HELPFUL HINTS ON READING THE BIBLE
Here are some useful ways to read the Bible more and better. They are not geared towards the regular study of Scripture as such, but are out of the ordinary ways to help get more out of the Bible. They are all simple and practical ways of storing up God’s Word in our minds and hearts for our lives as Christians.
1. Memorize Parts of the Bible.
Have you ever known someone who really can quote Scripture from memory? The ancient rabbis were required to memorize huge sections of the Old Testament. The writers of the New Testament give every indication of knowing much Scripture from memory. And doubtlessly the Lord Jesus knew a lot of the Bible by heart.
Jack Van Impe, a Baptist evangelist, has memorized about half of the Bible by topics. Ask for a topic and he can recite hundreds of verses. They call him the “Walking Bible” (maybe “Walking Concordance” would be better!). Then there is Jerry Lucas, former basketball great, who had a photographic memory. He once memorized the first 200 pages of the New York City telephone directory. He applied his principles to Bible memory, wrote a couple of books on the subject, and is well into memorizing the Bible. Perhaps the day will come one day when someone will actually memorize the entire Bible word for word. One report says Hyman Appelman did just that.
A few years ago, an English actor memorized the Gospel of Mark and recited it verbatim for about 2 hours to soldout theater crowds for over a year. He used no props other than a table, no costumes or other actors, and he wasn’t even a Christian. The Guiness book of Records says that a Moslem memorized 6,666 verses of the Koran.
Why is it that we have so much trouble remembering Scripture? Too often we can remember worldly songs, dirty jokes or useless trivia better than God’s Word. One reason is that it is a matter of priorities. We need to give our minds to God and pray that He help us know more Scripture.
How much Scripture do you know by heart? Have you ever tested yourself? If you learned a verse a day, you would know 365 verses at the end of a year, and over 1,000 in 3 years. Now, this is not to measure one’s spirituality by how many verses he knows. One may know much and grow little. Even non-Christians may know much of the Bible. On the other hand, you will not find a truly mature Christian who does not know much Scripture. It can be one of the most beneficial of all enterprises.
Memorizing Scripture has many uses. For example, it is useful to be able to quote the right verse when speaking with an unbeliever about Christ. It is very useful when defending the faith against cults and critics. Knowing Scripture is important to prayer as you remember God’s promises. Scripture memory is also useful in solving problems or giving advice, especially in emergencies. And it is especially beneficial in resisting temptation. Jesus quoted Scripture to the Devil when He was tempted (Matt. 4). He had no bag of scrolls with Him, so He must have quoted from memory. “Thy Word I have treasured in my heart that I may not sin against Thee” (Psa. 119:11).
If you were imprisoned for your faith and had no Bible, how much of it could you remember? That happens in the world today. Persecution increases both the love and the memorization of Scripture. A visiting American preacher asked some believers in Czechoslovakia to recite their favourite verses, to which they replied, “Do you mean our favourite verses or chapters?” Do you know bits and pieces or whole chunks? In the book Farenheit 451, all books were being destroyed, so a group of people decided to memorize the great books (“Hi, I’m Great Expectations.”). Would you be prepared to memorize the Bible? (“Hi, I’m The Bible.”)
Groups such as the Navigators give special emphasis to Scripture memory, and have produced some excellent materials that help learn God’s Word. Here are a few brief principles and tips that will help.
First, it is best to stick with one translation, preferably the one you use the most in personal Bible study. It is also most useful to use the more well-known and dependable ones. Since hearing Scripture will help, it is best to use ones in the King James Version tradition since the wording is so familiar. This includes the New King James Version, the American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, and the New American Standard Bible. Their wording and cadences are very similar, unlike the NIV, etc.
Next, decide whether you want to memorize whole books or sections of the Bible at a time, or whether you prefer selected verses or topics. For example, you may want to memorize Ephesians. If choosing a book, start small, like one of the epistles. Learning a whole book can help because you catch the flow and context.
Or, you can memorize selected verses. This is especially useful for evangelism. You might prepare by first reading the whole Bible, marking those verses which you plan to commit to memory. Then go back and write them out on cards. The Navigators emphasize the use of cards. Carry some with you and use them when you get spare moments. Also, write these verses over and over again. Repetition is a key to memorization (remember when you had to write something 100 times on a school blackboard?).
Further, it helps to have that book on a cassette tape to listen to over and over. You may even want to record your own, especially if you choose selections. By the way, it is usually a good idea to also memorize the book, chapter and verse reference. Test yourself to see how much you have learned. You can do this aloud, in writing, with a friend, or whatever. Reading Scripture aloud is one of the best ways to memorize it.
