How to Read the Bible Effectively
How to Start Reading the Bible
There is something to be realised right at the beginning. You cannot read the Bible in the way you might read some other books. The Bible is unique and it is good to recognise it right at the start. There is nothing like it or equal to it anywhere else in the world, and therefore the way you read it is important.
You must read it carefully, because every word is important. With other books, individual words may not in themselves have particular significance – but with the Bible it is different, because of what the Bible is.
The Mind of God
Remember the Bible is the documentation of the mind of God. It is the thought of God, expressed in the syllables of human speech. It is the purpose of the Eternal made articulate and imprinted upon the parchment of a book. If so great a concept is confined within the limitations of human language, how important must the words be themselves. Many a man has misunderstood the Bible because he was not willing to take care to read it properly and reverently. It is far more than printers’ ink and paper.
It deserves respect and esteem.
Some books can be read cursorily, lightly skipping from one chapter to another – but not the Bible.
What time of day you read it and how much you read may have to be regulated by the facts and forces of your particular way of life. But if you really mean business about this enterprise, then the nature of your reading must be careful and reverent. True Bible Students have always been Bible readers. This is not said boastfully, but only to justify offering a word of advice about the method of reading.
We have found from our experience that it is a good and profitable thing to read the Bible every day and we have a system of reading which, if followed, enables us to read the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice in the course of 12 months.
This is done by following a table of readings. Using these reading tables gives the added benefit that all of us are reading the same portions of Scripture each day all over the world. So the fellowship of faith is sustained and strengthened by the same thoughts and ideas being pondered upon and weighed from the Word of God.
How to Read
If you are going to read a portion of the Bible every day there is one piece of advice I would offer and it is this. Take care that the exercise does not become a performance – a ritual – so that we do it as a matter of course, like cleaning our teeth or taking the dog for a walk. If that was to happen, before long we should be saying: “Let’s get the readings out of the way and then we can…” That is not the way to start reading the Bible. Quite obviously the objective is to read with a view to understanding.
I met a man the other day who had been reading the Bible every day for 27 years – that meant he had read the prophecy of Habakkuk 27 times but he confessed that he had never understood it. Imagine reading something every year for 27 years and never understanding what had been read. His reading was a performance – a habit – superficial and without feeling.
Read every day by all means but try to read penetratingly. Speaking for myself, I find that where a passage of Scripture is not immediately and clearly self-evident as to its meaning, then it is a good thing to read it several times slowly and to meditate upon and ponder the actual words used, remembering that every word is important.
An Open Mind
Now we must get down to the nitty gritty about Bible reading. If you are reading for the purpose of discovering the truth about God and His purpose, it is essential to come with a genuine desire for truth, and be ready to face the consequences of such a discovery.
What I mean is this. Some people come to the Bible not to discover truth but to find support for ideas they have already formulated in their own mind.
People are often inclined to invent a God which suits their own idea of what He ought to be like. Their own thoughts and ideas become their God – so they come to the Bible seeking to justify the God they have invented.
Sometimes by a capricious selection of certain passages of Scripture and a wilful rejection of others, they can satisfy themselves that their God is the God of the Bible. This is not the way to discover the truth that is revealed in God’s Word.
If possible, it is best to read the Bible without any preconceived notions at all. That, of course, is asking a lot, but the truth is that the person most likely to be filled is the person who is most empty. The difficulty is that there are certain preconceived ideas which, because of their very nature, are likely to hinder and harm the cause of truth.
Usually those ideas are pagan and consequently out of harmony with the divine purpose revealed in the Bible.
Just as an example of what I mean – there is the Greek and therefore pagan doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
The idea is that man by his very nature is immortal and indestructible. This is a pernicious doctrine and has the effect of blinding people to so much of the truth revealed in the Bible.
✓It robs death of its real meaning;
✓it diminishes the awful power of sin;
✓it confuses the meaning of redemption;
✓it clouds a true insight into God’s real purpose with the world;
✓it dislocates a proper understanding of God’s kingdom; and
✓it contradicts the Bible’s clear teaching about the meaning and need of resurrection as a means of survival.
This is but one illustration of how much we need to come to the Bible with a mind which is open and a heart desiring the truth.
Read it All
The next condition I draw attention to is the need to read the whole Bible.
