A lot of new and seasoned Christians have a story about their attempts to read the Bible cover to cover that goes something like this: It was going great as they read through Genesis and Exodus, but somewhere in Leviticus or Numbers, they started to get bogged down in details they didn’t quite understand. And by the time they hit Deuteronomy, they were done.
While it’s true that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), we need to recognize that the Bible is not like any other book. It isn’t necessarily meant to be read from front to back. In fact, the Bible is actually a library.
The Protestant Bible is comprised of 66 books, and many of those books are written in a variety of different genres or types of literature. These genres all need to be read a little differently. Starting at Genesis and trying to read straight through without a strategy can get frustrating if you don’t know how these books and their literary genres work together.
There are a few ways to classify the genres of the Bible, but they typically fall into these categories.
While most of the Bible’s books have some element of history to them, these are the ones that are primarily focused on communicating stories of historical significance. In these books, you’ll find a lot of the Bible stories you probably heard when you were a kid.
Wisdom literature focuses on what it means to live well. Some of the language is poetic and figurative, so it can’t always be read in the same way that you’d read the Bible’s historical books. For instance, Proverbs 13:14 tells us that “the teaching of the wise is a fountain of life . . .” This doesn’t mean that wise teaching is a literal fountain, but a rather continuing source of intellectual and spiritual nourishment.
While many Old Testament books contain portions of poetry, these three books are written as verse. Unlike English poetry that focuses more on rhyme and meter, Hebrew poetry creates an emotional impact by focusing on balanced, parallel lines. We can see an example of this in Psalm 24:3-4 where we’re told,
“3Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
4The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.” — Psalm 24:3–4
Both verses use repetitive lines to drive the point home. To ascend to the mountain of the Lord and stand in his holy place both communicate a blamelessness before God—and faithfulness is communicated by the comparable ideas of not trusting in idols or swearing by false gods.
The Bible’s prophetic literature focuses on God’s word spoken through his prophets. These messages tend to emphasize Israel’s need to repent before they experience the Lord’s judgment. When reading prophecy, it’s essential to understand who God is talking to through his spokespeople and the overall message he is trying to convey.
Like some of the Bible’s prophetic literature, the apocalyptic writings focus on future events. Because so much apocalyptic literature involves dreams and visions translated into symbols and imagery, this is often the most difficult genre to understand—and the easiest to misinterpret.
Sometimes the Gospels get lumped in with the historical narrative books of the Bible, and that makes sense. After all, their entire value rests on their historic nature. But what separates them into their own genre is that the Gospels focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And while all four Gospels concentrate on the life of Jesus, they all have a unique emphasis and each one approaches the story differently. Luke’s Gospel and Acts are both technically epistles, but they revolve around the Messiah and his establishment of the church, so they also fall into this literary genre.
Books include: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude
Epistles are letters, and like modern letters, they’re made up of a greeting, a body, and a closing. These letters focus on instruction, correction, and encouragement for these new first-century churches.
Some books have multiple genres
There’s definitely some genre-hopping going on throughout the books of the Bible. Daniel is both historical narrative and apocalyptic literature, and Acts works as both history and Gospel. Proverbs is a wisdom book that includes poetic elements. But the point is that learning to see these books through the lens of genre can help make Scripture reading a lot easier.
So where do I start?
Now that you have a better picture of the Bible as a collection of books, you can be intentional about how you approach it. Instead of walking into what is essentially a library and trying to read your way through the books indiscriminately, you can read them strategically. As you do, you’ll find that with each Bible book that you read, you gain a better understanding of the others.
Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Total verses: 678
For the Christian, the Bible is ultimately about redemption through Jesus Christ. It makes sense then to begin your biblical journey in the Gospels, and Mark’s is a great place to start. Running the length of a longer magazine article, it should take less than two hours to read in a single sitting.
Mark’s Gospel will give you an overview of Jesus’ life without getting you bogged down in too many details. Once you have an understanding of this Gospel’s narrative and all the characters, you’ll be able to dive into the other Gospels with more clarity and understanding.
Key verse: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” —Mark 10:45
Total verses: 879
Where Mark focuses on what Jesus did, John looks closely at what Jesus said about himself. We find some of the clearest explanations of who Jesus was and what he came to accomplish in John’s Gospel account. It’s from John’s Gospel that we learn that “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Key verse: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. —John 1:1
Total verses: 1,213
Genesis sets up many essential biblical themes. It’s here that we learn that God was responsible for creating the heavens and earth; we witness humans as they rebel against their creator; and we watch God establish the nation of Israel. The entire biblical story of God’s working with and redeeming humanity is established in this important book.
Genesis is a genuinely enjoyable read, but we realize pretty quickly that we’re reading about an ancient, foreign culture. It’s helpful to have some tools on hand to make sense of some unfamiliar concepts and traditions. Resources like the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible or the NIV Faithlife Illustrated Study Bible can provide a lot of helpful context.
