How to Read the Bible
by Don Camp
We read the Bible in different ways. The most common would be
reading it devotionally. That means we read it to understand
its promises and to encounter God more deeply and to discover
God’s instructions for our lives.
A second way we read the Bible is to read it
for information. For example, we might read the Gospels to get a
better picture of what Jesus said and did. Or we might read Exodus
to learn how God saved the Israelites from Egypt. Or we might read
it to see what it says about the problem of sin.
Those ways of reading the Bible, however, don’t
give us the whole picture. They provide us with bits and pieces
here and there. But reading like that misses one of the most
amazing truths about the Bible, and it misses the connections
between the parts of the Bible that would make them more
understandable to us.
READ THE BIBLE AS A SINGLE STORY
So sometime it would be a good idea to read the Bible as single
connected story. That is what the Bible is, after all. It is a
story that begins at the beginning of time and human history in
Genesis and ends at the end in Revelation. But there is a caution.
For the most part, the Bible we have is
organized chronologically just as most stories. But there are some
parts that are out of order. The books of the prophets, for
example, are organized as a group rather than organized in
sync with the time in which the prophets spoke and wrote.
Isaiah and Micah both lived and wrote during
the time of the king Hezekiah. The story of Hezekiah and his time
is found in 2 Kings 18-20 and 2 Chronicles 29-32. It will provide
a much richer story if we read the books of Isaiah and Micah
along with those passages in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles.
The books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah were written
during the time when Judah, the southern kingdom, was under attack
by Babylon and in captivity in Babylon. Reading them at the
same time you read the end of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles will give
you a context for what they have to say.
You can use a chronological Bible to place the
prophets in the proper time sequence with the history books. Or
you can use the NIV Study Bible and the introductory material to
help you place the prophets in their proper order.
As you read the Bible this way, you’ll come to
several books that are difficult to get through, particularly
Leviticus and Numbers. It will help if you recognize that these
books were written as instructions to the people of Israel as they
were building the kingdom in Canaan. That understanding will allow
you to see many of the laws given to Israel as laws related to
this kingdom and not other kingdoms. Laws such as the laws about
slaves or about dress or about sacrifices are peculiar to Israel.
Other nations were not and are not today expected to follow those
laws. The New Testament explains that in Colossians and Hebrews.
These laws were “shadows of things to come.”
Some laws, however, are general and universal.
The Ten Commandments are that. Those laws are reinforced in the
New Testament. And those are the laws that Jesus said in Matthew 5
will never pass away.
There is one exception that everyone will
wonder about. It is the commandment regarding keeping the Sabbath.
That law is addressed in Hebrews 4 where the writer explains that
the Sabbath looked forward to a rest of faith. So, if we are
resting from our works and trusting in the works of Jesus, we are
obeying the Sabbath as God intended.
Of course, we can keep the Sabbath on Saturday
as the Jews do, and many Christians do so. We are not disobeying
by keeping the Sabbath. And if you have slaves, you probably
should follow at least the principles of treating slaves humanely
that we read of in Exodus and Numbers.
The fact is, however, that the laws specific to
Israel as a kingdom in Canaan are not specific for us. That we
understand if we read the Bible as a single story.
When we read the Bible as a single story we
also get the plot. The plot is about what happened to
mankind, how we fell from perfect fellowship with God (Genesis
3) and what God is doing about it: he is providing
reconciliation through his Messiah Jesus.
If we read the Bible as a single story, we will
see that plot unfolding from the first promise God gave of
reconciliation in Genesis 3:15 to the actual coming of the Messiah
in the Gospels and finally to the resolution of all the
conflicts in Revelation. And it will make perfect sense.
If we read as we usually do, a bit here and a
bit there, it is like reading a novel by opening randomly to this
page and another page. We could never make sense of a novel that
way. Even the common practice of reading the New Testament first,
although better than reading randomly, is like starting a novel in
the middle. We might eventually get enough to figure out the whole
story, but it would be difficult. We would miss a lot. No. Read it
like a single story.
