I’ve come to realize that in order to know the Bible there is no replacement for reading the entire thing.
I’m going to give three reasons why you need to aim to read even the portions of the Bible you somehow rarely get around to—and why I myself continue to reread the Bible even though I’ve already marked it “read” on Goodreads.
Give poor Obadiah and Nahum some love. Actually try to divine some intent behind genealogies rather than skipping them (hint: it’s there).
1. Your confidence and skill in Bible interpretation rely on it.
As a seminary student I’d often come across statements in my Bible reading that I knew were prooftexts in some theological debate.
Once I was reading in Luke 1, and I noticed Mary say to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Is she issuing an authoritative “Fiat,” launching the incarnation as a phase in God’s overall plan of redemption? Or is she merely speaking humbly as a (more than likely) young teenager who is submissive to her God? Theologians argue about this.
Then another time I was reading in Isaiah 14, and I noticed the statements about the “King of Tyre” that are often used by Christians to speak of Satan.
How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”
Is this indeed a reference to Satan or just a purposefully hyperbolic description of the literal King of Tyre? Theologians argue about this.
I had read these passages many times previously, but late in my education I began to see them in a new light. I would read a passage over which interpreters had some disagreement, and then it would hit me: even the greatest theologians and exegetes in the world had no more biblical data than I did on these particular questions. I’m not saying I was as smart as they, as adept as they at the work of theology and original language exegesis, as knowledgeable as they about the history of biblical interpretation; I’m saying we had the same raw materials to work with. There’s no secret Bible book in Daniel Wallace’s safe that he can access and I can’t. No angel whispers in D.A. Carson’s ear giving him the right interpretation.
I had read the entire Bible and studied it. I knew that there are no cross-references providing definitive answers on Mary’s fiat and the King of Tyre. But only by reading the entire Bible could I know that I wasn’t missing something. Theological education also helped me know when I was missing something—which still happens all the time; but knowing that I have all the facts in front of me gives me real confidence as I work to interpret certain passages.
2. You’ll reduce the risk of interpreting passages out of context.
In R.L. Dabney’s classic text on preaching, Sacred Rhetoric: A Course of Lectures on Preaching, the nineteenth-century Presbyterian theologian compared the Scriptures to a die, a mold for stamping out coins.
Our business with [the text] is to commend God’s own meaning in it—nothing more, nothing less, to every man’s conscience in his sight. Our task is to impress God’s own die, as he has engraved it, upon the plastic soul, that we may produce his image. (105–106)
This is an illustration for preachers, but it is no less true for readers. And Dabney expands it helpfully:
To produce a fair transcript, the artisan must press [the die] down equably, and place the whole outline upon the wax. This is accomplished by the exposition in course of the chief parts of the Bible. But our fragmentary, modern method of preaching without context is as though the servant to whom the die is committed should divide it into small pieces, and then, selecting favourite letters of the legend or features of the carving, should force them into the wax at a high temperature and with extravagant pressure. But the remainder is scarcely brought into the faintest contact with the surface. What can one expect save a cluster of rude, shapeless indentations rather than the symmetrical imprint of the Redeemer’s beauteous image on the soul? (79–80)
I want the whole image of God to be formed in me (and in my hearers when I preach); I want to be like Christ, the perfect image of God (Gal 4:19; Heb 1:3). So I dare not expose myself to only a few select parts of the biblical die God cast to mold me.
This is why people who know the Bible are saddened when YouVersion stats reveal that an entire nation’s favorite verse is Jeremiah 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” They know, first, that this statement comes in a context and is not communicating a direct promise to modern Italians, Zambians, or Japanese. It is in the Bible; it is part of God’s mold and meant to shape us. But the “extravagant pressure” placed on this statement—because, taken alone, it tells us what we all want to hear—is going to make people into badly misshapen copies of the divine image.
3. You have access to tools that make it simple (if not easy).
This third point is not obligatory; I’m not just saying it because of my 401k. I have genuinely found that Logos makes it easier to read the entire Bible. I generally prefer reading my paper Bible, but my best Bible-reading time—the time when I get no interruptions—comes on the bus. And for that an iPad with Logos and a daily Bible reading plan is the ideal companion. I get a measure of structure and accountability and push-button ease I can’t get in a codex. And we have not just reading plans but Guided Learning Plans taking readers through devotionals—from Carson’s modern classic, For the Love of God (vol. 1, vol. 2) to John Barry and Rebecca Brant’s Connect the Testaments (currently free!). Logos gives me powerful Bible-marking tools, too. It’s my own fault if I don’t use this tool.
I can’t hide that regular Bible reading has been one of the most difficult spiritual disciplines for me to maintain. I am not a perfect model. 2016 didn’t go so hot, and 2017 is off to a slow start. What prompted this post was inspiration from a friend who read the entire Bible in a week. The. Entire. Bible. In. A. Week. Sometimes the most I can say for myself is that I “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” In my heart, I did not sneer at that friend or imagine him a boaster or legalist or ascetic; no, I spontaneously desired the rich spiritual experience he described.
God’s grace gives us rich spiritual experiences in myriad ways, even when we fail. But if you read your whole Bible, you won’t come away with the impression that putting forth effort and exertion in the life of faith is needless—or legalistic or ascetic. Yes, “his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness,” but it is “for this very reason,” Peter says, that you must “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Pet 1:3–5).
Regular Bible reading is the one sacrament just about everybody in evangelicalism can agree on completely. And for good reason. Read your Bible. The whole thing. I’m renewing my commitment to do so.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.