You are on page 1of 6

How to Study the New Testament Like a Pro by Ed Cyzewski

How to Study the New Testament Like a Pro

by Ed Cyzewski

The Bible can be tough to dive into. Where should a student of scripture begin? Most
Christians want to understand Jesus and the letters that his followers wrote, but they can
be tough to figure out.

When we ask questions such as, “Why did Jesus say that?” or “Why did Paul write
this?” we will encounter a great deal of complexity and mystery. If we can’t answer
these first questions, then it will be even more difficult to discern what they mean for us
today. This application to everyday life is the real pay-off for Christians.

Studying the Bible well takes some time and effort, but just about any Christian can
learn how to study it effectively with some direction. After investing time into the study
of scripture you’ll soon find it easier to read. Certain themes and connections will
emerge, and you’ll not only arrive at a better understanding, but a greater ability to
apply it to your life.

Here’s a look at some simple steps toward effective study of the New Testament.

Step One
Read the Old Testament
Ouch! Really? Doesn’t the Old Testament have a bunch of laws, poems and prophetic
oracles that are tough to understand?

I know that it can be daunting to begin with the Old Testament, but in order to
understand the world of the New Testament, the Old Testament is required reading. In
fact, we run the risk of grossly misinterpreting the New Testament without a proper
grounding in the Jewish beliefs that shaped Jesus and his contemporaries.

When reading the Old Testament you should pay attention to the larger motifs such as
exodus and deliverance, exile and restoration. Take note of locations such as the
wilderness, rivers and seas, and mountains—what happens at these locations and why
they are significant.

Read the first five books of the Old Testament (The Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus,
Numbers, Deuteronomy) looking for how to relate to God, as well as any mentions of
covenants and in particular how to keep or break a covenant. As you move on to the
historical books of Joshua through Chronicles these themes of covenant, righteousness,

How to Study the New Testament Like a Pro by Ed Cyzewski

punishment, and deliverance will come up. The prophets, priests, and kings in these
books flesh out what it means to keep or to break a covenant with God and what
happens as a result.

These themes will also be significant throughout the prophetic books (both minor and
major prophets) with a greater emphasis on judgment and restoration. The poetic and
wisdom literature delves into both worship and deeper theological reflection in light of
the laws of the Torah and the events recorded in the historical books.

You don’t have to read the whole Old Testament straight through or even necessarily all
of it to benefit from it. Provided you at least know something about the first five books,
the stories in Samuel and Kings, and a few key prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah
you’ll notice many significant points in the New Testament.

Unless you understand the laws for things such as the Sabbath and skin diseases or the
expectations for the Messiah as explained in Isaiah, the actions and teachings of Jesus
will be difficult to understand. Understanding the Old Testament is essential in order to
make sense of the New Testament.

Suggestions for Reading the Old Testament

 Pick several translations based on the books you’re reading.
o For tough books such as Numbers and Chronicles use the New Living
Translation (NLT) or The Message for their attention to easy reading.
o For poetry and possibly for the prophets use the New Revised Standard
Version for its attention to literary forms.
o For the historical books use literal or mostly literal translations such as
the New International Version (NIV), the New Revised Standard Version
(NRSV), or the English Standard Version (ESV). The NLT will be
adequate as well.
 Read five chapters each day.
 Look up background information for each book in a study Bible, a Bible dictionary, or
an online reference site—even Wikipedia is better than nothing. In order to understand
what’s actually “in” a biblical book, don’t spend your time on editorial or redactor
theories such as JEDP, since they’re highly debated in many circles and will do little to
help you with a book’s actual content.
 You can find most translations online at Bible Gateway: or
the NET Bible’s translation with excellent footnotes at

How to Study the New Testament Like a Pro by Ed Cyzewski

Step Two
Read Historical Background Information
While the Old Testament is essential for understanding the New Testament, roughly
four-hundred years transpired after the last Old Testament book was written. New
interpretations of the Old Testament emerged in between the testaments, the
Intertestamental period, due to religious, political, and socio-economic events.

Israel began this period under Medo-Persian rule. Then the Greeks took over before a
Jewish Dynasty revolted and took control. After a brief time of Jewish rule the Romans,
those mentioned in the New Testament, took over.

During these tumultuous years Jewish writers penned a series of books known as
Intertestamental literature. Some of these books developed a strong sense of the
apocalyptic—anticipating the immanent return of God to save his people and to punish
evil-doers. Out of that fertile ground Messianic movements rose up and various Jewish
sects emerged with different applications of the Old Testament to their situation. Many
scholars today view Jesus as a prophet in the apocalyptic tradition.

In order to better understand how people responded to Jesus, we need a clear picture of
not only the Old Testament but also how his contemporaries read, interpreted, and
applied it to their times. John the Baptist, Herod, The Pharisees, the crowds, and the
disciples come to life when we read about Jesus with an awareness of his setting, the
expectations of his audience, and the tumultuous period leading up to his ministry.

Suggestions for Historical Background Research

 Your best sources will be Bible Dictionaries and commentaries. Some basic Bible
dictionaries are fairly inexpensive to purchase in sets of two or four if you wait for the
right sale at Christian Book Distributors, though many churches should have some
basic dictionaries on hand in a library. My favorite is the InterVarsity press series
that’s available on a more affordable CD-ROM.
 Some local libraries may carry some worn dictionaries or commentaries that could be
of use for extracting historical information.
 For those with a little extra time, there is a wealth of information on the
Intertestamental period’s literature on the New Testament in Larry Helyer’s book
Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period.
 I know you’re thinking it, so I’ll just say it: Wikipedia. Yes, you can learn a ton about
the world of Jesus by reading articles on Wikipedia about the various groups, events,
and characters that shaped the world of the New Testament. For starters, look up the
Hasmonean Dynasty and read about its fall to the Roman dynasty of Herod.

