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Effective Bible Reading Tips for Fruitful Bible Reading as a Part of an Overall Bible Study System

Our purpose for this article is to offer some ideas and suggestions for improving our Bible reading skills. Most of the ideas originated from personal experience, talking with other Christians, and from books, articles and sermons that I’ve read or heard over the years. Some of the advice can obviously apply to in-depth Bible study as well, but in this article, we place the emphasis on getting the most out of our Bible reading activity.

Written Nov 2014.

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The Relation between Bible Reading and Bible Study

Bible reading and Bible study are so closely related that we often use the terms interchangeably.  Obviously, Bible study must include the reading of Scripture, while thoughtful Bible reading is a form of Bible study.  So, we can’t really separate the two activities completely, but we can differentiate somewhat between the two in terms of our method.  After trying many different approaches over the years, I’ve found it advantageous to split my “reading” and “study” times into different sessions.  Others may prefer to combine the two activities into one.

I'll now attempt to define what I mean by the two terms.  In my “study time”, I select a book, doctrine, theme, character, difficult question etc to study contextually within all of Scripture.  This first involves prayer and the Holy Spirit, reading the appropriate Bible passages, and then consulting other related Scripture.  Next, I go to commentaries, handbooks, Hebrew/Greek lexicons, dictionaries, and other helpful study aids.  I'll spend as many days or weeks as necessary before going on to another study.  In my “reading time”, I follow a plan to read through the entire Bible, sometimes intermixed with multiple readings of a certain book or other reading “sub-plans”.  I attempt to read continually, pausing only to jot down an occasional note for further investigation during my study time.

I often coordinate between the two activities.  For example, I might read continually through all of Paul’s epistles while studying one of the epistles in greater detail.  This method also works great for the Gospels, Books of Moses, OT Prophets, or with individual books; reading through a particular book (once or multiple times) during our reading time while examining certain parts of the book in greater detail during our study time.  I've noticed that I get a much better picture of the overall context and inter-relationship between the doctrines and events by reading though a Bible book or section quickly.  Then, during my study time, I drill down for more knowledge and understanding of the various particulars.  Note that beginning readers should read through the entire Bible a time or two before experimenting with these examples.  Even the most experienced readers should limit these "sub-plans" such that all the Bible books are read at least every two to three years.

We now move on to some suggestions for improving our Bible reading experience.

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Tips for Productive Bible Reading

Here’s a few suggestions to help us get more out of our reading sessions.

Begin with Prayer

This first recommendation can’t be over-emphasized. In fact, it should be at the top of any “to do” list.  All of our spiritual activities will only be as successful as our prayer life.  The Word of God in particular should be approached with care, humility and much prayer.  We must ask the divine Author for insight as we read.

Choose Different Bible Translations for Reading and Study

Many readers, particularly those who separate their “reading” and “study” times, can probably benefit from choosing a different Bible translation for each activity.  This will probably not make much difference to a beginner, but for more experienced readers, switching to another translation can help keep the material fresh and our mind alert.  The mind often notices even small differences in translation, so the switch can help us concentrate instead of switching to auto-pilot when the material is so familiar.

If I’m reading from the same translation that I use when studying or teaching,  I often find myself stopping to do further research on a topic, working up a lesson, writing an article, or getting hung up on other activities that are normally reserved for my study time.  If I switch to a different translation however, I find it easier to remain in reading mode and move steadily forward without interruption.  I can then re-visit any passages later as needed for further study.

I prefer the more literal translations such as the ESV, NET, or NASB for my in-depth studies, but find it interesting and helpful to use the more functional equivalent or “thought for thought” translations for reading.  My two favorites for reading are the NLT and NIV, but I’m currently reading through HCSB Study Bible.  I typically choose one without study notes for reading, but the Holmen notes are mostly limited to cross-references and alternate manuscript translations.  For more information on Bible versions, see our article on Modern English Translations.

Follow a Good Reading Plan

We’ll never gain a comprehensive working knowledge of the Bible by random readings.  The Apostle Paul wrote that All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2Tim 3:16-17).

