This morning I’d like to talk about the idea of building a personal Bible study system.
We know that we are commanded to seek the Lord first, above all material things:
Matthew 6:33 (NASB95)
33 “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
We often talk about Bible reading plans and various ways to get the Bible in front of our eyes. These are fantastic and something we should definitely be doing!
But what if we want to go deeper than just reading and get God’s word into our heads in such a way that it changes us and becomes a part of us so that we can obey His commands and teach others.
I’ve been building out a system of Bible study for the past few years that has been helpful to me, and I’d like to present it to you. Maybe it will be helpful to you in your own Bible study, whether you implement part or all of it.
Caveat! I’m not trying to tell everyone this is the best or only system of Bible study. It’s simply what I use. Take whatever ideas and benefits from it that fit you and what you want to get out of Bible study!
The main idea: Zettelkasten
Here’s a big word: Zettelkasten. Let’s talk a minute about what this is and then we’ll look at how it can help your Bible study.
It’s a German word that means “slip box” or card file. The idea for this method has been around for a long time, but it became better known after Niklas Luhmann made such extensive use of it. He was a social scientist who published fifty books and over six hundred articles in his lifetime. He also left over 150 unfinished manuscripts, at least one over a thousand pages long. This level of productivity was no accident – he used an enormous Zettelkasten (over 90,000 physical cards) to do this.
How it works
The general idea for a Zettelkasten is very simple:
- Take small ideas and write them on slips of paper (like index cards).
- Give each card a title or a number so you can find it.
- On each card, add a list of references to other cards that might be of interest.
- Keep all your cards sorted in a box.
As Luhmann read new material, he would make notes, picking out interesting ideas and cross-referencing them to other notes he already had. He would add bibliographic information to the back of the note so he could go back to the source if necessary. His notes were just summaries of the idea or maybe a particularly interesting quote. He didn’t copy large pieces of text into his notes.
Luhmann did all this in the age before computers, so his system was entirely manual with thousands of paper slips. It can still be done that way today or digital tools can be used, of which there are many.
This is how Luhmann was so productive – he had already catalogued research on a wide variety of topics from all sorts of sources he had read (books, articles, etc.).
When it was time to write a new book or paper, he just jumped into his Zettelkasten and started following cross-references. Even the bibliography was already done because it was listed on the notes!
Why is this useful?
There are several reasons that this very simple system is so useful.
For one, it helps improve the connectivity of our thoughts. It causes us to put ideas together and get new insights from that.
It makes your notes accessible. Writing things in a notebook is great, but will you really go back and dig through physical notebooks later to find something?
We stop wasting effort because any notes we write get built into the system and may be useful later.
The value of the system grows exponentially with the size of the system (the network effect). It’s like Facebook – pretty boring if you only have three friends, but as soon as you have fifty “friends” on Facebook, things get much more interesting.
Once the system gets large enough, you start noticing insights that weren’t previously obvious. Hey, this note is connected to this other note and they both reference this scripture…
How to do Bible study with a Zettelkasten?
Sample study system
There are many, many ways to do this, but I’ll give a simple example to start with. Then we can work through a few actual examples of Bible study to see how to apply this in real life.
Last summer, I had Owen and Kylie use this system for their Bible study. I gave them some index cards, a box to store them in, and a little notebook. Each week they were to study a new topic of their choosing.
- Select a topic to study for the week. The topic can be something of your choosing. For this exercise, I’d recommend choosing a topic that is relatively self-contained so that it is not difficult to complete your research in a week.
- Using your brain, Bible, concordance, or electronic tools, build a set of relevant scriptures that relate to your topic. Write these down in your notebook.
- Read all the scriptures you found and write a short summary of your ideas on the topic in your notebook.
- Consult other reference materials, such as Logos, to find any other scriptures or commentaries that you find useful on your topic.
- Write up a Zettel card on your topic. Your card should include:
- The topic name on the top left of the card.
- A summary of the topic.
- A list of any scriptures you found to be particularly relevant.
- Any extra-Biblical quotes you found particularly insightful.
- Along the bottom of the card, a list of other topics that might be related. (For example, if the topic was “baptism”, a related topic might be “plan of salvation” or “forgiveness of sins.“)
- File your card in your box!
At first, one topic a week was about right as far as time spent went, but by the end of the summer they were significantly faster researchers and could easily do multiple topics in a week.
My sample card:
I wrote up a sample (first on paper, then transferred to digital): [see slides]
Why is this useful for Bible study in particular?
