Where Should I Start Reading the Bible?

John MacArthur
header for Where Should I Start Reading the Bible?

Short Answer From Bible to Life: Maybe start in 1 John or the Gospel of John…but wherever you start, read it repeatedly.

Bible study begins with reading it. But quite frankly, a lot of people never get to that point. They sort of nibble at it, but they never really read it. They may read a lot of books about it, but they don’t really read the Bible. There is no substitute for reading the Scripture. We must be totally committed to reading it because that’s where it all begins. My suggestion is that you try to read through the Bible once a year.

First, let’s discuss how we should read.

A Plan to Read the Old Testament

I believe Christians should try to read through the Old Testament once a year. There are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament, and if you read about twenty minutes a day, you should be able to get through it in one year.

“God did not write a book to confuse you.”

You can read through the narrative of the Old Testament, for the most part, year after year, and all the while build a comprehension as you read. I would also suggest that as you read the Bible, mark in the margin a notation where you don’t understand what it’s talking about. If you do that, you’ll find an interesting thing will happen. As time goes on you will begin to check them off your margin, because as you read and reread the Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi, an understanding will become yours that will answer some of those questions you had. The ones you don’t answer in your reading, you can use for individual study with a commentary or other source to find the meaning. But begin by just reading it. Don’t become overwhelmed and think, “How can I ever learn the meaning of every verse?” Just begin to read through the Old Testament at least once a year.

That’s where it all begins. There’s no substitute for reading the Bible.

A Plan to Read the New Testament

I have a little different plan for reading the New Testament.

The message of the New Testament is the culmination of revelation. It is that which embodies and engulfs all that was in the Old Testament. In a sense, the New Testament will summarize for you the content of the Old Testament, as well as lead you further into the fullness of revelation. So when you read the New Testament you must spend more time in it because it explains the Old Testament. Also, it is written in the Greek language, which is a more complex, perhaps more difficult language to understand than the Hebrew because it talks more in abstractions and concepts, rather than narrative stories. For this reason we need a greater diligence in studying the New Testament. Here’s how I’ve done it.

Start with First John

My method when I was in seminary was to read 1 John every day for thirty days. You can do it this way, too. The first day just read 1 John all the way through. It will take you only twenty-five or thirty minutes. The idea is to read it through the first day, then on the second day read it through again; on the third day, read it through again; on the fourth day, read it through again; on the fifth day, read it through again. Just sit down and read it. Now about the seventh or eighth day you’re going to say to yourself, “This is getting old. Besides, I’ve got this stuff pretty well under my belt.” But that’s the tough part. If you push through and just stick with it for thirty days, you’ll have a tremendous comprehension of 1 John.

Make a Three-by-five Card

Basically, this is what I do all the time. As I prepare messages, I just read through the particular Bible book over and over again until the whole book fills my mind in a kind of visual perception. I would also suggest that you take a three-by-five card and write down the major theme of each chapter. Then, every day when you read the book, just look at the card and read through the list. You’ll soon begin to learn what’s in the chapters.

Move to the Gospel of John

When you’ve finished reading 1 John for thirty days, where do you go next? I suggest you go to a large book in the New Testament (and remember, all the time you’re still reading the narrative of the Old Testament twenty minutes a day). I believe you should go from 1 John to the gospel of John. “But that’s twenty-one chapters!” That’s right, so just divide it into three sections. Read the first seven for thirty days, the second seven for thirty days, and the third seven for thirty days. At the end of those ninety days you will have pretty well mastered the content of the gospel of John. And you’ve also had a three-by-five card on the first seven chapters, one on the second seven, and one of the third seven. So you’ve memorized the major theme of each chapter. But what does this method of Bible study really accomplish?

Repetition Is Key

There is great merit to it. I remember when I started using this approach I was really amazed at how fast I began to retain the things in the New Testament. I had always wanted to make sure that I didn’t wind up a “concordance cripple,” never being able to find anything in the Bible and having to look up the verses in the back. And to this day, the gospel of John, 1 John, and the other books of the New Testament have stuck in my mind. Why? Because this is how we learn. Isaiah said you learn line upon line, precept on precept, here a little, and there a little (Isa. 28:10, 13). When you study for a test, you don’t pick up your book, read through the notes once, and say, “I’ve got it!” (At least not if you’re normal.) You learn by repetition, repetition, repetition. That’s the same way to learn the Bible.

“There’s no substitute for reading the Bible.”

Try to Read Philippians, and Take it Slowly

After the gospel of John you might want to go to Philippians, another short book. Then you might want to go to Matthew, and then to Colossians, then to Acts. Divide it up like that, back and forth, a small book and a large book. “But that’s going to take a long time!” No. In approximately two and a half years you will have finished the whole New Testament. You’re going to read the Bible anyway, so you might as well read it so you can remember it. Some people may say, “Well, I have my devotions, and I read a passage for the day.” That’s fine. But if I asked you, “What was it?” you may say, “Well, let me think. . . .” What if I asked, “What did you read three days ago?” Having the answer may be next to hopeless. It’s really difficult to retain anything by moving fast. You must go over it and over it and over it. If you believe the Bible is the living Word, it will come alive in your life as you read it in a repetitious manner.

Keep a Consistent Translation

Many people have asked me if I think they should always read from the same Bible translation. My answer to that is generally, yes. Stay with the same version so you will have familiarity. Once in a while it’s good to read the passage from another version just to further explore it.

The Bible Isn’t a Secret Book

Reading the Bible answers this question: What does the Bible say? We have to read it to find out exactly what it says. Let me tell you another interesting thing that happens when you begin to read the Bible repetitiously. You will find that your total comprehension will increase incredibly. That’s because the Bible explains the Bible. God did not write a book to confuse you. The Bible is not a book that’s supposed to have some kind of hidden truth—it’s not a secret book. You’re supposed to discover what God is trying to say.

For Further Reading:

How to Study the Bible

by John MacArthur

The Bible is the Word of life. As such, studying the Bible is crucial to the life and growth of every believer. In this revised work, John...

book cover for How to Study the Bible