Reading And Studying The Bible
The Bible can be overwhelming. It’s a collection of 66 books, recorded over 1500 years by 40 men, covering 6,000-10,000 years of history. Most of those who accept or question it have never read it cover to cover. Both groups pick different portions of Scripture to support their belief and their practice. But God never intended us to treat the Bible like a buffet, placing the parts we like on our plate and leaving untouched those that have no appeal and for which we have no taste. His desire instead is that we take it all in and digest it so that God’s way of thinking and acting become ours.
“‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.’” (Isaiah 55:8-11)
If you’re a Christian, you know there is value in reading the Bible. The same God Who gave you salvation through the Gospel message still has much to say. Though He uses other means of communication, the Bible is His primary method.
God’s Word, at its heart, is a love story. It tells God created man, man rebelled against God, and God will never cease working to bring the object of His love back into right relationship with Him. This is one book where reading the last chapter is not only okay but is highly recommended. There are so many plot twists that without knowing the ending, you would certainly lose all hope of a positive resolution.
Part of the reason for reading the Bible is to give us hope. All of the characters whose stories are contained in its pages possessed the same human frailties as you and me. Yes, there were some at the beginning who lived an unusually long time, and others who had superhuman abilities, but they all struggled with physical, emotional and especially spiritual weaknesses. The historical record of their lives tells us we don’t have to be perfect for God to love or use us.
You could read the Bible for its great literature. Some people do. Poetry, historical narrative, parables, moral codes—they’re all there. Epic stories fill its pages. Noah and the flood. David and Goliath. Jonah and the whale. Esther and thwarted genocide. Jesus returning to defeat His enemies and claim His bride. Other smaller scale stories tell simple love tales between a man and his wife and their struggles to produce and raise children. All of these accounts have ramifications that reach far beyond their final sentence.
Be careful. Not all of the stories are easy to handle or believe. If they were acted out on the screen, many would be limited in who could attend. The Bible can get rather graphic in its descriptions of battle and romance. You will find both ideas represented in the story of Jesus. He is the One who through conquest redeemed those He loved.
So far, I hope I’ve told you enough to whet your appetite. But if that’s all I do, I’m afraid you will not possess what you need. I don’t want to introduce you to the joys of delicious spiritual nutrition without giving you the tools you need to prepare God’s meal and ingest it. That would be like placing you in an aroma-filled kitchen without the utensils or skills necessary to turn raw food into gourmet meals. Your hunger might lead you to eat what’s in front of you, but you wouldn’t get the nourishment or the enjoyment a well-crafted meal provides. Eating the food incorrectly could even sicken you and turn your stomach the next time it’s offered.
Resources overflow to aid in your biblical understanding—books about the Bible, how to study it, and what its pages have to do with your everyday life. You can find them online, in the bookstore and maybe in your own home. Some are expensive. Some are not. We have many free resources here at iamawatchman.com.
The greatest resource of all for understanding and using the Bible is the Bible itself. Pay attention to it more than any other study helps. The following six principles will give you a foundation – a starting point. You can go much further than these, and I pray that you will.
- Believe The Bible Came Directly From God
The reason you read any book is that you believe it will help you. You look to print, digital or audio for expert assistance in alleviating boredom, losing weight, accumulating trivia, strengthening relationships and managing money. Human writers can be helpful in each of these areas. So can the Bible.
An Expert authored the Bible. His name is God. Yes, virtually all of the books bear the name of a human scribe, but the very words were breathed from the mouth of God. The process is called inspiration.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness…” (2 Tim. 3:16)
I don’t want to get too technical here and give you a deep, theological explanation of how God transmitted His message. What’s important to know is you can trust every word in the Bible to be accurate. The record of each human word and action, including their sins, is true in the smallest detail. And where God speaks directly, through the historical examples, or through His messengers, basing your beliefs and actions on those words will get you to the best destination both on this earth and the next.
I list the principle of Divine authorship first for a reason. From the very beginning, the Bible will challenge your belief system. It speaks of God creating the world out of nothing. Miracles sprinkle its pages—a man walking on water, the sun and moon standing still, and people rising from the dead to name a few.
