This week I have the joy of helping a new Christian in his journey into the scriptures. He asks if he should read the Bible from Genesis onward, or if he should start in the New Testament, or what? And what else should he know about reading the Bible?
As one reads the Bible, there is no "right" or "wrong" way to read. But, first you have to know why you're reading. When I read scripture, I read for a variety of reasons. When studying for a sermon, I read one way. When trying to understand what God wants for my life, I read another way. And finally, if I'm reading to understand the Bible itself, I read differently.
When writing a sermon, I read to understand what the writer was trying to say to his intended audience--which isn't me. Paul wrote to correct or give direction to a particular church. The gospels were written for different purposes, John so "we might believe Jesus is the Christ," Matthew to show Jesus is the Hebrew Messiah, and so on. The Hebrew scriptures teach the law, offer a hymn book, share the history of a nation, and attempt to correct a society gone awry.
Once I've decided what the author is trying to say, I apply the teachings to today; however, I know the teachings must be relevant to our culture. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, his command that women may make no sound in church (1 Cor. 14.34) doesn't mean women today are somehow restricted in worship. What I understand Paul as saying to the church of the 1990s is that worship is a time for worship, not idle chatter, etc.
When I read to see what God wants for my life, I read reflectively. I read whole passages, stories, sayings, or psalms. Then I sit quietly with my eyes closed meditating on the scripture and listen to God speak in the silence. Sometimes God leads my thoughts to areas in my life that need work. Sometimes God brings me a sense of peace. And at other times, I am disturbed by what I read and I know I have to "deal with" the passage (make sense of it, apply it to my life, etc.)
Finally, when I read to understand the Bible itself, I read critically. Let no one say the scriptures ought not be read critically--if the Bible can't stand a critic's examination (and it's withstood it for thousands of years so far), then it isn't worth much anyway. When I read this way I seek to understand the text as we have it. This is when I look at why one passage says one thing, and another disagrees or contradicts; when I look at psalms filled with anger and hatred; when I read, take notes, and compare and wonder--and seek reasons for the discrepancies in word or thought. This method of reading is generally used only by scholars and folks who really know the Bible well--and those whose faith is strong enough to face fact as compared to tradition.
When you begin reading, I recommend reading a psalm and a passage from Proverbs daily. Then read a portion of a book each day. I suggest reading the gospel of Mark first, then Luke, followed by Acts. Next, read the narrative passages from Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, 1st and 2nd Samuel, and 1st and 2nd Kings. These readings will give you a sense of the history of our faith. After that, well, you're on your own.
BUT BEFORE YOU READ ANYTHING--find a translation of the Bible you can understand. The NIV, Good News (TEV), or NASB are some of the easiest to read and understand, and they're known for their accuracy too. Good luck, and good reading!