Sam was a retired global worker—with years spent in Africa—who in his retirement decided to plant a church in British Columbia. My home church in Spokane recruited two of us to travel north to help them build a chapel. During our two months there Sam and his wife treated us to breakfast at their beachside cottage each morning. And that always included a casual conversation on some Bible topic. Sam was a natural teacher and I was ready to learn. I’ll never forget our first morning as I mentioned the tall local trees. Sam then took off with a discussion of Bible trees, including the trees of life in Genesis and Revelation. And the cross in between. The next morning it was Melchizedek. And so on, each morning.
Sam’s ready supply of Bible content amazed me. Verses flowed spontaneously in ways that were natural and interesting. I asked him where he gained all his Bible themes. He laughed.
“I just read my Bible.”
“How much reading?”
“I try to get through the Bible two or three times a year. So it’s a happy habit.”
I almost dropped my coffee. He had been reading at that pace all his Christian life, for fifty years!
The challenge captured me, and two months later I finished my first Bible read-through. In the reading I started to “feel” God’s triune personality—his vast dimensions, threaded concerns, and constant care. I discovered emerging motives that shape a compelling salvation narrative. By reading in fast flow I picked up the distinct yet related features that by the end offer the basic unity of the two testaments. The promised blessing of a coming king tied it together. And in reading I was pursuing God, but I soon realized he was pursuing me! ‘Listening’ moved up to be the first priority of my day. I never slowed down—by now I’ve hit Sam’s fifty-year mark—and it never gets old.
In time I discovered that robust Bible reading can work with others too. I spent two years in the Army and John, my roommate and fellow MP, was a believer. But his faith was young. One morning he complained about being badgered for his faith by other guys in our unit while I was somehow exempt.
“Johnny,” I said bluntly, “they watch you, and you don’t seem to stand for anything! Every now and then you mention your faith, but I never see you spending time with God or his word. Neither do they.” I pressed him about the Bible. I was reading each morning. Had he ever tried reading it through?
That was a morning conversation, and he had the day off, so I left for work. When I came back for lunch he had almost finished reading Genesis! And by that evening he was through Exodus. Soon he was carrying his Bible to work. As the shift radio dispatcher he was at a desk all day—reading when he could—and was quoting lively texts to his amazed military police buddies. He finished reading the whole Bible by the end of the second month.
John not only gained new credibility with the platoon, and ended any badgering; he also helped stir a strong young adult fellowship at our church. After his Army tour he went on to Bible college. As he transitioned he commented on how the Bible touched him: “I came to love God through my reading.”
Since watching John take off, I’ve used this partnership read-through approach with dozens of others, one or two men at a time. The simple structure formed when I was on staff at a church in Boise. I invited a friend, Way, to join me in a read-through. He was a new believer, and hungry. It worked. His spiritual life prospered. Others in our young adult singles group saw the change and spontaneously took up reading partnerships themselves. Even though it was never a formal ministry activity.
Two weeks ago I began another partnership read-through. Chris, my fellow-reader, is a 19-year-old in the college ministry I lead. He grew up in a Christian home, but until six months ago was mostly indifferent to spiritual concerns. But after sharing in an early morning Bible study for a few weeks, he asked for another study. I proposed a read-through together.
The rules are simple. We selected a date for completing the project (in this case, four months later). We meet every Tuesday morning for an hour. We start with a few minutes of general sharing and then start to read verses aloud. These are random verses we’ve underlined during our week of separate reading. We rarely overlap in our Bible selections since we read at an individual pace. We exchange honors each week on who reads first, and that person gets to read as many verses as possible in ten minutes. A timer goes off and the partner gets to read. A key feature that surprises many is that we just read aloud, verbatim, the whole time. With no explanations or efforts to apply the verses. We just identify our target verses so the partner can track and see the context. We never finish all the verses we’ve underlined, but it doesn’t matter. The idea is to share some wealth! After the twenty minutes of the reading exchange we share some personal updates and pray for each other. It may sound modest—an hour or less—but it’s very strong. The highlight of my week.
