How should I read the Bible? This is the Deep Questions Podcast, and I’m your host, Chase Thompson, a pastor, and writer in Salinas, California, and today we’re talking about a pretty fundamental, yet underemphasized question: How should we read the Bible?
Before we get too far into that topic, allow me to again make a plug for the Reasons To Believe conference, which will be held in sunny Salinas/Monterey California on June 24-26 with Dr. Mike Licona:
Today we are launching a new…let’s call it a feature. This pod is called Deep Questions because we hope to tackle some of the deepest questions that we all have. Sometimes, though we will have some episodes that don’t quite go as deep as others. Shorter and shallower episodes that are still quite important. We’ll call these the shallow questions episodes, because we will mostly stay out of the deepest ends of the pool, metaphorically speaking.
How should the Bible best be studied? Given people’s finite schedules, what is the best way to consume God’s Word in a year? Should we read the Bible cover to cover? Should we adopt a reading plan that somehow, someway takes us through the whole entire Bible in a year, or should we just read a chapter a day in a random book of the Bible? These are important questions, and one of the top questions I get from new Christians and young Christians – HOW should I study my Bible? I’m grappling with this question as somebody who has been in ministry for over 25 years, and somebody who has pastored churches for the last 14-15 years and is pastoring now. I eagerly desire that all church members would daily be in God’s Word – reading it, thinking about it, memorizing it, meditating on it, and obeying it, but I find that there isn’t often enough teaching in the church that focuses on helping new Christians – and even long-term Christians – learn how to best read and study the Word of God.
This episode was sparked when I was on a hike a few weeks ago, and was listening to Sean McDowell’s excellent “Think Biblically” podcast, and he suggested a Bible reading plan and strategy that I had not really considered before. I do like his proposed Bible reading plan, but it was his rationale behind the plan that I actually found so intriguing. On this particular episode of Think Biblically, Sean McDowell was gently pushing back on a guest who had suggested a particular Bible reading plan that involved reading the whole Bible through in a year. McDowell agreed that going through the Bible in a year is a good approach, but he proposed that it might not be the best approach – at least for some time-challenged Christians. Instead, he suggested a fairly novel Bible reading strategy, which he unpacked in a later blog post entitled, “Christians: Don’t Read the Entire Bible!” In that post, he writes:
One of the most common New Year’s resolutions Christians make is to read the entire Bible for the year. In as little as fifteen minutes a day, you can read both the Old Testament and New Testament [in one year]. If the goal is primarily to get through the Bible this year, then this is a great plan.
But why should that be our goal? Why should our Scripture reading be about how much we read? There is undoubtedly value in daily Scripture reading. My point is not to minimize this important discipline. But honestly, how much do people really retain after the “Bible in a year plan”? My suspicion is that it may be less than we think.
A Better Goal
We should have a different goal. Rather than focusing on quantity by aiming to get through Bible entirely in 2021, focus on quality. Here is the principle: Read less and remember more. Shouldn’t our goal be to understand the depths of Scripture so it can pierce our lives? After all, Scripture is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12).
If your goal is to really learn the Scriptures, then I challenge you to a more impactful plan for 2021. While you will not get through the entire Bible in 2021, you will understand what you read in greater depth and remember it much longer. Here’s the plan: Take one book of the New Testament and read it daily for an entire month. And then move on to a different book the next month. For longer books, like the Gospels or Romans, break them up into sections of 6-8 chapters per day, and read those same chapters for the entire month.
Here is what such a plan might look like. And by the way, it takes roughly the same amount of daily reading time as the Bible-in-a-year approach:
January: Mark 1-8
February: Mark 9-16…
November: 1 Peter
This is only a suggested plan for how to break up the year. Feel free to come up with your own, or add a Psalm or Proverb each day too. What is the value of such an approach?
First, it’s simple. All you need is a Bible and 15-20 minutes per day. And if you miss a day, you won’t get behind as you do in the year-long Bible plan.
Second, it’s effective. After reading each book repeatably, you will start to notice patterns, themes, and ideas that are unique to each book of the Bible. It is virtually impossible to see these kinds of themes when moving quickly through an individual book. Your understanding will deepen considerably as you come to “own” the Scriptures.
Third, it’s rewarding. Doesn’t it feel great to make a personal observation of the Scriptures that stem from your own reflection? If you read attentively, this will happen regularly throughout the year.
I do hope you will read the Bible in the year 2021. But rather than focusing on quantity, consider focusing on quality. It just might be a year to remember.
Fascinating suggestions by Dr. McDowell. Since 2020 began, I have personally made it a habit to read through the Bible, cover to cover, at least once per year. This began in the early days of the pandemic as sort of a survival strategy. Our church got shut down, this unknown virus was wrecking havoc, most everybody was shaken, and I needed the Word of God more than ever before. That first year, I went through the Bible on my own using a cover to cover approach while listening to the Max McLean Listener’s Bible I got on Audible.com. I also, as some of you remember, did a daily Bible podcast using the Robert Murray Mc’Cheyne plan, which skips around a bit, but basically takes you through the entire Bible by reading once through the Old Testament, and the New Testament and Psalms twice. In 2021, I took a similar approach, engaging in daily Bible podcasting (this time just reading one chapter a day, per episode, rather than 4 chapters a day) and still listened through an audio Bible Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. This year, I am doing the same thing – listening to the Bible – mostly at night when I walk – going from Genesis 1-Reveleation 22 for the third year in a row. Surprisingly, even though I’ve been in ministry for over two decades, 2020 was the first year that I actually stuck to a reading plan for 365 days straight and also the first year I read the Bible from beginning to end. AND, I plan on doing that for the rest of my life. It has become one of the most important things I do with my life, and it has been incredibly beneficial spiritually. Reading through the Old Testament is essential to understanding the New Testament at its fullest, no doubt about that. I’ve read more of the Old Testament in the past 3 years than I did the previous ten before that, and I will note that, far from wasted time, I would say that it was time incredibly well spent.
