Helping Others Read the Bible for the First Time

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As a public-school teenager, I picked up a copy of the scriptures and, like Barth, discovered “the strange new world of the Bible.” 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. It’s the reason that I am a Christian and a pastor.

Today, 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, and the church is responsible to help them be successful. Here are several ways to help others read the Bible for the first time.

1. Stress the Priority of Scripture and Avoid Devotional Substitutes

We should not take it 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 desire to read and grow, but I explained 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 and understand 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.

Most modern devotionals are more “milk” than “solid food” (Heb. 5:12). Worse, they model poor reading habits, tagging topical reflections onto a single Bible verse. Some, such as Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling, promote a highly subjective approach to hearing God’s voice. When readers return to Scripture, they send up skimming for a single verse that “stands out to them.” This produces immature Christians who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Heb. 5:13). We need to equip others to rightly divide the Word (2 Tim. 2:15).

2. Help Them Memorize The Rule of Faith

It is risky to send a new believer off into a corner alone to read the Bible. Inexperienced readers often get lost in the details of Scripture and can easily draw conclusions that are false, even heretical. It’s important to help them keep the big picture in view by grounding them in the rule of faith (regula fidei)—an authoritative summary of “the faith once for all delivered” (Jude 1:3), such as the Apostles’ Creed. 

In The Apostles’ Creed: A Guide to the Ancient Catechism, Ben Myers explains how the rule of faith was used in the early church to help ordinary believers:

[The rule of faith] was educational. It formed the basis of catechesis for new believers. In the period of preparation for baptism, new adherents to the Christian faith would memorize the creedal formula and would receive instruction in its meaning. The threefold confession of faith was to be written on the heart so that it could never be lost or forgotten. That way, all believers would have a basic guide to the interpretation of Scripture, and even illiterate believers would be able to retain the substance of the biblical story. They would see Scripture as a unified witness to one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And they would see the created world as the domain of God’s activity: God creates our world, becomes incarnate in it, and will ultimately redeem it fully in the resurrection of the dead. That is how the Christian mind was formed by the ancient catechism.

3. Buy Them a Physical Bible in a Readable Translation

New Bible readers should acquire their own copy of Scripture as soon as possible. Encourage them to take this Bible everywhere, especially to church where they can open to their pastor’s sermon text and take notes in the margins.

Be sure to choose a readable version. A new disciple recently told me, “The King James is for me really hard to focus and learn and understand, so that’s why I went searching for an easier one.” While I appreciate the KJV as a good translation with great historical value, its outdated English is a significant barrier to discipleship. The KJV translators never intended to produce the last or only English version. On the contrary, it was a foundational Protestant conviction that we need new translations as language changes. William Tyndale pledged to provide a Bible in the language of the common ploughboy. That is no longer the language of the KJV. In fact, Google sometimes offers to translate the KJV into English! Some have even tried producing “A King James Dictionary.” We should not put this unnecessary barrier in a disciple’s way, especially when there are so many good modern English translations. Most of the arguments against these translations are based on misinformation and ignorance. See Don Carson’s book The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. See also Phil Brown’s article “Greek New Testament Editions and English Bible Versions.”

Personally, I recommend the English Standard Version (ESV), especially for those who are transitioning from the KJV, since it was translated with KJV readers in mind. According to the Preface, “The words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale-King James legacy.” For a brief introduction to the NASB, NKJV, and NIV, see Brown’s short article on Bible versions. Phil Brown recommends the New International Version (NIV) for a reading Bible. It’s not the best version for serious study, but it’s great for new believers or those who struggle to read. Recently, I’ve enjoyed the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). This is a more recent version that provides a fresh translation for those who are used to the KJV or ESV.

4. Consider A Study Bible

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. Avoid study Bibles written by one person. Instead, Consider a study Bible such as 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.

Still, 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’?” 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.

5. Begin By Walking With Them Through One of the Gospels

The most frequently asked question may be, “Where should I begin?” Some insist on starting at Genesis, but this means reading for nine months before reading about Jesus in the Gospels. I recommend starting with one of the Gospels to reinforce the truth about Christ as taught in the rule of faith.

  • Mark’s Gospel may be the best option since it does not assume as much knowledge of the Old Testament and focuses on the question, “Who is Jesus?” It is also the shortest and fastest moving Gospel. 
  • Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, assumes extensive knowledge of the OT. However, I still like starting here, especially if I am able to help the reader along. The opening genealogy serves as a summary of Israel’s history and helps to prepare the reader to approach the OT as a unified story that is fulfilled in Christ. Matthew also includes the Beatitudes (an exposition of the law), and the Lord’s Prayer, key resources for discipleship.
  • John’s Gospel is commonly recommended because of its focus on believing in Jesus for eternal life and new birth; however, it is the most theological Gospel, and readers can easily be overwhelmed.

I do not use Luke’s Gospel since it is almost twice as long as Mark’s Gospel. Whichever book you choose, send readers a link to the corresponding Bible Project video (more on this later). If they are using a study Bible, it is likely to have other helpful introductory resources. Also, consider resources like the N. T. Wright For Everyone study guides on Matthew and Mark.

6. Teach Them to “Pray The Bible”

Have them memorize a verse to pray every time they open the Bibles: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Ps. 119:18). Then, encourage them to use what they read as a guide for their praying. Nathan Brown offers a helpful Daily Prayer Template for this purpose. See also Travis Johnson’s article on “Praying Scripturally and Specifically.”

7. Emphasize Active Reading

Passive readers approach Scripture as with a bucket in hand, hoping that God will fill them up. Active readers approach Scripture as with a shovel in hand, expecting God to reveal wondrous things through their study. In other words, active reading engages with the text in contrast to passive reading which simply looks for information. Our “shovel” when approaching Scripture is a pencil or pen. As Professor Agassiz told his student, “a pencil is one of the best eyes.” I encourage new readers, “Always read the Bible with a pen or pencil in hand.”

Encourage readers to circle, underline, takes notes, and write a question mark in the margins when confused. Another small step towards 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.

8. Meet In-Person to Discuss the Reading and Answer Questions

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. Be sure to ask specific questions that create a greater sense of direction and accountability to your discussion. Vague questions get vague responses. Do not ask, “How is your Bible reading go?” or they are likely to say, “Fine” or “Good.” Instead, ask,

  • 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?

If they ask a question you don’t know the answer to, don’t be intimidated. Say, “That’s a good question. Can I study that more and get back to you?” It is affirming to know that they challenged their pastor and satisfying to know that their questions will be taken seriously.

9. Start a 1-Year Plan Such as The Bible Project’s ReadScripture App

The ReadScripture App by The Bible Project is my favorite one-year Bible reading plan. Each book begins with a high-quality explainer video. Theme videos are also integrated into the plan. Those interested in reading the Bible chronologically should consider Nathan Brown’s reading plan at comeafterme.com.

10. Assign Simple Inductive Bible Studies

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.

Here are three examples:

  • Psalms: Track every description of God in the Book of Psalms highlighting them in BLUE.
  • Ezekiel: Track the phrase “then you will know that I am the LORD” through the book of Ezekiel. Underline each occurrence in BLUE. Occasionally the subject is something other than “you,” but mark those also.
  • Matthew: Track every appearance of the phrases “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of heaven” in the Gospel of Matthew. Highlight in GREEN each appearance of the phrase.

11. Read Scripture in Community

Justin Martyr describes the early Christian worship: “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” They met to read and study the Bible together. Often the only Scripture read in our services is one verse before the preacher’s sermon.

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.

12. Pray Constantly For The New Reader

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.” As you help others to read the Bible, consider praying this prayer for them: “Father, if they are going to read your book, you’ll have to help them. Give them a 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.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.