Of all the courses that I took in my doctoral program, the one I dreaded the most was one called Quantitative Research Methods. That’s a fancy term for “statistics.” To give you an idea of where math and I left our relationship, my last class in the subject was during my freshman year in college. The course was entitled College Math, and it was designed for people who broke out in a rash at the mere mention of the word math.
I went from the easiest remedial math class in the undergrad course to a PhD-level course in statistics. The best part was that it was as bad as I had made it out to be in my mind. Seriously, from the moment I cracked my textbooks, I was bamboozled by p-values and the sum of squares in the operation of a special software for statistical analysis of social science data that I used to check my often-misguided models. (Don’t try to figure that one out. I couldn’t either!) I felt like I was drowning! That class gave me the gift of my first anxiety attack. It was horrible.
How did I survive? A few ways. First, the class formed a support group on Facebook to compare notes and answer one another’s questions. Second, many of us went to YouTube to find additional lecture material from statistics professors who put their presentations online or who made short clips simplifying the concepts outlined in the textbooks. Finally, I went through my textbooks and rewrote them in words I could understand. It was a slow process, but paraphrasing the passages and using language that broke the concepts into bite-sized pieces helped to stick them in my mind.
After the final exam and a research paper, I felt relieved and terrified. To get anything less than a B meant academic probation and a loss of merit scholarships. When the final grades rolled out, I had an A! I was so grateful, and, in truth, I learned a lot and even enjoyed part of it. My professor congratulated me and said I was now equipped to do statistical research.
To understand a difficult way to study human interaction and read it correctly, I had to employ a variety of tools. Many people have a similar dread of picking up a book such as the Bible and figuring out what it is trying to say to their personal situation. The good news is that, because Bible study has been a challenge for so many people, scholars have developed a variety of tools that can help us understand the text. Like the study group we formed in statistics, scholars have created helps to aid us in understanding the biblical text. However, before we get to the tools, we need to talk about reading.
how to read the Bible
Of course, you likely already know how to read—how else would you be reading this article? Yet, when it comes to a text such as the Bible, it can seem overwhelming. The Bible has 66 books and multiple literary styles (history, poetry, prophecy, parables/stories, etc.). How do you even start reading a book like this? Many people who start reading read it straight through give up somewhere between the end of Exodus and halfway through Leviticus. They barely make it past the second book of the Bible, and there are still 64 more to go!
There are at least three important ways to approach the Bible to discover truth from its texts. These ways are: reading the Bible through in a year, studying a book of the Bible, and studying a specific topic of the Bible, such as baptism or what happens when you die. Since the first way, reading the Bible through in a year, likely sounds like the most daunting of the three, we will discuss that first. But before we do, there is one practice that applies to any way of reading the Bible—and that is praying first.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus told His disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future” (John 16:13).1 The big idea in this passage is that we need divine help to understand spiritual things. Every one of us wrestles with biases, fears, and stresses that can affect how we read the text. Asking Jesus to send us His Spirit helps us better understand what we read and apply it to our lives.
the Bible in a year
At first glance, this may seem like sitting down each day and just powering through as much text as possible. However, reading the Bible in a year is less about reading Genesis through Revelation straight through than systematically sampling various texts over the course of a year. Numerous plans exist online that can help you organize your Bible study so that you can read it through in a year, many of which you can find with a simple Google search. Typically, these study guides involve reading a couple passages from the Old Testament, then a few from Psalms or Proverbs, and a couple from the New Testament. This exposes you to the wide variety of Bible themes and keeps you from getting bogged down in a single book. By reading a little each day, you will eventually work your way through the Bible in a year.
Often, these plans put passages together that complement each other. For example, Jesus’ words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mark 15:34) come from Psalm 22. Jesus was simply quoting this passage when He cried out those words. By reading the entirety of Psalm 22, we get a broad picture of what Jesus is saying on the cross.
This also reinforces an important principle for biblical interpretation: the Bible interprets itself. Lots of people like to dash off with the latest sensational news event, and they use that to interpret the Bible. Unfortunately, too often they end up making wild claims that are totally unfounded. However, a careful reading reveals that difficult passages, or even ones we feel are bland, have deeper meanings to be grasped when we compare them with other verses.
studying a book of the Bible
Another way to study the Bible is to focus on one of its books. Maybe there’s one you’ve always been curious about—such as Revelation. Or maybe you’ve never taken the time to read the little book of Philemon, and the time has come. Focusing on a single book enables you to go deeper into the content as well as discover the background of what the text says. No book of the Bible is without a context, a historical situation that called for it to be written. But how can you understand the background of the text if you aren’t a historian with a PhD in ancient history?
Two of the best tools available are a commentary and a Bible dictionary. A commentary is a book or a series of books that were written by a biblical scholar or multiple scholars to give you historical facts about certain passages that may seem strange. A Bible dictionary can help explain ancient agricultural practices, geological features, or cultural dynamics. For example, using these tools, you might look at the passage where Jesus holds up a coin with Caesar’s picture on it and says, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25, ESV2). You would learn that Caesar thought himself a god, and by making a distinction, Jesus has demoted Caesar in the ears of those listening to Him—an inflammatory political statement with ramifications. We miss so much because we are 2,000 years removed from the text, and often we only do a surface reading. Slowing down and focusing on books of the Bible is a great way to deepen knowledge.
All of us have unique interests and questions about life, so choosing a specific topic to research in the Bible is another helpful way to read it. However, a few principles need to be in place before we begin so that we don’t end up with strange ideas. First, read the passage in context. In other words, don’t just cherry-pick random verses to prove a point. Read the verses around it to make sure you know what is being said.
Another helpful tool for topical reading is a concordance—a book that lists all the words in the Bible and where they are found. This lets you know what the words in the text meant 2,000 years ago. Don’t try to define ancient Greek and Hebrew with a twenty-first-century American dictionary. Words like love have multiple meanings, and words like perfect often meant something very different in Bible times than we understand them to mean now. A concordance also shows you where else a word or concept is talked about in the Bible, creating a fun treasure hunt as you seek to unravel what a topic is all about.
conclusion: making it personal
However you choose to read the Bible, remember that it isn’t about the accumulation of information. It’s about discovering deep truth that you can personalize and make a part of how you live your life. Often people keep a notebook or a prayer journal handy. When studying a text, they ask, “What is Jesus teaching me today, and how does it apply to my life?” This helps bring the text to life and moves us to be more like Jesus, which, according to John 5:30, is the point of studying the Bible in the first place.
1. Unless otherwise noted, Bible verses in this article are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation.
2. Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Seth Pierce, PhD, pastored Seventh-day Adventist churches for 16 years before becoming an assistant professor of communication at Union College. You can connect with him on Twitter @SethJPierce or on Instagram @professorpierce.