How to Read the Bible

This is the second post in a special two-part series on reading the Bible. In these posts, we include helpful excerpts from books by Watchman Nee and Witness Lee that provide insight about reading the Bible. 

We’ve received two precious gifts from God—His Word and His Spirit. The Word reveals God to us so that we can know Him, and the Spirit transmits God to us so that we can possess Him. The Spirit without the Word is intangible, while the Word without the Spirit is mere letter. God’s Word makes the intangible Spirit substantial to us, and God’s Spirit makes the Word of God living to us. The Bible makes known to us the things of the Spirit, and the Spirit makes real to us the things in the Bible. The Word of God and the Spirit of God are one.

Second Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” clearly indicating that God’s Word is His Spirit exhaled. Thus, the logical way for us to take in God’s Word is to breathe in the Spirit who is incorporated in the breathed-out Word. Since the Word is embodied in the Spirit and the Spirit is received through the Word, the most basic and important thing in our reading of the Bible is to exercise our regenerated spirit to contact the Spirit in the Word.

“John 6 says that the Lord’s words are spirit. The basic principle is the same: Since the Lord’s words are spirit, we have to read them in spirit. In other words, we can only touch spiritual things with the spirit.

The Bible is not only a book with words or letters printed on pages of paper. The very nature of the Bible is spirit. For this reason, everyone who reads this book must approach it with his spirit; it must be read with the spirit.”1

“This indicates that we need to receive the word of God by means of all prayer and petition. We need to pray to receive the word of God.”2

The way to read the Bible is not by a particular method, but with prayer. By prayer we exercise our spirit. When we pray properly, we exercise our spirit, we are in spirit, and we touch the divine Spirit. Since the same Spirit who dwells in us is also contained in the Scriptures, whenever we read the Word with a prayerful spirit, we enjoy the riches, receive the enlightenment, and appropriate the power in the living Word of God. In this way, the Bible will cease to be merely a book of history, ethics, doctrines, or prophecies to us and become rather a source of spiritual supply.

Both the Word and the Spirit are Christ Himself. He is the eternal Word (John 1:1, 14) and is called the Word of God (Rev. 19:13), and in resurrection He became a life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45, 2 Cor. 3:6). Christ is therefore the reality of the Word and the Person of the Spirit. Each time we open the Bible we must be conscious that we are approaching Him; we are not only reading His Word, but also communing with Him as the Word.

The Lord Jesus once reproved the Jews for searching the Scriptures without coming to Him that they might have life (John 5:39–40). His message was clear: reading the Bible without coming to the Lord Himself can be an empty pursuit. The knowledge of the Word alone, however precious, should never replace our receiving of Christ as life in the Word.

Although we should read the Word of God primarily for the nourishment of our being and not the gratification of our intellect, we must apply our renewed mental faculty—a mind under the rule of the Spirit—to understand the Scriptures. Throughout the centuries, the divine truths in the Bible, like hidden treasures, were seen only by those who toiled in the study of the Word book by book, passage by passage, verse by verse, and even word by word. As each stood on the shoulders of previous expositors of the Scriptures, with a spirit of wisdom and revelation, they saw something further and interpreted the mysteries of God, Christ, the Spirit, life, the believers, the church, the kingdom, and the New Jerusalem.

Following their example, we as believers should read the Word regularly and thoroughly with understanding so that our Savior God’s desire for us to come to the full knowledge of the truth can be fulfilled (1 Tim. 2:4). We ought to first familiarize ourselves with the Bible by reading it and learning its contents fully in their breadth and depth.

Thus, for us to reap the most benefit from our Bible reading, we must adhere to the following:

  • Exercise our spirit in prayer when we come to the Word in order to receive the Spirit.
  • Love the Lord Himself who is the Word and who spoke the Word.
  • Use our mind to grasp the facts, meanings, interpretations, and significances of the Word.
  • Be ready to heed the Spirit’s speaking and obey the truths in the Word.
  • Read a fixed amount consistently on a daily basis.

The Reader

We may not realize that we ourselves affect what we perceive when we read the Word. To understand what the Bible is really saying, our inner being—our thoughts and especially our spirit—must be right. Listen to these observations by Watchman Nee on the subject of the reader of the Word.

