How to Read the Bible

The Bible is not a book – it’s actually 66 books – a Spiritual Library written by about 40 different authors, over 1500 years. They wrote in a number of different languages and genres for diverse audiences, covering the themes of life, but all telling one story: The Story of God’s saving work throughout History.

The Bible is unique, because it’s not only the best-selling book of all time, the most translated book of all time, and the most read book of all time. But, it’s also the most debated book of all time! And a book that still costs people their lives around the world today.

The Bible is not just a normal book.   

2 Timothy 3v16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

We believe that the Bible is a God-breathed book. That its words are inspired, having authority over all of life, and are without error, and perfect in the original translations. And that the scriptures are complete and sufficient – meaning its words do not need anything added to them.

Now, if these things are true, if the Bible is what we say it is, then we all have to agree that reading it, knowing it, memorising it, and applying it to our lives is necessary, and incredibly important. But, for many of us, after coming to the Bible, and opening it up, we realise that the Bible is also not like most of the other books we have read. And that engaging with it can be complicated, without a bit of help.

When I was 12 years old, I started reading the Bible most days, but had no idea what I was doing. 

For about 6 years, before I went to bed, I would open my King James Version of the Bible (a translation of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek scriptures published in 1611, using ‘Shakespearean’ English) and would choose a page and chapter at random – kind of like a lucky dip – and read it through. And then close the Bible and go to bed. Each time I would hope for divine inspiration or revelation. But often I had little context of what was going on in the passage I read, and I didn’t get much out of it.

On top of that, the old English translation of the Bible didn’t help much either. But at that time I didn’t know there were different translations of the Bible (We would recommend reading either the ESV, CSB, NIV or NLT versions of the Bible, with the Message Bible as a fun and helpful paraphrase to read alongside. You can find all of these for free on the YouVersion Bible App). But still I worked my way through the Bible, ticking off chapters as I went, until I had read the whole thing.

And after that, I still had very little idea what was going on.

I wish I had known then what I know now, and that I had spent that time engaging with the scriptures differently and more productively. So, for those of you who are wired like me, and want to know God and His word, but aren’t sure what to do with your Bible, or how to get the most out of reading it, hopefully this post will serve as a very basic crash course, or as Bible Reading 101. 

How to Read the Bible:

  1. Pause:

Psalm 119v18: “Open my eyes, that I may behold, wondrous things, out of your law.”

Before you start reading, take a moment to stop what you’re doing, slow down, get rid of distractions and focus on Jesus. When it comes to Bible reading, there are no points for finishing the passage first!

So start with prayer. Come into God’s presence humbly and open to learn, before you get into the scriptures, and ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you and illuminate the Bible as you read.

When we read the Bible, we aren’t reading a novel or studying for a test, we are wanting to meet with God. So we want to start by removing all distractions, focusing on Him, and prayerfully reading as He speaks to us by His Spirit and through His Word.

2. Read:

For those who don’t know where to start, we’d recommend the Gospel of John (just a heads up, there are also books in the Bible Called 1 John, 2 John, 3 John and the Revelation of John). But we’d recommend John’s Gospel (or Matthew, Mark or Luke) because they are biographies of the life of Jesus. 

And when you read, don’t do the lucky dip approach like I did, treating Bible passages like fortune cookies. Rather, read whole Books of the Bible all the way through from beginning to end, to get the full message of the book, and to understand verses in their context.

3. Meditate:

The Bible is not like other books. And as you read it, you’ll find yourself stuck in one verse sometimes, wrestling with its meaning, mulling it over in your mind, praying it through and seeking understanding.

That’s a good thing. We should meditate on the scriptures (Not meaning that we empty our minds, but rather that we think about it and work it through prayerfully as we seek understanding) as we see in both Psalm 1 and Joshua 1. 

If you’re not sure how to do this, you can start by asking yourself these 4 questions:

  1. What does this passage tell us about God?
  2. What has he done for us in Jesus?
  3. Who are we in light of that? (Identity)
  4. How are we called to live, in light of who we are?

4. Pray:

Once we have read through the passage, we want to respond in prayer by speaking to God about what stood out to you from this passage. This turns our engagement with the scriptures from just reading and learning, to prayer and worship and communing with God.:

5. Listen:

And, while we read, meditate and pray, we also want to ask ourselves: “What is the Holy Spirit saying to me from this passage? What stands out to me from this? How is God speaking to me specifically, from this passage today?”

6. Apply:

And lastly, we want to ask, “What am I going to do in response to what God is saying to me from the text and by the Spirit?”

The Bible isn’t just a book to read or understand. It’s not just inspirational prose. It is a book to be applied to our lives, obeyed and lived out in everyday life. So, every time we come to the scriptures, we should be asking ourselves: “What do I need to believe and do in response to what this says?”

At this point, some of you haven’t found what you are looking for yet, because we don’t just need to know how to READ the Bible. We also need to know how to INTERPRET what we have read.

How to Interpret the Bible:

  1. Interpret each verse within the Big Story of the Bible:

Although as we have said, the Bible is not a single Book, but rather a Library of 66 Books, at the same time each of these books is telling one unified story: The Story of God’s saving work throughout History.

