Rethinking Bible Reading
This post is part of the series “Rethinking Bible Reading”
Rethinking Bible Reading 👈 you are here
Understanding the I.O.U.S. Prayer
How to Read the Bible
Allow me to blow your mind: the best way to start reading the Bible is to put the Bible down.
Before I started writing this blog, I asked a bunch of folks what they’d like to read about. One of the most-common responses was,
Where do I start?
They were hoping I could provide a reading plan to master the Bible. And I suppose I could do that. I’d call it something like “Get to Know the Bible in 30 Days” and it would start something like this:
In the beginning, God created the universe, the world, and humanity. The first two chapters of the Bible outline these events. In the very next chapter, those brand-new humans turn away from God. The entire rest of the Bible is the epic story of God’s eternity-spanning master plan to save them from themselves and bring them back to Himself.
Don’t start at that beginning, though. To really get to know the Bible, start at the climax, right smack in the middle.
Day 1: Read Mark. That’s the story of Jesus, the Son of God, who is the focal point of history, the reason the Bible was written, and the reason you’re reading this site today.
Day 2: Read Acts, the story of Jesus’s followers and what they did after he died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, sending in his place the Holy Spirit.
Day 3: Now that you’ve seen the modern church, go back and read the three creation stories in John 1, Genesis 1, and Genesis 2…
The next twenty-seven days would be filled with the stories of the Old Testament and the letters of the New Testament, with the wisdom of Solomon and the music of the Psalms and the warnings of the prophets all mixed and mashed up to tell you the story that Jesus wins.
Actually, that’s a good idea, and we’ll get there, but you’ve probably guessed by now that I’m not going to do that today.
Wait A Minute, Why Should I Listen to You?
Thanks for asking! Please approach what I say critically. Think about it and ask questions. Because I might be wrong, and if I am, I want to hear about it. But why should you listen in the first place?
Because, like you, I’m just a person seeking God in Scripture. I grew up in the church, and I also grew up on soccer fields. In public schools. In cities, and on lakes.
I read the Bible. A lot. I read books. I read blogs like this one. Eventually, I started teaching the Bible. I preached a few sermons. I led high school and college students in small groups and on mission trips. I started a Bible study for other adults looking for the same sharing of life I was seeking. The whole time, God has been pushing me to learn and teach and share.
So here we are, you and I. I have a lot to learn, still, but also a lot to share.
Let’s get back to it.
How to Really Start Reading the Bible
So how should you start reading the Bible? With prayer.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is commonly credited with saying that Scripture is “twice inspired”—first when it was written, and again when you read it. The whole point of reading the Bible is to get to know God, so let’s invite him into our reading and ask Him to inspire us as we read just as He inspired the Biblical authors as they wrote.
Paul makes this rule explicit:
Receive…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, with all prayer and supplication.
When hearing or proclaiming the message of the gospel, prayer should be the first resource you reach for, the primary source of your strength. When you sit down to read the Bible, you are preparing to receive the word of God, and you should start with prayer.
Before any athletic event—from a morning jog to the NBA Finals—you (and LeBron James) warm up. You (and LeBron) prepare your body for the upcoming exertion. You know that you’re about to push your muscles to their limits, and you want to make sure they’re ready to give you everything they’ve got and won’t seize up on you halfway through.
The same is true for musicians. The boy or girl new to the piano has warm-up exercises before practice. And no headlining performer walks into the concert venue, grabs the mic, and walks directly on stage to do a two-hour set.
Or engineers. Before the first shovelful of foundation dirt is moved, the entire building’s architectural plans, building schedule, electrical and plumbing systems, and everything else have been carefully designed, vetted, and approved. So when the true work begins, the construction of the building, everything is prepared for success.
What about teachers? Any teacher worth his salt makes lesson plans before entering the classroom. Why? Because it sets up his lesson, and his students, to succeed. Maybe some lucky day, with a stupendously talented teacher, the lesson will go off perfectly without any preparation. But he’ll have better luck if he’s done the prep work.
When you read the Bible, you are the athlete, the musician, the engineer, the teacher. You’re about to run a marathon (Hebrews 12:1), sing a new song (Psalm 96:1), construct a beautiful building (Ephesians 2:19–22), and share it all with the world (Matthew 28:18–20).
If you want to do it well, you’d better get prepared. And the best preparation, says Paul, is prayer.
But what prayer?
