Bible study tools: Ballpoint pen

pen as bible study tool

The ballpoint pen: Bible mark-up system an essential tool for deeper Bible study

If you are serious about going deeper in your study of the Bible, one of the essential tools that you need is a ball-point pen. Think of it as a low-tech external hard-drive for your brain.

I stick two or three pens  in the cover of my wide-margin Bible so that I seldom open my Bible lacking this useful tool. I also try to keep scrap paper stuffed in the front flap, ready for use at a moment’s notice. The cartoon lists 11 ways in which your pen will help you go deeper in Bible understanding. I will touch briefly on each one, providing biblical references as appropriate. (Most of my examples will be from random places where I have marked my personal Bible.)

Some people have developed a complete Bible mark-up system. My is idiosyncratic and utilitarian, meaning I have developed a system for marking up my Bible that is mine alone and works for me. I have not tried to be consistent or systematic. I don’t have time for that.

  1. Analyze the text you are studying

before-afterThe biblical text contains many genres, each with its structure. Narrative, for example, usually progresses in chronological order, though that is not always the case (see Mark 6:14-29, which has a couple of flashbacks you can mark).

In the epistles, you can sometimes use two words, like ‘Before’ and ‘After’ (Eph. 2:1-3, 4-10, 11-12, 13-22) or ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ (1 Cor. 13:8-12); sometimes you need four words, e.g., ‘Put off’ and ‘Put on’ (Eph. 4:22-32). In the Gospels, record changes of audience (e.g., Luke 14:25; 15:3; 16:1; 16:14-15; 17:1) or changes of scene that mark the end of one context and the beginning of another (e.g., Luke 17:10-11; 18:43 and 19:1).

  1. Ask questions if you don’t understand

I put a question mark out in the margin when I have trouble understanding something. In 1 Thess. 2:16b, Paul says, “The wrath of God has come upon them at last.” In this case, I took a guess at what it might mean: “Referring to the Caligula crisis?” About a chapter later, beside the phrase “with all His holy ones” in 1 Thess. 3:13, I wrote “Angels?”

Beside John 1:47, in which Jesus says of Nathanael, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false,” is the question, “Is Jesus speaking ironically?” (Nathanael earlier asked, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”) In the margin of 2 Thess. 1:8, which says, “He will punish those who don’t know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus,” I ask, “Two groups or one (hendiadys or not)?” Beside the sentence, “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him” (1 John 3:1), I ask, “How does this fit the context?”

  1. Note themes, summarize, or paraphrase the gist

generationProv. 17:6 says, “Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children.” In the margin, I have, “Mutual respect.” I wrote “Moral relativism” beside 2 Tim. 4:3-4: “Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” Beside 1 Cor. 15:22-28, with marks at beginning and end, are the words, “End-times sequence.”

  1. Write a personal response

Beside this clause, “…but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:14), I inscribed, “Who drags me away? The other me (v. 8).” Verse 8 describes the doubter as “a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” In the margin of Hosea 5:10, “Judah’s leaders are like those who move boundary stones,” is the question, “What ‘boundary stones’ do we move?”

  1. Mark repeated words

fatherFor most of the occurrences of “Father” in the Fourth Gospel, I have written ‘Father’ in the margin. In verses where God the Father is being spoken of without actually using the word, I have ‘(Father).’ The same is true for ‘Son’ in John. Such marking makes it much easier later on to explore the intimate relationship of Father and Son in that gospel.

Because Rom. 12:1 starts out, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy…” I went back through the previous section (chapters 9 through 11) and wrote ‘Mercy’ in the margin whenever that word appears in the text. A quick count reveals ‘mercy’ occurs eight times in that preceding context, not to mention close synonyms, ‘compassion’ and ‘kindness’ (once and four times, respectively).

  1. Point out cross-references

My Bible already prints references to parallel passages, such as between 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, 1 and 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, and in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). It does not, however, note the parallels between Isaiah and Micah or between Ephesians and Colossians or Romans and 1 Peter. Comparing these parallels can sometimes lead to insights. For example, a comparison of 2 Sam. 6 with 1 Chron. 13 and 15 clears up any mystery regarding the death of Uzzah. David says to the Levites, “It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time that the Lord our God broke out in anger against us. We did not inquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way” (1 Chron. 15:13).

Sometimes, where it seems convenient, I make a list of passages pertaining to a word of phrase in a text. For example, beside the sentence, “And so through Him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20), stands “Amen: Num. 5:22; Dt. 27:14-26; Ps. 41:13; 72:19; 89:52; 106:48.” Beside 1 Thess. 5:2, which mentions the day of the Lord, is “OT BACKGROUND: Amos 5:18-20; Isa. 2:12-22; Joel 1:13-20; Jer. 30:4-24.”

