May 2007 - Vol. 8
Topical Bible Study

It’s an especially rewarding way to read the Bible.

by Jeanne Kun


Why do a topical Bible study?
At various stages of my life I have made it a regular practice to include some topical study in my daily pattern of' prayer and Scripture reading. Often the easiest and most helpful way of doing this has been to choose a particular theme or topic and read what the Bible says about it. 

A simple topical approach can be used in a variety of ways and for many purposes. At times I have armed myself through study, using the word of God to defend myself against temptation, to combat sin in my life, or to overcome some weakness or difficulty that plagues me. Actively and consciously taking hold of God’s word by familiarizing myself with what is written in Scripture on a specific theme has been a tremendous aid to countering and conquering problems in my life such as anxiety, ingratitude, self-concern, and resentment.

To give one example, reflecting on passages about thanksgiving has prevented me from falling into feelings of ingratitude, discontent, and dissatisfaction with my life and circumstances. When I have been prone to focusing on what I don't have, rather than recalling all the good that God has blessed me with, or when I have simply taken God and his providence for granted, rather than acknowledging him with appreciation and gratitude, some straightforward, direct verses have refocused my attention on thanksgiving: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble” (Psalm 107:1-2).

Study on thanksgiving
Through my topical study on thanksgiving, my awareness of all I have to be thankful for not only affected my times of prayer, but my gratitude began to overflow more into my daily thoughts and speech.

Other verses I read along this theme provided me with a greater understanding of how to give thanks:

  • “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart” (Psalm 111:1). 
  • “Let me sing the praises of Yahweh’s goodness and of his marvelous deeds, in return for all that he has done for us and for the great kindness he has shown us in his mercy and in his boundless goodness” (Isaiah 63:7).
And when to give thanks:
  •  “Always and everywhere giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father” (Ephesians 5:20).
  • “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
And, perhaps most important of all, why to give thanks:
  •  “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Psalm 13:6).
  • “My vows to you I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to you. For you have delivered my soul from death, yea, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life” (Psalm 56:12-13).
The reasons to thank God are endless: Because it is God’s due (see Psalm 116:12); for deliverance (see Romans 7:24; Psalm 31:8, 21); in return for all God has done (see Isaiah 63:7); because God exhorts us to do so (see Ephesians 5:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16); for what God has revealed to us (see Matthew 11:25).

Models of thanksgiving
Furthermore, I gained some additional insight into thanksgiving by noting the people in the Bible who expressed thanks to God and by noticing the sorts of occasions when they did so. Jesus provides a continual model for us:

  •  “At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea Father, for such was your gracious will’” (Matthew 11:25-26).
  • “Father, I thank you that you have heard me” (John 11:41).
  • “[Jesus] took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds” (Matthew 15:36).
Others who rendered thanks to God were the shepherds on hearing of the birth of the Savior from the host of angels (see Luke 2:29); Anna as she encountered Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple (see Luke 2:38); the lame man healed by Peter (see Acts 3:8); and, from among the ten healed of leprosy, the one who returned to give thanks to Jesus (see Luke 17:15).

In doing topical studies, we can also learn much about God’s own character and his call to us to imitate him by choosing such themes as faithfulness, zeal, mercy, compassion, and steadfast love. Other possible themes concern instruction in Christian living: intercession, forgiveness, obedience, discipleship, and right speech, to suggest only a few.

A few basic steps
Topical study can be quickly mastered and easily made use of by following a few basic steps:

1. Choose a theme and begin to search the Scripture along those lines. I usually choose my theme with prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to bring to my attention a topic of interest or concern. It may, for example, be a particular sin such as uncontrolled anger or self-pity, an area for growth such as generosity or hospitality, an aspect of God’s nature and character I want to learn more about. Then I start my search by reading a familiar passage on the topic, and proceed to follow up the cross-references listed in the margins and footnotes that most study Bibles offer. I have also found it helpful to use a concordance to make a list of passages related to the chosen topic and to read them.

Cross-references or chain-references are worth pursuing, as they often lead to passages that, though related in meaning to the theme, do not include the same main word drawn from the concordance.

Additional aids at this stage of reading and study may be a topical Bible, a dictionary, and a thesaurus. A topical Bible is a text supplement to Scripture arranged by topic, grouping all the verses on a theme by section together under the particular theme heading. While this can be convenient for easily summarizing verses, I usually find it more beneficial to actually do the search through the Bible myself, because it impresses the passages on me more clearly and relates them to their whole context in the Bible. 

A dictionary provides the common definition or meaning of the topic and may add shades of nuances of understanding. Similarly, a thesaurus offers synonyms that expand on the meaning. Often there are synonyms or related words that will give added insight. For example, “faithful” readily brings to mind “trustworthy,” “reliable,” and “constant.” Looking up the opposite, or antonym, can also be of value. Delving into a contrasting word sheds light on the meaning of the original: “fearful” versus “bold,” or “pride” in contrast to “humility.”

I have found the secular English definitions at times to be very much in accord with the use of the word in Scripture, and on other occasions I have seen how removed the current meaning has become from the Christian meaning. An instance of this discrepancy is clear in regard to “joy.” The dictionary defines it as “a glad feeling,” but this is much shallower than the Christian understanding and experience of joy as a mark of our relationship with the Lord, a movement of the will (not just emotion!) in response to the truths of salvation, a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and the result, as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta often said, “of burning love for Jesus.”

2. Supplement your reading by writing down the most significant verses in a notebook. Though this takes some time and discipline, my own experience is that copying down the verses serves to write them on my mind and heart and also leaves me with a handy reference in the future. Often at moments of difficulty in my life I have reread those passages related to the particular concern I have had. These notes can quickly refresh my memory on a specific topic. Besides writing out the key verses on the theme I add personal insights, reflections, resolutions, and questions. Resolutions may arise from seeing how I fall short of God’s standard and recognizing a heed for personal conversion and growth in an area. My questions may be: “What does this mean for my life today? Have I been faithful in this area? What will I do about it?”

3. Conclude your study with a short summary or resume of what you have learned. For example, as God was teaching me about gratitude and thankfulness through my study, I had much to meditate on in my prayer time. I summarized God’s word to me as, “Replace fear and discontent with gratitude.” I realized that I learned not only that it is proper to give thanks, but how and when and why I am to be thankful.

4. Apply your resolutions to your daily life. A study of God’s word falls short if our own attitudes, thoughts, and behavior remain unaffected by it. One should truly be able to say along with the psalmist, “I have laid up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).

[Jeanne Kun is a noted author and a senior woman leader in the Word of Life Community, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. A lengthier version of this article was originally published in God’s Word Today, May 1985. Adapted and reprinted with permission of the author.]

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