Studying the Bible topically means to study what the entire Bible says about a specific topic or principle.
This is a good way to get an idea of what the Bible says about something, such as the topic of “thanksgiving” or “thankfulness”, as I recently studied during the Thanksgiving season.
Getting Started — What to Study?
To start, obviously, you need something to study. Most of my topical studies have started because I was curious or interested in a topic. Some examples of topical Bible Studies I’ve done on my own in the past include studying what the Bible says about
- Money and Finances
- Blessing/Blessed/Being Blessed
These studies usually started because I wanted to find out what the Bible had to say on that subject.
Using the Right Words
Language is a funny thing. Because the Bible was originally written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament), any Bible we read in English is a translation from those original languages. As a result, after more than 2,000 years and translations by human beings, what we think a word means, and what the writer intended are not always the same thing.
Additionally, just because a word is not found in the Bible does not mean that God does not address the topic in the Bible. Part of studying the Bible topically is finding verses and passages that are about your topic of study even if the word is not found in those verses.
There are some tools that you can use to help you, which I’ve listed below.
How to Study the Bible Topically
There are a few different methods and resources you can use to study the Bible Topically. Most of these can be found in your local Christian bookstore, online, or maybe through your church’s bookstore. Most of them are considered “classics” and are widely available or easily ordered.
In your own Bible’s margin, there may be cross-references. These cross-references are verse references which tell you about related verses or passages to read for more insight into the current verse you are reading. This is a good place to start.
For example, in some parts of the New Testament, you may find cross references to an Old Testament law, or a bit of history that is being discussed.
Nave’s Topical Bible
Nave’s Topical Bible is one of my favorite Bible Study resources. My own hardback copy of Nave’s was under $5 at the local bookstore, and I’ve been using it frequently for 21 years.
My copy even has that mark of a well-loved book: duct tape on the binding.
Nave’s Topical Bible lists, in alphabetical order, different topics and people in the Bible.
Under each of these headings, Nave’s lists every verse that is about that particular topic or person. Sometimes there are sub-headings and sub-topics for a more complicated subject matter.
For example, the heading for Prayer includes not only general verses on Prayer but also specific sub-topics about prayer. These include Confession in Prayer, Intercessory Prayer, Answered Prayer, Promised Answers to Prayer, Prayers of Thanksgiving before Eating.
There are over 20,000 topics listed in Nave’s Topical Bible.
Don’t Forget Context!
As I look up a listing in Nave’s Topical Bible, I usually will read the verse in context. Context is so very important when we study the Bible. Most bad doctrine comes from not reading the Bible in context.
What do I mean by studying the Bible in context?
Studying the Bible “in context” means that I am not just picking out a verse or two and reading them in isolation. Instead, when I read a passage in context, I’m considering what the circumstances of this passage are.
As you read, ask a few simple questions:
Who wrote this?
Who are they writing to? Many of the prophets are writing either during the time of the exile or in the time leading up to the exile, when Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah (the Southern Kingdom) are far from God. On the other hand, 1 Corinthians is written in response to a letter full of questions that the Corinthian church wrote to the Apostle Paul about how to deal with problems in the church.
Why is this being written? For example, in the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon is writing to show young people that life “under the sun” (a euphemism meaning “apart from God”) is meaningless and in the end nothing makes you happen apart from God. If you don’t keep that in mind while reading Ecclesiastes, you’ll be depressed and very confused!
At what time in history is this being written? For example, during the time of the Judges, everyone “did what was right in his own eyes”. This is not a time to look to for good examples. There were some really screwy people who were away from God at the time. God still used men like Samson, but He hardly lifts Samson up as a good example to us. We can’t look at anything that went on in Judges as “normal” behavior to model our lives after!
Additionally, always read at least 5 verses before and 5 verses after, to get the flow of what is being said. Don’t just grab isolated verses and run with them.
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is another great resource for studying the Bible. I talk more about how to study the Bible with Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance in another post.
To use Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance for a Topical Bible study, look up the word (and all related words) you are studying and read the different passages they are found in.
