How I read the Bible book by book

How I read the Bible book by book

I loved Jed’s post last week reflecting on his experience of reading the Bible in 90 days. He clearly found such joy in reencountering scripture in a new way as he listened and read his way from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible is a gift that God offers that allows us to know him better and we should all welcome his invitation to engage with scripture in meaningful ways on a daily basis. But sometimes we need to take the time to find the right habit of reading that suits our strengths and place in life.

Many years ago I was challenged to read the Bible more like literature. I was a voracious reader who had no problem losing myself in a novel or collection of essays for an hour or two but was heavily burdened with the “oughts and shoulds” of Bible reading. What would happen if I started reading the Bible more like a page-turner I couldn’t put down? It was eye-opening when I began to set aside time to read the Bible, one book at a time in a single sitting, like I would any other book.

We are accustomed to reading the Bible in very small bits, usually a chapter or less at a time. Sometimes we read just a single verse from a book of Bible promises. While it can be rich experience to meditate deeply on a single verse we also sometimes “can’t see the forest for the trees.” I can become so fixated on finding THE verse that will encourage and guide me through the day that I forget that this book tells a story about God speaking though the author to a particular people at a particular time and place. It simply isn’t all about me—I am included in a larger story of God’s redemption and I find that big idea even more comforting.

When I sat down to read the Bible one book at a time I started with the book of Ephesians, imagining what it would be like to be a worshipper in the church in Ephesus hearing the words of the Apostle Paul read to them when they received his letter. When I think of the book of Ephesians my mind goes straight to the pastoral direction Paul gives to the Ephesians. The parts about letting “no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths” and the details of submitting to others in the family of faith particularly stand out. But when I read the book as a whole I noticed how his call to holiness is only a small portion of a book filled with praise to God. Paul spends the majority of the letter in worship, affirming the Ephesians as members of the family God, and reminding them that they are “marked in Christ with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” The good they are called to do has already been prepared in advance by God and they are empowered to do be holy. When read as a whole book, it thrills my heart!

Historical narratives come alive in new ways too when you read them in a single setting (or two). Read the story of David from 1 and 2 Samuel like you are reading a novel. Read the Gospel of Mark like you are reading a biography of Jesus. You’ll see structure and themes in the telling of the story that you would miss if you spread the reading out over weeks. I don’t do it every day but I will set aside 10 minutes to read a letter or 30 minutes to read a Gospel from time to time and it deepens my desire to read the Bible more every time I do it.

If you would like to try reading the Bible book by book in a single setting you may find some of these resources helpful.

  1. Read a different Bible. If you usually read a more literal, word for word translation like the ESV or NKJV try reading a paraphrased Bible translation like The Message or New Living Translation, or vice versa. Or invest in a reader’s version Bible that encourages this kind of reading at length by removing the verse references and laying the text out in a single column.
  2. Get a guide. A book like How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart can help you see structures and themes as you read each book. It will also help you find natural breaks in longer books of the Bible if you want to break up Isaiah over three readings, for example. Or watch a preview video of the book in less than 10 from The Bible Project before you read to deepen your understanding.
  3. Read with a dictionary. I was taught to read books with a dictionary near by to look up words that were new to me. I also make lists of characters and places when I read long, involved novels so I don’t forget who someone is later on. They make Bible dictionaries for this same reason and I think everyone should have one. You can have at your fingertips a paragraph on a the significance of place or person or feast day in the Bible that is written by a trusted scholar and not a random person on the internet.

However you read the Bible, the most important part is that you find a practice that helps you read it on a daily basis. Let it challenge you. Let the story fill your imagination. Let its words saturate your life. Just read it.