The Bible can be confusing and complicated. How in the world are you supposed to read it?
I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a whole lot more as they get older. Then it dawned on me . . . they’re cramming for their final exam.George Carlin
Perhaps many of us don’t currently read the Bible because life is already busy enough, because other things are more important, because we just don’t need to right now. Then again, many people do try to read the Bible, but they struggle after just a few pages. If it’s such an important book, why is it so hard to read?
If you’ve never read the Bible before, it is easy to assume that it’s like any other book—just longer and more boring. However, the Bible is unique; it is a collection of many different books written by different authors living in a different time and culture.
Some read the Bible and view it as only a book of rules or a repository of inspirational sayings—blessings or promises from God. But what about Bible passages like these:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?Psalm 22:1
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.Romans 1:18
What rules or blessings do we get from these verses? No one has yet published a Wrath of God Study Bible or a Daily Calendar of Warnings.1 There is so much more to the Bible than just legal codes and blessings. Whether you are new to the Bible, well acquainted with it, or “cramming for your final exam,” it is important to understand how to read the Bible well.
The Bible contains sixty-six different books of varying lengths written by an assortment of authors. There are two main divisions in the Bible—the Old Testament and New Testament. The books themselves are divided into chapters and verses.2 For instance, Matthew 11:28 refers to the book of Matthew, chapter eleven, verse twenty-eight.3
Most books are named after their author (e.g., Luke); a main character (e.g., Ruth); the recipients of the original text (e.g., Galatians); a significant event (e.g., Exodus); or a general description of the content (e.g., Proverbs). The names of a few books are distinguished by a number. For example, 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians are two different letters that Paul wrote to the same audience—the church in Corinth.
The Big Picture
As you start to read the Bible, it’s imperative that you keep the big picture in mind. The Bible is not just a collection of individual books; it’s a collection of stories that tell a grand, overarching Story.
Of course, the individual Bible accounts—like Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit; the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt; David slaying Goliath; Jesus healing the sick; and the Apostles spreading the gospel—tell us about life, consequences, redemption, and hope. Embedded within the big-picture Story of the Bible are laws, songs, proverbs, prophetic messages, and letters, each of which reveals something of God’s justice and love for the world.
Perhaps this is why author Eugene Peterson said, “God reveals himself to us not in a metaphysical formulation or a cosmic fireworks display but in the kind of stories that we use to tell our children who they are and how to grow up as human beings, tell our friends who we are and what it’s like to be human.”4
Together, these stories of the Bible show how God is working to make things right in our broken world—a world full of pain. This is the epic trajectory of the Bible, the narrative arc toward which all of the Bible’s individual stories point.5 Keeping this big picture in mind, here are a few specific tips for how to read the Bible.
The first step to reading and understanding a specific passage in the Bible is to discover what the text meant to its original audience. You might ask these questions:
- Who were the first readers of this book? Where did they live? What customs did they practice? What was happening around them? What did they think these books were saying to them?
- What kind of literature is this? Is it historical narrative? Law? Song? Letter? Wisdom saying? Parable? Prophetic message? Are any literary devices being used? Are there metaphors, symbols, figures of speech, or poetic elements I need to understand?
- What is the historical and cultural background of this passage? How does this passage fit into its broader context? What do the passages before and after it say? What is the general purpose of the book in which this passage is included? (As with any book, if you pull isolated sayings out of context, you may change the meaning entirely.)
Many Bibles today include introductions for each of the books. These introductions contain helpful background information about the historical and cultural context of each book. Be sure to consult these.6 If you prefer something more instructional, many churches offer introductory courses and Bible study groups. Or consider asking a friend to read along with you. Reading and discussing the Bible and its message with others is a good way to ensure that you read it well.
The second step is to apply its message to today. Answer this question: What does this story communicate that is applicable to me today?
Use common sense. If there is a God, he’s not trying to trick us or hide secret meanings in the Bible. Granted, some parts of the Bible are difficult to understand, but in most places the basic meaning can be discerned easily.
Keep in mind the cultural differences between Bible times and today. Some truths and principles that the Bible teaches may be lived out today in ways that are quite different than in the ancient world.
Be mindful of the climax of the Bible’s story: the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The entire Bible points us toward Jesus.
Find Your Place in the Story
Finally, as you apply a passage’s message to your life, consider your place in the grand Story of the Bible. Consider praying this prayer: “God, if you exist and inspired the words and stories I am reading, would you inspire me as well?”
Keep a journal of things you learn and questions that arise. When a certain passage challenges you or convicts you, follow those feelings through. If you feel compelled to do something, do it (as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone)!
As you read more and more of the Bible, begin to see yourself as an active participant in the larger story of how God is working to make things right in our broken world. As one theologian concluded, “The answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ can only be given if we ask ‘What is my story?’ and that can only be answered if there is an answer to the further question, ‘What is the whole story of which my story is a part?’”7
- For an excellent explanation of this and other ways that religious people misread the Bible, see Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 41–54.
- The chapter and verse divisions are not original; they were added hundreds of years after the books were written so that people could find passages and sentences more easily.
- Two helpful online tools for finding passages and reading the Bible are BibleGateway.com and YouVersion.com.
- Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 3.
- For more on understanding the Bible as stories that tell a Story, see McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, 55–65.
- Consider purchasing a study Bible such as the NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011) for an extensive introduction, charts, and background notes on key passages and verse.
- Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 100.
- Photo Credit: Dudarev Mikhail / Shutterstock.com.
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