Lastly, pray for God to burn Scripture into your heart and memory. In the end, whether you use a certain system or not, the best way to learn Scripture is to love it and spend time in it. We always remember that which is most important to us.
2. Read The Bible Aloud.
Most of us read the Bible silently, but reading it aloud can be of immense help in Bible study and memorization. Try it sometime. Actually, did you know that in the early Church most Christians could not read the Bible? They had to listen to it in the Church meeting or in private. Moreover, they did not have their own copies.
Some Christians can really read Scripture aloud in an excellent way. We all have heard preachers who could open up a passage to us simply by the way he read it before the sermon (in some cases, the reading is better than the sermon!). In fact, some Christians have a ministry of vocal Scripture reading. They are invited to churches to do nothing else than read Scripture interpretatively. Some are superb.
Other Christians read the Bible aloud as another form of ministry, this one a private one. They read the Bible to the blind, the elderly, the illiterate, the bedridden, even to children. They really appreciate it. Have you ever read a Psalm to a friend in a hospital bed? Have you ever had someone read you a passage when you were too filled with grief to read it yourself?
To get started, use a Bible with large print, if possible. Some have giant print. It is usually best to stand while reading aloud in order for your lungs to be better positioned. Also, try not to read aloud on a full stomach. Don’t worry if anyone hears you; start by reading it aloud all by yourself. Or husbands and wives may read together.
What really helps is reading Scripture “interpretatively”, or according to the mood and meaning of the passage. This is like acting it out, but better to be dramatic than melodramatic. Don’t overdo it, but neither should you read in a monotone. Vary your speed and volume. Change voices in dialogues. Imagine how the writer or original speaker would have spoken it. Pause and emphasis are especially useful. Check out Luke 4:16-22.
3. Read the Whole Bible Every Year.
Have you ever read through the entire Bible? You may be a new Christian or an older one, but it is good for all of us to read all of the Bible. Martin Luther read the whole Bible twice a year, and Arthur W. Pink did it three times a year. At the end of his life, George Mueller acknowledged that he had read the Bible 100 times. It is one of the few books that gets better and better each time we read it.
Some new converts immerse themselves into the Bible immediately. It is not at all unusual for a new Christian to read the entire Bible once or twice even in the first 6 months of his Christian life. Unfortunately, later on we slack off. Instead of that insatiable hunger, we settle for a few tiny snacks from time to time, usually from our favourite portions.
But reading the whole Bible once is not enough. We need to live off of it. Nor should we settle for snippets, such as the “Verse of the Day” daily devotionals. At that rate we wouldn’t finish the Bible in an entire lifetime! Moreover, if we ate as little physical food as we do spiritual food, we’d die of malnutrition. So, we need to read it all, and do it daily. That means that just a little over 3 chapters a day would complete the entire Bible in a year. It is best to read a certain amount every day rather than read an accumulated portion once a week.
Consecutive annual Bible reading is helpful and important. It keeps us balanced, else we stay in our favourite passages (which are usually the “nice” portions which comfort but do not challenge or convict us). Reading the whole Bible keeps us balanced. Also, remember that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16) . Have you ever been reading a relatively obscure part of the Bible, and had a verse jump out and grab you? It arrests your attention, tells you something you never knew but now are glad that you read it. It may strike conviction, reveal something unknown about God, or bring a new promise.
There are charts available. Some have 2 from the Old and 1 from the New for every day. Others divide Scripture up chronologically. Probably the simplest way is simply to go straight through from Genesis to Revelation.
4. Use Different Translations.
While it can be confusing to some systems of Scripture memory, it can be a great help to Bible study to read the Bible from different translations. Some Christians read a different translation through each year. Or, compare them on the passage you’re studying.
Sometimes we get too comfortable with a certain translation, especially the King James. Thus, we fail to get the meaning because we only know the words. Another reputable translation can say the same thing in slightly different language, and so open it up to you in a brand new way.
There have been over 100 translations of the Bible into English. Over 25 are still in print. Some are even printed side-by-side in “Parallel Bibles”. It is best to use the more dependable ones, such as the King James Version, the New King James Version, the American Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, and so on. Paraphrases such as the Living Bible or the Good News Bible can be useful as commentaries but frequently do more harm than good. The J.B. Phillips version is a better paraphrase. Then there is the Amplified Bible and Wuest’s Expanded Version of the New Testament, which is especially useful with the tenses of the verbs.
A good translation can be like a dictionary. Compare several translations and observe how they render a certain word differently. They are also like compact commentaries.
Incidentally, you may also want to read the Bible in a second language you know, like Spanish or German. This helps you with that language and can help you learn the Bible. Some publishers publish Bibles with English and another language in parallel columns.
