How to Read the Bible

16 minute read

This post is part of the series “Rethinking Bible Reading”

  1. Rethinking Bible Reading

  2. Understanding the I.O.U.S. Prayer

  3. How to Read the Bible 👈 you are here

For a series of articles on reading the Bible, this series of articles has involved precious little reading the Bible.

In this article, we’ll change that, starting right now.

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.
—Joshua 1:8

Phew! Finally, into Scripture. But wait, you say, that doesn’t count! I’ve read seventeen passages from the Bible just reading this series. I’m trying to get some real Bible reading done.

I have good news: you’re doing it. Reading the Bible doesn’t always mean sitting down with a book on your lap. It does mean that more often than not, but there are a multitude of ways to approach the Bible, and not all of them look the same.

The preparation is important. Setting aside time—the place, the ritual—gives you space to breathe, to make reading the Bible an important part of your life, not just something you squeeze in between school and soccer practice, between work and workout. The prayer sets your heart right before you encounter the living Word. You can read the Bible cover to cover all you want, but without a God-directed heart, all you’ll ever see are words.

If you’ve set aside fifteen minutes to read the Bible, and you spend the first fourteen of them settling your heart and praying, and in the final minute you read one verse—that’s a win, not a waste.

All right, let’s jump in.

Strategy One: Jump Right In

This strategy could have the more-eloquent name “Drink Deeply”, but the vastness of Scripture makes it more like diving from a cliff into the ocean than like sipping iced tea on your back porch.

Here’s the basic idea: pick somewhere to start, and read giant chunks of Scripture. Just huge swaths of words flowing straight from the mind of God into your heart. Start at Creation in Genesis 1 and don’t stop until the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Take in an entire gospel at a time. Read 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus in one sitting1.

Obviously, this strategy works best for those who can devote a very healthy chunk of time to Bible reading. And it’s not a great way to read, for example, Deuteronomy or parts of Numbers. But! It requires almost no planning—it’s just barely a “strategy”—and it pours Scripture into your mind. And there is power, love, peace, and truth in those verses.

It teaches you the wonderful arcs of the story of God and His people, the glorious paintings of glory and mercy and wrath and patience, and the tiny, beautiful tales of individuals like Rahab the prostitute and Ruth the widowed foreigner and David the king-slash-adulterer-slash-murderer-slash-priest-poet-and-prophet. Chapter after chapter of history, law, poetry, prophecy, until the Word consumes you.

This, by the way, is how I tend to read novels, especially my favorite fantasy series. I take a Saturday afternoon, prop up my feet, pour myself a drink, and lose myself for hours in a world of unreality, of heroes and villains and sorcery and wonder and war and romance.

Spoiler: the Bible has all these things, too, and they’re real. There’s no fiction to be found. So jump right in with both feet. Gulp it down. Fill yourself to bursting with the living Word of God. What a way to spend a weekend…

Strategy Two: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

John MacArthur, a renowned evangelical preacher and prolific author, wrote a short book called How to Study the Bible in which he spends 104 pages talking about why to study the Bible and just 36 answering the title question of how. And his 36-page suggestion can be summarized very neatly:

  • Old Testament: Read straight through, starting with Genesis and ending at Malachi, at a pace of about once per year, which is about three chapters a day.
  • New Testament: Choose a book (he likes to use 1 John as an example), and follow this thirty-day reading plan of just that book (for longer books, break it down into segments of about seven chapters each).
    • Day 1: Read the book (or segment) straight through.
    • Day 2: Read the book (or segment) straight through.
    • Day 3: Read it again.
    • Day 4: Read it again.
    • Days 5–30: Read it again, once each day.
    • When you finish the book or segment, choose another and repeat.

It sounds crazy, I know. But try it. You’ll find it’s powerful. As soon as I read this book, I immediately implemented this strategy, with a minor tweak: I ignored his distinction between the testaments and chose Micah as my first book. Over the next month, I learned more about Micah than I ever knew there was to know.

