How to Read the Bible
Happy New Year! Day 6, and New Year’s Resolutions are going strong right? If they’re not going so well don’t worry, January is just a trial month so you can get into better habits in February. But of all the things you hope to accomplish and focus on this year I hope that somewhere on the top of the list you are going to put your relationship with God.
Maybe part of your goals are like mine and you’re hoping to read through the Bible with more intention and purpose. Maybe you’ve never read the Bible before and want to give it a chance. Maybe you’re like me a few years back, where you’ve grown up with all the stories, read it in church along with the sermons but you’ve never actually read it all for yourself. Well in either case I want to try to give you some tools, or tips that might hopefully help you get started on your own lifelong journey with the Bible.
Choose a Version That’s Right for You
Ok so you’ve decided to read the Bible, what’s your first step? The very first thing you need to do, before you even open the Bible is to choose a version that’s right for you. There are exciting stories, and some not-so-exciting stories. There are some complex concepts in the Bible, and some simple concepts in the Bible, but the first thing you need is a Bible in a style that is comfortable and understandable for you. If it’s your first time reading through the Bible I recommend one of three different options for you:
The NIV (New International Version),
The NLT (New Living Translation),
Or the ESV (English Standard Version)
The NIV is a great translation to read from, kind of your standard Bible translation. The NLT is a little easier to read, it is similar to a paraphrase type Bible where it translates what the Bible is trying to say in words that are easy to understand while still staying accurate to the Bible’s intention. The ESV is one of the most accurate translations of the Bible without all the thee, thou, and thy’s of the New King James Version. Also, I’d recommend grabbing a Study Bible of any of those translations. Scholars and Theologians have worked together to provide some excellent footnotes and ideas that can help you understand the concept and context of what you’re reading better
Pray and Ask for Guidance
The second thing to do in reading the Bible is to pray and ask for guidance. This is probably one of thee most important steps in reading the Bible. Take a minute before you begin to read, and pray for understanding. It can be a long complex and specific prayer or, as simple as, “God help me to understand your Word”. However many chapters or verses you decide to read that day it’s important to start every reading with a brief pause in prayer to ask for God’s blessing. After all, we believe that the Bible is God’s divinely inspired word, meant to guide us and reveal to us the truths of His love and plan to redeem us so it helps to ask God to help you see His love in the stories you read, especially the more difficult stories.
But let me add this: one prayer does not make you an instant scholar. Just because you pray for guidance as you read does not guarantee that every thought that pops into your head as you read the Bible is as divinely inspired as the book you’re reading. We are all humans, prone to making mistakes, so the way we see or interpret one story today may be different than the way we see or interpret that same story tomorrow. We grow through our life experiences and our walk with God and so does our understanding and reading of the Bible
Sometimes there are stories that mean nothing to you at the time but end up meaning a lot to you years down the road. There may also be stories that you might not quite understand until weeks, months, or years later but the point of prayer before reading is to ask God to help us understand the message He has for us in our time, in our context, and in this specific point of our lives.
So you have a Bible that suits you, you’ve had a moment of prayer and now you’re reading the Bible. Wherever you want to start is fine but I would recommend starting either at the beginning of the Old or New Testament. If you want to read through the Bible in a year there are lots of reading plans available online that you could use that will get you through the Bible pretty quickly. You could start in the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. If you choose Mark, you’ll find a fast-paced book about the life of Jesus and what He did. In John, you will find out what Jesus said and who He is. Any of the Gospels will help you understand Jesus’ life and ministry. Then, after you are finished with the Gospels, you could read some of the Epistles—Romans, Ephesians, Philippians. You’ll find helpful direction on how to live a life that honors God. If you take that approach you could consider reading Genesis next, where you’ll learn how God created the world and the impact of sin on the world.
Read the Context
Whatever way you choose to read the Bible and wherever you choose to start is fine but the third step I believe in reading the Bible is to (and mind you the next 3 steps are in no particular order) read the context. The context is everything that surrounds the verses, and the story. If you are wanting to read and understand the whole Bible it’s not always the most beneficial to just jump around reading random chapters and groupings of verses. To understand a story it’s cultural, social and religious significance it is important to read the story in its context. This is why a Study Bible helps because some footnotes can help you understand the context better
Part of reading the context is asking tons of questions when you read. Some great questions to ask are the 5 W’s. “Who, What, When, Where, Why?” If you see a name you’re not familiar with maybe search his name in your Bible app or online to see in what other stories you might find this character in. That might help you understand some motives or why things are happening as they are. You might even what to google Biblical name meanings because often times their names foreshadow how a story plays out and what lessons we’re supposed to learn from them
Ask where this is taking place? There are tons of Biblical maps online that you could search for to help you understand the geographical context better. This helps a lot when you want to understand the journey of the Israelites in the desert, or track the travels of Jesus in the Gospels.
You might even ask when things are taking place. What other historical events are shaping the backdrop to this story? For example did you know: Woolly Mammoths existed at the same time the Pyramids were being built? Did you know that Oxford University in England was nearing 400 years old by the time the Aztec Empire was founded in Central America? Or that the Gospel of Luke was written the same year the Roman Colosseum was unveiled? Context helps us understand perspective and perspective helps us understand the story
Understand Cultural Differences
The next step in reading the Bible is to understand cultural differences. This one is a little harder for a first-time reader because it takes a bit of research and reading material outside of the Bible, but to put it simply, the Bible is old. In fact, some of the earliest known manuscripts go back nearly over 3000 years, and those are were written down after centuries and millennia of oral tradition. This means that the stories and the authors wrote with an entirely different mindset than we have today.
