Repost from Jan. 2, 2013
This time of year many people will begin a Bible reading plan of some sort, some choosing predefined plans, others planning simply to start with Genesis and read straight through. I can’t count how many times I began reading through the Bible at the beginning of the year only to fail time and time again. It can then lead to frustration, feelings of failure, or generally putting the Bible back on the shelf for months, or until the next “New Year’s” reading plan.
Before looking at a few ways or reasons why failure so often occurs, I’d like to offer an encouragement to every Christian to read through the Bible at some point. To neglect this is to say that all of God’s Word is unimportant. Fundamentally it’s a failure to take God’s Word as a whole, seriously. Another reason I want to encourage you to read through the Bible is for witnessing. I remember a couple of years ago a man wandered into the back of a church I was teaching at and began asking me questions about the Bible. Admittedly, he was intoxicated and may have been looking for someone to argue with over the Bible. I began pointing him to Christ and sharing the Gospel with him, despite his claim to be a Christian, though with highly suspect views on the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The questions he asked were standard really, “If God is good, why do bad things happen?” and “How could God order Moses [Joshua] to kill ‘innocent’ women and children?” But then, he asked if I had ever read through the Bible. Reluctantly, I admitted that I hadn’t. Now bear in mind, I had probably read through the New Testament a couple of times and probably at some point collectively through 85-90% of the Old Testament , yet I really couldn’t point to a specific time with certainty that I had read through the Bible completely.
Here I was, a teacher of God’s Word and I was being convicted by an intoxicated, seemingly unchristian man. It cut straight to my heart and I immediately realized that to go on not having read the Bible through was completely unsatisfactory and largely sinful. A friend and I began reading the Bible using a 3-month plan he had created. 1 newborn baby and 3 extra months later and I had read through the Bible completely. You do not have to read through the Bible in 3 or 6 months, or even a year, but you really should read through it. God in His sovereignty has put all 66 books there for our good and we should rightly, humbly, and passionately read what He has for us. Now on to some common reasons for failure to help you avoid getting frustrated and shelving your Bible for another year.
1.Reading “In Order” (or failure to plan properly) – This is perhaps the biggest (surface) reason I’ve experienced and observed reading plan failure in the lives of others who start off the year gung-ho to read through the entire Bible. Let me first say that it is certainly ok to read the Bible straight through from cover to cover, however, there is no written rule that says the Bible must be read from Genesis to Revelation in the 66-book order that most Bible’s have.
It may even be a misconception that you have to read it straight through (side note: you should always read individual books straight through in your plan, for context and consistency). Yes there is a logical reason why the Bible has been arranged the way it has (let’s not discount God’s providence here either), but the Bible is not arranged chronologically, so you shouldn’t feel as though you can’t skip around. What I’ve seen and experienced is that enthusiasm and desire to “stay on track” with reading plans can largely carry someone through Genesis, especially since most Christians are familiar with the stories. I’d say the latter part of Genesis is where frustration starts to show, but determination likely kicks in and most people finish Genesis and proceed into Exodus. Riding on the “high” of finishing 1 book of the Bible can carry some people through Exodus, but the large majority then collapse and fail in Leviticus, probably around the beginning to middle of February.
An alternative to reading straight through and getting bogged down in the Torah (Law; First 5 books in the Bible) is to alternate Old Testament books with New Testament books or to read a couple chapters out of both, each day, until you’ve finished the particular book. I’ll provide some links to plans below that have various alternatives to reading straight through, but for now for those who simply must read straight through, let me suggest the The MacArthur Daily Bible: Read the Bible in One Year, with Notes from John MacArthur. Generally speaking, this yearly plan keeps you on track with 2-3 Old Testament chapters (Beginning in Genesis), a section of a Psalm, verses from Proverbs, and a 2-3 chapters from the New Testament (Beginning in Matthew) each day and probably will take you 15-20 minutes. It’s doable and you don’t feel like your sinking in what may seem like mundane, unimportant details of the first 5 books of the Old Testament. This brings us to #2.
2.Not Understanding what you Read – Those seemingly mundane and unimportant details of the Old Testament (even New Testament, i.e. genealogies) are actually extremely important details in revealing the character of God and ultimately point forward to His Son Jesus Christ. So it is that the deeper reason behind the failure of point #1 is that most of us do not understand what we are reading. Pride is largely to blame here, because the trap of, “I can read the Bible on my own without outside help” largely ignores all of the teachers whom God has given sound biblical wisdom to, both now and throughout Church history, to help us read better and become more knowledgeable about God’s Word. 3 sources can really help here: 1) A good study Bible. 2) A whole-bible commentary 3) Old Testament and New Testament Introductions.
