Comedian George Carlin joked, “I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a whole lot more as they get older. Then it dawned on me – they’re cramming for their final exam.”
That may be true. It’s definitely funny. But it is misguided, at least insofar as it suggests there may be an entrance exam for eternity, or a minimum Bible reading requirement. God measures us not by what we know but who we know, by how we know the Father, and Jesus, the Son who was sent. We’re justified, or declared righteous, by faith in Jesus. But if we know him, God should see evidence of that relationship reflected in the content of our lives. The Bible is one resource that helps us know God better, so that we might walk with God more faithfully.
Many friends that I’ve made through the years have expressed interest in the Bible. They’ve been encouraged to read it. They’ve wanted to learn what is there, to understand the text, and to allow it to enrich their lives. But they’ve struggled to begin, or, once begun, they found it difficult to continue, or confusing in content. They understood that the Bible can help them grow in their spiritual life, but they struggled to understand how. And because they were unable to read the Bible profitably, they failed to make Bible reading a habit.
But that doesn’t have to be the case.
So how do we make it a habit? How can we read the Bible routinely and profitably, not only for knowledge of what it contains, but for knowledge of God?
I’m going to share ten pointers that have helped me. Throughout my years of study and in my practice of ministry, I’ve read the Bible from beginning to end a handful of times, and I’ve read select books more times than I could count, either for personal study or in preparation to teach. I’ve become more and more familiar with the story of Scripture by listening to sermons, reading books, and attending classes by learned instructors who helped me understand what I found in Scripture. I’ve also been to church as a matter of habit and through sermons, the public reading of the Bible, and in small group settings (like a Sunday school), I’ve been equipped to read the Bible with a measure of understanding.
I’m not done learning. But here is what I’ve learned, so far.
1. Acknowledge the Bible is not an Easy Book, but it is Understandable
The Bible is a collection containing sixty-six individual books–thirty-nine books in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, or First Testament) and twenty seven books in the New Testament. There are a number of genres among those books, including narrative, history, genealogy, poetry, allegory, apocalyptic, epistolary, prophetic literature, and wisdom writings. There are various authors, some known, and others unknown to us. These books span centuries. The Old Testament was written hundreds of years (or more) before the birth of Jesus, while the books of the New Testament were written between the 40s or 50s (at earliest) to the 90s (arguably) of the Common Era.
When you read the Bible you are reaching back across history, trying to understand language, culture, idiom, geography, and context that is different from our own. The Bible is not an easy book.
But it is understandable. Through reading the Bible we can access the thoughts and stories of those who recorded their experiences with God, and we can learn from those experiences. We can learn what God is like, how God relates to humankind, and how we are called to live in light of the reality of God and what has been done in and through Jesus. We can also learn a great deal about what we are like, how God has made us to reflect God’s image, how we have been broken by sin, and how God has worked to redeem us through God’s action in history.
The Bible may not be an easy book, but it is an understandable book.
2. Join a Community of Interpretation
In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in his treatise Against Heresies I:10:2-3:
As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it.
Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master; nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.
It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and less degrees of intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith] itself.
Irenaeus believed that the Christian faith was a received tradition, one that was passed down carefully from one generation to the next, without change or adaptation, tracing itself back to the teachings of the Apostles. This idea traces back to the Bible. In Titus 2:1, Paul exhorts Titus, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” Paul wants Titus to pass on what he has been taught.
In 2 Peter 1:12-15, we find another example that shows early church leaders passing down a received set of teachings. Peter writes, “So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.”
In early Christianity, we find evidence that the earliest ideas and teachings were contested. But there also appears to be a solid core that emerged as normative for Christian faith and practice. A canon of texts and a tradition of interpretation became established, and while the canon has remained, the interpretative tradition is more like an ongoing conversation. Some aspects of the tradition are firmly established. Others continue to be debated.
Today, there are a number of established traditions, the oldest of which is found in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The Protestant traditions are more nascent, but nonetheless they are well developed, and in their beginnings sought to return to apostolic or primitive Christianity, returning the church to the Bible and the teachings of the Apostles themselves.
Whether you are a Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, or non-denominational Christian (or some combination thereof), solidify your ties to a community of interpretation. Learn from others of like conviction who have read the Bible and offered an interpretation of its meaning. Discover where you agree and where you disagree, as well as where the tensions rest. Uncover what unites the Christian tradition, and where traditions differ. Learn your own tradition’s weaknesses, and come to respect other traditions’ strengths. Stand firm on your convictions. But also have humility concerning the claims you make. You may be wrong, even if you doubt it.
3. Clarify Your Reason for Reading
Why do you want to read the Bible?
In John 5:39-40, Jesus said this to the religious leaders of his day, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Jesus points to motive. He observes that while his opponents read the Scriptures, they did so in a way that led them to miss the coming of Israel’s Messiah. Jesus suggests that if they read the Scriptures to encounter God, and not as an end in itself, then perhaps they would have recognized him for who he was and they would have found eternal life in him.
