When I first came to Christ I absolutely loved reading the Bible. I would often read it for hours at a time. But, as is the case with most Christians, once I got to know the Bible well, I didn’t have the same passion for reading it. I kept reading it anyway, but I wished I had my former enjoyment of it.
Well, now, I’m very thankful to report, I absolutely love reading the Bible and that is because I’ve changed the way I read it.
There are certainly many different ways to study the Bible (Jean E. has written a similar post), but here’s what I’ve done.
First, I’ve taken every book of the Bible and turned it into a Word doc. So in my Bible folder I have every individual book of the Bible listed by its title. This has been tremendous as it allows me to footnote everything I think is important. This has the added benefit that I don’t lose my notes when I wear out a Bible.
Second, I use Google to find maps and photos which I insert into the text. One valuable site is the Matson collection of photos taken from 1898 to 1946. While not ancient, the thousands of Matson photos reveal a less modern Israel much closer to how it must have looked in Bible times. The maps and photos aid my understanding and imagination. I have included a sample Word doc for you to see what I mean (it’s also on the Resources page).
Third, I almost never set out to read a section of Scripture (e.g., I don’t say, “Today I’m going to read five chapters of Ezekiel,” or “Today I’m going to read Ephesians”). Instead, I dedicate a set time to study the Bible (“I’m going to read for ten minutes,” or “I’m going to read for an hour”). This is extremely important for me because if I decide to read a certain amount of Scripture it too easy to race to my goal and not really spend the time thinking through, reflecting upon, or praying about what I’ve read.
Although some may think this heresy, I discourage people from doing those read-through-the-Bible-every-year plans (I think it’s great to do it once or twice) because it is too easy for Christians to practice their Evelyn Wood while striving to meet that day’s quota. Also, those who read Scripture quickly end up collecting troubling thoughts about Scripture (“God sent an evil spirit into Saul?” or “Jesus called people vipers?” or “Jesus said you should hate your children?” and so on and on and on). As troubling passages accumulate in their subconscious, they hinder their ability to love the Lord with all their minds. But, if you read for a period of time instead of by amount, you can spend the whole time thinking these issues through until you understand them. It is much better that people spend 30 minutes thinking through one verse and asking how it applies to their lives than their being able to say, “Today I read ten chapters in Matthew.”
Fourth, and closely related to the above, except for some prophetic passages that are intentionally oblique, I rarely stop studying a passage until I understand it! And it may take a while but amazingly sooner or later, I understand the troubling passages! As Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:7 “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” I learn much more this way and I thoroughly enjoy the Bible.
Fifth, I read the Bible with at least one excellent commentary next to me (that helps me not leave a passage until I understand it). I’ve heard people say things like, “I don’t need to hear what others think. I only want to hear what the Spirit has to say to me through the Bible.” That may sound spiritual but it’s not. It’s another way of saying, “I can’t learn about the Bible from others.” Frankly, Christians who say that are misinformed, arrogant, lazy or all of the above (I know what you’re thinking: “Come on, Clay, tell us what you really think!”). Using an excellent commentary is no more than learning in writing from an excellent Christian teacher who has probably spent years studying the particular book he’s written on.
Of course commentaries can be expensive but consider how much money you spend on going out to dinner just one time. I now have a good commentary on nearly every book of the Bible (I’ve been doing this a long time) and it makes a huge difference in my enjoyment and understanding of Scripture.
The key to commentaries is to make sure you aren’t wasting your money on the mediocre by using commentary surveys. The first I suggest buying is D. A. Carson’s New Testament Commentary Survey (IVP). Carson is a great commentator himself (his commentary on John is superb) and a deeply spiritual man (I had him as a professor at TEDS).
For the OT get Tremper Longman’s Old Testament Commentary Survey (Baker Academic). These two are indispensable and you’ll save a lot of money by not purchasing mediocre or liberal works.
I don’t recommend commentary sets unless you have money to burn because although some of the individual commentaries will be excellent in just about every set, others will disappoint. It’s better to pick and choose based on the opinion of experts like Carson and Longman. Newer commentaries are usually more valuable than older ones because the careful commentator will utilize the best material from prior commentaries in his own writing.
Sixth, and this will appeal more to those apologetically inclined, I never leave a so-called Bible contradiction without resolving the contradiction and then carefully footnoting the resolution in the text itself. Often I will try to write it in such a way that I could read my resolution verbatim to those who ask about it. Although a good conservative commentary will help you resolve most of these (often in more detail), two helpful books are Norman Geisler’s When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Baker) and Gleason Archer’s New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan).
Seventh, when I’m reading other books and I find a quote that elucidates a particular passage of Scripture, I stop what I’m reading, turn on my laptop, open that book of the Bible, and insert that comment into the footnotes of the relevant passage. This is huge! I wish I’d started that forty years ago!
Again, check out my example Word doc to see how I do this.
Eighth, I use Bible software. In particular I use WORDsearch (Lifeway) which makes it easy to review hundreds of different resources quickly (I didn’t link to one because there are many different versions of it).
Last but certainly not least, when I read Scripture I ask myself if I’m doing what that verse says. This is the most important point of all. It is too easy to read verses, agree with them, but not actually do them. To only hear the word, and even agree with it, without doing it is folly and leads to destruction (Matthew 7:24-27).
John 8:31-32: “Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”