Tracing A Topic Through Scripture and How to Start
My kids have often enjoyed doing dot-dot worksheets. It's one way they honed their ability to recognize numbers. In their younger years, before their imagination really took hold, they'd often growl in frustration when they couldn't figure out what the picture was that they were tracing.
Learning to study the Bible can be a similar process. We connect a few dots together, but sometimes we can't see the whole picture. Only as we connect more dots together do we see the picture more clearly.
As we crave a deeper love for and knowledge of the Lord, we may feel unsure of how to get there. Jen Wilkin writes, “the heart cannot love what the mind does not know,”  and growing in our knowledge of God’s word will lead our heart straight down that path.
One way to accomplish this is by doing a topical study.
Why A Topical Study?
Dedicating time and attention to study a particular subject in scripture gives us greater insight, understanding, and familiarity. The Holy Spirit often prompts our interest. During a particular season, I notice several people around me seem to ask the same question, then a book I’m reading touches on the same topic, and my morning bible reading dives into the same theme. I see the Lord urging me on a quest to look for answers.
Topical studies are valuable because they help us study the Bible in a logical, organized way; this is the basis of systematic theology. While gathering information on a topic from Genesis to Revelation, we learn to approach the Bible as a complete unit. By studying one topic, we also grow in our love of studying the Word of God since we’re digging deep into an area we're interested in. Plus, by using this method we learn to study the great doctrines of the Bible. We're all theologians after all!
The more we read, study and meditate on the Word of God, the more we gaze in awe of who He is. It’s the satisfaction of completing a dot-to-dot with the whole picture in view. We delight in who we are studying.
What Is A Topical Study?
The topical method of bible study focuses on a biblical subject, following it through a single book of the Bible, either from the Old or New Testament, or throughout all of scripture, seeking to understand what God says about it. We dig into the verses, asking questions of the text, praying that the Holy Spirit would reveal truth to our minds and our hearts.
Someone can tell you about the delicious goodness of that fresh loaf, but until you’ve felt it’s heat, tasted the delicious comfort it provides, it remains just a loaf, but the savory experience transforms our delight.
What You Will Need
Embarking on this endeavor will require a few tools. Whether your preferred materials are a tangible book, pen and paper, or ebooks and Word documents, you will hone this method to make it your own unique style.
First, you’ll need a study Bible. This is essential for reading the text and discovering cross-references. Second, an exhaustive concordance, to look up your topic and all its scripture references. If you don’t have one, maybe you can borrow one from your pastor, or a seminary library near you. Third, a topical bible which we will also look through for more verses.
When I first began studying the Bible, I borrowed a heavy stack of books from my pastor, trudging precariously out the office door. When I returned them, equally awkward, he asked if I had ever thought about bible software instead. I hadn’t known it existed! While purchasing the software, like Logos, can be expensive, there are basic, more economical packages available. However, there are also many free online resources which provide enough content for your studying enjoyment, like Blue Letter Bible.
Steps for a Topical Study
*Choose a topic. Sometimes a concept jumps right out at you. As you consider a topical study, invite the Lord to guide you. Studying will be rich and meaningful when it applies to your life and spiritual growth.
Begin your study by defining your subject. If it’s a word, look it up in a dictionary and bible dictionary. List some words connected and related to your topic. If you’re studying suffering, you can also look up words like grief, health, pain, sorrow, and trials. If you feel overwhelmed because the topic is too broad, try to get more specific.
*Gather your verses. Now that you’ve understood the subject, look it up in the concordance. Depending on the range of your topic, you may feel utterly overcome at the vast number of scripture references, or surprised that there aren’t more. On a study about sin, you may be shocked to find almost 400 verses! Beginning with 10-20 verses is a good place to start, so if you have too many, you may need to limit your study to one book of the Bible, or one Testament as you begin. In contrast, if you don’t can’t find enough verses, don’t forget to look up the synonyms in your concordance, and look at your topical bible as well. Then, make a list of all the verses you’ve found on your topic.
Remember that each step of bible study has an important purpose. Once I’ve begun, I eagerly look forward to the insights and applications, so much that I forget to slow down, pay attention, and value the initial, seemingly tedious, steps. The practice of being thorough in gathering scripture references keeps us from missing important truths about our subject.
*Understand the context. One danger of studying a single verse at a time is misunderstanding the text. We want to consider each verse individually, but always seek to comprehend the who, what, when, where, why and how. We do this by reading the whole chapter, sometimes also the one before and after, by looking up who wrote that particular book, to whom it was written, and why. Collecting this information is like adding a piece to a puzzle. Each piece brings greater clarity to the picture, as it becomes more complete.
One way to organize your information is to make a table with three columns; one to list the verse, another for the cross-references you find in the verse, and the third – probably the biggest one - to write your observations and insights.
As you’re grasping the context of each verse, start asking the same questions of the topic you are studying, going back to the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Considering what the verse is saying, what are you learning about your subject?
*Compare and categorize the references. You’re now seeing patterns and similarities in the Bible’s teaching. Notice ideas that are similar or are repeated and place them together in categories. If you’ve been studying faithfulness, you might have a category of examples of faithful men, or faithfulness as a godly quality. This is where you’ll make connections and gain new understanding, as more pieces of the puzzle fit together.
After you’ve made the categories, develop an outline of your insights. This will help you organize the treasures you’ve gleaned, solidify your learning, and equip you to share it with others.
*Write a summary. You’ve written lists, looked up a lot of verses and researched. You may have notebooks scribbled with notes, lines linking themes together. As you glance over your outline, and your notes, it’s time to write a brief paragraph reviewing what you’ve uncovered.
As part of your summary, include an application. This is often the step we want to run to first, but only now, after we’ve understood the context and gleaned biblical insight, can we truly apply the Word to our life. Develop an application that is personal to you, something that’s practical to implement, and possible for you to accomplish.
Reflecting on the journey
Arriving at the end of your study, you may sense a variety of emotions. Often your study will reveal more questions, leaving us to wonder at the lifelong privilege we have to mine these jewels. Note these ideas and jot them down for a future study someday.
Psalm 1 reminds us how the one who delights and meditates on the word is like a tree whose roots grow deep with nourishment, bears fruit, and flourishes. Sister, you’ve done the beautiful, challenging work of study. Share this blessing with those around you. Write an Instagram post, message a friend, or teach your small group. The purpose of our study is always for the glory of God and the good of others.
I pray that your “hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3).
May your study lead you to greater faith and dependence on Christ, as His Word nourishes you.
 Jen Wilkin, “Women of the Word”, 31.
Is there a topic in scripture you are particularly interested in? Or one that has been coming up in your bible reading, or study lately?
Is there someone you know who you could invite to study with together?
Ideas for study: the doctrine of salvation, prayers in the Bible, or the doctrine of the church.