Read the Bible
First, I begin with reading the Bible. That seems obvious, but quite frankly, it’s where many people fail. Too many Christians are content with a second-hand knowledge of Scripture. They read books about the Bible instead of studying the Bible for themselves. Books are good, but collateral reading can never replace the Bible itself.
There are many good Bible reading plans available, but here is one I’ve found most helpful. I read through the Old Testament at least once a year. As I read, I note in the margins any truths I particularly want to remember, and I write down separately anything I don’t immediately understand. Often I find that as I read, my questions are answered by the text itself. The questions to which I can’t find answers become the starting points for more in-depth study using commentaries or other reference tools.
I follow a different plan for reading the New Testament. I read one book at a time repetitiously for a month or more. I began doing this when I was in seminary, because I wanted to retain what was in the New Testament and not always have to depend on a concordance to find things.
If you want to try this, begin with a short book, such as 1 John, and read it through in one sitting every day for 30 days. At the end of that time, you will know what’s in that book. Write out on index cards the major theme of each chapter. By referring to the cards as you do your daily reading, you’ll begin to remember the content of each chapter. In fact, you’ll develop a visual perception of the book in your mind.
Divide longer books into short sections and read each section daily for thirty days. For example, the gospel of John contains 21 chapters. Divide it into 3 sections of 7 chapters. At the end of 90 days, you’ll finish John. For variety, alternate short and long books and in less than 3 years you will have finished the entire New Testament—and you’ll really know it!
Interpret the Bible
As I read Scripture, I always keep in mind one simple question: “What does this mean?” It’s not enough to read the text and jump directly to the application; we must first determine what it means, otherwise the application may be incorrect.
Gaps to Bridge The first step in interpreting the Bible is to recognize the four gaps we have to bridge: language, culture, geography, and history.
Language The Bible was originally written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Often, understanding the meaning of a word or phrase in the original language can be the key to correctly interpreting a passage of Scripture. Two books that will help you close the language gap are An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vine, and Nelson’s Expository Dictionary of the Old Testament, by Merrill F. Unger and William White, Jr. You don’t need to know Greek or Hebrew to use those books effectively.
Culture The culture gap can be tricky. Some people try to use cultural differences to explain away the more difficult biblical commands. Don’t fall into that trap, but realize that we must first view Scripture in the context of the culture in which it was written. Without an understanding of first-century Jewish culture, it is difficult to understand the gospels. Acts and the epistles must be read in light of the Greek and Roman cultures. The following books will help you understand the cultural background of the Bible: The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, by Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, also by Edersheim, and The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times, by Ralph Gower.
Geography A third gap that needs to be closed is the geography gap. Biblical geography makes the Bible come alive. A good Bible atlas is an invaluable reference tool that can help you comprehend the geography of the Holy Land. Of course, nothing helps like seeing the land first-hand on a tour.