How to Study the New Testament Like a Pro by Ed Cyzewski

Step Three
An Overview of the New Testament
By reading five chapters per day, underlining important passages, and making notes in
the margins about key points that jump out at you, you can begin to grasp the big
picture of the books in the New Testament. You should focus on picking up major
themes such as the Gospel or Good News, the Kingdom of God, and the fulfillment of
the Old Testament. Make observations and try to summarize each book’s main points.

Start with either Mark, because it’s short, or John, because many scholars suggest
starting with this highly interpretive, thought-provoking Gospel. You can follow up
with an epistle after reading a Gospel or two. Save Hebrews and Revelation for last since
they’re the most difficult books to interpret.

Since Paul can, even by the Apostle Peter’s admission, be rather difficult to understand
at times, it may help to begin reading his epistles with the shorter letters to the
Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians. These letters are packed with
spiritual insight and will offer an introduction to Paul’s long sentences, rabbit trails, and
theology. They’ll prepare you for the longer epistles to the Romans and Corinthians.

Suggestions for Overview Reading

 Opinions vary, but I once again suggest using the NLT or the NIV for an overview
reading. When you go back to study some passages closely you may want to consult a
more literal translation such as the NRSV.
 Remember that the writer of each biblical book had a particular audience in mind.
Focus on grasping the general message or point of each book as well as its major
themes. When you do a closer study remember how the parts fit into the whole.
 Take note of passages that jump out at you and the ways each book interprets and
references the Old Testament.

Step Four
A Close Reading of the New Testament

How to Study the New Testament Like a Pro by Ed Cyzewski

Once you’re familiar with the main ideas in each NT book, begin to slowly read through
the books you’ve already covered. Work on roughly a chapter each day and take time to
meditate on its meaning and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance in your studies.

Keep a journal of your observations for each chapter as you read, study, and meditate on
what it means and how it may apply to your life. A slow reading such as the practice
known as Lectio Divina can give the Holy Spirit room to speak to you while meditating
on scripture. Sometimes you’ll notice a new facet of a story that you never saw before.
Sometimes you may experience a personal conviction from God.

Whatever it is that strikes you, take time to write about it, even if you write only a few
sentences for each daily reading. Sometimes writing down some thoughts will spark
additional insights.

You may want to take a few days for an overview reading in one book and then follow
with a close study in another book that you’ve already read. Sometimes I do a quick
overview of a book and then immediately follow with a close study.

After you’ve made some observations about a passage that you find particularly helpful,
share them with friends, family, or those at your church. They may be blessed by what
you have to say, offer additional insights, or correct something you’ve misunderstood.

Suggestions for a Close Reading of the New Testament

 Ask questions, examine the motives and perspectives of each character, and try to
make connections from one passage to another in each book. In other words, don’t
read each book as a collage of random events but as cohesive messages to a particular
audience by a writer with something to communicate.
 Ask questions such as: Why did the author include certain information and not other
details? Is there significance to his order of events? How does the author refer to
certain people and what is the importance of this?
 If something doesn’t make sense, still take the time to write about it and to think it
over throughout the day. Instead of recording observations, make a list of questions
you’d like to answer. If you’re short on conclusions, share some of these questions
with friends and family.
 Examine passages from the perspective of each character. Read a passage several
times with a different character or group in mind each time.

Step Five
Consult Commentaries and Dictionaries

How to Study the New Testament Like a Pro by Ed Cyzewski

You may not always be able to figure out what certain passages mean. From the
apocalyptic passages in Mark 13 to the perplexing scene where Jesus said his flesh was
real food in John 6, every student of the Bible needs some help in identifying key themes
and figuring out difficult passages.

As you’re journaling through your close reading of the Bible, take note of anything that
isn’t clear and pay a visit to your church library, check out your reference books such as
Bible dictionaries, or look up online articles. While I don’t suggest doing this work for
every chapter, there will be times when a controversial passage may warrant research
into its various interpretations.

Suggestions for Commentary and Dictionary Research

 Most Bible dictionaries will list scripture references in their indexes, so start there by
looking up the particular verses that you’re working on. You can also look up
particular topics such as the book, the writer, or the issue in the passage. InterVarsity
Press has a very affordable CD called The Essential Reference Collection with many
dictionaries in one place. If there’s any software worth owning, this would be it.
 Commentaries can be hit or miss since some commentators focus more on linguistic or
historical matters, or they may offer precious little information about the section of
scripture you’re trying to figure out. Your best bet with commentaries is to find a
Christian college, seminary, or church with a large enough library to provide several
options for commentaries. Each commentary series has a different focus, making each
one appropriate depending on your situation.
 Check any of your Christian theology books for a scripture index to see if these
authors have written about your passage.
 Read other great books on how to study the Bible such as How to Read Your Bible, How
to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, and Words of Delight.

About the Author

Ed Cyzewski is the author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life. He
blogs on theology at and has published several Bible study
guides with NavPress. He has contributed to The NLT: Holy Bible Mosaic among other
books, magazines, and web sites.