There are no hard-and-fast rules for prayer. However, if your goal is true Bible saturation, there are a few important components.
Pray for Wisdom
Both Old and New Testaments proclaim the value of wisdom. Solomon tells us that if we “call out for insight,” we will “find the knowledge of God.”
Yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.
—Proverbs 2:3–5 ESV
James agrees: if you “ask for [wisdom] from God”, He will give it to you:
Now if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask for it from God, who gives to all without reservation and not reproaching, and it will be given to him.
—James 1:5 ESV
So pray for insight and wisdom as you read.
Pray for Understanding
Remember the quote from Wesley, that Scripture is “twice inspired”?
Here is Paul on the same subject:
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.
—1 Corinthians 2:12 ESV
We have received the Spirit of God so that we might understand what we have been given. The Bible itself is a gift, and it tells of all the other gifts of God.
There are two types of understanding when reading the Bible.
The first type is intellectual understanding. To get anything out of a passage, you must first of course comprehend its basic meaning, how the words fit together into sentences and paragraphs.
But there is so much more to be had.
Intellectual understanding means understanding the words in front of you, and also connecting them together appropriately, attaching this passage to others that support it or raise questions about it (or answer questions), and applying it to a particular situation.
Sometimes, intellectual understanding might mean the kind of understanding only available if you can read Biblical Hebrew and Greek. Or that requires a thorough knowledge of ancient culture, architecture, agriculture, geography, or contract law.
But most of the time, the meaning of the Bible is plain.
Let me be very clear: revelation of the gospel of Jesus from Scripture is not dependent on intellectual ability. That is, even though books like Romans are complex and difficult, the message of Christ is simple. In fact, most of the time, intellectual ability is a stumbling block for the serious Christian. In 1 Corinthians 1:19, just before his comment above about receiving understanding from the Spirit of God, Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14:
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart
The wisdom of the world is not a prerequisite for receiving the wisdom of God. That wisdom of God is the second type of understanding, spiritual understanding.
Spiritual understanding is the reason you’re praying. You can spend your life picking apart every piece of every verse, and know every nook and cranny of the Bible, and never truly comprehend what you’re working with until the Spirit, as Paul says, helps us “understand the things freely given by God.”
In this verse, “the things freely given us by God” are best understood in the context of the whole passage. Those “things” are what Paul preaches, namely “Christ crucified…Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24)
That is, the Holy Spirit enables you to accept the supremacy and majesty and sacrifice of Jesus, which would otherwise be “foolishness” to you.
But as you might expect, there’s a caveat here, too, and it is this:
The work of the Holy Spirit is not a replacement for deep study. He does not teach you all the beauty of the Bible; that takes attention, energy, and perseverance.
That’s actually the whole point of VerseNotes. We’re here to help you see and delight in that beauty.
John Piper puts it this way1:
The work of the Spirit in helping us grasp the meaning of Christ’s manual of operation [the Bible] is not to make study unnecessary but to make us radically open to receive what our study turns up, instead of twisting the text to justify our unwillingness to accept it.
So you see that intellectual and spiritual understanding are interdependent. We rely on each to enhance and support the other. And above all, we pray for the Spirit to help us see with open eyes what God has in store for us in Scripture.
Pray for Joy
The message of the Bible is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died to forgive the sins of the world. We, therefore, are made clean, washed in His blood. The work of the Spirit in helping you understand this message will result in sustaining joy.
It’s not a book of jokes; I don’t really expect you to laugh. Mostly. And many parts of Scripture are unutterably sad. When he learned of the death of Lazarus, Jesus himself wept. But the arc of the Bible is the salvation of Jesus, and that is an eternal song of joy.
We see in 1 Peter 1:8–9 that knowledge of Christ fills us with “inexpressible and glorious joy” because of “the salvation of our souls.” And Jesus tells his disciples in John 16:22 that joy is the steady state of the universe:
So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
So however you pray, pray for wisdom, to find the knowledge of God; for understanding, to accept the gospel of Christ; and for joy, to forever rejoice in salvation.
How I Read the Bible
It’s now clear that prayer is a necessary component of fruitful Bible study. To give you a concrete example of what that might look like in practice, I want to share how I do my daily devotional. Please don’t assume that what I do is somehow “right” or that any other way is somehow “wrong.” But by now, I’m intimately familiar and quite comfortable with my daily ritual, and I hope it gives you some ideas for your own.
To start with, I firmly believe that long before you go looking for a Bible reading plan, you should develop a plan to read the Bible.
