World's Second-Best Bible Reading Program*
Yes, the second best program. Read on.
Given our Christian culture of feigned spirituality, Christian marketers have been able to push off on us the canny idea that reading through the Bible in one year takes us to the Olympic bema (podium) of spiritual maturity. Go into any Christian bookstore or find one of those lavishly awful websites that tout these one-year programs and you'll be duped into thinking that you've found the Holy Grail to that all-too-rare Eagle Scout badge of true godliness. Three months into it, drowning in the blood sacrifices of Leviticus and the mind-numbing genealogies of Numbers, you succumb to surrendering the holy quest. A uniform sans all the holy badges will have to do.
Early in my Christian walk, scampering through 5 different Bible genres (Law, Psalms, Prophets, Gospels, Epistles) a day didn't hit me as a a good idea. Plus I didn't have the money for an Evelyn Woods speed reading course. In fits and spurts, I put together my own informal way on squeezing as much juice from the Word as possible and thought I'd share it with my Holy Grail ne'er-do-wells. But be forewarned; this "Bible Reading Program" is not a one-year, two-year, or even a three-year course. It is a way of approaching the Word that should last you a lifetime.
The crux is discipline. Real Bible study requires hard thinking. Certainly, one-year Bible programs inculcate a type of discipline, but you have to question whether speed-reading through the revelation of the ages is a worthwhile endeavor. For those programs, it doesn't matter what you're reading or when you're reading it; it's all about marking off one of those innumerable squares so you can watch Deal or No Deal in peace.
The discipline that I mean is the discipline of real thinking. The aim of Bible reading is not to go the distance, but to understand what God meant when he breathed his words through the souls of his apostles. The discipline is to set your mind to understanding the meaning of the text yourself and not someone else's sermonette (remember the seven sons of Sceva? see Acts 19.13-16).
Concentrate in the New Testament
Now that you've set your mind to "get understanding," you should concentrate in the New Testament epistles, especially Paul's letters (I'm including Hebrews). This is where 99.9% of Bible reading programs miss the boat. They treat all the books of the Bible as one and the same without any context of the progressive revelation involved. Paul, himself, writes why the gold-edged pages on your Bible should be well-worn on the back end:
whereby, when ye read [my letters, says Paul], ye can perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ (Ephesians 3.4, ASV)
Prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul (Saul) was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Sure he knew the Law, but he did not understand it in light of God's ultimate plan of redemption. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, the Lord, himself, revealed to him the mystery of the Plan of Redemption that had been hidden in God for generations.
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it [from man], but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1.11-12, NASB)
even the mystery which hath been hid for ages and generations: but now hath it been manifested to his saints (Colossians 1.26, ASV)
This revelation was first broached by Jesus on the Road to Emmaus:
Now He said to them, "These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to under the Scriptures, and He said to them, "Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His Name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24.44-47, NASB)
And later it fully revealed to Paul:
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures: and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures. (1 Corinthians 15.3-4, ASV)
By this revelation, Paul was able to understand how all the scriptures - the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms - tie into Jesus becoming sin, dying on behalf of mankind, being resurrected by the Father, all of which gave us the power or ability to become the sons of God. The epistles constitute Paul's disclosure of this revelation so the aim of Bible reading should be to gain "his understanding" into that mystery of redemption.
Seek to Understand the Context
Many Christians haven't given one smidgen of thought as to how that KJV sitting in their laps came into existence. Corinthians and Ephesians are nothing more than bookmarkers to them. Unlike the Ten Commandments which were penned by God's own finger, the New Testament was written by God breathing through the souls of his apostles. These men, Paul, Peter, and the like, penned real letters to real people about real issues during a particular epoch of time. While the truths they espoused are eternal, it is eminently helpful to know about some of the dirty details of why food sacrificed to idols was a big deal for the Corinthian Christians or why the Ephesians thought Diana was so great.
I suggest that you pick up a book that deals with the background of the books of Acts, Paul's missionary trips, and the NT churches. It doesn't have to be one of those dull theological treatises, but a quick read that gives you some background understanding of the life and times of Peter, Paul, and the rest of God's motley crew. Personally, I recommend Frank Viola's "The Untold Story of the New Testament Church." I'm not in lockstep with Viola's theology, but in The Untold Story he has done a great job of putting Acts and the NT epistles together in a good narrative. You can read The Untold Story in an afternoon or two.
Read the Entire Letter
When you sit down to read the Word, first read an entire epistle all the way through like you would a juicy story in the New York Times (or the Wall Street Journal if you're one of those Red Republicans). You might even do this a couple of times because it will give you a feel for what was going on in the respective NT church and Paul's or Peter's reason for writing the epistle in the first place. As F.F. Bruce, once put it, Paul's letters are like listening to just one end of a telephone conversation. So it's good to read through it a few times to understand where he's coming from.
