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How To Teach the Bible Without Chapters and Verses

We’ve been making the case over the last few months for rediscovering the power of Bible reading. In many ways, simple and straightforward reading has been the forgotten practice in the modern era of the Bible. We contend that reading whole books remains the first and most natural thing to do with the Bible.

But what about all the other things we do with the Bible? In our last two articles we explored new ways to think about Bible study and preaching. This week we’ll look at the implications our “read first” approach has for how we teach the Bible.

Reimagining Bible Teaching

As we saw with the typically modern approach to both Bible study and preaching, the fixed grid of numbered chapter and verse divisions gives the Scriptures the appearance of having been analyzed, systematized, and solved. This is further reinforced by the presence of footnotes and section headings which often appear as predetermined conclusions.

All of this has decisively shaped how people think about the Bible and what they do with it. Study has too often been reduced to stringing together a set of Bible references and trying to add up their meaning. Meanwhile, modern preaching frequently becomes an attempt to boil off the actual biblical stories (or songs, prophecies, visions, etc.) and extract some timeless doctrine or practical principle.

In both cases the modern form has misled us about what to do with the Bible.

The return to a clean, additives-free Bible invites us to rediscover the beauty and forcefulness of the Scriptures in their inspired literary forms. This has implications for how we teach the Bible also. We have the opportunity to delve once again into a living word, and to do this together, in community.

If preaching is primarily storytelling—connecting the audience and their stories to the bigger story in the Bible—teaching can now be the new space we create for exploring together what the Bible says and how the Bible works. Teaching is first of all based on the same core disciplines as preaching, that is, due diligence on being familiar with an entire literary work in the Bible, and then learning how its parts fit together to create the overall message.

Whatever we’re doing with the Bible—reading, studying, preaching, or teaching—should be built on engagement with whole, natural units of the text. Isolated study of Bible fragments is the common thread through much of modernity’s approach to the Bible. The rediscovery of holistic encounters is the doorway to the new Bible paradigm.

Exploring the text together

For starters, we should consider spending more of our time together simply reading the Bible out loud. This is the closest thing we have to the original experience of the Bible’s first audience. Something unique happens when we take the time to be still and let the Scriptures just wash over us.

Like preaching without chapters and verses, teaching is best based on an in-depth look at a single passage in context rather than jumping around from reference to reference. But now, in addition to the benefit of having trained and validated leaders preaching the Bible, we can gain from teaching experiences built on open and free-flowing dialogue.

It is one thing to take in the leader’s perspective. But learning goes deeper and tends to stick more when we get to be part of the interaction—asking our questions, listening to others, and following new threads.

This joint exploration can certainly begin with some kind of shorter presentation by one person on the chosen passage and its place in the overall literary work and the story of the Bible. Or we can simply jump in right away with a shared expedition into the riches of the biblical text. Either way, the key point in the new model of teaching is that it is community based.

The risk of truly open interactions around the Bible follows the pattern we see so often in the Bible itself. (And since real human beings are involved, it is a risk!) The Scriptures tell us of children asking parents questions (see Deuteronomy) and family discussions ensuing.  We see Jesus and Paul both engaging in forceful back-and-forth exchanges in synagogues, the community gathering places of their day (see the Gospels and Acts). We hear of people sharing stories and perspectives at city gates, temple entrances, watering places, market squares, and even official gathering places of Greek philosophers.

The Bible is made for more than private study and one-way declamations. There is a time to listen, and a time to speak. Together.

It is tempting to want to tightly control the content of our teaching times, whether in the life of the church or even in other, more public settings. But this desire seems closely related to the idea that the Bible is a tightly-controlled, closed set of teachings with only a single interpretation or perspective.

The Bible is a conversation, and is meant to spark conversation.Click To TweetBut actually what we see in the Bible is the presentation of multiple perspectives. This doesn’t have to imply outright contradictory viewpoints, but if we wish to do justice to the Bible, we must reckon with its polyvocal character. For example, there are four unique presentations on the character and meaning of the life of Jesus. There are two distinct offerings of Israel’s history, with quite different emphases. There is a series of wisdom books that at the very least are having an intense dialogue on what it means to live according to God’s wisdom and what we can expect from such living.

The Bible is a conversation, and is meant to spark conversation.

If the sacred library itself contains this kind of internal discussion about the story of God and world, we should not shy away from it ourselves. Modern Bible teaching methods reinforce the impression that the Scriptures are a storehouse of established facts and right answers that can be retrieved at the proper coordinates. But the Bible offers us so much more—it wants to be a community formation book, based on authentic, respectful human engagement.

