There can be no daily habit more beneficial to the soul that to read the words of the living God.
Robert Murray McCheyne desired this for his congregation at St Peter’s in Dundee in the 19th century and devised what I consider to be the best Bible-reading plan to have been put in writing.
I have followed it for many years and would love others to do the same. Below is a selection of just some of the blessings that I have found as a result of using it. New Year Resolutions often aren’t of much worth, but if you’ve never read the Bible from cover to cover before, what better thing could you do in 2017?
1. Carrying on year after year gets you reading all of the Bible regularly. You don’t stay with your favourites or avoid those books you think are difficult – doing either means you will miss the impact and get less of the big picture.
2. In 12 months you read the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice so, year on year, your familiarity with Scripture will grow markedly.
3. You will begin to see the themes which span the Scriptures – disparate writings contain similar or linked truths. It starts on 1 January with four great new beginnings in the Bible – creation (Genesis 1); post exile (Ezra 1); new covenant/testament (Matthew 1); new church (Acts 1).
Sometimes there will be a theme that will cover all four readings. 4 June – the theme of terror and fear: Deuteronomy 8 speaks of the Israelites walking through the terrifying wilderness; Psalm 91 says that the writer will not fear the terror of the night because the Lord is with him; in Isaiah 36 King Hezekiah and his city are surrounded by the vast Assyrian army; Revelation 6 tells of the kings who are terrified of Christ at the judgment and want rocks to fall on them. Different causes of fear; different responses to fear; the difference knowing Christ makes. Hezekiah showed the truth of Psalm 91 because he trusted God.
4. Your daily devotions will be Bible-rich and, by comparison, comment-poor. Some Bible-reading notes and daily readings books give you just a verse or two to read and then a whole page of notes and comment. The notes may be good, but are they infallible? Surely the balance should be the other way.
5. You’ll read the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection stories when it’s not Christmas or Easter – they can come across with freshness when you’re not surrounded by the world’s ideas of these events. And you will read of Christ’s death and resurrection eight times in the year, keeping the central tenets of our faith central.
6. It’s an excellent discipline – having a programme to follow can help to stop us skipping days if tempted. If you get behind through busyness, you can use the Lord’s Day to catch up again. Of course, there is the danger of the daily plan becoming a box-ticking exercise of duty, but with prayer that can be avoided, if we realise whose word we are reading.
7. God’s Word is a living word – it will speak to you no matter what your age, background, circumstances or situation, if you read prayerfully and humbly.
If you’re cold, it will challenge you.
If you’re sinning, it will rebuke you.
If you’re on fire, it will feed the fire.
If you are sad, it will comfort you.
If you are doubtful, it will reassure you.
8. God will so order your life that what you’re reading will speak to your situation in ways you couldn’t have planned. On 17 December 2014, my daughter was going through chemotherapy and was suffering lots of pain and sickness. One of the readings for that date is from 2 Chronicles, which includes the words of Jehoshaphat when faced with a huge enemy army – ‘We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.’ (2 Chronicles 20.12). How timely that was. That chapter is not one I would have naturally rushed to for help, but there it was.
9. It gives you a balanced approach – this is one of most helpful aspects of McCheyne’s plan. Following it, you don’t get bogged down in books like Leviticus or Ezekiel, which can happen if you read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation.
10. It’s great for preachers and teachers – it gives you texts that you wouldn't have considered as verses and passages jump out at you. It also shows you new passages which will relate to sermons or Bible studies which are under preparation.
11. If you do it year on year you will increase your Bible knowledge. This will be a great help as you listen to the ministry of God’s Word and seek to be a help to others in their understanding of the Scriptures.
12. It doesn’t take a lot of time each day. Some may be put off of by the idea of reading an average of four chapters a day, but that takes just 20–30 minutes. By comparison, how much time do we spend every day surfing the Internet/reading the paper/ watching TV/playing with our phones?
13. You will discover riches you never knew were there – the Bible will surprise you. For example, if you’ve never read Lamentations you’ll probably find it hard going. then when you least expect it you read 3.22-26! We need to remember that ALL Scripture is God-breathed.
14. It can be combined with family worship – this was part of McCheyne’s original plan. As you follow the four chapters a day, two were designed to be read privately and the other two at family worship.
15. If you read the Bible with a seeking mind, you will see how it can be self-illustrating – e.g. 6 February: ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out’ (Mark 9). Joseph did just that as he ran from Potiphar’s wife, who was trying to seduce him (Genesis 39).
16. Reading with the right attitude will give you an appetite to study more, to find out what passages mean. Many classic commentaries are freely available online so can be looked up easily on a smartphone.
17. You don’t have to feel guilty when a preacher asks you when you last read a certain book of the Bible!
18. As you read right through books like Jeremiah and Ezekiel you really begin to grasp what life was like for them. You won’t get that by just reading the odd few verses.
19. Sometimes chapters will relate directly to other passages you read on the same day – 4 July for example. Joshua 6 speaks of the Fall of Jericho; Psalm 135 praises God for his great works including giving his people the promised land of Canaan.
20. There are modern aids to help you follow the plan. Free mobile apps are available, or you can use a printed copy. Dr Don Carson has written two volumes called For the Love of God to go alongside McCheyne’s plan day by day. Dr Carson helpfully brings out some of the great themes that are present in each day’s readings.
No-one knows what you will face in 2017 except the Lord. Why not read all that he has to say to us in the next 12 months? As his Spirit helps us, God will speak to all the situations in which you will find yourself, whoever you may be or whatever you have to go through as you seek to serve him.
Andrew Stone is a member of Providence Baptist Church, Dilton Marsh near Westbury in Wiltshire, married to Susan, father of Hannah who’s currently studying at Bangor University. He works as a wholesale nursery manager (plants, not children).