So get to understand the Big Story of scripture and of God that we are apart of, and it will help you to understand the different themes, books and ideas found in the Bible.

As a Church, we preached a series on this idea called The Story of God dividing the story of the Bible into 6 Chapters: Creation, the Fall, Israel, Jesus, the Church and New Creation. We recommend listening to this series to get an idea of the Big Story of the Bible.

2. What Literary Style is this Book of the Bible?

There are many different types of books, with different types of writing styles and genres. And the way we approach these different types of books, is different.

I don’t read, interpret or approach romantic poetry the same way I would a Biology textbook, or a sci-fi novel, a kids book, a Cook Book, a Graphic Novel or a book of History. 

When it comes to the Bible we need to know what Literary Style or Genre we are reading to help us make sense of what is being said. 

In the scriptures we find songs, prayers, speeches, dialogues, parables, laws, birth records, letters and other literary styles. And at the same time the Bible contains a variety of genres or styles of writing ranging from the overtly poetic, such as the Psalms, to prophetic writings, wisdom literature, historical narrative, apocalyptic literature and more. Some books that are more full of information and facts, and others that are more full of poetry and artistic description.  

Understanding the type of book you are reading, will help you to understand and interpret the message of that book rightly.

3. What is the Authors intent in writing this passage?

When we read the scriptures, we come with our 21st Century lenses, worldviews, cultures and ways of thinking, because we are people of our time. We can’t ignore that, but we do need to work harder because of this as we read the Bible, to find what the original intent of the author was in writing this book, chapter or verse, and then interpret what it means for us today. 

We can’t just superimpose our thinking, interpretation or culture onto scripture. We must find the original intended meaning for the original intended audience. And then apply it to us today. 

This means that we should never say something like: “Well this is what this verse means TO ME…” 

The Bible is not a subjective book that we can interpret freely, or project our own thoughts or interpretations onto. Instead, it is God’s book, with a pre-existing, specific, intended meaning that we want to discover and apply to our own lives.

4. What does this passage mean in its Context?

Some people don’t know that the Bible actually says: “there is no God.”

Shocking right?!?!

But it says it right there in Psalm 14v1.

The full verse says: “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.”

Context makes all the difference.

When we dislocate a Biblical phrase or verse from its paragraph, chapter, or book of the Bible, we can skew or misinterpret its meaning, or make it mean or justify whatever we want it to.

This also means that we shouldn’t “Major on Minors” when we interpret the Bible. When we are reading and interpreting a passage, we want to focus on what the text focuses on and highlight the Big Ideas that that chapter or book are highlighting, rather than spotlighting obscure, secondary ideas. Don’t build strong, defining convictions from obscure or hard to interpret verses in the Bible.

5. Let Scripture interpret Scripture:

Not all Bible passages are equally clear. So, a clear passage can be used to shed light on a difficult, not-so-clear passage. There are a number of obscure verses in Scripture, where you might wish the writer would have provided more details, or phrased something a bit more clearly.  However, by comparing these more difficult verses with others on a similar theme, we can still reach definite conclusions about what the passage does not teach, and get a clearer idea of what it must mean.

Secondly, by comparing Scripture with Scripture, we have a system of checks and balances to help us stay on the right track. There will likely be times when, for whatever reason, we incorrectly interpret a passage. By searching for other passages that speak about the same topic, we can recognise our error, and course correct. And, if we interpret a passage and then discover that every other passage on the topic seems to teach the same truth, we can be confident in the accuracy of our interpretation.

6. Find People to Help you Interpret the Passage:

Read the Bible with a friend or leader, and ask for their help with interpreting tougher passages. Reading the Bible alone is a much more modern idea for most believers over the centuries. Reading the Bible with someone else, discussing it and applying it to your life might help with your spiritual growth. And discussing what a passage means with someone wiser or more experienced with the scriptures could really help you grow, help your understanding, and help you to think of ways you could live the passage out.

7. Find Resources to Help you Interpret the Passage:

There are incredible resources for people wanting to better understand the Bible. We recommend a Study Bible as a great tool and a great way to get started with going deeper with your reading and study of the Bible. Sometimes reading a commentary or study Bible helps to unpack the meaning of the verse in a way we hadn’t seen, or to link us to other verses, historical context or cultural realities that we are not aware of in understanding the meaning of the passage or book.

8. Don’t just Understand it. Don’t just Obey it. Follow it.

We read the scriptures as God-breathed, God-inspired words. The Bible is not just a book, it is God’s written word to us, and with that, comes its authority. 

That means as we read, we should humbly and obediently respond to the words of scripture as God’s word to us. Something authoritative that we submit our lives to, rather than just a book that we casually read.

God speaks to us and leads us by His word. This means that when we read and study the scriptures, we’re not just trying to see what we can get out of them, but more than that, we are humbly coming to see what God is wanting to say to us through them.

Christians are Followers of Jesus. And we follow Jesus both by the Spirit, and according to what He has already taught us and laid out in the scriptures.

Resources:

The Bible Project have created a series of Videos called: “How to Read the Bible.” These are fun, helpful, and full of insightful information, and are pretty short and visually appealing too. You can find them here.