God, his revelation, and his people, all together in the room and working together. That’s Bible teaching.

*Adapted from After Chapters & Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations by Christopher R. Smith, InterVarsity Press, 2012. Rev. Dr. Smith is a Fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading. Our thanks to him for his genesis of these proposals for rethinking our use of the Bible today.

How to Preach Without Chapters and Verses

We’ve been making the case over the last few months for rediscovering the power of Bible reading. In many ways, simple and straightforward reading has been the forgotten practice in the modern era of the Bible. We contend that reading whole books remains the first and most natural thing to do with the Bible.

But what about all the other things we do with the Bible? In our last article we explored a new way to think about Bible study. This week we’ll look at the implications our “read first” approach has for how we preach the Bible. Next time, our final contribution in this series will delve into how we can teach the Bible in this new paradigm.

Reimagining Bible Preaching

The Bible is a collection of literary creations. And overall, the Bible is a narrative. But we can’t assume those who hear our preaching will have acknowledged either of these two fundamentals when they think about the Bible. The default position of modernity’s view of the Bible portrayed it as a collection of spiritual facts. Our Bible practices within the church have focused on finding and using these Bible propositions in various ways.

Preaching in the modern era has tended to reinforce this view. The common goal has been to find the timeless doctrines or principles within the text and then urge people to adopt them. Often this has been further reduced to simply using the Bible as a prop for some practical life tip that is seen as the real attraction for contemporary audiences.

So if we go back to our two biblical basics (literary creations coming together to tell a story), what would change in our preaching?

What kind of writing is this sermon passage a part of? How does it work within the bigger message?

The first thing has to do with the job of the preacher, and it goes back to reading the Bible well in the first place. The objective is to understand how the sermon passage fits into the overall message of the book it is a part of. So we must first read the entire composition and then study the parts to see how they contribute to and build up the meaning of the book.

The sermon passage is part of this collection of literary units, so its place in the larger message of the book must be assessed. Of course, a crucial part of this involves recognizing and working with the way a particular literary genre communicates meaning. Poetry, parables, letters, stories, and wisdom all operate differently as ways to communicate. What kind of writing is this sermon passage a part of? How does it work within the bigger message?

After this preliminary work is done, then the preacher can begin to work on the actual job of a sermon: connecting the audience and their story to the bigger story in the Bible. This is the point of biblical preaching, and a vital element that too many people have been missing. Even if they’ve grown up in the church, their whole life they’ve been presented Bible content in disconnected pieces. But preachers now have a chance to connect the dots for people, often for the first time.

The preacher’s job is to be a present-day storyteller.

Storytelling in this model is exactly what we see in the Bible itself. Again and again Israel’s prophets and teachers refer back to earlier decisive moments in their story with God, and then help their present listeners see the meaning of their own time within this ongoing story. People are called to faithfully live out the narrative in a new scene in the drama of God and the world.

We see this especially in the life, teaching, and symbols of Jesus himself. He repeatedly calls up the earlier times and places of Israel’s journey—Exodus, wilderness, temptation, Jordan River, Temple, kings, and prophets—and then he follows those templates while shaping a new invitation and a new warning to the people of his own time.

This is precisely what preachers can do today. They can enlighten their congregations on the actual shape and texture of the biblical tale, and then they can bring the story into today’s world. The point is not to fit a little bit of the Bible into lives already framed by some other story (nationalism, consumerism, self-absorption, etc.), but to help people immerse the whole of their lives into the greater, comprehensive narrative of the Scriptures.

The story of God is the thing.

The key questions to ask of a sermon passage are then:

  • Where is this passage in the continuing narrative?
  • What major act of the drama is it in?
  • What is its contribution to the narrative in its own time?
  • And finally, how does this passage speak to us today in our own fresh moment, full of both opportunity and peril?

In such a scenario, it is not necessary to force congregations to jump around from reference to reference in the Bible while listening to a sermon. Hearing the chapter and verse numbers of multiple references won’t help them receive the Word of God in depth. Rather, the focus can rightly be on holistic Bible engagement and understanding. It will aid listeners more if preachers would refer to Bible passages simply by context and content. This is how people will learn how the parts of the Bible really fit together.

It will aid listeners more if preachers would refer to Bible passages simply by context and contentClick To Tweet

Like the storytellers of old, preachers can once again trust the way that God chose to deliver his revelation. We can plunge people back into the ancient story, and then send them back out into their world as well-taught agents to share in God’s work of renewal and healing.

And that’ll preach.

