In my recent sermon on the spiritual discipline of the Bible, I mentioned that our approach to the Bible ought to be multi-faceted: not just reading the Bible but memorizing the Bible, talking about the Bible, hearing the Bible preached, and more. Yet we must never neglect fundamental study of the Bible with our own eyes. To help you get started or to help you improve in your own personal study, here are ten simple tips:
1. Have a consistent study time. God made us humans creatures of habit, and simple habits can powerfully help or hinder our spiritual growth. One helpful habit to reinforce for yourself is studying the Bible at a consistent time. Many Christians study the Bible every morning, every day during a lunch hour, or before sleeping every evening. There is more than one right answer, but you should find a consistent time that works for you and your life circumstances. Without a prioritized and consistent time, it’s easy for the demands and events of the day to simply crowd out Bible study.
2. Have a plan. Often a great hindrance to studying the Bible is figuring out where to start, how much to read, or what to read next; paralysis of indecision might even cause you not to read at all! Therefore, it helps to follow some kind of purposeful plan for reading the Bible. One of the most common types is a one-year Bible reading plan, that is, a plan that will take you through the whole Bible in one year via daily portions of OT and NT readings. There are even one-year Bibles you can purchase that neatly divide up the readings for you. Again, there is more than one right answer for working through the Bible, but choosing and following a plan is nevertheless a helpful step.
3. Don’t despair if falling behind your plan. One common reason people abandon consistent Bible study is that they fall so far behind their chosen plan that they simply give up trying to make up the missed sections or continuing. Perfectionists and completionists are particularly vulnerable to this temptation! If you are able to make up missed readings in your Bible plan, then great. But if the task is too daunting, you are better off skipping the section and simply getting back on track with your next day’s reading. Remember, the goal is not to tick off the box saying you’ve read every verse in the Bible but to build up the habit of continually feasting on God’s word.
4. Don’t neglect the Old Testament. Sometimes people recommend those new to the Bible start by reading the Gospels and then the rest of the NT in order to get to know Jesus and fundamental Christian doctrine. This is a fine recommendation. However, Christians shouldn’t stay with only reading the NT. Consider that 70% or more of the Bible is the OT! And Paul says explicitly that what’s written in the OT was intended for Christians, too (Rom 4:23-24; 1 Cor 10:11)! If you’re not reading the OT, you’re missing a majority of God’s divine instruction for you. Furthermore, a spiritual diet neglecting the OT likely will result in a deficient view of God’s holiness.
5. Use a good Bible translation. Because the Bible was not originally written in our language, we must largely rely on translations of the Bible in our personal study, but not all translations are equal in helpfulness and quality. Older translations like the King James Version may be high quality, but they use language that is awkward and hard to understand for many today. Some newer translations, however, like The Message Bible, are readily readable but end up smoothing over difficulties and nuances in the original text via interpretive paraphrases. The best Bible translations are highly literal without becoming too obtuse or outdated in wording: good examples include the New American Standard Bible 1995 edition, the English Standard Version, and the newly published Legacy Standard Bible.
6. Use a study Bible. A good study Bible from a trustworthy source is a valuable aid in understanding the Bible. Not only do these resources provide helpful cross references and explanatory notes about various verses, they also provide key introductory information for each Bible book. Book introductions will clarify background information such as who wrote the book, to whom, when, and why, thus providing important historical context for understanding what’s written in a book. One great study Bible is The MacArthur Study Bible, edited by John MacArthur but with much information provided by the faculty of The Master’s Seminary. Remember, though, that the notes in a study Bible, while helpful and worth considering, are not divinely inspired and therefore should not be taken with the same authority as the Bible itself.
7. Ask questions as you read. There is a noticeable improvement in how well someone learns when that person is actually curious to learn. Some struggle to get much out of Bible reading because they approach with few if any questions and therefore are not looking for any answers. Instead, you should ask good questions as you read the Bible and then use the details of the passage to find the answers, questions such as: Why did the author write this? What is the main message? What does this passage show me about God, about myself, or about the world? How should this passage change me? What commands are there to obey, warnings to heed, examples to follow, or promises to believe? You may not be able to answer all of your questions immediately, but an inquisitive mind will learn and remember much better.
8. Think in terms of paragraphs. One temptation in reading the Bible is to think only in terms of individual verses. Truly, there is often a wealth of wonder in just one verse of the Bible! However, the thoughts of the authors of scripture are not merely segmented into individual verses but built up into whole paragraphs which then connect together in larger sections. Often, you will not come to fully appreciate an individual verse until you consider it in light of its larger paragraph. Considering tip 7 above, some questions you should be asking regarding paragraphs as you read are: what is the main idea of this paragraph? How does this verse fit with the paragraph’s main idea? And how does the paragraph connect to the message of the book as a whole?
9. Write notes as you read. Teachers will tell you that taking notes is such a basic but important way to improve learning. Not only does the act of taking notes force you to be more engaged with the learning activity, but you’re also more likely to remember what you write down—and you know where to find it if you forget. Why not, then, bring the benefit of note taking into your Bible study? You can jot down notes on a separate sheet of paper, in a journal, or even in the Bible itself! After all, the holiness of God’s word does not consist in the physical ink, paper, and binding, but in the words communicated via those physical means. Today, some publishers have even produced journaling Bibles: Bibles with extra space for you to write down your observations, questions, and thoughts.
10. Let others assist your reading. The Ethiopian eunuch was fundamentally wise when he invited Philip, who understood the Scriptures well, to explain a difficult passage of the Bible (Acts 8:30-31). We Christians, too, should not hesitate to invite others to assist us when we have questions or encounter difficulties in reading the Bible. For example, many new Bible readers start off well in Genesis but soon get crushed by the laws, genealogies, and census information of the later Torah books. The new readers often don’t know what to do with these passages, sometimes get bored, and even abandon Bible reading altogether. Such passages are actually a great opportunity to ask for assistance! And those of us who know the Bible better should be ready to guide and instruct newer readers through the more difficult sections of the Bible.
While the ten above tips can certainly improve your Bible reading, the most important tip of all is to make sure you actually do it. The best intentions, techniques, and plans mean nothing without any action. We will all continue to improve as students of the Bible, but let us actually begin in humble faith and diligent effort that God might begin to show us the wonders of his word.
Ps 119:18, Open my eyes, that I may behold
Wonderful things from Your law.
Prov 2:4-5, If you seek her [wisdom] as silver
And search for her as for hidden treasures;
Then you will discern the fear of the Lord
And discover the knowledge of God.