From 2010–2013, I published a series of 14 study guides on individual biblical books and small groups of related books. The series was called Understanding the Books of the Bible. The rights to these guides have now reverted to me from InterVarsity Press, and I’m making them available free of charge through this blog for online reading and electronic download. You can access them by using the links found below with cover images and descriptions of the guides. (In a few cases, the PDFs I had of the guides were author’s review copies rather than the final published versions. As a result, you may see a few loose ends here and there. This will give you a window into the publishing process!)
The guides don’t jump around from book to book in the Bible. Instead, they focus on understanding the message and meaning of one book at a time. They are written with careful attention to the original language, historical setting, and literary structure of each book. They don’t go chapter-by-chapter or verse-by-verse, because the chapter and verse divisions in the Bible often come at the wrong places and break up the flow. Maybe you’ve never tried reading and studying the Bible without chapters and verses before. I think you’ll enjoy doing that with these guides.
I’ve found in my own experience, and I’ve heard from many others, that they work well for individual study, Sunday School classes, and small group Bible studies. They would also make a great next step for churches and other organizations that do Bible reading campaigns: Everyone could do a follow-up Bible study, in their usual groups, on a biblical book chosen from the section of the Bible they’ve all just read through together.
In reading or downloading the guides, I ask only that you respect “fair use.” The content of the guides may not be sold in any way (for example, by being incorporated into another published book). If you quote from the guides, please acknowledge the source. You may print out copies of individual lessons to distribute to participants in Bible studies, but I ask that you not charge anyone for their copy. Rather, I would like you or your church or other organization to pay even the printing costs. As you can tell, I’m eager for this resource to be made available truly free to everyone. Thank you.
~ Christopher R. Smith
P.S. The guides can be used with any version or translation of the Bible. However, they were designed especially to be used with The Books of The Bible, an edition of the New International Version that takes out the chapter and verse numbers and presents the biblical books in their natural literary form. The Books of the Bible is now being published in four volumes by Zondervan: The Covenant History (Genesis through Kings), The Prophets (Isaiah through Malachi), The Writings (the rest of the Old Testament), and The New Testament. However, the original one-volume edition can still be found in some places online, such as here.
Guides in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series
In Genesis, its first book, the Bible hits the ground running and shows us the kind of people we could see today on the news, or meet on the street, wrestling with God to find happiness, success and love in a world gone wrong. They struggle. They suffer. They do right, and they do wrong. With God’s help, sometimes they fight their way through to a happy ending. And God builds on the struggles, the suffering and the good and bad choices to start making a way for anyone in the world to find their way back to Him.
The purpose of this book is to show people how they can come into a living relationship with Jesus Christ.It was written by a man named John, who was one of Jesus’ personal followers. He was especially close to Jesus during his lifetime, and he wanted everyone to come to know Jesus as he had. Near the end of the book, John explains that this was his purpose in writing: “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Seven-headed dragons. Beasts rising up from the sea. Cryptic numbers like 666. Riddles like “mene, mene, tekel, parsin.” What’s going on in the books of Daniel and Revelation? This study guide will help you understand these books in light of the times and places in which they were written, appreciate the situations they were originally addressing, and recognize them as the special kind of writing they are. When we read and study Daniel and Revelation this way, their story comes alive for us. They’re not end-of-the-world speculation, but accounts of real people, in real-world situations, living out their faith with integrity.
If you think that the real test of religion is how it works out in everyday life, you’re not alone. Several books in the Bible look primarily at how believing in God can help a person live the best possible life right here and now, on this earth. These books—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and James—explain how to draw on your faith to develop a style of practical living that’s honest, generous, and fair. They do this by sharing insights preserved in short, memorable sayings passed down from generation to generation.
The books of Joshua, Judges, and Ruth are filled with stories of faith and courage like these that provide us with great hope and inspiration. But these books also tell some very troubling stories. Individuals suffer violence and atrocities; whole populations are destroyed. And so these books also pose deep questions about suffering in the world and how God relates to it. The stories of faith and courage they tell don’t take place in unreal settings, removed from what life is really like. Rather, they show how, in the face of violence, suffering, and uncertainty, people whose struggles are as real as ours meet the challenges of their lives with courage and trust in God.
