Once you have established a time and place in your home, as well as readied your heart, it is time to go to the text. I like to go ahead and have my spiral bound notebook and pen close by to take a few notes, especially questions. It is our duty and our privilege to study God’s Word (Deut. 6:4-9, 29:29; John 10:10; Hebrews 4:12), but choosing where to begin in Bible study can prove challenging. If you are not studying alongside your local church and you are new to Bible study, my recommendation would be to start with Matthew or Mark. If you are studying the book in its entirety, the reader would best benefit from a cursory reading of the book, reading lengthy portions in one sitting. If your intention is to get the most from your Bible study, plan to read and reread the text in the specific passage and in the larger sense when accompanied by surrounding text. Bible study begins with reading. The most important element of Bible reading is to look for Jesus. As the reader, you must constantly ask yourself, how does this point to or from Christ? Where is Jesus? In this post, I will share the details of what reading well in Bible study looks like.
Let it be a settled principle in our minds, in reading the Bible, that Christ is the central sun of the whole book. So long as we keep Him in view, we shall never greatly err in our search for spiritual knowledge. Once losing sight of Christ, we shall find the whole Bible dark and full of difficulty. – J.C. Ryle
read the Bible well.
The Bible does not read like a novel or textbook, nor is it organized in chronological order. Instead it is divided into two halves, the Old Testament and the New Testament. These Testaments are then separated into genres. Each part of Scripture should be read and studied according to its literary character. How should we read the Old Testament vs. New Testament? First and foremost, we read with the understanding that all of Scripture points to Jesus. The testaments are connected in many ways. The testaments’ common theological foundation tells us that God is the same in every age, and humanity’s nature and problem are also the same. In his book, Jesus on Every Page, David P. Murray writes, “the gospel of Abraham was the gospel of Moses. And both were the gospel of Jesus.”
The Bible is the greatest storybook, not just because it is full of wonderful stories but because it tells one story, the story of Jesus. – Edmund Clowney
The Bible is not merely “be good and do good.” Rather, God sent a rescuer to save us, because we aren’t good. Thus, the Bible is one big story about God rescuing the world through His Messiah, Jesus Christ. Therefore, we must read all of the Bible with that in view. In his book, How to Read the Bible for Life, George Guthrie offers these points that we can take into account in our Bible reading:
How to Read the Old Testament
- God is the main hero of the Old Testament stories.
- The Old Testament stories have strategic tension crafted in.
- Through their stories, the Old Testament writers were writing history, reinforcing ideas about the covenant between God and people, and seeking to write beautifully.
- The Old Testament stories have a structure.
- Context is vitally important for understanding an Old Testament story.
- Sometimes Old Testament characters teach us what we should not do!
- The Old Testament stories should be read in light of God’s grand story, and we should find our place in that story.
How to Read the New Testament
- The four Gospels together give us a full and consistent picture of Jesus.
- Matthew, Mark, and Luke approach the story of Jesus from “earth up,” leading the reader to a discovery of Jesus’ identity. John, on the other hand, approaches the story from “heaven down,” focusing on the identity of Jesus as the Lord of the cosmos from the beginning.
- A key to interpreting stories in the Gospels is to ask, “What does this story tell me about Jesus?
- A key question for interpreting Acts is, “What are the implications of Jesus’ lordship for the mission God has given the church?”
- We cannot understand the stories of the Gospels and Acts without understanding the cultural contexts of these stories.
- We should read the crucifixion and resurrection as the climax of the New Testament story, indeed the climax of the whole Bible! We should ask, “What are the implications of these stories for my life?”
Consider genre in your Bible reading.
Recognizing genre leads to intelligent Bible reading. Clearly, biblical genre influences our understanding. We must always consider, “What type of literature is this?” Before reading/study, the first thing a reader needs to know is what type of writing the book’s author meant it to be. In other words, what kind of literature was he writing? The Bible contains books of law, historical, wisdom, prophetical, gospel and Acts, the Pauline letters, general letters, and Revelation. A psalm reads differently from Paul’s letters. Revelation reads different from Leviticus. A prophecy cannot be read the same way you read a parable. Reading the Bible is much more enjoyable as we learn how these different parts of the Bible work. Biblical genre influences our understanding.
Begin with a cursory reading.
