1. Start with a good tool. God’s Word is worth more than your house, your car, and your jewelry. It’s worth spending some money on a good Bible. At the least, get a Bible that will last, preferably one with a genuine leather cover. Get a Bible that has cross references, a concordance, and maps. I think it’s also very good to get a study Bible. The notes below the text are not inerrant or infallible, but they help us understand the meaning of the text. I highly recommend the ESV Study Bible. It’s the English Standard Version with notes and articles by many evangelical theologians. The NIV Study Bible is also very helpful. I have heard that the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible is a good one, too. There are very few other study Bibles that I would recommend.
2. Read larger chunks of the Bible at once. At a minimum, read one chapter at once. Do not read one verse in isolation. When you read larger chunks of the Bible at once, you understand what is happening in a narrative better, or you understand the flow of an epistle better.
3. Context matters. Don’t take one verse out of context. “A text without context is a pretext for a prooftext.” In other words, if you take one verse out of context, you are probably giving it a wrong meaning. Words gain their meaning in context. So do phrases and sentences. So, don’t read just one verse. Read the verses around it. Understand where one verse fits within the larger plot of the book of the Bible, and understand where that book fits within the whole of the big story of the Bible.
4. Read according to genre. The Bible consists of different genres, or styles, of writing. There are narratives (stories), laws, proverbs, poems (the Psalms and much of the prophets), letters, and apocalyptic writing (the second half of Daniel, some bits of the prophets, and the book of Revelation). You don’t read a recipe the way you read a love letter. You read a history book differently than you read a novel. You don’t think about this, but if you’re a good reader, you read these styles of writing differently. I think the easiest books of the Bible to read, understand, and apply to our lives are the letters of the New Testament. Perhaps the hardest styles of writing to understand are poems and apocalyptic literature.
5. Don’t lose the forest for the trees. Well-intentioned Christians, understanding that the Bible is God’s Word, try to peer into every word for meaning. That’s fine, but first look for the big points of the Bible. As you read a chapter of the Bible, or even a whole book, ask yourself some questions: Why is this here in the Bible? What is God’s purpose for this passage? What does the author intend to communicate to the reader? How does this passage fit into the big story of the Bible?
6. The whole Bible is about Jesus. See Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:27, 44-47; John 5:39, 46. When reading the Old Testament, ask how this passage is about Jesus. Is there a prophecy about Jesus? Does it show the need for Jesus? Is something a type of Jesus? A type (or shadow) is a person, event, or institution that foreshadows the coming of Jesus. The tabernacle, the Passover, sacrifices, miraculous births of children, David slaying Goliath—all of these things anticipate Jesus.
7. Where does this passage fit in the big story of the Bible? Is it before sin entered the world or after? Is it a passage about the Israelites “under the law”? Is it in the New Testament? This affects how you understand and apply the passage.
8. What does this passage teach about God? Some people jump to application, how they can live in light of this passage. But the problem with that approach is that the Bible is not primarily about us. God is the central character of the Bible. First, try to understand what the Bible teaches about God. Then, try to understand what it says about humans. After that, ask how the passage affects your life.
9. Remember that the Bible wasn’t written directly to us. The Bible was written anywhere from almost two thousand years ago to almost thirty-five hundred years ago. This means the Bible will contain some things that the original audiences understand that we don’t understand. These things can involve cultural practices, idioms, and symbols that we don’t understand. The same thing is true of our own language today. We understand what it means for someone to say, “He really hit a home run today.” But Moses wouldn’t have understood that; neither would David or Paul. A good study Bible will help you understand many of these issues. But study Bibles don’t cover everything.
10. You won’t understand everything when you read the Bible. I don’t intend for that to discourage you. Much of what you read in the Bible will be easy to understand. But not everything. And that’s okay. You will understand more and more as you keep reading. The more times you read through the Bible, the more you will understand it. It’s a process. If you understand this up front, you won’t be as discouraged.
11. Write down any questions you have. If you have a question, and you can’t find the answer in any resources you have, write the question down. Don’t spend all day worrying about it. You can always come back to the question later. Or, you can ask your pastor if he knows the answer. He may not know the answer, but he can look it up for you, or give you a resource so you can look it up yourself.
12. Be cautious about using the Internet. If you type a question into a search engine online, you will find a lot of answers. Some may be helpful. Some may even be right answers. But the Internet also has a lot of worthless stuff, particularly when it comes to the Bible.
13. Read a good book on how to understand the Good Book. The following titles are recommended. (The same list appears on WBCC’s website.)
Mark Dever, What Does God Want of Us Anyway? An Overview of the Whole Bible
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
George Guthrie, Read the Bible for Life
Tremper Longman, Reading the Bible with Heart & Mind
Robert Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible
Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture
Robert Stein, Playing by the Rules: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible
Michael Williams, How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens
14. Meditate on the passage. Don’t just read the passage, check it off your to-do list, and move on. Think about it. Think about how it should affect your life. Think about it during the day. Dwell on it.
15. Finally, pray over the passage. Pray before you read. Ask God to help you understand what you’re reading. After reading, pray that God would help you live your life in light of the passage. Let God’s Word mold and shape your head, heart, and hands.