How do I start reading the Bible?
A lot of people would like to become more familiar with the Bible’s characters, stories and message. That’s a worthy ambition, but where do you begin? Many would-be readers are paralyzed by the sheer size of the Bible and by not knowing where to start.
Here’s a Good Question from a reader: I’d like to start reading the Bible, but it feels like a massive undertaking. I’m not even sure what the Bible is or how it’s laid out. Is there a good way to start?
First, it’s important realize that the Bible is not an ordinary book that reads smoothly from cover to cover. It’s actually a library, or collection, of books written by different authors in several languages over several thousand years. But it’s a readable library, and you can get through it. Its books are “shelved” by type and topic, just as in a public library: history, the Law, the Prophets, poems and wisdom literature, eyewitness accounts of Jesus (the Gospels), collections of letters, and mind-blowing apocalyptic descriptions of the past, present and future. What a treasure trove to explore!
We talked to Bob Grahmann, Ph.D., InterVarsity’s Link Director. For years, he has taught students in the U.S. and Eastern Europe how to get into the Bible and mine the truths it contains. “If you’re digging in for the first time,” he says, “start with the Gospel of Mark, and then go on to John.”
Why start in the New Testament? Bob replies, “Martin Luther said that the Bible is the ‘cradle of Christ.’ All biblical history and prophecy ultimately point to Jesus. The book of Mark is quick and fast-paced, while John focuses on the things Jesus claimed about himself. Mark tells about what Jesus did, while John tells about what Jesus said. In John are some of the simplest and clearest passages, such as John 3:16, but also some of the deepest and most profound passages. It appeals to students and is worthy of study.”
When you’ve read through John, simply go on to the next book, Acts. This is Luke’s sequel to his account of Jesus, picking up the story at the point of Christ’s ascension. In this action-packed book we learn how the early church got started and how the gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire. “Students are into community,” says Bob, “and Acts is about community—with all of its ups and downs.” Understanding the letters of Paul, Peter and others that follow in the Bible will be much easier once you’ve read Acts. You’ll have a better feel for who the recipients of those letters were.
Next move on to Romans. “This is completely different—a letter that introduces us to the Apostle Paul and the Christian faith. Paul describes the basic teachings of the Christian faith in one book, and it’s all about God’s grace.
Oldies but goodies
Once you’ve got these under your belt, you can jump into some of the narrative stories of the Old Testament. Genesis and Exodus are good places to begin, since the events described form the basis of Judeo-Christian and Islamic worldviews. If you’ve already read Mark, John and Romans, you’ll begin to see how Jesus fits into the overarching story of God’s activity in the world.
As you read this first set of books, try reading the Psalms at the same time. Consider reading one Psalm each day as a preface to the day’s reading in the other books described above. Once you’ve come this far, you will have read one book from each of several shelves in the library—the Gospels, Old Testament history, the Epistles, New Testament history and the wisdom literature. Now you’re ready to go on. You might go to Matthew and read straight through the New Testament, and then go back to Exodus and read straight through the Old Testament. Or, as Bob recommended to us, you can use any one of several reading plans that are available. These plans can range from reading the Bible in one year to reading over several years.
One final note of encouragement: as exciting as the Bible is, staying fresh can become a problem for many readers, especially when they find themselves in the middle of long lists of genealogies and ceremonial laws. Don’t worry; God isn’t grading you on your ability to recall detail. He wants you to meet him in his Word.
Other helpful tips:
1. Obtain a whole Bible in a version you are comfortable reading. You can do a lot of short reading stints online, but you may like curling up with a real book now and then. Many North American students use the New International Version (NIV) or the newer Today’s International Version (TNIV). Some prefer the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Some people like to read large sections in The Message, a very readable and dynamic translation that is aimed more at general overall meaning than word-for-word accuracy. A large bookstore or a local Christian bookstore will have several you can choose from, as does Amazon.com (which offers a huge selection that can be overwhelming). Ask some friends who have Bibles to let you browse them. If you’re just starting out, balance their advice with readability. A translation designed for readability and the best general meaning can get you through large chunks quickly, while a more literal translation lends itself to word accuracy at the price of smooth reading.
2. Get some handy help. Use a study Bible or a simple Bible handbook that offers an outline and a brief introduction to each book of the Bible library. Search the Scriptures will take you through the whole Bible library in three years. Each daily section includes three questions to help you get into the text. Another good investment is the New Bible Commentary. This one’s not cheap, but you can always put it on your birthday wish list.
3. Don’t read alone! Find a friend or join in with a group of people who are also interested. Find a small-group Bible study that is serious about digging into these books and other parts of the Bible.
4. Get organized: find a routine. Here are just a few Bible reading plans to get you started:
- Back to the Bible offers several choices for ways to read—by chronology of events, historical order of books, a blend of Old and New Testaments and straight through. Includes options to set the start month and to read the Bible online.
- Three year-long plans from NavPress.
- Laridian offers mobile device Bible software programs for several operating systems, with multiple translations and features that help you track your reading.
- Search the Scriptures also offers study questions in a three-year plan.
5. Read broadly, study deeply. Reading broadly is a good way to get an overview. When you decide to dip into a section more thoroughly, use an inductive approach to the passage: let the text speak, and start your study from observation (“What does the text say?”) to interpretation (“What does it mean?”) to application (“What does it mean for my life?”) If you’re starting to investigate the Christian faith, you don’t have to come to the text already convinced of the Bible’s truths, but it helps to be open to what the passage says, at least allowing it to stand as an authoritative account worthy of investigation.
As you get through the Bible, you’ll be amazed at its riches. As Bob Grahmann put it to us, “From dizzying heights of grandeur to the depths of despair and back, you’ll emerge convinced that the Bible is the best library you’ve ever read!”
Read more in Bob Grahmann’s book, Transforming Bible Study, from InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Find more Bible study resources at InterVarsity.org.
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If you’re looking for an easy, breezy way to understand the Bible, curl up with The Story of God, the Story Us by InterVarsity Press, 2010. Author Sean Gladding spins the epic biblical tale with compelling creativity and refreshing style.