From “How to become a Christian”: Chapter 2 – What is the Bible? How did it come to be written and why should we believe it?
Underneath each Bible quotation I put what is called a “reference”. For example, at the beginning of this chapter there is a quotation, i.e. 2 Timothy 3:16-17. That means verses 16 and 17 from chapter three of apostle Paul’s second letter to a man called Timothy. We will look now at how a Bible reference is broken down so you can see what it means.
The first part of the reference gives you the name of the book or letter. For example, it might say “Genesis” or “Romans” or “Revelation”. Each of the 66 books of the Bible has got its own shorthand name like that which we use for convenience. So instead of saying “Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome” we simply say “Romans”, i.e. naming it after the recipients of the letter. Many of the books in the Old Testament are instead named after their human author, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel etc.
However if the author has written more than one book or letter, or if the recipient has been sent more than one letter, then you will find a number at the front. For example we say 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy. That number at the front tells you whether it is the first or second letter to Timothy. Likewise, where the letter is named after its author, but he has written more than one letter, then the number at the front tells you which letter it is. For example apostle Peter wrote two letters so we say “1 Peter” and “2 Peter”. The apostle John wrote three letters, so we call these “1 John”, “2 John” and “3 John”. However, John’s gospel is just called “John”.
The next part of the reference is the chapter number. So, if we say “Daniel 3” then we mean the 3rd chapter of Daniel. If however we extend the reference to say Daniel 3:1 then we mean verse 1 within chapter 3 of Daniel. When the Bible was first written each book or letter was just one continuous whole. They were not broken down into chapters or verses at all. Since then, for convenience, and so that we can quote more easily, men have artificially subdivided the Bible. It has been cut into large blocks which we call chapters and then into small chunks which are called verses. That is how you can now find anything that you want to quote from.
This has many advantages but it also has some disadvantages. The main problem of thinking in terms of quotations and references is that it encourages people just to read little snippets of the Bible in isolation. There is a danger in that. It is possible to take what is being said out of context and misunderstand it. The safest policy is to read the Bible in whole books or letters. Then you get the context and background and understand what is said in its proper setting.
Even the things we say in day to day life can only be properly understood if we hear the context and setting in which the statement was made. The same is true with the Bible. Therefore it is wise to try to read an entire letter in one sitting so that you get the full flow of what is being said. Often each part of the letter or book is drawing upon and referring to other parts of that letter or book. They hold together as a whole document. Isn’t that exactly how you would read a letter written to you today? You wouldn’t normally expect to just look at single sentences on their own. If you did, you could easily misunderstand things.