a question. Sometimes you will simply add the question word to the beginning of the sentence and reword it.

For example, our Step 6 sentence might be: “We should praise the Lord.” If our question word is why, then our question now is: “Why should we praise the Lord?”

Restating the sentence in the form of a question forces you to find the answers. By figuring out what the text is about (the sentence, or trunk), we are able to take the next step and figure out what the text is saying about what it is about.

Confused again? That’s okay.

Turning the sentence into a question leads automatically to the next step. Read on.


Step 8: Answer(s)

Once you have the basic question, simply answer the question from the text. Use as many answers as you might need. These answers will fill out your tree with all the leaves and branches.

If your question is broad enough, most details from the text will fit into an answer somehow. Obviously, if it is a minute detail, it might not fit directly to the trunk. That is okay.

What we are looking for at this stage is the Big Idea. While we have taken plenty of time to narrow our idea through our funnel (word, phrase, sentence, question, answers), we still are not so deep that we have lost sight of the big picture.

It is still a tree, after all. Do not approach it with a microscope. If you need to, stand back and look at the tree. Step back from the text. Yes, we are being more detailed than before, but not so much that we try to fit every detail into our answer.

Step 8 is not a science—you will not do exactly what the next person does. It is not mathematical—it does not have one set answer you can discover. The specific wording is subjective—it depends on how you look at the text. The truth is not subjective—there is only one correct interpretation—but how you word the truth might be different from how others word it.

Go to the text. Analyze your question. Find the biggest answers.

Sometimes, the answers are obvious, as in our previous example question: “Why should we praise the Lord?”

Psalm 117 O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people. For his merciful kindness is great toward us: and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. Praise ye the Lord.

Two clear answers to that question emerge. They are the two branches:

  • Because his merciful kindness is great toward us.
  • Because the truth of the Lord endures forever.

Once you know the question, the answers are easy. Form the question (Step 7), then look to the text for the answers (Step 8).


Step 9: Combine

The final step of interpretation is the easiest and the hardest.

It is the easiest step because you simply combine the question and answers into one sentence. It is the hardest step because you are working to boil everything down to one little, itty, bitty sentence. You will be frustrated, thinking, “There is SO much here… How in the world do I simplify this to one sentence?! I hate BIBS!”

Do not get mad. Do not throw your computer across the room. Just stop and think.

Think about what the text is saying. Think about the Big Idea. Ask yourself, “What is the Big Idea? Does my sentence basically sum it all up?”

In short texts, the summary is easy. The Big Idea of Psalm 117 is straightforward: We should praise the Lord because His mercy is great toward us and His truth endures forever. The full tree emerges as you combine the trunk and its branches.

Other texts are more difficult than our example text, but they are not impossible. Think in general terms. Instead of “God feeds me, clothes me, and protects me from my enemies,” generalize it: “God cares for me.” If the text lays out several specific actions you are supposed to do as a Christian, summarize them by saying “living right.”

Summarize, generalize and simplify your wording to arrive at your Big Idea. In your own personal study you will be able to get deep into the specifics, but for the purpose of the BIBS process, keep it simple. Remember K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid!



If you complete Step 9 and combine all your study into one simple sentence, congratulations! You did it! You have learned to hear from God. You have interpreted Scripture. See? Interpretation is not so bad after all.

You are now an official BIBS-er. All you have left to do is apply the truth. You have made it through two of the three crucial steps to hearing from God (Observe and Interpret). You are much closer to God than probably 99% of the rest of the world because you are actively drawing nigh to Him.

James 4:6-9a But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.

When you draw nigh to God, He promises to draw nigh to you. Draw closer to God through His Word every day.

In a future post, you will learn how to take the “old, dry, boring book” from ancient times to today’s world. You will learn that every Scripture is relevant to your life if you look at it correctly (The third phase: APPLICATION).


This post was adapted from the book BIBS: Big Idea Bible Study, available from Calvary Baptist Publications.