Listen, if we are going to take the Bible seriously, it takes effort and prayer to understand His Word and God will reward those who diligently seek Him. A good study Bible, like the The ESV Study Bible, The MacArthur Study Bible: Revised & Updated Edition, or The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version Hardcover 2nd Ed w/Maps, to name a few, will help your understanding, not only of individual verses (I would caution against leaning too much on these to start with), but even better they will help by providing background into the book of the Bible, i.e. the author, audience, time period, reason for writing, interpretation difficulties, history, etc. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of knowing the context of what you are reading. A whole-bible commentary, such as Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged, Believer’s Bible Commentary, or The MacArthur Bible Commentary, can help supplement your study Bible and provide additional notes and helps on particularly difficult verses.
Finally, a largely overlooked resource is Bible Introductions. Some of these can be overly technical, but others are straightforward and provide an invaluable amount of depth into the context of the Bible. Usually, you’ll find these grouped into Old Testament Introductions and New Testament Introductions. A few to take a look at would be OT: Encountering the Old Testament: A Christian Survey (Encountering Biblical Studies) by Bill T. Arnold, The Old Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content by Peter Craigie, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Second Edition by Tremper Longman III. NT: INTRO NEW TESTAMENT 2ND ED IVP by Carson and Moo, The New Testament: Its Background and Message by Lea and Black, Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament by J. Julius Scott. Now lack of understanding what we read can no longer be an excuse. The resources are there to help you.
3.Overwhelmed by volume – Cover to cover reading and lack of understanding aside, the Bible by volume and depth is a lot to chew on. It’s all too easy to look at the 66 books, 1,189 chapters, over 31,000 verses and become overwhelmed. Even more overwhelming if you have one of those massive coffee table Bibles that sit 5+ inches in thickness. But volume cannot be your excuse, so you will need a plan that offers enough reading that it doesn’t take 5 years of drudgery to complete, but also doesn’t try to make you drink from a firehouse of volume each day. 3-6 chapters a day will probably suit most people early on, but that will likely grow as a desire and hunger for God’s Word develops.
4.Creating a Burden – For years I avoided “cover to cover” reading plans because they seemed to become a self-imposed burden. Don’t let this be your excuse. Granted, it is easily to fall into the trap of “having to read” in order to check a little box each day and that is the wrong motivation. But it is equally wrong to look for easy ways for quitting or avoiding a plan. In the end, don’t let your reading plan become a legalistic burden and be your motivation for reading. Christ should be your motivation and a desire to know God more deeply should fuel you. Not a little chart that says, “I completed my reading on this day.” Missing a day will invariably happen, but don’t let it create a schedule burden for you in which you now have to read 3 days worth in order to get caught back up on the schedule. This makes you a slave to the schedule and it may even be legalistic in trying to finish neatly in a year (or other timeframe). Becoming burdened by the schedule will also take your joy away from wanting to read God’s Word. Finally, it can lead to reason #3, which then creates too much reading to understand at one time (#2). More important than “obeying” a schedule is that you are obedient to God in reading and hungering after His Word.
5.Reading Alone – Accountability is generally a good idea and reading the Bible together with a friend or family member not only will help you stay on track, but it will put you in a position to discuss what you’re reading with someone else. This way, if you miss a couple of days rather than being discouraged and quit, your friend can help point you toward the reason you began reading in the first place (to know God and His Word and through that to become more like Christ through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit).
These aren’t hard and fast rules, just observations from my own experience, but maybe they will at least serve to help encourage you toward completing the Bible reading plan that you start. If you hadn’t planned to start a reading plan, start today. Just because it’s January 2, doesn’t mean that you can’t begin the New Year with a reading plan. If you think it has to begin January 1, then you’ve largely missed the point and have become obedient to a schedule (see #4 again). In the end, reading through the Bible takes hard work, diligence, and perseverance. For those reasons, you should bookend your reading times with prayer for understanding and faithfulness to continue. After a month or two, by God’s grace, daily reading should become a necessary part of your everyday life.
Potential Reading Plans (I would encourage looking at several, praying about it, and even modifying one to meet your needs/schedule):
Many of the same can be found here, but it also has a helpful chart and overview of biblical history: