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Bible Reading and Study Plans

Bible Reading and Study Plans

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There are many, many ways that people structure their reading of the Bible. The important thing is to follow a plan that will give you some direction and purpose in your time with the Bible. Build in some flexibility so that if you miss a day you won’t become overly discouraged or even give up. A good plan should incorporate three components: reading, study, and memorization.

What plans you choose will depend on your previous experience with the Bible as well as how much time you think you can realistically devote to it. Adapt whatever plans you choose to fit your own familiarity with the Bible, your reading ability, and your available time.

Reading Plans

Bible reading means going through a passage of some length in one sitting, pausing only to make brief notes if you choose. Many people today follow plans for reading through the Bible in a year. That’s a very good goal, and it is extremely important to read the whole Bible, but for people just beginning their serious engagement with the Bible, trying to read through the whole Bible in one year might not be the best way to get started. The following are some sample reading plans you might consider.

Beginner’s two-week introductory readings. Read what we identify as twelve great passages of the Bible (see below), one each day for two weeks (allowing yourself to skip a day each week). These twelve passages are among the most famous and influential passages of the Bible. They also come from different parts of the Bible and will give you a good overview of the whole sweep of the biblical narrative. Notice that there are four from the Old Testament, four from the four Gospels, and four from the rest of the New Testament, providing a Christ-centered selection of readings. Read each passage in one sitting, if at all possible, so that you can get a sense of the whole. (These passages can take between five and fifteen minutes for most readers.) More advanced readers of the Bible might also benefit from this plan. 

Twelve Great Passages of the Bible
Genesis 1: Creation Matthew 5-7: Sermon on the Mount Acts 2: Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-17: The Ten Commandments Luke 15: Parables of the Lost Coin, Sheep, and Son Romans 8: No Condemnation
Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd Mark 14-15: Jesus’ Suffering and Death 1 Corinthians 13: The Love Chapter
Isaiah 52:13-53:12: The Suffering Servant John 20: Jesus’ Resurrection Revelation 21-22: New Heavens and New Earth

Getting into the Gospels. Since Jesus Christ is the central figure of the Bible, it makes sense to give priority to reading the Gospels, which tell about his ministry, death, and resurrection. You can divide up this reading in many ways, from reading each Gospel in one sitting (which might take a couple of hours or so) to reading a chapter a day. You might consider reading the Gospels in large chunks of between five and eight chapters each as follows: 

Matthew 1-7 Matthew 8-14 Matthew 15-20 Matthew 21-28
Mark 1-5 Mark 6-10 Mark 11-16  
Luke 1-6 Luke 7-12 Luke 13-18 Luke 19-24
John 1-6 John 7-11 John 12-17 John 18-21

Notice that there are fifteen of these larger units, which means you can do one every other day and finish reading through all four Gospels in a month. Or you can read a Gospel each week, doing your reading in one to four sittings on the same day.

Skimming the Old Testament. Not all Bible reading needs to be slow and reflective. Because the Old Testament is long—and for many people largely unfamiliar—you might find it helpful to set aside some blocks of time to skim through it. Skimming means that you are reading through each book fairly quickly, not taking notes, and not worrying about reading every single word or remembering everything. In some places you may find yourself slowing down as you run across something of interest (such as the enjoyable story of David and Goliath) or passing very quickly over other parts (such as the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1-9, which, frankly, are not meant to be read line by line in some sort of devotional way!). If at all possible you should try to skim through a minimum of a whole book in one sitting or, for the longer books, two sittings (Genesis, Exodus, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) or three (Psalms). For most readers, most sessions would be roughly an hour, maybe two hours for those less proficient at skimming. Following a plan along these lines, you can do one skimming session each week and get through the entire Old Testament in under a year.

The Bible in a year. There are many ways to do this. Since there are 1,189 chapters in the Bible and 365 days in a year, you will want to average reading a little over three chapters a day (3.25 to be more precise). One simple plan is to read three chapters of the Old Testament every day except Sunday, when you read five chapters of the New Testament. This will get you through the entire Bible in almost exactly one year (the 929 chapters of the Old Testament will take 310 days, and the 260 chapters of the New Testament 52 days, or one day a week for the whole year). Or you can read straight through with five chapters from the Old Testament on Sunday until you finish it and move on to the New.

Since most of us occasionally miss a day here or there, a more flexible plan might be helpful. For example, you can read four chapters a day six days a week and get through the entire Bible with two weeks at the end of the year to spare. Or you can divide up your reading into roughly 23-chapter blocks for each week and simply read those chapters in as few or as many sittings as works for you.

These are just examples. Adapt these to suit your needs, use plans you find online, or make up your own plans. Here are a few good places to find reading plans online: 

Bible Study Tools Reading Plans
Bible Gateway Reading Plans
ESV Bible Reading Plans (especially good choice for those using the ESV Study Bible)

These online programs will send you a daily reading to your email box, if you choose, so that you don’t need to go look up your reading for the day.

