. An Advanced Bible Study Skill Anyone Can Master

An Advanced Bible Study Skill Anyone Can Master


For many years I taught a weekly Bible class to impoverished adults. These people were highly skilled in areas of life I did not understand, but most of them had deep difficulty reading with any proficiency. I had to find a way to help them read the Bible, and the simple solution I stumbled across was one they quickly grasped—and one that I’ve found has helped me read better myself.

You can learn this advanced Bible study skill, too. It just requires 1) a simple reading practice and 2) a related mindset.

  1. Here’s the practice: always remember to scan the headings in your Bible before you read.
  2. Here’s the mindset: scan those headings while asking yourself, Why did this particular chunk of text follow this other chunk? I’m not talking about why words or sentences follow each other, but why “pericopes”—discrete units of text—come in the order they do.

This practice and this mindset may be most useful in narratives or Gospels, but they’re relevant all over the Bible.

In that adult class I made sure that the first step in our Bible reading together was always to look at the headings in the Bible text—those topical summaries which appear in many editions of the Bible. We would often read a few headings leading up to our text for that day and maybe even a few headings following it. I wanted them to get a little sense of the forest before we got into the trees.

Headings aren’t part of inspired Scripture, of course. And it’s a judgment call made by some interpreter(s) somewhere as to what they should say, and where and how often they should appear. Headings are a bit of an art form.

The significance of headings in Scripture

The ESV has, I think, a good set of headings. Take a look at its headings leading up to and following “The Rich Ruler” pericope in Luke 18:18–30. I’d say the ESV broke out the pericopes here pretty much perfectly. Every paragraph is a self-contained unit. Now, glancing through the headings, do you see any that share something in common? Do two or more pericopes seem to address similar subject matter? (This is particularly helpful if you are already familiar with the basic contents of the pericopes.)


I see one: riches, wealth, money. It may perhaps be present in “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” It certainly dominates “The Rich Ruler.” It also shows up in “Jesus and Zacchaeus” and in “The Parable of the Ten Minas.”

Is riches/money a theme in Luke’s Gospel here or elsewhere? Did Luke put these pericopes in close proximity on purpose? Is there any meaning to be found in the juxtaposition or order of these pericopes?

I honestly don’t know for sure. I’m offering you a useful tool, not a set of inflexible rules for determining all aspects of a biblical author’s intent with ironclad certainty. All I can say is that without spending a little time examining context you’ll miss some insights; you’ll miss some meaning.

However, I think there is at least one juxtaposition of pericopes here that is purposeful. I also think that the order of the two pericopes is purposeful. I have in mind “The Rich Ruler” and, three pericopes later, “Jesus and Zacchaeus.”

If you don’t see the connection between those passages, maybe that big “19” dividing these biblical chapters bears some of the blame. I’m a bit manic about Bible typography; I think numbered verse and chapter divisions can sometimes lead you to think, “Okay; now that’s done—on to something new!” But remember: Luke didn’t put that number there. Christian tradition did. Look at the text like this (using visual filters in Logos to make the text look a bit more like Luke himself would have seen it), and see if you can’t find the link between the rich ruler and Zacchaeus that I’m talking about:


Using headings to find biblical insight

Did you see it? In “The Rich Ruler” pericope, Jesus tells a rich man to sell all his goods in order to inherit eternal life and enter the kingdom of God. He then comments that rich people get through the gates of God’s kingdom about as well as camels get through needles. This is nothing short of astonishing, though people raised in Sunday School may need to briefly forget what they know about the Bible to register the appropriate shock—and to raise the appropriate questions, which I take to be: 1) Does everybody have to sell all their stuff to enter the kingdom? And 2) can rich people become followers of Jesus at all? Jesus says it’s “possible with God.” Is it so possible that it actually happens?

This is where (after crossing the artificial chapter break) the wee little man Zacchaeus comes in. He shows that the answers to our questions are 1) No and 2) Yes. Jesus doesn’t require him to sell all his stuff; Zacchaeus volunteers to make a major outlay, but it doesn’t extend to all he owns. The point is that real repentance takes a real bite out of your bottom line, whatever it is you value. Not everyone’s bottom line is financial. The Prodigal Son had to give up his selfish immaturity (Luke 15); Paul had to give up his Pharisaic pedigree (Phil. 3:4–8); David had to give up his righteousness façade (Psalm 51). And when you do repent, and “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8), you’re in. You’ve entered the kingdom. What was lost is now found. You’ve had to make a major outlay, giving up things you previously valued. But you’ve gained a treasure (Matt. 13:44–45). You’ve gained Christ.

Why are there two pericopes in between “The Rich Ruler” and “Jesus and Zacchaeus”? I don’t know. They don’t follow the themes of wealth or repentance I’m proposing. Their presence may, in fact, indicate that the contextual connection I just drew was not actually present in the mind of Luke. I think the two questions and two answers are still sound, however. And I think that if you will make it a regular practice to scan the headings, looking for contextual connections, you’ll find them. I also think that the connections between the ruler (some think it was Joseph of Arimathea) and Zacchaeus are so strong and so illuminating that they had to have been in Luke’s mind. Someday, in the consummation of the kingdom, I hope to find out.

Written by
Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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  • While I do understand where you are coming from – to assist those who have trouble reading and staying focused on the text – I think the preferred method would be to NOT read the headings. As you said, they are not inspired and were added by the interpreters for a given version.

    A student may come to depend on those headings instead of reading the text for themselves.

    I think they need to make their own divisions and headings.

    • The customer is always right. Except this time! =)

      If I saw someone depending on the headings or letting them override the text I would have the same concern. And I have enjoyed making my own divisions by pasting whole books into Word, stripping out all textual divisions of any kind till I’m left with one huge paragraph, and then making paragraphs as I go along.

      But here’s what I say: be careful of the false dichotomy. Sometimes, for some Bible study purposes, Bible students should be making their own textual divisions. Sometimes, for other Bible study purposes, they should make use of the existing textual divisions in the edition in front of them. Both skills are useful in different circumstances. Unless you completely eschew paper Bibles, you’re going to inherit someone else’s textual divisions. Most of the time, they’re done well. They’re useful. Learn to make use of them.


      • Not trying to change your mind necessarily. You said or implied on the article that you preferred the ESV’s headings – saying they were good. So, on some level you made a judgment based on your experience and study, I assume. And, you may have studied the text to a point where you thought the ESV headings more closely matched what headings you would assign. It seems logical to assume that you arrived at your judgment by studying the text without the influence of headings.
        When you say in the article that the ESV headings are good, it would follow that implicit in your assertion is that you would like the reader to also think the ESV headings good as well.
        I do agree that in some cases headings are helpful. But, I think they can often be used to steer the student into a false conclusion about a passage’s meaning. And, that is may main caution.

  • My view was given to me by a guy called Richard Erskine. He used an example of a grasshopper. If we want someone to understand the grasshopper we could dissect it for them and give them small parts. Say one leg and then another leg and then a bit of a knee. The person would have a very good idea about the internal anatomy of the bug but they wouldn’t understand what the bug does. The alternative is to see the whole thing, hear its chirp and see it jump :-) This is really a description of how to understand anything. The heading discussion you gave means to me that you are looking at what the grasshopper does before we go down and look at how its muscles are structured. It gives a better meaning to the detail we study when we go line by line, word by word.

  • We have had digital bibles 30 years, we have had paper ones 3000 years and parchment ,along side. I think I trust paper 1000 times more Great insight into reading at any age or any level of attainment Thank you.

  • As a Bible teacher and Coach, one thing i encourage those i have the honor to share with is to ask questions. The 5 questions a journalist will ask is: Who? What? When? Where? and How? Looking at “Headings” is a great example how to implement these questions in bringing the text together. Good insight, will implement using a disclaimer as you did, “It doesn’t always work this way” however we can gain a wealth of understanding if we look at the whole picture rather than just one portion. Thanks for sharing.

  • Last year I taught a class in Bible study to a group of church leaders in Haiti. I tried to give them tools that would help them dig deeper into the Haitian Creole “translation” of the scriptures. Their circumstances are devoid of linguistic aids, scholarly commentaries, or any of the helps that we in the English speaking world are so accustomed to using. One of the techniques I did emphasize is an appreciation of the overall context of a passage, how they should try to read an entire book in one sitting when possible or in large chunks at the very least. I do not know if the Haitian Creole version of the Bible has headings, but if it does, the next time I have an opportunity to teach on this topic there, I will definitely include this technique as a way to assess the broader context of each passage. It would be one more tool in a very sparsely populated toolbox for Haitian Christians.

Written by Mark Ward