How Does Pastor Chuck Swindoll Study the Bible?

Have you ever tried to feed your soul from God’s Word but felt intimidated, even frustrated?

You pick up a Bible and start thumbing through it, seeking a morsel of hope or a crumb of encouragement. But the book is thick, the print is small, and it’s filled with unfamiliar terms, names, and places. So you set it aside and reach for prepared spiritual meals from others, thinking, perhaps another time.

Well . . . now is the time! And you’ll find that crafting your own spiritual meal is more thrilling and satisfying.

Pastor Chuck Swindoll has been dishing out nutritious dishes from God’s Word for decades, but he didn’t always know his way around the Scriptures. He had to learn to study the Bible, glean its truths, and prepare his own spiritual meals . . . and he wants to help you be able to do the same by showing you how through his Searching the Scriptures method of studying God’s Word.

What Is Searching the Scriptures?

With a mission to help believers become spiritually self-sustaining, Chuck wrote down the techniques that he uses every day in his own study “kitchen” in his book, Searching the Scriptures: Find the Nourishment Your Soul Needs. At the heart of his Bible-study method are four steps that anyone can learn:

  1. Observation: What does the passage say?
  2. Interpretation: What does the passage mean?
  3. Correlation: How does the passage compare with other passages?
  4. Application: How does the passage relate to my life?

Observation—Read the Passage Thoroughly

Once you have opened a book of the Bible—laid out the “food”—you can start preparing your spiritual meal.

First and always . . . Pray

Begin your study with prayer and pray through each phrase. David prayed, “Help me understand the meaning of your commandments” (Psalm 119:27)—which all of us should pray before seeking understanding of God’s Word. Chuck says, “Study without prayer is an incomplete process—a futile effort.”1

Read Carefully

Then, read the text and observe what it says. A Bible-reading guide can help you know which section of the Bible to read each day. Below are four important principles for you to to practice each time you sit down to search the Scriptures.

  1. Read as if you are reading the passage for the very first time. Read thoughtfully and carefully, aloud even. Read the same passage in several different translations and then compare the phrasing.
  2. Read the passage as if you are reading a love letter. This means you pay close attention to every word. Forget your speed-reading course!
  3. Read the passage like a detective. Note the details like what is said and what isn’t. Go over the passage again and again. You’ll be amazed by what you see that you missed the first reading.
  4. Read as if you’re in the text. Place yourself in the story, in the context of when and where it was written, and in each person’s sandals. Imagine the scenes. Imagine the emotions.

Take Notes

Don’t try to decipher the meaning of the passage just yet. Spend plenty of time seeing what’s in front of you. Take notes as you read, writing down elements such as:

  1. The who, what, where, when, why, and how
  2. What you can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell
  3. The logical connections, flow of thoughts, and range of subjects
  4. What’s repeated, emphasized, related, alike, and unalike
  5. What’s written before and after

Chuck summed up observation nicely when he defined it as “carefully reading and thinking about what the Bible actually says.”2

Interpretation—Understand the Passage Deeply

Once you’ve observed what the passage says, interpretation helps you answer the question, “What does it mean?” When studying any passage of Scripture, several key questions help unearth the meaning.

  1. What is the context? Dig into the cultural and historical context of the author at the time of writing. Examine the biblical context too—where the passage sits in the bigger story of God’s redemptive plan.
  2. What is the genre? Poetry, with its figures of speech are interpreted differently than a fact-based narrative. A parable is a story that packs a powerful lesson, as when Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Prophetic literature contains mysteries that require other biblical passages to help decipher. Remember: The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself!
  3. Who is the author, and why was it written? Interpretation always seeks to know the authors’ intended meaning for their original readers. You can find information on each book in the notes of The Swindoll Study Bible, by consulting a Bible commentary, or consulting a resource on Pastor Chuck’s recommended list of Bible-study tools. Bible charts and background information is at Pastor Chuck’s Insights on the Bible.

Hazards to Guard Against

There are also important hazards to avoid when attempting to interpret a passage of Scripture. When seeking the meaning of Scripture, guard against . . .

  1. Reading your personal biases into the text. Avoid “proof-texting,” that is, hunting for passages that prove your point. Interpretation is discovering truth out of the text, not bringing your view to the passage.
  2. Being overly confident and dogmatic. A Scripture passage has only one meaning—the author’s meaning—but when the meaning is not clear, be humble to admit the viability of alternate views.
  3. Placing yourself above the authority of Scripture. God’s Word must govern every aspect of our lives. Be diligent to live in submission to whatever truth God teaches.

Word Studies

Sometimes an accurate interpretation hinges on the definition of a key word. Jesus promised power when the “Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8), referring to the day of Pentecost when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and became witnesses (2:1–3). What kind of power? What is the definition of witness?

Answering these questions helps you know what Luke meant. Use Bible-study resources to reveal the nuances of a word in its original language, but always seek the meaning of biblical words within their context.

