Friday, May 10, 2019

How To Get Started with the Bible

Today’s question seems simple enough, but it presented me with some challenges. I was asked,

How do I read the Bible?

The difficulty is comparable to trying to teach a young person how to tie their shoes. You do it so much that it is automatic, but when you go to explain the steps, they seem to have totally flown out of your mind.

The Bible was one of the first things I learned to read, and it is something I have been doing every day since. It has become second nature to me. That is not the case for most people, though. Many pick it up for the first time as adults, and it is not easy to know how to start. It is not easy for me to enter that circumstance, either, but I believe I have a few practical suggestions that will prove helpful.

Considering Comfort

The first is to have a Bible that you will read. The more options you have, the harder that will be to figure out, but it is worth the effort. Comfort can be important. If you have a Bible with print too small to see, language too hard to understand, or weight too heavy to hold, you are just not likely to make the effort to read it. It is not the most important consideration, but you do not want to create additional hurdles to getting into the habit of Bible reading.

Recognizing the Parts

Next, familiarize yourself with the basic structure. The Bible is a book, but it is comprised of 66 smaller “books,” literary units with their own names, purposes, and composition histories. For example, the first book of the Bible is Genesis, which tells of the creation of the world and the beginning of God’s redemptive plan through the family of His servant Abraham. I think just about any Bible should have a table of contents near the front, which you can use to find page numbers to look up a particular book when necessary.

Now I am not saying you need to memorize the names of all 66 books as you start out, but it worth knowing the biblical divisions. It is also good to know that the first 49 books comprise the Old Testament, which describes God’s involvement with the Israelites. It was written between 1400 B.C. and 400 B.C., so it contains a millennium’s worth of development. The last 27 books, meanwhile, are those that were written to describe the work of Jesus Christ and the behavior of His followers. Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament books were written in a short period of time, between A.D. 40 and A.D. 100. Both testaments are connected in content. The most important thing to keep in mind is that one is before Jesus while the other is after, and that has many key implications.

I should also say a word here about verse references. Just as the Bible is divided into testaments and the testaments are divided into books, the books are further divided into chapters and the chapters are divided into verses. That is how you can find a particular spot in the Bible. So if I invited you to look up Jeremiah 29:11, you would go to your table of contents to find the book of Jeremiah. Once you find the page number where it starts, you can turn there and start going through it looking for the chapter number. Chapter numbers are the large numbers, so you are looking for the big 29. Once you find it, you can start to look for the particular verse. Verse numbers are the small ones, 11 in this case. When you get there, you will see that it says,

“For I know the plans I have for you”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“plans for your well-being, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

Or, of course, you can just Google “Jeremiah 29:11.” But I think it is a good idea to learn how to find things in the Bible yourself, so I would recommend that you practice what I described.

Starting Small

Once you have a Bible you are comfortable with, a basic understanding of its structure, and a way to find things in it, it is time to start building the habit. The Bible is not a novel, something you read once and then set on a bookshelf to be forgotten. It is God’s description of Himself to you, and you should, therefore, read it regularly in order to hear from Him. As with picking a comfortable Bible, I think it is smart to set realistic goals for regular Bible reading.

Set targets that you are likely to keep. If you can read it an hour a day, that would be great. But if you can’t, don’t feel bad about it. Maybe just read a single chapter at a time (remember, those are the large numbers) or even just a single paragraph. You can set a timer instead, for perhaps just five minutes to get started. Manageable targets make it so that you will be more likely to stick with it and build a habit of daily reading. If you wanted to run a marathon, you would not try to run the whole 26 miles your first time out. At least, you shouldn’t. You would start with a couple of miles and then work your way up so that your muscles would be strengthened and you would not become exhausted and give up your goal. Learning to read the Bible is very much the same. 

Finding Help

I could offer a few other thoughts here about reading particular passages of the Bible, but that would start to get too detailed and this guide is supposed to be for people just starting out. Instead, I will say in general that you should find resources to help you understand what you are reading. Obviously, you can ask me. After all, Quest Forums is about answering biblical questions. Another option is to use a study Bible, which will have explanatory notes on the bottom half of the page to interpret the verses above. You could pick up a Bible commentary that will go into even more depth. And of course, you should be going to a church so you can hear sermons, attend Bible classes, and get to know a pastor who can help you understand what you are reading. The point is that no one should go it alone. The Bible tells us everything we need to know, but we can help one another to know it better.

Where to Begin

Lastly, let me recommend a starting point. You can go to any book you want, of course, but a lot of people say to begin with Mark. Mark is the second book of the New Testament, or in other words, the 41st book of the Bible. It is a gospel, meaning that it presents the ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And its 16 brief chapters do so in a very rapid fire way. Since the work of Jesus is the most important thing for anyone to know, Mark makes for a logical introduction to Bible reading.

Hopefully this all makes for a useful springboard to get into it, and if anything is unclear, I am of course happy to answer any questions you might have. May God bless your reading. And I am sure He will. It is His love letter to you, after all.

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