Key verses: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. —Genesis 1:1
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.” —Genesis 12:1–3
Genre: Wisdom literature
Total verses: 915
While there is of course theological truth to be found in Proverbs, it’s essentially a compilation of simple instructions for living wisely. Following these principles will help you live a life of integrity and virtue.
As you’re reading Proverbs, it’s important to remember the difference between a principle and a promise. For example, Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” The point is that it’s important to be intentional about teaching your values and beliefs to your children. But it’s not a promise that doing so will ensure a specific outcome.
Proverbs is full of wise advice about living, but it shouldn’t be read as God promising certain results for specific behaviors. Remember that the wisdom that the Proverbs offers is wide-ranging and more general in nature.
Key verse: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. —Proverbs 1:7
Total verses: 105
Since the beginning of the Christian church, authorship for this letter has been attributed to John the apostle. In this epistle, John makes simple contrasts like light vs. darkness, truth vs. falsehood, and love of God vs. love of the world. This letter is intended in part to give Christians an assurance of their salvation.
Key Verse: I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. —1 John 5:13
Total verses: 176
The entire book of Psalms is full of insight and comfort. Christians throughout history have turned to the Psalms when they needed direction, consolation, and contentment. Psalm 119 is the longest Psalm and shares David’s heart for God’s Word. If you’re diving into Scripture, Psalm 119 will help you see what falling in love with the Word of God looks like.
Key verse: Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. —Psalm 119:105
Bible reading plans
If you’re brand new to the Bible, it’s good to have an understanding of the Bible’s message and scope before you dig into a through-the-Bible reading plan. Zondervan provides a fantastic collection of reading plans that will give you a strong working knowledge of Scripture.
This reading plan starts with an overview of Jesus’ ministry, and then spends a month helping you to get to know and understand God better. From there it focuses on various topics and readings appropriate for new Christians. By the time you’re done with this reading plan, you’re going to have a helpful understanding of the foundations of God and his Word, which will prepare you for committing to a more intensive Bible reading plan.
Most full-Bible reading plans focus on a year, which is a very reasonable amount of time to read through the Bible. The average reader reads about 200 words per minute. This means that you should be able to get through the entire Bible in a year by spending around 15 minutes a day on this effort.
There are a total of 1,189 chapters in the Bible, which means that you should be able to get through the entire Bible by reading three or four chapters each day.
Zondervan has a strong plan to get through the Bible in one year. This one starts at Genesis and goes straight through to Revelation. They also have readings that include a 60-day overview of the Bible, and a list of not-so-famous Bible stories. You can check those out here.
BlueLetterBible.com has some helpful reading plan options that give you readings for every day of the year. These include the following:
● Canonical plan: While this entire post is written to offer alternatives to reading the Bible straight through, there are people who still want to follow that method. This plan breaks Scripture into daily chunks for a cover-to-cover trip through Scripture.
● Chronological plan: This plan organizes Scripture sequentially. As you work your way through this plan, you’ll be reading Scripture in the actual order in which the events took place.
● Old Testament and New Testament together plan: Going through the Old and New Testaments simultaneously can give you a lot of insight into God’s Word. This reading plan will equip you to read both testaments together in 365 days.
How to stick to your reading plan
Let’s be honest; a year is a long time to stay committed to something—especially when you’re working through some of the harder-to-read passages. Here are four tips for seeing your one-year reading commitment through.
1. Read at the same time every day
Habits are built on persistent behavior. If you’re doing your reading at random times every day, it’s going to be harder to establish a routine. But once you begin reading your Bible at a specific time of day (and even in a consistent place), it’s going to be a lot easier to follow through.
2. Find a Bible-reading partner
If you’re serious about your commitment, find someone who will join you. Setting goals with a friend can make all the difference in the world. Not only will the two of you hold each other accountable for your daily reading, but you’ll also be able to go deeper by discussing what you’re reading together.
3. Get a Bible you enjoy reading
Bible reading isn’t very fun when you don’t understand what you’re reading. It’s incredibly helpful to have a Bible that can help you understand what’s happening (and how it applies to you).
If you’re looking for a helpful resource, the NIV Student Bible will provide a lot of insight. Built specifically for students of the Bible, it gives you just the right amount of help without overwhelming your time in the Word. And it has its own three-track reading program!
Another great resource is The Books of the Bible. Broken into four-volumes and by many of the genres mentioned earlier, this Bible is free from chapter and verse numbers that provides a seamless reading experience. When done with a partner or group, this approach to reading the Bible can be very enlightening and meaningful.
4. Listen to an audio Bible
For a lot of the church’s history, people listened to God’s Word instead of reading it. Sometimes it can be helpful to purchase an audio Bible, then take a walk and listen to the Bible instead of reading it. If you find that you’re struggling through your daily reading, consider supplementing it with an audio Bible.
Benefitting from God’s Word
The Bible can be pretty intimidating for the new Christian, but it doesn’t have to be. Knowing where to start can help immensely. As you make your way through Scripture, you’ll discover the assurance, strength, and wisdom that only come from immersing yourself in God’s Word.