5. Listen to the Bible on Tape.
The Bible has been recorded on tape several times so that we can listen to it as well as read it. For example, we can listen to it in the car, while doing light work around the house, etc. You’d be surprized how much you can listen to at a time. In fact, some can listen to more than they can read. But of course, listening is no substitute for actual reading it yourself. Or maybe you can listen with the ear while reading with the eye.
Think of those who cannot read but can listen. Perhaps you can share the Bible on tape with the elderly, the blind, those who do not know how to read, or even children. We should do all we can to distribute God’s Word and encourage people to read it.
The Bible has been recorded several times in different translations, such as the King James Version, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version and the New American Standard. Sometimes only the New Testament is available. Some readers are better than others. Alexander Scourby’s reading is the oldest and most well known. Some are better, some are worse. Bill Pierce, of “Night Sounds” Christian radio, is one of the best. Gregory Peck recorded a reading but is somewhat flat and dry. There have been partial readings by Sir Lawrence Olivier and Charlton Heston which are better and quite eloquent, but nothing could compete with a reader who truly believes that which he is reading. Ephrem Zimbalist Jr has also made a recording. Then there are “dramatized” versions with many readers and actors, sound effects and musical background. Most of these tend to be melodramatic and sensationalist. Also, you may want to record your own reading of the Bible. Lastly, the Bible is available in Spanish, French, German and other languages on tape. These can be used to study another language or to give to a person who speaks another language.
6. Listen to Bible Expositions on Tape.
Most sermons are not expository – they do not expound the passage but get off onto topics or tangents. But some preachers stick closely to the text, and tapes of their messages are very useful when studying through the Bible. This is especially useful with individual passages or books which you are trying to memorize. Understanding helps memory.
Again, these can be listened to in the car or at home. Or you can give them to friends or family. Some churches have a ministry where they regularly supply preaching tapes to shut-ins and the elderly.
Certain well-known preachers are known as expository preachers, and their messages are most helpful in Bible study as opposed to general listening. John MacArthur Jr, James Montgomery Boice, and Al Martin are among the best. Tapes of the late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the prince of modern preachers, are also available. There are dozens of major tape ministries and hundreds of smaller ones. Some only lend, others only sell, others both lend and sell. Only a few are totally free. Some handle only a single speaker, others carry many speakers. Some tape ministries carry taped sermons on virtually every book of the Bible, thus covering almost every verse of Scripture.
Sometimes it is very useful to have a taped message on a specific topic for yourself or a friend. It is not always easy to obtain messages on the more unusual but still important topics. On the other hand, it is a good idea to have access to a good tape of a basic Gospel message to give to a non-Christian friend. He may listen to a tape when he would never read a book. These can be given as gifts at Christmas or as the need arises. Tapes on specific problems or cults can also be very useful to give away.
Still, the main idea here is the value of tapes of expository, consecutive messages directly on the Bible. These can be listened to in tandem with personal Bible study on the passage to great profit.
7. Take Notes While Reading the Bible.
We retain more if we read something than if we merely hear it, but we retain most if we write it down. Hence, taking notes on the Bible is one of the most profitable ways of studying it. This can be done in personal study, hearing a sermon, attending a Bible study, in Sunday School, listening to a tape or the radio, and so on. Though a few preachers do not like their listeners taking notes, most encourage the practice.
What does one write down? You can write down an exact quote, a new idea, a story, the meaning of a word in the original language, or any other useful piece of information. It can be especially good to write down your very own thoughts.
Some Christians write their notes in a notebook and save them for future reference. In effect this becomes their own Bible commentary. Others keep a spiritual journal in their private devotions. These can be very rewarding to read later on. Wouldn’t it be interesting to read what you were thinking shortly after you became a Christian when the Bible was so brand new to you?
Or, you can take notes directly in your Bible itself. Some Christians say we should not write in our Bible because it shows disrespect. That is half true. We should not doodle or write jokes in our Bibles. But there is nothing wrong with recording your reverent and personal thoughts on a passage while you read it. Some Bibles are printed with extra wide margins for this purpose. Underlining a key verse can be useful, especially if you think you’ll want to refer to it later on (such as in memorizing key verses). Some Christians underline with different colors. A well-marked Bible usually indicates hours of study. One Christian not only filled all margins and blank pages with notes, but went back and wrote additional notes across them at a different angle in a different color ink. Ever read someone else’s Bible notes?
8. Read a Bible Commentary.
This suggestion is more than recommending having some good Bible commentaries in your personal library for reference when you get to difficult passages. Rather, it can be a very useful project to read a commentary all the way through as you study a certain book of the Bible. For instance, when you choose a book you want to memorize, it helps a lot to read a commentary on the book at the same time.
