There’s a lot of books out there on how to read a book. You might want to start with the one called How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. Another great one is the book Lit! by Tony Reinke. These books exist because reading is a lost art. We know how to read words but to actually sit down and wrap your brain around ideas and concepts, you have to keep in mind what’s on the entire page. You can’t just let your eyes scan the words and then walk away and forget how one argument relates to the next.
The same is true when we’re reading our Bibles. We must put into practice some basic principles of interpretation—principles of hermeneutics as Bible scholars call it. We must practice the art and the science that goes into mining out the main points of the text. That begins with asking three important questions: (1) What does the Bible say? (2) What does the Bible mean? and (3) How do I apply the Bible? Let’s flesh out how we go about answering these questions one by one.
Read: What Does the Bible Say?
Understanding our Bibles begins with reading them. There are a lot of Bible reading plans out there, and a lot of people are used to these one-year plans, but in my book How to Eat Your Bible: A Simple Approach to Learning and Loving the Word of God, I propose a seven-year Bible reading plan.
Early on in my Christian faith, I was challenged by John MacArthur, who at the beginning of his Study Bible, lays out a plan of reading through the New Testament in three years. What you do is read a book of the Bible all the way through every single day for thirty days. And you just keep on working through that over and over again, and then you move on systematically. I was fascinated by the idea, and I started to do it. Shorter books you can do in one sitting; longer books like the Gospel of John I broke up into three pieces and read through a day at a time that way—but I just began to work through them over and over again. I stopped worrying as about gaining ground and trying to plow through the New Testament or plow through the Bible, and I just camped out in a book, trying not to move on until I felt like I had a good understanding, a good grasp, of that individual book of the Bible.
And so it took me about three years to work through the New Testament. Then when I was done, I wanted to do the Old Testament. So I modified my plan—it’s obviously a bigger Testament—and I went through the Old Testament in about four years. My plan may not work for everyone; you may already have a one-year plan you love. But my goal in advocating for a seven-year plan is to retrain our minds not to think about the length of reading that we are doing but to simply make knowing God’s Word our goal. As the apostle wrote in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (NIV).
If I’m going to spend the next fifty, sixty, or seventy years as a Christian, I want that time to be spent knowing God. And if it takes me seven years to work through the Bible, well, I’ll spend that time devoting myself to knowing the truth. The goal is to dig down and to get full knowledge of the Bible, a knowledge that’s going to stick in your heart for a long time.
Study: What does the Bible mean?
After reading the Bible, we must slow down and take time to understand what the Bible means. We need to pull verses apart and look at those verses in the context. Context is king when it comes to Bible study—this historical context, the immediate context of the particular book of the Bible, and the larger context (where this particular passage fits in the Bible’s larger story). As R.C. Sproul used to say, “You need to find the drama in the text.” Find out what’s going on inside the text, and you’ll be fascinated.
And don’t be afraid to use study helps to help you understand this meaning. These days, there’s so much available on our iPhones or through other online or Bible software resources. I’d also recommend picking up some other basic tools:
A Bible dictionary or theological dictionary will help you define keywords. Those are go-to sources if you’re looking for a deeper understanding of what, for instance, “justification” or “propitiation” means.
Then, take a look at cross-references. Many study Bibles have those built-in. Cross-references help you see how one passage of Scripture relates to another. They help you use verses to interpret other verses, that is to say, they help you understand how the messages of two letters or even two human authors can be synthesized.
The next level would be the notes in a study Bible or a Bible commentary. When you are reading study notes or a Bible commentary, you are sitting at the feet of a teacher who can give you background information about the book of the Bible and then help you to walk through a passage and understand what it means. We need commentaries. As Ephesians 4:11–13 says, God gives teachers to the church as gifts to help us to understand the Scriptures and how to grow and become more complete.
Use: How Do I Apply the Bible?
I believe that application begins with really soaking in the Scriptures—meditating on it and putting it to memory. When people hear the word “meditate,” often they’re thinking about Eastern religion—about emptying of the mind. But that’s not what the Bible has in mind when it talks about meditation.
Meditation is thinking through the Word of God again and again and trying to understand what it means and how to apply it to your life. It’s about really chewing on the text. That’s a crude illustration, but it’s a biblical one. We should chew on the Word of God like a cow chews the cud. We should be mulling it over again and again.
Practically, this can be as simple as taking a phrase, or a verse, or even a passage, and just reading it over and over again and thinking about it. Meditation can be done as you drive in your car to work—say you put Matthew 16:18 on a flashcard and stick it on your dash. Then, chew it over as you drive think through each word: “What does Jesus mean when he says, ‘I will build my church.’?”
I learned a trick a few years ago from Don Whitney. He tells students to emphasize a different word in the verse each time they read it through. So, “I will build my church.” Well, that I is Jesus, and he’s talking about how he is the cornerstone of the church. Next, “I will build my church.” It’s an absolute statement of fact—Jesus is going to build his church. “I will build my church”: He’s building us up on the foundation of the apostles with the spiritual gifts that he’s given to people in the church.
And so word by word, you can work through the text like that as you drive. Take your time. Slow down word by word and pull out everything that’s there. That’s a way to solidify the truth in your mind.
You’re thinking through connections between the Bible and your life, and you’re also praying and asking God to give you wisdom and insight—“Lord, help me understand this verse. Help me understand this phrase. Help me to live it out in my life.” And you’re asking for help because this is his truth, and you want to understand and live what he’s saying. So, meditation and memorization are not mystic; they are a muscle we need to exercise.
When you humbly come before the Lord and rehearse the Scriptures through meditation and memorization, you’re thinking God’s thoughts after him, and the Lord will often bring these words back to mind when you need them. With the world throwing so much in our faces all the time—with all of the competing voices—you need to have the voice of God in your head.
And finally, you must obey God’s words that you’ve hidden in your heart. It’s great to have information and know Bible stories, but if you can’t go and put it into practice in your own life, the Bible is no help for your day-to-day walk. All of Scripture is profitable for life. So we also ask the Spirit of God to give his word feet in our lives—to help us love God and others in active obedience.
This is my three-fold counsel and prayer for you—that beginning today, you’ll take God’s Word and eat his book so that your thinking, affections, and daily life are shaped by his Word.
Nate Pickowicz is the pastor of Harvest Bible Church in Gilmanton Iron Works, New Hampshire. He is the author of How to Eat Your Bible and Reviving New England as well as the general editor for The American Puritans Series. He and his wife, Jessica, have two children.