How to Study a Familiar Bible Verse
Some Bible verses might seem worn-out at times. Like overplayed pop songs, these verses are easy to recite without thought or sincerity. 1 Corinthians 13 is one of them. I have heard it in sermons and at weddings. I have seen it in books, on greeting cards, and on posters. You probably have, too.
How do we apply our minds to popular Bible verses like this? We don’t want to read our assumptions into any passages. We don't want to gloss over anything. How can we get a fresh perspective on a familiar verse?
Let's take a simple statement from 1 Cor 13: “Love is patient”. Here are seven steps to help you slow down and get the most from it.
One: pray with a submissive attitude.
Consider what Psalm 119:125 says: “I am Your servant; give me understanding that I may know Your testimonies.” The Psalmist is asking for knowledge so that he may become more obedient. He doesn’t want knowledge merely for the sake of knowledge; he wants to live with more submission to God.
Here is my prayer that corresponds to this, “Father, I want to understand how to love people by being patient. I sense how short my fuse is and I know you are slow to anger. I want to be like you. Will you please help me to become more patient?
Two: find the word’s meaning in the original language and the context of the verse.
My favorite online resource is at https://netbible.org/. If you visit that website, you will see two main columns: the column on the left has the Bible and the column on the right has study notes. In the study notes, you can click a language tab that says “Greek” (if you’re in the New Testament) or “Hebrew” (if you’re in the Old Testament). Once you do that, you can click any word in its original language and read definitions of that word.
These definitions are helpful to understand the word, but you can’t assume the Bible intends every definition for just one word. You must look for a definition that matches the context of the verse you are studying.
There are many other helpful Bible study resources online. But the best Bible dictionaries and lexicons are not available online for free. Two of the best Greek lexicons are “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition" and “The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek”. They are expensive books, but you'll gain a lifetime of improved Bible study from either one.
The writers of my lexicon suggest that when Paul says “patient” in 1 Cor 13:4 (μακροθυμεῖ, "macrothumei"), he means “to bear up under provocation without complaint”. This is a very precise definition that emphasizes a subdued response to irritation. I tend to agree with it based on some of the other descriptions of love in 1 Cor 13: “is not irritable”, “does not keep a record of wrongs”, "it bears all things”, and it “endures all things”.
Three: think of a recent time when you failed to obey the teaching in the passage you’re studying.
Let me just say that I can easily think of examples of my failure to bear up under provocation without complaint. If complaining were a spiritual gift (obviously it isn’t!) I’d be certain I had it. As you take a moment to consider your failures, you set the stage for making the most of the next step.
Four: find another part of the Bible that demonstrates the truth of the verse you are studying.
I did an internet search of the terms “god's patience story” and found an article called “The Patience of God” (https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/patience-god/).
In that article, I found a reference to Romans 2:4–5, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
I love this passage for my study because of how clearly it shows God’s patience with much greater provocations than I ever experience.
Five: meditate on the truth.
To do this, I don’t get into the lotus position; I think for a minute about my “stubbornness” and how many times I have been “unrepentant”. I feel the embarrassment I have about those moments. I think about how much time God let pass as he kindly drew me out of stubbornness into repentance.
Six: prepare your mind for the future.
Titus 3:1 says, “Remind them … to be ready for every good deed”. As I finish my meditation, I want to prepare myself for the next time I might feel provoked. What would the situation be? How might I be tempted to respond impatiently? And what can my response be as I replace that attitude with a Spirit-led echo of God’s patience to me?
Seven: pray for guidance.
“Father, I know how quick I am to complain in response to the environment around me. But I have realized how kind and patient you have been with me despite my stubborn, sinful attitude. Please guide me by your Spirit and compel me to reflect your love and goodness in all aspects of my life.”
If you find a well-known verse in your Bible study, slow down. Don't skim past it. The more you slow down, the more God’s Spirit uses the word to penetrate your heart and transform you. Don't short circuit that process.