Open my eyes that I may see
wonderful things in your law.
-Psalm 119:18 (NIV)
I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had recently with someone who asked me how to go about reading the Bible. She was not all that familiar with it, and wondered how she should begin. As I thought for a quick second about how to answer her, I realized it isn’t an easy question to answer. It struck me that it might depend on how a person was reading it. Is she reading it as literature, to appreciate its style and structure and grammar and syntax? Is she reading as an academic? Is she reading it to compare to other religious texts? Is she reading as a person of faith?
To a person of faith who wants to get more familiar with the Bible in order to grow in faith, love, and obedience, here’s how I’d answer the question:
First, I’d say that the Bible is a huge part of what makes us a faith community. The biggest mistake we make in this era of online Bibles and specialty Bibles is reading it too individualistically. Sure, we have to apply it to ourselves. But it’s best understood when we read it with others. Try to find — or create — a reading group in your church. Get together regularly just to read Scripture together and talk about what you’re reading. You’ll benefit from the points of view of the others in your group.
This is important: in a lot of the Bible, you’re privy to only one side of the conversation. God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute, but that’s not a command you have to follow too! If you find yourself wanting to know more about why Paul writes this thing to the Corinthians or why this thing happened the way it did, that’s where academics can be helpful. Historians, linguists, and theologians shouldn’t interpret the Bible for you, but they can help you understand what was happening on the other sides of the conversations. Sometimes.
Most of us, when we start reading the Bible, start in Genesis with the intention of reading right on through to Revelation. That’s how we read most books, after all — beginning to end. That’s great, but a lot of the time we run out of steam about the middle of Exodus or early in Leviticus. (If the Bible were written today, I’m pretty sure Leviticus would be in a reference section stuck in the back.) While stuff about the priesthood and the sacrificial system in ancient Israel can be helpful in understanding the rest of the Bible, it doesn’t have a lot of direct applicability to us. In other words, you might not want to start there.
Another thing about reading order: The Bible wasn’t written from Genesis to Revelation. Its “books,” or sections, were written separately over thousands of years. The order the books of your Bible appear in today came later, and for somewhat murky reasons sometimes. There are chronological Bibles available, or you can find chronological reading schedules online, if you're so inclined.
But here’s a thought about reading order, borrowed from a Facebook friend of mine, Patrick Mead: start by reading the Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and read them again and again over a few months. Soak in them. Let them soak into you. That’s how the early church would have done it: they told people about Jesus and taught them to pattern their lives after his. Once that’s starting to happen, once Jesus and his words are in your heart and mind — then you can branch out, because Christians need to read the Bible with Jesus in mind. Maybe read Acts next — better yet, Luke and Acts together, since they were written by the same person with the same purpose. I’d suggest James, Galatians and Romans next, in any order. As you read, dwell on the question of how the rest of the New Testament interprets the story you’ve encountered and internalized in the Gospels.
As you read the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, you will probably notice in the translation you’re using references to sections of the Old Testament. Take a few moments to look those up. What you’ll be seeing are snapshots of how the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament in fresh ways because of Jesus. It’ll also help you get familiar with the Old Testament.
Because that’s next. By now you’re getting pretty familiar with the story of Jesus and the early church’s interpretation of that story. Now go back and read the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis - Deuteronomy. That story of the family of Abraham and the formation of the nation of Israel is the story that Jesus came to fulfill. His faith as a Jewish person rested in that story. He said that not the least stroke of a pen from “the Law” would pass away until it was all fulfilled. He thought it mattered. It matters.
Next — or maybe at the same time, to break things up — spend a lot of time in the Psalms and Proverbs. The Psalms were Jesus’ hymn book. The Proverbs are wise sayings he would have lived by. The Proverbs are in no real order, and the chapter divisions don’t mean much — just pick a saying or two each day to think about, meditate on, repeat to yourself. Use the Psalms as Jesus would have — to help lead you in worship. Notice, too, how they refer to the story of Israel that you’re already familiar with, but also point beyond it with grief, sorrow, and struggle that remains unresolved. You will probably find a lot that sounds familiar.
Jesus also referred to “the Prophets” a lot, so maybe now is a good time to start reading them. Isaiah is long, but many of his prophecies seemed to point to Jesus. (You’ll probably already have encountered parts of Isaiah if you were taking the time to check out the Old Testament references in your reading of the New Testament books.) Jeremiah and Ezekiel are other very long prophetic books. They can be tricky, but remember that they’re calling God’s people, Israel, to justice and righteousness as the path to a better world. The Minor Prophets, Hosea through Malachi, are shorter — it’s in the name. When the longer prophets start to wear on you switch over to one of the Minor Prophets.
By this time, you’ll have made a lot of progress, and some of the more difficult books of the Bible will start to make more sense. Don’t worry, though, if there’s still a lot that you don’t quite understand. After you’ve spent a lifetime reading the Bible, you’ll be astonished to find that there’s still a lot you don’t know. Don’t get impatient. Remember that you’re not saved by your familiarity with the Bible, but by the work of Jesus.
May God bless you as you begin the journey of reading the Bible.
May he show you wonderful things.