Pastor John, here’s an email — not an uncommon one — from a listener who writes in to ask, “If I’ve never read the Bible by myself before, where should I start?”
Oh, I would love to talk to such a person. So I hope he or she is listening. Let’s start at ground zero, absolute zero, and just say a few big picture things that will help my simple, straightforward answer make sense.
The Bible Is . . .
The Bible is a collection of 66 distinct books. These were written by different people over a span of about 1,500 years, which makes their amazing harmony and unity and development all the more amazing. But it is important to realize that there were numerous authors — human authors — not just one.
“Since Jesus is the central figure in the Bible, and he explains everything else, you need to get to know him first.”
So, these 66 books in the one book called the Bible are different kinds of writing. Some are history, some are poetry, some is prophecy, some are letters and so on — different styles. And these are divided into two parts: we call them the Old Testament and the New Testament. The word testament is an old word for “agreement” or “covenant” about the way God was dealing with his people. The old covenant entails the books written before Jesus Christ came into the world, and the new covenant entails the books written after Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament comprises books that are preparing for the coming of the Son of God into the world — Jesus Christ. And the New Testament is about what he did, who he was, how he started the Christian movement, and how we are to live as Christians in light of all of that. So, 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament.
Start at the Center
Where should you start in this big library of God-inspired true books? My answer is, Since Jesus is the central figure in the Bible, and he explains everything else — if you understand Jesus, you are going to be able to understand the other parts better — then you need to get to know him first. There are four books at the beginning of the New Testament that give an account of his ministry and somewhat of his life, although none of them covers every year of his life, because what he did in his last three years was all-important. So that is what they focus on.
And these four books are called the Gospels — the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The word gospel means “good news,” and this is the foundation of our good news called the Gospel.
Begin with the New
Here is where I would start. The Gospel of Mark is the shortest one — sixteen short chapters. I would start here, and here is the way I would do it. I would set aside two hours some Sunday morning or Saturday evening or some time when you are going to stay away, and read the whole thing straight through — sixteen chapters. And I say two hours because I am a slow reader, and I have done that. I have sat down and read the entire gospel of Mark straight through. You might be able to do it in one hour. And that will give you an overview of the ministry of Jesus, a very fast paced, clip, clip, clip, clip. One of the most common words in Mark is immediate.
“You are on the brink of the greatest adventure of your life.”
And then the second thing I would do is do the same thing with the gospel of John. It is longer — twenty-one chapters, and they are longer. Mark is fast-paced, riddled with action, the sorts of things Jesus did. John is reflective, slower-paced. It contains lots and lots of the teachings of Jesus. The gospel of John gets you inside his mind and heart in a concerted and focused way.
And then when you have read Mark and John just to get you exposed to what he did, and what he taught, and who he was, I would point you in two directions, depending on the kind of person you are. If you are a lover of seeing things systematized and organized into a beautiful whole, go to the letter to the Romans next — another sixteen chapters.
Or if you are the kind of person who loves fast paced action, and you want to see what happened — how did this movement move on in the world — then go to the book of Acts and hear the very title. Acts is about how the gospel gets from Jerusalem at the death and resurrection of Jesus all the way to Rome about thirty years later and the amazing works of God to establish his church.
Smack in the Psalms
And the last thing I would say is, there is a book in the Bible, right smack in the middle of the Bible. If you flop your Bible open to right smack in the middle, it is going to open to Psalms — 150 psalms. These are the prayers and the songs of the people of God — many of them by King David of Israel — and they capture all the moods and the ups and downs and the struggles of God’s people.
There are a lot of people who love this book more than any book in the Bible. My wife would say Psalms is her favorite book. And that is the approach I would take. That last exposure would give you a way to manage lots of the feelings you are going to have as a new Christian.
It’s All Good
But let yourself be caught up in what amazes you. Don’t consider my advice or anybody’s advice where you have to read. It is all God’s word. It is all inspired and reliable — all that is profitable to help you know Christ and know how to be saved from sin and from condemnation and how to have eternal life and how to live a life pleasing to God in this world.
You are on the brink of the greatest adventure of your life.