A good plan that takes us through the entirety of Scripture is essential for developing an understanding of its overall message, themes, doctrines, and life principles.  This does not mean that we should read the entire bible in the exact order that it is arranged, but we should finish an entire book before going on to another.  An exception would be reading an OT book concurrently with a NT book, or mixing in readings from the Psalms or Proverbs as many plans (including some of our own) recommend.  We should not however, randomly skip around, reading a few verses or chapters here and there.  Instead we must develop the discipline to stick with the plan until the entire Bible is read.

That said, we must include one more exception for those perspective readers that are totally unfamiliar, or who have very little knowledge of Scripture.  For these great folks who are eager to learn but might be overwhelmed with the full plans, we have a few abbreviated Bible Sampling and Bible Overview reading plans that will allow you to familiarize yourselves with important themes, doctrines and stories before taking on the entire Bible.

One final value of a good plan is that it can also act as an accountability partner to help us remain consistent in our reading.  As we’ve mentioned before, there are several good plans available in this section of our website, or you may choose from many other excellent plans available elsewhere.  For more experienced readers (those who’ve read threw the Bible a few times), we also offer suggestions on how to customize your own plans.

Read the Bible Contextually

It’s difficult to write an article relating to Bible reading or study without mentioning the term “concept”.  Indeed, this is arguably the most critical interpretive principle.  All of the Scripture's narratives, commands, principles, promises, warnings etc are woven into one unified story, so reading the Bible contextually simply means that we should consider the entirety of Scripture as we read individual verses, chapters and books.

Speaking of chapters and verses, these were not a part of the original manuscripts, but were added in the fifteenth (OT) and the sixteenth (NT) centuries.  Therefore, we can follow the author’s thoughts easier when reading by paragraphs instead.  We should then view each paragraph within the surrounding narrative or theme, then in the broader context of the book, and finally within the ultimate context of the entire Bible.  The importance of the contextual interpretation principle also re-emphasizes the necessity of reading the entire Bible.

Briefly Survey a Book Prior to Reading It

By briefly surveying a book prior to reading, we can gather extremely beneficial information that can add greatly to our understanding as we read through it.  We can begin by reading through the introduction to the book.  These will vary depending on the particular Bible, but an introduction typically contains information about the author, date written, historical background, timeline of events, key verses, themes and purposes, an outline of the book, and other general data.  The outline is especially helpful in that it allows us to divide our reading so that we can read entire themes in one day, thus determining the surrounding context in which to view our paragraphs as we just mentioned above.

If our reading Bible doesn’t contain book introductions, we can consult a Bible survey book or Bible handbook.  This can be especially valuable for first time readers.  We have written Introductions for some of the Bible books and hope to eventually finish the remainder.  Another helpful article is our Overview of the Bible that attempts to provide an overall sense of how the various books fit into the overall unified Bible story and message.  It also contains a brief survey of major historical events from the end of the OT (fifth century BC) to the dispersement of the Jews (second century AD).

“Experience” the Bible Narratives

Because basic human nature doesn’t change, we can readily identify with the many of circumstances faced by the narrative’s characters.  By placing ourselves in the story and viewing the happenings from their perspective, we can extract principles and guidance on how to face similar situations in our lives.  We can also receive inspiration as we witness the work of God in their lives and in our own.

Take Notes

Ink on paper has much more longevity than thoughts in our head (especially mine).  Therefore, it’s a good idea to write down certain thoughts while reading the Word.  Some readers like keeping a journal while others prefer to scribble a few notes in their Bible.  Many also mark key verses, words, phrases, summaries and other golden nuggets that jump out at the reader.  As we read though the Bible again and again, it’s often interesting to compare truths that God reveals to us with notes from our previous readings.

Read the Bible for both Knowledge and Application

Just as we are to worship God with both our mind and hearts, we should also read and study with our hearts as well as our heads.  After all, Bible study is a form of worship.  Limiting ourselves to an intellectual understanding of His Word is actually an insult to God.  It sends a signal that God is merely a cosmic curiosity, not a personal being with Whom we desire to fellowship.  Because we must know someone in order to have a relationship with them, developing an intellectual knowledge is critical as a foundation for knowing God, but we must also be willing and committed to apply what we learn.  This is not always easy, but devotional reading also provides us with the spiritual inspiration that we need for a closer walk with God.