Naturally, some commentaries are better than others. Some are more scholarly than others. Some have almost nothing to do with the passage upon which they are allegedly expounding. Some concentrate on the original languages; others are more practical; still others dwell on typology, prophecy, illustrations, history, etc. Further, some are not commentaries but expositions – sermons which expound all the way from basic explanation to general application.
Obviously, the Christian will benefit more from those which respect Biblical inspiration and inerrancy. Commentaries by liberals, cults or Catholics should be avoided. Also, ask for recommendations from reliable teachers and preachers. Know the level you are looking for. There are excellent ones on every level.
Commentaries which cover the entire Bible in a single volume are useful for the new Christian. The older believer may want something more. He can then chose individual volumes or a set which covers the whole Bible (some cover just the New Testament). Some Christians try to read all the way through the Bible in several years while reading book-length commentaries on every book of the Bible. That is an ambitious undertaking. Still, medium-length commentaries can be read all the way through with much benefit.
Lastly, some commentaries are classics and should be consulted by all. Top of the list is the one by Matthew Henry. It is available in the unabridged 6 volumes or the 1-volume abridgement. Spurgeon and Whitefield both read the entire unabridged set several times. The Expositors Bible Commentary is anohter fine 12-volume commentary.
9. Carry A Pocket Bible.
The Bible has been printed in sizes from suitcases to matchboxes. Most are about the same size as a hymnbook. Many Christians want to carry a Bible with them but find the average Bible too large. So, publishers have given us pocket-sized editions. Some are only New Testaments, others cover the entire Bible. Some have very small print.
Pocket Bibles can be helpful in a number of ways. You can refer to them while waiting in a line or waiting room. Also, many Christians find them invaluable when witnessing – a larger one might scare someone off, but a pocket copy can be referred to on an important point. Haven’t you wanted a Bible handy when confronted by a cultist or atheist, or even someone who asks what the Bible says about a certain topic? Pocket Bibles are especially handy in emergencies. Then there are those informal conversations with other Christians where a copy of the Scriptures would come in useful.
Most are small enough to carry in a ladies purse or a man’s suit pocket. Occasionally they may bulge a little, and it may look like you’re packing a gun. You have something more powerful than that. Even if it isn’t a pocket Bible, it is a great idea to have a Bible at home, at work, and in your car. You never know when you may need it.
A whole Bible is better than just a New Testament. For example, when you witness to a Jewish friend you would want to refer to Isaiah (and he may be offended if you have only a New Testament, as if you rejected the Old Testament). Also, the Old Testament is most useful for answering questions on Creation and Evolution (Gen. 1), the occult (Deut. 18) and other key subjects. A two-edged sword is better than a single-edged one.
10. Pray the Bible.
What does it mean to “pray the Bible”? This is more than simply praying before and after reading it. It is even more than praying as you read and study. Praying the Bible simply means using the words and thoughts of a passage in your prayers. This is generally done most in private devotions.
This is most easily done with the Psalms and prayers in the Bible, of which there are hundreds. For example, first know what the writer is saying. Then use his words as your own as you speak to God. Try to identify with the writer and his circumstances. When you wish to confess sin, you may want to pray Psalm 51. You may find it useful to pray certain psalms which call upon God for help in time of persecution, affliction or doubt. Even the imprecatory psalms can be prayed with the right attitude (such as Psalm 59). When thankful, you can pray most of the psalms, for most are psalms of praise. And of course, there’s the Lord’s Prayer. In all this, however, one must not simply use mindless repetition without faith or understanding. But with faith and understanding, one can pray the Bible regularly as he reads through it.
It can be done with all parts of Scripture. This will usually mean a certain amount of paraphrase. Listen as God speaks to you in the verses you read, and meditate on them and reply back to God according to the meaning and message of that very passage. Some devotional books are just that. Take Gen. 1:1. A prayer on this passage might be something like this: “Lord, in the beginning of time, You created all things. You designed and formed all that is or was or ever will be. You created the Heavens and the Earth, that which is up there and that which is down here, that which is seen and that which is invisible. Lord, You say here that You Yourself created the universe. I thank you that it was you, the loving and personal God who did that, and not a mindless, impersonal Evolution. Savior, create in me a new heart. As Your creation reflects your glory around us, may Your spiritual new creation reflect the beauty of Jesus Christ in me.” Praying the Bible thus becomes a personal conversation with God. Be careful to use your mind in this, else it can easily become emotional mysticism which misuses Scripture. Pray without ceasing (I Thess. 5:17), especially when reading God’s Word. May the Word of God speak to our hearts and produce an echo of faith and love.