Reading the Bible in 4 Steps

Most evangelical Christians believe that reading the Bible is of utmost importance. Yet, the Bible is a somewhat intimidating book to read. For one thing, it’s enormous. For another, the Bible was written by over 40 human authors over a period of 1400 years. There’s a lot of cultural-historical contexts we don’t see behind the pages of God’s Word. This week, I want to share with you a relatively simple way to approach the Bible devotionally.

This method is an ancient one known as lectio divina (Latin for “divine reading”), and it’s been practiced by Christians for over 1,000 years. I personally use lectio divina in my devotional reading, and I can tell you from experience that it’s a great way to meet God in His Word and listen to Him speak to you through what you’re reading in Scripture. It’s not, however, the best way to do in-depth Bible study. It’s not inductive or based on precepts. It most likely won’t point you to the author’s original intent. I wouldn’t claim that the things I hear God speak during my devotional reading are universally applicable or that I’ve discovered the true meaning of the passage, and I don’t use lectio divina as a method of preparing for a sermon. It’s just what I do to spend time with God in His Word.

Lectio divina is traditionally based on four steps: lectio (reading), meditatio (meditation), oratio (prayer), and contemplatio (contemplation). It actually has a preparation step as well, of praying that God will speak and give you ears to hear what He says through His Word.

Lectio (reading). Read the passage slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully. Look for patterns, repetition, and words or phrases that seem to grab your attention. I like to read it aloud, if possible, and try to imagine how the human author would’ve spoken these words. Once you’ve read through it initially, reread it even more slowly. Pause where something seems to catch your heart and think about what’s being said.

Meditatio (mediation). Whatever part of the text seemed to stand out, that seemed to speak directly to you, might be something the Holy Spirit wants you to focus on. Go back and read the passage a third time, looking for how your phrase, sentence, or verse fits into the rest of the section. Stop and think deeply about why the Holy Spirit brought these words from this text to your attention. How might they apply to your life? As you meditate, what else comes to mind? Who else comes to mind? Is there a specific action you need to do (or stop doing)? A belief you need to change? A person you need to pray for or reach out to?

Oratio (prayer). Talk to God about what you read in His Word. Talk to Him just like you would talk to a friend sitting across the table over coffee. How does the passage make you feel? What challenges you? What excites you? What don’t you understand? What do you grasp more now that you’ve read–about God, life, yourself, etc.? Can you pray the Scripture back to God? Personally, I like to summarize my prayer in a couple paragraphs in a journal.

Contemplatio (contemplation). Ask God to speak back to you, and read the passage one more time with a listening heart, then be quiet and sit in silence before the Lord. Just be with God, aware of His presence, enjoying an intimate moment with Him. Over time, this silent communion with God will become one of the most (probably the most) meaningful moments of your day. During this time, resolve to do whatever God tells you to do–to put into practice what He has spoken to you through His Word.

I’ve found that these four simple steps have guided my devotional time with God, and helped me to develop a conversational relationship with God that has led to a truly personal connection with the Creator of the Universe. That connection is something I cannot live without. My prayer for you this week is that you would find the same thing as you approach the Lord in prayer and Scripture!

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

10 Bible Study Tips

God’s Word is light and life, and digging into it will change you permanently.  I’d encourage you this January to perhaps forego your Bible-in-a-year reading plan and instead go deep into Scripture.  What usually happens to me when I follow a reading plan is that I end up reading quickly through the assigned sections and checking them off, rather than spending time with God in His Word and going deep.  I think all Christians would do well to slow our reading down, focus on one book at a time, and dwell in God’s Word.  Here are ten tips for getting at the meaning of Scripture.