This study guide will give you the chance to read Paul’s writings as the letters they truly are—personal exchanges rooted in real-life situations—and understand their overall meanings. You’ll look at his first six letters, the ones he wrote while on his journeys through the Roman Empire to tell people about Jesus: 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans. You’ll go through these letters faster, reading much more of them at a time. This might not be the way you’re used to approaching Paul. But you’ll probably understand him in a way you never have before.
When it comes to a guy like Paul, you’ve got to “read big.” This is your chance.
There’s a revolutionary movement loose in the world today that’s very different from, and much bigger than, the shadowy networks and armed bands we hear about on the news. It doesn’t use violence or deception to achieve its goals. But it’s still committed to implementing a new vision of what human society should be. This movement is the expanding influence of what Jesus called the “kingdom of God.” It’s embodied in the community of his followers. A gifted ancient historian named Luke wrote a two-volume account of its origins, development, and worldwide spread. When we read and discuss Luke’s history today, we recognize how we can become a vital part of this movement ourselves.
Throughout the ages people have turned to song to express what the spoken word can barely convey. This has always been true of God’s people. The songwriters of ancient Israel have left us a rich legacy. If you want to broaden your own spiritual experiences, if you want to know how to speak about them more meaningfully, and if you want to find inspiration in the struggles and triumphs of people of faith who’ve gone before you, read and discuss the biblical books that are collections of song lyrics: Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs.
The book of Job is a work of great beauty and depth that’s more often appreciated as literature by scholars, students, and writers than as Scripture by people of faith. Believers have difficulty getting past the opening, in which the Lord gives Satan permission to bring horrible loss and suffering into the life of a godly man. But those who approach it with an appreciation for the culture and ideas of its ancient setting experience it very differently. They discover that its fearless exploration of some of the most profound questions of human existence provides them with relief, if not joy, by freeing them from the grip of conventional explanations that never quite account for everything. They realize that suffering can have meaning even if its cause and purpose are never known. And they recognize that God can be trusted even when he seems to be as much a part of the problem as the solution.
The apostle Paul is a paradoxical and sometimes frustrating figure. He says many things that are genuinely inspiring, but he also says other things that controversial are difficult to understand. But the problem is actually not with Paul, but with the way his writings are customarily approached. His thoughts and ideas are mostly known through individual statements that are quoted out of their original contexts. This study guide will give you the chance to engage Paul’s prison letters—Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, Philippians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus—as entire works, within the context of his life and times, and so appreciate their overall meanings.
Anyone who really wants to understand the Bible in depth has to engage the book of Isaiah. In sheer volume of material alone, it’s as long as all of Paul’s letters combined. Many vital truths about God are disclosed for the first time in the book—truths about who God is and about what God’s plans are for the redemption of humanity and all of creation. Isaiah is one of the most influential books within the rest of the Bible. The New Testament writers quote from it more often than from any other book. This study guide will help grasp the message of this giant, influential book.
Two biblical books are addressed to people living in the generation right after a great historical act of God, calling them to embrace these acts afresh in their own day, for the sake of yet future generations. Deuteronomy speaks to people who lived one generation after the exodus. Hebrews speaks to people who lived one generation after Jesus. Both books stress that God’s redemptive acts were not just for those who were alive when they happened; rather, these acts present every generation with a call to decision and an invitation to relationship.
Mark, a young friend of the apostle Peter, tells the story of Jesus’ life in a brisk, vigorous narrative that flows like a stage drama. He steadily reveals who Jesus is and shows different characters either embracing the kingdom of God with bold faith or stepping back to let it pass by. The book ends with a challenge: Which characters will you be like? Mark is a master storyteller, so his book is a delight to read. It’s even better when you read it aloud in a group and talk about it together. That’s what this guide will help you do.
God had chosen to work through the people of Israel to model his love and justice for every nation. But their society had become corrupt, exploitative, and immoral. So God sent them a message, again and again, through unlikely figures who mostly came from outside the structures of power and privilege. They were the Hebrew prophets. These messengers created memorable poems and songs that were replete with vivid imagery and striking word plays. Through them they cried out against injustice and called the people back to God’s purposes. These poems and songs were passed down through the centuries and became part of the Bible, where we can still read them today. When we do, we find that they speak a message about love and justice that we need to hear and heed just as urgently as the people it was originally spoken to.
“I can honestly say I’ve not seen anything else quite like this.” – Mark Howell Live