Guide to Bible Reading

THERE ARE SOME people who have never seen the sea. They have never scanned that broad horizon, never smelt the tang or tasted the salt spray on their lips, never experienced the crash or roar of the great breakers, the turmoil of the surf, or the gentle lapping of a tranquil sea, the quiet stillness of a flat calm. They have missed a whole dimension of life’s experience.

‘The Bible is like a great ocean. It has a sandy beach with shallows where even children can play safely. It has deeper parts where adults can swim. But it also has vast depths that we can never get to the bottom of.’ A users guide to the Bible: Lion Press

Like the sea, the Bible has many moods. Sometimes it thunders at us, challenging our complacency and inertia, and threatening judgment to come. At other times, it calms and comforts, soothing shredded nerves, offering words of comfort and hope, promising rebirth.

Yet there are many people who have never opened its pages, never even dipped a toe in the water, so to speak. Like the man who has never seen the sea, their minds have never been opened to these broad horizons, these new perspectives which the Bible presents to us. There are others who occasionally dip into its pages to read again a familiar and much-loved passage, much as they might resort to an aspirin or tranquillizer in time of stress. The Bible deserves better than that – Gods Word has so much to offer us if we open our minds to its message in its completeness

But to read the Bible from cover to cover these days is a daunting prospect for most people. Whilst it is probably no longer overall than a typical ‘blockbuster novel, its qualities and the impetus to read it, are very different. A collection of 60 different books of different types, some written three millennia ago or longer, springing from a very different age and culture, it presents some formidable obstacles which can quickly dissuade the casual reader.

So how to start? The following are a few suggestions to help you get started on your Bible reading in a sensible and structured way, which will eventually provide great rewards.

Any bookshop with a decent religious section will present a bewildering array of Bibles to confuse the uninitiated. The most familiar is still the Authorized Version produced by King James scholars in 1611, read and revered by many for its outstanding literary qualities.

But the Bible is far more than great literature, and there are some who, coming fresh to the Bible, will fin4 the language of King James an insurmountable barrier to understanding or applying its message in the 1990s. The New King James Version retains the basic sentence structure and rhythms of the Authorized Version, whilst updating the language. Other totally new translations, such as the New International Version, provide an alternative. Some translations are freer and more colloquial than others. Every translation needs to be used with care, and any serious Bible study will involve the use of more than one version. But for everyday reading, find a version that you understand and that you enjoy reading.

As your knowledge of the Bible increases, you will become aware of the weaknesses and strengths of each version and better equipped to choose between them.

When you are choosing a Bible for yourself, think about other ways it can help you in your reading. Ideally, choose a Bible with cross references that will help you find quotations and parallel passages. A good selection of maps will be useful, and some editions will have other helps, such as a list of references to Christ in the Old Testament, or Bible weights and measures and their current equivalents, the Jewish Calendar and soon. Some Bibles even have a small concordance in the back, where you can look up particular words and where they occur – but you will probably find this a very incomplete and abbreviated version, and so of limited value compared with a separate complete concordance. Think also about whether you need to carry a Bible with you and if so, choose a small Bible that will not be too heavy.

Many people when they pick up a good book, cannot resist the temptation to look at the end, at the same time as – or even before – they look at the beginning.

When it comes to the Bible, that is not at all a bad idea. If, for example, you read together the early chapters of Genesis and the last few of Revelation, you will find the origin of sin and death [Gen 3] and Gods promise to remove both [Rev 21:4]: you will read of a new creation to replace the first, [Rev 21:1; Gen 1:1] of the rivers watering Eden and a river of Life in the new age and of the Tree of Life. [Gen 3:24; Rev 22:1] The importance of Genesis as the foundation of Gods purpose could hardly be clearer.

But it has to be said that the Book of Revelation is not the easiest place for the new Bible reader to begin. Reading the Old and New Testaments simultaneously is definitely a good idea – the fact that they interrelate and compliment each other will rapidly become obvious. Some editions of the New King James Version contain a plan for reading the whole Bible in a year, reading part of the Old Testament and part of the New Testament each day, starting with Genesis 1 and Matthew 1 respectively. The problem here is that, due to the difference in lengths of each Testament, a very small section of the New Testament (often half a chapter or less), is accompanied by a large chunk of the Old Testament – often three or four chapters. Also, reading the Bible in sequence, (for example the four Gospel records), is not necessarily the most interesting and productive way of reading.

Many people have, for a century or more, used a daily reading plan known as the Bible Companion, which covers the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice in the course of a year. It does so with three different daily readings, two from the Old Testament and one from the New. The Old Testament portions start with Genesis and Psalms, and then simply follow the books through sequentially. The New Testament starts with Matthew but, after each Gospel record, diverts to some of the later hooks and letters before returning to the next Gospel record, and so on. Such a plan ensures a varied and interesting diet each day – the Psalms, for example, provide a perfect foil for the narrative of Genesis and the details of the Mosaic Law in the subsequent books.