Bible Study Plans

Bible study means spending time looking closely at a particular book, passage, verse, or topic of relevance in the Bible. Although reading good books about the Bible is a valuable and even important part of Bible study, this article is going to focus on plans for engaging in the careful study of the Bible itself. You can always augment such plans with study guides, commentaries, or other resources.

The foundation of Bible study is familiarity with the Bible as a whole. That is why you should make it your aim eventually to read through the Bible at least once (perhaps skimming some of it, as explained previously) and to continue in some plan of Bible reading. At some point you will want to explore parts of the Bible in more depth; this will mean devoting some of your time to Bible study while continuing with your Bible reading. Here are some examples of plans you can follow for Bible study.

Great passage study. Take one of the twelve “great passages” listed earlier this article and make that passage the subject of careful study. Take lots of notes as you go through the passage. Create one or more outlines of the passage. Read it several times, perhaps as many as five or six times. Read it in at least two or three different English versions. Use whatever resources are at your disposal to look up words or ideas in the passage. Find images or videos online that illustrate, depict, or dramatize part or all of the passage. Memorize at least one verse from the passage, perhaps quite a bit more. These are some of the things you can do to develop a more intimate knowledge of the passage and to deepen your understanding of it. You might consider spending your Bible study time (distinct from your reading time) working on one of these passages for a month; at the end of a year’s time you will have studied all twelve of the great passages.

Book study. The Bible was given to us as books, and we should study them as books. Anyone who wants to master the contents of the Bible needs to engage in this kind of study. In addition to the kinds of activities suggested above for studying passages (taking notes, reading more than once, outlining, etc.), you will want to explore the sorts of background issues that are addressed in the introductions and notes you will find in a good study Bible or in other books about the Bible. You will need to determine for yourself how much time you will need to study a book at the depth you are prepared to go.

It is probably best to start with short and relatively easy books and work your way up to the more challenging ones. The shortest books are not, please note, always the easiest to understand in depth: the Epistle of Jude, for example, is fairly demanding despite being only one chapter. In the Old Testament, the books of Ruth and Jonah are good places to start; in the New Testament, the epistles of Philippians and the three epistles of John are good choices. After you have studied a couple of these, you might take on one of the Gospels. You might also choose to study books that go together in some clear way. For example, it makes sense to study Luke and Acts together because they were written by the same author as a two-volume work. There is a close relationship between Paul’s epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians; between Romans and Galatians; and of course between the two Corinthian epistles and so forth. The books of Hosea and Amos are both prophetic oracles directed mainly to the northern kingdom of Israel; the books of Jonah and Nahum are both concerned with the Gentile city of Nineveh.

Topical study. Many people are especially interested in studying specific topics in the Bible. These may be theological topics such as the Trinity, practical topics such as marriage or pastoral ministry, or some other kind of subject. The difficulty here is that the Bible generally does not put everything it has to say on a subject in one place, and finding the various relevant passages is not as simple as looking for a particular word. This means that most Bible readers will depend on some resource that compiles what its author found to be relevant passages. That can be fine, though of course some resources are more reliable or more complete than others.

One way to develop your own understanding of what the Bible teaches about a certain topic is to examine what a particular book or author says about it. For example, you could decide to study what the Gospel of John says about the Holy Spirit. You then read through the Gospel of John, taking notes as you come across passages that seem to have some bearing on the subject (and again, in some cases these will not use the title “Holy Spirit”). Or you could study what Luke says about women by reading through the books of Luke and Acts and taking running notes on how women are treated by Jesus and the apostles. These examples were not chosen at random; it helps to be familiar enough with the books of the Bible to have some idea which ones would be promising places to pursue a particular topic. That’s another reason why Bible reading is foundational for understanding the Bible. Once you have come to an understanding of what one author says on the subject, you can study what another author says. You may find that the two authors approach the subject in different ways, perhaps using different words or even using the same words with slightly different meanings. Something like this is going on with the teachings of Paul (especially in Romans and Galatians) and James about justification. Immersing yourself in each author’s writings, getting to understand them on their own terms, will help you to appreciate how they complement rather than contradict each other on such issues.

Memorization

Memorization means working on committing something in the Bible to memory so that you can repeat it without seeing it. If you find memorization difficult, that’s okay—just do what you can. Simply reviewing the same things repeatedly will help it become ingrained in your mind even if you can’t verbalize it perfectly from memory. The suggestions here are applicable either way.

There are actually four sorts of things that would be helpful to memorize or have ingrained in your mind. The first is the names of the books of the Bible in order. This is helpful for two reasons: it makes it easier to find references, and it gives you a mental map of the Bible as a whole that helps you “see” how the pieces of the Bible fit together. If memorizing a list of 66 book titles seems daunting, start with smaller sections. Memorize the names of the four Gospels in order, or the five books of Moses at the beginning of the Old Testament. Move on to the longer sections of books as you feel ready.

