How to Read the Bible by Casey Shirley

When I was growing up, I thought I knew how to read the Bible. I would open it up to somewhere near the end because someone told me the most important stuff was in the short books near the back and memorized verses, took notes, listened to sermons, and I knew all the right Old Testament stories. 

When I was growing up, I thought I knew how to read the Bible. I would open it up to somewhere near the end because someone told me the most important stuff was in the short books near the back. My checklist for bible literacy consisted of memorizing verses, taking notes, listening to sermons, and knowing all the right Old Testament stories.

In fact, everything I needed to know about God and life was found within the pages of Scripture, right? But all too often, I felt like I was hitting a dead end. How did the 80% of the Bible I wasn’t reading relate to the 20% I was reading the majority of the time? And when I did try to read other parts of the Bible it was confusing… and weird. 

Finally, I realized that I struggled to read the Bible because no one ever really taught me how.

Until, that is, I was a freshman in college and I joined a ministry on my college campus. Those four years transformed the way I engaged with Scripture and brought the depth and gravity to my Bible reading that I longed for. 

Here’s the thing, what I learned wasn’t a secret method or incredibly profound. In fact, it was simple… just like what I’m going to share here. But these simple adjustments to the way I read my Bible have made all the difference. 

What is the Bible, really? 

Before we talk about how to read the Bible we need to talk about what the Bible is. First of all, it’s not just a book, it’s actually a library of 66 books. Long before the printing press that gave us our first bound manuscripts (aka books), the Bible was comprised of separate scrolls that were mostly read aloud in community. Each book of the Bible has a specific literary genre, or style of writing, but every book presents a unified story that leads to Jesus. You’re going to want to know what genre you’re reading before you start! 

You could think about it this way, you wouldn’t read a riveting spy novel the same way you’d read a book on time management. In the same way, you wouldn’t read Psalms the way you’d read Genesis. But before you get overwhelmed, let me encourage you, knowing what you’re reading is going to be one of the biggest keys to getting the most out of your time in Scripture. 

Before You Begin

Before you get started reading any book of the Bible, there are a few questions that you should be asking:

● In what style is the book written? (Is it prose, poetry, prophecy, wisdom literature, historical narrative, or apocalyptic literature?)

● Who wrote it? 

● Who was it written to? (Keep in mind, these are ancient texts written to an ancient people!)

● When was it written?

● Where does the book fall within the unified story of Scripture? 

In addition to this, the simplest way to do this is to ask, “Is this before, during, or after the earthly ministry of Jesus?” As you learn more about the historical setting of the Bible you’ll begin asking more specific questions, but this is a great place to start! 

TIP: The Bible Project has short overview videos for every book of the Bible. So check out these before you start reading and you’ll know the answers to all the questions I’ve listed above!

Old Testament Books
New Testament Books

Bible Reading Basics

Now, it’s time to start reading! Because of the way many of us have learned to read our Bibles we often start our scripture reading by asking “What does this mean to me?” That’s because we want the Bible to make a real difference in our real lives, and that’s good! But if we’re not careful, we’ll come to the Scriptures with us as the central figure of the story rather than God. The Bible is all about God revealing Himself to humanity in His Son Jesus. It’s all about Him, what He has done, what He is doing, and how He is calling us to participate! 

Below I’ve listed three simple steps to Bible reading (and Bible study) that are going to help us keep this in mind.

• COMPREHENSION – WHAT DOES IT REALLY SAY?

Slow down. Take your time. Make observations. Ask questions. 

TIP: If you want to dive a little deeper consider printing out a passage, double-spaced, with wide margins, and mark it up! Circle, highlight, draw arrows to connected thoughts, write your questions and observations out to the side.

• INTERPRETATION – WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN? 

Put yourself in the shoes of the author and the original audience. Interpret the passage with their culture and circumstances in mind. 

TIP: A question you should ask yourself is, “Would my interpretation of this passage make sense to the original audience?” If your answer is “no”, you probably want to do some more digging!  

• APPLICATION – HOW SHOULD I RESPOND? 

Finally, ask God to show you how to apply what you’re learning through each passage. He will lead you! 

TIP: Pray! Before, during, and after your reading time. The Holy Spirit is there with you, to help you think and act more like Jesus as you spend time in the Word! 

If you’re having trouble knowing where to start then I would recommend starting with the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). These are four separate accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. 

Or you can jump into a reading plan! Here are a few you might want to check out:

M’Cheyne One Year Reading Plan
Bible Project One Story That Leads to Jesus
Bible In One Year with Nicky Gumbel 

Our friends at the Bible Project did a series of podcasts and videos on how to read your Bible and it’s fantastic! You can find it here: 

BIBLE PROJECT: HOW TO READ YOUR BIBLE

Some days you might read a few verses and some days you might read a few chapters, and that’s okay! In fact, the quality of your Bible reading is more important than the quantity. If you apply just a few of the things I’ve suggested above you’re only going to grow in your love and knowledge of the Bible! Happy reading, friends!

A Blog by Casey Shirley

Check out another blog from our team next: What is Discipleship?