The Bible had many writers – but one author. It is a transcript of that one author’s purpose and will and it is one complete organic whole. The moment we open the Bible, God is coming close to us.
It is not our business to pronounce judgment upon the value or truth of this part or that. Men did not originate the words, they are only the custodians – they are not the source. If we begin to select this and reject that, we are at once under mining the possibility of gaining a balanced view of God’s Truth. But people do this.
They treat the Word of God as though it is a large department store.
You can wander through such a store saying ‘Yes I like that, that suits me well’, or ‘Oh dear no – I dislike that, that is not for me’. That’s perfectly alright in a department store, but it’s a tragic mistake when it comes to the Bible. But it happens. They read these words:
“Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).
They say ‘That is good and I like it’.
But then later on they read:
“Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:33), or Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
They say ‘I do not like that, it does not suit my ideas and therefore I cannot receive it’.
Old and New
Then there are those who think that the only important part of the Bible is the New Testament and that everything in the Old Testament is old fashioned and out-of-date. Anybody who believes this has erected a barrier to a proper understanding of the Bible, right at the start. The relationship between the two Testaments is an essential relationship and one of perfect harmony.
The Old completes the New as much as the New completes the Old. Neither is sufficient without the other.
The Old prepares for the New. The New authenticates the Old. The New Testament does not make the Old void, it makes it valid. The New Testament does not weaken the moral law of the Old Testament – instead it develops it and moves from the letter deep into the spiritual part of human life. There is Grace in the Old Testament and there is Law in the New Testament and there is fulfilment in both.
The Bible that Jesus used was what we know as the Old Testament. So if anyone is about to say ‘I believe in Jesus but I cannot believe in the Old Testament’ they have proposed a great contradiction.
In support of what I mean consider this passage:
“Jesus said to them, Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he said to them, “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (Matthew 13:51–52).
Here is the estimate of Jesus about the meaning of true instruction in the things of God. Dwell on the phrase – “things new and old”. We must be careful to avoid the idea that when the Lord said this he meant things new and things old, as though he was speaking of two separate things or two different sets of ideas.
There is only one thing suggested: one set of ideas – namely the things which are new and old at the same time. The word new here does not mean fresh in the sense that it has just begun, nor does the word old mean something which is ancient and about to pass away.
Everything is new and everything is old. The principle is old, the application is new. The root is old, the blossom is new. The tree is old – the fruit is new every season. The two things are essential to growth. Destroy the old and new growth will be greatly hindered.
See then the relationship between the Old and the New – they are the same things.
The Road to Emmaus In Luke chapter 24 we encounter two disciples who were heading home at the end of a tragic day. It was tragic because their hopes had been dashed. Jesus – the one they expected to see triumphant – had been executed. Their lives were in the past tense. They spoke about:
“Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19).
“We were hoping that it was he who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).
Now notice what the stranger did, as the record continues:
“Beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
From the Old Testament, Jesus opened their eyes. He did not bring them any new teaching – he gave them a new understanding of old things. He threw new light on familiar passages. And it changed their lives, for later:
“They said to one another, Did not our heart burn within us while he talked with us on the road, and while he opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
See then how they reacted. They sauntered out of Jerusalem wearily – they went back at the double excitedly.
So what folly it is to say the Old Testament is finished and can be disregarded, when Jesus used it to rejuvenate his own disciples. The lesson is – be sure to read the whole Bible.
Now a word or two about methods of interpretation. I am sure it is true to say that the Bible has two levels of understanding. There is that part of it which is plain, unambiguous and crystal clear, as to its meaning, given a fair and open mind. The teaching is self-evident.
But the Bible is not a slot machine.
It is not just a case of putting in the coin and out comes the information. It does not provide ready-made answers to every problem at a flick of the wrist.
There are parts of the Bible where meanings and intentions are submerged – that is, they need to be sought after, they need to be uncovered and exposed.
A better figure is that of harvest. God rewards the diligent. If you sow you reap. If you are neglectful and careless the harvest is poor. There are laws of fruitfulness which have to be observed, else the result is scanty. This old law of harvest is especially true when it comes to finding the deep things of God. If someone sows sparingly he or she will reap sparingly.
Now I want to draw your attention to what seems to me to be, according to the Bible, the best means of finding truly spiritual knowledge and understanding.
