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Bible Reading Strategies

by Tim Isbell

Many people intend to read the Bible - many even make a good start - but soon get bogged down. To sustain our good intentions, most of us need some guidance. We don’t need much, just a little advice as is in this brochure.

First, purchase a modern version such as the New Living Translation (2004). Other good choices are Today’s New International Version (2005) or The Message: the Bible in Contemporary Language (2002).

The Bible has 1189 chapters. You can read a chapter and underline a few highlights in 4 to 5 minutes. So you can read the whole Bible in about 90 hours. At four chapters a day (about 20 minutes), you'll finish the Bible in just 298 days!

Each time you pick up the Bible to read, it helps to ask God’s Spirit to speak to you through it. Invite him to point out things and coach you on how to apply the Bible to your life. Soon you’ll learn to hear God’s voice personalizing scripture to your situation.

Here are three Bible reading plans, one that is sure to suit your situation. 

Story-Line Plan

If you've never read the whole Bible story, or if your grasp of Bible stories is all jumbled, then start with this plan. It is valuable to understand an overview of the whole Bible – and you can do this reading only the most action-packed 30% of the Bible. The other 70% contains alternative views of the same story, side commentaries written by prophets, and poetry. Reading just 30% of the Bible takes about 30 hours. If you read it like you’d read a novel, in 20 minutes a day you’ll grasp the whole Bible story in just three months!

Here are the details: begin by reading Luke (the story of the life of Jesus, which occurs from about 0 to 33AD), and then read the book of Acts (the story of the formation of the Christian church, which happens from about 33AD to 55AD). This provides the perspective to understand the parts of the Bible from much earlier times – because all of the scripture points to Jesus and the church in one way or another. So, after reading Luke and Acts, you are ready to go back to the very beginning of the Old Testament and read these books in this order: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, Daniel 1-6, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. That's all there is to it.

To make the Story-Line Plan even better, gather one or two friends every couple of weeks to share thoughts on the readings. If one of them is a mature Christian and experienced in applying the Bible to life, that's even better.

Another delightful way I've used this Story-Line Plan is what I've called the "Graduate level Bible study." This is an excellent approach for someone who is in college or beyond. I invite them to read one book at a time from this plan, and each time they finish a book to make two short lists. The first lists the three big ideas they think the book conveys. The second lists the three biggest questions that arose as they read the book. After this, we make a time to sit down and talk about their three big ideas and big questions. 

Once I worked with an investigator who lived most of the time in Shanghai. So we did it via email. He shared it with his Chinese fiance, who spoke only Mandarin and had a Buddhist background. Along the way, they both choose to follow Christ, and a few months later the man flew to California for baptism (his fiance was baptized even sooner, in China). The biggest challenge in this approach is to limit the discussion to the list of three's. The student invariably has trouble keeping from getting lost in the detail. But it's best to keep them at a very high level in their first pass through the Bible. Then they are much better prepared to drill down into detail later.

Lectionary Reading Plan

Once you read through the Story-Line Plan, and especially if you are in a formal church that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, this plan is a perfect fit for parishioners. It's even a great fit for the rest of us!  In formal churches, the typical Sunday scripture set offers a reading from the Old Testament, the Wisdom literature, gospel, and an epistle. Theologians strategically selected these scriptures to follow the Christian calendar and to cover the central Christian themes in proper balance over a 3-year cycle.

Reading the lection scriptures includes all the major themes and stories of the Bible at a pace that lets you go deep into short passages of scripture each week, but it does not include all the scriptures in the Bible. Many people like to follow a plan that takes them through the whole of scripture on some periodic basis. Gloria Wall, a parishioner at New Life Nazarene Church (Cupertino, CA), developed a 3-year daily Bible reading plan based on the lectionary that does include every scripture in the Bible. Her plan even connects to each Sunday's lectionary reading!

Spreading 100 hours of reading over three years is a leisurely enough pace that even if you occasionally miss a few days, it’s easy to catch up. The Lectionary Basics web page provides the links to give this method a try.

Chronological Bible Plan 

If you are not in a lectionary-based church, or you want to read the entire Bible in chronological order, you can do it! Just purchase a “Chronological Bible” and start reading. These are available in several modern translations from any Christian bookseller.

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Blessings, Tim