2 Simple Steps to Navigate the Bible

Howard Hendricks  and William Hendricks
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Have you ever felt lost when a preacher or Bible teacher told you to turn to a particular passage of Scripture? Maybe it was in one of those odd-sounding Old Testament books, such as Nahum, Zephaniah, or Haggai. You fumbled around for a while, trying to act like you knew where to go. Eventually you turned to the table of contents and looked it up. But by the time you got to the indicated passage, the speaker had moved on, and you were lost once again.

Not knowing how to find a passage of Scripture can be as frustrating as wandering down a country road with no map. But there are two ways to overcome this problem.

1. Memorize the Books of the Bible

That’s not as hard as you may think. Look at the sixty-six books listed by categories on page 32. It’s easier to memorize them by groups, and you can do it in just a couple of weeks’ time.

2. Learn How Scripture References Work

A Scripture reference is like an address. It tells you where the verse “lives” in the Bible. It’s better than a page number because different versions of the Bible place the text on different pages.

By way of illustration, consider the reference, John 8:32. It is read, “John eight thirty-two.” “John” is the name of the book, the gospel by John in the New Testament. The “8” refers to the eighth chapter in the book. The verse number is “32.” That’s all there is to it.

Or consider 1 Corinthians 4:2. It is read “First Corinthians four two.” (Some church traditions call it “One Corinthians four two.”) The book is 1 Corinthians, “4” is the chapter, and “2” is the verse.

Occasionally you might come across a reference such as John viii.32 or St. John viii.32, using Roman numerals for the chapters, and a period rather than a colon to separate chapter and verse. That’s an older form of referencing, found particularly among works published in Europe. But the system is the same.

“Not knowing how to find a passage of Scripture can be as frustrating as wandering down a country road with no map.”

For multiple verses, you will find a hyphen connecting the first and last verses, in the reference. John 8:32–42 indicates the section of John 8 from verse 32 through verse 42. If there are only two verses involved, the writer will separate them with a comma, as in John 8:32, 42. He may also separate two consecutive verses with a comma rather than a hyphen, as in John 8:32, 33.

A reference may also indicate a section that spans two or more chapters. If you see John 8:32–9:12, it means the section beginning at verse 32 of John 8, and continuing through verse 12 of John 9. If the reference is to entire chapters and there is no need to indicate verse numbers, you might see something like John 8–9.

Suppose, however, that the reference is to a book with only one chapter, such as Obadiah, Philemon, or Jude. In that case, the reference mentions only the book name and verse number. For instance, Philemon 21 refers to the twenty-first verse of Philemon.

Sometimes a writer may want to indicate only part of a verse, rather than the whole. In that case he may use a lowercase a or b (or sometimes even a c if the verse is lengthy) to further specify the reference. Romans 12:1a, for instance, refers to the first half of Romans 12:1. Isaiah 40:8b refers to the second half of that verse.

What about multiple references, indicating more than one passage? Conventions vary, but a common one is to show a list of references in the order in which they appear in the Bible, separated by semi-colons, and to show book names only once. For example: Genesis 3:17–19; Psalm 8:3–8; Ecclesiastes 3:12– 13; 5:18; Ephesians 4:28; 6:5–9; and Colossians 3:22–4:1.

One final note: When referring to a particular chapter in Psalms, use the singular, “psalm,” as in Psalm 23—not Psalms 23. The book of Psalms is a collection of psalms (plural); each individual chapter is a psalm (singular).

For Further Reading:

Living by the Book

by Howard Hendricks and William Hendricks

For every person who draws strength and direction from the Bible, there are many more who struggle with it. Some call it a long book with fine...

book cover for Living by the Book