For example, Micah understood Hebrews 7:27, about the futility of animal sacrifice, hundreds of years early; just read Micah 6:6–8. He also prophesied Jesus’s birthplace of Bethlehem; that’s in Micah 5:2. Those verses are too famous, you say? How about this: Micah accused the rulers of Israel of flaying God’s people, chopping them up, and putting them in a pot like stew; this gross image courtesy of Micah 3:1–3.

Seeking a change of pace, I chose Nahum next; after all, it’s next in the Bible. It starts, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God…” (Nahum 1:2). I kept reading anyway.

This strategy will take you through the Old Testament once a year and through the New Testament once every three years or so. But in those three years, you’ll have read every book of the Old Testament three times, and every book of the New Testament thirty times. You’ve just accomplished thirty years of Bible-in-a-year in one-tenth the time, and with a better result, because the repetition helps you remember.

If you choose this strategy, get an index card. Write down on it the major theme of each chapter you encounter. Every day, re-read the index card when you re-read the book. When you start a new book or segment, start a new index card. You’ll rapidly memorize the theme of every chapter in the Bible—an amazing resource most of us (including me) can only aspire to—and when you’re done, you’ll have a great stack of cards with a one-line summary of every chapter in the Bible. Just in case you forget.

Hmmm… maybe I should do Galatians next…

Strategy Three: Micro-Repetition

Louie Giglio is the founder of the Passion Movement that, among other things, hosts yearly conferences attended by many thousands of college-age men and women. They’re headlined by artists like Lecrae and Chris Tomlin and speakers like John Piper and Beth Moore and Francis Chan and Ravi Zacharias. I’ve attended a few of these gatherings, and they’re as amazing as they sound.

Anyway, he also wrote a book called I Am Not But I Know I AM about the smallness of human lives in the face of the greatness of God, and how we should live in that understanding. In an appendix, he talks about the “One-Word Bible Study Method”, which is like the John MacArthur method turned up to eleven. You can read the book for the backstory, but the gist is this:

Whenever you’re reading through your Bible, using whatever strategy you’ve chosen, and a verse or passage stands out to you, stop. Write that verse down on a piece of paper small enough to carry with you, and then don’t let it out of your sight. Over the next days, weeks, or months, read the passage to yourself, one word at a time. Read each word over and over, until, in Giglio’s words, “it starts talking back to you.”

Like the MacArthur method, you’ll see things you never knew were there, even in just a single verse, or a single word. Giglio gives this example from Romans:

Romans 1:1 opens with the word “Paul.” For me, that name became a one-word summary of the entire book of Romans. Why? In a sense, all of Romans is depicted by the life story of this man, a hater of Christians and a persecutor of the church who was changed by God’s sovereign grace from Saul into Paul2, the writer of much of the New Testament and the first century’s most effective mouthpiece for the gospel.

I hope you’re not dismayed to hear that this method takes an incredible amount of patience. It’s more like meditation than Bible study, and it involves no small amount of frustration. But eventually, you’re going to be reading Psalm 86:11 for the hundredth time, and after “unite my heart to fear your name” you’re going to hear, “and nothing else”, and your eyes will be opened, and you will understand the absolute loyalty God demands and deserves of your heart. Or at least, that’s how it happened for me.

By the way, even Giglio admits that this method probably won’t work for every verse. If you’re up for a serious challenge, try Judges 4:213.

Strategy Four: The Standard Bible Reading Plan

I saved this strategy until last because I suspect it’s what most people go to first. There are thousands of different Bible reading plans. Plans for one year or three years, chronological plans and historical plans, plans for men and plans for women, any kind of Bible reading plan you want. Some plans just tell you what to read; some include daily devotionals, or meditations, or prayers, or questions to answer in your Bible reading plan notebook, or all of the above.

