It may be that you know or have heard of someone whose Bible reading plan goes like this: 1. Open the Bible to a random place. 2. Read. Such plans are seldom sustainable, and those who attempt to follow them don’t tend to mature. When it comes to reading the Bible, we know we need to, but often struggle with how to do so. Since we know it’s important to set goals for our quiet times, let’s consider how to read the Bible the way we need to.
Paul prayed for the Colossians that they would increase in the knowledge of God (Col 1:9) and we saw that this means knowing God’s character, plans, and purposes. The purpose of the Bible reading principles below is to help you determine what growth goals to set for your quiet time.
Read the whole Bible
While the earth declares the glory of the Lord (Ps 19:1), we cannot know God without understanding what He has said about Himself. The Lord has provided us with His written word, by moving men to write the very words he wanted to be recorded (2 Peter 1:20-21). In His Word, He has revealed Himself in numerous ways; in didactic teaching, narrative accounts, poetry and song, and even explanations of events in the future.
We cannot know God without understanding what He has said about Himself.
While we may be tempted to think that we learn most from the teaching of Jesus, Paul and the other apostles, it is possible to learn just as much from the prophets and the Psalmists; we just need to listen differently. Therefore we need to know the full scope of His word. We need to understand the historical writings, the prophets, the gospels and the letters of the New Testament. In a nutshell, we need to read all of God’s word to understand all of His self-revelation to us.
What to watch for
We need to know things like:
- Who is God? Watch for His attributes (power, knowledge, presence, righteousness, holiness, etc.), His purposes and how He works out His plan in specific situations and throughout time
- What does God like and dislike, or even hate?
- How has He interacted with mankind? What characteristics are used or emphasized?
- What promises has he given? To whom were these promises given? For what purpose?
- How does God relate what was revealed previously to His people in later generations?
Questions like these present us with good reasons to read the entire Bible right through. They also provide us with reasons to read the entire Bible multiple times. Each time we read, we can pick out themes to look for.
We need to read all of God’s word to understand all of His self-revelation to us.
Read Specific books
There are also themes that we see in specific books. Each biblical book has its context in a particular time and location with a specific audience in mind. By understanding the historical context, we can benefit from the book in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise if we were reading through that book as part of a “bible in a year” plan.
There are two ways to understand the themes of individual books. One is to use a study Bible to guide you through the book. A good study Bible will provide the themes, author, location and audience of each book. These will then help you to see the themes of the book as you read through it. As you read through the book, mark key passages that relate to that theme by underlining key words and phrases or by outlining the book in the margin.
Watch for themes
Another way to identify themes is to read that book through from beginning to end, ideally in one sitting or by reading it repeatedly. For example, the book of Deuteronomy was composed at the end of Moses’ life, and this is an important fact that drives the theme of the book. We can see this by the repeated injunction to remember, retell and recall what God has said and done for Israel throughout the book. If you were to read the book of Deuteronomy one chapter per day you might overlook these repeated commands, but by reading the book right through in a single sitting, the repetition stands out, and it forces you to grapple with this aspect of the book.
What to watch for
As you read through a specific book consider:
- What were the circumstances of the recipients?
- Why was this book written?
- What did God want the recipients to know in this situation? How did He want them to change as a result of this revelation?
- What can we learn about God from this book?
- What did the recipients likely learn from the message of this book?
- How does the message of this book fit with the overall message of the Bible?
Mastering each biblical book by itself becomes more important as time goes on and we read and become more familiar with the text of scripture. Nobody starts with mastery, but we should all aim for it.
Mastering each biblical book by itself becomes more important as time goes on and we read and become more familiar with the text of scripture.
Vary Your Reading Pace
In addition to reading the whole Bible and focusing on books, we need to alternate between reading quickly and reading slowly. Reading quickly forces us to think differently from when we read slowly, and therefore both methods are useful.
When we decide to read quickly, we need to avoid getting lost in the details. Depending on how fast you’re reading, there may not be time to go back and double check names or details. But that is the point. Reading quickly forces us to consider the big picture rather than the details. In this case, we’re considering the overall fit of a book in biblical and historical context or it’s overall flow rather than the details. Rapid reading allows us to pick up themes, repeated words or phrases and helps us see how the book flows and it’s overall message.
On the other hand, slow reading can often mean we lose the bigger picture in the details of the lives, events, characters and arguments of the story. When we read slowly, we are considering even little things like the order and significance of words, or the way people communicate, or the responses. Take, for example, Sarah’s laugh and the ensuing interaction with the Lord in Genesis 18:9-15, where both the fact of her laughing, and the astonishing consequences are very helpful when we consider our frail faith and the Lord’s kindness in spite of it.
Rapid reading forces us to think differently from when we read slowly, and therefore both methods are useful.
The problem with “normal” reading
Very often when we read the Bible, we read neither faster than normal nor slower than normal, which means that unless there is an immediate motivation to read well, we will read poorly since we don’t engage with the text like we ought to. If you are not a reader or if reading your Bible has become a stale process, it could be that you’ve fallen into one of these three traps, but it could simply be that you’re not engaging your mind in your Bible reading enough for it to be beneficial. Given transformation occurs by the renewing of our mind, we can’t expect to grow if our minds are not engaged in the word of God.
Given transformation occurs by the renewing of our mind, we can’t expect to grow if our minds are not engaged in the word of God.
Applying this for you
If you’ve never read through the entire Bible in a year, I encourage you to set a goal to work up to that. Start by reading consistently (work on 5-10 minutes a day) and then add to your time and the quantity of text you read until you are reading 4-5 chapters a day from different places.
You may find downloading and printing my free reading assistants to be helpful. Use them to guide you through the Old Testament, reading a chapter or two each from the Prophets, History and Wisdom sections of the Old Testament. At the same time read a chapter a day in the New Testament, which will get you through the New Testament twice in a year. If you only have one bookmark in your Bible, use it for the New Testament, and use the Reading Assistants as bookmarks in the Old Testament.
If you’ve already read through the entire Bible, or you want to do more, Don’t select just one reading approach, mix it up. Why not read through the New Testament slowly and the Old Testament quickly? Perhaps you’re already reading through the entire Bible in a year, if so, consider adding a focus on a particular book for a while.
What I’ve written here are not Bible reading plans per se. These are approaches to reading the Bible you may want to consider when creating growth goals. Later this week, I’ll post a guide to Bible reading plans with a smorgasbord of options from which to choose.
How do you approach your Bible reading?