Concerning the reader’s thoughts:

“There are at least two things that we should do when we come to the Bible. First, our thoughts must be identified with the thoughts of the Bible. Second, our spirit must be identified with the spirit of the Bible. We have to think like the writers of the Bible. Men like Paul and John had certain thoughts behind them when they wrote the various portions of the Word. We have to get into the same thoughts. We have to begin from where they began, and develop our thoughts along the same line they developed. We have to reason the same way they reasoned, and consider the same teachings they considered. In other words, our thoughts are like a cog, and their thoughts are also like a cog. The two cogs have to interlock with one another. Our thoughts have to enter Paul’s and John’s thoughts. As our thoughts enter the Bible’s thoughts and our mentality becomes one with the mentality behind God’s inspiration, we will understand what the Bible says.”3

Concerning the reader’s spirit:

“It is important in our study of the Word to have our thoughts enter into the thoughts of the writers of the Bible and to have our thoughts enter into the thoughts of the Holy Spirit. However, this is only the initial step. Without this step, we cannot study the Bible at all. But even when we have made this step, we may not be reading the Bible correctly. The Bible is not made up just of thought. The most important thing about the Bible is that God’s Spirit is released through this book. Peter, John, Matthew, Mark, and every writer of the Bible had the same experience: As they were writing the Bible under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they wrote according to a certain train of thought, but at the same time, their spirits were released along with the release of the Holy Spirit. The world can never understand that behind the words of the Scriptures there is the Spirit. When the Spirit is released, the prophets come alive, as it were, and speak to us once again. If we hear a prophet speaking today, we have to realize that his speaking contains not only words and thoughts but something else. This something is mysterious, even though within us we are clear that this ‘something’ is the Spirit. The Bible contains not only thoughts but the release of the Spirit. Therefore, the basic and most crucial requirement of all in reading the Bible is to be able to release one’s spirit to touch the spirit of the Bible. We have to strike the spirit of the Bible with our own spirit before we can understand the Bible.”4

Different Ways at Different Times

We should have two separate periods of time for reading the Bible. One time should be in the morning, during which we should meditate on the Word, praising and praying as we read. The goal of this period of reading is to receive spiritual food and to strengthen our spirit. The other time of reading the Word can be at any time of day and is for understanding and learning more about God’s Word. It’s best to have two Bibles, one for each time. The Bible for the first time should have no notes so we can be freshly inspired by the Word and gain new insight, but the second Bible can be annotated with our markings and notes as we study the Bible in a detailed way.5

Meditating on the Word to receive spiritual food

God’s people in the past have benefited from having these two kinds of times in the Word. George Müller described his experience of meditating on the Word:

“I began therefore to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning, early in the morning. The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words the Lord’s blessing upon his precious word, was, to begin to meditate on the word of God, searching as it were into every verse, to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the word, not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon, but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul. The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a very few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that, though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less into prayer. When thus I have been for a while making confession, or intercession, or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the word may lead to it, but still continually keeping before me that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is, that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart…

And yet now, since God has taught me this point, it is as plain to me as anything, that the first thing the child of God has to do morning by morning is, to obtain food for his inner man. As the outward man is not fit for work for any length of time except we take food, and as this is one of the first things we do in the morning, so it should be with the inner man. We should take food for that, as every one must allow. Now what is the food for the inner man? Not prayer, but the word of God; and here again, not the simple reading of the word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts…”6

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Studying the Word

We must exercise our mind to study and understand the Bible. However, even when we study the Word, we must realize that the Word and the Spirit are one. To understand only the letter of the Bible is not our goal; rather, each time we read we must endeavor to touch and receive the Spirit in the Word.

1. Reading with Understanding and Wisdom

For us to ascertain the facts in the Bible requires our prayerful reading and study. Hence, when we read the Bible, our spirit should be the dominant part of our being. There is no need for us to extensively prepare ourselves or make a long production out of reading the Word. Sometimes a short prayer asking the Lord to wash us with His blood so that we can freely come to Him in His Word to receive Him is sufficient to usher us into genuine contact with Him through the Word.

We should read the Bible with understanding and wisdom. Understanding has to do with apprehending the words of the Bible with our mind. This is a critical prerequisite to receiving revelation from the Word. The amount of speaking and revelation we can receive from the Lord is proportionate to the diligence we apply to our comprehension of the letter of the Bible. Getting acquainted with the facts in the Bible is like accruing capital for our future experiences of the divine life. Witness Lee observes,

“In reading the Bible, we must first use the understanding of our mind to comprehend its text, which was written in human language, and to know its meaning.”7

Lee’s book The Full Knowledge of the Word of God lists some practical guidelines for understanding the Bible:

  • Understand the Word of God literally.
  • Go beyond the letter, historical events, and persons and things to explore and to receive the revelation of life.
  • Take care of the context.
  • Expound God’s Word with God’s Word.
  • Learn from the saints of the past.
  • Pray-read the Word to eat, drink, and breathe in the spirit and life in the Word.8

Reading the Bible with wisdom involves apprehending the truth in the Bible with our spirit. This wisdom is not our natural wisdom but the wisdom we obtain through prayer. It’s deeper and higher than the understanding in our mind.

