Reading the Bible

Here are some of the things that happen when you make daily Bible reading part of your life:

  • You learn who God is. There is nothing more important in the world than this, and the Bible is a definitive statement from God about who He is, what He is like, what matters to Him, what He has done and is doing and is going to do.
  • You become a better follower of Jesus. Research has shown that Christians who read their Bible frequently grow in spiritual maturity far more than those who don't.
  • You hear God speak. This will happen in two ways: you will hear the timeless truths that the Bible contains for everyone, and you may hear timely encouragements and challenges that fit perfectly with your current situation.
  • You will be able to bless others. As God stores His truth in you, you will be able to share it with others, whether it's something you learnt years ago or just happened to read that morning. “Therefore every scribe [teacher] who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)

If you want to experience these things, here’s what I’ve learnt over the past fourteen years of daily(ish) Bible reading.

Basic tools

You need a Bible. Find a modern translation in your native language - there’s no one version that has been specially blessed by God so relax about that (you may find John Piper's brief explanation of the differences in translations helpful.) An edition with a clear page layout that prioritises the Bible text and not the additional extras will help you focus on the main thing. Electronic versions are handy for their size and searchability, but there's something about a printed book that you shouldn't give up on.

The study features I find helpful are:

  • Cross-references. The little letters you may see sprinkled around the text, these are like internet links, taking you to other parts of the Bible which deal with the same topic. They can give you more understanding of what you’re reading by leading you to related passages, which is the best way to figure out what the Bible means.
  • A concordance. Similar to an index and found at the back of the book, this is a list of words from the Bible put in alphabetical order with verse references. Useful for finding that line you half remember but can’t recall where it’s from, or looking up all the instances of a certain word being mentioned.
  • Book introductions. The Bible is a collection of books and contains many different types of writing from various times and places. Book introductions should explain what each book is like, as well as what it’s about, which can remove some of the obstacles to understanding what we are reading. The should also help you to understand where each book fits into the single big story that the Bible is telling us.

The Bible I use for my daily reading is the ESV Study Bible (you can read a four-part explanation of why here, if you like). I used to recommend the ESV Global Study Bible as being a more efficient and cost-effective edition but it's becoming harder to find in print, though wonderfully it is available for free online and in-app. If you prefer the NIV translation, the new NIV Zondervan Study Bible looks excellent.

Along with my Study Bible, my two other basic tools are a notepad and pen. I’ve found that writing helps me to think and concentrate, so I use these most days. (You can also use them to jot down other important thoughts that suddenly appear in your head just when you need to focus on God’s Word, so that you can deal with them later.) Something different might work for you: try techniques and tools according to your personality and experience.

What to read

If you're just starting to get serous about reading the Bible, you'll probably be thinking that you need to read the whole thing as soon as possible. At a rate of four chapters a day you can read the Bible in a year, and this was what I managed to do in 2002 when I finally realised how desperately I needed God's Word in my life. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. There are huge benefits to attempting the Bible in a year, and some risks:

  • If you achieve it, the Bible will probably seem less intimidating to you from then on, you’ll have practiced a great spiritual discipline and potentially formed a lifelong habit, and you should have grasped something of the big picture of God’s Word. You should also have experienced all the goodness I mentioned at the start of this article.
  • The main risk is that you despair and give up if/when you get a couple of days behind, which quickly adds up to an overwhelming number of chapters to catch up on. There is also a lack of flexibility for different books (less than a week of your year’s reading on Ephesians is not enough!), seasonal Bible readings (Lent/Easter, Christmas, studies your church has produced) and seasons of life. You might also fool yourself into thinking that God’s approval of you is at stake according to how much of the Bible you've been reading recently - and that is to miss the point entirely.

With those encouragements and warnings, here are a bunch of one-year plans, all of which are available for free:

  • The Five Day Bible Reading Program gives you two days a week to rest/catch up/focus on something in more detail, which I think is very helpful. It takes you through the Old and New Testaments chronologically, rather than the order that the books are placed in, which should encourage you to comprehend the big story being told. Melissa Kruger makes its case in more detail. The Navigators' Discipleship Journey Bible Reading Plan is similar, working on a 25-day month basis, and going through four strands of books simultaneously.
  • Alpha pioneers Nicky and Pippa Gumbel’s Bible In One Year can be subscribed to by email or used as an app. Alongside the daily readings are reflections that link the texts you’ve read. Phil Moore and Andrew Wilson are among those who tweet their thoughts on each day's readings as well using #BIOY.
  • For The Love of God gives you four chapters from four different books to read, and includes comments by D.A. Carson on one of them. It’s also available as two printed books.
  • Ligonier have a long list of other options.

A year is not the only time frame you can consider:
  • You could go even faster!
  • YouVersion has many different types of reading plans, along with the many varieties of Bible reading experiences it offers online and in-app.
  • She Reads Truth and He Reads Truth have shorter and more thematic options, typically going through a book at a time and mixing in other related readings. They work well by themselves but a couple can also benefit from them by following the same readings each day but a different comment from female and male authors. They also give you images to share on social media so others can be inspired / know that you're reading the Bible.

My usual pattern is two chapters a day, reading through both testaments one book at a time, one chapter at a time. This gives me a sense of the story moving along and ensures that I don’t miss out on anything by prioritising my preferences. Not being tied to a plan allows me to linger in certain chapters for longer than I otherwise would, or move faster through some if necessary.

What to do

Habits can be helpful, so if your life enables you to make a regular Bible reading time in the day, do so. This is my usual routine:

  • Get awake. I read in the morning, after I've got myself really awake by showering, dressing, and eating breakfast. I stay away from the noise of the internet and the plans of the day until after I've gone to God, a decision I'm increasingly convinced is essential to my spiritual health.
  • Pray. I ask that God would open my eyes to see wonderful things in His Word (Psalm 119:18), and give me ears to hear what He is saying (Matthew 11:15 and elsewhere). God’s Spirit loves to answer these prayers: it’s why He gave us the Bible.
  • Read. Carefully, just the text to start with. I may then read it again with the study tools I’ve mentioned above or other helps (see below), but I always want to start with the Word and the Spirit alone. I would encourage anyone to read this way, just you and God's Word and His Spirit, but I realise that I've been able to spend huge chunks of my life studying and learning about the Bible, so I don't feel the need for additional comments perhaps as much as others do.
  • Think and pray. The point isn’t to have got everything possible out of the chapter but to have got something - to have heard from God and responded to Him. I ask questions of what I’ve read to help me get started on this. John Piper has got a good list, the two I think most about are: What does this tell me about God? What do I need to do in response to it: worship, repent, pray, change by stopping or starting something, etc.? These often form the basis of how I then pray, which I generally do through journaling.

I then go on to praise God in other ways and spend more time praying about other things, often based on what I’ve read. This may not sound very spectacular but it has unquestionably changed my life, and many of my most memorable encounters with God have come at these times.

Going further

Here's what most people are afraid of when they consider reading the Bible: you will get baffled and defeated by it. There's no denying it is deep and complicated, because its Author is. You're going to need help to understand the Bible, and that's fine. Christians have observed that the Bible is simultaneously shallow enough for a child to paddle in and so deep that no-one can fully fathom it. Reading it and hearing from God are part of a journey with Him, not a task to complete, so there’s always more for us to explore and enjoy. We are blessed to live at a time when so many people have worked so hard to help us in this:

  • “New Ground In The Word” is a talk by Andrew Wilson about the basics of Bible reading.
  • The Bible Project has published video introductions to every book of the Bible, which will help you to understand what's going on in what you're reading. Their treatment of Leviticus may blow your mind with how comprehensible it makes this often-feared book.
  • Why Trust The Bible? by Amy Orr-Ewing is a short book that deals with the most common objections to the Bible, which can rattle around a believer’s head as well anyone else’s.
  • A Bible dictionary is a one-volume investment that will put some weight on your bookshelf and help you answer questions such as, “Who is that? Where is that? What does that word mean?” I use the IVP New Bible Dictionary (Third Edition), I would expect Zondervan’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible to be similarly helpful.
  • How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart explains all the different types of writings in the Bible, and gives a more comprehensive look at the techniques and tools that I’ve mentioned here.

If you want to go even further:

  • God's Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts shows how the Bible is a coherent single story with many related strands running through it.
  • A single-volume Bible commentary (by IVP or Eerdmans again) will give further explanation of what you’re reading, or you could buy a companion to a particular book you’re working through, such as Phil Moore’s Straight to the Heart series, or Tom Wright’s For Everyone books. If you’d like to explore more technical commentaries, Keith Mathison has produced a list of recommendations for every book.
  • Regularly hearing people who love and honour the Bible will help you in your reading of it. I've put together a list of people on Twitter who help me.

Do it!

So what are you waiting for? You could hear God speak to you today! This article is longer than the first three chapters of Matthew’s gospel; if you’re able to read this then that shouldn’t be a problem for you. May you experience the living Word of God at work in you and through you.