The first time I tried to read the Bible was when I was a boy, probably in the first or second grade. My parents had a big black leather Bible they kept on our coffee table. I knew this book was important to my parents and grandparents, and to the preacher at our church, so I became curious to know what it was inside. I opened the front cover and began turning pages, trying to read here and there. I had no idea who King James was (the old rascal), or what King James English should sound like. After a few fruitless minutes trying to understand something of what I could read, I closed the Bible and put it back in its place on the coffee table. My initial exposure to God’s Word left me feeling that the Bible was a mysterious and difficult book.

The Bible is a mysterious and difficult Book. But it is also meant to be read and understood, at least in its main message. The fact is, when the Bible is translated into their native languages, the Story of the Bible can be understood by people all over the world.

I love the King James Bible, so don’t write me letters. In fact, I bet I have more King James Bibles than you do. But even my grandparents loved how easy the newer translations are to read. They bought a parallel Bible, with the King James Version in one column, and a newer version in the other. (A few years later I was given my own parallel Bible by my good friends Fred and Opal Whitkanack. I’d read the New International Version of a passage and think, “That’s not what it says! I don’t remember that at all!” And then, convinced I’d found heresy in this new translation, I’d look over and read the King James Version…and find that it said very nearly word-for-word the same thing. In fact, when it came out, the New International Version was criticized by some for being too much like the KJV.)

It’s important to have a good translation that uses English you can plainly understand. If reading a particular translation is a struggle for you, chances are you’re not going to be very consistent in reading your Bible. I think Christians should own at least three different kinds of translations.

First, you need a good literal translation, one that is as faithful to the Hebrew and Greek texts as possible. The King James Version, the New American Standard Version, and   the English Standard Version are all very good examples of this type of translation. (My personal favorite is the ESV. It’s even closer to the King James Version than the New King James Version in places.)

No translation can be literal in the sense of being word-for-word from the original language. Languages don’t all contain the same number of words, so sometimes you need to use several words in the target language to translate one into the original. Sometimes the word order is completely foreign to our way of speaking. Sometimes the original uses an ancient idiom, a way of saying something that means something different than a literal reading would suggest. For instance, we might say, “It’s raining cats and dogs!” We mean that it’s raining really hard. But if you said that to an Asian person who is struggling to learn the English language, you would probably get a baffled stare in response. So even our “literal” translations are really just “as literal as they can be”. (If you really want literal, you have to learn to read ancient Hebrew and Greek!)

Second, you should have a good paraphrase. There is nothing sinister about paraphrasing the Bible. Preachers do it all the time. We read a verse from the Bible, and then say, “In other words…”, and then we paraphrase the Scripture we just read. The Living Bible is a good paraphrase. It came about because Kenneth Taylor’s children had a hard time understanding the Bible passages, he would read to them every night in their family devotions. So, he worked on the train while on the way to and from his job at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, putting a section of the Bible into language his kids could understand. This eventually was published in 1971 as The Living Bible.

Another good paraphrase is The Message, by Eugene Petersen. It’s the one I turn to when I need a different take on a passage of Scripture. The Contemporary English Version is another good paraphrase.

Third, you should have a good translation of the Bible that falls in between the literal approach and the paraphrase. I love the New International Version for this (the one published in 1984, not the more recent update). The New Living Translation and the Christian Standard Bible are other good examples of what’s called a “thought-for-thought” translation.

But the preceding paragraphs are a good example of what can happen when we try to read the Bible: we can get so caught up with versions, study notes and commentaries that we spend precious little time actually reading the Bible itself! The bottom line is this: find a good translation you like, and then read the Bible!

To that end, let me give you a tool to help you get the most out of your reading. (I learned this from Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, specifically from my friend Paul Bertsch.) I want you to look for S.P.E.C.K. in the Bible. Not specks, S.P.E.C.K.! This is an acronym to help you remember to look for these things when you read the Bible:

S – Sins to confess;
P – Promises to claim;
E – Examples to follow (or not to follow, as the case may be);
C – Commands to obey; and most of all,
K – Knowledge of God.

You won’t find all these things in every passage you read. You don’t even have to use this acronym every time you read the Bible. Sometimes, God speaks right to your heart from a particular passage, without much effort on your part. But at other times, if you are finding it difficult to get something out of what you read, look for S.P.E.C.K. in the passage.

But whatever you do, Christian, read your Bible! This is God’s love letter to us. Yes, there are parts that are hard to understand. Babies don’t fully understand everything their parents say to them, and the Bible is God’s “baby talk” to us. One of my professors, Dr. Hunter Sherman, used to say: “If I had a God I could understand like a multiplication table, I wouldn’t think much of Him.” But children do understand a lot of what their parents tell them; and as they keep listening, they understand more. When you read the Bible, you are listening to God’s voice. And as you listen, something wonderful happens: you begin to change, from the inside-out.

The Lord Jesus prayed to the Father, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17) Sanctify means “to be set apart for holy service to God”. God’s Word has a cleansing effect on our souls. It cleans us up and gets us ready for God to use. It strengthens our spirits, and prepares us to meet life’s trials. It stores God’s truth in our hearts so we can be ready to answer the questions other people might ask. And, it gives us joy. Christian, after you read the Bible, even if you struggled to understand the passage, there’s something in your spirit that says: “Ahhhh!” like a sigh of satisfaction.     

after eating a good meal. The Bible satisfies our spirits on a deep level, because we are hearing our Master’s Voice. And Jesus said, “…and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” (John 10:4)

So, listen to His Voice. Read your Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Pastor David