As a child, part of me always secretly wanted to be a detective. I read mystery books aimed at kids, pretended I had my own detective agency, and, obviously, owned the board game Clue. Even in my adulthood, there is still something fascinating about fictional tales of people—modern or historic—who, like Sherlock Holmes, have an uncanny ability to take a seemingly random assortment of facts pertaining to a case—combined with their own wealth of knowledge—and synthesize it to solve major mysteries.
Not long after I officially became a teenager, I found something that filled that longing to be a detective—to investigate, to solve problems, to unravel complicated mysteries. See, I was sitting in the passenger seat of my dad’s truck as he drove me to a piano lesson. It was a good 50-minute drive, and there was a Bible on the front seat. He said, “Did you know Jesus wasn’t born on December 25?”
Of course, I had been taught that. But he was going to show me from the Bible. Well, he was going to drive, and let me turn to the scriptures. He pointed me to the verse that said the shepherds were abiding in the fields at night when Jesus was born. This, along with geographic and historical data, proved that December was out. But there was more. He had me turn to a scripture that showed that Jesus was conceived six months after John the Baptist. And then a scripture that showed when John the Baptist was conceived—during a particular priestly course. Well, that took me back to the Old Testament to find out in which weeks that course would have occurred, which also presupposes I knew at what time of the year the priestly courses began—requiring me to find yet another scripture. That handful of scriptures, plus a little math, put John the Baptist’s birth in the spring and Jesus Christ’s in the fall—early enough to allow for the shepherds to still be in the fields at night.
I was dumbfounded. There it was, in the Bible I held in my hands. I had proved it for myself, and I felt like I had solved a mystery—even though I wasn’t the first to crack this case. Later, I had to go write up all the research into an “article,” codifying this train of thought and writing out all the scriptures in the order that proved the point. I’m not sure if I have that article anymore, but the lesson stuck with me: Studying the Bible is so much more than just reading. Its very nature of being a “jigsaw puzzle”—requiring, as Isaiah said, putting “precept upon precept; line upon line” (Isaiah 28:10-13)—means that studying the Bible is often like an investigation. Putting pieces of the puzzle together—collecting evidence and following the leads—until the truth emerges.
I was hooked.
We often preach about the benefits of studying the Bible—that you should study. But knowing how to study God’s Word is equally important. And it is paramount to realize that the Bible is not written from cover to cover as a complete story flow with all the information in sequential order. It is “line upon line; here a little, and there a little,” as Isaiah wrote.
We have written material on how to use a concordance, which is helpful along the lines of understanding the originally inspired words of the Bible and their definitions. A concordance can also help you find where similar words and concepts are scattered throughout the Bible. This is a valuable tool in piecing things together—especially if you study by subject, which is an excellent way to approach your studies.
If you study a Bible story, or a particular biography of a biblical personality, also consider this. Often, details concerning Bible stories will be scattered throughout the Bible. You can read Genesis 12 through 25 and get a good story flow of Abraham’s life, but other details show up in the New Testament—in Stephen’s “sermon,” as well as in several of Paul’s epistles. You can read the entire book of Exodus straight through like a novel and get an overview of those events, but so many other details are found throughout the Bible—for example, things are found in the Psalms about Israel’s Exodus that you would never know otherwise.
The histories of Judah’s kings were written in two separate accounts, centuries apart, which can be found in the book of Kings and the book of Chronicles. Some of the details about these kings are even found in certain prophets: For example, the Prophet Isaiah records much of King Hezekiah’s reign, in addition to what 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles record. Some details, especially about David, can be found in the Psalms: He included clues in the inscriptions of his psalms that show where in his life he wrote those compositions. So, if you are studying a particular king of Judah, you can “harmonize” these accounts (at least in Kings and Chronicles) by reading what both have to say. In fact, this is how you must study these accounts, since Christ said we are to live by every word of God (Matthew 4:4). Both accounts are in there to form a complete whole of what truthfully happened.
The same is true in the New Testament stories. You can find a synopsis of Jesus Christ’s life in Matthew, Mark and Luke—called the synoptic Gospels. The Gospel according to John also contains accounts of certain events, though it focuses more on the end of Christ’s ministry and prioritizes the words He preached over the events themselves. Therefore, when studying anything from one of these books, it is best to see what the other Gospel accounts have to say about it. You might find that only one or two Gospels mention a certain event or instruction—maybe three do, or perhaps all four do. This is significant information. Each account might be worded in a slightly, or vastly, different way. This is also important. As part of the inspired Word of God, it is all meant to create a more complete picture than what one account could provide.
Several authors have compiled what they call a Harmony of the Gospels—where they have taken the verses of the four Gospels and put them in order, or put the similar verses side by side. These can be tremendously valuable when studying this part of the Bible. At Herbert W. Armstrong College, A Harmony of the Gospels by A.T. Robertson is the preferred edition of these books and is used as a textbook for the Life and Teachings of Jesus course.
A similar type of detective work is required when reading the book of Acts. This book largely follows the journeys of Paul, and those verses can be harmonized with his epistles. You can determine where and when he wrote certain of his epistles by piecing together clues from all over the New Testament. This kind of “harmonizing” Bible study can also reveal things about some of his ministers, or even about some of the brethren he served.
This kind of Bible study is not only helpful when studying Judah’s kings, the life of Christ or the ministry of Paul. The entire Bible is structured in a way that requires “here a little, and there a little.” Some Bible publishers are aware of this to the extent that they put scriptural cross-references in the center margins of some of their Bibles. These are often great helps in Bible study. For instance, much of the New Testament contains quotes from the Old Testament. When you see the phrase “as it is written,” in the New Testament, that is referring directly to Old Testament verbiage. Usually, the margins of most Bibles will accurately locate which verse is being quoted.
Even if you prefer electronic Bibles, the same kind of cross-referencing is built into many of them. On the blueletterbible.org site, selecting the cross-reference button found under “Tools” for each verse shows you not only the scripture references, but it also shows the related verse in its entirety (look under “TSK” in the Blue Letter Bible mobile app). So you can see if the verse is quoting another part of the Bible, or if the verse simply shares similar language to another verse in the Bible. This can be a wonderful way to see how verses link to one another, and it can be a fantastic way to synthesize scattered scriptures and create a clear picture on any Bible study topic.
There is nothing wrong with reading large portions of the Bible straight through for context, but keep in mind that much of the truth on a specific subject is scattered throughout the Bible. Reading Church literature on a subject will make that evident as it will source a variety of scriptures from all over God’s Word. But if you start to follow the examples as found in the literature, and follow the cross-references or harmonies of different accounts as well, it’s not much different than a detective following one lead after another—until the case is solved.