Those aren’t the parts you will have the greatest difficulty accepting. They don’t require any life adjustment from you. It’s the statements about loving your enemies, salvation by faith, gaining by losing, limitless forgiveness, lifelong marriage, sacrificial giving and trusting God for the future that stand in stark contrast to what we normally hear. What God has to say is rarely in sync with human thinking.
I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t read the Bible if you don’t already believe it came directly from God. On the contrary, read it anyway. The Bible is true regardless of whether or not you accept its authorship. Putting its truth into practice will produce positive change even if you only believe it originated from human experience. The more you read it though, the more your faith in Divine authorship will grow. I say that because the Bible makes that claim for itself (Rom. 10:17) and because the experience of countless former doubters bears it out.
- Read The Bible In A Translation You Understand
The Bible was originally penned in Hebrew, Greek, and a smattering of other languages. Thankfully, taking language courses is not necessary for reading the text. Most ethnicities have the Bible in words they can grasp even if the translation is not yet in their native language.
Here in the English-speaking world where I live, I am thankful we have many quality English translations. Most of them are available online. Take advantage of them. Whatever God has given, much or little, He expects us to use to its fullest extent (Matt. 25:14-30).
If you have access to more than one translation, use one that has great accuracy to the original text but also uses language you understand. Some of you may be hesitant to pick up a Bible because your limited experience with it has left a bad taste in your mouth. You’ve tried to pick it up and read it, but each time, you’ve come away dissatisfied because every other word was unfamiliar to you. You couldn’t get to the message because the language got in the way.
I went with my wife to a holiday meal at our grandson’s child care center. Cheerful workers filled each plate with the same items. I hesitated when I saw collard greens—a leafy green vegetable—as part of my meal. Though I live in the Deep South of the United States, where collard greens are a staple, I’ve never been a fan. But my vegetable wary grandson sat across from me at the table, so I took a bite with a forced grin.
Amazingly, the lesson I intended for my descendant transformed into enjoyment for me! What changed? It wasn’t my taste buds. It wasn’t the collard greens. The only difference was the preparation—the method and flavoring the cook used. I still got the same nutritional value that every other collard green experience had provided, but I received something more that day. My perspective was not the same. Now, when I see collard greens on the table, instead of staring with utter disgust, I think “maybe.”
Does the idea of reading the Bible seem unappealing to you? If the reason for your dislike is the Bible’s message, know that God is unwilling to change that to please you. The Bible’s message is offensive no matter what words are used to accurately convey it. Too much change would prevent you from getting what your spirit needs just as changing the nature of collard greens would rob my body of the fiber, minerals, and vitamins they provide.
Perhaps your hesitancy is not the Bible’s message but its presentation. Reading itself is a struggle for you not because you don’t know how but because it’s not something you willingly spend valuable free-time on. Your mind wanders as your eyes scan the page so you get little benefit from wasted effort.
Have you tried listening to the Bible? You use your phone to communicate with people; why not use a phone app to hear from God? Put God’s Word in your ears as you exercise or as you commute to and from work each day. Your heart’s health is more important than your body’s, and listening to God’s Spirit could cause you to pray for the person in the other lane instead of competing with him.
Unless you’re an English professor, you’re going to come across words you can’t fully define as you read. Each word is an important part of a thought, and each word comes from God. Don’t bypass them with the excuse they must not be important if you don’t know what they mean. Use a dictionary to clear up any misconceptions.
No translator is going to do all the work for you. Put in some effort of your own. That’s what you do with what’s important, and nothing is as important as understanding God’s message of love He wrote to you.
- Think Long And Hard About What You Read
Like any endeavor, the more time and effort you invest in the Bible, the more significant will be your return. A casual reading of a chapter may allow you to overcome some guilt about the dust that normally covers God’s Book. It will do little to deepen the relationship between you and God or change you into the likeness of His Son.
God’s goals in sending the Bible are relationship and change. Both require reorienting our thinking process (Rom. 12:2). And both require focused attention—otherwise known as ‘meditation.’
