Home > General, Questions and Answers > Advice on how to read the Bible

Advice on how to read the Bible

Kind of an odd topic, isn’t it—how to read the Bible? Easy, you pick it up and open it. But this post is more about sharing what I’ve found helpful when approaching the scriptures. There’s some practical advice, but also warnings about having the right mindset and expectations. Understanding God’s word and taking it in properly is hard to do, but hopefully we can improve our chances by keeping some of these things in mind.

First of all, prepare. Try to pray before reading.

This is self-explanatory. We need to settle down from the worries of this world and try to hone in on the Holy Spirit’s voice as we read. For seekers, it might be prudent to just take a deep breath and close your eyes. Focus, but also relax. Don’t have a million things going on around the home. If you must, try to get away behind closed doors where you’ll have some peace and quiet.

Where should I even start?

That depends on where you are spiritually and what you’ve read before. But generally, I’d advise people who are unfamiliar with the Bible to start with Matthew. If you’re getting re-familiarized, I’d suggest the same. The reason for this is because Matthew pretty much covers most of the important theological points (though not always in depth), and of course, the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the way to salvation, so it’s obviously important to learn about him and his teachings. We learn about heaven, hell, sin, repentance, salvation, the Trinity, and even about the end times. We learn about Jesus’ miracles and parables, and then his death and resurrection. There’s a lot there to read and review, even for those who have gone through it before.

I hesitated to do this, but I’m trying to be helpful here. While every book of the Bible is immensely important, there are certain ones that are more popular on the basis of their content and scope. Some of these are: Genesis (origins, Noah, Abraham, Joseph), Exodus (Moses and the law), Proverbs (wisdom), Job (suffering), Isaiah (prophecy), Acts (early church history, Luke “sequel”), Romans (theologically dense, difficult issues), James (short but practical), and Revelation (end times).

…but please don’t limit yourselves to these books!

Should I take what I read in the Bible as literal truth? How do I know when it’s figurative?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for this because the Bible holds a number of different genres in it. Some of it is history, some allegory, other parts are poetry. But usually, it’s fairly clear.

Much of the Bible is a retelling or simple account of actual events that have happened, so those parts are obviously meant to be literal. When Jesus tells parables, they are figurative stories meant to teach real truths. Context and common sense are pretty reliable guides, though we’ll always have a somewhat limited perspective. When it comes to moral truths or teachings, the safe assumption is to err on the side of literal meaning.

Can I trust every word of the Bible? Am I reading the same words from the original text? 

This is a question about inerrancy—a popular topic, especially after the works of Bart Ehrman—and my short answer is yes. The Bible you have today is the Bible they had centuries ago. Nothing of significance has been altered. In fact, every time we find an older and older copy, it matches up excellently.

Now, this isn’t to say that there might not be a few differences in nuance or grammar. Having numerous translations pretty much guarantees this. There are also words in ancient Greek or Hebrew that simply don’t exist in English, so scholars have to try to capture the meaning in other ways. This is why having more than one translation (and thank goodness, all of them can be found at biblegateway.org) can be useful for study. For personal devotion, however, sticking with your favorite trustworthy translation is just fine.

Also keep in mind that things were done differently back then. There might be literary style elements to consider, some of them unfamiliar to us in the modern age; one gospel might be strictly chronological while another one might be ordered more thematically. Genealogies tend to include names of the famous (or infamous) of the line while excluding some of the in-betweens. Therefore, you can’t expect to accurately date or calculate time lapses; there might even be differences in genealogies from one book to the other, depending on emphasis.

Furthermore, be aware that certain things like quotation marks didn’t exist. Some things are paraphrased when necessary (especially among the gospels). There was no such thing as bold, italics, and underlining. Instead, emphasis was given by repetition and by spelling out the same concept in a variety ways. If something is mentioned repeatedly, it’s probably important.

What about the parts that don’t make sense to me?

I will say that there are parts of the Bible that won’t make much sense—or will even seem contradictory—unless you know the whole of Scripture. You need to be able to compare it to other passages, reconcile them, then arrive at a solid truth. For instance, in Luke 14:26 when Jesus says you must hate your parents and even yourself to follow Him, use your common sense and realize it must mean something different from your initial reactions. In fact, in other parts, the Bible tells us to honor our father and mother. So are these two passages at odds with each other? Clearly not. We are to honor our father and mother as God commanded, but we must also love God so much more to the point where we’d be willing to leave our parents and defy them if necessary. It’s a strong statement to make, but it’s communicating the simple and consistent point that God should be #1 in our lives. And obviously, it’s not calling you to hate yourself (as God’s beloved creation), but rather to set aside your pride and selfish ambition to follow the true way.

Be wary of this kind of thinking: “How could He say or do something like that?” Remember that if God is real and the Bible is true, it doesn’t matter what your personal opinion about it is. I do promise you that if you continue pressing on in gaining biblical knowledge, it will most likely start to add up and resonate better with both your logical and moral sensibilities.

Try to avoid arrogance or chronological snobbery. Consider historical context.

Remember how you used to think when you were a child? Or even just a few years ago? Didn’t you think you had reached the pinnacle of moral judgment and wisdom back then? Well obviously, none of us have. We are flawed creatures and a constant work in progress. Consciously or not, we are shaped by the world and culture around us, which is often driven by sinful motives and the resulting fallout. Don’t assume that everything you believe today is loftier than what will ever be or was. People will look back someday in the future and scoff at the positions you take on moral issues today.

