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 are some things I've found helpful since I began daily(ish) Bible reading in 2002.

Basic tools

You need a Bible. Find a modern translation in your native language - there’s no one version that has been especially 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 words of God and not the additional extras will help you focus on the main thing. Electronic versions are handy for their size and searchability but the risk of distraction is so much higher and there's something about a printed book that you shouldn't give up on.

When choosing which edition of a certain translation to buy, I think these study features are the most helpful:

  • 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. They're 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. A good introduction 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 like the ESV Global Study Bible for being a more compact and cost-effective edition and it is available for free online and in-app. If you prefer the NIV translation, the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (previously released as the NIV Zondervan Study Bible) looks excellent.

Along with a 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 practised 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.

My usual pattern is two chapters a day, reading through both testaments one book at a time, one chapter at a time. I think it's a manageable amount for most people and gives me enough time to think deeply about what I've ready. It also gives me a sense of the story moving along and ensures that I read everything. I have created a plan for my church which follows this pattern and you can download it from our website. Reading at this pace (some days have more than one Old Testament chapter to read) will take you the through the whole New Testament and book of Psalms each year, and the Old Testament over three years.

If you want to consider other plans, Ligonier and YouVersion have lots of options.

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 go into my study, sit down and ask that God would open my eyes to see wonderful things in His Word (Psalm 119:18) and that He'd 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 read it again whilst using to 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. All of us have more to learn, however, so it can be helpful for any of us to get someone else's perspective.
  • Think and pray. When I'm doing this, the point isn’t to have understood everything in the chapter but to have heard from God in some way and responded to Him. I ask questions of what I’ve read to help me get started on this, usually "What does this tell me about God?" and "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 time praying about other things, often using what I've read and heard to help me. 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: that they will get confused and defeated by it. It is deep and complicated because its Author is. You're going to need help to understand God 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:

  • 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. They have also produced a series called "How to Read The Bible".
  • "How and Why Should I Read the Bible?" is a talk on the Alpha course. You can watch a version by Amy Orr-Ewing or as part of the Alpha Film Series.
  • 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 as anyone else’s. Other books that deal with similar issues are Unbreakable by Andrew Wilson and Can We Trust The Gospels? by Peter Williams.
  • John Piper has answered ten questions about Bible reading, including what to do when it's hard or when you're struggling.
  • 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.
  • God's Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts shows how the Bible is a coherent single story with many related strands running through it. The Bible in 100 Pages by Phil Moore performs a similar function of giving you a good overview.
  • 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.

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.