Reading the Bible: Where Do I Start?

Some believers don’t read their Bibles often. Some say it’s old stuff, it doesn’t apply to our day or it’s scary or boring. Others don’t read anything at all, not even their Bibles.

If you've made it this far, congratulations for reading something! I want to talk especially to new believers who read the Bible, at least a little bit. You old-timers can listen in, too. You might come across a new believer who needs encouragement; God could even use you to help someone else believe.

So where do you start with your Bible? It’s a big book, full of wonderful and scary things. Depending on your translation, it may seem like a foreign language. All that may explain why some people never start. So here’s a preface and three first steps for reading your Bible. 

Preface: The Bible is helpful, but not essential.

I’m simply being practical here, not reckless. So hear me out. Is an owner’s manual essential for driving a car, or using a computer or a cell phone? You probably could figure out a lot of things for yourself, especially if an expert points the way. Still, an owner’s manual is helpful. It’s not essential, but it is helpful.  

The Bible is like that. You can learn something about God by simply walking in the woods or gazing into a starry sky. But that’s not where you will discover Jesus. Nature can overwhelm you with a sense of awe, but if you want to know, Jesus you need a Bible or someone who knows about Him from the Bible. 

So what happens to those who know about nature, but not about Jesus? The Adventist answer to that question is based on Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46). There, God grants salvation to those who have followed Jesus without ever knowing His name. Jesus commends the puzzled good guys — the sheep — for caring for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick and those in prison. In fact, He says, by doing these things for others they have done it for Him, even if they didn’t realize it.

In Desire of Ages, chapter 70, Ellen White comments on this passage. “Among the heathen,” she says, “are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God (Desire of Ages, page 638). 

According to Acts 5:12, salvation comes only through Jesus. But the story in Matthew 25 tells us that Jesus saves even those who don’t know they are following Him. Many devout Christians would view that conclusion with alarm. But the point of Jesus’ story is clear.

Still, if we want to learn more about this Jesus, we go to the Bible. It’s a gift from God to help us know Him better. Now, let's look at the three steps for reading the Bible.

1. Start with the story of Jesus in a readable translation. 

Some devout believers worry that modern translations are not as trustworthy as the traditional King James Version. But the KJV translators themselves had to defend their “new” translation in 1611. Yet they noted in their preface that even “the very meanest [humble] translation of the Bible in English ... is the Word of God.”

So use any Bible. The NKJV is popular because it updates the language but never uses newly-discovered manuscripts to leave out traditional passages. Personally, I like the New Revised Standard Version, but would highly recommend a host of others: NASB, NIV, GNB, NLT, ESV, Message. A good translation is important, but the KJV translators themselves used a quaint illustration to make their point. The king’s speech is still the king’s speech, they declared, regardless of the language or the quality of the translation.  

With translation in hand, where should you start? With the story of Jesus, God’s clearest and best revelation. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell their unique versions of his story. But Mark’s Gospel, the shortest of the four, is a good place to start.

2. Pick a good verse and memorize it.  

Start small. Don’t be overwhelmed by bulk. Pick one verse and memorize it. Ellen White was especially keen on John 3:16, “For God so loved the world ...” “If one had no other text in the Bible,” she exclaimed, “this alone would be a guide for the soul” (Testimonies to Ministers, page 370)

Matthew 7:12 is another good choice — Jesus’ one-verse summary of the entire Old Testament: “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (NRSV).

3. Read the more helpful and interesting parts of the Old Testament. 

Some parts of the Old Testament are tedious, some are violent. But all of it was inspired by God to give us “examples” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11) of how God dealt with His people. For Adventists, the Ten Commandments loom especially large because they loom large in the Bible. Deuteronomy 4 and 5 are two important chapters. According to Deuteronomy 4:13-14, God spoke the Ten Commandments to all the people, the rest of the laws only to Moses. The Ten (Exod. 20 and Deut. 5) were written by God’s own finger on two stone tablets and went inside the sacred box, traditionally called the ark of the covenant.

Moses wrote the other laws in a book that went beside the ark (Deut. 31:26), but told the people to keep all the laws exactly (Deut. 4:2; 5:33). A motley crowd of ex-slaves needs that kind of blunt language. Only in time would they learn that some of the laws don’t apply to all people everywhere. It’s like instructing a child about the dangers of a hot stove. First, don’t touch. With limited maturity, don’t touch the burners. With full maturity, don’t touch the burners when they are on. 

Soon you’ll want to discover the wonderful and painful stories of Genesis about Creation, the Flood and Abraham and his family. Some of them will seem wild — all because of sin, of course, the tragic story that haunts the biblical world and ours while we wait for Jesus to come and make all things new.

As for the shocking things in the Bible, don’t panic. Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us that God’s thoughts are not the same as ours: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (NRSV). The Bible is not the same as God Himself, yet everything in the Bible points to God.

So start reading. And pray as you go. God has promised to guide your eyes, your head and your heart.