If you were to put together a Bible reading guide for new believers, what would you include?
We have already discussed the best book of the Bible for new believers. In that post, I point you to a book of the Bible that would be a great start for a new believer. In this post, however, I want to provide some guidance on reading the Bible for new believers.
Of course, the Holy Spirit works behind the scenes to help us better understand God’s Word. This is true of new believers and old ones. But in addition to the irreplaceable aid of the Holy Spirit, having some tools on how to read the Bible well is helpful.
These tools are usually referred to as hermeneutics and exegesis. Hermeneutics means the theory of interpretation. Exegesis means translating or interpreting a Bible passage. In other words, hermeneutics is about the methods used to interpret the Bible; exegesis is about actually interpreting the Bible. The following advice will have a bit of both.
A Bible Reading Guide for New Believers
If you as a new believer were sitting across the table from me, here are some things I would tell you to help you read, understand, and apply God’s Word to your life.
1. Gather your tools.
Having a Bible reading guide without a Bible is useless, so the first thing you must do is buy a Bible with a good translation. My top three Bible translations are the English Standard Version (ESV), New International Version (NIV), and New American Standard Bible (NASB). Many new believers like the NIV because of its smoothness of reading, but either translation will do.
Along with a good Bible, I highly recommend buying a study Bible. Listen. I preach and teach God’s Word for a living. I use some of the best, most technical resources available today. Yet, one of the best resources I regularly use is a study Bible. A good study Bible is gold. The footnotes in a good study Bible will often provide a tremendous amount of insight to whatever Bible passage you’re studying, making it worth the price of the study Bible alone.
If you’re a structured kind of person (as am I) then you may want to start with a Bible reading plan. I find that trying to read my Bible spontaneously — either reading the Word only when I feel like it or simply by opening to any part of the Bible and begin reading there — can be a frustrating experience. A Bible reading plan isn’t for everyone, but you may want to consider using one. Two good ones are the Five Day Bible Reading Plan and The Discipleship Bible Reading Plan.
And if you really, really want to jump into the deep end, then perhaps a one-volume commentary on the Bible will serve you well. A biblical commentary is like a Bible study on steroids. They are one of my favorite things to read. If you’re looking for a one-volume commentary on the entire Bible, then the New Bible Commentary will suffice.
To recap, the resources that we either need or may want are a Bible with a good translation, a good study Bible, a Bible reading plan, and a one-volume biblical commentary.
There are many other resources you can use. Perhaps you can get a few more of those as time passes. But for now, these will do.
After we have the tools, it’s time to pray.
2. Start with prayer.
Before you open your Bible, pray. You need God’s help. Although Scripture is clear in many places, some of it can be hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). Plus, we want the supernatural help of God not just for understanding, but to encounter God through his Word. As it’s been said, reading the Bible is not just for information, but for transformation.
What can you pray for? You can pray for illumination. You can also pray that God will help you understand what the text means, that God will stir your affections for Jesus, and whatever else comes to mind.
Asking for supernatural help from God before and even while you’re reading your Bible is crucial.
3. Learn about the book of the Bible you are about to read first.
Time to grab that study Bible out. Before you read a book of the Bible, read a bit about the book of the Bible you are about to read. In that study Bible, you’ll learn about the author, date, theme of the book, key verses, why the author wrote the book, the issues his original audience had, and so on. This information is valuable. Although the Bible is for you, it’s not originally written to you. Learning about the author and the original audience will go a long way in helping you understand the book you are about to read.
4. Read the contents before and after the text you are trying to understand.
Reading a Bible verse in isolation and attempting to add meaning to it is a surefire way to misinterpret what that verse means.
Imagine you’re reading a novel and you open the book to page 137 and read one sentence. Do you think you’ll be able to understand how to correctly interpret that one sentence without knowing what happened on pages 1-136? Neither is true with the Bible. Although the Bible is God’s most holy Word, it is still a book, and must be read in context. You must read the verses before and after the verses you are currently trying to understand in order to interpret them well. When you do read those verses, peak down at the footnotes of your study Bible to help you better understand what they mean.
Consider Philippians 4:13, for example, “I can do all things through him who strengthens him.” Many people think that this verse means you can accomplish anything through Christ: dunk a basketball, graduate on time, bench three hundred pounds, etc. But if you read the verses in context, Paul is talking about personal contentment. As the commentaries will point out, Christ’s strength doesn’t enable Paul to accomplish anything but to get through anything. He’s saying he can be content in God when life is good or when life is hard. But this is not something you’d be able to pick up on if you did not read the verse it its context.
Reading this verse (and all verses) in their original context will help you avoid exegetical errors.
5. Look for repeated words and phrases.
When the authors of Scripture repeat themselves, they don’t do it on accident. You and I may repeat ourselves to hear ourselves talk, but not the authors of Scripture. Every word in Scripture has a distinct purpose, for all of Scripture comes from God himself (2 Tim. 3:16). And often, when a biblical writer repeats himself, he’s revealing something about the text. He’s saying, “This is what the text is about.”
Another example. Read Matthew 2:1-12. It’s a popular Christmas story. The emphasis on this passage by well-intentioned preachers are the gifts given to Jesus by the Magi, the fact that Jesus was a baby, and how God providentially guarded Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. All true things, but none of those things are the main point of the passage.
Then what is? Worship. The point of Matthew 2:1-12 is that Jesus Christ is the long-awaited God-Man Messiah who has come to rescue his people from their sins, and should be worshipped.
The reason I know this is because of the repetition of the author. The word “worship” is repeated three times, and there is an emphasis on King David (from the Old Testament) and the country of Bethlehem. David is an Old Testament king, and Bethlehem is a city that is the hometown of many kings. Through repetition of the author both through words and themes, we can rightly conclude that, when teaching or interpreting this passage, the emphasis should be on worship and the kingship of Jesus, not gifts or protection.
6. Read and learn from others.
Although personal Bible reading is necessary for a vibrant spiritual life, we must remember that the books of the Bible were not written to individuals, but to communities of people. As a result, this should stir us to remember that the Bible is not merely meant to be read by yourself, but with others.
As you make Sunday church attendance a vital part of your Christian life, go with eager ears to hear God’s Word. Find someone who has been walking with God longer than you and ask them to read the Bible with you. Join a small group or a Bible study and read with others in the group. Either way, reading the Bible with other mature Christians will help you to better understand it.
7. Look for Christ.
All of Scripture points to Jesus (Luke 24:44). Although all Scripture must be read with respect to the message’s first audience and the conditions they faced, the Bible, on a grand scale, points to Jesus. This is a fascinating truth, one that will change your life if you appropriately find Christ from the Scriptures.
There is more to say. There is always more to say. But I’ll leave this here. After you graduate from this Bible reading guide for new believers, you may want to visit my post How to Read the Bible Well: An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics which provides more tools on reading the Bible, although that post does overlap some with this one.
Reading the Bible is one of the most important things you can do for your spiritual life. I hope this guide provides some help along the way.
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