This strategy is great for most people. There are even apps, like my favorite, YouVersion, that make these plans easy to find, easy to start, and easy to finish. Your phone will remind you, keep you on track, and even celebrate your streaks of daily Bible reading. I’ve used a one-year reading plan on YouVersion for the last several years to keep me honest about getting into the Word every single day.

Discussing the multitude of Bible reading plans available would be ridiculous, and this article would be much longer if I tried. So I’m going to recommend to you just a few that I’ve personally used and found useful. We’ll start with my favorite.

Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan

Developed by The Navigators, a global ministry for discipleship, the Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan is the only reading plan I’ve ever encountered that offers grace.

If you’re up on your calendar, you may remember that each year has 365 days in it, or 366 sometimes. Well, this reading plan has only three hundred days in it, twenty-five per month. Which means that when you inevitably fall behind, every month has five or six extra days for you to catch up4.

That alone makes this plan the best one ever devised.

The single most common reason for quitting any habit, including Bible study, is missing one session, and then two, and then three, and then giving up. But with this plan, when you miss a day, you look at your plan and think, “Hey, I’m not behind even a little!”

There’s another cool feature of this plan: each day includes four readings from different pieces of the Bible: the gospels, the rest of the New Testament, Psalms or Proverbs, and the rest of the Old Testament.

Which means that you’re not stuck in Leviticus for a month, like you might be with an unfortunate Jump Right In (Strategy One). Instead, for the ten days you’re in Leviticus (at the end of February), you’re also in Matthew, Acts, and Psalms. So you won’t give up at the eleventh chapter in a row of rules that are hard to understand in the twenty-first century.

What Do You Do With the Extra Days?

I’m so glad you asked, you over-achiever, you. What I do with the extra days is catch up on the days I missed during the month. But if you’re ahead of the game, by which I mean you’re keeping up, I have some suggestions.

  1. Memorize Scripture. We’ll talk about ways to do this at length in a later post, but I love to tell people to memorize Scripture. Keep it in your head. Write it in your mind and on your heart (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Hebrews 8:8–12). You have sixty-five extra days every year in this plan; I know you can memorize at least sixty-five verses of Scripture in that time. That’s more than half of the Sermon on the Mount!
  2. Read something else. Pick a nice Christian nonfiction book and read that on your extra days. You’ll get exposure to all kinds of good thinking and new ideas to apply to your Bible reading when you get started again next month.
  3. Rest. God, if you don’t know, is a huge fan of rest. The Bible talks about it all the time. God rested on the seventh day (Genesis 2:1–3). He expects us to rest from our work on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8–11). He invites Israel into His rest, and, when they disobey Him, He disinvites them (Psalm 95:11). Jesus calls to “all who are weary and heavy-laden” and says, “I will give them rest” (Matthew 11:28). There’s a whole section of Hebrews dedicated to rest (Hebrews 4:1–13). If you go this route, remember that there are other ways to rest than sleeping in.

Bible In One Year

Nicky Gumbel is the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), an Anglican church in London. Since 2011, he has written a daily devotional every year that takes you through the entire Bible over the course of the year. Thus the catchy name: Bible In One Year.

Each day draws out a theme among the day’s passages, which are taken from Psalms or Proverbs, the New Testament, and the Old Testament. Nicky’s wife Pippa adds some commentary, and the reading ends with a prayer.

I love this plan because Gumbel is spectacular at drawing out connections between verses I never would have seen. Each day, I am amazed that the three passages fit together so neatly to tell a single story. It’s also conveniently offered by the YouVersion app, so I don’t have to remember to visit the website or even sign up for the e-mail list. (I used this plan for my 2017 daily reading, which, to be honest, took me sixteen months to complete.)

That said, the devotionals are targeted for mass consumption, so if you’re looking for a serious academic treatise every day, look elsewhere. But for the other 99.44% of Bible readers—you can’t do much better.

