FAQs on Bible Reading

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The short answer to each question is italicized. A longer answer follows.

Question 1. Which translation should I read?
Answer. The English Standard Version (ESV) is one of the best modern English translations. Since “the words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale–King James legacy,” it’s a good choice for someone who is making the switch from the King James Version (KJV). For arguments in favor of the ESV, see the pamphlet by Kevin DeYoung, Why Our Church Switched to the ESV (Crossway, 2011). For serious Bible study, you should compare multiple translations, such as the NASB, NIV, NLT, CSB, and LEB.

Q. 2. But aren’t modern translations corrupt?
A. No, there are many excellent modern translations. They are a wonderful gift to the church. We need new translations to account for how the English language has changed over the centuries. We also have more manuscript data to work with than when the KJV was translated. The ESV, for example, was translated by a panel of conservative evangelical scholars who are committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and come from a wide range of theological traditions. For more on this question, see the short book by D. A. Carson, The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism (Baker Books, 1979). See also How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth (Zondervan Academic, 2007) by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss.

Q. 3. Where should I begin if I’m a new Bible reader?
A. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest Gospel and it’s written to Gentiles (non-Jews), so it assumes that you have less knowledge of the Old Testament and Jewish culture. John’s Gospel is another great place to start, but it’s longer and (at least in some places) harder to understand.

Q. 4. Where should I begin if I’ve already read one of the Gospels?
A. Either read the entire New Testament or start at the beginning with Genesis. If you struggle to persevere, it’s okay to skim read some sections (e.g., the plan for the tabernacle in Exodus) or jump to the New Testament or Psalms for a while. It can also help to read a daily Psalm or section of the Gospels in addition to your regular Bible reading.

Q. 5. Do you have a recommended Bible reading plan?
A. The one-year Bible reading plan from BibleProject is hard to beat. Visit bibleproject.com/reading-plans or download the “Read Scripture” app on your smartphone. The app includes high-quality, animated video introductions to each book of the Bible as well as the Bible’s major themes. See also the one-year reading plan on comeafterme.com.

Q. 6. Is it okay to read the Bible on my phone?
A. Yes, but only as a supplement for reading a physical copy of the Bible. In addition to the “Read Scripture” app by BibleProject, YouVersion and BibleGateway offer a variety of reading plans, audio Bibles, and study resources.

Q. 7. Which physical copy of the Bible should I buy?
A. The ESV Wide Margin Reference Bible, ESV Study Bible, and CSB Ancient Faith Study Bible are my favorites, but there are many excellent choices on the market (browse ESV Bibles at crossway.org/bibles). Wide margin or journaling Bibles are great for active reading and note taking.

Q. 8. What about study Bibles?
A. Study Bibles can be incredible resources, but they come with a few warnings. First, it’s best to avoid Study Bibles by a single person (e.g., the Tony Evans Study Bible or John MacArthur Study Bible); instead, choose ones written by a group of reputable scholars from a variety of perspectives (e.g., the ESV Study Bible or NIV Study Bible). This reduces bias and imbalance. “In an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). Second, be careful that the notes don’t become a distraction or replacement for engagement with the actual words of the Bible. Only the text of Scripture is without error and fully reliable.

Q. 9. What is active vs. passive reading?
A. An active reader approaches the Bible as with a shovel, ready to dig in; a passive reader approaches the Bible as with a bucket, hoping to get filled up. Active reading is engaged, purposeful, and intentional. See the video “Keep Looking: The Life Changing Secret to Reading the Bible” on Youtube, an animated retelling of “Agassiz and the Fish.”

Q. 10. Is it okay to mark up my Bible with highlighters and pens?
A. Yes! We honor God’s word by being serious enough to dig in and study it. It’s not irreverent to mark up the pages of the Bible. God is honored by a well-worn, marked up Bible. Reading with a pen in hand gets you into the mindset of active reading.

Q. 11. What Bible marking tools (pens, highlighters, etc.) do you recommend?
A. Ultra/extra fine point colored pens (0.5mm or less) allow you to underline verses, circle key words, and write notes in the margins—all without switching between tools. I use the PILOT G-Tec-C Gel Ink Rolling Ball Pens, Ultra Fine Point (0.4mm), Assorted Color Inks, 10-Pack Pouch. Some also like to use a 6-inch, flexible plastic ruler for underlining.

Q. 12. Will the Holy Spirit help me as I read and study the Bible?
A. Yes, so you should begin your Bible reading with prayer and humble dependence on him. This is the doctrine of divine illumination. However, you should not use the help of the Holy Spirit as an excuse to neglect diligent study. Furthermore, you should look for the help and illumination of the Holy Spirit through the church and the pastor-teachers whom God has appointed to model biblical interpretation for you. In John 16:13, the “you” is plural; it’s a promise given to the whole church: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Q. 13. But isn’t the Bible easy to understand?
A. Yes and no. It’s clear enough for a person of average intelligence to understand the big story and the good news about salvation through Christ. This is the doctrine of the simplicity or perspicuity of Scripture. However, not everything in the Bible is easy to understand. Even the Apostle Peter said of Paul’s letters, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (WCF 1.7). That’s why we need to be humble about our interpretations, study carefully, engage with the best thinkers in our local church and in the broader church, and value Christian scholarship.

Q. 14. Is there a method that I can use to get more out of my Bible reading?
Try the inductive method of Bible study by tracking a key word or theme in a book or across the canon. First, collect data by tracking a key word or theme in a book or in the whole Bible. Second, reflect on the data you’ve collected and draw conclusions, but hold your conclusions loosely (e.g., “It would seem that…”). Third, test and retest your conclusions with your community.

15. What are some themes that I can track through the Bible?
Consider tracking the kingdom of God (and related concepts such as reign, dominion, subduing, Lordship, kingship, and authority) from Genesis to Revelation. See the Theme videos from BibleProject (bibleproject.com/explore/themes) for other key themes. You can always track a theme that interests you, such as marriage, work, family, salvation, or heaven. Pay special attention to how Christ and the gospel relate to each of these themes. For example, if you’re tracking the theme of marriage, note how the Bible begins and ends with a wedding, and how marriage consistently points to the union of God and his people. When you are attentive to a word, theme, or topic, you’ll be surprised how much you see that you missed before.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.