The Bible is God’s revealed word, and it is the only place that we can go today to know His will. All 66 books of the Bible are needed to get the complete picture. Therefore, it is important as Christians that we learn to read it correctly and study it regularly.
A brief chronological summary of Bible history
Here’s a helpful timeline to follow along in the summary below.
Garden of Eden
Time began when God created everything in six normal 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago (roughly 4000 BC). The Bible doesn’t give an exact date for the creation, but it provides detailed genealogical and historical information that we can cross reference with datable events from other cultures and work backwards from there. Prior to creation, God (the Holy Trinity) was all that existed because God is eternal and has always existed.
God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, and put them in the Garden of Eden, giving them only one rule: do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Everything was perfect. There was no death or disease, and Adam and Eve lived in perfect fellowship with God. God ended the creation week by resting on the seventh day.
Sometime after the creation week, one of the angels named Lucifer became puffed up with pride in his own wisdom and beauty. Lucifer decided that he wanted to be like God and sit on the throne above the stars. One third of all the angels in heaven chose to join Lucifer’s side, so God threw Lucifer and his angels out of heaven and down to Earth, where they became known as the devil (Satan) and his fallen angels (demons).
Satan took the form of a snake and tempted Adam and Eve by encouraging them to disobey God. They ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and God threw them out of his presence and punished them with a curse. From that day forward, death and disease entered the world and humanity was no longer able to be in a relationship with God.
Flood and Dispersion
Adam and Eve had children, and humans began to populate the Earth for about 1,600 years. As the population increased, people became increasingly evil to the point where God decided to wipe humans off the Earth.
God told a man named Noah to build a large wooden ship called an ark and load it with two of every kind of flying creature and air-breathing land animal (roughly 16,000 animals). Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives (8 people) all boarded the ark with the animals and stayed on board for 370 days. During that time, God caused water to flood the entire Earth to a depth of 23 feet above the highest mountains, and almost all life on the Earth died. After the floodwaters receded, Noah’s family and all the animals exited the ark, and God gave them the command to be fruitful, increase in number and fill the Earth.
Roughly 300 years after the Flood, people still had one common language, and they settled together to build a city and a tower to the heavens. Rather than obeying God’s command to fill the Earth, they wanted to stay together and make a name for themselves. God split them up and scattered them across the whole Earth, creating different languages in the process.
About 425 years after the Flood, God made a covenant with a man named Abram (Abraham). First, God promised to give Abraham many descendants and to make him into a great nation–the future nation of Israel. Second, God promised to give Abraham’s descendants all the land from the Nile River in Egypt to the Euphrates River in Iraq. Third, God promised to bless Abraham and all the families of the Earth through him.
God renewed this covenant with Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob (Israel). Israel and his twelve sons all migrated to Egypt to escape a 7-year famine, and during their time in Egypt they continued to increase greatly in number.
Escape from Slavery
About 430 years after God made a covenant with Abraham, the twelve tribes of the Israelites had become a people so numerous that the Egyptians felt threatened and decided to enslave them. The Egyptians oppressed the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly, and the Israelites cried out for help. God heard their cries, and he appeared to an Israelite named Moses. God commanded Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the land He had promised to Abraham. Since the Egyptians would not let the Israelites leave, God sent ten plagues to punish them. The plagues demonstrated to the Egyptians that they were worshipping false idols, and it showed the Israelites that they were protected by the one true God.
After the tenth plague, the Egyptians let the Israelites leave and even gave them clothing and articles of silver and gold to take with them. However, it wasn’t long before the king of Egypt changed his mind and sent an army of chariots and horsemen to pursue the fleeing Israelites. The Israelites escaped to the edge of the Red Sea, where they were trapped until God told Moses to raise his staff over the waters of the sea. Moses did as he was instructed, and the waters of the sea were parted to the right and to the left with dry land in between. The entire tribe of over one million Israelites crossed between the waters of the Red Sea along with all their livestock and possessions, and when they were safely across, God caused the waters of the Red Sea to flow back into place, drowning the Egyptian army.