John Wesley used to say that reading any book without a purpose results in no benefit.  In reading the Bible, our primary objective should be to know the God of the Bible rather than just the Bible itself.  We must be open to its message and allow the Word to not only enlighten and instruct, but also to transform us.

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Choose a suitable reading environment

I’ve known a few people who can do concentrated reading in the midst of the most annoying distractions.  Like most others however, I require a quieter environment in which interruptions are kept to a minimum.  I sometimes can read while watching sports on mute, but at other times I must turn all devices off completely in order to effectively concentrate.  I’ve also discovered that heat tends to make me drowsy, so I sometimes have to lower the temperature slightly to stay alert.  Everyone is a little different, so find out what works for you.

Make Bible Reading a Priority

Perhaps the most challenging impediment to Bible reading in our modern era is our overloaded and hectic schedules.  Even though we realize the utmost importance of consistent reading and study, there’s no shortage of competing activities for our limited time.  We will always have more demands than hours, so we must avoid majoring on the minors and place God’s kingdom agenda first (Mt 6:33).

Actually, spiritual activities such as prayer and Bible reading can be a real time saver.  How many times have we gone about our own agenda without consulting God or His Word and as a result, find ourselves on the wrong path?  In most of these cases, we either have to change directions or start over altogether.  Through regular prayer and Bible reading, we’ll more readily recognize God’s agenda and avoid wasting precious time (not to mention money, regrets etc) when pursuing our own.  Therefore, we should make our reading and study activity a priority.

There are also some ways that we can maximize the efficiency of our Bible reading exercise.  To that end, we offer the following three suggestions: find your optimum reading speed, listen to audio-Bibles, and take advantage of mobile reading devices.

Optimize Reading Speed

By “optimum reading speed”, we mean the speed that allows us to make the most efficient use of reading time while maximizing our content coverage, understanding of the text, and retention of the material.  The traditional historic advice is to read the Bible slowly, carefully and thoughtfully.  Don’t rush through your reading.  Take time to meditate on what the Scriptures are saying.  In our fast-paced modern culture however, there is a growing number of teachers that recommend reading the Bible at a fast pace in order to cover more material in less time.  Some even promote speed-reading through the Bible.

The optimal reading speed will usually vary among individuals, and both slow and fast reading have advantages and disadvantages, so each person must determine what is best for him or her.  Reading more text at a faster speed presents us with a better picture of the overarching themes of a book or section.  On the other hand, a slower pace allows us to detect and contemplate over additional details that we otherwise would have overlooked.

Because of the importance and the complexity of this topic, we have treated it with more detail in a separate article.  In “Determining the Most Efficient Bible Reading Speed” (in progress – link will be posted here when uploaded), we examine the effect that reading speed and several other variables can have on our understanding and retention levels.  We also offer some suggestions regarding maximizing the efficiency of our Bible reading efforts.

Listen to Audio-Bibles

I still prefer reading, but there’s a growing number of readers who are listening to audio books.  We could point out that, before the invention of the printing press and the advocacy of private interpretation by the Reformers, only a small portion of the population owned Bibles, so most people got their Scripture input from listening to public readings.  In addition, the words of the inspired authors of Scripture were often passed around orally prior to being written down on the scrolls that would eventually be canonized.  Finally, even purists like me must admit that there are certain advantages to listening to an audio book of the Bible.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of audio-Bibles is the listener’s ability to multi-task.  A person can listen to the Bible while driving, exercising, house-cleaning, or while performing other tasks that would be difficult to do while reading a book.  Thus, the benefit of multi-tasking can also carry the disadvantage of added distractions, so we recommend utilizing an audio-Bible as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for your regular Bible.  Because of the distractions, a person should use caution when listening while driving, jogging or engaging in other public activities that require being alert to our surroundings.

Audio-Bibles are available in most common translations, and some even dramatize some of the stories.  There are also free versions available on the internet (search for “free audio bible download” or similar).

