If you are reading the Bible for the first time, you might not understand what it means when you see John 3:16 or 1 Corinthians 15:10. At first this sort of notation might seem like some kind of secret code to make the Bible more complicated than it needs to be, but actually it is a simple way of noting the chapter and verse to make reading and understanding the Bible more easy.
The Bible is broken up into 66 books, beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation. Each book is broken up into chapters, like any other book you might read. For example, in the notation John 3:16, the 3 means the third chapter. From there, each chapter is broken up into verses. There is no specific formula for verse length – a verse is often one sentence, but there are many times where one sentence is broken into multiple verses or multiple sentences are combined into a single verse. Going back to our example John 3:16, the 16 refers to the 16th verse in the third chapter.
This system is meant to make it easier to study the Bible, to point to specific passages as proof of certain doctrines and to make it easier to share the Bible with people. If I was to tell someone, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” they may ask me where to find that in the Bible. It is much easier for me to say “John 3:16”, than to say, “it’s halfway down the left column of page 1156,” since they will likely have a different Bible than I do.
There are a few special exceptions to this naming system. In the Old Testament, several large books of the Hebrew Bible have been divided into two smaller books and each book has a prefix to indicate the order. For example, the book of Samuel is divided into 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, so the verse 2 Samuel 11:1 means the 11th chapter and first verse of the second book of Samuel.
Similarly, in the New Testament there are a few instances where a writer wrote more than one letter to the same church, or the same writer wrote more than one general letter. Paul wrote two letters to the church in Thessalonica, so we have 1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians. The apostle John wrote three letters to unknown audiences, so his letters are known as 1 John, 2 John and 3 John.
Another special case is for very small books or letters which only have a single chapter. We see this in Old Testament prophets like Obadiah and New Testament letters as the letter from Jude. In these cases, the chapter may or may not be used, so you might see Obadiah 1:3 or just Obadiah 3. Both notations mean the third verse of the book.
As helpful as the chapter and verse divisions of the Bible are, we must remember that the Bible was originally written without them. As a result, the divisions are not inspired as the text itself is. There is evidence of chapter divisions being used as early as the 300s; however, the chapter divisions used today were first used in the 1100s and the verse divisions came later in the 1500s. The Geneva Bible from 1557 & 1560 is the first English Bible that used the chapter and verse division that is in common use today.
The divisions are helpful, but they can sometimes break the flow of the biblical story. We call them books of the Bible because they are meant to be read the same way we read any book of literature. Each sentence and thought are tied together to make a single, unified message ultimately pointing to Jesus. We understand this with literature because most people do not open a novel written by their favorite author, turn to a particular page and read just three or four sentences and close it.
Another negative effect of the verse division is that they can often lead to misunderstanding something due to not reading the verse in context or placing emphasis on a particular doctrine at the expense of another. It is not hard to find examples of people doing this throughout human history to support wicked sin that God prohibits or splits within churches over doctrine which is not essential to salvation.
If you are interested in reading the Bible without the chapter and verse divisions, many publishers such as Crossway offers what are commonly called “readers Bibles” that retain the book divisions but present the text without chapter and verse distinction. This type of Bible can help the reader better see the unified theme of each book and may be a useful aid in growing in the knowledge of God’s word.
Even with the possible negative effects of chapter and verse divisions, their inclusion into Bibles have an overall benefit to the reading, sharing and study of the Bible.