When studying the Bible, I enjoy a reading from my ESV Reader’s Bible before I begin. It’s important we remember that the chapters and verses were added long after the original autographs. (Paul’s letters to the churches were actual letters, etc.) Fun facts: The chapter divisions commonly used today were developed by an archbishop of Canterbury around A.D. 1227. The Hebrew OT was divided into verses by a Jewish rabbi in A.D. 1448. The first Bible in English to use both chapters and verses was the Geneva Bible published in 1560. My ESV reader’s Bible includes notation of chapters in the margin, but there is no interruption of verse numbers while reading the text. I find I read faster and with better understanding when using this Bible for reading purposes. After this quick reading of the selected passage of study (and surrounding text), take time to write out your general understanding of the writer’s main point.
Reread the passage selectively.
After a cursory reading, it is important we read the particular passage again, selectively. Pay attention to Who? What? Where? When? and Why? of the text. Note taking at this time will aid your future study. Next, take your reading further, and ask these five questions:
- What does this text teach me about God?
- What does this text teach me about fallen humanity?
- How does this text point to Christ?
- What does God want me to know?
- What does God want me to do?
Stay God focused while using universal principles.
It is vital (even in our reading) that we remember that the principles of Scripture are universally relevant:
- All we need to know in order to love and glorify God is found in the Bible.
- Although there are difficult sections in the Bible, all the basics of the Christian faith are clearly and simply stated or can be deduced from Scripture.
- We are in constant need of the Holy Spirit’s help to understand Scripture and apply it.
- The way in which we understand the central teaching of Scripture is by disciplined use of the means God has given us to interpret it (not “Whatever it means to you is fine”).
- When we read and apply Scripture we should read it in its own terms and not impose on it what we think it should be saying.
- Each passage of Scripture has its own basic meaning within its context, not multiple possible (and equally valid) meanings.
You need not bring life to the scripture. You should draw life from the scripture. – Charles Spurgeon
When Luther said we should come to the Bible and look for its literal sense, he meant we should look for its plain sense. This means we should interpret the Bible according to its literary forms. The fact that the Bible is the inspired Word of God does not eliminate the necessity of using human means to derive the meaning of the text. This is because the biblical documents use style, grammar, syntax, language, and other factors. In the Bible a noun is a noun, a verb is a verb, a subject is a subject, and so on.
Even in your reading, you will inevitably begin interpreting the text. The most common, two-word phrase to dismiss biblical truth is private interpretation. This kind of interpretation is subjectivism. Subjective interpretation does harm to the meaning of God’s Word because it ties the meaning of the Bible to whoever is interpreting the Word. Ultimately, this leads to the message of the Bible being shaped to fit the pride and prejudice of whoever is reading the Word. We should always seek to give the Word the respect it rightfully demands of the reader. The Bible has objective meaning. John MacArthur has rightly said, “The truth is, it doesn’t matter what a verse means to me, to you, or to anyone else. All that matters is what the verse means!”
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Pe 1:3–8). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
It is vital to recognize that the overarching storyline of the Bible is God’s activity in history, his revelation given in different ways and at different times, and the fulfillment found in Jesus Christ. The Scripture as a whole can be presented as three elements:
- Historical –God has been active in history in order to show his power and love.
- Progressive and cumulative – God gave his revelation in different ways and at different times, but now he has given his final revelation in these last days.
- Christ centered – God’s revelation reached its fulfillment when he spoke his final word to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. Christ is the superior and final agent of God’s redemption and revelation (Hebrews 1:2-4, Psalms 2 and 110).
In Christ God’s revelation has been completed. – Herman Bavinck
By reading repetitiously, you will find that your comprehension of the text increases dramatically. When you read and read again you are laying the foundation for getting more out of your Bible study. Applying universal principles while reading keeps your focus God-directed, pointing you to the author’s original intent. Delighting yourself in the Word of God is also to delight yourself in the Son of God.
And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Jn 1:4). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
True happiness cannot be experienced as long as we are ignorant of God’s Word. The Scriptures are God’s revelation of himself. However, when read in light of various contexts, the Bible can transform our own personal contexts, whatever they might be. We read the Bible to know the truth and to know God. Also, our purpose in reading the Bible well is to live well, experience God’s freedom, and to bring us joy in Christ Jesus. Kevin DeYoung writes, “I’ll bet there are times you get passionate about words on a page. We all pay attention when the words we are hearing or reading are of great benefit to us, like a will or an acceptance letter. We can read carefully when the text before us warns of great danger, like instructions on an electrical panel. We delight to read stories about us and about those we love. We love to read about greatness, beauty, and power. Do you see how I’ve just described the Bible?” He continues, “To be sure, the Bible can feel dull at times, but taken as a whole it is the greatest story ever told, and those who know it best are usually those who delight in it most.” If we can read a novel, we can read the Bible. It comes to us with a responsibility to read it well. Ultimately, when done well, Bible reading is done to the glory of God.