You cracked open your journal, busted out your favorite pen, and finally opened your Bible.
Five sentences later, you have no idea what you just read.
Confusion, frustration, resignation: But the pastor made it so easy. It was better when he told it.
And the final excuse: At least I tried.
It’s happened to all of us, from rookies to veterans, when we catch the excitement of digging into Scripture and come out cold. Most of us will conclude the Bible is too hard, that we’re not mature enough, that we need to be spoon-fed, that something’s wrong with me, that we’ll try it again later. And with each pass at reading, we grow more bewildered.
Every pastor with the best of intentions is yelling at you to read your Bible, but they forget to tell you how.
Of course the simplest way would be to turn to Genesis and just rip right through it. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little help in reading Scripture. If you genuinely want to read the Bible but have had some false starts, here are some ways to dig into the Greatest Truth in the universe.
1) Focus on one book of the Bible at a time.
There’s pressure to finish the whole Bible, but that doesn’t make sense if you hardly know what it’s saying. Browsing won’t work. Pick a book and camp out for a while.
Maybe your pastor picked a book for a sermon series, like Mark or Philippians or James. Read through it slowly everyday.
A straight reading of one of the New Testament epistles takes about ten to twenty minutes, which is how long it takes you to upload a Facebook photo album or something less important. There might be some things you don’t understand, but there will be a lot you do understand. Taste each word, make notes, highlight what captures you, get a familiarity with the text.
If you’re not sure where to start, try Ephesians, 1 John, or one of the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Mark is the shortest, and John is the classic gospel that most new Christians choose to begin.
I once had a 30 Day James Challenge in our church, where we read the Book of James everyday for thirty days. It was a hit. Try it out.
For Bible reading plans, click here.
2) Get an outline and the background.
Your Bible was written over a span of 1600 years, by at least 40 authors, across three continents. Each book has a different genre, purpose, and audience, with all sorts of historical context and grammatical details.
You don’t need to know every piece of surrounding information, but it helps to have a decent outline of the book’s structure and some of its background. Tons of outlines exist for each book, but the best place to start is a Study Bible. The Ryrie Study Bible has excellent outlines, but even your most basic Bible should break down each book into digestible sections.
A good background check is the W-Questions: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.
- Who wrote it? Who was it written to? Who is in this passage?
- What’s happened? What actions or messages are occurring?
- When is it taking place? Before or after Jesus? Before Moses or after David? Before the Captivity or after?
- Where is it taking place? Where are they headed?
- Why did the author write this? Why are these specific things mentioned?
A note of warning: Do not use Google as your main resource.
For some Bible study resources, check here.
For the absolute best overview of the Bible, get What The Bible Is All About by Henrietta Mears. It’s one of my all-time favorites, not just as a tool but for its great writing.
For a grip on the Old Testament, try reading Hebrews. It almost reads like a commentary.
3) When you get stuck, ask someone.
Imagine my disappointment when I first came home to read the Bible for myself all those years ago, and the Bible was not as exciting as the preacher made it.
Some of the great Bible characters that made a Ten Part Sermon Series only had a few verses, while great love stories like Hosea and Ruth are filled with strange language, subtle action scenes, and apparently insignificant gestures that don’t explain themselves.
One thing about the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is that it doesn’t feel a need to slow down and explain its details. We’re used to Hollywood movies and TV shows with heavy exposition where characters are spouting unreal dialogue to let you in on the plot. The Bible doesn’t do this.
The oral tradition of the Bible had lots of expression in the face and the voice, so listeners could understand more of the subtleties. So when Hosea runs after Gomer or Ruth lifts up Boaz’s blanket or Esther approaches the king, the storyteller made it clear these were monumental events.
We tend to read the Bible in a very sanitized, sterilized, gutless sort of tone, not always comprehending the devastating nature of what’s happening. So go ask someone. Find a pastor or a mature Christian friend who can tell you why this one particular detail is included, or why the author bothered to mention this, or where the climax is in the narrative.
In the famous Genesis story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, the verse says “your only son, Isaac, whom you love …” That’s a little tidbit we can overlook. But why include this? Imagine the storyteller now: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love …” Now we feel that Abraham had been idolizing his son, just as later Isaac would idolize Esau and Jacob would idolize Joseph. It’s even more powerful when you realize God the Father did not withhold His only Son, Jesus.
4) Read it as literally as possible.
I know we can jump off a nerd-cliff here. With all the heartless, loveless, doctrine-worshiping bloggers, the renewed interest in hermeneutics (the science of interpreting the Bible) is a prominent church issue.
That’s a good thing because the authority of the Bible is more at stake than ever before. But it’s a bad thing because Doctrine Nerds argue about theology and false preachers and YouTube videos, but never live like Jesus.
While I’m all for the finer points of systematic theology, the best way to jump in is to read the Bible with as much concrete sensibility as possible. David was not fighting a “spiritual giant.” The Flood was not your “financial problems drowning you.” Daniel didn’t fight the “lions of anger, lust, and alcoholism.”
Even when Jesus says to take the plank out of your own eye, visualize that graphic image: a plank was used to build a house then, and it would’ve been this ten foot log sticking out of your face. A pretty picture.
Certainly there are metaphors, allegories, poetry, and analogies in the Bible. But the Bible writers wrote naturally, describing witnessed events or sharing knowledge they had learned and practiced. To spiritualize everything is to twist the author’s intentions into unintelligible feel-good garbage. And of course we should build off specific sound doctrine. But doctrine comes from the Bible and not the other way around.
5) Ask God what He is telling you.
The Bible is about God, for God, from God, so even more surprising is that it was written for you.
At every moment, good and bad, up or down, in all seasons, the Bible has something to tell you. The Holy Spirit convicts you of all truth. The Word of God is a sword that will cut you to your soul, exposing all. The message of Jesus is crazy talk to those without him, but to believers is the saving truth. And of course, all Scripture is breathed out of God, useful for everything we do and who we are.
This isn’t to say that you’ll feel something every time you read the Bible. It’s cruel for preachers to guilt you into reading your Bible with super-passion, or else “maybe you’re not really a Christian.” But stick with it. Keep asking God. Pray through Scripture as you read.
Do not primarily read the Bible as a preaching tool or for how you can apply it to others. Then you become a funnel instead of a sponge. You’ll burn out even faster.
Read it as the very love of God pouring into your heart. It’s His letter to you. He always has something to tell you. Get intimate.