  1. Have a Bible buddy.  This will not only help you be accountable and stay on your reading, but you can also read the same book/passage and discuss it together.
  2. Get a good study Bible to give you some insight and background.  I recommend the ESV Study Bible, or the NIV Study Bible, or the Life Application Study Bible (available in several translations), or the Faithlife Study Bible (a digital format, also available in a number of translations).
  3. Actually use your study Bible!  Don’t just read the verses, but read the other sections, too.  Especially read the introductions and background material on each book before you start it.
  4. Read a variety of translations.  Most any translation can be read online for free (just use google).  Try to mix it up.  What are the similarities and differences between the translations?
  5. Try listening, not just reading.  Two ways to listen: (1) read out loud and listen to yourself; (2) listen to an audio Bible.  Most of the Bible was originally written to be heard.
  6. Try to ignore chapters and verses.  These weren’t part of the original Bible, but were added later to help people find specific references.  But they can obscure meaning!  We tend to stop reading at the end of a chapter, but often the flow of thought continues on past the end of the chapter and into the next.
  7. Look at a passage in its context.  What came just before this passage?  What follows immediately after?  How does that affect the meaning?
  8. Try to identify main themes running throughout several passages or sections.  Your study Bible intros can really be helpful here.
  9. Remember – the Bible wasn’t written to you!  Reading it is like reading someone else’s mail.  Try to figure out what it would mean to them, not just what it means to you.
  10. Try to figure out how the author wanted the original readers to respond.  Now, how can you respond in a similar way?

Dig Deep

In a recent blog post, I suggested reading the Bible in big chunks, rather than snippets, or even worse a verse here and there.  It’s important to get the big idea, the context, of what you’re doing, and you only get that when you read bigger chunks.  I even recommended you pick a shorter book of the Bible and read it all in one sitting.

I want to go a step further and suggest that you not only read a whole book at once, but that you read the same book every day for a week.  Why in the world would I say that?  Won’t that throw off your read-the-Bible-in-a-year plan?  I may get skewered by some people for saying this, but I would rather you go deep and only read a few books a year than go shallow and skim the whole Bible in a year.  Sure, you may get through the entire Bible in 365 days, but how much did you understand?  How deep did you go in the reading?  Did you wrestle with the meaning of a passage, and specifically what it means for you (notice I did not say what it means to you, but for you; in other words, how the passage changes your life)?

Now having said that, let me put a caveat on it.  It is important to have a big picture view of the whole Bible.  If you’re new to the faith or have never surveyed the whole Bible, I would strongly recommend stepping back and seeing the Bible as one story before you dive into a specific book.  There are a number of good books that survey the Bible, but this one’s my favorite.

Once you have a good overview of the whole Bible, put the one-year-reading-plan on hold for a bit and take a few days/weeks to really dig deep into a book.  Try reading that book every day for a week.  Get a good study Bible and maybe even a commentary on your Bible book.  If you’re really serious, get a Bible study program on your computer.  Come to the Scriptures expecting to encounter God, not just gain information (think of reading the Bible as going on a date with God).  Ask good questions as you read, and journal your experience.

When you’re done with that book, pick another and do the same thing.  Keep on doing it until you’re dead.  Then, just ask Jesus in person what the Holy Spirit meant when He inspired the Scriptures!

Read Big Chunks

For over 100 years now, churches have trained their members to miss the big picture of the Bible.  How?  By teaching Christians to read snippets rather than chunks.  Visit the worship service of almost any church in the US and you’ll notice something about the sermon: it’s usually built around 3 – 7 verses.

See, pastors have been trained by seminaries to focus on details.  Break everything into smaller and smaller pieces and when you get to a little snippet, tear it apart even more and highlight all the teeny, intricate details abounding in the passage.  Well, with 30 – 45 minutes to preach, you can only really tackle a few short verses if you intend to preach the intricate details.  Pastors have done this so often that Christians assume the natural way of reading the Bible is 3 – 7 verses at a time.

The problem with this is that you can’t see the big picture in 3 – 7 verses.  A good speaker will summarize the context of a verse and present in a few sentences what the bigger picture is, but we still tend to think that normal Bible reading happens in snippets.

What I want to suggest is that you read in chunks rather than snippets.  Now this requires practice and discipline at first.  You need to train your brain to handle larger pieces of content, and that takes a little time.  But the payoff is a big one.  Reading larger chunks of Scripture allows you to glimpse God’s story in a way you’ve never really experienced by reading a few verses at a time.  It reminds you that you’re not really the point of the Bible; God is.  You’re not really the point of the Universe; God is.

