Ways to Both Read and Study the Bible

When I first became a Christian, the church I was in urged people to read the Bible through in a year. I’m so glad, because I believe that grounded me in my faith more than anything else.

In later years, pastors often emphasized the need to read passages of the Bible in context and encouraged to read a book of the Bible through at a time rather than scattering our reading all around. I mentioned last week Drew Hunter‘s quote that we wouldn’t read only page two of a friend’s three-page letter. Nor would we read a paragraph on page three and a line on page one. The Bible isn’t a book of random quotations. Each book is a coherent whole, and all together they present a unified message.

Reading the whole Bible helped me keep things in context and see the grand themes of the Bible. It helped me get into books like Leviticus and Chronicles, which I probably would not have drifted into. I found some nuggets there I would have missed. Reading all of the Bible helps you interpret it, as some passages shed light on other passages.

Kelly Needham says:

Most Christians I talk to have never read the entirety of the Bible. They may read it frequently but only parts of it. But daily reading parts of the Bible doesn’t mean you know it any more than daily reading the first chapter of Moby Dick makes you an expert on the famous novel. Ignorance of the whole of God’s Word makes us easy targets in the war Satan has waged against God. Lies can slip through undetected like poison gas because we’re just not that familiar with the truth.

I still believe in reading the Bible through, but I don’t do it in a year any more. Sometimes I wanted to slow down, but felt I couldn’t or I’d fall behind schedule. Once one does fall behind, it’s hard to catch back up. So now I just go at my own pace. I don’t even know how long it takes me. Sometimes I read a couple of chapters a day. Other times I read more or less. I usually read the shorter epistles a few times through before moving on because they’re packed so full and go by so quickly.

I’ve seen some two-year or other plans. John O’Malley said in Overcoming Your Devotional Obstacles, “If it takes you five years to read through the Bible, you are not less of a Christian. Read it at a pace that you can comprehend it and receive something from it.”

Some folks I know have tried “binge-reading” the Bible occasionally. Joel Arnold says, “A pretty average reader can finish in 100 days by reading just 40 minutes a day.” My friend Kim once read the whole Bible in 90 days and shared her experience here.

Joel once read the whole Bible in a week, 10-12 hours a day. Afterward he noted:

The Bible is the most intertwined body of literature I’ve ever read. The books cite, quote, allude and echo each other constantly. It’s like a city, built up layer by layer, strata by strata, so that each later addition rests on every layer that came before … We don’t usually sense these relationships because we’ve forgotten 95% of the OT before we ever get to the New. But having it all out in front of your brain at once changes that completely. You find yourself flipping back and forth constantly between the testaments, jumping across thousands of years of history to study the same teachings and sometimes even the same phrases (Meditations from Binge-Reading the Bible).

Obviously no one can read 10-12 hours a day every week. But if we can use vacation time to binge watch a TV series, why not use it to read the whole Bible?

However, if we only read the Bible in great chunks, we miss something. We’re also told to study it, meditate on it, chew on it. Sometimes we need to slow down and spend more focused time on a smaller passage. Charles Spurgeon is quoted as saying, “Some people like to read so many [Bible] chapters every day. I would not dissuade them from the practice, but I would rather lay my soul asoak in half a dozen verses all day than rinse my hand in several chapters. Oh, to be bathed in a text of Scripture, and to let it be sucked up in your very soul, till it saturates your heart!” Sometimes there’s nothing like honing in on one or a few verses for an extended amount of time.

Remember, the early churches did not have the entire Bible bound in one book for a long while. They had the Old Testament and gospels, but they would have spent a great deal of time on the one letter sent to their congregation and others as they came around.

I mentioned last week that Tim Challies said the larger blocks of reading were for familiarity, and reading for intimacy was slowing down and meditating on or studying shorter passages. Kelly Collier calls these two methods plow work (which “moves through large portions of Scripture more quickly,” like reading the Bible in a year or two) and trowel work (“taking a passage or verse of Scripture and settling in to dig for a long time,” like inductive Bible Study). I likened the two styles to a panoramic or macro lens. Or we could simply call them reading and studying.

I wrote a few years ago about finding time to read the Bible. Some seasons allow for both reading and studying, and it’s great to do both each day if you can. With the friend’s letter I mentioned earlier, we usually read the whole thing once or twice and then go back over it section by section. That’s good to do with a Bible passage as well. But it’s hard enough some days to get a few minutes to read the Bible at all. How can we possibly employ both reading and studying?

Here are some ideas:

Take turns. Often after I’ve finished a book of the Bible, I’ve taken a break to do a shorter study. Then I go back to the next book of the Bible.

