How to Read the Bible

I don’t usually preach “how to” sermons, but I did on Sunday and several people have asked that I post my suggestions here.  And so, with acknowledgments to Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart (whose book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is one of the most helpful in my personal library), here they are:

  1. Start with a good translation of the Bible.  My personal preference is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which strives to be as inclusive as possible while maintaining a faithfulness to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic languages.  The HarperCollins Study Bible has almost as many notes as it has text, providing ready answers to most of my questions.  Fee and Stuart recommend Today’s New International Version (TNIV). 
  2. Get ready to read.  Sit at a desk or table where you can spread out a little, where you can open the Bible and also take notes.  Make sure you have adequate lighting and reading glasses if you need them (I seem to need them more and more).  If you are working on the passage I recommended for next Sunday (Luke 4:14-30), take some time to read the introduction to Luke in your study Bible.  Find out who Luke was, and when he wrote, and what he was trying to accomplish.  Find out how a Gospel is different from other kinds of literature in the Bible (history, poetry, prophecy, epistles, etc.) and think about why it makes a difference. 
  3. Say a prayer for illumination.  If it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical authors to write (and it was), it will be the Holy Spirit who helps us understand what they wrote.  Ask the Spirit to open your mind, heart, and soul to the truth of God’s word, and to teach you through the words of the text.  The meaning of a passage is often found not in the words themselves, but in that space between the words and the reader where the Spirit does its work.
  4. Read the text.  Read it several times, slowly.  Let it sink in.  Make sure you don’t add anything that isn’t there or subtract anything that is.  I talked to someone recently who said he was amazed at how Jesus just “disappeared” at the end of this reading from Luke 4.  “Disappeared?” I asked.  “Yeah!  He just–poof!–disappeared!”  Fortunately I had my Bible with me, and when we looked at the text it said that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).  That’s not really the same thing as “disappearing,” is it?
  5. Write down your questions.  If you are reading for understanding (and not just inspiration) you will have questions: What was that synagogue in Nazareth like?  Did they have other scrolls, or just the scroll of Isaiah?  Why did Jesus sit down to teach?  Where was his mother when all this happened?  Why did the people try to throw him off a cliff?  Write down all the questions you have.  Don’t hold back.  The Bible can take it (smile).
  6. Look up the answers.  This is when you consult a good Bible dictionary or a commentary.  Not before you’ve written down your questions—after.  Otherwise you will read answers to questions you have never asked, and yawn your way through the commentaries.  If you are looking for answers to your own questions, however, it can be like going on a treasure hunt: exciting.  I keep the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible on my shelves and try to keep a commentary on each book of the Bible written by the foremost scholar on that book.  Bible dictionaries and commentaries are always available in your church library, and many of them are excellent.

This is a different way to read the Bible than the devotional reading I do during my “quiet time.”  This is serious study.  But if you read the Bible this way from time to time I think you will find it richly rewarding, and maybe, like those people in yesterday’s Old Testament reading, you will go your way “to eat and drink…and make great rejoicing,” because you have understood the words of the Bible (Neh. 8:12).

All the Answers

questionsAndAnswersI had lunch yesterday with someone who had all the answers.

I asked him the question someone had asked me recently, about the tension between science—which claims the earth is billions of years old—and the Bible—which suggests it is much, much younger than that. 

“Well, there are two kinds of revelation, right?” he asked.  “General revelation and special revelation.  General revelation is how God reveals himself through nature and special revelation is how he reveals himself through scripture.”

I nodded.  I still remembered this lecture from my days in seminary.

“In both cases it is God who is revealing himself,” he said, “and so if there is an apparent contradiction, it is a result of our misunderstanding, since God cannot contradict himself.”

And then he took a sip of iced tea.

“So,” I said, “if the scientists tell me a fossil is billions of years old and the Bible tells me probably not then either the scientists have misunderstood how old the fossil is or I have misunderstood what the Bible says, right?”


“So any apparent contradiction is a result of human error?”


Well, that made sense.  It made sense to me especially since I know how capable of error I am.  If I were a scientist I would almost certainly misread the data, estimating the age of that jar of pickles in the back of the fridge at something between 10,000 and 100,000 years old.  And I don’t claim 100% accuracy when interpreting the Bible, either. 

But that’s why I keep reading it.

I came away from lunch yesterday thinking that while, on one hand, it must be nice to have all the answers, on the other hand it’s nice to have all the questions, because the questions are what keep me digging around in Scripture, and having fascinating conversations over coffee, and saying “Wow!” when I look up at the night sky. 

When I see this quality in other people I sometimes describe it as “intellectual curiosity,” which doesn’t mean that everyone who asks questions is an intellectual, but that they have curious minds; they want to know why things are the way they are and how they got to be that way.  They might spend a week digging for artifacts in Ethiopia one summer and visit the Houston space center the next.  They tend to read a lot of books, and seek out new experiences, and ask a lot of questions.  Once they find an answer, of course, they come to the end of that particular quest, and if they should ever find all the answers then the journey of intellectual discovery would be over.

And how disappointing that would be.

It’s my questions that keep sending me to the pages of Scripture, digging down into the deep places, finding things I never dreamed of, and the good news is that I never come to the end of that particular journey.  God keeps speaking in new ways through those ancient words.  Sometimes I will drag something into the pulpit I haven’t even identified yet, but I’m so excited about the discovery I can’t wait.  I will ask my congregation, “Have you ever seen anything like this?  Does anyone know what this is?” 

I’m sure it’s not supposed to be like that.  I’m sure I’m supposed to have all the answers instead of all the questions.  But I like the questions. 

They keep me looking, and finding…

And saying “Wow!”