My life in Christ began through a transformational encounter with God’s word. As a public-school teenager with little understanding of spiritual things, I picked up a copy of the Scripture and, like Karl Barth, discovered “the strange new world of the Bible.”1 It was nearly too strange; I almost gave up after a dozen failed attempts to make sense of the big black book in front of me. Then, I prayed my first prayer of dependence on God: “If I’m going to read this, you’ll have to help me.”
My simple prayer was miraculously answered with an unexplainable, insatiable desire for the words of God. I read from morning to night, fasting school lunch to read in the library and walking through the halls with an open Bible between classes. My life was never the same. God-breathed Scripture transformed me.
To this day, I am passionate about helping others—especially unbelievers and new believers—to encounter the same glory of God in the Scriptures. Many struggle to persevere in reading God’s word; the church is responsible to help them be successful. Here are several practical ways to help others read the Bible for the first time.
1. Stress the Priority of Scripture and Avoid Substitutes
We should not take for granted that others understand the priority of Scripture. Recently, a new believer told me that because she “had a hard time with the Bible,” she purchased a devotional book and was reading several entries each evening. I affirmed her admirable desire but explained to her that God speaks to us through the Bible in a way that he does not speak in any other book.
We looked at several key verses together, including 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” I explained, “If you want to be ‘complete’—everything that God wants you to be—it is important to read God’s word.” She was surprised; she did not know that the Bible was inspired by God, and she pledged to start reading it instead of her devotional book.
While helping a new believer, I learned that she did not know that the Bible was inspired by God, and she pledged to start reading it instead of her devotional book.
There may be some devotionals that can be read alongside Scripture to enrich one’s spiritual life, but most are more milk than meat. If someone is turning to a devotional because they are struggling to “get something out of their Bible reading,” they need to be equipped to rightly divide God’s word.
2. Use a Readable Translation
For others to have less of a “hard time” with Scripture, I do my best to remove every unnecessary boundary to understanding. Several first-time Bible readers have told me that they struggle to understand the Shakespearean English of the King James Version.2
As a young Christian, I began reading the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the New King James Version (NKJV) alongside the KJV, but my preferred translation is now the English Standard Version (ESV).3 The ESV was translated with KJV readers in mind; according to the Preface, “The words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale-King James legacy.”4
3. Recommend or Buy Them A Study Bible
New Bible readers should acquire their own copy of Scripture as soon as possible. One of my greatest joys is buying Bibles for others. If you cannot afford to buy someone else a copy of Scripture, ask your church to allot a budget for this purpose. My go-to Bible is one with study notes since study Bibles were formative in my early Christian development.
Choosing a study Bible that is written by a team of scholars from a wide range of Christian traditions helps to minimize the concern that notes will be inconsistent with one’s doctrinal distinctives.
Many pastors are afraid to hand someone a study Bible lest some of the notes are inconsistent with their doctrinal convictions. Choosing a study Bible that is written by a team of scholars from a wide range of Christian traditions helps to minimize this concern. In his review of the ESV Study Bible, Tim Challies explains,
The ESV Study Bible…offers a wider or less-defined perspective. Where the doctrine is clear and undisputed among Evangelicals, so too are the notes. But where doctrines are controversial and within the area of Christian freedom or disputable matters, the notes tend not to take a firm position, even when the author or editor is firmly in one camp or the other.
A study Bible with this approach leaves it up to pastors to teach doctrinal distinctives. If you buy someone a study Bible, it may be helpful to mention, “Keep in mind that the study notes are written by men and are not perfect or inspired like God’s word.” This leaves the door open to make a clarification or correction if you see fit.
My favorite study Bible for new Bible readers is the ESV Student Study Bible—a condensed version of the regular ESV Study Bible. The student version has 12,000 notes instead of 20,000 notes, making it more accessible for a first-time reader. It also includes nearly 900 “Did You Know?” facts. For example,
What is a “steward”? A steward (4:1-2) is someone who serves as an administrator or overseer of something that belongs to someone else. All that we possess ultimately belongs to God. Because of this, everything he has given to us during our time on earth must be managed with great care. This includes our finances, possessions, times, and gifts.
The beautiful Chestnut Imitation Leather version is sometimes available on Amazon for around $20. The paperback version is usually closer to $16. Because of its smaller size, the student edition is easier to carry to church.
4. Promote Active Reading
Actually reading Scripture is, of course, most important. To set up Bible readers for success, encourage them to practice active reading. Active reading engages with the text in contrast to passive reading which simply looks for information.