Alternate days. Use a few days of the week for general reading, the others for more focused study.

Do the opposite of your church. For several years we were under a pastor who took a very detailed, thorough approach to preaching through a book of the Bible at a time. It took us years to get through Romans. But that was great, because then we knew it well. Since the preaching I heard was the in-depth, verse or two at a time style, my personal reading was more general. By contrast, when in other churches where the preaching covered more ground, I liked to do in-depth studies on my own.

Join a Bible study group. Bible studies tend to be slower and more focused (unless they’re topical), so I did in-depth study for the group and more general study on my own.

Adjust as needs arise. Once, chagrined and ashamed after an angry outburst, I set aside my regular Bible reading to look up and mediate on passages dealing with anger. That kind of thing has happened several times: an issue came up that I had to study out now.

Slow down and speed up as you feel led. In reading the Bible through, if I feel the need to put the breaks on in a certain passage and camp out for a while, I do so. Then I’ll pick up the pace for more general reading later.

There are going to be days when your regular routine flies out the window: illness, traveling, company, emergencies. God gives grace for those. I have a small devotional book called Daily Light on the Daily Path that is a few verses on a certain theme each day. Usually I use it to start my devotions, but some days that’s all I get to.

There are going to be seasons in life when finding time for quiet study is nearly impossible, like when young children are in the house. Just like we sometimes grab a protein bar instead of having a sit-down lunch, so our spiritual feeding sometimes has to be grab-and-go rather than a leisurely meal. When I truly only had time for a verse or two, God fed my soul with just those verses. Anything is better than nothing. One writer proposed a micronutrient Bible reading plan for those times.

We need to keep in mind the goal for reading the Bible isn’t just to get through it in a specified time. Instead, we read to learn it, learn from it, get to know God and His Word better.

Our current church has us read through a book of the Bible together. We’re asked to read five chapters of the Bible a week, one a day Monday-Friday with Saturdays to catch up. Then the preaching focuses on a short passage of a different book. Then we all learn a verse each month. So we incorporate the general overview reading, have a more in-depth study of a short passage, and spend a longer time meditating on one verse. That’s not a bad practice for one’s personal reading as well.

What ways have you find to incorporate both reading and studying the Bible? Do you tend toward one more than the other?

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25 thoughts on “Ways to Both Read and Study the Bible

  1. Barbara, much wisdom in this post. This year I am reading the Bible through in a year (hopefully). I don’t do this every year but as I feel God’s prompting. Other years, I study books of the Bible reading them through slowly with commentary. The important thing is not to beat ourselves up on how we do it, but to faithfully be in the Word each day. Find what works for the season of life we find ourselves in and let God’s Word do the work needed in our lives. I like how you presented various options as it is encouraging and reminds us how we have different schedules.

    • Thanks so much, Joanne. I agree, there are many ways to get into the Bible: we just need to do so. I think changing it up not only accommodates different seasons, but helps us get out of ruts.

  2. I’ve spent some time pondering this as well. I really need a slow pace in my daily reading or else the words just blow by. I want to consult commentaries or read a book by someone I respect alongside the biblical text. But then I lose sight of the big picture and realize it ‘s been months since I opened the “other” testament. My husband and I have read through together a number of times and I’ve loved it.

    • I know what you mean. I read the book of someone I admire who likes a rigid schedule reading from multiple places in the Bible. That almost gives me a headache just to think about it. It works for him, but I wouldn’t get much from scattered reading. I’ve been using study Bibles the last few years. They do slow down the process but are very helpful with their notes.

  3. I like your thoughts here! I just finished my 8th (or maybe 7th, I forget) time through the Bible. Several times I’ve done a 1-year plan, most recently a 2-year. But (sadly) after finishing one of those, I always feel like I need a year off. It is kind of stressful feeling like it’s another “thing to do” each day, and you’re right that once you get behind it’s hard to catch up. And though (because of my personality maybe) I do always soldier through, feeling “forced” to read x-number of chapters while slogging through the prophets, etc. can just feel like another item to check off the list. I like your idea of reading through at your own pace. That’s helpful. Some days I have plenty of time to devote to several chapters, other days it’s just a few verses. I love the quote that reading it through slowly doesn’t make one less of a Christian.

    • Thank you, Susan. My personality was that way, too, when I was reading according to a schedule spanning a year. My days vary like that, too, depending on my schedule, level of wakefulness, and genre I am reading.

