How to read the Bible

Written by Terry
Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Bible is guts and all. Blood, snot, debauchery, cruelty and God patiently making a way back in for us. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 1511-32) reveals God as a “Daddy” who longs for his wayward son to return home to Him, even after the foolish son has blown his inheritance on “wine, women and song”. This golden thread runs through every page of the Bible….we mess up, we come to our senses, we return to our Father and then realise he has been watching and waiting for us as though we are the only thing in creation that matters because he runs to meet us and throws a party in celebration. When you view the bible as a whole you will see that parable repeated over and over as Israel has its ups and downs.

The bible is recognised as an accurate historical document but it also contains epic stories, intimate love poetry and profound wisdom. It has deep insight into the great questions of life. It is made up of 66 books and its sheer size may seem intimidating at first but it was not just written as a resource for preachers to quote from. It was given to us by God to help me and you do life!

All scripture is God-breathed  2Timothy 316

The Bible talks about itself. It is its own best teacher. Let’s look at 4 benefits of reading the bible as explained by the bible itself.

1. You will “bear fruit” (i.e. be successful)

First look at Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

Lets look at Psalm 1 another way. If you don’t meditate on the Bible you are…

…like tree planted in the desert which doesn’t yield fruit (and if it does bear fruit, it is out of season and lacks vitality). Its leaf withers and whatever you do will not prosper.

That sounds to me like…

…If you don’t feed your body with decent food and water it will very quickly stop working properly and you will get ill. The Bible is food and water for your spirit. Jesus said “seek first the kingdom of heaven and all these other things will be given to you” and part of this seeking must surely be meditating on the Bible.

The water represents life to our spirit. You can think of the roots as your spirit which gives life to the body. You can’t see them but without them you die. We are seated (rooted) in heavenly places. That is where we get life. We are given free will however and we don’t have to stick our roots in a river of life. We can stick them in a desert if we choose to.

Notice also it says MEDITATE not just read. It doesn’t say “those who read the Bible in a year”. To meditate means to “chew it over/digest it/absorb it” until it becomes part of you. You don’t have to read a lot of the Bible but you do have to read it regularly if you want to be fruitful spiritually.

2. It keeps you real

The Bible is a spiritual book. It reads you. It’s dangerous. It exposes the heart.

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 412-13).

There is no hiding place from the real you. God’s word will peel back the layers and turn you into the person you were designed to be.

3. God will speak to you!

Sometimes I get frustrated that I am not hearing from God like I used to. During those times it is usually because I am listening to something else! God speaks continually to you of His 100% dedication and love for you. Sometimes with a whisper, sometimes with a trumpet blast but you are always pursued with love. I challenge anyone to enter into regular Bible meditation and not find they start to hear God’s voice. This may start of with a passage or phrase “jumping out of the page” at you. Remember this is a spiritual book and the Holy Spirit will highlight areas especially for you! Later you may find you start getting dreams from God (see Song of Songs 52“I slept but my heart was awake. Listen! My lover is knocking...”). However God decides to communicate with you, it will be clearer and more regular if you “keep your roots in the river”.

4. You will grow in faith

It is an act of faith itself to enter into reading the Bible and you grow in faith every time you do it. You are saying “yes” to God and “no” to yourself.

It is sometimes hard and that is why it is called a spiritual discipline and why so few people do it! Spiritual disciplines are sometimes hard work…but worth doing and persevering with for the benefits that you and everyone who is part of your life will receive in the future. Don’t forget also that fruits take time to grow.

Gal 67-10 ‘Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows…the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.’

What about all the fire and brimstone stuff?

It is difficult sometimes if we get focused on one passage in the Old Testament where God is doing something that seems cruel like wiping out a city via Israel. But we need to see the big picture. If you look at the Bible as a whole you will see Israel continually falling into sin and then God engineering a way for them to come back to Him. This happens over and over demonstrating the fact that God loves mercy.

The fact is that God is not ‘nice’, but he is ‘good’. Very often a ‘good’ God will not tolerate sin. Very often a ‘good’ God will pass over us and use somebody else if we are not willing to step up to the mark. But a ‘good’ God can also show mercy to those He wants to show mercy to and be gentle to those who need a gentle touch. He does not need US to define His character. No, God is not ‘nice’ in the way that we understand 'nice'. It is wise to be afraid of God - he will not hesitate to bring judgement when that is what he deems right. He is to be feared but he is also ‘good’, loving and generous Father who is slow to anger and abounding in mercy. That is very clear to see if you step back and look at the Bible as a whole.

Are all these books in any special order?

Let’s look at the Bible then as a whole and set the scene.

The Bible is divided into 2 sections

1: Old Testament

God chooses Israel from amongst the nations from which the Messiah (Jesus) will reconcile all peoples of the Earth to God so that He can have back the relationship that He originally intended when He created us.

2: New Testament

Jesus does all the good stuff (shows His 12 chosen friends how to bring the kingdom of heaven down to Earth, dies for our sins so that we can have the same relationship with God that he had) and Christianity starts within the Jewish faith and spreads throughout the world (Its still spreading of course).

