Recently, a young man at our church was asking about going deeper in his study of the Bible. He read regularly but was looking for something more. Here was the conversation-starter I sent him.
So, how do you read the Bible? Is there a right way or a wrong way to read God’s Word? Is there only one way to study it? These are common questions Christians ask all the time.
Understanding how to read the Bible is important because God’s people have always been known as “a people of the Book.” That is, our devotion to God isn’t based on what we come up with or value, it’s based on the direction we receive from God’s Book, the Bible. The following are some answers to those common questions, along with some practical advice on how to go about reading God’s Word in such a way that it transforms your life.
Whole Bible Reading
In this approach, you are reading over the entire Bible fairly quickly, usually once a year. This is usually a life-long habit that Christians develop. It’s also a method of study that has many benefits. First, it makes us read passages of the Bible that we might otherwise avoid. Second, it allows us to learn the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) and better understand the real value of all the Bible (2 Tim 3:16-17). Third, is allows us to see the totality of the Bible’s storyline, giving us a better idea of how the Old and New Testaments cohere together as one book that points to Christ.
There are a couple of ways that reading the whole Bible in a year can be done – chronologically, canonically, or a mixing of Old and New Testaments. However it’s done, it usually requires reading three chapters a day, which is about fifteen minutes of time.
Individual Book Reading
Another approach is to focus your reading on a specific book. Here, the goal is to understand well the message of the book; to follow its argument and meditate on its themes. This can be done in a couple of ways. One way is to read slowly, taking notes and making observations. You might only read a couple of verses each day, outlining the book as you go. Another way might be to read the whole book, or parts of larger books, over and over again each day for a month, taking notes each day. This allows you to not only learn about the book, but to practically memorize it.
This kind of reading is helpful because you get to move deeper into the text. You can better see the thematic and didactic connections an author is making as he writes to God’s people. When you do this kind of study there are some questions to ask of your text to help you think through and apply what you’re reading: What kind (genre) of passages is this, and what does it actually say? What does it teach about God or humanity’s relationship to him? How does the saving work of Jesus Christ relate to this passage? Is there a truth to believe, an example to follow, a sin to avoid, an action to perform? How can I put this into practice in your everyday life?
Some kind of introductory resource will be useful to go along with this kind of reading – something that gives you some basic info like the identity of the original author and audience. This can be found in a good study Bible or in something like Ryken’s Bible Handbook.
A final way to read the Bible is by doing a topical study. Again, this can be done a couple of ways. Say you want to see what the Bible says about money. You can use a concordance to look up every reference to money and read them. Or maybe you want to see what Jesus said about money, or Paul? Then you can restrict your search to specific books. Using a simple concordance search might be okay, but what about the passages that talk about wealth or finances that don’t use the word ‘money’? Some kind of a topical Bible can be helpful to fill in the gaps.
The advantages of studying a theme or doctrine through a topical reading is that you can clearly see where the teaching comes from in the Bible, as well as trace it’s contours throughout the unfolding of God’s teaching over time. It also allows you to look into an issue or need you have during specific times in your life, perhaps even deal with a specific sin.
Okay, I presented these three methods as options. In reality, they should be three ways every Christians reads the Bible. There is a real sense in which you cannot understand the parts without the whole. And at the same time, a general knowledge of the whole isn’t sufficient. Thus, some kind of interweaving of these plans is probably best. Maybe spend your study time in a book or on a topic. Then have some kind of afternoon or evening reading, working through the whole Bible.
However you choose to study the Bible, avoid being haphazard or lazy in your reading. The open-it-up-wherever method or the pick-it-up-whenever method might reveal a lack of seriousness in your walk with God. Time in the Word, means intimacy with its Author. Therefore, make some kind of plan and keep going, even if you miss a day or two. If after you’ve put in six months pretty consistently you decide you want change your plan, go for it. In the mean time make a commitment and follow through with it.
Also, keep a couple of things in mind as you read. First, remember whose book you’re reading. This is God’s Word. That means it is not to be taken lightly or made to fit our ideas or desires. We read it to have our minds and hearts changed.
Second, because it is God’s word ask him for help in reading it. Always unite prayer with Bible reading. Begin with prayer, asking God to help you understand it and end your reading time with prayer, asking God to change you and others in specific ways based on what you just read. Some good things to pray before you read the Bible are: Incline my heart to your testimonies (Ps 119:36); Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law (Ps 119:18); Unite my heart to fear your name (Ps 86:11); Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love (Ps 90:14); Please show me your glory (Ex 33:18).
Next, read the Bible but also think about memorization. It’s one thing to read the Bible and understand what it says, but it’s another thing to actually commit God’s word to memory. Some struggle with this, finding it hard to memorize. My advice is to begin small and keep going. The more you try memorizing the easier it will become.
I would also say make reading the Bible a priority. It’s far too easy to start out well and finish poorly. Plan your day around your Bible reading. For example, do you have to get up early to be somewhere? Plan to get up even earlier to read. If your house is crowded, go somewhere else to find a quiet place to read and think and pray.
All of these attitudes towards Bible reading are simply applications from the life of Christ. These attitudes were the kind we see in his life. And as our Lord and Master we should be imitating him.