How to Read the Bible
I've had a lot of discussions with people lately on how we ought to engage in Bible reading; is it for study or spiritual life? Is it for doctrine or devotion? Is the Bible about God or us? What's the main purpose? How are we supposed to read the Bible? What should we "take away" from our reading? These are great and interesting questions, and I wrote this post to help answer some of these questions, break down some false dichotomies, and offer some simple and practical steps for daily Bible reading. My aim is to begin with our dependence on God in Bible reading and then explore some questions that we should ask in our Bible reading according to what the Bible says about itself.
We need God to know God
The Bible is a wonderful and beautiful gift from God to us; his very own words, which are an extension of his very own self. To read the Bible is to hear from God. To know the Bible well is to know our God well. And the Bible itself makes clear that this is impossible apart from the grace of God and the Spirit of God. It is only through God’s grace in Christ that we can know and commune with our loving Father in heaven (John 14:6), and it is only by the Spirit’s illuminating power that we can see the glory of God in Christ through the Scriptures (2 Cor. 3:14-18).
Spirit-led Study, Doctrine-filled Devotion
So all Bible reading should begin with prayer, that God would shine in our hearts to see his glory (2 Cor. 4:6), and “open [our] eyes to behold wondrous things” in his word (Ps. 119:18). Truly, we should pray before, during, and after our reading that God’s Spirit would show us God’s glory in God's Son. We should not divorce study and spiritual life, but bring doctrine and devotion together, praying that the Spirit of God would instruct us according to the word of God and shape us to be more like the Son of God in order to live out the purposes of God.
“We should not divorce study and spiritual life, but bring doctrine and devotion together, praying that the Spirit of God would instruct us according to the word of God and shape us to be more like the Son of God in order to live out the purposes of God.”
We should prayerfully read the text multiple times, underline key words, grab our journals, draw lines to make connections, look for repeated words, themes, phrases, and ideas. As we read and make notes, we can ask the following questions to help us read our Bibles faithfully and respond to our Bibles faithfully.
What is the context?
The Bible is the word of God for the people of God and has meaning for us today. But every book of the Bible is written by a particular person to a particular people in a particular time and place with a particular purpose. Thinking through each of these “particulars” of how God was speaking in the original context will help us understand what God intends to speak to us in our context today. It’s also important for us to be aware of the bigger Biblical story, and how whatever book we are reading fits into that big story.
- Who is the original author, audience, and setting? (i.e. Moses writing to the Israelites in the wilderness, c. 1400 BC)
- What is the author’s intention? (i.e. the Psalmist is wanting to call people to remember and rejoice in God’s mighty works)
- What is the genre? (i.e. narrative like Acts, discourse like Romans, poetry like Psalms, prophecy like Isaiah, law like Deuteronomy, etc.)
- What is going on in the surrounding verses, passages, and book? (i.e. in 2 Timothy, Paul is giving a vision for healthy churches)
- What place does this specific book have in the Biblical story? (i.e. is this creation, fall, story of Israel, Christ, church, new creation?)
What does this text reveal about God? (Doctrine)
From beginning to end, the Scriptures bear witness to our triune God. He is not only the Divine Author of the Bible, but also the central focus of the Bible, and the great hero and hope of the Bible. He is the “Alpha and the Omega,” (Rev. 1:8). The Bible is first and foremost about God. So before we think about what the Bible means for us today, we need to spend time considering what the Bible says about God; who he is and what he’s doing in the world for his glory. This one question should have first place in our Bible reading: “What does this text reveal about God?”
- God's Works – What is God doing and how is he doing it?
- God's Words – What is God saying and why is he saying it?
- God's Ways – What is God like and how does he operate?
The Biblical story is centered on God and his glory and how he is bringing his kingdom through the cross of Christ to restore all things. Everything that sin ruined, God is restoring through Christ and his Spirit. So no matter what book we are reading, we can look for evidence of God’s reign, redemption, and restoration, either being promised, anticipated, or fulfilled in Christ (Luke 24:44-48).
- God’s Reign – Do we see God reigning as loving Father and powerful King, or do we see sin or Satan or others attempting to reign?
- God’s Redemption – Do we see God redeeming the world from sin, or promising to do so, through Christ’s death and resurrection?
- God’s Restoration – Do we see God restoring the world through his Spirit, or pointing to our final restoration in New Creation?
How should we respond in faith? (Devotion)
Having considered the original context and God-centered thrust of the text, we can now think of how we ought to respond in faith to the loving and gracious God that is revealed to us in the Bible. These questions can help us think of how to respond by loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:36-40).
- Our heads – What doctrines do we need to think about, meditate on, understand, and believe by faith? (i.e. what does it mean that "God is love"?)
- Our hearts – What desires in our heart are sinful and need to be repented of and replaced with affection for God? (i.e. repenting from idolizing the approval of people and resting in God's approval of us in Christ)
- Our hands – What duty or work are we called to engage in so that we might love and care for others? (i.e. sharing the gospel, serving the poor, showing mercy)
Doing this daily
In the same way that we can't physically survive by only eating some light snacks once a week, we can't spiritually survive by only opening our Bibles every once in a while for a few minutes.
“In the same way that we can't physically survive by only eating some light snacks once a week, we can't spiritually survive by only opening our Bibles every once in a while for a few minutes.”
As the Bible itself says, “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). We need the daily intake of God's word to live as God's people and accomplish God's purposes. As the children of God, we need the words of our heavenly Father each day to help us grow up in Christ and live out our calling to be Christ's body in the world. So everyday we get our Bibles, open them up, and ask the Spirit of God to open our minds to see God's glory, open our hearts to believe the gospel, and empower our hands to love our neighbors. Every single day, until Jesus returns and we finally see God face to face.