A Starting Place
Many Bible readers have difficulty deciding where to begin their Bible reading. Those who resolve to start in Genesis and read all the way through to Revelation often get hung up in Leviticus and Numbers before finally surrendering in frustration.
While all Scripture is “ is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”(2 Tim. 3:16), some genres or books speak to us more than others. “For everything there is a season,” writes Solomon (Eccles. 3:1). Some books resonate with us more in the varied, at times horrific seasons in our lives. Below are books of the Bible that have been especially helpful to me. They greatly developed my thinking and feeling. They made God real to me, not because he isn't real or wasn’t near, but because through these books I heard his heard his voice, loudly. It's hard to ignore a megaphone.
After every book, I’ve included a few helpful resources most of which are commentaries. The series the commentaries are part of is listed in parenthesis.
The Wisdom Literature (poetic books) fills this list. Without question, it is my favorite biblical genre. Here, beginning with the fear of Yahweh, my walk with God is greatly enriched.
Honorable Mentions: Genesis, Proverbs, Philippians, Hosea.
I have made it my Bible reading practice to begin with a psalm. For me, this ancient Psalter has been liberating. In some expressions of Christianity, emotion is to be suppressed—at least negative emotion. People are told that if they aren’t happy or joyful they aren’t trusting God which is sinful. The psalms free us from this stoicism. Raw humanity finds a voice in this collection of songs—songs of joy and sorrow, songs of praise and defeat, songs of blessing and songs of cursing.
This collection has sustained generations of Christians. Truly, these are soul songs. They help us to think and to feel.
Helpful Resources: Psalms by Tremper Longman III (TOTC), Psalms (2 vol.) by Derek Kidner (TOTC/ KCC), A Commentary on the Psalms (3 vol) by Allen Ross (KEL), Interpreting the Psalms by Mark Futato; Psalms as Torah by Gordon Wenham; Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis.
Job is powerful book providing us with a robust theology of suffering. There are many things to be gleaned from this book, like insights about the divine character of God and his rule over Satan. Or on a more practical level, not blaming the sufferer for the woes like Job’s friends wrongly do when they insist that his own sin brought his suffering upon him.
I came to Job looking for philosophical answers for the problem of evil which the book didn’t answer. Instead, it communicated to me that suffering befalls on people, even good people who are following God. In this life, we may never know why we suffer, but that’s ok because God reigns and he is present with us always. Real wisdom trusts God.
Helpful Resources: Job by Francis I. Anderson (TOTC); Job by Tremper Longman III (BCOTWP); Beyond Suffering by Layton Talbert; The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God by John Piper; When You Want to Yell at God by Craig G. Bartholomew; Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction by Craig. G Bartholomew; The Wisdom of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes by Derek Kidner.
4) 1 John
1 John was very meaningful to me during my mid teen years as I waded through the easy believism/ lordship salvation controversy. Those who advocate Free Grace Theology often elevate John’s writings, especially his gospel, above all other New Testament writings—a very flawed hermeneutic. Ironically, however, it is John who has some of the strongest language concerning present sin in the life of the believer (1 John 2:3-11; 3:4-24; 4:7-21).
1 John confirmed for me that mere belief saves no one, and that genuine Christians have accompanying works verifying their belief. They submit to the lordship of Christ. If they are truly saved they will overcome sin. 1 John was also very special to me because I preached from it when I had occasion to preach during my church internship during my undergrad years. This was a very special time for my development!
Commentaries: The Letters of John by Colin G. Kruse (PNTC), The Letters of John by John Stott (TNTC), 1, 2, & 3 John by Daniel Akin (NAC), 1, 2, and 3 John by Karen Jobes (ZECNT); A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters by Andreas Köstenberger
While in junior high I on occasion read a chapter of Proverbs a day, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that daily Bible reading became a habit. The book of Romans is what started that habit. I remember sitting in the back of a hot bus driving back from Ironwood. As the bleak desert passed by my window, I was contemplating life. What else do you do in the desert? I decided that I would just read an entire book in one sitting. I decided on Romans, because if it was good enough to revolutionize Martin Luther’s theology it was good enough for Josh Valdez!
Romans was life changing for me. It was the first book that I read in one sitting. It answered so many questions I had. It sparked within me a hunger for God’s Word. Truly, it was revolutionary for my walk with God.
Helpful Resources: Romans by Thomas R. Schreiner (BECNT), The Epistle to the Romans by Douglas Moo (NICNT), Romans by C.E.B. Cranfield (ICC), Romans (2 vol) by John MacArthur (MNTC).
2) The Gospel of John
I enjoy experiencing the wisdom of Solomon and following the logic of Paul, but I love reading John. John writes with epic, emotional language. He emphasizes love and wonder. His gospel is theological biography, or theological passion. John writes about Jesus in a way that is absolutely captivating.
The Gospel of John is my favorite gospel and the one I frequently find myself returning to.
Helpful Resources: John by Andreas Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters by Andreas Köstenberger, The Gospel According to John by D.A. Carson (PNTC); John (2 vol) by John MacArthur (MNTC).
The two years before I graduated from seminary were especially difficult for me. I was struggling with graduate work in Greek exegesis and Hebrew, which made me question whether I was really up to the task of being a proficient exegete. More difficult than my struggles in biblical language was the sharpening reality that I would not be able to serve the church I grew up in. Pastoring there was always my dream, and I began to realize that this dream would never be. I entered into a season of real doubt about my ministerial calling—seven years into college work (four years for the bachelors and three so far in the masters). Ecclesiastes was healing for me. I immersed myself in it and journeyed with Solomon. Misery loves company the saying goes, and Solomon was my company. He was a kindred spirit, I felt his own existential agony in my own struggle.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon has an orthodox epistemology that conflicts with his existential life. Belief and experience are in tension. He knows in his head that Yahweh reigns, but as he observes the chaotic, conflicted nature of the world he agonizes internally. It doesn’t seem that there is justice in the world, nor does Yahweh seem to be on the throne. This is why the two opposite ends of the experiential pole surface through out. On the one hand Solomon celebrates the joyful life in the carpe diem passages (Eccles. 2: 24-26; 3:12-14, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:7-12:7). On the other hand he concludes that all is hebel (vanity)! (Eccles. 1:2, 14; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26, etc.). Life’s journey includes both, and we should accept that we will experience both in this glorious yet broken world.
Ecclesiastes doesn’t allow for a Christianity which naively proclaims your best life now. It doesn’t allow for a neat, clean Christianity that is free from doubt or suffering. It teaches that we will experience suffering and perhaps even doubt as we observe the world around us. Even so, we must fear God—reverently seeking him daily for our nourishment and submitting to his good rule. Ecclesiastes is a powerful apologetic for our post-modern, post-Christian society. It is a book for our time.
Helpful Resources: Ecclesiastes by Craig G. Bartholomew (BCOTWP); Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction by Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan O’Dowd