Having a note archive available to you is incredibly useful in general for the reasons we’ve already talked about, but it’s particularly useful for Bible study:
- Helps connect ideas and scriptures in our mind.
- Learning means integrating new information into what we already know, which is exactly what this system does.
- The act of writing and manipulating information gets it into our heads in a way that simply reading the Bible does not.
- Summarizing the information to write notes means we must fully process it.
- Provides insights we might not otherwise have seen.
- Walking the cross-references may surprise you!
- A great resource when studying with others.
- If a question on a particular topic comes up, you have at least a place to start.
- Provides a framework for future study.
- As you continue to study, if you find additional information related to a note, either add it to the note or create a new note and link it to this one.
Additional advice: Keep a list somewhere (maybe a separate note or just a page in a notebook) of additional topics of study that you run across as you are studying something. When you run out of road on a particular topic, the list will give you some options for where to start your next study.
Mark, I’m not carrying a box of cards with me everywhere I want to have a Bible study!
There are some great digital tools that make this very easy and can be used from a phone or computer:
- Obsidian (recommended) – free for personal use
- Zettlr – free
- Roam Research - paid
- Notion - paid
- The Archive – paid, MacOS only
- Even a simple document with headers for the different topics would work, although without the bells and whistles.
If you’re curious about these, see me afterwards.
The nice thing about several of these digital tools is that they allow you to see “back-links” for a note, which tells you what other notes link to this one. Obsidian will also show you a visual graph for a note, showing you a diagram of what notes are connected.
You could also use a simple notebook and put each “card” on its own page, then just use page numbers to link things together. It doesn’t need to be complicated!
Remember the goal here is to learn and understand God’s word. We want just enough of a system in place to help in our study, but not so much that the system itself is distracting or hinders study.
Let’s work some examples!
Example: A book study of Nahum
As we go through this example, think about what other topics or scriptures we could link in here.
Overview of the book
Look up some historical data on the book. Thankfully, brother Jenkins did a class on the minor prophets a while back and I was able to pull from my notes there for this class!
- Nahum means “consolation.”
- The only consolation we read about in the book is that Assyria would no longer bother Judah.
- Doom was at hand for Assyria. Ninevah had repented 150 years earlier after Jonah’s prophecy, but not was in terrible condition.
- The book was written between 663 and 612 B.C., between the fall of Egypt and the fall of Assyria.
- Nahum was contemporary with Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Habakkuk.
Outline of the book
- Nahum 1 – God is over all things. His judgments are correct.
- Nahum 2 – Facing God in judgment, Ninevah is doomed. Ninevah’s great lions (rulers) would meet their doom.
- Nahum 3 – Ninevah had shed much blood. It would be destroyed, and its ruin would be seen by all. Others would rejoice over its destruction.
Lessons for us
- The Lord is slow to anger and good to those who repent before Him.
What cross-references could we add to this note?
- Minor prophets
[see slides for sample card]
Example: A study of Cornelius
- Cornelius was a Roman centurion, a Gentile.
- He was a faithful man who prayed and gave alms.
- Cornelius had a vision telling him his prayers had been heard and to send men to fetch Peter from Joppa.
- Before the men arrived, Peter had a corresponding vision about clean and unclean food, illustrating that he was no longer to call any man unclean (Acts 10:28).
- Peter went with the men to see Cornelius. He realized God meant for him to teach the gospel to Gentiles also.
- Peter preached and the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard, including the Gentiles.
- Peter then baptized Cornelius and those with him.
- This incident clearly showed the gospel was intended for all mankind. See Romans 1:16. Compare Acts 2:39, where Peter taught that the gospel was for all at Pentecost but apparently didn’t realize what he was saying!
What cross-references could we add?
- Unclean food
[see slides for sample card]
Bible study is important! As James DeVoll used to constantly remind me growing up, we need to get our heads in the book and the book in our heads.
If you have a good Bible study plan in place, keep at it! Never stop learning! Maybe something we talked about here would be a useful addition to what you are already doing.
If you do not have a study plan in place, now is the time to get started. It does not need to be a giant, complex endeavor. Start with something small and simple. Consistency is more important than complexity. It’s much better to do something simple for twenty minutes a day than to try to manage a giant contraption of a study program for two hours, but you can only do it once a month.
God’s word is the most valuable resource we have, so let’s make every opportunity to study it and teach it to others.