Not only were they in a different part of the world in a completely different time period, the way they viewed and interacted with the world around them is so incredibly foreign to the way we experience life now. Their experiences shaped the way they recorded and explained the stories in the Bible, and often times we will find verses and stories that just don’t make sense right away in our world today. At the end of this post I’ll give you a list of books that might help you better understand the worlds of the Old and New Testament if that’s something you’re interested in, but for now you can settle on just realizing and accepting that the world these stories live in is different than our own, so it’s ok if it doesn’t make sense to us immediately.
Recognize the Type of Literature You are Reading
The next thing when reading the Bible is to recognize the type of literature you are reading. The Bible is not really a book so much as it is a library of books. There is a metanarrative that spans and weaves through the entirety of the Bible, but ultimately it’s a collection of different literary styles with some books even containing multiple literary styles. In the Bible you’ll find some History, Letters, Law, Prophecy, Song, Poetry, you can find almost every time of literature in the Bible.
How you read the text will change based on what type of literature it is. You wouldn’t read Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” the same way you’d read a history textbook and you wouldn’t read Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” the same way you’d read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” A great resource on identifying and reading these different styles is The Bible Project. They have some great short videos on YouTube that would help anyone with reading through the Bible
Discover the Application
The sixth step in reading the Bible is to discover the application. Ask questions of the text as it relates to you. What questions did it raise? How do the verses you are studying apply to your daily life? What life lessons is the story trying to teach you? How might you change your life in response to these lessons? What did you learn about God or Jesus? How does the story point you to the sacrifice of Jesus? How does the story point you to the love and forgiveness we find in Jesus?
Now if you read the Bible one or even a few chapters a day you might not be able to answer all of those questions after every reading. So, some other questions that you might ask are: How does this story move along the narrative? What might the author be setting up next through this chapter? Why did the author include this in the story or the chapter? What verses or chapters surround this one and how do they clarify what I read?
For example, in the Gospels you’ll find that some of the miracles and stories don’t all happen in the same order across the 4 Gospels. But it’s not because Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t know about telling a story chronologically, but rather it’s because for them what was more important was piecing the stories together in a way that painted the picture of Jesus they were trying to get across. To them the illustration was more important than the chronology.
Go At Your Own Pace
The seventh step in reading the Bible is to go at your own pace. There are some fantastic reading plans out there, some that take you through the Bible in 3 years, others that take you only through the main stories, and others that take you through the Bible in a year. For a lot of people these plans will be incredibly helpful in making sure you keep up with your daily reading, and making sure you’re actually reading through the Bible, but there is no law or rule that says you have to read through the bible in just a year.
If you want to read it in a year that’s perfectly ok, and if you want to read it a little faster or slower, that’s ok too. What’s important is that you’re reading the Bible, and that you’re reading at a pace that helps you grasp the stories. Enjoy the journey of reading through the Bible, take in the stories, let them inspire you and change you.
Read it and Re-Read it
And our final step in reading the Bible is to read it and re-read it. The Bible is not a book you read once and be done with. The way you read and interpret the Bible changes as you change; it grows as you grow. In the Rabbinic tradition, they talk about scripture having seventy faces. So when your read it, you keep turning it like a gem, letting the light refract through the various faces in new and unexpected ways. You turn the gem, and you see something new
The Bible is one of those books that no matter how many times you read it you will always be able to draw something new out of what you read. One of the most exciting parts about reading the Bible again and again, especially for me, is finding something new you hadn’t before. Keep turning the gem.
Before we wrap up this post I want to give you some resources that will help you read the Bible if that’s your goal, and if not, hopefully inspire you to read or re-read the Bible.
The first resource I highly recommend is The Bible Project. This is run by some awesome pastors, and they have fantastic videos that help explain concepts of the Bible in fun and short animated videos. They have great quality to their videos and some awesome resources online too. You can find them on their YouTube page or at their website thebibleproject.com. They are a great place to start
If you want to be inspired to read the Bible I recommend reading through Rob Bell’s book “What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything”. He has some great insight into some of the stories, and some good tips on how to read the Bible as well.
I also recommend “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible” by E. Randolph Richardson and Brandon J. O’Brien. This is one of those books that will help you identify some of the bias we read the Bible with and help you to be able to understand the cultural differences a bit
A great book on reading the Old Testament is “Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?” by Alden Thompson. He has some invaluable insight that will change the way you read through the Old Testament.
Now we know there’s a lot of violence in the Old Testament, and a lot of Christians have trouble reconciling the violence in the Old verses the peace in the New Testament. Gregory Boyd has a fantastic book to help you understand all that a little better. It’s called “Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence”. This is his condensed version of his two-volume book “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Understanding the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross” so I recommend reading it!
And finally, I recommend the book “Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective Can Transform Your Understanding” by Lois Tverberg. A great book on reading the New Testament through the eyes of Jesus.
I’m hoping that you’ll either be inspired or feel like you have some tools to help you start reading through the Bible. It has had such an incredible influence in my life and I hope that as you engage with and read through the stories that they too might influence and change your life.
It’s through the Bible that we find the amazing story of Jesus; the redemption, forgiveness, grace, and mercy we find in the crucified and resurrected Saviour. And it’s only through the Bible, the inspired Word of God, that we might see the glimpses of love God has been working in throughout our history. Let this year be the year the Bible inspires you.
God I pray that you would speak to us through Your Word. May it serve to guide us, and change us; molding us into citizens of your Kingdom who spread love, peace, and grace wherever we go. I pray that as we read and engage with the Bible that you would reveal to us the amazing love story of a God who laid it all down to save a fallen race. God, may this year be the year we make serious changes to our lives and live a life that better honors and worships you. May your love and grace surround us as we journey with you. AMEN