After crossing the Red Sea, God led the Israelites into the desert, providing water for them as well as a daily serving of bread from heaven called manna. God led the Israelites to Mount Sinai, where He appeared again to Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites. The purpose of this covenant was to establish Israel as a new nation and set them apart from all other nations as God’s chosen people.
The first part of the covenant was God’s divine law, which included a total of 613 commandments. The second part of the covenant was God’s promise to bless the nation of Israel if they obeyed His commandments and curse them if they disobeyed.
In addition, God had Moses put the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments into a container called an ark and construct a holy tent called a tabernacle. When the Israelites traveled, they would pack up the tabernacle and the ark to carry with them, and when they camped, they would set up the tabernacle and place the ark inside it. The ark inside the tabernacle was the place where the glory of God’s presence manifested, so God remained with the Israelite people throughout their journey in the desert.
When the Israelites neared the promised land of Canaan, God told Moses to send out twelve spies to explore the land and report back. The spies returned after forty days of exploration with reports that the land was abundant and exceedingly good, but also with reports that the land was full of fortified cities and powerful giants. The Israelites lost hope and wanted to flee back to Egypt rather than trust in God’s promises, and as a result God cursed the nation of Israel by causing them to wander in the desert for forty years.
After forty years, Moses and the entire generation of the Israelites that had been living in Egypt was dead, and a new generation had been born in the desert. God chose Joshua to lead the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the promised land of Canaan. God led the Israelites to military success against thirty-one kingdoms in the land, and all the land they conquered was divided among the twelve tribes of Israel. Just before Joshua died, he left the Israelites with a final reminder to obey God’s commandments.
Following Joshua’s death, Israel was led by a series of leaders called judges, and the Israelites began a repetitive cycle of worshipping God for many years and then worshipping idols and false gods for many years. Whenever a corrupt judge led the Israelites into a period of idolatry, God punished them by allowing the nations around them to oppress them. Whenever the Israelites cried out to God for salvation from their oppressors, He sent a just judge to deliver them from the hands of their enemies and bring them into a period of peace.
Kingdom of Israel
The prophet Samuel was the final judge of Israel, and as he grew old, the Israelites began to envy the fact that all nations around them had kings while Israel had none. In truth, Israel was a theocracy with God as their king, but they cried out to Samuel to name an earthly king to rule over them like the other nations. God told Samuel to warn the people that a king would subjugate them, enslave them, and oppress them, but the people didn’t care. So God told Samuel to anoint a man named Saul to be the first king of Israel.
At the beginning of Saul’s reign, he obeyed God’s laws, but after a while, he began to turn away from God. Although God allowed Saul to remain on the throne of Israel until his death, He rejected Saul and told Samuel to anoint a young shepherd named David as God’s chosen king. David served as a mighty warrior and general under Saul, and at first Saul was pleased with David’s military victories. However, Saul became jealous when the people began to praise David more than him, and Saul tried to kill David. David was able to escape, but Saul’s warriors continued to pursue David for many years until Saul finally died. After Saul’s death, his son reigned and fought David’s forces for two more years, until Saul’s son died as well.
Finally David ascended the throne, and his first act as king of Israel was to conquer the city of Jerusalem, setting up his residence there and bringing with him the ark of the covenant law. Then, David asked if he could build God a permanent temple to replace the tabernacle tent they had been using since Mount Sinai. God replied that David would not be allowed to build the temple because God wanted a man of peace to build it rather than someone who had been involved in so much war and bloodshed. Instead, God made a promise to David that his son Solomon would be the one to build the temple and that one day one of his descendants would rule on the throne of his kingdom forever. After David’s death, his son Solomon became king and fulfilled David’s dream to build a temple in Jerusalem to worship God.
Solomon’s reign was peaceful, and he died about 515 years after the Israelites had escaped from slavery in Egypt. After his death the nation was divided into the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (capital city Samaria), and the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom of Judah (capital city Jerusalem).
A series of evil kings led the Northern Kingdom of Israel into idolatry for about 250 years until God had enough and allowed the Assyrians to conquer Samaria as punishment. The Assyrians deported the Israelites to Assyria and replaced them with transplanted people from Babylon and other areas.
The Southern Kingdom of Judah also had a series of evil kings, but in between they also had a few good kings. As a result, Judah’s slide into idolatry wasn’t quite as fast as Israel’s had been, and God prevented the Assyrians from conquering Judah. Ultimately, however, the idolatry of Judah became too great, and God allowed Jerusalem to be conquered by the Babylonians about 387 years after Solomon’s death. The Babylonians completely destroyed the mighty temple in Jerusalem, and they took the surviving Jews into captivity in Babylon.
Captivity and Rebuilding
During the captivity, God raised prophets from among the survivors of Judah, and their messages of hope helped the Jewish people to keep their unique culture intact. After about 70 years, the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, and miraculously the king of Persia decided to allow the captives to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. He even gave the Jews back the treasures that the Babylonians had plundered from the original temple, and he also financed the rebuilding of the temple from the royal treasury.
The temple was rebuilt about 92 years after the Babylonians destroyed it, and the Jews reinstituted their practice of worship and sacrifice in the temple. The final book of the Old Testament was written about 85 years after the temple was rebuilt, and after that the Jews entered a period of about 430 years, during which they did not hear from God.
During the period between the events in the Old and New Testament books, a couple of things occurred. First, control of Jerusalem changed hands from the Persians to the Greeks, to the Ptolemaic Egyptians, to the Seleucid Empire, and finally to the Romans. Each new wave of foreign conquerors ushered in increasingly oppressive conditions for the Jews, and many became convinced that God would once again rescue them from their oppressors, this time through the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah.
Second, the Greek language and culture became a strong influence on the Jewish culture. A rift began to grow between the wealthy and powerful elite, who adopted more of the Greek culture, and the poorer majority, who held fast to their traditional Jewish customs. The Sadducees were a religious sect of Jews who were composed mainly of the upper class, the priests, and those who were most influenced by Greek culture. The Sadducees’ power came mostly through their involvement with the Jewish judicial body, the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees were another religious sect of Jews who received more support from the lower class due to their adherence to the Mosaic law. However, the Pharisees also instituted a rigid set of legalistic oral traditions to complement, and sometimes supersede, the written law.
Somewhere around 5 BC, God became human in the form of a poor Jewish boy named Jesus. Both His birth and His life fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. He began His ministry around the age of thirty, and He quickly developed a following among the disadvantaged people and a reputation as a blasphemer and a rabble-rouser among the powerful Sadducees and Pharisees. Jesus spoke with authority, taught many things, and performed many miracles.
After three years, the chief priests and the elders of Jerusalem had enough, and they arrested Jesus on false charges. They convinced the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate to condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion. Jesus allowed his accusers to have him executed, because it fulfilled God’s ultimate plan to have Jesus take the punishment for the sins of the world.
Jesus died on the cross and was buried in a tomb. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to more than five hundred witnesses. Then, He ascended into Heaven and God the Holy Spirit came down in His place to help Jesus’ followers, the apostles, with the establishment of God’s church.
The apostles traveled extensively and evangelized in all the surrounding nations to spread the gospel message, and their authority was confirmed through the working of many miracles.
The New Testament ended with a promise that all who repent and trust in Jesus Christ to save them from their sins will live forever with God in Heaven.
The importance of an inerrant and infallible Bible
It is important that the Bible is without error, because it is the only place that we can go today to get a direct, unfiltered message from God. Let’s review some foundational truths:
- The Bible claims to be the word of God. (1 Peter 1:20-21 and 2 Timothy 3:16)
- God cannot lie because it is against His holy nature. (Hebrews 6:18 and Numbers 23:19)
- God knows everything. (1 John 3:20 and Psalm 139)
- God does not change. (Hebrews 13:8 and Malachi 3:6)
Therefore, if the Bible is God’s word, then it cannot be wrong or else that would make God wrong, which would undermine our entire faith. I am not claiming that today’s Bible is without minor grammatical errors, but the core foundational principles of the Bible have remained intact over the years. See Bible Objection #4 for more detail.
When people view the Bible as just some book written long ago by men, then they try to correct what they see as errors in the scriptures. They say things like, “People back then didn’t know as much about science as we know today,” and “Men wrote those things because they viewed women as second class citizens, but we’re so much more enlightened today.” I’ve even heard someone claim that we have to filter what we read in the Bible and use our own judgment to determine what is right and wrong or else God could tell us to fly planes into a building and we would think that was a good thing.
Again, the Bible was written by men, but its author is God (see Bible Objection #1). Therefore, it’s not the words of the Bible that are the problem, but rather our own mind which is clouded by sin. In Romans 8:6-7 it says, “The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” When people reinterpret God’s word, their imperfect interpretation leads to contradiction, which eventually destroys the entire faith.
That is why it is such a blessing that we have direct access to God’s unchanging and infallible written word and why it is so important that Christians spend time studying the Bible. We can’t blindly trust in someone else’s interpretation of the scripture, but instead we must be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
Choosing the right Bible translation
There are many Bible translations to choose from, so how do you know which one is the right one? My recommendations are:
- Avoid the King James Version — Many people are convinced that the KJV is the only acceptable English translation of the Bible. I guess the anachronistic use of thee and thou makes it sound more holy or something. Most critics of the KJV would argue that modern Bible versions were translated from older and more accurate manuscripts. However, my main critique of the KJV is that it’s language is so outdated that modern English speakers will have an extremely difficult time following along in some sections. I recommend the New King James Version (NKJV) instead since it’s a little easier to read.
- Avoid the Message and Amplified — These can’t even be considered translations. The Message is basically like reading someone else’s paraphrase rather than the actual word of God, and consequently it fails miserably in several sections. The Amplified simply inserts every possible definition of a word that can carry multiple meanings. Unfortunately, some possible meanings of a word don’t fit the immediate context of the sentence, which can quickly lead you down the wrong path. Both of these translations are very easy to abuse by Bible twisters.
- Focus on one translation — The most important thing to do is to focus on one translation rather than bouncing around to multiple translations. The reason is that certain words and phrases that appear repeatedly will become familiar to you. This makes it easier to learn the common themes and also search for a particular Bible passage later. Also, beware of pastors who constantly bounce between different translations during a sermon because they obviously have a particular topic they are trying to force into the Bible. Rick Warren is probably the best example of this. If God wants you to know something, He will make it abundantly clear without having to daisy-chain various translations together to say it.
- Cross reference — No Bible translation is 100% perfect. Don’t be afraid to keep some other translations on hand in case you want to see how a difficult passage reads in another translation. Often I find that’s the easiest way to clear up confusion.
Personally, I chose the New International Version (NIV) because it’s one of the most widely used translations (our local congregation uses it as well), and I like that it strikes a good balance between word for word translations like the New American Standard Bible (NASB) or the English Standard Version (ESV) and thought for thought translations like the New Living Translation (NLT). The NIV is easy to understand and pretty accurate. However, I sometimes cross reference in one of the other versions I mentioned above. I also use BibleHub.com to verify some of the original Greek and Hebrew meanings.
The right way to read the Bible
Step #1: Get saved
Someone who is not a born-again Christian, cannot understand what the Bible teaches:
“For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:11-14)
Don’t worry about trying to understand absolutely everything in the Bible before you get saved, because you’ll just get puffed up with pride and you won’t understand it anyway. Many atheists can quote the Bible better than many Christians, and yet they don’t understand what it says. I can remember reading the Bible before I was saved, and it didn’t click for me. Then when I read the same verses after I was saved, the words suddenly came alive.
Step #2: Get an overview
If you’re following the steps in order, then most likely you already got an overview of the Bible when someone shared the gospel with you. However, it also helps to get a summary of the chronological history of the Bible, which is why I’ve included one above. You can also visit a resource like GotQuestions.org to get a summary of each individual book in the Bible before reading that book. Once you know the big picture, you are able to understand things in context.
