Reading the Bible has been one of the most beneficial disciplines I have developed in my lifetime. I was in high school when I first began to read the Bible, but I did not really follow a set routine or plan. I had received a brown hardcover Thompson Chain Reference Bible in the NIV (1984) translation when I joined the First Reformed Church in my hometown. It was a great Bible. In college, one of the older guys in my dorm led a Bible study and I can still remember him complimenting my Bible saying, “Jason, that’s a powerful sword. Learn to use it well.”

College provided more opportunities for Bible study. I attended Northwestern College, a Christian liberal arts college in Iowa. The Bible was front and center from my first weeks there. Our football coach was passionate about Jesus. My resident assistant regularly posted Bible verses on the wall. Chapel was required three days per week and religion courses were a required part of the curriculum. In my first semester, I took Biblical Faith with Dr. Chuck Hill. I earned a C-minus, my worst grade in college, though I later took four semesters of Greek from Dr. Hill and thankfully, my grades improved.

After leaving college, my Bible reading was inconsistent for several years, but over the past 15 years, it has become a treasured daily habit. I have used many different Bible reading plans over those years. Some involved reading large amounts of scripture every day, whereas others focused on just a few verses at a time. I have read many different versions, though the English Standard Version[1] became my preferred translation. Regrettably, like many of the bloggers I was reading, I was often judgmental about translations I considered to be less rigorous.

One of the versions, The Message,[2] was routinely scorned by Christian bloggers who warned that it wasn’t an accurate translation and therefore could be dangerous. I accepted the wisdom of the blogosphere and stuck with my ESV. Some years later, I began to read through the writings of pastor-theologian Eugene Peterson who was best known for his work on The Message. I discovered that Peterson was not only a gifted preacher and writer, but apparently was quite accomplished in biblical languages. He wrote, “I didn’t start out as a pastor. I began my vocational life as a teacher and for several years taught the biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek in a theological seminary.”[3] However, The Message began out of his practical needs as a minister. People attending his Bible study seemed disinterested or confused by the Bible, so he took it upon himself to render Paul’s letter to the Galatians in contemporary language[4] and he discovered that the word seemed to come alive for his parishioners. He wrote, “The Message grew from the soil of thirty-five years of pastoral work…I was translating for the saints and sinners who were trying to find their way in the muddle and mess of the world.”[5] As I read through his paraphrase, I saw and understood things that I had not seen while restricting myself to one version.

I have also been deeply influenced by Larry Crabb. Dr. Crabb is not a theologian, but a Christian psychologist and author who has committed his life to getting to know the Trinitarian God revealed in scripture and trying to understand how God makes sense in a world mired in sin. Although he has written over two dozen books, his book 66 Love Letters[6] has had the greatest influence on this project. In Living in the larger story: The Christian psychology of Larry Crabb,[7] I suggested that 66 Love Letters is his “magnum opus.” The book, which took him five years to complete, reveals his conversations with God about each of the Bible’s 66 books. 

Around five years ago, I was wrestling to understand the New Testament letter of James about which the reformer Martin Luther once wrote, “St. James’s epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”[8] I felt I was in good company with my confusion about James, a letter that seemed so different from other New Testament books, but which the early church still chose to include in the canon. I wanted to know how to make sense of James if it was true that God’s principal nature is love.[9] Remembering 66 Love Letters, I began to wonder what God would tell me about James’s letter if he were the one explaining to me.

I began by prayerfully reading through James a few times to get the gist. After that, I would take a few verses at a time and re-write them by hand as though God was explaining to me what he intended through James, not as a translation nor even a paraphrase, but as a love letter. When I reached the end of James, the letter had come alive for me. I printed a copy and gave it to my wife who read it again and again. She asked me to make copies for several of her friends too. In light of her enthusiasm, I began working on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which was the book I knew the best, yet using this approach, Ephesians opened up in new ways as well. 

Over time, I did more and more of the 27 New Testament books. The letters (i.e., epistles) were more straightforward; the Gospels were more difficult and have a different feel to them. I avoided the apocalyptic book of Revelation until near the end, but again, it was so revealing. The last book I did was the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke the Physician.

Over this five year process, I filled several notebooks and used several boxes of pens. I wrestled and I prayed. I consulted commentaries, concordances, Bible dictionaries, and atlases to immerse myself as deeply into the story as I was able always with a goal to come to a better understanding of the God who loves us.

Even so, let me offer a few cautions and clarifications. First, what I have written is not scripture. It is not a translation, nor even a paraphrase. At best, it is a commentary, not by a theologian, but by someone who wants to know God better. It is also devotional. My hope is that you will read with Letters to my Beloved in one hand and a Bible in the other and that it will stir a deeper love for God and his word. Second, what I have written is not inerrant. It is certain that I have gotten some things wrong, though I have tried as much as reasonably possible to reflect the intent of a loving, relational God, but like every other person, I cannot write apart from my background and influences. Finally, let me encourage you to use these words as kindling for prayer, inviting the Spirit to reveal himself to you so that you might know him more.

-28 July, 2020, Eau Claire, Wisconsin  

[1] English Standard Version [ESV] (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993/2018).

[3] Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 165.

[4] Ibid., 132-136.

[5] Ibid., 164.

[6] Larry Crabb, 66 Love Letters (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009).

[7] Jason Kanz (ed.), Living in the larger story: The Christian psychology of Larry Crabb, (Houston: The Gideon Institute, 2019), 55.

[8] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 35, Word and Sacrament I (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960), 362.

[9] See 1 John 4:8.