One aim is to read the Bible for flow—the way we read any good book. I usually start my day reading for thirty or forty minutes. Other times work too. I also look at free evenings or Saturdays as a “chance” to read. It’s never a duty. In fact, if we give the Spirit some room to work the reading times become unique spiritual pleasures. Last Thursday, for example, Chris read for five hours, as he would if he had a great book and spare time. Which, of course, he had on both counts!
As I mentioned already, partners each read at a personal pace, so we rarely share verses from the same Bible sections. That’s not a problem since we aren’t doing a study. In fact, it’s great as we get a double exposure to every section of the Bible.
The one essential task is to underline the texts we pick. It’s our only homework. So, in our meetings we read some of these selected passages without offering any commentary or reasons for the selection. Yet the verses we pick soon display our hearts!
We selected a completion date that would challenge us. It uses some of our discretionary time but not much. I start the day with my reading—as a practical, “seek first the kingdom of God.” I also look for longer reading stretches whenever I can to catch more of the storyline in flow. As a sidebar note: I encourage first-time readers to skim sections that are repetitive or technical—Old Testament law lists, genealogies, and the like. Follow the narrative for now and come back to those items later on.
• Isn’t the Bible too diverse and complex for an untrained reader? No, especially if a young Christian has an experienced partner to answer some early questions that might come up. Our first exposure to learning anything—in school or at a job—can seem pretty complex. But in the process, we soon learn lessons that set up further understanding. This all emerges naturally in the conversations between partners.
• What’s the best age or ability level for this approach? One middle school youth pastor used this method to help 24 of his youth read the New Testament during the summer. He reserved a “report” period during each Wednesday meeting when the students would share what they had underlined. Everyone finished on time and loved it. On another occasion after I shared the “Read-Through” approach to a church family camp I had two fourteen-year-old boys commit to try it. Later they called me to say they finished reading the entire Bible in just one month and loved it!
• What if I’m not a good reader? At times I’ll pace my own reading with an audio Bible. I love the double exposure. But the point is that it’s done at a normal speaking pace. I once had a partner with a reading disorder who also used an audio-Bible for listening while he marked verses on a print text. Afterwards he said this was a huge boost: his reading skills improved dramatically.
Bible discipleship works because it’s Christ’s approach. Jesus called on his followers to “abide” in his word (John 8:31). As we take up his words at face value—reading “relationally”—the Bible offers personal spiritual growth. And spiritual fruit follows.
Nick and his family left for Asia as global Christian workers this past August. Years earlier Nick had become a Christian when Way and I were starting our read-through, so he and Way also met separately. Nick assumed this was standard fare! And his continued appetite for Scripture led to formal theological training. He still has this appetite and now it’s overflowing to others.
Bible discipleship like this also expresses Christ’s love. It displays the body of Christ at work: as two or three people enjoy regular fellowship, pursuing God, growth happens. As the partners meet and share sections of the Bible—realizing that the Spirit is busy doing his own “underlining” in lives—biblical love follows. Along with personal vulnerability, accountability, prayer, and friendship.
Paul assured the Ephesian elders that they had been given the “whole will of God” (Acts 20:27) in his ministry to them. The Bible offers us this access to God’s heart. In most instances the New Testament writers assumed their readers had a knowledge of the Old Testament. It’s important for contemporary Christians to be equipped to respond to that assumption.
Sam’s mark on my life is eternal, not because of any exceptional wisdom, but because he was a channel of the living Word of God. Jesus told the woman at the well about the very principle that Sam shared with me: “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13). Isn’t it time for us to read the Bible vigorously, steadily, and fully?
[first published as “Make this the year!” in Moody Monthly magazine, January 1987; also included in R N Frost, Discover the Power of the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2000) 201-206]