If God’s Word is true, then it is always true and transcends the current tides of popular opinion. Therefore, logically, the fact that it offends us or is disagreeable can’t possibly be the measure by which we gauge its credibility. The Bible’s aim is not to be agreeable. In fact, it tells us that the word is foolishness to the perishing and that those who hold to the truth will actually be hated for it. If you’re expecting to hear teachings and stories that always make you feel warm inside, you’re in for quite a shock. Sometimes, the words are expressly meant to shock you into life, or to convey harsh truths with a direct and unpleasant tone. Some of the people in the Bible have done horrible things. Not everything is condoned or meant to be a positive example, but rather it is meant for us to learn from others’ mistakes.

For these reasons, I caution against reading the Old Testament until you’re willing to approach it with an open mind and a willingness to consider context carefully. Otherwise, you’ll end up just like the countless atheists and “enlightened” YouTubers who think that Christianity is hopelessly outdated and even barbaric. The world isn’t a bed of roses, and the issue of sin and law is not to be taken lightly. God’s judgment often seems overly severe to the uninitiated, but a deeper look will reveal His perfect justice and even His enormous patience (which vastly exceeds our own).

Try to read with an open mind and check your biases and preconceptions at the door.

Rather than trying to fit the Bible into the shape of your life, try to let it speak to you and mold you. You’ll be surprised at what you find in its pages. In fact, when I started seeing what God actually said instead of what I had assumed or been taught, everything made more sense and became more exciting to me. Don’t brush over the facts that you don’t like or try to rationalize as you read. Be willing to tackle hard truths head-on, rather than taking the easy route that so many others take.

Consult commentaries and Bible dictionaries when you encounter difficulties.

Commentaries can often be helpful, and it’s good to have more knowledgeable people explain difficult passages. But also be wary: even commentaries are man-made. They are simply doing their best to accurately decipher God’s word, so try to be discerning about what you take in. Finding reliable sources is pretty important, but they can never supplant the Bible and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Remember that the Bible is smarter than you.

Whoa there, back it up. What do I mean by this statement?

Well, the way I see, there are two possibilities: 1) the Bible is the inerrant word of God Himself, or 2) the Bible has persisted and succeeded in fooling people for centuries in the face of the highest level of scrutiny ever brought upon an ancient work. The level of scrutiny the Bible has endured far outweighs anything the Qu’ran or Book of Mormon has seen…combined. So the Bible is either perfect because it is God-breathed, or it is exceptionally clever in unprecedented fashion.

Either scenario means that you probably aren’t going to outsmart the Bible. In other words, you’re not going to see something that has eluded everyone else, nor are you going to find a gaping hole that no theologian or scholar has already attempted to address. I’m dumbfounded when I see countless videos on YouTube where people will find supposed contradictions and the passages are literally from the same book or even chapter! Come on, give us some credit. You really think the authors could have been that dumb? (If the Bible was a fraudulent book that had been doctored over time, don’t you think someone could have already removed those “glaring errors” anyway?)

I’m not saying this to be critical for the sake of being critical, but rather it is an exhortation to keep this in mind as you read openly and humbly.

And last but not least…

Read the Bible in big chunks!

You wouldn’t watch a movie 10 minutes at a time and take long breaks in between, would you? Does it make sense to listen to a song a few lines at a time, pause, then resume it after a breather? No, of course not. Whether it’s a movie, song, book, or even a video game, you need to experience it in proper doses to get the full experience.

In the same way, reading the Bible a few verses at a time—or even the old chapter a day—is better than nothing, but you’re not going to get as much out of it. You need to get a sense of the whole picture, rather than taking a small bite and expecting to be satisfied.

Many of us are busy, but really, don’t we all have at least 30 minutes to spare on most days? Cut back on some TV time or something if you have to. I myself am guilty of this as well…leaving God’s word my leftovers! But whenever I actually take the effort to sit down and spend time in the Bible without distractions, I never regret it. Recently, when I read the entire book of Matthew in one sitting, I remember finishing it and breathing out this long sigh of satisfaction. It really was a different experience than my usual chapter here and there.

Not only is the Bible reading experience better this way, but we’ll also tend to understand things better from a wider perspective. Often when you pick a spot to read, you’re missing all the parts leading up to it. For instance, if you read 1 John 5:13 without reading the preceding five chapters, you might think it was all about easy assurance of salvation. You wouldn’t catch all of the tests and measures leading up to that verse.

If you really are pressed for time, then by all means, read a smaller portion carefully. Don’t power through a lot of chapters and miss everything by skimming (even if you read word-for-word, your mind can’t possibly keep up and digest everything). But most of us do have the time to read carefully AND in greater amounts.

All that being said, good luck and enjoy!

***

For more on this topic, here are some helpful links from which I drew some of this advice:

Is the Bible literally true?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyEXQ3JZkUs

The Gospel is not cool to the world:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDa0eGX-Lwk

Arrogance and chronological snobbery:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pKSsTLIoPA

Whole sweep of Scripture:

http://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2011/08/n-t-wright-on-the-whole-sweep-of-scripture/

Videos about inerrancy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6zudFtjI4U

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhqVti__wDk

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABuYcQJd4b0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gieq2fYH9gs

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: