The Ultimate Catholic Guide to Reading the Bible
The Bible is the Word of God and one of the most important aspects of a Catholic’s life. The Bible is an essential tool containing many books, passages, and verses, so it can be helpful to have resources for assistance. Fortunately, there are many tips and tricks to make reading the Bible more accessible and strengthen your comprehension of God’s message.
Why Is It Important for Catholics to Read the Bible?
All Catholics are encouraged to read the Bible and gain a strong understanding of and familiarity with Scripture, as this book has always played an essential role in the Catholic Church and prayer. The Bible is the Word of God and helps keep us grounded. This book reminds us God is with us every day, helping us stay strong in the face of challenges.
Reading the Bible can guide us through difficult trials and help us build our faith and live a holier life. Reading the Bible also allows us to pray better, bringing us closer to God. While we can all talk to Him on our own, learning how to pray more effectively is essential, as prayer is our direct connection to God. Scripture can help us pray better and understand His message.
Understanding the Bible for First-Time Readers
The Catholic Bible comprises 73 books from various prophets, Apostles, and people who were recording history at the time. The word “Bible” itself stems from the Latin word meaning “books.” The Bible is a collection of books and stories, each with its own meaning and writing style. The Bible is divided into New and Old Testaments. The Old Testament books are from before the time of Jesus and predict His coming, and the New Testament books were written after His birth and describe His ministry and sacrifice for us.
The word “testament” refers to a covenant or agreement between two parties. Dividing the Bible into New and Old Testaments calls attention to all the ways God can show His eternal commitment to His people. The Old Testament is more physical, with God helping and protecting the Israelites through the Law of Moses.
On the other hand, the New Testament is more spiritual. With this agreement, we can look forward to Heaven because of Jesus’s sacrifice for us. There are several more differences between the Old Testament and New Testament, as well.
The Old Testament is categorized into four sections or genres: law, history, poetry, and prophets. The first books of the Old Testament include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which are known as the Pentateuch or Books of the Law and describe God’s design to help the people of Israel reach the Promised Land.
- Books of Law: The Book of Genesis starts with the story of creation and explains the plan God has to redeem the world. This book recounts how God chose one nation as His own and picked a man named Abraham, whose grandson Jacob has sons who become the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The other books in the Law genre describe how the Israelites became the people of God, such as when He chose them and rescued them from Egypt during the time of Moses.
- Books of History: These books recount the history of Israel, including how the Twelve Tribes united and became a single nation and how they later separated into two kingdoms, the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. One of the main themes within these books is many people choose to leave God and follow their desires, such as wealth, pleasure, and other idols, before turning back to Him.
- Books of Poetry: This section includes five books of hymns known as Psalms, which are often used during worship. These books are also used as wisdom literature, including the Book of Proverbs. These books represent the songs and wisdom of the people of Israel and cover many topics, including children, marriage, and work.
- Books of Prophets: Finally, the section of the Prophets is divided into Minor Prophets and Major Prophets. The four Major Prophets are longer books, while the 12 Minor Prophets are shorter books. The overall theme of the Books of Prophets is that those who do not turn back to God will face judgment. The Prophets provide hope that God will bring His people back to His land.
The New Testament is divided into four sections: the Gospels, history, letters, and prophecy.
- The Gospels: The four accounts of Jesus’s life are in the books of John, Luke, Mark, and Matthew. These authors each provide their unique perspective of the Savior’s life and journey. The Gospels help explain why Jesus came, what His message is, how He lived His life, and why He died and rose from the dead.
- History: The Book of Acts is the only book in the history section, and it describes how Jesus’s followers continued to spread His mission and message throughout the world in the early days of the Church.
- Letters: The letters are also known as Epistles and include the 13 letters written by Paul. Various followers of Jesus, including James, Peter, and John, wrote the remaining letters. These letters include teachings, instructions for the Church and its leaders, and more. Some letters were named after the city they were addressed to. Philippians, Romans, and Corinthians were written to churches in the cities of Philippi, Rome, and Corinth. Some other letters were named after their author or the recipients.
- Prophecy: The final book of the New Testament is the Book of Prophecy, and it explains Jesus’s leadership at the end of time. The Book of Revelation describes Jesus’s Second Coming as the King and Judge of humankind.
The Living Tradition
The Catholic Church believes the teachings of the Apostles and Jesus were preserved through the Bible, Scripture, and word of mouth. The term “Living Tradition” refers to these stories and information passed down through generations. Living Tradition includes anything that contributes toward and increases faith in God and His work.
One way to continue the Living Tradition is by participating in the Church and community. Tradition is a critical aspect of the Catholic Faith, which is why it’s so important to be involved as a community to learn and follow it. While you can pray or read the Bible alone, Catholic Tradition can help you understand the contents more fully.
Attending Mass, going to confession, receiving the sacraments, and practicing the teachings of the Bible help to keep the Living Tradition alive and glorify God.
How to Read the Bible for Beginners
There is no one right way to read the Bible. Instead, finding the best order to read the Catholic Bible for the first time depends on what you are looking to learn from this important book. While you can read the Bible chronologically, it is not required. You can read the passages in any order, as each contains a message from God.
If you want tips about how beginners should read the Bible, however, we have some advice for getting the most out of this activity.
1. Pick a Bible Version
While many people may think there is one version of the Bible, there are several differences between a Catholic Bible and a non-Catholic Bible. A Catholic Bible comprises all the books the early Church deemed inspired by God that belonged in the Bible. In non-Catholic versions of the Bible, some of these stories were removed or not included.
Most Catholics use the New American Bible, but you can read other versions. Remember to always check that it is approved by the Apostolic See, the See of Rome whose foundation is directly attributed to Jesus’s apostles.
A Bible’s introduction will provide helpful information on the particular edition. You want to look for the phrases “Imprimatur” or “Nihil Obstat.” These phrases mean the Bible was approved by an official and found to be free of moral or doctrinal error.
2. Set a Time to Read
An important step is to designate a particular time to read the Bible and contemplate the Scripture. If you feel alert and focused early in the morning, you may want to set this time aside. Or, if you have free time each week on a particular day, this period could be a great time to sit and read the Bible.
3. Choose What You Want to Learn About
The Bible is rich with information and advice about numerous topics. While the main Biblical themes include God’s promises, covenant, creation, judgment, and deliverance, there are many other topics discussed throughout Scripture. The Bible covers many areas that can help us develop our spiritual lives, become closer to God, and follow His will for our lives more closely.
For example, the Bible regularly touches on topics of debt, jealousy, investments, and materialism. While all of the Bible can teach us the important messages of God, many passages relate directly to our day-to-day life and can help us strengthen our faith and holiness.
4. Pray Before Reading
A helpful tip to keep in mind when reading the Bible is to pray beforehand. You can ask God for guidance and to help you find enlightenment as you read the Bible. You can also share your goals or what you are hoping to learn about when reading, and God will help you and enlighten you. Praying before reading the Bible can strengthen your connection to God and His word while helping you understand what He wants you to know as you read.
Another helpful tip is to keep a notebook or piece of paper nearby to quickly write down any thoughts, questions, inspirations, or realizations you may have when reading the Bible.
5. Understand the Context Behind the Scripture
A critical aspect of getting the most out of the Bible is understanding the context behind the Scripture. For example, you should consider the author of the text, the history, and the culture that led to this piece of writing. You should try to approach the Bible in different ways, and one of the most effective methods to do this is to put yourself in the scene as an observer.
Picturing yourself watching the scene unfold can help you understand the magnitude and importance of the story. It can be useful to try and fully visualize the scene and fill in details as the story continues. You should also regularly ask yourself what God is trying to tell you in each passage. God delivers important messages in every aspect of the Bible, even if we may not notice them at the time. You should always look for God’s message as you read the Bible.
6. Reflect on Your Reading
Reading the Bible is an effective method of strengthening your faith, but there is a way to enhance the experience. You can reflect on each passage and try to determine the messages God may be sending you through the Scripture. The Bible can provide guidance on specific situations or hardships you may be facing or even provide general life advice.
It can be helpful to pause after each verse and briefly reflect on it, helping you unpack and better understand the passage as a whole. While reading the Bible without stopping is okay, frequently pausing to absorb information and think critically about God’s message is helpful.
How to Use Bible Study Tools
While we can read and interpret the Scripture ourselves, we may have difficulty with some passages or specific verses. Various Bible study tools can be beneficial and provide additional context to a passage. Bible commentaries and annotations offer an interpretative explanation of a Bible passage.