Meditation produces varied ideas and images in your mind based on your experience. You may envision a person sitting cross-legged in an awe-inspiring place with eyes closed and fingers pinched together while humming or mumbling some unintelligible sound. That is meditation, but it’s not the kind the Bible speaks of, nor is it the kind that will produce a positive eternal result. Many (not all) of the people who practice the above description are following instructions to empty their minds. In God’s type of meditation, He tells us to fill our minds (Phil. 4:8).
You don’t need an instructor to teach you this skill. You’ve been doing it since you were quite young. If you know how to worry, then you know how to meditate. There are, however, some major differences between the two.
God forbids worry (Matt. 6:25) and commands meditation (Matt. 6:26). Worry focuses on negative, often untrue thoughts while meditation focuses on good (Psalm 1:2-3; 119:11). Worry results only in anxiety; meditation produces peace (Phil. 4:9).
While you read the stories of the Bible, prompt some deep thinking by asking yourself questions. What would it have been like to be there? What would I have been feeling? How would I have reacted if it had been me instead of them? What can I learn from their successes and failures? What does this tell me about God?
Consider a different set of questions when you read the Bible’s direct teaching like the letters written by Peter and Paul, James and John. How would/did the original audience react to these words? What other portions of the Bible add understanding to what I am currently reading? Is what I’m reading straightforward, or do I need some help from other sources? What does God want me to do with this truth in my life?
The practice of memorizing portions of the Bible can help you fill your heart with truth and expel false ideas. Start small. As you read, ask God to point out a truth that He wants to significantly impact your life. Memorize the verse where that message is found. Let it sink deep into the thought processes that rule your life. Watch as God uses it to change you.
- Pay Attention To What Comes Before And After What You’re Reading
“Commit adultery.” “Jesus wept.” “Judge not.” “An eye for an eye.” “Hate your enemy.” “Let her breasts satisfy you at all times.”
Each of these is an exact phrase from the Bible. Taken as I have presented them, they could cause you to act contrary to God’s will, or they could lead you to some erroneous conclusions about the character of God. Take the last quote for example. Whose breasts are supposed to satisfy whom—a female deer to her fawn, a human mother to her child, a wife to her husband, or any servant girl to the king? You need access to the missing words to know the message God is communicating.
Missing words change the meaning—sometimes radically. The first quote I used as an example was typed that way in a 1631 reprint of the King James Bible. The seventh of the Ten Commandments originally said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” but the printers of this version accidentally left out the “not.” The authorities denounced their work, dubbed it “The Wicked Bible,” and destroyed virtually every copy, all because one word was left out.
For you to understand God’s complete message, it is equally necessary for you to pay attention to each of His words and not leave any out. That requires you to look at the context. In a book, context is the content that comes before and after whatever words you are reading—the paragraphs that surround your story or teaching. Context also includes the previous chapter, the rest of the book, other books by that writer, the Bible as a whole, history, and the culture at the time and place of the writing.
Not every passage requires the context for accurate understanding. However, the surrounding content enhances, deepens and ensures clarity for each passage. Some portions of the Bible do require information only the context provides to get the message right.
You’ve experienced the importance of context. You walk into a room and hear the second half of a conversation where the voices involved included your name. You would be wise not to act or emote based on the portion you heard. It would be better to pull someone aside and ask for the information pieces you missed before you come to a conclusion.
A friend invited you to the cinema. Though you were unfamiliar with the movie title, the prospect of your friend’s company motivated you to go. Sitting there with your popcorn, you heard dialog from unfamiliar characters acting out a storyline you could not follow.
Those around you were on the edge of their seats with obvious enjoyment for two hours. It only took the first scene for you to realize you were totally lost. When at the story’s conclusion, you expressed your utter disorientation, your friend explained this was part two of a three-part series. You found part one and watched it. You then understood your previous experience and anticipated part three.
The Bible has hundreds of stories in its pages. All of them that don’t indicate otherwise are historical events. God included them for our instruction.
“Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Cor. 10:11)
Much of the teaching in the Bible requires a working understanding of its stories—the characters and their struggles—for correct interpretation. There is one plot line with many sub-plots that runs from Genesis to Revelation. Tracing that plot from page one to the last will show you the heart of God and His work to satisfy man’s need.
- Listen To God’s Spirit As He Opens Your Understanding
Invariably there was at least one subject with which you struggled in high school or college. The teacher explained the day’s concept in class. While you were there, you felt confident that you understood. But something happened from the classroom to your bedroom. An alien contraption sucked your brain dry. There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation for the befuddlement that is now apparent on your face as you try to complete the assignment.
Imagine what it would be like if you could bring your teacher home with you every night. Once you get past the weirdness and potential disgust at that thought, you might see the advantage. Think of the help he could give as you continue to work through the assignment or project. You would have a tutor who is constantly available.
Better than a tutor is the Spirit. He wrote the Bible, and He can explain its message to whatever depth you are ready to travel (John 16:13). Your understanding and change is His passion. If you are a Christian, He lives inside you (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 6:19). He goes with you everywhere! And He can teach you at any time using what you have read, meditated on or memorized.
God’s Spirit wants you to and can help you understand the message, but He wants so much more. He wants to show you what the words have to do with your life—your thoughts, your words and your actions. Some people mistakenly treat the Bible only as a textbook. They take pride in their understanding of the text and the culture without humbly submitting to its Author. God’s Spirit uses the Bible to convict, encourage, and change, not just to inform.
The first truth God’s Spirit exposes is our need for Jesus (John 16:8). We are sinners who began life in rebellion against God. We can’t escape it; it’s in our nature (Rom. 3:23). Rather than exercise His right to reject us, God chose to pay the sacrifice for our forgiveness and redemption. The sacrifice was costly—His own Son Jesus.
What God was willing to pay signifies His love more than it points to our worth.
Now, by His Spirit, He calls for people to freely partake of the gift that carried an inexpressible cost.
- Find A Good Way To Use The Truth You Read
Truth unapplied is a waste. Truth misapplied is destructive. Neither fits with God’s intentions for the Bible.
God gave us His word to inform and instruct. He informed us about Himself with the goal of beginning and developing an eternal relationship between us. He instructs us about His requirements both to show us how far we have strayed and how we can live a life beneficial to us and pleasing to Him. Like any father, He wants our best. Our best comes through obedience to Him.
James, one of the Bible’s final scribes, describes a foolish man. He says this man looks in a mirror, sees there is something dirty or disgusting on his face, and does nothing to wash it away. James’ point is that the Bible serves the same purpose as a mirror—to show us what needs changing so that we will take whatever steps are necessary to accomplish cleansing (James 1:22-25).
Foolish is the man who understands the Bible but doesn’t agree with its assessment and is therefore unwilling to repent.
Learn from the characters you find in the Bible, especially the Bible’s main character, God. The One who wrote the book is also its primary subject. God is holy; He requires that we be holy too. God is patient, kind and forgiving. If we would be like Him, we dare not do anything less. God is just, demanding and awesome. Fearing anyone or anything more than we fear Him will lead us to disloyalty and disobedience. God is the One who started it all, and He is the One who brings the story to its victorious semi-conclusion.
The Bible truly is the greatest story ever told. It is God’s story. And as you and I live in obedience to the God described there, God graciously includes us in His happily-ever-after ending.
Where Do I Begin?
The most obvious place to start any story is at its beginning. Let me suggest a different route. Start with Jesus, the story’s main subject. You’ll find His life and His message in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. After you’ve read one or more of those, then go back to the beginning. Having read Jesus’ fix to the mess we created will give you a greater appreciation for the damage and the Savior.
There are multiple reading plans and study helps available to you without charge. Again, we have much here at iamawatchman.com. Don’t forget that your greatest resources are the Bible itself and its Author, God’s Spirit. Rely on His direction, and obey what He tells you to do.
It would also be helpful to join a small group Bible study. You can find one at your church or maybe even in the home of a friend.
Let God use His Word not as a book on the shelf but as a daily compass to guide you into His presence and His will.
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