Making Bible Study Count

Best Bible Study Tool? Well, long ago, a Bible college professor assigned a project to our class. It has turned out to be the single most valuable Bible study tool I have ever discovered. That may sound like an exaggeration, but it is based on the experience of many years. I am confident if you will try it you will come to share my enthusiasm, as hundreds of my students have. One older fellow even said, tongue in cheek, he was mad at me for not telling him about this 20 years ago! (I didn't even know him 20 years ago!)

We all want to grow in our Christian lives. And growth requires nourishment. We have been taught--and rightly so--that the Word of God is to be our spiritual food. With that in mind, we each try to read it, and study it the best we can. But have you ever tried to have regular daily devotions, only to fall by the wayside? Have you ever had periods when your Bible reading seemed dull and lifeless? If so, you are not alone. But the method we will look at together does a couple of things in particular that will raise your times in God's Word to a new level. First of all, it will help you to focus your thoughts, and concentrate on what you are reading. Then, it will enable you to go back later and build on what you learned today.

The latter point identifies one of the major problems we have. Suppose the Lord taught you something today, something that really blessed you. Will you remember the details tomorrow? Or next week? Or next year? Unless your memory is better than mine, you probably will not. We need some efficient way to bring back to our minds insights the Lord has given us in the past. That is why each of us involved in serious Bible study looks for ways to preserve what we are learning for future use.

1. Some jot new insights in the margins of a Bible. That is handy. But the space is limited. And maybe you use more than one Bible--or you want to change Bibles. What then?

2. Others keep journals. A pastor once showed me a whole shelf of journals he had written. Thoughts on passage after passage. But when I asked him how he would find all the things he had written over the years on, say, Romans 8:28, he looked a little sheepish and said it would be a major job to locate it all. The material was there, but not easily accessible.

3. One method we have probably all used is to simply write ideas down on random scraps of paper--like an old church bulletin, or last week’s grocery list. But what do you do with the paper afterward? How do you make use of it? And if you have twenty or thirty scraps of paper, how would you organize them?

Each of the techniques I have mentioned works, but it has certain drawbacks. Either it is expensive and cumbersome, or it is complicated to catalogue material and then locate it quickly later on. The method we shall look at now is simple, inexpensive and practical. The Bible Card System (BCS for short.) can be added to or edited whenever you like. And what you have recorded about any passage of Scripture is instantly accessible, whether it was written a day ago, or twenty years ago.

To get started on your file, you basically need three things.

1. You will need a set of 66 tabbed index cards (3" x 5" size), one for each book of the Bible. With a bit of work, these can be made from 4" x 6" cards, cut down. Or you can buy blank or alphabetized cards at an office supply store. (Just turn the latter over and write the name of a book of the Bible on the back of each tab.) These work very well, because they are so sturdy. Label the tabs clearly, each with the abbreviated name of a Bible book (Gen., Exod., Lev., etc.). Using strong materials and doing a neat job will pay dividends later.

2. Then, to record your insights, you will need a package of white, lined 3x5 cards. They come in packages of 100. Over the years, I have used thousands of them, but all you need is one package to try out this system.

3. Finally, you will need somewhere to keep your file--a 3x5 card file box. A small one will do to start, one of those recipe file boxes. As your file grows, you can purchase a larger container.

That’s it! You are ready to start.

What does a Bible card look like? The instructions I am going to give you will describe the way I have come to do my own cards after over 40 years of experience. There are other possibilities. But the technique explained here has been tested thousands of times. Try it this way, before you experiment with your own innovations. It will likely save you some frustration. Bible cards, aid Bible study
1. Record the Bible reference on the top line, at the far right. If the Bible version quoted is not your usual one, include what you have used after the reference (e.g. Jn. 3:16, NASB). (To save time only note the Bible version if it is not your regular one.) Nothing else should go on that line.

2. Beginning on the next line, write out the verse on which you intend to comment. Just the verse, nothing else. For quotations longer than four or five lines, you could omit phrases not relevant to your commentary, inserting what is called an ellipsis each time (three dots showing that some words have been omitted). For example: "God so loved...that He gave His...Son." When referring to an even longer passage, a paragraph or a chapter, omit the quotation entirely. (Try to make that the exception, though, as the file works best with specific verses.) Incidentally, writing out all those verses can be a real help in memorizing Scripture. Do not cut corners with that part of it.

3. Leave the line below the quotation blank. This highlights what God has said, and helps to isolate the Scripture passage from your own comments.