  1. Making drawings to illustrate the message

Beside the ‘itching ears’ of 2 Tim. 4:3 stands a crude sketch of an ear. I drew a weeping dove beside Eph. 4:30: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God….” Many references to money either have a drawn money bag (marked with ‘$’), or simply the dollar sign beside them. Verses referring to a king may have a crown in the margin.

moneyMentions of the Spirit have a flame, and places where ‘child’ or ‘children’ occur have the head of a baby. A smiley face with a tongue hanging out marks verses referring to the tongue or to speech. A ladder coming out of a hole in the ground stands beside 1 Cor. 10:13: “But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”

What is the value of all of this graffiti? It makes finding a passage on one of these subjects a lot easier, especially if I remember what book contains the verse.

  1. Create diagrams

infinity-diagramThe margin of my Bible is not wide enough to make room for diagrams beyond very simple ones. The scrap paper will have to serve for those with any degree of complexity. I do have a cluster of arrows pointing and all directions, with the symbol for infinity (∞) in front of each point beside the phrase, “…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

  1. Provide explanations of difficult texts

In 1 Cor. 6:18, my pen has added quotation marks to indicate Paul is quoting the Corinthians before making his reply. The part enclosed by quotation marks is, “All sins a man commits are outside his body.” I marked through the word ‘other’ because it is not in the Greek and probably doesn’t belong. In the margin beside this verse, I have “Quoting the slogan of the Corinthians.” Their teaching seems to be that what one does in the physical body is morally neutral and has no effect on his or her spiritual status. Paul’s refutation follows in the next verse.

  1. Give sources for quotations and allusions

My Bible already gives references for all of the New Testament’s direct quotations of the Old Testament, but I like to write out “Quoting” plus the reference. If a New Testament author is merely alluding to an Old Testament text, I write “Allusion to” plus the reference. For example, beside “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8), I have “Allusion to Ps. 90:4.”

  1. Transcribe alternate translations

alternate translationSometimes, an alternate translation appears in the footnotes. If I agree with the alternate over what is printed in the text, I circle the footnote reference. For example, 1 Cor. 12:31 makes the verb imperative: “But eagerly desire the greater gifts.” The alternate translation takes the verb as an indicative (same spelling in Greek): “But you are eagerly desiring….” Paul has already said earlier in chapter 12 that God distributes spiritual gifts as He wills (v. 11). Yet rather than accepting the gift graciously given them, the Corinthian Christians are wanting someone else’s gift. Paul is not saying this is a good thing. He merely describes their self-serving attitude. I wrote in the margin “Alt. rendering is more likely.”

In 2 Thess. 2:4, I wrote “4 present tenses” and underlined the three verbs of the verse: ‘opposes,’ ‘exalts,’ and ‘sets… up’—along with the participle ‘proclaiming.’ To make them all present tense in English as they are in Greek, I had to cross out two future helping verbs ‘will’ and add ‘s’ to the first two verbs. The result is “He opposes and exalts himself….” Instead of “He will oppose and will exalt himself….”

On the same page is 2 Thess. 1:12, which has the phrase, “…grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The alternate rendering in the margin is “God and Lord, Jesus Christ,” which directly ascribes deity to Jesus. This one I left uncircled, because I believe the rendering in the text is the correct one.

Get a pen, and start marking up your Bible

These notes, drawings, and diagrams that I have made in my Bible enhance my understanding, pique my interest, and whet my appetite to go deeper. I have shared with you a work in progress. I still have unanswered questions, and some that I have tentatively answered may be wrong. But I share them to encourage you to begin marking up your Bible and taking notes. I am convinced that doing so will improve your Bible study techniques, enhance your appreciation of the difficulties involved, and sharpen your memory of the biblical text. If even some of that happens for you, buying the pen and spilling all of its ink will be well worth it.

Want to go deeper?

  1. Here is a Pinterest page that shows different ways to mark your Bible:
  2. Here is a YouTube (6 min.) of a woman’s system of marking with colored pencils different Bible topics, such as prayer, salvation, praise, spiritual growth, etc. She kept a card showing the meaning of each color until she had them memorized.
  3. Commercially available “Bible Marking Study System.”

I do NOT recommend using highlighters to mark up your Bible for two reasons: 1) they might bleed through and mark the next page as well; 2) some verses fit more than one topic, but after you have highlighted the entire verse with neon green, it can’t be marked for an additional topic.

Steve has been a Bible teacher for over 30 years. He has written many articles, more than 20 e-books, and several study guides, most recently, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation. His website,, encourages all people to go deeper in their understanding of the Word of God, the Bible, and to become authentic, New Testament Christians who serve a risen Lord.

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