Beginners should start with the Gospels, which are around 2/3rds of the way into the Bible. There are many ways to read, but the most manageable is to read a few verses or paragraphs and think about their meaning around 4-5 times a week. Start small; read slowly and purposefully.
The Centre for Bible Engagement helped in showing that once you engage with the Bible 4 times a week, you can experience a significant shift in your attitude towards your faith.
So don’t pressure yourself to do this daily if you are starting out. Studies show that four times a week is regular enough to begin building a deep understanding of your Christian faith. Reading a few verses makes it easily manageable, and it’s a great place to start getting used to what the scriptures mean and how the wording fits together. As you build up your understanding, you will begin to form insights around the cultural context, the writers’ intended meaning and what impact it has on us in our day and age.
The Bible is essential for believers in Jesus and those who don’t know what to believe. For millennia the Bible has brought social and moral insight into our daily lives, whether we are aware of its influence. Many of our most severe and substantial laws in the West are predicated on the principles found in the Christian Bible.
Of course, society has evolved over the centuries, and some would cry that an ancient book is too old and irrelevant. Still, the time-tested resilience of its existence assures us of the Bible’s relevance for our lives.
It contains poetry, wisdom sayings, prophetic texts, lawful and moral writings, historicity, analogy and story (to name a few) to help us understand the world, the nature of God, and who he has revealed himself to be. A collection of 66 books spanning thousands of years, yet it calls to us today with ancient words that contain life.
Let me help you build a framework as you navigate this ancient text and discover how God can speak to us through it.
How Should I Begin Reading The Bible?
Is there a correct way to read the Bible? Well, yes and no. If you ignore some of the guiding principles in this article, I would say you are approaching the Bible in a way that will lead to barriers. It would be like going geocaching or orienteering without a map! Knowing some guiding principles is like receiving directions for navigating an ancient and sometimes complicated text.
1) Find A Bible
To begin with, you need to open up a version of the Bible that you are comfortable with. One that you find easy to read and can at least make sense of (believe me, with some translations, it can be tricky).
I always recommend The Message translation or NIV for someone who has never read the Bible. The NIV is more formal than The Message, but The Message focuses on meaning and contemporary language. You can order a paper copy of either the NIV or The Message by tapping those words or heading to our resources page for some links to buy them.
Another preferred way is to download the Bible app from YouVerion for Android or Apple users by tapping those words.
2) Start With The Gospels
Although the Bible starts with the book of Genesis, it’s not necessarily the best place to begin. The Bible is split into two major sections, the Old Testament (more respectfully known as the Hebrew Testament) and the New Testament. Within those sections are many books of many genres. However, we understand Jesus as the central unifying person who makes sense of all the Biblical texts. The broad overall story is one of God revealing himself, his love and grace through the person of Jesus, and we discover Jesus through the Gospels.
So, I urge you to start with the shortest and most easily digestible Gospel, the Book of Mark. It’s the second book of the New Testament and is one of four Gospels offering a unique perspective on who Jesus is and what he came to do. Mark was written to be delivered as a vocal reading to crowds with easily memorable moments, and it moves fast like an action version of the Gospel message. It was also written with everyday people in mind, known by some scholars as the Gospel to the Gentiles or non-religious.
3) Read A Few Verses A Day
Because the books of the Bible were written in ancient Greek, with no spaces or paragraph breaks, most translations have guidance notes, heading and verse numbers to help you find your place quickly. Books are broken into book names, e.g. The Gospel of Mark, followed by Chapter numbers, usually in big bold numerics and then sentences, or clusters of sentences with superscript numbers known as verses.
When looking up a verse, you will usually see someone quote the Bible with book, chapter and verse like this:
Mark 1:14-15, shows us that this reference is for the book of Mark, chapter 1 and verses 14-15. So it reads –
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”Knowing the references means you can easily find what you’ve previously read, remember critical verses and their locations and pick up where you left off in reading the Bible. There is no right or wrong way to choose how many verses to read.
Read a few verses at a time. Start and finish your reading in places that make sense within English, i.e. the start and end of a paragraph or section of verses. See them as chunks of scripture you will focus on for the day.
4) Think Upon Their Meaning
Now that we know how the Bible can be broken down into books, chapters and verses, we must try to understand what we read. Fortunately for us, and with the help of English translators and footnotes in Bibles, most of it makes sense and is already understandable. But knowing what the Bible means is more than just understanding the words. We have to have a bit of awareness around the things we read.
A good question to ask is, what is the genre of the book? Is it eyewitness history like the gospels, poetic songs like the Psalms, wisdom writings like the proverbs, or one of several other books with a particular genre?
Consider the date of writing of the book you read in the Bible; it spans thousands of years, so when you read a passage, you should remember that it was written to people in ancient times. Some things, like cultural and ceremonial practices, may not be immediately apparent. We call this cultural context.
