Ease into the Bible: Chapters, Verses, and Their Five Avoidable Challenges

What if our Bibles didn’t contain numbered chapters or verses? 

Imagine with me.

Brenda Bible-Teacher scanned the room of eager women and smiled. “Ladies, let’s open our Bibles to the Gospel of John. Mary, I see you’re already there. Would you please read the 178th sentence?”1

Mary counted softly. “One, two, three. . .”

Brenda chuckled. “I’m sorry. I should have given you more information. It starts with the word ‘Now.’”

Mary nodded and flipped the pages of her Bible. “Is our passage about the Wedding at Cana?”

Brenda shook her head. “You’re almost there. Our passage is shortly after that.”

“The one about Jesus at Passover?”

“Keep going.” 

Sarah waved her hand in the back of the room. “It’s the one about the woman at the well, right?” 

Brenda took a deep breath and sighed. “Sorry. That’s not it either. Never mind, Ladies. I’ll read.”

This scenario is exactly why we should designate a whole day to celebrate the men who divided the Bible into numbered chapters and verses.

How Did We Get the Bible’s Chapter and Verse Breaks?

Other than Psalms and Proverbs, most of the Bible’s authors intended for us to read their books (or letters) as one continuous text like we read modern books and letters.

Over time, various men inserted helpful paragraph divisions. Eventually, in the late fifth century, the Bible translator Jerome divided Scripture into short passages, also known as pericopes—not to be confused with periscopes, although they do help us navigate. 

Paragraph divisions no doubt helped readers search Scripture for a specific verse, but a better solution was still to come nearly a thousand years later. 

Around AD 1227, Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, divided the Latin Vulgate Bible into chapters.2

Amen.

A couple hundred years later in AD 1448, R. Nathan, a Jewish rabbi, made searching Scripture easier by dividing the Old Testament into verses. 

Brilliant.

Nearly one hundred years after that in AD 1551, a French printer, Robert I. Estienne (also known as Robertus Stephanus and Robert Stephens), followed Nathan’s example and divided the New Testament into verses. 

Glory hallelujah! 

In AD 1555, Stephens’ edition of the Latin Vulgate became the first complete Bible with chapters and verses. The Geneva Bible followed in 1560 as the first English Bible to include these helpful divisions. And thus began the publishing trend which continues today. 

And all God’s people said, “Thank you!”

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Thanks to chapter and verse breaks, we can now find God’s inspired words to Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16–17 in three point six seconds rather than six point three minutes. As much as we love this convenience, it also presents at least five challenges. (But good news—they’re all avoidable!)

Five Avoidable Challenges of Chapter and Verse Breaks

1. Chapter and verse breaks can entice us into a lifestyle of snacking on Scripture and slow our spiritual growth.

Reading Scripture in bite-size pieces can keep us going when time is too scarce for us to enjoy a full meal of God’s Word. But a lifestyle of only snacking on Scripture can stump our spiritual growth.

Can you imagine a pediatrician telling a busy mom not to worry if she only has time to feed her children a bite or two of food each day? Bites are certainly better than nothing, but providing children only a snack of even the best food endangers their physical and mental growth. Every good pediatrician demands parents make time in their busy schedules to feed their children full meals.

God calls us to the same level of care in our spiritual health. He’ll provide the time we need to feed on full portions of His Word. Let’s use the time He provides. Otherwise, we’ll suffer from spiritual malnourishment, which leads to unbelief, discontentment, and many other challenges. 

As Oswald Chambers said, the choice isn’t always between good and bad, but between good and best. Sometimes good is the enemy of best.3

REMEMBER: Optimal spiritual health and growth comes from feeding on the whole Bible, not just nibbles and sips of it. 

2. Chapter and verse breaks can tempt us to spiritualize these man-made divisions. 

God directed each of the Bible’s authors to write His specific message, but He didn’t designate chapter and verse breaks. The men who divided the passages used their best reasoning skills, but in the end, mere men chose the divisions, not God. They’re helpful tools, but not divinely inspired, thus, let’s not read spiritual significance into them. 

For instance, the number seven in the Bible often represents completeness and perfection. This biblical symbolism doesn't mean, however, that the seventh chapter or seventh verse declares perfection or completeness. Or that those chapters and verses hold any more significance than others.

REMEMBER: God inspiredScripture, not the man-made chapter and verse breaks. Let’s not spiritualize them by placing a sacred meaning into how they’re divided or numbered. 

3. Chapter and verse breaks can lead us to misinterpret Scripture.

Isolating biblical texts into numbered chapters and verses makes finding and sharing them easier, but it can also tempt us to pull Scripture out of context. When we distance a verse from its full setting, framework, and message we increase the chance we’ll misinterpret its true meaning. 

For example, Philippians 4:13 says, “I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me.” Christians often make this verse synonymous with success and achievement against all odds. In context, however, we see Paul is teaching about suffering in lack and enjoying abundance with the same attitude of gratefulness and dependence upon Christ. This meaning is much different than God making us number one in whatever we do.

Consider Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which begins in Matthew 5 and ends at the close of Matthew 7. With the numerous man-made breaks our modern Bibles provide with chapters, verses, and headings, we can wind up reading Jesus’ sermon as merely a collection of disconnected stories. We can lose the cohesiveness of His entire message. 

Context matters. 

REMEMBER: Read verses in context rather than isolation, or risk misinterpreting God’s Word.

4. Chapter and verse breaks can lead us to wrongly assume a change in thought, time, or event. 

Like good punctuation, chapter and verse breaks lead us to pause. These divisions may be appropriate, but sometimes they’re poorly timed and lead us to wrongly assume the break is designating a change in either thought, time, or event. 

Many chapters begin with connecting or linking words like therefore, but, now, then, or and. Words like these always refer to whatever came before them and help us avoid this challenge—or at least they should. Unfortunately, when a word like therefore is the first word in a chapter, we often overlook it. We don’t stop to consider what the therefore (and any other linking word) is there for. 

Chapter breaks and headings can inadvertently lead our minds to reset and move on when the author is actually continuing the same message. 

REMEMBER: Chapter and verse breaks don’t necessarily indicate a change in thought, time, or event. As we read, let’s intentionally look for God-designed connections.

5. Chapter and verse breaks can cause us to miss the main point of the Bible. 

Much like earlier challenges, this one rises out of the importance of context, except this time we’re talking about the context of the whole Bible. Whether the Bible’s authors knew it or not, when they wrote their books or letters, they contributed to the overarching message God wove throughout all Scripture—the Bible’s main point

Chapter and verse breaks make it reasonable and almost logical to read the Bible in bits and pieces—the way it’s presented to us by modern publishers. Because of its format, it’s easy to read God’s Word more like a textbook than as a novel. This start-and-stop approach to reading can cause us to lose the momentum God designed from Genesis to Revelation.

Even within each book, the authors built momentum around the message God specifically gave them to communicate, and they carried it throughout their text. We can miss this vital message when we break up our reading into bits and pieces.

Editors and publishers created chapter and verse breaks, along with the other wonderful tools in our Bibles such as headings, study notes, cross-references, maps, articles, and footnotes, to help us study the Bible for greater understanding of God’s message. They never intended for the study tools to distract us or take precedence over the sacred text. 

Some modern publishers are bringing back the ancient format. They’re removing all the chapter and verse breaks. (As the ancient saying goes, everything old is new again.) Whichever we read, let’s keep our goal the same—to see the big picture of the whole Bible and embrace the main point—Jesus Christ.

Remember: The Bible is one glorious story that builds momentum from beginning to end. We risk missing the momentum if we let the chapter and verse breaks dictate how we read the Bible. Man-made helps should enhance our study of God’s Word, not rule our reading of it. 

The Simple Solution to All Five Challenges

I love—no, adore—my study Bibles, but I recognize how easily I can fall for each of the five challenges we’ve discussed. Fortunately, the solution is simple:

Commit to focused and intentional reading. 

That’s it. Done.

We can praise God for Langton, Nathan, and Stephens for making it easier to study God’s life-giving Word while choosing to ignore their divisions as we concentrate on reading the treasure of God’s Word. 

What’s Next?

Have you ever wondered why the Bible is arranged the way it is? Wonder no more. In my next article in the “Ease into the Bible” series, I’ll explain the how and why, and the beauty and power of the order of the books of both the Old and New Testament. 

Are you grateful for articles like this that help you learn to study God’s Word? The content you find on ReviveOurHearts.com is made possible by Monthly Partners—friends of the ministry just like you! As we seek to reach more women and help them thrive in Christ, we’re looking for more Partners to join the Monthly Partner family. Will you help? For more information, please visit ReviveOurHearts.com/Monthly-Partner

I have absolutely no idea which sentence is the 178th sentence in the Gospel of John. I don’t have the patience to count them, but if you do, let me know. I’m mildly curious.

Don Stewart, “Why Is the Bible Divided into Chapters and Verses? by Don Stewart,” Blue Letter Bible (Blue Letter Bible, July 18, 2018), https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/stewart_don/faq/bible-special/question8-why-is-the-bible-divided-into-chapters-and-verses.cfm.

Oswald Chambers, “The Good or The Best?,” My Utmost For His Highest, accessed June 30, 2022, https://utmost.org/the-good-or-the-best/.

About the Author

Jean Wilund

Jean Wilund

Jean Wilund is passionate about leading women into a greater understanding of the Bible and a deeper relationship with God. She serves ROH as a member of the Leader Connection blogging team and a moderator for the Women’s Ministry Leader … read more …


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