The New Year has come, and many Christians have begun their new Bible reading plans. Many plans encourage reading 3-4 chapters a day to finish the Bible in a year, though three-year plans and 90-day plans also exist. It will take the average reader about 100 hours of reading to complete the task. Many of these plans can be helpful, but they do raise the question of whether expediency and completion are the goals of Bible reading.
Recently I heard a lecture by AJ Gibson who posed the question of whether the Great Commission was a goal to be completed or a commandment to be obeyed. He stated that “anytime we turn a command that requires ongoing obedience into a job that we can finish, we’ll mess it up.” (Pillar Unite, 10/3/23) I believe the same principle can apply to the way we approach our study of the Scriptures. This said, I believe that two questions merit our consideration.
First, should all Christians (who are able) read the whole Bible? I believe the short answer to this question is “yes.” The Bible tells us clearly that “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” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Jesus Himself said that anyone who knew the Old Testament and learned about the Kingdom of God was “like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52).
In fact, the Old and New Testaments cannot be fully understood independently. The New Testament is building upon the foundation of Old Testament stories and promises, while the Old Testament is pointing us forward to the work of Christ. The Bible is a unified whole. Augustine has famously said, “The New Testament is in the Old concealed, the Old Testament is in the New revealed.” (Hept. 2,73: PL 34, 623)
Second, does having a Bible reading plan help us read the Bible? Probably, but it depends. Reading plans can help us organize and track our reading as well as give us goals to strive toward. However, they can be a source of discouragement as well. In the past, I have attempted some reading plans only to get behind, try to read huge blocks of Scripture to get back on track, then give up on the plan altogether. I know many other Christians who have succumbed to the same struggle.
But perhaps reading the Bible in this way isn’t what God intended when He gave it to us. It is notable, but not surprising, that there is no command in the Bible that we should read the Bible (unless you were the king of Israel, Dt 17:19). I say this fact is not surprising because when the Bible was written, it was not possible for the average person to have their own copy of the Scriptures. Until the invention of the printing press (in the 1400s AD), documents often had to be copied by hand. In Jesus’ time, individual books of the Bible were kept on scrolls in the temple and synagogues. A special group of people called “scribes” were tasked with making copies of individual books.
Instead of reading the Bible, believers of the ancient world would listen to the Scriptures read, commit the Scriptures to memory, and meditate upon them. Before God charged Joshua to enter the Promised Land He commanded him, “this Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Jos 1:8). The Psalms begin by describing the man the Lord blesses as the one whose “delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps 1:2).
The word “meditate” is not referring to entering a type of transcendental state but simply thinking deeply about the Scriptures. The Puritan preachers were famous for taking just a verse or short collection of verses and expounding upon them in depth. Richard Sibbes famous work “The Bruised Reed” is a 16-chapter book that expounds on a mere three verses in Isaiah. While such depth may seem excessive to our modern minds, we must remember that the Scriptures are the very words of God Himself. Each word is important, and there is often more to be seen the closer we look. God is speaking to us through the Scriptures about Himself.
The Louvre Museum in Paris, France houses some of the greatest works of art in the world. About 480,000 works are on display including the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. I read that a person could walk through the Museum and hit all the highlights in about 40 minutes. While I guess a person could say they saw the displays, they would have missed a great deal as well. They would have failed to see the artists use of shade and color; they would have missed the stories the artists were trying to tell. They would have seen the works but missed the art.
I fear that, in our rush to complete our Bible reading, we may make the same mistake. We should read daily, listening for God’s voice, paying careful attention to the words and how one idea connects to the other. But we shouldn’t let a deadline dictate our walk with God. Instead we should spend as much time as we need in each passage until we feel that we understand what God is saying. Our time in the Scriptures should be a joy, not a burden. Our attitude should be like the psalmist who said, “In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways” (Ps 119:14-15).
I do intend on using a reading plan to direct me this year, but whether I finish it in the intended timeframe is of lesser importance to me. The study of the Scriptures is a command to be obeyed, not a job that we can finish. We should read the Scriptures as we would appreciate art, looking intently into it, examining each detail—and in doing so—seeing the heart of the Artist.
Live for Jesus.