Most of us want to know the Bible better, but often we find ourselves too busy, don’t know where to start, or don’t know how to read the Bible. So we just don’t. I want to give you the 5 best tips I have that will help you in your reading AND understanding of the Bible.
We will look at how to read the Bible, but first we need to understand what it is we are trying to read.
What Is The Bible?
Before we can talk about how to read the Bible, we first need to understand what the Bible is.
We think of the Bible as a single book. But it’s not. Rather, it’s a compilation of 66 books written over sixteen centuries by over forty human authors. It is quite an amazing collection with very different styles, unique voices, different purposes, and incredible stories.
This compilation of books, letters, and accounts of history contain an astonishing variety of literary styles. It has stories about the lives of good (but mostly bad) people, about battles and journeys, the life of Jesus, and about the acts of the early church. It’s written in narratives and dialogues, in history and prophecy, in proverbs and parables, and in songs and allegories.
Though there’s many authors, styles, and diversity in its writing, you will find remarkable unity throughout.
So, what is the Bible?
- The Bible is a guide for living. It tells us how to live in light of what Christ has done. It’s not a book of rules, rather a way to live a better life.
- The Bible is messy. It contains stories of people doing some pretty bad things. Even the good people make terrible mistakes.
- The Bible is about a God who loves his broken people and sets out to restore the relationship.
- The Bible is about the vastness of human emotion.
- The Bible is hope in difficult times.
- The Bible is an invitation to follow Jesus.
- The Bible is an invitation to live a better story.
In short, the Bible tells the story of God and what he has done (and is doing) in and through his creation. It’s a story of love, redemption, and hope. It’s a story of a God on a mission to find and heal a broken and lost people.
Now that we know what the Bible is, let’s look at how to read the Bible.
What to know more about what the Bible is? Check out these articles I’ve written:
Who Wrote The Bible (and why that question matters)
No. The Bible Is Not Written To You
The Bible Is True… BUT
Stop Taking The Bible Out Of Context (and how to avoid it)
How To Choose The Best Bible Translation
How To Read The Bible
Below are what I think are the most basic principles we should utilize when we read the Bible. It’s not an exhaustive list, but if you take these 5 things into consideration when you read the Bible your understanding of Scripture will be greatly elevated.
Here’s 5 tips on how to read the Bible.
1. Approach With Humility
I put this first because I think it’s the most important thing we can do when reading the Bible. We should always approach the Bible with humility. I think this is the most important tip about how to read the Bible.
We will often be tempted to approach the Bible to solidify and justify our positions. To figure out why we are right and they are wrong. That’s called confirmation bias, and it’s not helpful when reading the Bible. Actually it’s very dangerous and completely misses the point of why the Bible exists.
The Bible does not exist so that you have proof verses for all your positions. The Bible doesn’t exist to prove that they are in the wrong. The Bible’s primary job isn’t even to give you all the answers. No, the Bible does something much greater.
The Bible exists to transform you.
N.T. Wright puts it this way: “We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.” (Scripture and the Authority of God)
If we don’t approach the Bible with humility we will be tempted to place ourselves as the center of the story. Why we are right and they are wrong. Humility reminds us that God is the center, and he has invited us to play a role in his story.
The Bible seeks to transform you and invite you into a better story. But that can only happen when we approach it with humility. How to read the Bible starts with humility.
2. Consider The Genre
Genre matters. You know it. I know it.
If you were to pick up a book about the history of World War II you would expect the accounts in the pages to be factually true. Rightfully so. Suppose the next day you were feeling more poetic and picked up a book with Emily Dickinson’s poems. You would go about reading her work much differently, right?
Why? Because genre matters. It changes how we read and interpret things. No one reads a history book the same way they read a book of poetry. Similarly, no one reads a letter from a friend the same way they read a law book. The genre dictates how we read and how we apply information to our life.
But we so often forget this principle when we are reading the Bible.
We often think of the Bible as a single book. But it’s not; it’s a collection of 66 unique literary works of law, poetry, history, teaching, letters, and prophecy. We cannot approach each book as if it’s the same or we will end up with a terrible interpretation of Scripture.
The book of Acts recounts historical events as chronicled by a historian. The book of Psalms uses exaggeratory language to express emotion. The Gospels are eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The Ephesians is a letter written to the people of Ephesus. And each need to be read within their genre.
Let’s take a look at where the books of the Bible fall in certain genres.
When you pick up your Bible and choose a book to read consider the genre it is written in. Don’t read the Gospels the same way you read Revelation. They are different books with different styles and need to be read and understand in the way they were written.
How to read the Bible effectively means we must consider the genre.
3. Consider The Context
If you ignore the context of the Bible you can quite literally make it say anything you want.
This isn’t just a Biblical principle, this is just true in life. When you are reading a book, an article, listening to a podcast, or watching an interview, you MUST view what is said and written in context of the surrounding text. Otherwise you will end up with something that was not intended.
We do this ALL THE TIME. Just look at social media. It’s full of people taking one sentence out of an interview, blog post, or video and using it to insinuate something completely different than the original intended meaning. It’s a terribly damaging practice. How to read the Bible effectively means we cannot ignore the context.