*Adapted from After Chapters & Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations by Christopher R. Smith, InterVarsity Press, 2012. Rev. Dr. Smith is a Fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading. Our thanks to him for his genesis of these proposals for rethinking our use of the Bible today.

How To Do Bible Study Without Chapters and Verses

We’ve been making the case over the last few months for rediscovering the power of Bible reading. In many ways, simple and straightforward reading has been the forgotten practice in the modern era of the Bible. We contend that reading whole books remains the first and most natural thing to do with the Bible.

But what about all the other things we do with the Bible? What about Bible study? Should we still be taking closer looks at smaller parts of the Bible? And does this “read first” approach have any implications for how we preach and teach the Bible? We’ll start this new mini-series of articles by taking a closer look at what it means to study the Bible.

Reimagining Bible Study

Our approach to modern Bible study grew out of the form the Bible was given in modernity and the understanding it encouraged of what the Bible is. Often this has meant pursuing topical studies based on looking up a string of Bible references and then trying to add them together to find their meaning. The very real danger is that this approach doesn’t allow for due diligence to be done on the meaning of all these Bible verses in their full and natural literary context within the Bible’s various books.

Further, even when our Bible studies stay focused on a single book, the numbered verses still imply that each individual statement can stand alone as a self-sufficient unit of meaning. At the popular level, “study” in this case often means a closer look at a verse along with the question of how it applies to my life today. Even in the more serious approach of a preacher or professor, “study” can too easily devolve into the dissection of a verse to the microscopic level of isolated words and finer grammatical points.

Of course, such detailed study has its place. But too often the core point has been forgotten that the meaning of words is found in sentences, and that of sentences in larger units like prose paragraphs or poetic stanzas. These in turn are joined together to create bigger sections which build the messages of whole books.

The place to begin with the meaning of the Bible is at the top, with the overall messages of its biggest building blocks: books.

So read first, study second.

Our definition of “Bible study” should be: consider the parts of a biblical book closely and carefully to understand their place within the book as a whole.

By adopting this definition of study we commit to first reading the largest appropriate level — the letter, the song (psalm), the gospel, the collected prophecies, or the book. Then, within that context, we can now profitably focus in on smaller units to see how they contribute to the bigger overall meaning. We keep working down this way to the smallest units we want to or are qualified to examine (aleph, anyone?) But following this course will prevent us from taking little pieces of the Bible out of context.

Consider the analogy of how we typically engage a film. Is there a difference between watching a film and studying it? Yes, of course. We all begin by simply watching a complete film to take in its overall impression on us. Then, we (or some of us) will slow down and examine smaller parts of the film in a second or third viewing to consider the individual elements (transitions, lighting, dialogue, symbols, etc.) that contribute to the larger experience of meaning.

But nobody starts by dissecting the film before watching it. Same with the Bible. We should begin by taking in the overall story, song, gospel, or letter. What is it doing as a whole book? What’s the big message? How does it work? Only then are we in a good position to take a closer look at the individual parts that make up that whole.

Nobody starts by dissecting a film before watching it. Same with the Bible.Click To Tweet

This is why a fresh format of the Bible like Immerse: The Reading Bible is also a terrific study Bible. The best reader’s Bibles not only take out the modern reference numbers, they also display the natural literary forms of the Bible’s books. Our Bible study should be based on these literary units placed there by the Bible’s first authors and editors. These are the original units of meaning, the actual building blocks of the books. Studying the Bible means understanding how these natural units are doing their work in the whole book.

Also, beware an overreliance on “study helps.” Of course, none of us knows everything about the background, history, and culture of the Bible, not to mention all the fine points of the Bible’s original languages, Hebrew and Greek. So yes, getting help from the experts can greatly contribute to our understanding.

But consider this: consulting the “helps” too quickly can shut down our own reading and prayerful reflection on the text. Study notes and commentaries can be show-stoppers, ending conversation and further exploration. Reading them can tempt us to quit because we’ve just been told the right answer. When our communities gather around the Bible it’s crucial to give our own reading and dialogue ample time to marinate and mature.

So read first and read big. Feast on the sacred writings. Engage the Bible with others-reading, talking, and exploring together.

And by all means study! But study well, in context, in light of the whole, following the Bible’s own indications of its literary structure. Learn how the Bible’s books build their messages from these natural units. Examine closely how the meaning grows.

This is Bible study in the new paradigm.

Pray. Read. Study.

*Adapted from After Chapters & Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations by Christopher R. Smith, InterVarsity Press, 2012. Rev. Dr. Smith is a Fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading. Our thanks to him for his genesis of these proposals for rethinking our use of the Bible today.

