How to Read the Bible

An appalling amount of biblical illiteracy exists in our churches these days. Recent polls by Gallup and others have shown that many people do not know even the simplest of facts, such as the city of Jesus’ birth (Bethlehem) or the names of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). There is no way to justify such ignorance. Because God gave us his Word, we ought to make every effort to find out what it says. The Bible is, in fact, the most important book in existence. In it we find the words of eternal life, and of life here on earth as well. If we do not know what God says, is it any wonder that we go off in wrong directions?

By studying the Bible we get to know who God is and what he is like. The Scriptures include over 15,000 references to God and a thorough study of those passages alone could change our lives. We should also study the Bible in order to test out what we believe. The world is filled with false ideas about God and his purposes for us. So when we hear someone stating what God’s will is, we ought to check it out for ourselves in his Word, and then reject what is false and keep what is true. Finally, we need to study the Bible in order to grow spiritually as it encourages us to love and serve God and others, calls our attention to our own sin, and helps us live like Christ.

But how do we read the Bible more effectively? These few passages don’t provide a comprehensive answer to that question, but they do offer guidelines and point us in the right direction.

The Basic Quest

What we are trying to do when we read the Bible is to see what is there. Exegesis (the term used to describe biblical interpretation) is the art of seeing the obvious. Too many people try to think profound or deep thoughts when they read the Scriptures. But the Scriptures are deep enough; all we need to do is find out what is there. Another way of defining exegesis is to say it is the art of asking the right questions. If we ask the right questions of the Bible when we read it, we will get the right answers. Some suggested questions are given below for approaching the text with a keen eye, an inquiring mind, and an open heart.

The Living Book

So now we read the passages of the Bible. What do we have? In one sense, we have a book like any other book. It has words, ideas, grammar, figures of speech, history, poetry, etc. The rules that make possible our understanding and interpretation of these data will be little different from those we refer to when reading other literature of a similar type. In another sense, however, the Bible is completely different from any other book. The Bible is God’s inspired Word and when we read it, we are not examining it, rather, it is examining us. We do not interpret it; it interprets us. As God’s Word it has a life of its own and we must listen to what God says to us through it.

An Average-Reader Approach to Bible Study

Is there an approach that will make Bible reading and study an exciting and rewarding experience with the background and level of competence you have? And how can you get access to the discoveries and insights of the biblical scholars without going through their complicated processes?

General Considerations

The Daily Spiritual Diary Worksheet is an example of one of the many ways you can arrange your personal daily devotional diary.

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing. The mastery of the Bible, like the mastery of any discipline or skill in life, does not come without intense and constant effort. It is hardly a pursuit for dilettantes. But if you have made up your mind that the Bible is what it claims to be–the witness to Jesus Christ, who is the doorway to Life here and hereafter for yourself, your family, and the entire world–you will want to hear and ponder deeply that witness and share your exciting knowledge with others.

It is regrettable that most Bible-reading is “catch-as-catch can” reading–a few verses before retiring at night, a paragraph between cups of coffee at the breakfast table, a sample or two to make us feel right before we go to church on Sunday morning. We somehow expect the Bible to yield up its treasures in two minutes flat. While there may be some value in such casual reading, there are dangers also. We may lift passages out of context and misinterpret and misapply them.

One Bible scholar properly reminds us that in Bible reading we need not snapshots but time exposures. We should read when our faculties are most alert, when we have time to ponder the deeper meanings for ourselves, our family, our business, our community, and our world.

We should read the Bible with the kind of excited curiosity scientists have when they are on the track of a new discovery. We should read it the way a young man in the first stages of love pores over a letter from his beloved–not once, hurriedly, but repeatedly, with attention to every detail and the exact meaning of every word.

And we should read the Bible itself, not just books about the Bible. Too many people’s knowledge of the Bible is secondhand. They evidently have a basic fear that they will get lost in the Bible’s dry lists, archaic vocabulary, and curious symbols. They never experience the thrill of firsthand discovery, develop mature powers of judgment in biblical matters, and come through to rich personal understanding of the significance of biblical perspectives for their own lives.