4. Record your comments on the verse. Continue on the reverse side of the card, if necessary. Many of your comments on a verse will likely take two sides of the card if you go into any reasonable depth. A quick sentence scribbled down is likely too brief to be of much value unless it is especially brilliant. Dig! Think! Make this something you will want to keep.

5. Immediately after the last word of your comments, record the date. It is easiest to use an abbreviated form (e.g. 19/12/05). Having the date on a card will make things more interesting later on, as you look back on what God taught you. The date also serves as a kind of punctuation to say "This is the end of the comment."

The comments you put down are the heart of this method. What you should look for are thoughts, ideas and information that help you understand and apply God's Word. The cards in my own file contain three basic kinds of data: Explanation, Application, Illustration. Some of my cards explain the meaning of verses. Others show how a verse of Scripture applies to our lives. Still others offer an illustration that makes the explanation or application clearer. Almost anything that has opened up your understanding of God's Word--or will help you communicate it to others--can be recorded. Here are a few possibilities:

1. Insights that come to you during your own meditation on a passage (your daily devotions)

2. Experiences you have that illuminate some truth

3. Comments by your children, things that come out in conversations with others (nothing confidential though!)

4. A verse of a song or a poem

5. Ideas from sermons you hear, or Bible studies you participate in (Some find it useful to carry two or three cards in their Bibles. Then they can write down ideas while hearing a message.)

6. Facts and illustrations from books, magazines, tapes, radio, TV programs. Even the wit and wisdom from cartoons and bumper stickers may have a use. Be creative! Learn to see everything through God's eyes by applying His Word to the situation.

7. Incidents from the biographies of famous Christians can be useful. Personally, I love to read about the stories behind familiar hymns. That is a possible source of illustrations.

8. You may want to put literal Hebrew or Greek definitions on a card (For the English reader, these can be found in a concordance, a Bible dictionary or a commentary) or maybe you will record several other translations of the same verse. Knowing the meaning of a phrase gives us a much better understanding of what the verse is teaching us.

9. Try to include some quotation from outside sources (that is, other than the Bible itself) on at least some of your cards. Do not just put down quick thoughts of your own. What do other people have to say? (Ideally, the book and author of each quotation should be properly identified--with the title, author and page number. You may not wish to go into that much detail, but it does help if you want to find the quotation, later on.)

10. Research gathered from Bible commentaries is fine--particularly when your note brings together data from more than one source. That will make your note unique.

11. If you think of a way to diagram a verse or passage to help visualize the truth, those are useful too. A simple chart, diagram or map can add to the value of your file.

12. Note significant cross references on your cards, relating one passage to another. Cross references refer you to other verses that may help you understand the one you are studying. They help to connect one part of God's Word with another part. They show what else God has to say on a particular subject. As a rough rule of thumb, at least half of the cards should have cross references to other Scriptures.

Filing cards and editing your file is a simple matter.

1. Filing is easy. Merely drop each card into the file in the order it appears in Scripture. File cards after the tabbed index card for the Bible book in which the text is found. Finding it later will be as simple as looking up a verse in the Bible.

2. Editing your file is just as simple. Suppose you later come to the conclusion that an idea you had about a verse is wrong and you want to correct it. With this file, it is as easy as removing a card and tossing it in the waste basket.

3. More than one card for a verse. What if you have more than one card on a verse? Or your comment is too long to fit on one card? Mark those with what are called "superscript" letters. Little letters next to the reference (Job 2:8a or Gen. 1:1d). They tell you that there is more than one card on a particular verse. First, place a superscript "a" after the reference on the original card (i.e. Jn. 3:16a). This will show there is more to come. Then, make your second card and label it Jn. 3:16b. No need to rewrite the quotation, unless you previously left out part of the verse you need for the new entry. Just leave a blank line below the reference and begin your comments. A third card on the same verse would be called Jn. 3:16c, and so on.

Why create a BCS file? There are several ways it can be of help.

1. Ministry to Others. What if you teach Sunday School, or speak from time to time? Much of what you record in your BCS becomes a personal diary of your own spiritual pilgrimage. It means something special to you, and for that reason it will have greater impact when you share it with others. You are developing your own commentary on the Word of God. Imagine preparing to teach on a passage and being able to pull together ideas and illustrations collected over many years. For example, a look at my own file shows I currently have 45 cards on Chapter 8 of Romans written over the last 36 years. That gives you some idea of how material can accumulate.

