I try to read but I get nothing from it.” “My mind wanders when I read. I’m constantly losing my place.” “I read, but during the day I don’t seem to be able to remember much about it.” “I never seem to have time for reading.” Are you familiar with these statements? Young people frequently ask: “How do I study a portion of the Bible?”
Personal Bible Reading
It is important for us to learn to make time for personal reading and also to set aside time for the study of the Scriptures. Time for personal reading of the Scriptures is essential for every believer. This will mean that we discipline ourselves, setting aside a particular time every day for the reading of God’s Word. We may have different preferences regarding what time is best for us, what time best suits our work schedule or our personalities, but it is essential to have a designated time.
Requesting Help to Read
One fundamental thing to keep in mind before we read is to prayerfully ask for God’s help. The writer of Psalm 119 wrote, “Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law” (v 18). Ask for God’s help to understand the Bible, to concentrate, and also for Him to guide you to put into practice what He has revealed in the Scriptures. It is a living book. Hebrews 4 reminds us “the Word of God is quick (living) and powerful” (v 12). As we read it, God will unfold His Word to us.
Routine in Reading
When it came to the manna which God gave to Israel, He gave very specific instructions about gathering it. “At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread” (Exo 16:12). In verse 21 we read “they gathered it every morning, every man according to his eating.”
God established a routine for Israel; every day for six days they were to gather in the morning. On the sixth day they gathered sufficient for both Friday and Saturday. Each one of us has certain pressures in our life, perhaps more than our parents or grandparents ever faced. In light of these, it is essential to set time aside that God might speak to us through His Word. We may not have the same time available every day, so it is important to use our available time wisely.
It is important to read every day, so that just like everything else in life, it becomes part of our daily routine. It provides food to nourish us and to maintain spiritual growth and development in our lives. Peter, writing in his first epistle, compares all believers to babes. “As newborn babes desire the sincere milk of the Word that ye may grow thereby” (1Peter 2:2). The Lord Jesus is the greatest example of this. In His temptation, after 40 days and 40 nights without food, Satan confronted Him and said “if Thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.” The response of the Lord is very insightful. He said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt 4:3, 4).
The reading of the Scriptures should be systematic. Many Christians open the Scriptures randomly and hope that God will speak to them. This means they have no idea of the context of the book that they have selected, or the thought processes of the author. The anecdote has been told of the person who was playing Bible roulette. He randomly opened the Scriptures and putting his finger on a verse, and expected God to speak to him. He opened and read the verse, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” He tried again and read, “Go thou and do likewise.” Trying this process for a third time he read, “What thou doest, do quickly.” Choose a book, then read through it chapter by chapter, as time allows, marking where you finished reading and commencing there the next day. It may be helpful for some to keep a notebook. As we read, our minds can focus on the subjects in the chapter and we may want to turn to other passages that we know deal with similar subjects. Mark these in your notebook, then return to them after your reading is finished. In your systematic reading don’t neglect the Old Testament. I know some believers who have established the practice of reading from the Old Testament in the morning and from the New Testament in the evening. Some alternate, reading a New Testament book, then one from the Old Testament.
It may help to read the passage aloud, noting repetition in the text. Things that may be repeated could be thoughts, words, names, places, and actions. If possible, read from a Bible that you have not written in or marked; this keeps the text free from interruptions.
Reflecting on What We Read
We should ask ourselves some questions as we read our designated passage for the day. Questions like: What does the passage mean? What promises can I grasp in this passage? Are there any pictures to enjoy? Are there any examples to follow? Are there any commands for me to obey? Is there any reference to error which I should avoid? Is there any sin mentioned which is present in my life, and needs to be confessed? Is there any doctrine for me to embrace? By asking ourselves questions like these we interact with the text. This should help us with the difficulty of not getting anything from the Scriptures.
Not long after I became a Christian, an old fisherman from northern Scotland asked me, “Do you ever get days when you get nothing from your reading?” I replied “That happens to me frequently.” “Don’t worry” he said “at least you are keeping the nets clean.” I understood his point. The Word of God has a purifying effect even if we don’t think we are getting very much.
It is a good practice to meditate on what you have read during the day. If it helps, write out a text from your reading and carry it with you. You can then remind yourself of your reading and this will help in meditating upon the Scriptures. This will encourage the practice of meditation every day. One of the ways to enjoy personal reading is to look for the Lord Jesus. To see glimpses of Him, in picture, prophecy, or precept is perhaps the greatest way to appreciate the Scriptures. I continually turn to reading the Gospels – they are the life of Christ.
Dedicated Bible Study
This brings us to the second aspect of our considerations: “How do I study a passage?” We can break our study into the five fields mentioned below:
Try to read through the book that you are studying in one sitting, and, as mentioned above, read aloud. After having read it a number of times (there is no substitute for reading and rereading the text), use a different translation, noting where differences occur between the translations. Mark these for further study. Notice how the book opens; notice, too, how the book closes. Trace themes in the book, and determine the major subject of the book. Some good questions to ask as you come to the study of a book are: Who is the author? What is the background of the book? What is the content of the book? When was it written? To whom was it written? Getting answers to these questions will open up the study of the book. Each book of the New Testament should be considered as to its character: Is it doctrinal? (Romans). Is it historical? (Acts). Is it prophetic? (Revelation). This distinction will help in a consideration of Old Testament books as well.
When the Bible was written there were no chapter divisions. This means that subjects being developed in a book may be interrupted by our chapter divisions. An example of this is Isaiah 52:13-15, which which is the opening stanza, and part of the subject developed in Isaiah 53. As we consider each chapter we should look for themes, consider its teaching, evaluate the terms mentioned, and look for well-known texts.
Is the paragraph dealing with what is historical? How much of it is a command? How much is exhortation? Is it dealing with the past, present, or future? How much of the paragraph is action, speech, or conversation? It is helpful to identify both the subject and the object of the main verb identified in the paragraph.
It is important to notice the context in which any verse is placed. The distinctions of chapters and paragraphs mentioned above will help with this. Most of the doctrinal error we face from various cults is due to the fact that they have taken texts out of their context. It has often been noted that a text taken out of context becomes a pretext for a proof text.
Questions to ask regarding the words in any verse are: What does this word mean? Does it always have this meaning? What are the other contexts in which this particular word is found? This will mean that we will need aids to help us in our understanding. In the electronic age in which we are found there are a variety of helpful Bible programs and aids to assist us. Online Bible, e-Sword, and Blue Letter Bible are some of the many Bible programs which can help us. They have concordances, lexicons, word studies, maps, and dictionaries available at a double click. We should always remember that words are governed by their contexts. The principles mentioned above of book, chapter, paragraph, and verse must all be taken into account before we consider the words. It is a good practice to keep records as we study a passage. If help has been given in a ministry meeting or in your local Bible study, take note of it. Update your personal notes adding the new material you have received. This encourages us to keep working at personal study. It preserves from laziness and opens to us new lines of enquiry. It also preserves us from relying upon memory, which may be good now, but will fade with time.
To summarize, we need to be disciplined in our reading, and must designate a portion of our time for this purpose. We are in need of God’s help to open the Scriptures and we must request this. We need to have a systematic plan to read the Scriptures as they were intended to be read. Meditation is essential if we are to benefit from our reading. We need to remember that reading the Scriptures will affect our actions. Our lives will be changed as the Scriptures are put into practice. May our attitude be like that of the Psalmist: “Thy Word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee” (Psa 119:11).