Second, it is a good idea to commit specific verses of the Bible to memory. There is value in memorizing longer portions of text as well, but most people will want to start with individual, short verses that are easier to remember. You can memorize verses out of the same English version that you study or you can choose a version that uses language that is simpler or more literate; for example, you might study from the ESV but memorize from the NIV or the NLT (New Living Translation). As a suggestion, try memorizing one verse a week, reviewing it once or twice each day. It might help to read it aloud as well as silently and to write it down, as the more ways you review it the more it will become fixed in your memory. The following table lists 52 passages (one for each week of the year) that you could work on committing to memory.

52 Suggested Memory Texts 

Genesis 1:1 Matthew 4:4 Acts 1:8 Ephesians 2:8-10
Leviticus 19:18 Matthew 6:9-13 Acts 16:31 Philippians 4:6-8
Deuteronomy 6:4-5 Matthew 7:12 Romans 1:16-17 Philippians 4:13
Psalm 19:1 Matthew 28:19-20 Romans 3:23 Philippians 4:19
Psalm 23 Luke 19:10 Romans 5:8 Hebrews 9:27
Psalm 119:105 John 1:1 Romans 6:23 Hebrews 11:6
Proverbs 1:7 John 1:14 Romans 8:1 James 1:22
Proverbs 3:27 John 3:16 Romans 10:9 1 Peter 3:15
Proverbs 14:12 John 8:31b-32 Romans 12:1-2 1 John 1:9
Proverbs 16:2 John 11:25-26 1 Corinthians 10:13 1 John 4:8-9
Proverbs 18:13 John 14:6 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a 1 John 5:11-13
Proverbs 31:30 John 14:15 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Jude 3b
Isaiah 53:6 John 20:31 Galatians 1:8 Revelation 22:13

Third, try memorizing lists or summaries of important things in the Bible. This might include the names of the twelve apostles, for example. If you find it difficult to memorize a long passage such as the Ten Commandments, try memorizing a simplified list of them (Don’t worship other gods; don’t make or worship idols; don’t take the Lord’s name in vain; don’t work on the Sabbath; etc.). A confession here: I have never memorized all of the Ten Commandments verbatim, but I can list all ten of them and in the correct order!

The fourth thing you might try memorizing is a simple outline of a book of the Bible. Just as memorizing the books of the Bible in order will give you a mental map of the whole Bible, memorizing a simple outline of a book will give you a more detailed mental map of that book. If the book is short enough you could memorize a simple chapter-by-chapter outline, like the following outline for Jonah:

Chapter 1: Jonah tries to run away.
Chapter 2: Jonah is in a great fish.
Chapter 3: Jonah preaches in Nineveh.
Chapter 4: Jonah sulks when God spares Nineveh.

Notice that you’re not worried about memorizing this sort of outline word for word, but only remembering the basic idea of each chapter. For a longer book, you can memorize a simple outline that gives the basic structure of the book, like the following simplified outline for Luke: 

Infancy and Beginnings (chapters 1-3)
Ministry in Galilee (chapters 4-9)
Going to Jerusalem (chapters 10-18)
Passion Week and Resurrection (chapters 19-24) 

The above outline is deliberately simplified; for example, Jesus begins heading for Jerusalem near the end of chapter 9 (Luke 9:51, to be exact), but for the purpose of remembering the basic structure of a long book a rough division using chapters only is much easier. And even if you cannot remember the exact chapter numbers in a longer book, knowing the basic structure of the book is invaluable. Here is another example, using 1-2 Chronicles (which is really a single book):

Genealogies (1 Chron. 1-9)
Saul (1 Chron. 10)
David (1 Chron. 11-29)
Solomon (2 Chron. 1-9)
Kings of Judah (2 Chron. 10-36)

How about that—a simplified outline of two books in one! And it tells you what you need to know in order to see how the parts fit together and to find your way around the books.

Conclusion 

Getting to know and understand the Bible is a lifelong process, part of a healthy Christian’s discipleship or growth as a child of God. It doesn’t come immediately or even quickly. Do what you can and be persistent; over time, you will find things falling into place and making sense. If you’re relatively new to the Bible, give yourself a few years to gain a solid overall understanding of the Bible. Take advantage of the wealth of resources available that will help you, but above all read the Bible. A “balanced diet” of reading, study, and memorization will result in your eventually getting to the point that you will feel confident about understanding what the Bible is all about, even though there will always be more to learn.

One more thing: Always keep in mind that getting to know the Bible is a means to an end: its purpose is that you might honor the God revealed in the Bible in the way you think, speak, and act. At least eight of the suggested memory passages listed above focus on God’s love for us and the necessity of us loving God and other people. As you read, study, and memorize God’s word, constantly remind yourself that you must do what his word says, not just hear it. That’s something taught in another of those memory texts (James 1:22).