What if you are engaged in a specialized ministry--to children, or seniors, or the handicapped, etc.? That will make a good focus for some of your entries. Watch for insightful things that will help you open up the Word of God to that target group. This material will prove invaluable to you. But I do not want you to get the idea that this is only a good thing if you preach and teach. The BCS will be a blessing to anyone who takes the time to develop it.

2. Personal Growth. A BCS file can be of great benefit in your personal devotions. As it grows, you will be able to refer back to thoughts and ideas that were meaningful to you in months and years past. These thoughts can then inspire and challenge you all over again. Then you can build on what you learned before and add to it.

Years ago, I decided I would commit myself to making at least one card a day in my daily devotions. I have not always managed that, but it happens pretty regularly–sometimes I am able to make two or three! From a little recipe box, my file has grown to eight steel file drawers containing thousands of cards, and covering every chapter of the Bible. As I read a portion of the Bible in my devotions, I pull out the cards on that passage and go over them. It is this practice that has enriched my study of God’s Word as no other method has.

What this discipline has done in particular is help me with two things I mentioned at the beginning. It helps me to concentrate on my Bible reading. I know that I am looking for something valuable, something I can put in my file. That pushes me to keep digging until I "strike oil."

Then, it has helped me over and over, as I have gone back over the same Scriptures year after year. What I have often done is read through the Old Testament one year and the New Testament the next. That means, every couple of years I go over the same passage and search for more buried treasure. What a blessing that has been!

3. A Treasure to Pass On. A special word to those of you who are older. Perhaps you say, “I don’t preach or teach, and who knows how many more years the Lord will give me? What good is starting on a file this late in life? If you are older, start now to prepare a file you can pass on to your children, or grandchildren (or a friend). I have already spoken to my own son, letting him know my intention to pass the file on to him. You could be the means of encouraging regular Bible study in that son or daughter. That would be a wonderful heritage to pass on.

Working with a BCS file over many years has taught me some tricks to keep the process as simple as possible.

1. Don't use fancy coloured pens for this project. It is likely best to use your usual pen. Otherwise, it makes the system less convenient, and you're less likely to keep it up.

2. Abbreviations can save you a lot of time and effort. Learn the short form for the names of the books of the Bible, and for the Old and New Testaments (OT and NT). Also, you can use the abbreviation "cf." (short for confer) as a note to compare one Scripture with another.

3. If you need to continue writing on the back, always flip your card over the same way. Standardizing this will save future frustration! I always turn the card top to bottom (so the writing on the back is upside down in comparison to the front).

4. Each card should talk about one main idea. You may have several points relating to the one main idea, but don't ramble on to something entirely different. Make a second card for that. It's easier to use the file later if you do.

5. Do not simply recopy notes that are already easily accessible to you (for example, from the study Bible you use all the time). That is a waste of effort

6. Do not keep blank cards scattered through the file. It is less confusing to keep them together at the back of the file box.

This material was originally prepared for my students at Briercrest Bible College, in 1988. It was later used at Millar College of the Bible, and has been shared in churches and camps, as well. I stand by my original assessment, that it is the single most valuable Bible study tool I have ever discovered.

A former student sent me a beautiful little card, with a picture of some autumn woods on the front. In it, he wrote: “The solitude of this cabin in the woods reminds me of the sweet solitude I have experienced learning at the feet of Jesus over the past year. Since I started my Bible Card System, I have experienced more depth and consistency in my devotional life than I had even come close to before....Thank you so very much!”

I am hoping that this presentation of what I consider the best Bible study tool I have ever tried will motivate you to begin a life-long Bible Card file. It is my prayer that this method of preserving Bible insights will enrich your life in a similar way to what others have reported. "Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly" (Col. 3:16). And if you find your own BCS is a blessing, why not pass the idea on to others. Then they can share the blessing too.

ANOTHER LINK TO CHECK! The NET Bible provides an excellent modern English translation of the Scriptures, with many helpful explanatory notes, plus the abilities to quickly compare the rendering of a passage with other versions. Very helpful for Bible study.

AND ANOTHER offers educational Bible study tools available in digital format for use on the computer. They are all available online, as a download, or on disk. The majority of them are free, hence a wealth of information. The products for sale are leaders in the marketplace!

AND ANOTHER! is a must to check out if you teach the Bible in any setting. Bible teacher Glenn Brooke makes some bold claims, but don’t reject them till you take a look. (For example, he offers a downloadable book, at a modest price, giving you 52 Bible questions that can be, he says, adapted to any size of group, of any age, studying any Bible passage!) Many good resources. For some great free teacher helps, click on Teach to Change Lives Gift