These useful tools can help Catholics learn more about their faith. One of the biggest benefits of the Catholic Church is that, over the past two millennia, there have been intelligent individuals guided by the Holy Spirit who spent their lives studying the Bible. By using the resources and knowledge available to us, we can learn our faith more fully. Interpreting passages of the Bible on your own based on Catholic teachings and traditions is also beneficial for improving your spiritual life.
Some people choose to use a Bible dictionary as a helpful study tool to provide definitions for words or terms they may not be familiar with. With a better understanding of what a specific word means, you are more likely to understand and interpret the passage.
Should You Read the Bible Alone or With Others?
While you can read the Bible alone, which can be a great way to strengthen your personal connection with God and His message, you should also consider reading the Bible with others. There are numerous benefits of communal reading, including:
- Build a community: Reading the Bible with others can build an enriching community and foster positive relationships with other people. While God is always with us throughout life, it can be rewarding to create and strengthen relationships with other people who also love and cherish the Word of God. As Matthew 18:20 says, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
- Get a different perspective: You can gain another perspective when you read the Bible with others. While we all can think critically about God’s messages, another person can provide a unique view you may not have thought of, providing you with a deeper understanding and appreciation for His wisdom.
- Align interpretations and applications: Reading and discussing the Bible with others can help align your interpretations, minimizing misinterpretations and misconceptions. A Bible group can also help you understand how to apply God’s teachings in your daily life.
- Share your faith: A Bible group can be the perfect way to share your faith, explain how God gives you hope, and hear how others have used God’s word to improve their lives. Reading the Bible with others allows you to share what Jesus has done for you and how he has helped you.
- Hold ourselves accountable: While we are all children of God and try to lead a life in His light, we are still human, meaning we all sin and make mistakes. The important thing is to grow spiritually, ask for forgiveness in confession, and learn from our mistakes. A Bible group can be the ideal environment to foster positive change and strengthen your understanding of God’s message and everlasting love.
Should You Read the Bible in Chronological Order?
Some individuals, especially those who have never read the Bible before, may want to know what order a Catholic should read the Bible in. You can choose to read the Catholic Bible in chronological order, but there is no requirement stating you must do so. Some readers may choose to start with the New Testament because they have heard more about the content there.
Many people may actually benefit from not reading the Bible in order. Instead, it is often best to start with the books that provide a general overview of some of the most important messages of the Bible. It is essential to note there is no one right way to read the Bible as long as you engage with God’s message.
You can always make a mental note of a particular book or passage you are skipping and come back to read it at a later date. If you get stuck on a specific book or have trouble interpreting it correctly, you can change books until you feel more prepared to return to the previous passage. When you return to this passage after reading other sections, you will likely have a stronger understanding of God’s message.
Sharing the Bible With Others
Jesus calls on the faithful to share the Gospel and His message with the rest of the world. Sharing what you have learned and how it changed your life with others can inspire hope and lead more people to Heaven. There are many ways to respectfully spread the Gospel to others. You can even share the Gospel online.
When sharing the Gospel, you must remember Jesus told the apostles to “make disciples of all nations” in Matthew 28:19. When you share the Word of God and His love, you should do so regardless of a person’s walk of life. God’s love and care are big enough for everyone in the world, meaning you should be open to sharing the Bible with anyone who wants to learn.
When you are sharing the Bible and the truths of Catholicism, you should remember to be gentle. People come from all walks of life and experiences, and being courteous and kind will be the most effective method. Gentleness, compassion, and hope can all positively inspire people and lead them to the grace of God.
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The goal of Catholic World Mission is to empower people worldwide, share God’s truth, and rebuild communities globally. We are the eyes, hands, and feet of Christ to help impoverished people and families find the glory of God while providing material assistance where needed. Our organization is based on our pillars, including Dignified Living, Evangelization, and Education. We create resources like this Catholic guide to reading the Bible to help strengthen others’ faith.
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Deacon Rick Medina is the Executive Director of Catholic World Mission and oversees the management of all of Catholic World Mission's projects in over 35 countries. He was ordained a deacon of the archdiocese of Atlanta in 2013. He currently serves at All Saints Catholic Church in Dunwoody, Georgia, and is active in several ministries, including RCIA, baptism preparation, Life Teen, Altar Server group, Grief Share, and Adult Faith Formation.