Never isolate a verse from its context. When we seize isolated verses without having a bigger picture of how they fit in with the rest of the passage, it leads to error.3 —Pastor Charles R. Swindoll

Going Deep

Immersing yourself in the context of Scripture is essential for understanding its meaning. Study tools help you do so. As you seek to interpret a passage and consult help along the way, remember that you are examining these areas of context for developing a deep understanding of the passage:

  1. The cultural, biblical, and historical background
  2. The literary genre and use of language
  3. The author’s intent for writing
  4. The author’s beliefs, assumed and stated, about God and life (called theology)

Correlation—Compare the Passage Carefully

Correlation recognizes that all Scripture is inspired by God. Comparing similar subjects in different sections of the Bible enhances your understanding and confirms your interpretation. For instance, God has much more to say about prayer than just one verse can convey. How much richer will be your spiritual meal when you blend passages on prayer from all of Scripture.

Correlate your passage by comparing it with:

  1. Scripture that corresponds with historical events
  2. Scripture that corresponds with theological truths
  3. Scripture that corresponds in application points

Jesus, a Master at Correlation

Jesus used correlation to shine the light of understanding onto the shadowed, often misunderstood passages of the Hebrew Scriptures. On one occasion, Jesus confronted the Pharisees’ false claims regarding the resurrection when He said,

“Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. . . . Haven’t you ever read about this in the Scriptures? Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ So he is the God of the living, not the dead.” (Matthew 22:29, 31–32)

By comparing what He was teaching to Exodus 3:6, Jesus reversed centuries of bad teaching on what would soon emerge as the bedrock doctrine of the New Testament. Jesus’ use of correlation brought to life—from the damp, darkened tomb of misinterpretation—the wonder and power of the resurrection!

Four Benefits of Correlation

Consider this list of the benefits of correlation to your own study of the Bible:

  1. You will base your interpretation on clear discernment. Everyone has an opinion about what a verse or passage “means to them.” But using Scripture to explain Scripture communicates more forcefully and clearly the meaning the authors intended.
  2. As your knowledge broadens, your understanding will deepen. Comparing passages from throughout the whole Bible, just like Jesus did, ensures greater accuracy in interpretation.
  3. You will cultivate a reasonable and balanced approach to the Scriptures. Correlation shows the big picture of Scripture, helping you understand a passage in light of the whole.
  4. You will become able to separate truth from error quickly. Correlation hones your ability to detect errors from teachers who don’t consider other verses.

Pastor Chuck states, “The Bible is the only perfectly correlated book on earth. There are no contradictions.”4

Application—Internalize the Passage Personally

Observation, interpretation, and correlation combine to prepare a nutritious spiritual meal—but it’s incomplete. Failing to apply Scripture is like a chef preparing a wonderful meal, and then leaving everything on the kitchen counter. No one is fed. The meal is wasted.

Our interpretation of a passage should lead to principles—statements of timeless truth—from which we draw timely applications. Scripture has one meaning but many possible applications. For example, David prayed,

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
   test me and know my anxious thoughts.

Point out anything in me that offends you,
   and lead me along the path of everlasting life. (Psalm 139:23–24)

What does “my heart” mean? David was referring to the center of his being from which flowed his thoughts, emotions, and actions. From this interpretation, we draw a principle—an eternal truth: God knows aspects of who we are that we may not even know. Consequently, He can point out issues that need correction, and He can guide us in His way.

This truth about who God is and how He relates to us prompts many applications. One application is simply this: Pray David’s prayer. Invite the Lord to search you, know your heart, reveal His path—and then follow His way.

As you approach the Scriptures, the following questions can help you identify possible applications:

  1. Is there an example for me to follow?
  2. Is there a promise I need to claim?
  3. Is there a prayer I need to offer?
  4. Is there a sin I need to confess?
  5. Is there a command I need to obey?
  6. Is there a habit I need to break?
  7. Is there an attitude I must change?
  8. Is there a challenge I need to face?
  9. Is there a person I need to forgive?

Chuck offers some helpful encouragement and urgency for applying Scripture to our lives, “Today—this very day—start applying God’s Word personally. Remember: it’s never too late to start doing what is right.”5

Putting It All Together

Download and print this handy "Bible Study Review Chart" that summarizes the four steps of Searching the Scriptures. Also, to help you visualize the process, we’ve assembled the following illustration so you can see how it all fits together.

Searching the Scriptures illustration

Observations lead to interpretation supported by correlation, from which you draw eternal truths (principles) that you apply. That’s it! You’ve prepared your spiritual meal.

Free Helpful Recipes!

This overview sets you on the path toward Searching the Scriptures on your own!

Furthermore, Insight for Living Ministries has prepared hundreds of Searching the Scriptures studies based on Pastor Chuck’s messages as Bible-study guides. Once a person learns how to cook, the next step is to find helpful recipes to prepare meals. Think of these STS studies as your biblical recipes. We don’t cook the meal for you, and neither do we leave you alone to figure it all out by yourself. Instead, we join you in the kitchen to walk with you step by step as you prepare your own nourishing meals.

Our souls need spiritual sustenance just as much as our bodies need food. We’ve given you some pointers and filled your kitchen with Bible-study tools. You have all you need. Now don your chef’s hat and start preparing your own spiritual meals from God’s Word!


1. Charles R. Swindoll, Searching the Scriptures: Find the Nourishment Your Soul Needs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2016), 128.

2. Swindoll, Searching the Scriptures, 71.

3. Swindoll, Searching the Scriptures, 86.

4. Swindoll, Searching the Scriptures, 141.

5. Swindoll, Searching the Scriptures, 180.

About the author


Insight for Living Ministries

Written by Insight for Living Ministries staff members.

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