Bible reading is universally recognized by Christians as an essential spiritual discipline. There is little reason to wonder why, at the beginning of a new year, many believers commit to a regular Bible reading plan. Many of these plans allow reading the whole Bible through during a calendar year. Such commitments should be praised, but if you are considering reading through the Bible this year (it is never too late to start!), you may be surprised to learn that there are a variety of ways Christians accomplish this task. The goal of this post is to overview four approaches to reading through the Bible within a year and note some pros and cons of each approach.
The Straight-Through Approach
The most natural way to read through the Bible is to approach it as you would any other book: start with the front cover and read through to the back cover. For the Bible, this would be starting at Genesis and reading through to Revelation. This approach may be called the “Straight-Through Approach.” The Bible contains 1189 chapters, so if these chapters were divided evenly over a 364 day year, you would have to read 3.3 chapters every day to complete the entire Bible within a year. In order to even out this amount, you could read four chapters a day for six days during a week. This would allow for a “catch-up” day or a chance to read a Sunday School lesson or the biblical passage your pastor will preach on that week.
Although the “Straight-Through Approach” is not typically favored by people who advocate reading through the Bible in a year, it does have several, probably under-appreciated, benefits over other reading plans. Reading straight through the Bible in this manner is the quickest way to read an entire biblical book and thus provides the best way to appreciate the message of an entire book. For example, the Gospel of Matthew (28 chapters) will be read through in seven days following this plan whereas other plans require several weeks or even months. When read through in a short amount of time, the themes and emphases of a biblical book are much easier to identify. In this plan, many of the shorter books of the Bible (i.e. Jonah or Colossians) will be read through in one sitting. Furthermore, the books of the Bible are often purposefully arranged (especially in ancient Jewish arrangements of the Old Testament). This is the only approach considered within this post that will allow readers to appreciate how the biblical books have been arranged.
The disadvantages of the “Straight-Through Approach” are well known. Although all of the Bible is God’s inspired word and profitable for reading and teaching (2 Tim 2:16–17), some parts are more captivating than others. For instance, the details of ancient Israelite law and the genealogies of ancient peoples are difficult for many modern Bible readers. When the “Straight-Through Approach” is adopted, it is not uncommon for readers to go through long periods during which they struggle to understand the meaning of what is being said and apply the text to their lives. This has led to the premature end of many Bible reading plans.
The Chronological Plan
Other popular reading plans approach the Bible chronologically. There are actually two different ways to approach the Bible chronologically. Some chronological plans refer to the chronology of the events described within the biblical books. For example, the Old Testament prophets were mostly active during the events described in the book of 2 Kings. These reading plans will insert these prophetic passages as they occur within the narrative of 2 Kings. Other chronological plans refer to when the biblical books were written. For example, although Matthew, Mark, and Luke record many of the same events, Mark would be read first because most scholars believe that his Gospel was written first. Yet, several of Paul’s epistles (and perhaps the General Epistles) were written before Mark’s Gospel, so the New Testament readings may begin with 1 and 2 Thessalonians rather than the Gospels.
Chronological reading plans can allow for a better grasp of salvation history and/or progressive revelation. Salvation history is the attempt to understand how God was working salvifically among his people across time. Progressive revelation acknowledges that God did not reveal everything he wanted his followers to know at one time but gradually, through time. Additionally, chronological plans can offer a lot of variety from day to day.
The main difficulty with chronological reading plans is that the dating of much of the biblical material is frequently debated and in some instances, is almost impossible to determine. For instance, the book of Joel has been dated to multiple times from the ninth to the sixth century, BC. Furthermore, if the first chronological reading plan is fully carried through, much of the biblical material would appear very redundant. For instance, 1 and 2 Kings covers much of the same material as 1 and 2 Chronicles. If this material were arranged chronologically, a reader would encounter two very similar portions of Scripture within a short amount of time. The same would be true for Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The distinctiveness of any of this material would more than likely be lost on the Bible reader.
There are many chronological plans available. One such plan can be found here: https://www.blueletterbible.org/assets/pdf/dbrp/1Yr_ChronologicalPlan.pdf
The Robert Murray M’Cheyne Plan
Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a nineteenth-century Scottish pastor and developed a widely used Bible reading plan still known by his name today. This plan contains four Bible readings per day which will guide the reader through the Old Testament once and the New Testament/Psalms twice during a calendar year. Although these four readings were originally intended to be divided among family and personal reading times (two each, each day), M’Cheyne’s reading plan has become one of the most popular plans for personal use among modern Christians.
M’Cheyne’s plan is beneficial in that it offers extra reading in the New Testament and Psalms, which many modern Christians find easier to read devotionally. Furthermore, M’Cheyne’s plan offers readers a wide variety in terms of genre and content. On occasions when the reader is going through material that is perhaps less captivating, that material is only a small part of what will be encountered that day.
The main disadvantage of M’Cheyne’s plan is that it takes much longer to read through a biblical book, especially the longer books. For example, readers will take two months to read through the prophet Isaiah. Over a long period of time, it will be difficult for the reader to see the continuity of many biblical books. Furthermore, M’Cheyne’s plan will require more time than many other plans simply because the New Testament and Psalms are read twice. This has obvious spiritual benefits but will inevitably be more time-consuming. M’Cheyne’s plan does not offer any make up days for readers who fall behind schedule.
A guide for the M’Cheyne Plan can be found here: https://www.mcheyne.info/calendar.pdf
Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan
The Discipleship Journal has developed a reading plan similar in some respects to the M’Cheyne plan. Each day contains four readings, two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament. Unlike the M’Cheyne plan, the New Testament and Psalms are only read through once during the year.
The main advantage of the Discipleship Journal plan over the others mentioned above is that there are only twenty-five reading days allotted during the month. If the reader misses one or several days of Bible reading during the month, he is given an opportunity to catch up at the end of the month. The frustration of falling behind is avoided. If the reader does not miss a day, then he may devote that time to deeper study of Scripture or to rereading some portions. As with the M’Cheyne plan, the Discipleship Journal Plan offers a wide variety of biblical material each day.
The main difficulty with this plan, as with the M’Cheyne plan, is that readers will only be exposed to the biblical books in piecemeal fashion. It will be difficult for Bible readers to obtain a holistic understanding of some biblical books. Furthermore, although the extra time at the end of each month will be well utilized by some people, it may afford others an opportunity to disengage from the daily habit of reading the Bible.
A guide for the Discipleship Journal Plan can be found here: https://www.navigators.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Discipleship-Journal-Bible-Reading-Plan-9781617479083.pdf
Although no Bible reading plan is perfect, any plan that encourages Christians to regularly read God’s inspired word should be embraced by all who count themselves among Christ’s followers. No Bible reading plan will be a perfect fit for everyone or for every purpose. Furthermore, as alluded to above, different plans may help readers draw out different lessons from the Bible. Regardless, the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to mankind; Christians seeking to grow in their faith and help others grow in theirs will inevitably find themselves in regular patterns of reading God’s word.