For a Spanish translation of this article please click here.
Maybe you just received a brand new Bible for Christmas, or perhaps you’ve been holding off marking your Bible for years because you just don’t know where to start. Or maybe you are like I was and have a Bible where you’ve tried multiple different highlighting systems and now you’ve got a big mess on your hands and need a fresh start.
If you fall under any of those categories, this post today is for you. I’ve been given special permission to share with you Dr. Harris’ (Head of the Bible Exposition Department at The Master’s Seminary and Founder of Glory Books) personal highlighting system that he’s been using for decades.
This highlighting system changed the way I study and read books. Not only do I apply it to my Bible, but also to every academic book that sits on my shelf. It crosses over well into any genre except maybe for fiction.
The Importance of Highlighting and Marking Your Bible
Some prefer not to mark in their Bibles, and that’s perfectly fine. But for those who do, or are perhaps on the fence, here are a few benefits to marking your Bible:
- Visual Recollection. Find passages of Scripture quickly and easily by enabling the visual part of your mind to pair with your memory. Your brain will associate colors with position on the page automatically over time allowing you to easily locate a verse.
- Guaranteed to Read the Passage More than Once. If you mark your Bible you’ll have to read over it at least twice (once initially, and once as you highlight it). And there is a good chance you’ll go over it many more times as you figure out how to mark it, especially in the method I’m going to share with you today.
- Gives You a Permanent Breakdown of Passages. I don’t care how good your memory is–there are 66 books, 1,189 chapters, and 31,102 verses in the Bible. There’s a pretty good chance you won’t be able to maintain context and meaning for all of this on your own. Mark your Bible so you don’t have to remember everything.
- Provides a Study History. This is my favorite reason. Marking my Bible shows me where I’ve studied and the intensity of that study. It’s like a heat map letting me know where the uncharted areas are and where I can go next.
Why Most Highlighting Systems Eventually Breakdown
There are two primary methods people use to highlight their Bibles: 1) color delineates subject, and 2) color indicates importance.
Color Delineates Subject
Color delineates subject is a very popular, if not the most popular, method of highlighting Scripture. Almost everyone I talk to about Bible marking has used this method at one time or another. My daughter is currently using this method in her first “big girl” Bible.
This method of highlighting assigns a different color to different subjects so that when you’re flipping through your Bible you can quickly identify particular subjects. This method, however, has several drawbacks for the thorough student of the Word.
First, you are undoubtedly going to run out of colors at some point. I mean how many different highlighter colors are there? Seven? Eight…something like that…? How many different subjects are there in the Bible? Haha…good luck with that.
Second, what do you do when two verses fall in the same category? If the number of subjects wasn’t an immediate turn-off, consider what you would do when a verse addresses multiple subjects. You can’t mark it in two colors–otherwise you’re just creating another different color that means something completely different, right? I think that’s what I learned in middle school art class anyway. It just won’t work.
Third, this isn’t a method that can be consistently carried over into your academic books because there is such a vast number of subjects that there is no way you could have a separate color to account for every single one of them–I don’t care what the swatches at Lowe’s say.
This is a fantastic method for people who are new to studying the Bible to use, but as you grow in your study methods and depth, I think you’ll find this system will eventually fail you.
Color Indicates Importance
This technique is slightly more advanced and less common than the “color delineates subject” method. People who use this method like to assign a certain priority level to different color highlighters and then mark each verse or passage with the corresponding color of it’s importance.
First, often times (but not always), the “importance” of a verse is subjective to the reader and can even change within the same reader as he or she grows in Christ over time.
Second, it makes me nervous saying one verse of Scripture is more important than another. Doesn’t it just sound weird when you say it out loud? Is not all Scripture useful (2 Timothy 3.16)?
I will say this about it (or write it rather…). For those of you who really like this method, I think you’re really going to appreciate the Dr. Harris method because it applies a color-based priority system grounded in logic–not the subjectiveness of the reader’s opinion.
The Dr. Harris Method
We must throw in a disclaimer here: just because we are calling it “The Dr. Harris Method” does not mean we are indicating that he was its origin, but rather that this is the method he has chosen to use for years upon years in his own study of the Scripture (and other books).
Highlighting is Outlining
There it is. Think of an outline with Roman numerals and letters. Let’s take my preferred structure: I, A, 1, a, i. Anytime I make an outline I use that structure. So what Dr. Harris does is apply a highlighter color to each step in the outlining process. He then takes these colors and breaks down the logic in passages of Scripture. So for instance, yellow would be the primary point (I), blue would be anything supporting the primary (A), green supports blue (1), pink supports green (a), and purple supports pink (i).