 Another useful way of looking at the Bible’s structure is as follows

  1. The Law Genesis to Deuteronomy
  2. History Joshua to Esther
  3. Songs Psalms
  4. Poetry Job to Song of Songs
  5. Prophecy Major Prophets Isaiah to Daniel
  6. Minor Prophets Hosea to Malachi
  7. Gospels Matthew to John - Acts is a continuation of the story
  8. Letters Romans to Revelation

Okay! How do I get started?

It’s a good idea to follow some sort of plan (I have given you some plans down below). Remember there are many different versions of the Bible. Several pastors recommend the Contemporary English version for beginners but many churches recognise NIV version as being an accurate and balanced translation.

General points:-

Pray first before opening God's word.  Ask for guidance and to be able to accept what God has for you today.

Set aside a regular time and quiet place that is relatively free from distractions. Most people say the morning is best and if it was good enough for Jesus…Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  Mark 1:35

Do not read large amounts of the Bible in one setting.  Take breaks often.  Or stay with about 4-6 chapters a day. 

Start with the New Testament if you are new to the Bible. We need to follow God's will for us today not what was intended for the Jews. When you read the old testament you should be looking to how your meditation points you to Jesus. Knowing Jesus is the goal. Everything else is rubbish. The Apostle Paul says  “...I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him...” Philippians 3:8-9

Don't be afraid to underline or highlight passages in the Bible. Keep a pen and notebook, and write down things you discover and questions that arise.

It is set in a time and place that we don’t very often know much about. For difficult passages advanced Bible readers ask the “W” questions…Who wrote the book…?, What is the book saying…?, Why was the book written…?, When was the book written…?, Where was the book intended to go…?  There are lots of reference guides and other books out there to help you with the Bible. The most common ones are concordances, Bible dictionaries and commentaries.

Bible Reading Plans

Remember when reading the Bible the verses and chapter breaks are placed in the scriptures by man. It is better to read by paragraph, these too are man-made but they do conform better to the original language than verses.

You could follow a plan with a friend or a whole life group then meet up and discuss what you have learned.

A note to beginners:- If you have never read the Bible before most people would suggest that you attempt the New Testament first. Here is one suggested order:-

  1. Mark (It is in chronological order)
  2. Matthew  goes into better detail of some events and adds more about Jesus
  3. John contains a lot of the life of Jesus not before read especially his last two days before the crucifixion
  4. Luke / Acts both written by Apostle Paul's travelling companion Luke.  Acts is a continuation of Luke and describes the early church.
  5. Galatians deals with the reasons why we do not follow the Old Testament Laws in a more simplified way than does Romans or Hebrews
  6. Then read the rest of the New Testament starting at Romans and going to Revelation.

 Now with those points in mind, let's lay out some ways to read the Bible


“Overview of the Bible” Reading Plan (61 Days)

Want to read highlights from every book of the Bible? It doesn't take long! The advantages of this approach include simplicity, comprehensiveness, and brevity.

Overview of the Bible

Chronological Bible Reading Plan (61 Days)

This reading plan introduces you to the major people and events of the Bible in chronological order, beginning with Creation, moving through the birth and history of the Israel nation, and ending with Revelation's prophetic words.

Chronological reading plan

Biographical Bible Reading Plan (121 Days)

This is a who’s who of the Bible from Adam to Zechariah using all the best bits. Throughout the Bible are characters (often referred to as ‘types’ or ‘shadows’) they mirror the life of Jesus. The story of Joseph is the most obvious. See how many of them you can spot amongst these names.

Biographical reading plan

M’Cheyne Bible Plan

This is the Bible plan that R T Kendall uses and if he says it’s okay then it must be okay. This plan will take you through the Old Testament once a year and the New Testament and Psalms twice a year. (Robert Murray M'Cheyne (1813 - 1843) was one of Scotland's shining lights as regards the preaching of the Gospel of Christ).

M’Cheyne Bible Plan

Michael Coley’s Bible Plan

This Bible plan is split up into 7 areas, one for each day of the week (Epistles, The Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy, Gospels).  As the man says himself... “by switching areas daily, I don't get bogged down several days or weeks on an area that I might not currently find as interesting. I made this plan up myself, after failing at my annual goal of reading through the Bible every year. It has worked well for me for six years and counting!”.

Michael Coley’s Bible Plan (Used by kind permission)

“You set the pace” Bible Plan

This Bible plan will take you through and the New Testament twice and Proverbs twice every time you read the Old Testament once. This is one I made myself to keep me away from legalism and you can do it at your own pace without being tied down to dates. Notice there is no box for Psalms, which you do a little of every day or every other day.

“You set the pace” Bible Plan

A Final Word

Remember that meditating on the Bible has got to be about finding and knowing Jesus. Every scripture has to point towards Him otherwise it becomes merely an intellectual exercise. If you feel the Holy Spirit speaks or highlights a passage STOP! Some of the above plans have a lot of chapters so let’s use the term “Day 1”, “Day 2” very loosely! Legalism should not be part of your daily reading. The Word is there to bring “life and life to the full.”

When you read the Bible or “the Word” you are interacting with the source of life itself. So let’s give “the Word” the final word.

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish that what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11

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