I’m writing this at the beginning of December as a nudge: New Year’s day is coming and it’s a great time to launch a Bible read-through! So let me encourage you to pray and plan accordingly.
Here’s my unsolicited advice: be very ambitious! A six-week reading of the entire Bible will have a dramatic impact on you and on any reading partner who takes up that pace with you. I’ve done it twice myself and was startled both times by the rewards it offers. But if you’re not that bold, then a three-month pace still offers a remarkable benefit. Or, for steady joggers like myself, take on a four-month pace. It’s easy to maintain—reading about 35-40 minutes a day—and still offers the outcomes we’ll explore below.
I realize, of course, that for most of us that amount of Bible exposure is a category shift. It certainly was for me the first time Sam raised the possibility some years ago! I almost spilled my coffee as he talked offhandedly about regularly reading through the Bible between two and three times a year. When I asked how he had time for that he just smiled, “Well, you take time for what you think is important.” Ouch.
Then and now the “high” standard most often promoted is to read through the Bible in a year. Good. That’s useful. But, in practice, it only involves about 10 minutes of daily reading. And, to be blunt, ten minutes doesn’t have much impact on us, given its small footprint in a typically busy day. Maybe it’s more for conscience relief than for building a strong bond with the Author, but it’s still not to be dismissed if no greater ambition is in play. Even a verse or two a day can be a starting point for the spiritual infant who needs some first tastes of a new delight.
My friend, Mark, on the other hand, loves to pinch about 5 pages of the Bible between his fingers while offering his challenge.
“This much,” he say with his warm but compelling gaze, “is all you need to read each day to get through the entire Bible in 4 months! It’s not that hard!”
So, why do it?
First, because Bible reading provides us with God’s preferred way of sharing himself in the present era. Eternity lies ahead which ensures so much direct exposure to him that we’ll hardly look back on this era except to have an angel or two tell us stories about how God accomplished the heart transplants we all needed to get into eternity. But for now God seems to be more interested in offering himself more indirectly than directly—by written words and by his self-displays and interventions in the creation rather than by coming to us in direct visits.
Why? God only knows. But let me offer an informed guess. God does it this way because sin captured the hearts of Adam and Eve while God was physically absent. The enemy, given this brief window of opportunity, first questioned and then denied God’s words to Adam of, “don’t eat or you’ll die.” The serpent promised, instead, “you won’t die!” And, remarkably, Adam and Eve adopted the enemy’s words as true rather than God’s words. So, in a powerfully ironic reverse symmetry, God now captures our hearts by offering his equally simple words to the now “dead” offspring of Adam: “believe in me and you shall live.” Notice, once again, that God offers this promise while he’s physically absent from us.
To say more on this conflict-of-words I think of a similar exchange between Satan and God in the book of Job where the serpent was saying, in effect, “God, you really aren’t that compelling a figure. If Job had half a chance to rely on himself rather than on you, he’d jump at the chance! He’s only loyal to you because you offer him physical and spiritual shelter!” Job, of course, proved Satan to be wrong. And, when we believe God’s word, we join Job in shaming Satan—proving him to be the self-deceived Liar that he is. So, given God’s words of truth and love, we love him even when we haven’t seen him. For that the loyal angels celebrate.
Second, we read the Bible boldly because it’s the best way to see how brilliantly God shows himself to be “wonderful”—that is, “full of wonder”—throughout the collective books. If we only nibble at the Bible or cherry pick our favorite books and verses, this God of wonder almost never shows up. It would be like watching an epic movie in limited daily doses of four or five minutes. The story line would only become evident after many months, with most of the important early parts largely forgotten by the time the climax is offered. But once we read the Bible in flow—in very big chunks—we start to see the same sort of miracle that the infant Jesus represented. Both the written Word and the living Word appear through humble people, in humble circumstances, and in unpretentious forms. But, over time, both the Scriptures and the Son come to be unveiled as brilliant self-disclosures of God’s heart.
This mystery of transformation is crucial in enjoying Christ for who he really is! As a testimony, my own conversion was like the day when three apostles saw Jesus transfigured—that is, disclosed to them with his true glory. Until then he was, to all appearances, only a humble-looking itinerant, rural preacher. Then on the mountain he showed off the “real” person that he is: the living God in human form! Similarly, as I was reading the Bible—with all its awkward and human features—the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew became a living conversation between Jesus and me. God’s Spirit took over the simple words of Jesus and made them into divine words, into transforming words, and he bred new life in my soul as I read! It was there that I first heard that he actually loves me!
Third, we read the Bible because we still stink of our former fallenness and a good shower is in order. The “washing of the water of the word”—to paraphrase Paul’s words in Ephesians 5—is needed to clean us up! The world’s point of view in living life is utterly different to God’s point of view. It’s “upside-down” different! What the world promotes most, the Bible dismisses most. Think, for instance, of the themes of self-advancement we hear on television, on the radio, in our books and magazines: “You need to visualize your own potential, then reach out and achieve it!” Yet the Bible invites us to self-giving: that just as Christ himself showed us, “count others more important than yourself.” Consider, too, the world’s invitations to gain more and more security, more and more status, more and more beauty; then compare them to the Bible’s calls for us to be crucified with Christ and to live by faith in him for as long as we live in this body. The world gives us mirrors to gaze on ourselves: at our opportunities for self-enhancement and self-fulfillment. The Bible is a lens that shows us Christ as the author and finisher of our faith, the one to whom we now gaze as we run the race of life without getting our feet tangled up in the snares all around us.
So our daily times of Bible reading are the water, the soap, and the scrub brush God uses to make us more holy and blameless—turning us into people fit for eternity.
I’ll stop here. But there are more metaphors that can be at least noted. The Word, for instance, is like milk for the young, and meat for the mature. The Bible like a light on the highway of life as we travel through a very dark section of road. The Bible is like yeast that begins a work in us and spreads in us in ways that startle others. The Word sets us free from enslavement. The Word brings peace and joy.
But the key to being captured by the Bible, and to finding that Bible reading is truly life-changing, is to have a companion. A human companion is good, but the Spirit himself is the one we really need to have with us in order to make real sense of the whole. Not that he comes to offer us esoteric new ways of reading the Scriptures—of the sort the serpent used in his Genesis 3 question, “Did God really say . . ?”—but he comes to pour out God’s love in our hearts [Romans 5:5] which gives us the proper context for Bible reading. Be sure to invite him to join you in your read-through. And remember: be bold!