Looking for Shortcuts – or – How To Read the Bible for Content
How do you do it? That’s what I get asked. How do you get the most out of your research? Where do you go to get the information you need quickly? In other words, gimme some shortcuts!
Well, the truth is there are no shortcuts in research. When you start to cut corners, you end up with a product of poor quality. And your audience is going to see it! But the first place I always go to when I start researching a series or a sermon is (wait for it…) the Bible. You knew I was going to say that, right?
But people also want to know how to find the best scriptures, the most impactful narratives, and the greatest moments in the text. They want to know how to find out what’s behind the words as well as what’s plainly written. And many think that it takes years of study in a seminary, arduous Greek and Hebrew classes, and stacks and stacks of commentary to get the full picture. But the reality is focused and consistent Bible reading is the best way to get the most out of your research.
So, here are 5 tips for getting the most out of your daily Bible reading, or how to read the Bible for content.
1. Get Ready
Before you start to read, get yourself ready by asking some important questions, the 5 Ws: Who,
What, When, Where, and Why? Who wrote this and who are they writing to? What type of literature is it? When and where are they writing? Why were they led to write it?
You won’t be able to answer all of those questions, but any good study Bible will give you an overview before each book that will give you an approximation. Knowing these things before you dig in will help you answer questions as you go along.
2. Get in Order
Some people like to do a One Year Bible reading plan, and that’s fine. I prefer to be a bit more organized when I read the Bible. The problem with most of those plans is that they have you jumping all over the Bible, reading it in chunks that are a bit out of order. To get the most out of your Bible reading, try reading it in order.
Now, you’ve got to decide what order you want to read it in. The most obvious is to read it chronologically. That means you read the Bible as a history unfolding, taking in the events as they happen. Or you can read it in the order it was written. That means taking it in as those who followed God did, each book as God revealed himself more and more to us.
Another way to “read the Bible in order” is to read it according to themes. Reading the book of Hosea along with Romans and Galatians is very helpful to understanding Paul’s viewpoint. And reading the first half of Isaiah alone with the first chapters of Matthew and Luke will give you even more context.
3. Get Through It
Try to read as much as you can in one sitting. Some books are just too large to read through at once, but most books were intended to be read that way. The Epistles were written with the idea that the entire church would gather together and listen to it all together. I think we should try to do the same.
It’s easy to do that with the smaller books, like Ephesians and Philippians and definitely Jude and Philemon. But with larger books, try to read whole sections at a time. For instance, in reading Genesis, try to read the whole story of Joseph all at once.
4. Get the History
Know the background of what you’re reading. Know the social setting, the political context, and the lay of the land as much as you can. This means you’ll need to brush up on some specific areas.
Ancient History – this will cover at least the time of Egypt through the Assyrian and Babylonian empires in ancient Palestine. You don’t have to know everything, but getting a big picture of the major events will help tremendously.
Roman History – for the New Testament setting, knowing what is going on in Palestine during the time of Roman occupation will be helpful. Who were the main characters? Why are the Herods so important? What’s the deal with Roman soldiers and Roman money in Jesus’ teaching?
Religious History – get a background on the customs of Jewish worship and sacrifice. Get to know the Temple and priesthood as much as you can. Much of this is derived directly from the Old Testament text.
Redemptive History – this is the big one! Redemptive History is the big story that’s told from Genesis to Revelation. This is the story of God’s love for his people and how he redeems us, bringing us back to himself.
5. Get a Notebook
Finally before you start, grab a notebook and a trusty pen. You’ll want to write some things down. As you read certain truths will jump out at you. Write it down! You’ll begin to get inspired for a future sermon or series. Write it down! You’ll see some connections between texts that you didn’t see before. Write it down! Write all of it down.
Here’s the deal – if you don’t write it down, you will forget it. And the next time you speak about a certain subject you’ll be searching your brain for the answer. But you won’t find it because it’s hiding in the same place you put your car keys. But if you’ve got a notebook of ideas, it’s much easier to find that kernel of a thought. Then you can turn that thought into words that motivate people to action!
I hope these tips have helped you. The best advice I can give is to also get your heart and mind ready before reading. Just say a simple prayer that God would open your eyes, your mind, and your heart to those things your audience (and you!) will need to grow in your faith.
As a bonus, here are a few books that are handy resources for studying the historical background of the Bible:
Bible History: Old Testament, by Alfred Edersheim
Kingdom of Priests, by Eugene Merril
The Old Testament: Text and Context, by Victor Matthews and James Moyer
New Testament History, by F. F. Bruce
New Testament History: A Narrative Account, by Ben Witherington III
People of the Covenant: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, by Henry Jackson Flanders, Robert Crapps, and David Smith
An Introduction to Early Judaism, by James Vanderkam
Jewish Background of the New Testament
Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament, by Julius Scott
Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, by Marvin Wilson
Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad H. Young
The Art of Biblical History, by Philips Long
Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, by Herman Ridderbos
(note: some of these works are critical of the Biblical account and do not necessarily represent a true belief in the Bible as inspired of God)