There is nothing more basic to Bible study than Bible reading. Imagine trying to interpret a middle chapter in the allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress without knowing the larger story, or studying the significance of World War II without a good understanding of World War I. Proper Bible study cannot be built on a scattered compilation of pet verses or a narrow study of a particular doctrine—it must be grounded in a comprehensive understanding of broad biblical themes and history. And the only way to obtain that is faithful, diligent Bible reading.
Ironically, many people engage in studying the Bible without ever reading it. They may read a lot of books about the Bible, but there is no substitute for reading Scripture on its own. My suggestion is that you follow a deliberate reading plan that will take you all the way through both the Old and New Testaments.
The Old Testament
A healthy goal for all Christians is to read through the Old Testament once a year. There are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament, and if you read about twenty minutes a day, you should be able to get through it in one year.
As you do this year after year, you’ll be building comprehension as you read. I would also suggest, as you read, that you make notations in the margin to mark places that you don’t yet understand. As you continue to re-read the Old Testament you will begin to check those notations off as you gain increasing understanding of the portions that once confused you. Whatever remains unanswered can be used for individual study with a commentary or other sources to find the meaning.
It is unrealistic to expect to exhaustively learn the meaning of every Old Testament verse. Such an unattainable goal will only cultivate a sense of intimidation for such a large reading program. Trust the Holy Spirit to do His illuminating work as you persist with your daily schedule. You will gain an ever-expanding knowledge of the material.
The New Testament
Paul described the New Testament as the unveiling of the Old Testament (Colossians 1:25–26). He alluded to the Old Testament insofar as it illustrated and elucidated and supported the New Testament.
The message of the New Testament is the culmination of revelation. It is that which embodies and engulfs all that was in the Old Testament. In a sense, the New Testament will summarize for you the content of the Old Testament, as well as lead you further into the fullness of revelation. It is for this reason our major thrust in Bible study should be reading the New Testament.
When I was in seminary I decided to read 1 John every day for thirty days. You should try it; it will only take you about twenty-five minutes to read it all the way through. Fight the temptation on about the eighth day to think you’ve got it down. If you stick with it, you’ll gain a tremendous comprehension of 1 John.
When preparing sermons, I always read through the pertinent book repeatedly until the whole book fills my mind in a kind of visual perception. It is also very helpful to take a three-by-five card and write down the major theme of each chapter. As you do this you’ll begin to develop a mental map of the book you’re studying.
After 1 John, go to a large book in the New Testament like the gospel of John. Don’t be intimidated by the twenty-one chapters, just divide it into three sections. Read the first seven chapters for thirty days, the second seven for thirty days, and the third seven for thirty days. At the end of those ninety days you will have pretty well mastered the content of the gospel of John along with memorizing the major theme of each chapter.
After the gospel of John you might want to go to Philippians, another short book. Then you might want to go to Matthew, then to Colossians, and then to Acts. Divide it up like that, continually going back and forth between a small book and a large book. Such a plan is highly achievable if you keep moving forward one step at a time. In approximately two and a half years you will have finished the whole New Testament—and you’ll be on your third time through the Old Testament! You should read the Bible anyway, so you might as well read it in a way that you can remember it.
The Bible is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). It will come alive in your life as you read it in a repetitious manner. When I started using this method I was amazed at how fast I began to retain the New Testament. Isaiah said that we learn, “Order on order, order on order, line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there” (Isaiah 28:13).
You learn by repetition. The reading retention you gain from that will lay a wonderful foundation for the vital task of rightly interpreting the sacred text. Sound Bible interpretation is the next phase of Bible study and we’ll look at that next time.