All in-depth reading of the Bible–like all proper scientific study– proceeds through four basic steps: exact observation of data; interpretation of data; verification of results; and the application of results to life. This is a “see-for-yourself” procedure.

Such reading requires planning and preparation: regular periods set aside for uninterrupted individual and group study; a proper physical environment; and adequate working tools.

Working equipment should include the following:

a translation of the Bible by an official committee or a competent scholar
a second translation (or more) for sake of comparison
a concordance to the basic translation being used
a good one-volume commentary on the Bible a theological wordbook or a Bible dictionary
an atlas to the lands of the Bible

Specific Procedures

Adequate understanding of the Bible, like the understanding of any literature, comes by reading it in logical units. These units may be whole books, sections, or paragraphs. If the material is poetry, the poem or the stanza may comprise the unit to be grasped. The chapters of the Bible, as now marked off, may or may not be logical units.

Many books of the Bible are reasonably well constructed so that they can be approached as wholes. They are amenable to logical division and investigation by parts.

But one must not expect the kind of logical construction in ancient oriental literature that one finds in modern Western books. There are no author-composed book titles, no writers’ prefaces in which they state what they are about, no logically organized tables of contents, no end-of-chapter summaries, and no smooth transitions to subsequent chapters. Loose association of related materials, frequent repetition of essentially the same data and of editorial comments, inept expansions and asides, lack of assimilation or rough joining of source materials, and the like, are characteristic of ancient oriental literature (especially before the Hellenistic period) and offend the modern readers’ concept of logic and style. Since the books of the New Testament were written to some extent under the influence of Greek literary standards, they are better organized (from our point of view) than most of the Old Testament ones.

All of us in the Western world are heirs of Greek principles of logic and rhetoric. An approach to the Bible for you, the average present-day reader, must then proceed from the literary principles with which you are acquainted and which you consciously or subconsciously employ in general reading. Therefore, a simplified form of the traditional literary criticism described above offers the best path to biblical understanding for you. The exact literary procedures you will use on any given piece of biblical material must be determined by the nature of that material. Unified or relatively unified books must be approached differently from those that are nonunified.

Unfortunately, no clear classification of biblical books as to their degree of unity can be drawn up. Illogical elements are found in the most tightly written of them. It is often unclear whether biblical writers or compilers intended to draw up an integrated body of data or whether they were consciously passing on their material in almost the accidental and haphazard ways in which it came to them, with a minimum of editing. It appears that there is more unity in books containing historical narrative (like I and II Samuel and Luke-Acts), in letters (like Paul’s), and in treatises (like Ephesians and Hebrews) than in books of poetry, wisdom, and prophecy (like Psalms, Proverbs, and Jeremiah), for example. The degree of unity must be taken into account in a study procedure.

Whether a book had one or several authors is not the decisive consideration in determining how it should be read. It is quite possible for several writers to contribute to a book in such a way that the final result holds together fairly logically.

The following outline is a rough guide. Some suggestions for systematic reading will be based on it.

Unified and Relatively Unified Books

Old Testament

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy
  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Ruth
  • I and II Samuel
  • I and II Kings
  • I and II Chronicles
  • Esther
  • Daniel
  • Joel
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Malachi

New Testament

  • Matthew
  • Mark
  • Luke-Acts
  • John
  • Romans
  • I Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • I and II Thessalonians
  • I and II Timothy
  • Titus
  • Philemon
  • Hebrews
  • I and II Peter
  • I, II, and III John
  • Jude
  • Revelation

Nonunified Books

Old Testament

  • Leviticus
  • Ezra
  • Nehemiah
  • Job
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Song of Solomon
  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Lamentations
  • Ezekiel
  • Hosea
  • Amos
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zechariah

New Testament

  • II Corinthians
  • James