No reading plan is perfect – and one of the criticisms which may be levelled at the Bible Companion is that it splits up even some of the smaller books over several days, and it is sometimes difficult to achieve an overall picture of a books message and structure.

No daily reading plan will be sufficient on its own to do justice to Gods Word, and needs to be supplemented by additional study which focuses on particular themes or books.

Reading the Bible needs discipline. It may he unfashionable, hut it is essential. It needs self-discipline to set aside a particular part of each day, ideally when the mind is fresh and when your reading can perhaps be shared with a partner or other members of your family. It needs the discipline of re-focusing the mind which is otherwise occupied with 1,001 things. some trivial, some important, but none as important as Gods Word. It means a disciplined approach to the Bible itself – a constant and structured questioning of its content, designed to bring out its real message and its genuine practical relevance to your life. The following, for example, are some of the questions that you might like to keep in your mind as you do your daily reading:

The Bible contains many different types of literature: historical, narrative, poetry, prophecy, parables, etc. If a passage appears to be straightforward historical narrative, then we need to ask why it has been preserved and what we are intended to gain from it. This is how the early disciples of Jesus used the Old Testament narrative. The Apostle Paul, in looking back on some of the events which happened to Israel in the wilderness, says that “these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warning for us.” [1Cor 10] James says:

“As an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord … You have heard of Jobs perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” James 5:11

So we need to read the Bible imaginatively, and actively, placing ourselves in the position of its heroes and villains, drawing practical and spiritual guidance from the record of their lives. If a passage we are reading is poetry (and one of the advantages of a modern version is that the layout of the text will clearly distinguish between poetry and prose), then we need to be aware of the poetic imagery being used, and to ask ourselves what emotional response it is designed to evoke from us and not to read it or interpret it in the same literal way that we would a historical section.

Many parts of the Bible contain prophecies about the future – it was in this way that God and His prophets distinguished their message from the many false gods and false prophets.

Some understanding of the historical background of the prophecy will probably he essential if we are to understand how it was fulfilled, and a Bible dictionary, or one of the popular ‘study’ Bibles, will usually provide the basic information we need.

But many Bible prophecies have more than one application, and you may well find in your reading that a prophecy which may appear to have been fulfilled, has had an even more dramatic fulfilment in our own time, or is maybe telling us about something still to happen in the future – preparing us for the great climax of Gods purpose with this earth. So when we read passages like this, we need to ask ourselves:

  • What is the background of this passage?
  • When was it given and why?
  • Was it fulfilled at the time, and if so, how?
  • Does it have anything to teach me?
  • Is there anything about the future here that I should be expecting and preparing for?
  • What does it teach me about Jesus?

One of the most astonishing features of the Bible, as you get to know it, is that such an assortment of writers and authors has a single theme, and is dominated throughout by a single person. The theme is Gods plan for bringing salvation to sinful mankind. That person is the one man through whom that objective is being achieved: Jesus Christ. Jesus is there, from cover to cover – in the earliest chapters of Genesis, the Law of Moses, in the Psalms, in the prophets, the Gospels, the letters.

So one of the key questions to ask yourself as you read any particular passage of the Bible is this: ‘Does it tell me anything about Jesus? Often of course the answer will seem to be ‘No – but as you explore the Bible more and more often you will find the answer is ‘Yes. As you learn more about Jesus, as for example his feelings as depicted in the Psalms, (which fill out the often sparse account of the Gospel records), you will come closer to him, and become better equipped to imitate his outstanding qualities in your life.

Having set yourself a series of questions, don’t worry if many of the answers escape you. It is the experience of all Bible students, that, as their knowledge of the Bible increases, the number of unanswered and unanswerable questions increases as well. Bible reading and study is not an intellectual diversion. Unlike completing a crossword puzzle, the Bible was never designed to satisfy human curiosity. Whatever the problems that your reading of Gods Word may pose, we believe they are nothing compared with the clarity, the simplicity, and the certainty of Gods plan which it reveals.

‘The very best way to study the Bible is simply to read it daily with close attention and with prayer to see the light which shines from its pages, to meditate upon it, and to continue to read it until somehow it works itself its words, its expressions, its teaching its habits of thought and its presentation of God and His Christ into the very warp and woof of ones being – Dr Howard A Kelley

Follow that advice and you will find out what the Psalmist meant, and you will be able to pray with him when he said:

“Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light for my path … your statutes are forever right: give me understanding that I may live.” Psalm 119:105:144 (NIV)