Another vital thing to know is that some (really all) verses should be understood in light of the entire passage, chapter and sometimes the whole book. The critical thing is to never take a verse out of context – in other words, understand what it means within the broader perspective of the verses before and after. Knowing the context can change the meaning and gives us a better understanding of what is meant by the writer.
5) Turn Them Into A Prayer
In reflecting on a passage, you will no doubt get the feeling that some important thoughts concerning your life and your position in relation to God come under challenge. I understand this to be the conviction of the Holy Spirit. It’s usually more weighty than what we might call an epiphany, and it seems somehow ‘other’, as though the challenging thought came from elsewhere.
Even if this is not your experience, turning your thoughts while reading scripture into a simple prayer is still important. It can be as straightforward as asking God to help you live your life in line with what you have read, show you how the scripture fits together and applies to your life, or even give you a greater understanding of how it can bring you closer to God.
None of these. There is no one particular way to pray.
6) Journal Your Observations
I’ve found journaling extremely helpful in capturing my thoughts and prayers while reading the Bible. Some extra chunky paper Bibles are built with margin note areas to help with this. Some people prefer a digital platform like Evernote. Others, like myself, prefer a paper notebook where we write the date and time, an opening prayer or reflection on what is currently on our mind, an extract on a verse we are reading and ways in which we sense the Lord speaking to us through the passage.
7) Set Aside Complicated Verses
It is only a matter of time before you stumble across a verse that jars with how you live your life, how you think, something that seems obscure or something you cannot make sense of.
I’ve discovered that the Bible is beautifully complex, and in being patient with how my understanding will grow, I will one day learn how this scriptural piece of the metaphorical jigsaw that is understanding the Bible fits together. For example, sometimes you read something in the New Testament (NT), and without having a good grasp of the teachings in the Old Testament, you cannot make sense of it.
Equally, I have later discovered some historical context that helped me understand the nuances of a cultural reference which could have otherwise been misinterpreted in our modern-day society. For example, the NT was written in a heavily Greek-influenced Roman culture under oppression from a totalitarian government, knowing that sometimes helps you make sense of the verses.
When you hit a complicated part of the Bible, shelve it, note it and come back to it – or someday, it will come back to you. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle – you don’t always know how or where a piece fits until the picture becomes clearer further down the line.
8) Memorise Key Verses
As you read and reflect on the Bible, you will undoubtedly come across a verse with significant meaning for you, your family and your community. Most see these as leading narratives of meaning in our relationship with God and how we carry ourselves in the world. These will be verses that you may want to commit to memory.
The best way to reflect and meditate on scripture is by committing it to memory. As you try memorising a verse by repeating it, reading it allowed and quietly to yourself, the repetition will enable you to turn the words over frequently enough to pull deeper meaning out. You’ll also be surprised at the number of times the Holy Spirit brings verses to mind and a crucial moment simply because you have committed them to memory.
I will put My laws in their hearts and inscribe them on their minds. – Jerimiah 31:33
In Jeremiah, The Lord is shown as one who writes his law upon our hearts and minds. We cooperate with God in those verses of Jeremiah by committing them to memory. It’s a poetic verse that describes the intimate way in which knowing scripture by heart further connects us with our Heavenly Father.
9) Begin To Study Deeper
As you begin to read the Bible and reflect on its meaning, you may want to build habits early on that allows you to dig deeper. It’s OK to start small, little and often in the early days. However, that will only get you started. While building a routine for reading scripture, add the element of study to familiarise you with building up a robust understanding of scripture. It will enrich your knowledge of the Bible, give you greater insight into the beautiful complexities and nuance of the texts, and illuminate aspects of God that you may have missed otherwise.
There are several ways to study the Bible, distinct from reading it for devotion and enrichment. Study involves looking at the background, context, regional language, commonalities, cross references and many other aspects. Don’t be too overwhelmed with these. Just pick one to add as you gain more confidence.
You could start by looking up a word you are unsure of or researching a complicated verse you had previously set aside. You don’t have to study the Bible every time you sit down to read it, but it may help you do it occasionally. Then, revisit some of those verses you shelved and suspend any assumptions you have about what you think it means until you have dug into the context and explored the possible original intention of the writer.
As you start, don’t worry about the things that make you unsure; just start! If something feels overwhelming or some of the things we discussed are beyond you, return to them later. Begin building a regular time to make this a special moment of intimacy. Take some top tips for making this a unique time by tapping here.
Keep it simple; keep it going. Understand that reading to know God, reading to study, and reading to be informed are different approaches. Here we have covered reading to know God, a devotional practice. This is what the Bible was intended for and, in my view, the best way for a beginner to approach it for the first time.
What are some of the things you would do when reading the Bible for the first time? What has been your experience? Is there anything holding you back? Comment below; I’d love to hear your thoughts.