So you want to crack open the Scriptures, but you’re not sure how. The Bible can be daunting, especially to a novice, so here are a few tips to get you started.
- One day at a time.
You won’t become a Bible expert in a week. Set a reasonable goal of becoming more and more familiar with the Bible over time. Many people set out to read it all the way through, Genesis to Revelation. If you’re just becoming acquainted with Scripture, this is a bad idea. By the time you hit the third book, you will crash and burn. Everyone does. Reading about skin diseases in Leviticus, well, it’s not exactly the spiritual uplift you were looking for.
Here’s an idea. If you’re in read-straight-through mode, start in the New Testament, with the gospel of Luke. You can read the story of Jesus, and then read it from a different perspective in the gospel of John. The book of Acts is the adventure story of the early Christians, and then you’ll start to read the apostle Paul’s letters about why Jesus came to earth.
- Find a translation you can understand.
There are many good Bible translations available. You really don’t need to worry about being “led astray” by any of the major ones. There will always be people who quibble over this wording or that one, but the meaning is generally very similar in the different versions. Among the most popular are the New International Version (NIV), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the New Living Translation (NLT). At the American Bible Society, we also like the Contemporary English Version (CEV), and our own Good News Translation (GNT). Some people love the old style of the King James Version from the year 1611, but I wouldn’t recommend it for new Bible readers.
You can sample different versions at websites like bibles.org or browse the Bible section in a bookstore. Find one you can follow.
- Get help when you need it.
You will run across some names that will mystify you. You’ll find references to customs and traditions from long ago. Try to figure out what you can, but it might be good to have a basic Bible dictionary or study Bible on hand. There are some online resources available (I just ran across www.studylight.org, which has the Holman Bible Dictionary content), but some of the better resources are still in book form. I like the Tyndale Bible Dictionary and the New Bible Dictionary (IVP), as well as the NIV Study Bible (Zondervan) and the Life Application Bible (Tyndale House), but there are many others available. Browse a bookstore with a couple of specific questions in hand, and see which resource answers them best.
Here’s what you don’t want: A book or website that does your thinking for you. Some study Bibles have their own systems worked out, and they’ll explain every passage according to their own interpretation. In general, look for help on facts, names, and historical background, but avoid preachments. Remember that the writers of these resources are just people, and their comments are not Holy Writ—even if they’re printed in the margin of a study Bible.
NOTE: If you’re buying a Bible, you might be confused by the difference between a translation and a study Bible. The translation (or version) refers to the wording of the biblical text itself (discussed in point 2 above). These translations are sometimes published with specific notes in the margins or articles interspersed. The additional notes and articles make up the “study Bible” portion of the product (discussed in point 3). It can get especially murky when a particular “study Bible” product (like the Life Application Bible) is published for various translations (like the NIV, NLT. KJV, etc.). You need to make two choices here: which version, and which study notes.
- Big picture and bite-size.
You might find two types of reading helpful, depending on your mood, your attention span, and the time available. It’s often helpful to read through a whole book of the Bible in one sitting. This can be done easily with most of the New Testament books after 2 Corinthians and some of the prophetic books at the end of the Old Testament. Reading these straight through gives you a sense of continuity. You can tap into the personalities of the author and the recipients. You can find an emotional flow.
But it’s also helpful to read just a verse or two. Some Bibles helpfully break the text into paragraphs or sections. In this method, you can read the same passage several times. You can look up words, check cross-references, and chew on the meaning. You might also find some nugget that you can essentially memorize and carry with you through the week.
Both styles of Bible reading can be helpful. In fact it might be good to do both with the same book. Set aside a half-hour to read, say, the book of Galatians, to get the full scope of its message and passions. Then, over the next few weeks, dig through the same material a paragraph at a time. With the big picture in mind, you’ll be able to see details you might otherwise miss.
- Open your heart and mind.
The books of the Bible were written at a lot of different times and places, for a lot of different reasons. It’s easy for modern folks to judge those ancient ways of thinking. For instance, slavery was a fact of life in those times. You might be astonished to find the apostle Paul telling slaves to obey their masters (Colossians 3:22), and you have every right to feel that way. Yet this doesn’t mean that these words have no meaning for us today. It does not mean that slavery is, or ever was, a good thing. It might mean that we should seek to honor Christ even in unjust situations (see Colossians 3:23-24).
Read it, try to see all angles, argue with God about it if you want, and put yourself into the story as best you can.
- Enter the conversation.
People keep talking about the Bible as a “manual” for life, as if all the answers for your particular problems appear on page 734. It’s far, far more than that. It’s a conversation. It’s a feast. It’s a social-media app. If you just grab an answer and go, you’re missing out on its riches.
As you read more and more of the Bible, you’ll see how various people interacted with God’s word. Sarah laughed. Moses fumed. Gideon doubted. Jeremiah wept. Mary wondered. You are invited to join in that chat. Talk with God. React. Question, marvel, and laugh out loud. The text might give you some answers for your life, but more importantly, it will serve as a point of connection between you and the God who made you, the God who loves to share himself with us.
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