Context matters. In fact, I would say context is king. When we are reading the Bible we cannot ignore the context in which what we are reading is written in.
Here’s an example… In Matthew 18:20 Jesus says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” If all you ever read was this verse one would think that Jesus is saying that God is there when there is a group of Christians. That’s how you’ve probably heard this verse applied in most churches. But that’s NOT what Jesus is talking about.
The surrounding verses of Matthew 18 tell a much different story. Jesus is actually giving instructions on what to do when you have conflict with a person. Context matters. If we ignore it we will likely come away with a wrong and sometimes damaging, interpretation of the Bible.
Context is king. When cannot ignore it. Here’s what that means: look at the surrounding verses, look at the larger narrative of the Bible, and consider the original audience.
Look at the surrounding verses. The solution is often simple, just read the surrounding verses. When you read a verse compare it to what is said prior and what is said after. Doing that will help you discern what the Bible is really saying.
Look at the larger narrative of the Bible. The larger picture of reading the Bible in context is looking at how the passage you are reading compares to the larger narrative. How does this verse I’m reading now compare to what is said elsewhere? If it contradicts another verse there’s a good chance we interpreted it wrong.
Consider the original audience. The Bible was written for you, but it was not written to you. Each book of the Bible was written to a specific group of people in a specific time. We have to understand that culture and the people before we can fully understand what the meaning of each text is.
We have to understand the original audience before we can land on what specific verses actually mean to us. There is truth in this verse, but the truth is found when we view the verses within the cultural context. Two easy ways to do this is to buy a good study Bible (I recommend this one: ESV Study Bible) and check out a commentary (here’s a free online one: Dr Constable’s Bible Notes).
How to read the Bible means that we have to pay attention to the context in which the Bible is written.
4. Ask Questions
The first three tips on how to read the Bible is centered around getting a proper understanding of what the Bible is saying to us. These focus on proper exegesis, reading to get the intended meaning of out of the passage we are reading.
These next two tips go more into our application of the text. How do we apply what we now know to our lives?
The first step is just ask questions. Be curious. Think of yourself as a journalist that is investigating the passage. What questions would they ask?
Here’s some questions I like to ask:
What does the passage teach me about God?
What does this passage teach me about humans?
In light of this what this passage teaches, what do I need to do?
What does this passage teach me about how I relate to others?
You don’t have to ask these questions. You might be more interested in why this verb is used or what the original audience was struggling with at the time of writing. The point is to just be curious about why this passage is in the Bible.
If you want more questions to ask when reading the Bible check out this article by Matthew Harmon: 8 Questions To Help You Understand And Apply The Bible
5. Reflect and Meditate
We often view the Bible as something on our to do list. Once we’ve read a chapter or two we check it off and move onto the next thing. I’m guilty of that more than I care to admit. But after you’ve done all the hard work, it’s time to reflect and meditate on what you’ve read. It’s time to let the words soak into our lives and began the transformation process.
Don’t let the words you’ve just read fade in your memory. Think about them, pray about them, come back to it throughout the day, write a verse out and place it on your mirror, journal about what you read. Reflect on what you just read.
Remember the Bible is there to transform you, that will not happen if you just check it off your list and move on.
How to read the Bible effectively means that we let it soak into our lives by reflecting and meditating on it.
For more on what it means to meditate on scripture check out this article by Kristen Wetherell: Five Steps To Meditating On The Bible
Resources For Reading And Understanding The Bible
Let me briefly offer some resources to help you in this process of how to read the Bible.
If you want to go deeper but don’t want to spend any money there are some great options. The one I use and recommend is Dr. Thomas Constable’s Bible Notes. The website is a little dated, but the content is excellent.
I also offer 2 Bible reading guides for free when you sign up for my email list! You can sign up below.
A good study Bible will have helpful notes about who wrote what book and offer some helpful insights about the text you are reading. It is a very simple way to understand the text you are reading better. Each book will start with a page or two that will look at who wrote that book of the Bible and give some background information. And then each verse will have a note or two below the text. With minimal effort you can increase your understanding of the Bible.
There’s a lot of options out there, but I recommend this one: ESV Study Bible
Dive Into The Bible:
Most of us want to know the Bible better, but often we find ourselves too busy or just don’t know where to start. Core 52 removes both barriers, offering a common-sense solution that fits into our busy lives. This book is written by Mark Moore, a professor I had in my undergraduate studies, and I would highly recommend it if you are looking to dive deeper into how to read the Bible.
Each week features a brief essay, memory verse, Bible story, trajectory verses, and practical ways to put what you’ve learned into practice. An optional “Overachiever Challenge” offers the chance to memorize the top 100 Bible verses by year’s end.
This simple approach allows you to become familiar with the big ideas of the Bible in less time and with less effort than other reading plans. In one year, you can master the core of the Bible—focusing on topics from God’s will to worry, happiness to holiness, and leadership to love. These fifty-two core passages are lenses through which you can read the rest of the Bible with clarity and confidence.
Let’s hear from you! What did you learn about how to read the Bible?
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Don’t forget to leave a comment! Which of these tips on how to read the Bible was most helpful to you?