Read an E-Bible

While we’re on the subject of electronics, the availability of relatively inexpensive mobile devices such as smart phones, PDAs, tablets, notebooks etc has resulted in an explosion in the popularity of e-books.  The combination of these devices along with wireless internet or Bible software provides us with almost constant access to an e-Bible.  So, while we’re waiting at the doctor’s office, the car repair shop, the airport or dozens of other places, we can get in some Bible reading.  If you don’t have an E-Bible loaded on your device, you can easily find an online version in your favorite translation.  E-Bibles can be a valuable tool in maintaining consistency in our reading, which leads us to our next piece of advice.

Read Consistently

This is one of the most important suggestions that we can offer.  If we are not consistent in our reading, we’ll never make it through the Bible.  In order to be consistent readers, reading must become a habit, and good habits aren’t developed overnight.  When we first begin, we’ll often be tempted to skip days for the flimsiest excuses.  Thus, we must make a concerted effort to read daily and before long (generally 4-6 weeks based on conversations with others), we’ll look forward to our daily reading and even begin to crave the daily dose of the Word.

Unfortunately, it requires a much shorter period of time to break a good habit than to develop one.  We’ve recently written a couple of articles on the relationship between our physical and spiritual activities, so I’ll interject a comparison between Bible reading (a spiritual exercise) and physical exercise.  Suppose we’ve developed the good habit of exercising daily (or 3-4 times a week of hitting the gym).  We then encounter a period of several days of being overwhelmed at work (or other time-consuming circumstances) and have to miss a few workouts.  After the crisis passes, we intend to get right back into our regular exercise routine, but decide to wait another day, then another (each day becomes easier to miss) and before long, we find ourselves out of the routine.  The same experience can happen with our Bible reading.

Now, there will be some days that we just don’t feel like reading.  Our suggestion in most cases is, “do it anyway”.  I’ve had some of my best workouts on the days that I thought I was tired, but I was just mentally tired and my physical body was ready to go (craving the exercise to which it had grown accustomed).  Likewise, I’ve also had some of my most productive reading sessions when I thought I didn’t feel up to it.  Yet, after praying and starting to read, the Spirit began to move.  Of course, there will inevitably be some days (even a few when we feel excited and ready to go), that we remain or quickly become physically or mentally exhausted.  On these days, after we've made an honest attempt, it may be better to cut our workout or reading short in order to come back stronger and more alert the next day.

There will also be days that we simply can’t avoid missing our reading for various reasons.  In these cases, we recommend picking up where you left off as soon as possible.

Read Joyfully

One of the most effective ways to remain consistent is to read the Bible joyfully.  Too often, we view reading as just another task to be completed and checked off our daily to-do list.  We also can get hung up on techniques and methods.  While these are very important, we should not forget what a privilege it is to read God’s revelation to us and, as a consequence, miss out on the sheer joy of communing with Him.

The first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks “What is the chief end of man?”, and then answers “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”.  While in prison, the Apostle Paul was still able to advise the Church at Philippi to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Php 4:4).  Likewise, the Psalmist pleads with the Lord to “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me… Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy” (Ps 43:3-4 ESV).  Going to the altar expresses a deep desire for communion with God, and we see Him as our exceeding joy when He sends His light and truth to us through the Holy Scriptures.

Final Thoughts

Our suggestions are not all inclusive, but we hope and pray that some of these recommendations will be of great benefit to our readers.  Few things in life are more profitable than effective Bible reading.  Scripture is a handbook for living, imparting wisdom to guide us through our time on earth.  Jesus said, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Mt 4:4).

By consistently filling our minds and hearts with God’s Word, we’ll be much better prepared to face the challenges of the day.  As we learn what pleases and displeases God, we become more discerning in both our thinking (less likely to be deceived by false teachings) and in our actions (avoiding destructive behavior).  As we discover God’s will, we bring Him glory by becoming involved in His work on earth.  Our entire worldview changes and our lives are transformed; thus we consistently filter our thoughts and actions through the wisdom, principles, instructions, and promises of the Word.  In short, we become more like Jesus (2Cor 3:18).

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