It brings us to a saying of Jesus in the gospel of John:
Jesus answered them and said, “My doctrine is not mine, but His who sent me. If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on my own authority” (John 7:16–17).
Notice what Jesus is saying – that the real secret of spiritual knowledge is obedience. In other words, the person who is most likely to discover the real truth is the person who is seeking it in order to obey it. This is in strict accord with the remainder of Bible teaching:
“The humble He guides in justice, and the humble He teaches His way (Psalm 25:9); The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments. His praise endures forever” (Psalm 111:10);
“For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isaiah 57:15).
These passages reveal that the Truth places no condition upon the accidents of our life, or our education, or our social standing. But the Truth demands honesty, reverence and sympathy.
It is revealed by God to the lowly and the contrite.
“He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty” (Luke 1:53).
What we Are
Here is the secret revealed: how much we know of the real truth about God is regulated by what we are in ourselves.
If a man sows to the flesh he cannot reap the finer things of the spirit, even though his intellect is clear and his brain nimble.
The certainty of the truth and the deepest know ledge of God does not depend at last upon the discoveries of science, nor the proof of miracles, nor the explanation of history. If it did then the truth would be in the reach chiefly of those who were the cleverest. Those who could weigh evidence, investigate history and languages, and study by experiment. This is exactly the opposite of what God says, as we have seen.
Again the truth about God is not likely to be found by those who seek it merely to speculate upon it, for truth ignored or misapplied is nearly always truth lost. Remember what Jesus said:
“If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on my own authority” (John 7:16–17).
A man who speculates about the truth but never does it has become half false already. In a way, the very truth itself has for him been turned into falsehood. So we ought to mark carefully the forces which blind men to the real truth revealed in God’s word – so that we can be careful to avoid them.
Here they are:
✓Being superficial about serious things,
God’s Message for All
Think about it! Did prejudice ever discern truly and judge fairly? Can idle curiosity ever discover spiritual reality?
Was anything deep and majestic ever revealed to the silly and the frivolous?
Is it possible that a mind dominated by materialism will be able to understand the things of the Spirit? The words of Jesus are singularly true – it is the person who seeks the truth in order to obey it who is most likely to find it at its best and its deepest. It is important to realise this because there is abroad an idea that the Bible can be understood only by those who are well educated and who hold degrees from some university or other.
As a result many people are put off making the attempt, thinking that they are not clever enough to understand the Word of God. Could there be anything further from the truth? Can you think for one minute that God would only communicate to mankind in such a way that only the very cleverest could understand him? Of course not!
The Word of God is for everybody – the educated and the uneducated alike. God is not interested in somebody’s education. The simplest mind can understand the Bible; it’s directed to the honest heart not to the clever mind. Jesus once said: “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18:37).
In general the Bible means what it says. There are parts which are symbolic, but common sense will soon tell you which they are. For the most part, what the Bible teaches can be taken at face value. When it says that people are dead, it does not mean they are alive on another level of existence.
When it says that God will establish His kingdom of earth it does not mean it is just a spiritual reformation in human hearts. When it says that the Son of God rose from the dead, it does not mean it was a lifting up of his mind to the highest experience of God.
It does use symbol and figurative language at times, so it depicts the devil as a roaring lion; the Lord is described as a lamb; the King has a two-edged sword projecting from his mouth. Your common sense tells you that these are symbolic statements and are to be understood in that way.
One Last Word
Finally I must say this. There is one great harmonious theme running right through the Bible and it can be summed up in one great Bible phrase:
“The kingdom of God”. This phrase describes the sovereignty of God extending over all the life of mankind and over all the earth. It tells of a time to come when God’s glory will be manifested in every part when His will is done by every person.
At that time every tear will be wiped away, all pain will end, all death will be abolished. The final triumph of God will be achieved through the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to earth, to establish once for all the government of God with Christ as its unchallenged King.
If you will read and understand the Bible and make it the centre of your life, by loving God and obeying His will, the prospect before you is wonderful.
God offers the gift of eternal life – unsullied, untarnished and unending – in God’s glorious kingdom. You cannot do it alone. God must be your help.
Remember: it is the humble He teaches His way (Psalm 25:9). Pray to him for strengths and help and guidance.
Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened.
May the Lord bless you richly in your search.
By Dennis Gillett