If you want to read the Bible to win arguments, to appear knowledgeable, to impress God, or because you think reading the Bible may result in God granting you blessing or favor, perhaps you should revisit your motives. Do you want to read the Scripture in order to know God, to meet Jesus, to become better acquainted with the provocations of the Spirit? Do you want to grow in holiness, flee from sin, increase in love of neighbor, learn compassion for enemies, and more? Do you simply want to be the person God created you to be? What’s your reason for reading?
N. T. Wright said, “The Bible is the book of my life. It’s the book I live with, the book I live by, the book I want to die by.” Wright regards the Bible as a companion resource for life, a guide, and as instruction to prepare for death. He trusts that in and through it, God has spoken and that God speaks.
Why will you read it?
4. Acquire a Good Bible and a Few Study Tools
If you’re going to read the Bible it is a good idea to have one that is readable and accessible. All you may have is an old King James family Bible, its pages worn and hard to read. That’d be a start. But if you’re not familiar with ye Olde English, it might prove challenging.
I recommend Zondervan’s NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (New International Version) or the NRSV Life with God Bible (New Revised Standard Version). At present, I’m reading Holman’s CSB Reference Bible (Christian Standard Bible) for my daily study, along with Crossway’s ESV edition of The Psalms (English Standard Version). I love the feel of my leather bound edition of the Psalms. It is pleasing to the touch.
The important thing is to get a good translation that you enjoy reading, and to do it. Here are a few other tools you may want to have one hand:
- A Bible dictionary, like the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary. A Bible dictionary includes entries about geography, people, nations, artifacts, festivals, and more.
- A Bible concordance, like The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. You can look up any word in a concordance and find where else that precise term appears in the Bible, which allows you to broaden your understanding of the word and mine the depths of its range and nuance.
- A Bible commentary, like The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary. Commentaries come in multi-volume sets, and there are several good, reliable series. But having a one-volume commentary can come in handy, especially if you’re just beginning your study of the Bible and are building your theological library.
- A Bible atlas, like the Zondervan Atlas of the Bible. A good study Bible will have a few maps, but an atlas will offer more information.
- A Bible handbook, like Stephen Miller’s Complete Guide to the Bible. Zondervan also produces a Bible handbook; there are others. But Stephen has always been kind to me, and I count him as a friend.
5. Ask God for Help and Honor God’s Leadership
A. W. Tozer wrote, “The Bible is a supernatural book and can be understood only by supernatural aid.” That is true, to a point. All people can profit at some level from the reading of Scripture. But those who profit most will do so by seeking first to know God through the Bible. Any knowledge of God that we obtain is always a work of God’s supernatural grace.
That’s why you should ask for help. Pray while you read, and earnestly and simply ask God to enlighten your mind and enable you to understand. Apply what you learn. And if you ever feel challenged, that’s good. Maybe God is unearthing something that needs to change. Honor God’s leadership.
6. Adopt a Method for Reading
To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri (” a man of one book”).
Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: – “Lord, is it not thy word, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou ‘givest liberally, and upbraidest not.’ Thou hast said; ‘If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know, thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”
Wesley had a method. He entered solitude, welcomed God’s presence, opened the Scriptures, asked good questions of the text and of himself, lifted his heart to God and asked for help, read comparatively, meditated on what he had read, sought counsel from others, studied other books, and taught others what he had learned.
I read devotionally and acquisitively, and most often I employ the inductive Bible study method, which you can read about here.
7. Formulate a Plan for Study
You could study one book of the Bible per month. If you did that for every book of the Bible, you could read the entire Bible in five and a half years. I read four chapters each day, plus a Psalm. I underline as I go and make notes. When I finish, I’ll choose another copy of the Bible and begin again. That’s my plan.
What’s your plan?
8. Set a Rhythm
I begin each day with Bible reading and prayer. That’s my rhythm. I have a daily reminder in my tasks, which helps me to stay on track.
Set an appointment on your calendar. Make it a daily task. Recruit a trustworthy friend to ask you if you have been routine in reading.
9. Let the Bible Read You
In Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue, C. Stephen Evans helpfully applies the wisdom of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to our reading of the Bible. Kierkegaard’s reading of James 1:22-27 led him to conclude that Scripture is like a mirror, reflecting God, reflecting itself, but also reflecting us. Evans observes, “One way we can go wrong is by making God’s Word simply an object of scholarship to be studied rather than reading it to hear God speak to us.”
In Self-Examination, Kierkegaard offered this advice in reading the Scriptures, “Remember to say yourself incessantly: It is I to whom it is speaking; it is I about whom it is speaking.” Through the Bible, God addresses us. When you understand the Bible, apply it. Put it into practice.
10. Stick With It
C H. Spurgeon said, ““Bible study is the metal that makes a Christian,” and A. W. Tozer remarked, “Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian.” Once you begin, stick with it. Don’t quit. And if you do stop for a while, don’t be overwhelmed by guilt. Begin again.
If it helps, bring to mind the words of Psalm 19:7-13, which says:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure,
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.
I’ve given up more than once. I’ve bogged down in the commandments. I’ve gotten lost in a genealogy. But I’ve come back. I’ve made a new beginning. I’ve kept reading.
And it has been worth it.