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How to Read the Bible

Written By Gabe Coyle

Wait. What does that mean? Ugh.

We’ve all had times when we’ve picked up the Bible, read it, and got nothing out of it. Maybe we didn’t understand what was said or were offended by it or maybe just bored by it. If anything, the first step in anything like this is to realize you’re not alone.

But the second step is to realize there is indeed hope. For 2,000 years the Bible has been at the center of the Christian faith. Saints of old and new followers of Jesus cling to the pages of the Bible, hold fast to its truths, and mine its depths with longing and delight. It’s beyond time-tested. And it is called God’s Word for a reason. The Bible is the main way God speaks to us today.

So we’ve got a tension. The Bible isn’t the easiest book to navigate, and yet it’s incredibly important. The solution is for us to develop some skills and embrace some helpful framing for engaging the Bible. The focus here is to help us take that first step by knowing how to decide what to read.

Before you pick up your Bible, here are four things to consider:

1) Translation

The Bible wasn’t written originally in English. Behind the grammatical style and words constructed from English consonants and vowels are ancient metaphors and ideas communicated in Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Greek. So what Bible translation are you going to use? There are a lot of good ones out there, and no perfect ones. Some translations focus on modeling and representing the grammar of the original language. Some focus on clarity in the contemporary language.

Little did you know that those opening pages of your Bible give you their translation theory and why they do what they do. What are you looking for? There are pros and cons to different translations. Find a good one you like, and if you’re not sure where to start, I always vie for NIV or ESV.

Wherever you land, get to know the landscape of that translation, but don’t let it be the only land you’re familiar with. Venture out to other translations. It’s amazing how rich our reading can become if we just add one or two additional translations into our reading.

2) Testament

The Bible is often described as having two overarching testaments. The first testament is what we often call the Old Testament (Genesis through Malachi) or the Hebrew Scriptures. They were the Scriptures of Jesus’ day. The second testament is what we call the New Testament (Matthew through Revelation). But despite there being two testaments, when we read the Bible, we find one coherent story.

Far too often, we can have misconceived perceptions about the Bible. We can come to view the Bible primarily as a rulebook or instructional guide, or even a history of heroes. But the Bible is more than anything else a story. The Good Book really is a good book.

And seeing the Bible as a story changes the way we approach the Bible. For starters, if the Bible was a rulebook, then you could simply just open to the page with the rule you’re wondering about, read it, apply it, and pay no mind to the context. “It’s about the rules!” But it’s not. The Bible is a story.

One book I love to read to my kids every night is The Jesus Storybook Bible. Right at the beginning, Sally Lloyd Jones says of the Bible:

The Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne—everything—to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!

Since the Bible is ultimately a story, you can’t just jump in anywhere and expect to know everything. You need to read the whole story and get to know the story so you can navigate where you are in any part of the story.

Wherever you land, Jesus is at the center. In the Old Testament, everything is pointing to and aching for Jesus. In the New Testament, the Gospels represent Jesus in real time. In Acts, Jesus is on His throne in heaven enacting His will through His Spirit. The letters point back to Jesus. And it all ends in Revelation, where we look forward to Jesus coming again. The story is all about Jesus, but you need to understand where you are in the story to understand what it’s saying about Jesus.

Crucial in deciding what to read is asking, “In which testament will I land?” Old Testament or New Testament? What part of the story are you in? It is the same God throughout the whole story, pointing to the same Jesus, so it’s not a matter of better or worse. Actually, studying the Old Testament will help you read the New Testament and vice versa.

What testament do you want to dig around in?

3) Type

Even though the Bible is one story, it’s made of all types of literature. Often these different types are called “genres.” A type/genre could be narrative, letter, poetry, apocalyptic, and so on. You don’t read poetry the same way you read narrative. You should approach the poetry of Psalm 1 differently from the narrative of Genesis 39. Be intentional and aware of your genre landscape. You come with different expectations and pack different gear when you go to the mountains than when you go to the beach. Prepare, be aware, and have fun.

Here’s one tip on type. If you’re really trying to make Bible-reading a habit, start in a genre that’s naturally more enjoyable and easier to navigate for you. If you like poetry, step into the Hebrew parallelism of Psalms. If you like to follow logical arguments, engage Paul’s letter to the Romans.

What type of literature do you want to engage in the Bible? One resource that is really helpful in clarifying how to read these different types of literature in the ancient world is the book How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

4) Time

The last thing you should be aware of before you open your Bible has more to do with you than the Bible. How much time do you have? How much can you commit regularly? Today? For all of us, I’m sure we need to “make the time,” but we all can’t be Puritans who get up at 3am to spend four hours in the Scriptures. So how much time should you allocate when deciding how much to read?

On one end, if you want to get the most out of your time in the Bible, don’t plan too little time. You don’t want to read just one verse a day. That’s like reading one line a day of a rich novel. You’ll miss a lot of the story, and will get frustrated before you get too far.

On the other end, you don’t want to try and read so much that you can’t ever dig deep and really think about what you’re reading. Now it may be true that if the Bible is a newer text to you, it could be really good to focus on reading bigger portions at a time to get familiar with the story. Then you could take one smaller part out of the larger section to slow down and read devotionally.

If that’s you, you could try one of the many “Read the Bible in a Year” plans or join in on our Open Here Bible Reading Plan. How much time do you have and how much should you read?

Another practical tip is to read a chapter a day or just the content under a heading (which may be less than a chapter or more). Another good tip is to read for breadth and study for depth. Both are important, but what do you need in your journey right now?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but there are a lot of great approaches. Choose one. Know how much time you have.

Next Steps: Answer the Questions for Yourself

So with this in mind, take a minute or two right now to think through these four categories. What translation will you engage (or are you engaging)? What testament do you want to step into within the big story of the Bible? What type of literature are you hungry to engage? How much time do you have and how much can you read in that time frame?

If you want to start making sense of what you’re reading, start here. We have one of the most amazing gifts in God’s Word. Know your story and dig deep!

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash


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