Active reading engages with the text in contrast to passive reading which simply looks for information.
I urge new Bible readers to read with a pencil or highlighter in hand. As Professor Agassiz told his student, “a pencil is one of the best eyes.” My favorite highlighters are the dry highlighters from Zebra.
One simple step to promote active reading is to tell new Bible readers to “highlight verses in yellow that stand out to you.” When the reader feels bogged down and confused, he is more likely to keep reading until he finds a verse to highlight. Highlighted verses break up the text of the page, helping new Bible readers to feel less overwhelmed. A highlighted Bible quickly becomes a personal treasure.
5. Encourage Them to Write Down Questions
In addition to highlighting key verses, I tell new Bible readers, “write a question mark in the margin when you do not understand something.” These two practices can quickly elevate a reader’s engagement with the text.
It is even better if the reader writes down their questions and reflections in a notebook. Encourage new readers to keep one nearby.
6. Teach the Basics of Inductive Bible Study
After a new Bible reader has taken steps towards active reading, consider introducing basic inductive Bible studies. When I began reading Scripture as a new Christian, I noticed that keywords and ideas often reoccur within a book, section, or testament. After reading Philippians, I highlighted every occurrence of the words “joy” or “rejoice.” In the empty space at the end of 1 Timothy, I wrote a list of everything that Paul said about pastors. I naturally began to draw conclusions about these topics. Little did I know, I was studying Scripture inductively.
David Fry offers a thorough introduction to inductive Bible study and provides numerous studies rated as Beginning, Intermediate, or Advanced. He writes,
If you are a Discipler, it is paramount that your disciple learns quickly how to interact with the text of Scripture. A young Christian is capable of picking up the habits and tools necessary for learning how to feed themselves spiritually. New disciples should not be given Bible-reading goals but Bible-study goals. Reading shorter passages while making specific observations is far more valuable than reading large portions of Scripture with little understanding.
With the most recent couple that I discipled, I began with a simple four-color scheme and assigned basic studies as we read through the New Testament together. For example, I asked them to highlight in blue every reference to the Holy Spirit as we worked through the book of Acts. Later, they organized similar verses (e.g., verses that speak of the Spirit filling believers) and made some basic observations. This fueled conversation and provided a foundation for more in-depth doctrinal instruction.
7. Meet With Them in Person and Discuss the Text
If a reader is recording his questions, he should have an opportunity to ask them; if he is drawing conclusions, he should be encouraged to discuss them.
Ask new Bible readers to meet you in a relaxed setting (e.g., a coffee shop) to discuss their reading. Start with natural, low-pressure questions or comments:
- How is your Bible reading going?
- Are you enjoying Exodus?
- I was just reading about Moses. What did you think about his story?
If you struggle to spark discussion or if you are concerned that the person is not following through with his or her reading, ask more direct questions that create a greater sense of direction and accountability to your discussion:
- What questions did you write down this week?
- Can I see which verses you highlighted?
- What did God speak to you about through his word this week?
8. Read Scripture in Community
Consider providing an informal or formal group setting where readers feel safe to share their thoughts. This can be as simple as having someone over to your house for a weekly or biweekly snack, or meeting for breakfast once each month.
Many struggle to persevere in reading God’s word; the church is responsible to help them be successful.
From time to time, simply take turns reading the Bible to one another. Then, pause for discussion. Others will pick up your reading habits. Good thinking is caught as well as taught.
Our church is currently working through the Read Scripture plan from The Bible Project and gathers on Wednesday evenings to ask questions. On Saturday mornings before the coronavirus pandemic, I went to a local restaurant for coffee or breakfast and kept an open invitation for anyone who wanted to attend and discuss God’s word. This kind of meeting can provide accountability to help new Bible readers persevere, and it encourages the church to read Scripture in community. Our unique questions and perspectives help the entire body to grow.
9. Remind Them to Take a Bible Everywhere, Especially Church
As a new Christian, I carried a Gideon Pocket New Testament everywhere. At the grocery store where I worked, I became known as the guy with the Bible on my register. It encouraged me to be more outspoken about God’s word, and I was able to memorize large portions of Scripture in my downtime. Keeping a Bible close—in one’s car glove compartment or in the breakroom at work—also inspires spare-time reading. A new Bible reader who takes this suggestion seriously can consider a pocket-size or vest-size New Testament (usually with Psalms and Proverbs) for this purpose.