A Plan to Read the Bible
Preparation means not just preparation inside—that’s the point of the prayer—but preparation outside. Which means developing a place, a time, and a habit.
I put my place in my living room, where I can see the morning sun (and sometimes the cat) out the back door. Contrary to the theme of this article, I didn’t put all that much thought into it. My couch is simply the most comfortable seat in the house, and it’s close to the kitchen with the coffee, and the natural light of the morning sun is more pleasing than the harsh light of bulbs, so that’s where I sit.
It doesn’t matter where you sit. It matters that there is a place in your house or apartment that is The Place Where You Read The Bible. Make sure your spouse (if you have one) and your kids (if you have them) know that this is your Place Where You Read The Bible, and ask them nicely to respect that place. It is, after all, where you commune with the inspired Word of the living God. Now that I think about it, maybe take off your shoes…
I put my time in the morning. Like Garfield, I am not a morning person. I am a sleep-in-late person. An is-it-noon-already person. But since I started working a professional job seven years ago, my brain is tired at the end of the day. And I don’t want to give my tired brain to God. I want to give Him my best brain, my best attention, my best everything.
So mornings it is.
Finally, I put my habit in every single day of my life, because if I skip Tuesday, skipping Wednesday is that much easier. Earlier, I called this practice my ritual, and that’s exactly what it is. The ritual is important, because your brain gets used to it. After you do it for a few weeks in a row, the flow becomes natural.
As soon as I have coffee in a cup and yogurt and granola in a bowl, I have my seat on the couch and my Bible in my hand.
In fact, this habit is so important to me that even on my fast day, I still give myself a cup of coffee while I read, because that is simply what mornings look like. (I skip the yogurt and granola, though.)
I know that some people read the Bible on their lunch break, or on the train on the way to work, or they listen to it in their cars as they drive. Those wouldn’t work for me, because I want to focus wholly on the Word and not on the colleague next door or the passenger across from me or the other cars in my way. But if that’s what works, go for it. I’m not prescribing a mechanism of Bible reading; I’m just telling you about mine because it works for me, and I’ve spent years getting it right—for me.
Speaking of Bibles—and this topic is much too large for this article—mine is the English Standard Version residing in the YouVersion app on my iPhone. I choose the phone over a physical Bible for one reason: I always know where my phone is, and I never have to go hunting for it. If a physical Bible that stays on your desk in your Place Where You Read The Bible works better for you, go for it. (If you do use your phone as a Bible, make sure you turn off every single notification. No sounds, no buzzing, no banners. It’s easy enough to get distracted all by yourself; you don’t need your phone’s help. If your phone ever becomes a distraction, put it away and get yourself a nice dead-tree Bible. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Pinterest, just pure Word of God.)
Coffee. Yogurt. Granola. Couch. Bible. And I pray, a centering prayer, to put me in the mindset of entering the presence of God.
Lord, give me this time to give back to you.
I pray for time.
It’s so hard to give away the day. But the day is not ours to begin with, so I pray for strength to give it back.
Let it be for your glory…
I pray for purpose.
I know that, left to my own devices, I would study the Bible to be admired for my knowledge. But pride is a terrible reason to read Scripture, so I pray for God to redirect my effort.
…and my good.
I pray for myself.
Our first ministry must be to ourselves, or we are no use to others. If my first impulse is pride, my second is service. But an empty cup cannot overflow, so I pray for God to fill me first.
The next step depends on what kind of study I’m doing. This past year2, I’ve used a guide that starts with a brief devotional and then lists three passages of Scripture. For this study, the next step is the devotional text.
When I finish the devotional, the next step is another prayer, this one focused on those attributes I mentioned earlier: wisdom, understanding, and joy.
So my morning ritual ends up looking something like this:
- Yogurt and granola
- Centering prayer (“Give me this time…”)
- Prayer for Scripture reading
- Scripture reading
Your practice may look different. It might start at a different time. It might start in a different place. But if you purpose to read the Bible so that it glorifies God, my best, strongest counsel is to put the Bible down and pick up a prayer.
John Piper, “How the Spirit Helps Us Understand” ↩
This study was supposed to be a year long, but it took me sixteen months. Give yourself grace. ↩
This post is part of the series “Rethinking Bible Reading”
Rethinking Bible Reading 👈 you are here
Understanding the I.O.U.S. Prayer
How to Read the Bible