This weekend, I was reflecting on how important the Old Testament is to understanding the New Testament. My wife and I went to a prayer and worship gathering with a group of pastors and church leaders in our church association, the Great Commission Association of Southern Baptist Churches in California, and it was an amazing gathering! Somewhat more than half of the pastors and leaders there were hispanic, so all of our singing and praying and teaching was in Spanish and English, and our worship was led by a wonderful hispanic worship team from Primera Baptist in San Jose, California. One thing I noticed that we kept signing about was the blood of Jesus, and how He was the Lamb of God – and how we’ve been washed clean by His blood. Think about that phrase, “Lamb of God.” When John the Baptist first saw Jesus in John 1:29, he said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes way the sins of the world!” Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:7 says, “For Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed.” All the saints in Heaven fall down at the feet of Jesus in Revelation 5:12 and worship Him, “They said with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” NONE of this makes sense without the context of the Old Testament, because the New Testament doesn’t really help us understand how Jesus is the Lamb, or the importance of blood in the forgiveness of sins, or really any of that. We have to go to the Old Testament – to God’s communications with Moses, to even begin to understand how blood covers sin, and how a lamb used to be sacrificed to cover over the sins of people. Apart from some passages in the New Testament book of Hebrews, we won’t really understand how Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sins! So the Old Testament is essential reading for Christians, as Paul says in Romans 15:4 For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures.
Do you know what percentage of the Bible is Old Testament vs. New Testament? You might know that there are 66 books total in the Bible. 39 are in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament, so that should at least tell you that the Old Testament is slightly longer than the New Testament – but the fact is, the OT is not merely a little longer, but substantially longer! When you break down the Bible word for word – there are almost 800,000 words in the King James version of the Bible. The New Testament has a little over 180,000 thousand words in it, but the Old Testament has over 600,000 thousand words – which means that the New Testament makes up less than a quarter of the Bible – roughly 23 percent! This is astonishing to me, as I’ve always guestimated that the Bible was roughly 2/3rds Old Testament and 1/3rd New Testament, but it is in fact greater than 3/4 Old Testament and less than 1/4 New Testament! Why the math lesson? Because, and hear this because it is very, very important in terms of practically studying the Word of God: IF you read the Bible cover to cover in any given year, you will have spent more than 3/4 of your Bible reading time in that year in the Old Testament, and less than 1/4 of your time in the New Testament!
So, what’s the problem with that? Well, it isn’t exactly a problem, but it is an issue, because if you are a Christian – you are not UNDER the Old Covenant, but under the NEW Covenant. Consider these verses:
Romans 6:14-15 14 For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace….15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not!
Romans 7:6 6 But now we have been released from the law, since we have died to what held us, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law.
Ephesians 2:15 15 He made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations
Galatians 3: 24 The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. 25 But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
Galatians 5: 5 Christ has liberated us to be free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all. 3 Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace…vs 18 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Hebrews 7 11 If then, perfection came through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there for another priest to appear, said to be in the order of Melchizedek and not in the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must be a change of law as well….18 So the previous command is annulled because it was weak and unprofitable 19 (for the law perfected nothing), but a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.
These passages tell us, as Christians -that we aren’t under the Old Testament law anymore – we are under a better hope, under Jesus and in an entirely New Covenant. This does not nullify the Old Testament, but we have been released from the law, says Romans 7, we are not under the law, but under grace, says Romans 6. SO – here is the big question to consider today: Should we, as Christians under the New Covenant/New Testament – spend over 75% of our Bible reading time in the Old Testament, reading about the Old Covenant? Because, if you read through your Bible cover to cover – or follow most through the Bible in a year Bible reading plans – you will be devoting less than 25% of your time to the New Testament -the gospel – the letters and teachings that are directly written to you as Christians. We must have the Old Testament – it is the Word of God, and we mustn’t seek to be “unhitched” from it – but – and this is a big but – I don’t believe we should spend over 75% of our Bible reading time in the Old Testament, but rather I propose – and there’s no need to be dogmatic at all here – I propose that the ratio should be flipped. A Christian should spend roughly 75% of their Bible reading time in the NEW Testament, and around 25% of their Bible reading time in the Old Testament. Now, obviously, I can’t offer a specific Bible verse to justify this ratio, and I don’t even think anybody should even try to regulate their Bible reading time down to the percentage, or anything silly like that – and yet, I do think it is quite important for a follower of Jesus to spend the obvious majority of their time in the NEW Testament, rather than the Old Testament, and thus I really like Dr. McDowell’s proposed Bible reading plan – or one very similar to it, but I would simply recommend mixing in Old Testament books as well.
What do YOU think? What Bible reading plans have worked best for you? Let us know by contacting us through the website, or leaving a comment on this post.