How to Read the Bible Better
(2nd/final part of article)
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
Such attention to detail, in Bible study, will take us beyond the individual human authors to the divine Author. Reading his Book will mean looking for connections across the canon, and how God, the ultimate author, reveals himself over time. Not only does history rhyme, as it has been said, but God has his reasons in the rhyming. When we see familiar patterns and various types across the sweep of biblical history, we can ask what God means to communicate to us through them. It means “believing that everything belongs and everything is meaningful,” according to Peter Leithart:
The Spirit doesn’t waste his breath. There are no incidental details. We’re told that Abraham had 318 fighting men for a reason, and the Spirit wanted us to know the man at the pool of Bethsaida had been lame for 38 years. Is 153 fish mere local color? No; it’s part of the Word of the Lord. . . . When a narrator uses an odd turn of phrase, don’t jump to the pseudo-scholarly conclusion that it’s an “ancient Hebrew idiom.” Expect it to communicate. . . . Give the human author some credit; he writes as he does for a reason. Most of all, give the Author credit, for if he’s able to harmonize the billions of motifs of human history, he can write a coherent book.
Paul wasn’t urging his disciple to be comfortable when he exhorted him, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). Such diligent trusting the biblical text requires coming to it at an unhurried pace — we might even call it a “leisurely” pace. Not leisurely in terms of attentiveness but in terms of space to linger, go deep, consult parallel passages, ask good questions, study for answers, and see the connections to Christ (Luke 24:25–27, 44–45). And “leisurely” doesn’t mean comfortable. Such attentive study is often unpleasant, even painful, but endlessly rewarding.
4. Linger over the truth.
We not only read and study, but meditate. God does not mean for our engaging of his word to end at the more cerebral, intellectual level of discerning meaning in the text through informed, patient, attentive reading and study. Rather, he means for his words to go down deep into the soil of our souls — not just freshly inform our minds but profoundly change our hearts.
“God means for his words to go down deep into the soil of our souls.”
Opening up ourselves to the laser of God’s word means seeing the Scriptures as his words to us, not simply to ancient audiences in other times and places. He means for us to read his words as captured and preserved for Christians (Romans 4:23–24; 15:4; 1 Corinthians 9:9–10; 10:6, 11; 2 Timothy 3:16–17), for us to get beyond the study of what God said in the past to others and “bring it home” to ourselves as God’s living and active word (Hebrews 4:12). Not only has he spoken, but he is speaking (Hebrews 12:25) — to us.
Reading God’s Book well leads to meditation, filling our minds with his truths, rolling them around on our tongue, savoring what he says, and not ceasing before coming to personal reflection.
5. Listen alone and together.
So far, we’ve assumed individual Bible reading, study, and meditation, but it should not go without saying that God means for us to receive and welcome his words together in his body called the church.
Healthy Christians will avoid the extremes of lone-rangering and of not engaging God’s words for ourselves. We will receive his words both as individuals made in his image and as his people called the church, the bride of his Son, redeemed together by his blood. Which will mean both listening to, and learning from, the insights of others and humbly, and boldly, sharing our insights with others (teaching).
We rarely begin to master something until we have tried to teach it to others. God’s word goes deeper in us when we try to pass along the blessing to others.
6. Learn to read by reading — for a lifetime.
In the end, there is no better way to learn to read the Bible than to read the Bible. Many ambitious souls, with a burst of inspiration or new-year resolve, start on aggressive Bible-reading regiments. Far fewer truly form the daily habit and genuinely endure for decades. What you do every day, for years on end, will drastically change your life. God means for us to engage his word like this, day after day, for a lifetime of enjoyment and discovery.
“There is no better way to learn to read the Bible than to read the Bible.”
If you’re looking for where to start, there’s no singular right place and no one way. Personally, I’ve found it most helpful over the years to be reading in multiple places at any given time. I typically am working through the whole Bible each year, with four short readings each day, in four different parts of the Bible, through the Discipleship Journal Reading Plan. But from time to time, I’ll change it up and give all my focus for a season to a particular place. My encouragement would be to try several approaches over time and see what habits suit you best in specific seasons of life.
Over time, Bible reading will feel easier and easier, in a sense, and more manifestly fruitful. A focused, unhurried season, day after day, goes a mighty long way. So, keep reading: daily, and for a lifetime. There is no better way to learn to read the Bible than to keep reading the Bible. You will never read a better book, but you can learn to read the Book better.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.