Chronological Plan

For millennia, we have been trained to expect stories to follow a general pattern: the first things happen first, the middle things happen next, and the last things happen at the end. We expect this pattern so strongly that authors and stories that subvert it tend to be masters of their art—a classic example is Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

When we read the Bible, we have the same expectation. But the Bible isn’t one book; it’s a library of sixty-six books. And while the books generally flow chronologically within themselves, many books overlap in time, especially in the Old Testament.

The story of Job likely takes place around the time of Abram/Abraham. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles all describe overlapping events and periods. The psalms and most of the prophets take place during that period as well.

In the New Testament, the book of Acts covers the stories of Peter and Paul after Jesus’s resurrection and ascension. But the letters that make up the balance of the New Testament refer to events during those journeys.

Keeping track of all these things happening at the same time is daunting at best, and confusion does not help comprehension. So for several years during college, I used a chronological Bible (specifically, this one) for my daily reading. This nontraditional type of Bible takes all the stories from the entire Bible and re-orders them so that as you read from front to back, you also read from the past to the future. Even the psalms are spaced out alongside their contexts (for example, those David wrote while hiding from Saul are juxtaposed with the story of David… hiding from Saul).

The biggest downside to this type of plan is that you can’t use your own Bible for it (well, you can, but only with lots and lots of flipping back and forth, which distracts from the text). Most pastors will tell you—and I agree—to use the same Bible as often as possible so it becomes ingrained in your mind. This plan makes that impossible. But it’s worth trying for a year or two, to help sort out how all these stories fit together.

Then go back to the Bible you know best.

M’Cheyne Reading Plan

If you’ve ever tried a Bible-in-a-year reading plan like, say, the three above, you probably noticed that the New Testament goes by much more slowly than the Old Testament. That’s because it’s only about one-third the length: 8,000-ish verses compared to more than 23,000 in the Old Testament.

This venerable plan (Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a nineteenth-century Scottish minister) fixes that problem by simply doubling up on the New Testament. Each year, the plan visits the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice5.

This plan is probably most famous because of Don Carson’s devotional For the Love of God. Carson is obsessed with Biblical frameworks—fitting each piece into place in God’s eternal plan through the ages. For the Love of God is a two-volume work based on the M’Cheyne reading plan that offers two full years of commentary (one per volume). I haven’t read these books myself, so I can’t specifically recommend them, but given what I have read from Dr. Carson, I’m guessing it’s excellent.

Wrap-Up

In this series, you’ve seen why Bible reading should start with a prayer and a ritual (and I’ve shown you my daily ritual); I’ve suggested a prayer to pray and why; and now you have several concrete suggestions for what to do after you open the book.

You’re ready get started—or re-started—reading the Bible in the expectation that God will meet you there and show you His story, His glory, and His Son.

What questions do you have now? Or what questions do you still have? Let me know, and I’ll try to answer them in a future article.

  1. These three books, collectively, are known as the “pastoral epistles” and fit nicely together. I didn’t just pick three books at random. 

  2. I can’t let this pass without comment. Sorry, Louie: Saul did not change his name to Paul on the Damascus road when he encountered Jesus. That experience happens in Acts 9, and we don’t see him called Paul until he visits Paphos on Cyprus four chapters and at least a year later in Acts 13:9. The occasion for the change was visiting Roman colonies for the first time, when his Roman name “Paul” was much more approachable than the Hebrew “Saul” he had been using in Damascus, Jerusalem, Tarsus, and Antioch. 

  3. But seriously, don’t. We’re aiming for sanctification, and there are better things to do with your time. 

  4. Except February, of course. I guess you have to be a bit more diligent that month. 

  5. I guess if he really wanted to even it out, he could have sent the reader through the New Testament a third time, but there’s a lot of value in spending more time meditating instead of just trying to get through the reading. 

This post is part of the series “Rethinking Bible Reading”

  1. Rethinking Bible Reading

  2. Understanding the I.O.U.S. Prayer

  3. How to Read the Bible 👈 you are here

Updated: