How to read the Bible and get the most out of it


I suspect that you are familiar with the modern proverb, 'The devil's in the detail.' It usually comes up when people are agreed on the general issues involved in a problem, but there is more to be done in working out the solution. But I was rather shocked to discover the original form of this saying: 'God is in the detail.' I am not sure whether the revised form came about because of its alliteration and rhythm, or whether it is because, in a world of small print and endless 'terms and conditions', we are increasingly impatient with having to go into the detail.

But when recently doing some work on Mark's Gospel, I was struck by how significant the detail is in the writer's message about Jesus. Try comparing Mark 5.1–2 with the parallel verses in Matt 8.28 and Luke 8.26 (always a good exercise when reading a Bible passage). Mark alone emphasises "crossing the sea" and Jesus stepping out of the boat, betraying his interest in fishing which most likely arises from using Peter as his source. It is Mark alone who tells us that Jesus was asleep "on a pillow" in the boat (4.28); later, it is Mark alone who tells us that the 5,000 sit on the "green" grass to be fed (6.39).

As I was reading through, three particular details stand out for me, one in each of the healing encounters that Jesus has in chapter 5.

The story of the 'Gerasene demoniac' in the first part of Mark 5 is full of drama and chaos – there seems to be a lot of shouting going on! As soon as Jesus steps out of the boat, this wild man, on the edges of civilisation in every conceivable way, charges towards him yelling – and Jesus has clearly been yelling back. The clash of cosmic powers in this man's life results in a herd of pigs charging over a cliff, no doubt squealing on their way. Yet after all this noise, there is an unearthly calm; the man is sitting, "clothed and in his right mind", and his neighbours find this more terrifying than anything, since all their assumptions about how the world is have been challenged. And here is the detail which struck me: the man was "clothed". Where did the clothes come from? It must have been from Jesus or the disciples. Jesus doesn't just restore the man's sanity; he also restores his dignity.

The next detail comes from the story of the woman who suffered from bleeding for 12 years. Her story is interwoven with another, and together they offer a study in contrasts. She is a poor, unnamed woman, while Jairus is a wealthy, influential man. And yet they are both in desperate need as they turn to Jesus for help. Jostled by the crowd, and too ashamed to make herself known, she did the only thing she could think of – she reached out and touched the tassel on the fringe of his clothing. And here is the detail: "Jesus felt the power go out of him." Jesus, word made flesh, filled with the power of the Spirit, wonder-worker and revered teacher – he felt the power drain from him. Healing was as costly for Jesus as it can be for us – it takes time, attention and energy, and he is willing to give all three to this woman.

The third detail comes in the other half of the interlocking. Once again, there is plenty of commotion when Jesus arrives at Jairus' house. Not only are all the family in mourning, but the professionals have turned up to wail for a fee. Jesus throws them out (no gentle Jesus, meek and mild here!) and goes to the dead girl surrounded only by those of faith and hope. Once again, Mark is alone in recording the actual words Jesus speaks in Aramaic: "Talitha koum". And what is the first thing that he does? If it was me, I think I would parade her in triumph as a sign of God's power at work through me! But Jesus continues to be concerned for her welfare; he arranges for both food and privacy.

This tells us a lot about what is needed to read the Bible well. In an over-wordy age, we are not used to slowing down to attend to the detail of the text. But this can actually be more important than having the latest expert commentary to hand. In our world of speed-reading, speed-dating and speed-everything, we need to take time to learn how to read more slowly.

And these little, eye-witness details suggest something much larger about life. Whatever else is going on around, whatever is at stake, Jesus is relentlessly focussed on the welfare of the individuals he is dealing with. He attends to the details of their lives.

I wonder if that suggests something important for our busy lives too. Do we attend to people in the matters of detail? When someone is in front of me, do I give them my full attention, and set aside anything that might distract me? Am I prepared to give my time, my energy and my attention in the way that Jesus did? It's not the devil, but the angel who is in the detail – the angel bearing good news of the kingdom of God, which grows one life at a time.

Rev Dr Ian Paul is associate minister at St Nic's, Nottingham, and Honorary Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham. He blogs at and tweets at @Psephizo.