  4. Wonderful suggestions, Barbara. I find that once I start a project like reading the Bible, I am on a mission to finish. I think I will read it again this year and slow way down as I go. I don’t want to be on any timetable. My oldest son is a big rpoponent of reading the Bible as entire chapters to get the context. I tend to agree with him.

  5. I appreciate all the insights you shared into the different ways to read and study the Bible. I believe I’ve employed all of them depending upon the season of life I was in. The only one I did not embark on was the “Reading the Bible in a Year Plan”. Not because it is a bad plan, but it would’ve been for me. It would’ve turned into something I “have to do” rather than something I get to do because I wouldn’t want to fall behind.

    In this season of life, I have just started using Kay Arthur’s Inductive Study Bible and I am LOVING it! I mark up my Bible and read according to the inductive method while journaling those things I am learning. Just on it’s own, journaling what I’ve read in the Bible has been a game changer and I find I retain what I read so much more.

    Thanks so much for sharing this great post!

    • That is one thing I had to fight while reading the Bible through in a year: that feeling of getting through and checking off an assignment. I think maybe I needed the discipline the first couple of times through. I love inductive Bible study, too. I used to journal quite a bit until I felt it was taking over my quiet time. But recently I’ve started jotting down just a few things I got out of my reading.

  6. I like how you point out the positives of different approaches to Bible study. I’ve read through the whole Bible twice – once in a year and once in 40 weeks – and at the time I felt it was a bit much and that I wasn’t taking it all in, but now as I look at individual books or chapters, I really appreciate how it’s helped me understand the context and how it all ties together. At the moment I’m finding the studies at She Reads Truth helpful. They tend to go through whole books of the Bible. I often stick with their current plan, but just now I’m doing one of their older ones on Revelation, trying to get to grips with a book I’ve always found difficult.

    • Thank you, Lesley. I’ve found that when I was reading large portions, I felt I was missing out by slowing down. But when I slowed down, I felt I was missing the bigger picture. 🙂 But then I finally realized I could switch back and forth and get the benefits of both.

  7. This is a fantastic post, Barbara! I really like Kelly’s quote, “Most Christians I talk to have never read the entirety of the Bible. They may read it frequently but only parts of it. But daily reading parts of the Bible doesn’t mean you know it any more than daily reading the first chapter of Moby Dick makes you an expert on the famous novel. Ignorance of the whole of God’s Word makes us easy targets in the war Satan has waged against God. Lies can slip through undetected like poison gas because we’re just not that familiar with the truth.” <— THAT is so the truth.

    You have made some excellent points here! I am enjoying reading through the Bible this year in chronological order of book authorship. Thanks for this post and these timely reminders!

    Pinned, tweeted and will be sharing to the IE Facebook page.

    Thanks for linking up at InstaEncouragements!

  8. THis has some really great ideas. I especially liked the “Do the opposite that your church is doing” Had never really thought of that. Thanks for all the encouragement for anyone in all sorts of situations. We can sometimes beat ourselves up when we feel we are failing.
    I’m going deeper with the spiritual disciplines this year. If you would like to guest write about Bible reading or study, Let me know. I’m posted just under you on the FB 31 day Survivors.

  9. Oh I like this post. Lots of good wisdom in it. I don’t do bible reading plans anymore because I got so stressed when I got behind that I’d binge read to get back on track, not with the purpose of gaining anything from what I was actually reading, but just to catch up. When I finally realized that I said goodbye to the plans and took it at my own pace. I must admit though that I do need to spend some more time in the “harder to read” books of the Old Testament.

    • Thanks, Susanne! I did that, too–when I had to catch up on a Bible reading plan, I don’t think I got as much from it. I still like to read it through so I don’t miss some of the harder books.

  10. Oh I love this. I think that both ways of reading are good for different reasons. I think it’s good to know the history and the reason behind certain scriptures and you can’t truly understand that until you have read the entire bible. There are times it can be dangerous to pick and choose certain scripture without reading the entire chapter because it’s easier to interpret them as we will and not necessarily the way that God meant them to be interpreted.

  11. Many years ago I read the Bible through in 90 days and found that I didn’t retain much. It seemed like a race to check off my list.
    Now I have a 3 year reading plan that I share with my subscribers. This plan helps me to get the most of each chapter I read and allows me to ponder, take notes and even check out what had previously been said. Everything is in context and has really helped putting the whole of the Bible together.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate reading how others think of Bible reading.

  12. I love how you compare and contrast different methods without judgement as to which methods are “best”. Each has its season.

  13. Pingback: January Reflections | Stray Thoughts

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  15. Pingback: My Journey with the Bible | Stray Thoughts

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