It is especially important that new Bible readers bring their personal, physical copy of Scripture to church and open to the pastor’s sermon text(s).
10. Stress the Big Picture and Provide Book Summaries
Inexperienced readers often get lost in the details of Scripture. It’s important to state and restate the big picture and help readers to see how individual books fit into the larger narrative.
Recently, a diligent first-time Bible reader was trudging through the prophetic books and felt confused by the sequence of events. After working through a simple chronology of Israel’s prophets in relation to Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, the fog cleared; she remarked, “This was one of the most helpful things ever.” The longer I teach, the more I appreciate the value of helping others to step back from the trees and see the forest. Those interested in reading the Bible chronologically should consider Nathan Brown’s reading plan at comeafterme.com.
The Bible Project videos on each book of the Old and New Testament are another incredible resource for seeing the big picture of Scripture. I use them with all first-time Bible readers (and fiftieth-time readers, for that matter). TBP also offers free videos on themes such as the Sabbath, exile, gospel of the kingdom, day of the Lord, and so on. Their Read Scripture app has a one-year Bible reading plan that integrates these videos with the ESV text.
11. Choose a Strategic Starting Point
The most frequently asked question may be where to begin. Some insist on starting at Genesis, and I sometimes do this with disciples who are more likely to persevere. John’s Gospel is commonly recommended because of its focus on faith and the new birth; however, it is the most theological Gospel, and readers often get lost.
Reading Scripture for the first time is always life-changing.
Despite many good starting points, I prefer the beginning of the NT canon: Matthew’s Gospel. Before setting someone loose to read on their own, walk through the genealogy and explain how it summarizes Israel’s history. Send them the link to the Bible Project video on Matthew. Alternatively, Mark is an exceptional option; it’s the shortest Gospel, and since it is written primarily to Gentiles, Jewish customs are usually explained.
No matter where someone begins, there are inevitable challenges. To address this need, Ken Ham and Bodie Hodge published Begin: A Journey Through Scriptures for Seekers and New Believers, which I occasionally use with teenagers. It walks readers through Genesis 1-11, Exodus 20, John’s Gospel, Romans, and Revelation 21-21, and provides some basic commentary and historical information along the way. While I prefer starting with a whole copy of Scripture, this book is worth keeping in mind for certain contexts.
12. Pray for Them Constantly
I began this article by sharing how a simple prayer transformed my life: “If I’m going to read this book, you’ll have to help me.” Consider praying this prayer for others: “Father, if they are going to read your book, you’ll have to help them. Please cause them to hunger and thirst for your word.” God answers prayer when it is according to his will; it is always his will to reveal his glory through his word.
To summarize, here are several action steps that can help others read the Bible for the first time:
- Discourage the use of devotionals as a substitute for Bible reading.
- Recommend a readable translation such as the ESV.
- Recommend or buy them an ESV Student Study Bible.
- Insist they always read with a pencil or highlighter in hand.
- Encourage them to write down questions in a notebook.
- Teach inductive Bible study basics.
- Meet with them in person and answer their questions.
- Simply read Scripture together.
- Remind them to take their Bible to church.
- Use The Bible Project videos and stress the big picture.
- Recommend a strategic starting point such as the Gospel of Matthew or Mark.
- Pray for them constantly.
Reading Scripture for the first time is always life-changing. When we walk with others through their journey in God’s word, they are more likely to persevere. Often, we benefit from the experience as much as those we are helping.
- While I do not recommend Barth as a theological source, this turn of phrase has helped me to express my first encounter with the Bible.
- While I deeply respect and appreciate this important historical translation, I believe that we need new translations as language changes. This is a foundational conviction of the Protestant tradition. William Tyndale pledged to provide a Bible in the familiar language of the ploughboy. King James English is no longer the familiar language. Ironically, Fred Sanders recently posted on Twitter that he was reading the KJV in his internet browser when Google offered to translate it into English for him. For those who feel strongly about the KJV, Don Carson’s book The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism is a worthwhile read. Many common arguments against new translations are based on misinformation. See also Phil Brown’s article “Greek New Testament Editions and English Bible Versions.”
- For a brief introduction to the NASB, NKJV, and NIV, see Phil Brown’s article on Bible versions.
- Notably, Bill Mounce, the New Testament chair for the ESV translation, is the author of Basics of Biblical Greek used by many Bible college and seminary students.