“We cannot receive the divine revelation through such fanciful imaginations. Instead, we receive it by the spirit of wisdom and revelation, spoken of in Ephesians 1:17. The spirit here is the mingled spirit, the divine Spirit mingled with the human spirit. Thank God that today in the universe there is not only the divine Spirit or only the human spirit but also the mingled spirit. God and man can be mingled together as one spirit (1 Cor. 6:17). Basically, the way to receive revelation is by the mingled spirit, that is, by the divine Spirit indwelling the human spirit. This mingled spirit is called the spirit of wisdom. This is for our understanding. If we have a revelation, we need the wisdom to interpret and understand it.”9

2. Understanding the Text

Our reading of the Bible should be comprehensive and thorough; thus, we must be consistent in our reading. We need a schedule.

“Every Christian should have a definite plan of studying the Bible. If you can set aside half an hour a day, develop a plan to study the Bible for half an hour a day. If you can afford an hour each day, develop a plan that includes an hour of study. Whatever time you can afford, make a plan that will fit your schedule. The worst way to read is by ‘inspiration,’ that is, casual, unplanned reading that begins at whatever page one feels, at times reading voraciously for ten days and at other times not reading anything for ten days. This is the wrong way. We should not adopt this ‘inspirational’ method. Everyone should have a definite plan of reading. In reading the Bible, we need to be restricted and disciplined.”10

To understand the text, we must also be able to properly interpret the types, shadows, and figures in the Bible. Additionally, we should learn to use reference tools that define words and explain grammatical structures, and we should have some knowledge of the Bible’s original languages, Greek and Hebrew.

Receiving the Word

It is a glorious fact that God has become accessible and communicable to us as the Spirit embodied in the Word, but this fact remains objective to us if we do not exercise our spirit to contact the Spirit in the Word.

“Therefore, in reading the Bible, after we have understood the meaning of the text by our understanding and have apprehended the truth of the text with our wisdom, we should use our spirit by prayer to receive the truths in the Scripture into the deepest part of our being, that is, our spirit. In other words, after we understand the text and receive the truth therein, we still must exercise our spirit to turn what we have understood and realized into prayer that it may be assimilated in our spirit, becoming our life supply and the basis of our spiritual experience.”11

“The Word becoming the Spirit in our experience can be illustrated by the lighting of a match. The head of a match is a ball made of phosphorus. When we strike a match in a proper way, the phosphorus bursts into flame. Is the flame different from the phosphorus? No, it is simply the explosion of the phosphorus. In like manner, the Spirit is the ‘explosion’ of the Word. When we experience this explosion, we are ‘burned’ by the ‘fire.’ This burning is faith.”12

How We Can Exercise Our Spirit to Receive the Spirit in the Word

1. Praying and Petitioning

According to the Bible, we need to pray in order to receive the Word of God. By exercising our spirit through prayer, we touch and receive the Spirit in the Bible.

“And receive the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which Spirit is the word of God, by means of all prayer and petition, praying at every time in spirit and watching unto this in all perseverance and petition concerning all the saints.”—Ephesians 6:17–18

“The way to transfer Christ as the Word into the Spirit is to open our heart, open our spirit, and exercise our spirit to pray.”13

2. Speaking and Singing

By speaking and singing the Word, we can be filled in spirit. God is a flowing and filling God, and by getting into the Bible daily, we can enjoy this flow.

“Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissoluteness, but be filled in spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and psalming with your heart to the Lord.”—Ephesians 5:17–19

3. Teaching and Admonishing

The apostle Paul charged the Colossian believers to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly. The way to let the Lord’s word dwell in us richly is by teaching, admonishing, and singing.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to God.”—Colossians 3:16

4. Keeping and Obeying

The truth can become a part of us only by our reading and experiencing it. As we dig into the truth in the Word, we are both unveiled to see it and equipped to keep it.

“Jesus answered and said to him, If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make an abode with him.”—John 14:23

“But whoever keeps His word, truly in this one the love of God has been perfected. In this we know that we are in Him.”—1 John 2:5

5. Mixing the Word with Faith

To receive the Spirit in the Word, we need to pray and petition with it; speak and sing it; teach and admonish it; and keep and obey it. We also need to exercise our spirit to mix the Word with faith. This can be as simple as saying, “Amen,” to God’s Word, even when we don’t understand it.

“For indeed we have had the good news announced to us, even as they also; but the word heard did not profit them, not being mixed together with faith in those who heard.”—Hebrews 4:2

If you missed our last special series, “The History of the Bible,” you can find the first post here.