However, if you are completely new to the
Bible, it is not a bad idea to read the Gospels first. Just don’t
stop there. Eventually go back and get the whole story by
beginning in Genesis.
READ THE BIBLE AS LITERATURE
Literature comes in various genre or types. There is poetry,
proverb, history, law, biography, prophecy, and story in the
Bible. Each of these requires that we read it with some
understanding. We don’t read poetry with all of its metaphors and
personification, etc. as we read history.
Among all the different types of literature we
find in the Bible, story is the most common. It almost seems that
God made us to read and think in stories. Stories have
Now, don’t read “story” to mean not true. A
story can be true, and the Bible story is true. What “story” means
is that there is a structure that makes it interesting and a point
or lesson to learn from it. It is not just a string of
events. It is not random. A story is going somewhere.
Take the story of Abraham. It is thirteen
chapters long and includes many events in Abraham’s life. But it
is really all about faith. It is faith illustrated in Abraham’s
life. Paul in the book of Romans in the New Testament underscored
the point of the story when he said “Abraham believed God and it
was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). So, as you
read the stories, whether a parable told by Jesus or the story of
Abraham or Joseph or the Gospels, look for the point. As you read
the whole Bible, look for the point.
You may need help in reading some kinds of
Bible literature properly. If so there is a book, How to Read the
Bible for All It’s Worth written by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
that will help.
READ THE BIBLE IN CONTEXT
Reading in context means to read with an understanding of the
larger piece the particular piece you are reading is part of. For
example, the book of Genesis precedes the book of Exodus and was
written by Moses for the Israelites who were escaping Egypt. That
is the context. It was, therefore, written to give the Israelites,
who had been in Egypt for several hundred years as slaves,
information about who they were and what God’s purpose for them
was. They had forgotten their heritage. Genesis would restore that
So, when you read the creation story in Genesis
1, realize this story was intended to tell the Israelites that God
was God and the gods they had learned about in Egypt were not. In
Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve was to remind them why people
are as they are, estranged from God. And it was to give them hope
that one day things would be different.
The story of Abraham was to remind them that
they were of the family of Abraham and were given the promises God
gave to Abraham’s family. It was to remind them that they were in
line to both be blessed and be a blessing to the world.
The story of Joseph was to remind them how they
came to Egypt and where they came from in Canaan, the land God had
given to them. The context of Genesis is the whole story of
Israel’s return to the land and the mission God had for them.
Context also is important in understanding
pieces in a smaller passage. For example in Mark 13 Jesus tells
his disciples what will happen in the future. The temple will be
destroyed; there will be wars and troubles; there will be false
messiah’s. Toward the end of that list Jesus says “This generation
will not pass away until all of this is fulfilled.” Some people
have read that to mean Jesus promised that the disciples would not
die until all these things were fulfilled and he returned as king.
But the context of the passage is clearly that the generation of
people living at the time when the Son of Man comes will not pass
away until these all are fulfilled. Context makes a big
The context of any piece is the passage in
which it is found, the type of literature it is, the place in
history in which the events take place, and the culture, plus
other more technical things such as language. Don’t be put off by
that the idea of context. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. When
context is important, a study Bible will provide adequate
READ LOOKING FOR GOD’S MESSAGE TO YOU
There is always something we need that the Bible will supply. Ask
as you read. Is there something I need to know that this passage
is telling me? Is there something about God I need to know? Is
there something about me I need to know? Is there something
I should do? Is there something I should not do?
Apply the message to yourself.
And pray. Ask God these questions and expect
his answer. You will be surprised how specifically God answers
that question as you ask and then wait expectantly.
THE BIBLE IS A REMARKABLE BOOK
There is no other book like the Bible. It was written over a
period of 1000-1500 years by dozens of different human authors.
Yet it holds together as one story as though it were written by a
single author. It is powerful to change lives and nations and
civilizations. And it has. It is the story of the whole human race
and covers all of human history. It is so deep and personal that
you will never exhaust what it has to speak to you. It is a divine
book. It is loved by billions and hated by others. It has been
banned and burned, yet it survives. And it will survive until the
story is complete. Read it. It will change your life.