How to Read the Bible: A Beginner's Guide
by Fred G. Zaspel
Assured that all Scripture is both inspired and holistically profitable (2Tim. 3:16-17) many Christians have plugged away faithfully at Bible reading wondering, frankly, why they have not found it to be as profitable as they had expected. I’m sure there are many reasons for such failed expectations, ranging from poor reading ability to lack of teaching and guidance, lack of faith, distractions, poor reading habits, lack of a clear approach and agenda, and so on. Profit does not come ipso fact, by the mere reading of words from the Bible. And while the answer to this question could take us to seminary-length training, there are some basic considerations that will help us read Scripture more profitably.
I hesitate beginning on a negative note, especially one that calls into question a long-standing cherished tradition, but it will be useful for us to recognize the "down-side" of the otherwise valuable "daily devotionals" that are popular. I don’t mean to leave the wrong impression. Daily devotionals can be of wonderful value. Who has read Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening and not found encouragement? And the same can be said for Our Daily Bread and many others. I do not at all mean to dismiss these tools or their proven value. However, by the nature of the case the approach of most daily devotional books just does not tend to a broad biblical understanding. The approach is to find a gem here, a nugget there — here a verse, there a promise, everywhere a feel-good. Again, this approach has its value, and I am happy to see Christians supplement their Bible reading with daily devotionals. My point is simply that by themselves they will never suffice. We must have more than isolated hits and misses if we are going to understand the biblical message well.
So I have often encouraged Christians, first, to develop the habit of reading the Bible whole.
Now again, if we are not careful we can fall in to the same problem here that I mentioned above. Early in our Christian experience, at least, many of us have read our Bible through, say a few chapters a day, merely looking for that little devotional nugget or gem — something that "strikes" us — without first seeking to understand the point of the passage in its immediate and in its larger context. There is profit in this, but it is limited. My point here is that we must not only read the Bible "whole"; we must also be careful to read for understanding. Reading our Bibles through, say, each year, is a wonderful and worthy goal. Doing this over time will certainly lend to a broad understanding of the sweep of Scripture and the development of its message. But we must be careful not to "speed read" only but also take enough time to ensure that we understand what we read. Indeed, we must seek diligently to understand Scripture as we read it so that by understanding its message rightly our devotional life may be enriched.
And so it is important as we read a given passage to keep larger considerations in mind. Read to see "the big story" develop, to see how each little story relates to the larger story, or how this passage fits in this biblical book, in the developing biblical history, and in the canon as a whole. Keep in mind the context, the flow of the narrative or the point of the argument, the epoch or place in biblical history, the connection(s) to what lies before and after. We should also stay alert to recurring themes, words, and concepts. All of this deserves more than just this brief mention, but that will have to be for another time. The point here, simply, is that to read Scripture profitably we must read for understanding.
Moreover, given the need for understanding, we must recognize that we all need teachers. This is why God has given teachers to the church. And so I often recommend that Christians carefully choose their devotional guides and other resources to accompany their Bible reading. One wonderful resource is D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God. This devotional is unique in that it follows a one year Bible reading plan, offering one-page comments from one of the day’s assigned passages. For the Love of God is presently available in two volumes, but two more are coming soon. In terms of helping the Christian learn to read his or her Bible, these devotional books are in a class by themselves. Another wonderfully profitable help is a good Study Bible such as the ESV Study Bible or the NIV Study Bible or the forthcoming NIV11 Study Bible. The notes at the bottom of the pages in these Bibles are excellent, and reading through the Bible with their help will accelerate and advance our learning greatly.
I should mention also that if it takes you more than a year to read through the whole Bible profitably, that’s okay. Don’t be discouraged by it. There is no biblical command regarding how much reading we must accomplish in so much time, and in fact many Christians in attempting to read the whole Bible in a year have become discouraged at falling behind only to quit altogether because they have not kept up with a schedule! Find a pace that works for you, and try to stay at it. And if you miss a day, just pick up the next day and keep going. And if you want to read, say, the Gospels a second time before starting all over, that’s okay too. You needn’t be regulated by the calendar. Quite simply, just set out on a plan of reading that will be doable and profitable, and don’t allow temporary lapses keep you from picking up again where you left off.
It is also important also to read Scripture noting carefully its relation to Christ at every turn. We have it on Jesus’ own word that the Bible is about him (Mt. 5:17; Lk. 24:44-45; Jn.5:46; cf. 2Cor. 1:20, etc.), and so we should read it accordingly — noting how he is anticipated, needed, presented, explained, and so on.
There is much more that could be said on this, and there is much to be said concerning more intensive Bible study also. But my point here is simply to provide a basic starting point for the Christian in the reading of Scripture. Perhaps these suggestions will help.