Once this is applied to a book or passage of Scripture you can literally break down the entire logic and flow with a single glance. You can quickly flip through pages and see all of the primary points and their supporting verses.
I wish I had more to explain but it’s really that simple. Just use color to outline your Bible. You’ll never again get lost trying to find where a line of thought begins. Your Bible will instantly make logical sense to both your eyes and your brain. 🙂
A Few Examples…
This method is probably best described visually so let’s look at a few examples.
On this page you can see a couple of things:
- Note how I used yellow (my primary point) to indicate the beginning of each church in chapter 3 and then used blue to support those primary points with things unique to that church. It’s not complete by any means but that’s the beauty of this system: you can work your way through passages at your own leisure. You may start on one passage, leave it to visit another one for a week, and then come back. Whatever works.
- At the beginning of chapter 4 I chose to make “behold, a throne stood in heaven” (v. 2) my primary point because everything following is about the throne room of God. I then used blue to indicate the various beings in the throne room, and then used green to color anything about those beings I wanted to bring to attention.
I added this next page because I wanted you to see that just because a new chapter begins, doesn’t mean it’s a new primary point (chapter markings were not in the original manuscripts–they’re man-made). Notice how in 5.1 we are still in the throne room of God and, therefore, we do not need a new primary point yet.
Let’s look at another example.
1 Timothy 2-3
There are a few things I want to point out in this passage. First, note how the primary point (highlighted in yellow with pink arrow annotation) doesn’t always have to be a verse–sometimes it’s implied by the context. Beginning in verse 8 of 1 Timothy Paul writes on how we are to conduct and behave in church. He doesn’t say that specifically in verse 8, but that is the implied beginning of the section.
Second, following the main point, I outline each sub point under “How to Behave in the Household of God” in blue: conduct of men, conduct of women, overseer qualifications, and deacon qualifications. Then I follow each of those up with green for anything pointing back to them. Now, I can just glance at this page and see the breakdown of the two chapters without having to skim through and read the entire thing.
One other small tip I picked up from Dr. Harris that I’d like to point out. Notice how for the green sections under overseer and deacons I just outline the section with the highlighter rather than color each line. If you have a huge passage of Scripture to highlight, be kind to your Bible and don’t paint the entire page–your Bible will thank you later. A simple border outline of large passages will do the trick.
Finally, I wanted to share this part of my Bible to make the point that you don’t have to do everything at one time. Romans 6 and 7 (and 8) have some of the richest theology in all of Scripture and I want to make sure I really take time going through it as I apply this system. Notice how I’ve hit just a few of the main points, and I didn’t break down the entire passage in one sitting.
Take your time doing this. Make sure your markings are correct and in doing so, it will force you to understand the context and big picture of every passage in Scripture rather than picking out individual verses without an understanding of their relevancy.
I hope this has been helpful for you. This is just a way of marking your Bible and is by no means the only way. If you have a system that works for you, I would encourage you to continue using it.
If you have questions, we’d be glad to answer them in the comments below or on our Facebook page. All you have to do is ask. 🙂 I’ve also included a few tips below.
- Where do I start? Paul’s letters make this method incredibly easy to apply. Start with Romans.
- Look for key words that start or continue logical thought such as “therefore,” “but,” and “for.”
- Make sure you’re right before you mark. That is one thing I love about this method is that it forces me to really go back and check the logical progression of any passage. I want to make sure I understand it before I start applying the highlighter.
- Get a study Bible with detailed outlines at the beginning of each book. MacArthur’s study Bible does this. It will help you, at the very least, to find the main points in each book and then you can follow the logic from there.
- Use different colored pens and shapes to mark subject matter, not a highlighter color. This gives you way more freedom and options to cover the vast number of subjects you’ll find in Scripture.
- This does not mean you should highlight every single verse in your Bible. Just hit the main points. Not everything will fit perfectly into an outline.
- Apply this method to every academic book you read. I can’t tell you how many times this has come in handy for me. I love being able to go to my bookshelf, open a book, and instantly have a visual outline of the writer’s arguments. It’s fantastic!
- Oh, and if you’re looking for highlighters that don’t bleed through, I’ve found the Zebrite Bible Highlighters to be the best. Just don’t mash down too hard!