Step #3: Get help
In Acts 8, Philip the evangelist comes across a man who is reading the Old Testament:
“Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked ‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.” (Acts 8:30-31)
Just like the man in the chariot, we should seek the help of a more mature Christian when we need help understanding a difficult passage of scripture.
Step #4: Get back in
After you’ve completed Steps #1-3 and have read through the entire Bible at least once, you should go back in and reread the books again. The more you read the Bible, the more you’ll commit verses to memory. As you reread one book, a verse from another book will come to mind and help illuminate the passage you’re reading. That’s why a Christian who has studied the Bible for years will still find new things in the text that they never noticed before. Then, you can be the mature Christian who helps guide someone else in their faith.
Additional tips for reading the Bible:
Tip #1: Consider the literary style
The Bible consists of 66 books, and the literary style differs between them. For example, the book of Chronicles is written as a detailed account of actual historical events, so it makes sense to view the genealogies as factual rather than allegorical. In contrast, the book of Psalms is written in a series of poems or songs, so it makes sense that many of the verses are metaphorical rather than literal.
Even within a particular book which is written primarily in a historical style, there may be a particular passage which uses a different style. For example, the book of Exodus details the actual historical events of Israel’s escape from Egypt, but Exodus 15 contains a song which uses poetic, metaphorical language. Likewise in the gospels we read about the actual words and deeds of Jesus, but several times Jesus speaks in parables. The nice thing is that the writers of the Bible did not make it confusing for us when they switch writing styles in the middle of a book.
A problem occurs when we try to take something that was written in a historical narrative style and try to make it an allegory. For example, the creation account in the book of Genesis is literal history, and any attempt to allegorize it will only create unnecessary contradictions with other parts of the Bible.
Tip #2: Consider the audience
When possible, we should read a chapter from the first verse, and read the entire book from the first chapter. That way we will know who is speaking and who they are speaking to. We know from 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all scripture is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” However, that does not mean that all verses are written to us or about us as 21st century Christians. For example, we never want to be in the position of taking something that God said directly to the theocracy of Israel in the Old Testament and trying to apply that to our situation today.
Tip #3: Consider the context
Any verse can be twisted to say something other than what the writer intended if we take it out of context. Therefore, if we quote a verse to support an argument we are making, that verse should say the same thing when we put it back into context.
Probably one of the more famous examples of this is in Matthew 10:34 where Jesus tells the twelve disciples, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Out of context, this sounds like an outrageous statement. But when we put the verse back into context, we see that Jesus is warning that non-Christians will slaughter and persecute the Christians.
Tip #4: Consider the theme
Remember that all 66 books of the Bible share a common theme, which is God’s eternal plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. Therefore, we should always ask ourselves as we read any passage of scripture, “What does this passage mean in light of Jesus’ death on the cross for our salvation?”
Jesus explained this fact several times:
- “‘It is written: “And he was numbered with the transgressors”; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.'” (Luke 22:37)
- “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
- “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.'” (Luke 24:44)
- “‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.'” (John 5:39)
- “‘If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.'” (John 5:46)
The Apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews also alluded to this fact:
- “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)
- “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.” (Hebrews 10:1)
Since the entire Bible is written about Jesus, it is perfectly acceptable to allegorize certain Old Testament passages into a type or shadow that symbolizes Jesus and His death on the cross for our salvation. Just one example out of many would be the account of David and Goliath. David carried in his loins the seed of the messiah, and therefore David was a type of Jesus. Thus, while the account describes actual historical events, it also carries a second meaning. It can be allegorized as symbolizing the triumph of Jesus over His enemies, over sin, and over death.
Notice, however, that the Bible’s use of symbolism points us specifically to Jesus. It does not give us license to point the Bible to us. Frequently pastors will use that same account of David and Goliath to preach about how we’re David and we have to face giants in our own lives. That would be an example of what Pastor Chris Rosebrough refers to as narcissistic eisegesis, and it cheapens the Bible by reducing it to a mere self-help book. Do not allegorize Bible passages into teachings about us.