Regularly and consistently reading the Bible is a discipline vital for all Christians new and mature alike. It should become a life-long pursuit, so that we can gain a deeper understanding of who God is and how He works in history. As D.A. Carson writes,
The aim is never to become a master of the Word, but to be mastered by it.
The discipline of reading the Bible is also a skill that you can develop over time. If you are a new or young believer in Christ, the habits and skills you pick up now will benefit your Bible reading for years to come.
Here are 22 steps that should help you as you start honing your Bible reading skills:
1. Find a reading bible.
Not all Bibles are created equal. Pick a Bible that will limit distractions and help you read more. A reading Bible removes cross references, titles, and verse numbers, leaving you with just the biblical text.
2. Find a reading plan.
A Bible reading plan provides structure to your reading; it also helps you work systematically through the entire Bible. Currently I am using the canonical plan tied in with Jim Hamilton’s book; in the past I have greatly benefited from Professor Horner’s plan (PDF).
3. Pick your translation.
There seems to be an unending number of English Bible translations available; for a new believer, it can be overwhelming. Rather than using several translations, make a long-term commitment to one translation. That way, you will learn the particularities of that translation. One way to pick a translation: find what translation your pastor uses. It always helps if the words he is reading on Sunday match the words in the Bible in front of you.
4. Vary your translation.
While it is important to focus on one translation, it can also help to occasionally read from other translations. By dipping your toes into a less formal version (say The Message or NLT), you can read larger passages at a time. Likewise, by trying out a more formal translation (like KJV or NASB) you might be challenged to concentrate on each word of a verse.
5. Journey down the rabbit’s hole of cross references.
If you have a Bible with cross references, take some time to follow them. These cross references, placed there by the translators and publishers, serve to connect themes, images, quotations, and allusions throughout the text. Pick a cross reference from the passage you are reading, follow it to another verse, and continue tracing these references throughout the Bible. You might be surprised where it will lead.
6. Read an entire book in one sitting.
The books of the Bible are each a literary whole—we can do them a disservice by breaking them into chunks. By reading an entire book, you can get the big picture, the author’s argument, or the narrative flow—all of which are harder to see in individual verses. You might think that you don’t have the time to read an entire book in one sitting, but many can be read in under an hour. (ht Desiring God)
7. Learn the order of the books.
The Bible contains 66 books and can be a nightmare to navigate if you don’t remember the order of the books. I remember back when tabs were all the rage; nowadays you can just memorize the order of the books in the English Bible so you don’t have to depend on the Table of Contents.
8. Learn the genres of the Bible.
The books of the Bible are written in certain genres, each of which demand reading a certain way. Learn what those genres are, how to identify them, and how to read them properly. Leland Ryken has written some great guides to this—start with Ryken’s Bible Handbook.
9. Learn the storyline of the Bible.
There is a overarching narrative storyline to the Bible—a story that starts in Genesis 1 and concludes in Revelation 22. In between are all the narrative books, containing stories of nations, people, and even a talking donkey! Knowing the flow and major points in this storyline helps you better understand how each story fits. There are plenty of resources that can help you navigate the narrative of the Bible. What’s in the Bible? is some of the best biblical teaching I have heard—and it’s done by puppets! D.A. Carson’s The God Who Is There is a great book tracing the story of God’s work in the Bible. And if a Walk Thru the Bible event is ever in your area, I encourage you to attend.
10. Find a one volume commentary.
There will be times where you can’t figure out what a Bible passage is saying. It is at those times you might want to turn to a commentary—a book written by pastors or scholars that help explain what the text is saying. The NIV Compact Bible Commentary and the New Bible Commentary are two helpful commentaries in this category.
11. Learn the cultural background of the Bible.
The events of the Bible took place thousands of years ago in cultures vastly different than ours today. At times the meaning behind the text can only be gleaned if you know something about the culture in which the text was written. A good background commentary will explain some of the cultural issues and meanings behind the text. Grab one each for the Old Testament and New Testament.
12. Grab a Bible atlas.
Many of the biblical narratives include towns and locations unfamiliar to us today. And if you are merely reading the words on the page, the names can blend into the background. But if you read with a Bible atlas open, the stories can become even more tangible. With a Bible atlas, you can see distances, geological features, and even political entities that might be at play in the story.
13. Write down your thoughts.
God may be using your Bible reading time to show you some amazing stuff. Don’t lose it, be sure to write it down! Grab a journal or a Bible with wide margins and write down what God is showing you. You can also keep track of prayer requests, praises, and how God is working in your life.
14. Memorize Scripture.
In order to have Scripture truly impact your everyday, you need to have it impressed on your heart. Start memorizing Scripture as soon as possible. It’s like compound interest: the sooner you start, the greater the impact will be later on in life. Use the Fighter Verses website or app (iOS and Android) to memorize one verse per week, or try memorizing extended passages.
15. Remember context is key.
When you stumble upon a verse that is causing you trouble, be sure to look at the verse’s context. Read the paragraph before and after the verse again. Then read the chapter before and after the verse again.
16. Remember who is talking.
Large sections of the Bible are speeches. Many are by God or one of his representatives (prophets). Sometimes they are by God’s people, either to each other or to God. Occassionally they are by the enemies of God. Remember who is the source of the words you are reading, as that will affect how you interpret them.
17. Remember the audience.
In the New Testament, several books are letters to specific churches struggling with specific issues. Keep track of those issues and how the author addresses them.
18. Set up a digital wallpaper.
If you are working on memorizing a passage of Scripture, be sure to put it somewhere you will see it upwards of one hundred times a day: your phone’s lock screen. The Fighter Verses app does a great job of this.
19. Use a pen.
Be sure to mark up your Bible as you see fit. Circle words. Bracket verses. Underline. Use exclamation points! and even question marks. Note the flow of the argument. All these notes and markings will help you better understand the text.
20. Listen to the Bible.
There are some great apps that allow you to listen to audio versions of the Bible. This allows you to consume the Bible while in the car, washing dishes, or doing other chores. Pick an audio Bible of your favorite translation; it will help with retention the next time you read that passage.
21. Get a children’s Bible.
While there are some children’s Bibles that underwhelming in conveying biblical truth, there are a few that provide rich spiritual truth in an accessible manner. The best two that I have found are The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Big Picture Story Bible.
22. Talk about what you are reading.
Don’t keep what you are reading and learning to yourself. Join a small group, a Bible study, or grab someone else and talk about what you are reading. This outside support can encourage you when you are struggling, answer questions, and correct you when you are wrong. Plus, they will learn from you just as you are learning from them.