If you want to know how to start to read the Bible, the best advice is this: just start. Open your Bible and start reading. Often, it is better to start reading your Bible and eventually tweak your system than it is to perfect a system before starting. So you learn to read the Bible by reading it. Just get started.
And yet, this advice, though helpful, requires nuance, doesn’t it? Jumping in right away destroys procrastination that haunts most, but structure and planning will help for long-term success.
In this post, I will give advice for those of you who want to start reading the Bible but are not sure where to start or what to do. I write with beginners and new believers in mind, but I hope seasoned Bible readers will find benefit as well.
How to Start to Read the Bible
1. Pray continually for a desire to read Scripture.
You have the desire to read the Bible? Great. The desire for the things of God is evidence of saving faith. Whereas before your conversion you would have been apathetic, even hostile, to the divine, now you have an insatiable desire to know God with your mind. This is glorious.
But this desire may fade.
Don’t rely on euphoria and initial enthusiasm alone to read your Bible for these desires may not be as strong in, say, six months from now. The remedy is prayer. Pray continually for a desire to know God with your mind. Pray continually for a desire to know the Lord, and for an insatiable desire for the sacred Scriptures.
2. Choose your translation.
There are many good Bible translations, like the English Standard Version (ESV), the New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Version (NASB), and so on. Which one do you choose?
Any translation that is faithful to the original meaning is a good translation. We should spend more time celebrating the fact that we live in a day with such easy access to many Bible translations than debating about which ones are best. Nevertheless, choosing a translation is important, and you’ll have a better understanding of which translation to choose once you understand the difference between Bible translations.
The big difference between Bible translations is that some translations are word for word or some are meaning for meaning. Some have differentiated between formally equivalent (word for word) and functionally equivalent (paraphrase). There is a spectrum, and different translations fall into different categories. A formally equivalent version, for example, is the NASB. Closely behind it is the ESV. Somewhere in the middle is the NIV. And a pure example of a meaning for meaning translation of the Bible is the NLT.
For beginners, I recommend choosing the New International Version (NIV). The reading is smooth and accessible. From there, consider branching out to the ESV, although you may benefit from having multiple translations on hand from day one for comparison.
For a more thorough understanding of the different Bible translations, see this video from Tim Challies.
3. Choose your place.
Habits are essential for spiritual formation. I recommend reading your Bible in the same place, every time if you can control it. This will help associate your brain with Bible reading.
Choose your place. If it’s a desk, be sure to clean the desk the night before so you don’t have to waste mental energy on cleaning in the morning. All of these things add up. Have your Bible, study Bible, pen, paper, and all tools ready to go. You don’t want to spend any energy looking for stuff when it’s time to read. You just want to read. Pick a place and habitually organize to remove any barriers to reading as soon as you get there.
I recommend reading your Bible in the morning, but this is not a hard and fast rule. Some of you will try to read on your lunch breaks, but you inevitably put yourself in a position to fight distractions, whereas if you rise early enough, there are no distractions to battle.
Or you may try to read Scripture before bed, but by then you may be exhausted. By becoming a morning person and making Bible reading one the first things you do in the morning, you’ll ensure it gets done, and better position yourself to avoid distractions or excuses. But again, this is subject to change based on your personality and temperament.
4. Use a study Bible.
I’m a full-time pastor. In my post, Resources for Sermon Preparation, I mention that a study Bible is one of the most effective tools I utilize as I prepare to preach to God’s people. Likewise, a good study Bible will be one of your most effective tools as you begin to read the Bible. That’s because a good study Bible is the product of many years of hard work from competent scholars — providing historical context, background information, and literary details that you would have otherwise missed.
You want to spend more time with the actual words of the Bible than the footnotes, but the footnotes are incredibly helpful when questions arise. Few resources will prove as helpful as a good study Bible when you want to grow in your understanding of Scripture.
Which ones do I recommend? I’ll give you two to consider.
4. Schedule your Bible reading.
Some personal development gurus are keen on saying, “What gets scheduled, gets done.” This may not be literally true, but it captures the ideal: in general, you are more prone to follow through on tasks if you regularly see them on your schedule.
I’m a big fan of morning routines. It’s one of my most effective productivity tools. Previously, I did not write in my task-management app to read my Bible; I just relied on the discipline I’ve accumulated over the years. But then I added “Morning Routine” to my task-management app with Bible reading and the other things I do during this time, and the physical act of writing it down has made a difference.
Write things down. It brings more clarity and accountability. Seeing the recurring reminder to “Read Bible” reinforces its importance and motivates you to be more consistent. You may also consider using a habit tracker to monitor your progress.
5. Consider a Bible reading plan.
I love structure. I can’t do things willy-nilly or otherwise, I won’t do them. Some people love a Bible reading plan, while others feel crippled by them. Do what works for you and not what doesn’t, but at least consider giving a Bible reading plan a shot.
Consider how much time you have to read your Bible and align your Bible reading plan with your amiability to read. Don’t be overly ambitious; a 90-day Bible reading plan works for you if you only allow five minutes of Bible reading each morning. Also don’t feel bad if you need a Bible reading plan that requires two years to accomplish. When it comes to Bible reading, as is true with other habits, frequency is more important than length. Reading one chapter of the Bible each day is better than reading the Bible for an hour once a month. Focus on frequency, and length will naturally increase (I believe Paul Miller says something similar about prayer in his book, A Praying Life).
6. Consider Starting with A Gospel.
If you don’t want to start with a Bible reading plan, then I would jump into a Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) right away. I recommend the Gospel of Mark as the best book of the Bible for new believers. If you’re new to the faith, start there. If you’re not, just pick a Gospel and read it. Although all of the Bible, in some sense, points to Jesus, the Gospels are so special in that you see the words and actions of Jesus on display so preeminently.
7. Learn some Bible reading tools.
We don’t just want to attach meaning to Bible verses out of context. This is where learning about literary context, literary analytics, historical context, and reflecting on Christ in the passage, becomes helpful. Learning these tools will be useful, and you can learn more about these in my article: How to Read the Bible Well: An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics.
You may also consider Dan Doriani’s advice in his book, Getting the Message: A Plan for Interpreting and Applying the Bible. Dorani advocates the CAPTOR method in his book, which he summarises on page 11 roughly as follows:
C = Context: Understand the historical and literary context of a passage.
A = Analysis: Study the flow of events in a story or the flow of ideas in a teaching.
P = Problems: Anything you don’t understand in the passage.
T = Themes: Major ideas of a passage.
O = Obligations: The things the passage requires you to do.
R = Reflection: Discover the main point and application of a passage.
8. Read With Others
Accountability is helpful. Reading the Bible with others helps keep you in check and provides an opportunity for further growth as talking aloud about what you are learning has a way of blessing others and vice versa. Although most Christians in the western world have easy access to Bibles today, it wasn’t always this way, as God’s people didn’t always have individual copies of the Bible, and consumption of God’s Word was often done in community.
I hope this post better helps you to understand how to start to read the Bible. You don’t have to follow each tip above all at once. Just get started and tweak as you go.