by Gabe McReynolds and Terra Hensel

The Bible is pretty huge and can be rather intimidating.

So you want to read the Bible. That’s great! This guide will help you get started in how to read the Bible. First we’ll look at what the Bible is and it’s book structure, then move into picking a translation and starting your reading plan.

Hearing people drop names like Corinthians, Genesis, or Habakkuk may make you wonder if you will need to learn a foreign language just to get past page one. But don’t worry, soon you’ll be zipping between Daniel, Jeremiah, John, and Matthew without problem.

Already familiar with the basics? Here’s some tips on how to meaningfully engage with the Bible and some sarcastic reflections on how to be changed by your Bible.

What is the Bible?

Before diving into the book’s order and structure, let’s pause for a moment to consider the heart and message of the Bible.

While the word “Bible” comes from the Greek word biblia, meaning “book,” it may be helpful to know that the Bible isn’t an ordinary book that reads smoothly from cover to cover. It’s actually a library, or collection, of books written in several languages over 1600 years by about 40 different authors. Its books are “shelved” or ordered by type and topic rather than chronologically.

All the different parts of the Bible come together to form one narrative. It’s a true story with a courageous main character, great adversity and conflict that ultimately climaxes in triumph.

Listen to this description of the grand biblical story by Sally Lloyd-Jones:

“Now, some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. The Bible certainly does have some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done.

Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean.

No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a Story.

It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the center of the Story, there is a baby. Every story in the Bible whispers his name. He is like the missing piece in a puzzle—the piece that makes all the other pieces fit together, and suddenly you can see a beautiful picture.”

The Jesus Storybook Bible [1]

For more on how the Bible is a complete story, see “What is the Bible?

The Old Testament

Grab your Bible and open it up to the Table of Contents.

You should see there that it is divided into two basic sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. Testament is another word for covenant or promise. Thus, the Bible is a book about God’s promises to us.

Let’s first take a look at the Old Testament.

Ground Level: The Historical Books

The bulk of the Old Testament primarily covers a period of time from about 2500 B.C. to about 400 B.C., in the area of the world known by scholars as “The Ancient Near East”. It specifically focuses on God’s historical and prophetic interactions with the Hebrew people. There are 39 books or sections written by a number of different authors.

The Old Testament is divided into at least three major sections. The first part (Genesis to Nehemiah) contains the history of the Jewish people. It’s roughly chronological, and all the narratives fit into the times described in these history books.

Level Two: The Wisdom Books

The next section (Job to Ecclesiastes) is all poetry. Much, but not all of it, was written during the kingdoms of David and Solomon (roughly 1000 B.C.).

Level Three: The Prophetic Books

The last section (Isaiah through Malachi) contains the writings of the prophets. They wrote about a great deal of things, but mostly they spoke about two major catastrophes in Israel’s history.

In 722 B.C., Israel was destroyed by Assyria, and then in 586 B.C., Babylon attacked and captured Jerusalem. These events were incredibly significant in the life of Israel. By and large, the prophets wrote to warn of, or explain, these events.

The final prophet, Malachi, wrote about 400 B.C., and then there was silence until Jesus’ arrival.

The New Testament

The New Testament has 27 books, which were all written between about 40 and 90 A.D. during the reign of the Roman Empire in the Middle East. They focus on the life, ministry, and ultimate effect of Jesus Christ.

The New Testament is also divided into three main sections.

Level Four: The Historical Books

The historical section contains four biographical accounts of Jesus. They are known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (Gospel means “good news.”) There is also Acts, which is a record of the activities of the early followers of Jesus for the first several decades after Jesus’ resurrection.

Level Five & Six: The Letters & a Prophetic Book

The next section (Romans through 3 John) contains epistles, or letters, written by early church leaders to various congregations or individuals. They struggled with and celebrated the same things we do today.

The final section of the New Testament (Revelation) is also prophecy. It’s primarily about Jesus’ second coming, and how to live in the interval between his two appearances.

These are God’s very words

You may have heard the Bible referred to as “The Word of God.” This idea comes from within the Bible itself. The authors of the Old Testament referred to the words they recorded as “the Word of God.” And in the New Testament, Jesus himself referred to the words recorded in the Old Testament as being the very words of God.

This means that these very words carry God’s authority and speak the truth about God’s character, his actions and his plans for the world.

The Bible reveals that God is a God who speaks with authority. Much of the Bible is a recording of God’s instructions, corrections and blessings that he spoke both audibly and through his Spirit in visions and dreams to his people. It is difficult to pick just one example from the Bible that illustrates this idea because there are so many!

The Bible clearly contains the understanding that God’s spoken word is true and authoritative in creation and the lives of His people. Over and over the words, “God said,” or “The Word of God,” or “The voice of the Lord,” occurs in the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, the author of the book of Hebrews explains it like this:

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.”