Use More Than One Translation
Have in your reading arsenal two translations (yes, this is separating the men from the boys). The New Testament was written in Koiné Greek (street Greek during NT times), a dead language that requires translation. Translators are those cave-dwelling academic types who smarter than Einstein, but who can't give you a straight answer about anything. They can tell you the history of the Greek word and all the linguistic balleyhoo about it, but they could never give you a straight-up, one-for-one translation in English. There is always translational wiggle room (that's why there are over 300 English translations). Having two translations at your side gives you the mind of two translators (or multiple committee members) instead of just one. The whole idea is understand the apostle's thought and the nuances of different English words is sometimes a big help. Personally, I like Rotherham and the NASB. Rotherham is about as close as you can get to the Greek and the NASB brings the Koiné into modern English.
Become a Greek Geek
In addition to your two translations, you ought to pick up a Greek word dictionary. Every verse has one, two, or three impact words in it. Most of the time they are the verbs, but sometimes they can be the nouns. For example, look at these two verses:
And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into they hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. (Luke 23.46, KJVS)
Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. (1 Peter 2.24, KJVS)
Luke 24.36's impact word is the verb "commend." Looking up that word in a Greek word dictionary gives you the definition of "put forth" or "set before" (Strong's). You can see that is quite a different nuance from our modern-day use of "commend").
In 1 Peter 2.24, there are several impact words, but look at "stripes." A Greek dictionary will show you that "stripes" in the Greek is singular, not plural. The translators used some of their wiggle room to interpolate "stripes" from "wound" or "injury." Placing "wound" or "injury" in the place of "stripes" changes the emphasis of the verse from the soldiers' flogging of Jesus to the injury sustained. Quite a difference.
A good shortcut to using your own Greek dictionary is using the NET Bible's notes. The NET Bible is a new translation that features 60,000+ translators' notes. It is published free on the internet. I have the NET Bible notes on my Accordance Bible software and also on my iPhone. The notes are a great reference source, especially as a quick reference.
Paul is Writing to You
Armed with your two translations and Greek dictionary (or NET Bible notes), get to reading. Read the epistle with the perspective that you are one of the members of the respective church. With Corinthians you are one of those who are not wise, not noble, not mighty (1 Corinthians 1.26). With Philippians you are one of those who sent an offering to Paul while he was in need (Philippians 4.15-20).
Follow Your Heart
This is when you find your meat: once you've read the book all the way through, start with the beginning or go to the particular chapters or verses that had the most impact on you or that interested you the most. The important thing is not to go about reading in some mechanical fashion, but to get into the part of the epistle that interests you first.
Dwell on Verses
Read the verses that you want to concentrate on in each of your translations. Notice the semantic and vocabulary differences between the two. Look up the impact words of the verse in your Greek dictionary. Go over the verse until you derive an understanding of the apostles' words. For some verses, this might take just a minute or two (see the salutation in the beginning of every epistle, except Hebrews). For others, you might have to sit on the verses for quite a while. Years ago, after I read Romans a few times I began my meat study in Romans 5. I spent about 3 months just in Romans 5 before I moved on to Romans 6. My study in Romans 5 has stayed with me through all these years.
See the Old Testament in the Context of Jesus
If the verse refers back to the Old Testament, then take the time to go back to the Old Testament and read the reference bearing in mind that Paul, especially, is framing the Old Testament in light of the revelation of the mystery of Christ. Let me show you what I mean. In Hebrews 10, the author of Hebrews writes:
Therefore when He comes into the world, He says, Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, Behold, I have come (in the scroll of the book it is written of me) to do your will, O God. (Hebrews 10.5-7, NASB)
In a regular Bible reading program, you'd read this reference in Psalm 40 without any regard to the mystery of Christ, but rather a step to marking off a square. From your reading, you'd probably find it of some use for some kind of narcissistic self-help prayer..
Here in Hebrews you see it in its "mystery of Christ" context; it is the first-person testimony of Jesus himself. After seeing that, you can see what Jesus meant on the road to Emmaus when he said that the whole OT is about him. Revelation like this is the whole aim of Bible reading.
Talk to the Lord About It
During the course of your reading, don't be shy to speak to the Lord about it in prayer. You'll be surprised at just how anxious he is to get his Word over into your heart.
He Who Sows Will Reap Even More
There will many who read this post and say, "Gosh, I'm interested in a Bible reading program, but I'm not sure that I want to do all that work, you know, sit down with two translations and a dictionary and . . . yada, yada, yada."
That's fine. Just tell the God-man who emptied himself of all his glory and died bearing the sins of all mankind in order to rescue your sorry 'ole soul why knowing him and his Plan of Redemption isn't really worth your time.
* With due credit to Dan Edelen, the creator of The World's Best Bible Reading Program.