Why You Need a Bible Without Chapters and Verses

Update: The Institute for Bible Reading has created Immerse, a Bible without any chapters, verses, or other modern additives. Click here to learn more.


When it comes to reading and studying the Bible, chapters and verses feel about as essential as the steering wheel of a car. We wouldn’t quite know what to do without them. They give our Bibles a structure we can grasp. They make things easy to find and they break down long passages into manageable, relatively uniform chunks. It’s hard to imagine a Bible without chapters and verses inside.

But where did they come from? Surely the Apostle Paul didn’t write his letters with chapters and verses. Why were they added? And what unnoticed impact are they having on how we read the Bible?

A Recent Innovation

Many people are unaware that chapter and verse numbers are only about 500 years old. Archbishop Stephen Langton created the chapter system we’re familiar with in the 13th century, simply because he was writing a Bible commentary and needed a way to reference more specific portions of Scripture. Similarly, French printer and scholar Robert Estienne added verse numbers in the 16th century. His reason? He was creating a Bible concordance, so he needed a way to reference even smaller portions of passages – a sentence or two at a time.

Shortly after these numbering systems were conceived, somebody made the decision that they should be a standard feature in all Bibles. Thus, a book made for reading was turned into a book made for referencing. One of the first Bibles produced on the printing press, the Geneva Bible, turned each verse into a separate paragraph, obliterating any sense of continuity within the literature and setting the table for the volleys of verses hurled back and forth during the theological debates of the Reformation.

An Unhelpful Innovation

It would be unfair to claim that chapters and verses are 100% harmful. They can certainly be helpful in many ways, especially in helping us reference specific portions of Scripture. But because every Bible we’ve ever had since the 1500’s is a chapter and verse Bible, many of us don’t realize the ways in which the format actually makes reading harder.

Because every Bible we've ever had since the 1500's is a chapter and verse Bible, many of us don't realize the ways in which the format actually makes reading harder.Click To Tweet

For starters, many of the biblical authors intentionally conveyed meaning through how they structured books, and we miss that natural structuring with a uniform chapter-based scheme. Matthew’s gospel, for example, does not have 28 chapters. It has 5 natural sections, which Matthew intentionally crafted to show his Jewish audience that the gospel of Jesus was a new Torah. The Torah of course has 5 books.

The book of Acts has 6 natural sections, each of which ends with some iteration of the phrase, “…and the word of the Lord continued to spread and flourish.” The number 6 in the Bible represents incompleteness or imperfection, and is always in striving toward 7, the number of completeness. The book is crafted with 6 sections to signify that the work of spreading the gospel is incomplete. It is the responsibility of those following the acts of the apostles – followers of Jesus in future generations – to be the 7th “section” of Acts.

Chapters and verses also make it much more difficult to follow an author’s thought process. Many of us see chapter breaks as good stopping points in our reading. It makes sense – when we read a biography or a novel the end of a chapter often signals a good place to stop. Bible chapters, however, are often totally ignorant of the story’s plot or the author’s thought process. In fact, the very first chapter break in the Bible at Genesis 2 comes three verses before the end of the opening song of Creation!

Finally, chapters and verses make it all too easy to grasp onto tiny Scripture nuggets and use them for our own purposes without considering the wider context. How often do we see Philippians 4:13, Jeremiah 29:11, and many others displayed in cute social media memes, completely misused and out of context? Many people craft entire theologies and worldviews around a set of verses that seem to support what they believe.

Moving Forward, Looking Backward

Chapter and verse reference Bibles can still play an important role in helping people engage Scripture, but they need to be accompanied by a new genre: Reading Bibles. These additive-free editions of Scripture are a return to what the Bible used to be, made for at-length reading and using the natural book structures the authors originally included.

Having a Bible created for reading rather than reference will not only make reading the Bible more enjoyable, it’ll uncover things you’ve never seen before and allow you to experience the Bible in a different way. Many people report getting “lost in the story” when they are able to just read without interruption.

Immerse: The Reading Bible / Photo: Bible Buying Guide

There are a couple reading Bibles that can get you started. Our top recommendation is Immerse: The Reading Bible, which we created in partnership with Tyndale House Publishers. The Books of the Bible from Biblica and Zondervan and the ESV Readers Bible from Crossway are also good options. If you know of any others, leave a comment below!

To read more on the idea of Bibles without chapters and verses, check out “After Chapters and Verses” by Christopher Smith and “Saving the Bible From Ourselves” by Glenn Paauw. (Hint: you can download the first chapter of Saving the Bible From Ourselves for free)