The Christian who doesn’t read will always struggle to hear God speak. Because God has chosen to give us his Word in written form through the Holy Bible. And as Mark Twain is supposedly said, “He who does not read has no advantage over he who cannot read.”
While it’s helpful to remember that God speaks through his Word, I have a feeling that many Christians open their Bible, read the passage, and then think, “Ok… now what?” So then they re-read a few verses, pray, and then close their Bible after wondering if they just failed at reading their Bible.
Fellow pastors, we need to stop telling people what to do without equipping them how to do it!
As a youth pastor, for many years I was far more guilty of this very thing than I’d like to admit. Over the last few years I’ve started prioritizing teaching students how to read the Bible, not just convincing them that they should read it. So whether you’re a teenager or retired, I trust the following could help you grow in your ability to read and understand the Bible in your personal life.
Three Key Questions
There are three major questions that compose what theologians refer to as “hermeneutics.”
- WHAT? What does the Bible passage actually say? This obviously looks differently in Exodus than it would in Proverbs or Romans. Summarize it. Who are the people involved? What was the conflict?
- SO WHAT? Why is this in the Bible? What does this tell me about God, about humanity, or about myself? What does this tell me about my need for salvation and forgiveness? What would the original readers/hearers think, do, or feel because of this passage? Where does this fit into the broader story of the Bible (see below)?
- NOW WHAT? How does this message connect to today’s world? How would this passage look if it was written for people today? What do I need to know, do, or feel this week because of this passage?
Know the Story of the Bible: The Gospel
The Bible is 66 individual books that tell one story… the salvation of God’s people. As you work through the WHAT and the SO WHAT questions, ask yourself, “What part of the larger story is this passage telling?”
- Creation. God created the world for worship. Humanity was created in the Image of God to perfectly reflect him and to represent him among creation.
- Fall. When sin entered the world, the image of God was distorted and twisted. Sin brings death. Much of the Bible is a portrayal of the many kinds of death sin brings about, showing our need for salvation and redemption.
- Salvation/Redemption. Salvation is promised in the Old Testament and accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is proclaimed and explained throughout the New Testament. How is this passage an announcement of the good news of salvation? In truth, the whole Bible shows the need for the gospel, proclaims the gospel, applies the gospel to daily life, or proclaims the eternal hope we have because of the gospel.
- Glorification. The gospel restores and builds on what was lost through the Fall. Does this passage you’re reading explain what will happen when Christ returns and sin is completely eliminated? What is the future of humanity with God?
- A good Study Bible. I prefer the ESV translation, though the HCSB is growing on me. Whichever translation you prefer, find a good Study Bible.
- A Journal. This isn’t a diary, and it’s not for you to write about all your feelings about what happened today. This is a journal for you to keep track of what you’re reading, learning, and how your being shaped by the Word of God. As you start cultivating a habit of reading your Bible, you may need to start off with the structure of writing the three questions and then answering them. In time, the structure may change or loosen as you find a rhythm about how to unpack and apply Scripture. I also suggest writing out your prayers, because it holds your attention better, forces you to be intentional about who/what you’re praying about, and then you can review it down the future. This may sound like a lot, but I generally take the front of one page to explore and apply the biblical text and the back side of the page to write out my prayer. If you’re going to journal, make sure you have a decent pen that feels comfortable in your hands and writes smoothly. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Moleskine Journals with a Sharpie Pen.
- Have a plan. You may want to read through the Bible in a year (in which case I strongly recommend the ESV Daily Reading Bible, which already breaks the Scripture into the portions for each day so you aren’t constantly flipping from one section to another). You may simply want to read through Philippians, or 1 John – but do you have a plan? Will you read one chapter at a time? Will you read it according to the section-divisions that your Bible uses? I suggest reading the whole book down in one sitting if possible (to get the big picture), and then studying it in chunks day-by-day. Whatever your plan is, have one.
- A consistent time/place. I’m not sure this is actually a “resource” as much as it’s a “recommendation,” but if you wait until you find time to read Scripture then you never will. We make plans for what we value. If you want to get in shape, you join a gym or buy running shoes or whatever… but you have to plan out when you’re going to do it.
- Don’t Jump into Application. We all know that we need to apply Scripture to our life, but notice that “NOW WHAT” is question three, not question one.
- Don’t confuse Bible Study with Devotional Reading. We need to study the Bible. You have limited time, use it well. Avoid the trap of cross-referencing details of the passage that are not crucial. There is a time and place for extensive Bible Study, and there is a time for devotional reading which conducts a broad study of the passage and then applies it.
- You will get dry. There will be days when you’re reading and praying and writing because “it’s just what I do.” That’s ok. That’s not legalism. God honors faithfulness. If you’re in a rut, mix up your routine (change your time/place, find a new way to journal about what you’re reading, read through a book of the Bible with a friend and discuss it with each other for a few minutes over the phone each day while you’re in the car, etc.). But don’t stop your routine because it’s dry. Don’t give up.
If there are other pieces of advice, or other questions I left unaddressed, please let me know either through a comment below or by submitting a question HERE.