Getting a bigger glimpse of God forces us to realize how small we are.  And then we remember that in spite of the insignificance of our lives, God knows and loves us personally.  In spite of our failures, we are made in the image of a measureless God.  In spite of our rebellion, God came to save us.  And in spite of our struggles, God is in control, working all things to achieve His purposes and bring about His Kingdom, which is quite literally Heaven-on-Earth.

Assignment: Pick a shorter book of the New Testament (i.e., Philippians, James, 1 John, 1 Peter, etc) and read the entire book in one sitting.  Repeat this every day for a week.  Journal what the Holy Spirit inspires in you each day as you read.

Study the Bible Together

One of the biggest things I’ve learned from my hermeneutics class this semester (by the way, “hermeneutics” is just a fancy word for Bible interpretation) is that the Word of God was and is meant for community. Understanding the Bible is a community-based exercise, not something you should exclusively do alone. Before you start getting worked up because Pastor Andy just said you don’t have to read your Bible on your own, hear me when I say that this does not replace personal Bible study! What I’m saying is that Bible study shouldn’t be an individual practice only.

When we read the Bible, there’s a lot that we don’t understand. But I may see something in a passage you miss, and vice versa. When we study together, I can fill in your gaps and you can fill in mine!

Plus, we each bring our own ideas to the Scripture and we have a tendency to read our ideas into what the Bible says, rather than allowing the Bible’s ideas to override and change ours. The only real way to “check your baggage” is by studying the Bible with others who may see a passage differently than you do. Dialogue with that community can quickly reveal your baggage and help you arrive at a fuller understanding of a text.

I guess the last thing to say about this is that community Bible study also helps keep us accountable. It’s like exercise. I’m much more likely to run if I have a running partner who will stay on me when I’m slacking. I’m – You’re – We’re much more likely to study God’s Word if we have a partner or partners who will stay on us when we’re slacking (and we will).

Four Questions for the Bible

We all know we should read the Bible. Heck, sometimes I even want to read the Bible! Actually, I enjoy reading God’s Word, but I often struggle with it. It’s really long. There’s a lot of words in there that I don’t know the meaning of. Paul writes really, really, really, really long sentences that can be hard to follow!

God never promised that reading His letter to us would be a breeze. But He does promise to reveal Himself through His Word. Here are four questions I try to ask myself when I do my daily reading. Oh, by the way, it helps if you write the answers in a journal (not a diary – that’s girly).

(1) What does this reveal about God? The Bible is first and foremost God’s self-revelation to humanity. I hear people call the Bible a “roadmap to life.” While the Bible does contain a lot of truth about you and your life, it is not really about you or your life! It’s about God and His plan to save the world. So, the first question to ask every time you read the Bible is: What does this reveal about God?

(2) What does this reveal about the world? The Bible reveals God. It also reveals truth about the world. For instance, the Bible reveals the origin of sin and shows us how the world got so jacked up. When you read, look for truth about the world, the condition of humanity, etc.

(3) What does this reveal about me? As you work through a passage, start big and gradually get more specific: God, the world, you. Discovering truth about God and the world should spark questions about your own heart and mind. For instance, Jesus said the harvest is plenty, but the workers are few, and commanded His followers to pray that God would send out workers to reap a harvest (Luke 10:2). This shows us (1) that God desires people to be saved, and (2) the world is ripe for a spiritual harvest. This should cause you to ask questions about yourself like: Am I working to reap a harvest for Jesus?

(4) What does this reveal about God’s will for me? In other words, what is God calling you to change as a result of reading this passage? What is going to be different in you?

Happy reading!

Ready for the Elections?

The presidential election is coming fast… Tuesday, November 6! Are you ready? I’m not! As I was thinking about this, I found myself asking, “What does the Bible say about governments, rulers, citizens, voting, etc?” Well, I pulled up my handy-dandy Logos Bible Study Software and, behold! they had a ready-made Bible reading plan called 21 Days on Government and Citizenship.

So, here’s my thought, let’s read it together! I’m going to start on Friday, September 14, and try to post a reflection on the reading for each day. Now, the reason I say I’m going to try to post a reflection is because I have a 2-year old and a 2-month old… enough said!

Anywho, I’d love for you to read this plan with me and share your own reflections on my blog via the comments.  (Hint: to get the plan as a pdf, click the link above.)