The Bible is a big book. It can be intimidating to read, so many of us prefer reading books about the Bible. And if we do read the Bible, we can sometimes treat it like a mere instruction manual. We use it if needed, but otherwise we try to do things ourselves. It reminds me of trying to put together IKEA furniture without a manual. Unfortunately, as many of us have experienced, the instruction manual needs to be respected and read properly. Otherwise, our furniture may look disjointed in the end. Things are similar with the Bible. Failing to read it properly can lead to all kinds of trouble.
As we know of course, the Bible is much grander than any IKEA instruction manual. It’s a book with heights and depths, poetry and prose. Reading it requires even more purposefulness than reading other books. As I’ve read the Bible over the course of my life, here are a few things I’ve learned that have helped in my understanding it.
Believe. It’s important to remember that understanding the Bible requires faith. We have to believe it. Augustine challenged us, “Believe so that you may understand.” Augustine said those words because he himself never properly understood the Bible until he believed. The Bible is much like polarized lenses that fishermen use. Without polarized lenses, the water has an intense glare. But with polarized lenses, one can see into the water. The Bible requires faith for us to see its depths.
Pray and meditate. Prayer is often an afterthought, but we can’t understand anything spiritual unless God helps us and reveals it to us. We may have faith, but we still need help. We should pray that the Holy Spirit will help us understand His Word. As we pray, we remember our dependence on God for insight and wisdom. We should also take our time to meditate on God and His Word as we move through Scripture. Just like it takes time for a tree’s root system to soak up water, so our souls need time to be nourished by God’s Word. As we meditate, we can pray God’s Word back to Him. Psalm 119:18 describes such a petition: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” We need His Spirit to illumine His Word so that we might see the “wondrous things” He has written there.
Read in Context. Just because we believe God’s Word and pray about it doesn’t mean that we’re immediately given comprehensive understanding of Scripture. We have to adopt wise ways of approaching the text. So, to start, we should read in context. We shouldn’t forget what came before the section we’re reading. We wouldn’t start reading chapter 13 of Pride and Prejudice and simply expect to know what’s going on in the story. Neither should we expect the same when we read the Bible. We should also remember what genre we’re in. If it’s a letter, we should remember that the structure will lend itself to certain modes of expression. The same is true of poetry, historical narrative, and other genres.
Have a Plan. If we’re reading the Bible regularly, it’s best not to open the Bible to a random place every day. Nor is it always good to go wherever our whims take us. This is because randomness disallows us from reading the Bible in any coherent order—and reading the Bible in some kind of order helps us understand it better. Moreover, going where our whims take us often means we never read certain portions of Scripture—and we need all of God’s Word. Many people choose to read the Bible in a year, and there are many good plans out there. I simply mark three places in my Bible with sticky tabs: one in the Old Testament, one in the Psalms, and one in the New Testament. I read a chapter or two from each section every day. I eventually cover the whole Bible, but I don’t keep track of how long it takes. In the end, it doesn’t matter too much what plan we choose. We should just find one that works and stick to it.
Look Up Your Questions. I remember Dr. R.C. Sproul said that when he first started reading the Bible, he wrote down questions he had as he went along. He went back and answered those questions eventually. Nowadays, it’s pretty easy to look up questions on particular verses via www.ligonier.org or Matthew Henry’s Commentary online. Many other good commentaries are accessible today as well, along with resources such as Ask Ligonier. Regardless of how you get your questions answered, do get them answered by a reliable source. Reading the Bible is about more than simply reading—it’s about understanding. Some of my most profitable times of study have come after I asked a question of the text and pursued the answer.
These are just five tips for studying the Bible effectively. If we follow them, we’ll grow in our understanding slowly but surely. Lord willing, with that growth in understanding will come sanctification. God will use His Word and Spirit to shape us into the people He’s called us to be—men and women who love God with all their heart, soul, and strength and love their neighbors as themselves. May God bless our reading of His Word.