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance also has a system for looking up the original Greek or Hebrew Word from the original translations of the Bible, which then allows you to figure out exactly what the original word means.
As I wrote in this post, studying the keywords from the original languages is important, because you can’t always translate from one language to another precisely. Many words in other languages have different meanings and implications than we have to our modern understanding. This can help us get a deeper understanding of these keywords.
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance is usually based on the words found in the King James Version. You may also find editions of Strong’s for the New American Standard version.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary
Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary is similar to Strong’s except that Mr. Vine offers more detailed definitions and commentary on the word in question, and often will list key passages of Scripture which use this word in them, as well as alternate translations. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary is set up like a regular dictionary, in English alphabetical order. Beneath each listing are the different words (with definitions) that could possibly be translated to that word.
Most editions of Vine’s list the Strong’s Concordance number for each Greek or Hebrew word, which I find handy.
Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary contains every word in the Bible. Most other editions contain only the most important keywords.
Bible Software such as QuickVerse can help you with this kind of study too.
QuickVerse contains search features, as well as Strong’s Concordance and Nave’s Topical Bible, as well as several different commentaries and dictionaries. This can streamline your Bible study. My husband and I got a copy of QuickVerse for our wedding nearly 20 years ago from our Best Man, John. We still use it!
We’re happy QuickVerse customers.
Newer editions have more features of course.
I usually will use QuickVerse to look up verses, and then copy and paste them into a text document to take notes in. I am also able to copy and paste Strong’s definitions and notes from commentaries such as Willmington’s Guide to the Bible
Digging Deeper When You Study the Bible
Sometimes a topical study is just something I do quickly, but other times I spend several days to several months digging deeper into the Word. In my book Quiet Times in Loud Households, I talk about this a little bit.
As a new mom, I had no clue at all how to raise these children (and the longer I’m a mom, the more I realize the less I know). I sought God. I dug in His Word for answers. I actually filled several notebooks with notes I took at that time while I studied the Bible.
You don’t have to take notes of course. But, taking notes can help your memory, and may help you focus more when studying the Bible. I find that my notes are quite encouraging to go back to and read over later.
Nearly 18 years after doing many studies as a new parent, I still enjoy reading through those notes. My notebook for studying “Wisdom”, “Understanding” and “Knowledge” is another of my favorites. One of these days I’m going to turn that into a series of Blog posts.
When you see one subject school notebooks on sale (this past year, I got a case of them for around 5 cents each during the back to school sales), these are good to invest in for this sort of Bible Study, to take notes in at home. You may also want to keep some index cards around too, for writing out key verses to meditate on or memorize.
What kind of notes should you take?
It really depends on the subject.
Recently, a friend suggested to me doing a study on the phrases “Blessed is…” and “Blessed are…” using Strong’s Concordance. When doing this study, I wrote down what the Bible said constituted being blessed.
One one section of my notebook, I wrote down the verses or passages I was studying, as well as definitions of important words in the passage. This helped me to get an understanding of what God really meant by the word “blessed”.
Our 21st Century American understanding of “blessed” usually has to do with money. God’s definition, in the original Hebrew, is quite different. Using Strong’s Concordance to study these definitions will help you understand the verse better. I describe how to use Strong’s Concordance to study the Bible here.
Later, I had a page where I wrote down the reference to the place in the Bible where I found the verses, and I listed what the Bible said makes you blessed, using insights from definitions I looked up.
The page, with my sloppy handwriting and doodles, read something like this:
The Blessed Person:
You get the picture.
By studying out “blessed” and “blessing” out in this way, I’ve been able to get an overview look at what the Bible says on the topic.
Having been a bit down with this whole foreclosure situation, this study has been a great encouragement to me.
When that feeling of stress washes over me, I grab my notebook. I am able to examine myself, and my life, to see if there are any changes I need to make in my lifestyle. When I am not feeling particularly blessed, why is it? Am I listening to the wrong stuff? Am I in the Word enough? Am I keeping in mind what Christ did for me at Calvary, or am I focused on what the “counsel of the ungodly” is speaking into my life?