Hebrews 1:1-2

Jesus, the ultimate Word of God

Jesus is not only called the Word of God (see John 1) but also demonstrated in his life that he spoke with authority and power as the God of the Old Testament.

He spoke with authority over creation (storms and water), people (healing and blessing), spiritual realm (demons and spirits) and concerning the future (his own death and the coming of the Holy Spirit).

The first four books of the New Testament recorded Jesus’ words for us to read and understand for ourselves, much like those first disciples who originally heard the words from Jesus’ own mouth.

Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, wrote to a young man named Timothy to encourage him to look to the Bible to grow and become wise in Christ.

His instructions show us the early church’s understanding of the nature of Scripture. Paul writes,

“… you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

2 Timothy 3:15-17

Bible translation

I don’t read ancient Greek. How can I know that this is a trustworthy translation of the Bible?

There is a popular myth out there that the English translations of the Bible have been translated from other translations that came from other translations, and so on… far removed from the original writings like distant cousins of your great-great grandparents.

The fact is that modern translations, whether in English or in other languages, are all translated from the oldest and best preserved manuscripts, portions of which date to within one hundred years of the death of Christ. You simply have to look at the preface of the Bible to see what principles the committee of scholars used to guide their translation. This is not a secretive process conducted by some sinister illuminati, but an open collaboration that holds to the highest academic standards.

The key to verifying the accuracy of any ancient manuscript, whether it’s the Bible or Plato or Homer, is the number of copies available. If you have only one copy of an ancient book, it’s hard to know how accurate it is because you don’t have any other copies to compare it to. If you have several copies, you can compare them. If there are discrepancies or variations, you put those passages in parentheses and call them doubtful (at best). What remains can be considered authentic. The more copies you have, the more opportunities there are for cross-checking.

Now consider this: for some of the writings of Plato, we have 7 copies—not bad. Of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, we have a whopping 643 portions and copies, plenty of material to work with.

Of the New Testament, however, we have an unbelievable 5,366 portions, complete books or complete copies. No contest.

Another important factor determining accuracy is the amount of time elapsed between the original composition and the writing of the copy. Again, with Plato, an estimated 1,300 years elapse between his death and the oldest manuscript copy available to us; with Homer, they estimate 400 years.

With the New Testament, it is 50-100 years for some portions and just over 200 years for a complete copy. Once again, it surpasses by far anything comparable.

We won’t go into detail about the Old Testament, which obviously has a much longer history of textual analysis, but we will mention this: a large portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls consisted of multiple fragments of many books from the Old Testament and a complete copy of the book of Isaiah. These manuscripts are older than the previous existing manuscripts and yet were found to be in remarkable agreement with them!

How to pick a version

Now that you hopefully have some reassurance about the trustworthiness of the Bible, you may be asking, “There are many English translations of the Bible—which one should I read?” That’s a good question.

Bible translations land somewhere on the spectrum between word-for-word translations (more literal), and thought-for-thought translations. There are also paraphrases available, like The Message, which seek to bring the meaning of the text to life.

If you are new to the Bible, usually a thought-for-thought translation like the New International Version (NIV) or, farther along the thought-for-thought continuum, the New Living Translation (NLT), is recommended since it is more readable.

Afterwards, you could pick up a more literal translation like the New American Standard Bible (NASB) or the English Standard Version (ESV) for more in-depth study.

Check out “One Bible, many versions” for a deeper dive into the history and types of Bible translations.

Where to start reading

Like any great story it makes sense to start at the beginning, but perhaps if you are like me, skipping ahead to the climax of the story is also very attractive.

It’s up to you where you start, and hopefully as you read, study, discuss and digest God’s truth, you will learn that every new page is God speaking to you and into your life. Enjoy every page—it’s a book that you’ll never get tired of.

Although this is not an exhaustive list, the passages found in “Jesus on every page: Reading the biblical narrative in Five Acts” can be a good place to start as you seek to understand the overview of God’s story. Once you have read through these, dig deeper into the life and teachings of Jesus Christ starting in the book of John, in the New Testament.

You are part of the Story

The Bible is an amazing story. It pulls no punches in portraying the good, the bad, and the ugly of the human condition, yet before, between, and beyond, is the matchless God and Saviour who is actively working to put it all right. It truly is the greatest story ever told.

And you are part of the story.

Ready to dive in? Here’s some tips on how to meaningfully engage with the Bible.

Or if you prefer learning through sarcasm, here is how to make sure your Bible doesn’t change you.

Already reading with others? Find out why the same text can be understood differently in “How to disagree in a Bible study.”

Enjoy reading the Bible, digging into it, wrestling with it, reflecting on it, and putting it to use in your own life. It will change you forever!


1. Introduction to The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones

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