How Can I Better Understand the Bible?

Michael A. Rydelnik
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Many people feel guilty for not reading the Bible but when they try it seems like a closed book. This makes sense. Although the Bible has one consistent story leading to Jesus the Messiah, it really is a library of books written between 3,500 and 2,000 years ago. Also, most people think the Bible uses archaic and technical language that is beyond the ability of ordinary people to understand. But the Bible can be understood, and reading it can enrich and change our lives. So here are some ways you can read the Bible and understand it!

Choose a Modern Translation

When we consider reading the Bible, we often think of the King James Version with its old-fashioned English. Today, we never address people as “thee” or “thou,” and we would never say “suffer the little children” to come to Jesus (Matt. 19:14 kjv). That’s why it’s so important to read a Bible translated into modern English. You can choose from a number of reputable versions and translations (see Question 9), but for now, make sure you find a version that’s easy to understand. If you’re committed to the King James Version, you may want to try the New King James. Many people find the New Living Translation especially easy to understand. My wife likes the New American Standard Version, I like the Holman CSB, and many of my friends read the English Standard Version or New International Version. The version you select is a matter of personal choice. Go to a bookstore, look through several versions, read a chapter or two in the Gospel of Mark and decide which one you like and understand. That’s the one to read.

Read Systematically, Not Randomly

Too often people read a verse or chapter here or there, instead of reading complete books of the Bible. It’s much better to read whole books with a plan and purpose. If you’re just starting, take the book of Ephesians in the New Testament. Read one chapter a day for six days. Then start again, rereading the same book. At the end of the month, you will have read Ephesians five times. If you’re still having a tough time understanding, try paraphrasing it, paragraph by paragraph. Also, it’s a good idea to get a Bible reading plan or use a daily Bible study devotional, so you can read systematically through books.

Too often people read a verse or chapter here or there, instead of reading complete books of the Bible.

Read With Prayer and Expectation

The psalmist gives us a great example of how to begin reading when he prayed, “Open my eyes so that I may contemplate wondrous things from your instruction” (Ps. 119:18 csb). We need God’s Spirit to help us grasp what we are reading. Yet, sometimes people expect a spiritual jolt when reading the Scriptures, sort of like Popeye eating a can of spinach. It’s true, sometimes we’ll read and find a verse that will jump out and give us great encouragement. But reading the Bible is much more like taking a daily vitamin pill or eating a basic nutritious meal. We should not expect to have a spiritual liver quiver every time we read, but instead a gradual strengthening. By reading prayerfully and with an appropriate expectation, we’ll get more out of reading God’s Word.

Vary Your Approach

People think that reading the Bible always requires slow, careful analysis. But it’s also important to get a holistic overview of Bible books. So, for example, let’s say we wanted to study the book of Hebrews. It would be helpful to start by reading the whole book in one sitting. That should take about 45 minutes (less time than most procedural crime dramas we watch on Netflix or than we spend checking social media). Then, you can slow down. For the next 13 days, read a chapter a day of Hebrews so you can take a more careful in-depth approach. After that, read the whole book once again and see how much better it’s understood.

Keep Verses in Context

When we read verses in isolation, we can’t possibly understand what they mean. Rather than reading one verse at a time, we should read the verses that come before and after it. That way we can ensure we have the correct understanding of that verse. I once received a Christmas card with Revelation 11:10 on it: “Those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and celebrate; and they will send gifts to one another.” Sounds good until we realize that the context reveals that this is about people of the earth celebrating the murder of two of God’s future witnesses whose message of repentance tormented them. Remember, context is king.

Too often we’re afraid of the Bible. We think it’s too deep or too challenging or just too hard to grasp.

Identify the Original Audience

Many books of the Old Testament were written to God’s people, the nation of Israel. The New Testament letters were written to specific churches. Knowing the original audience will help you better understand the message. For example, God promised Israel great prosperity if they obeyed the Law of Moses (Deut. 28:11–12), their national constitution in the land of Israel. But the New Testament doesn’t promise material prosperity for obedience but a harvest of righteousness (Rom. 6:16). Certainly, all Scripture is applicable to us today, but identifying the audience helps us to know how to apply it.

Keep the Plain Sense of the Words

One of the first interpretive principles I ever heard has held up all these years: “If the plain sense makes sense, then seek no other sense, lest it result in nonsense.” That means that we need to read the Bible looking for the plain meaning. If the author uses the word “Israel,” it means Israel. If a miracle occurs, like the parting of the Red Sea, it’s a real miracle, not merely low tide. However, that doesn’t mean there are no metaphors or other figures of speech in the Bible. When Jesus said He was the door (John 10:9), that doesn’t mean He had hinges on His side or a door-knob in His midsection. It is plainly a metaphor for faith in Jesus, who is our entryway to knowing God.

Recognize the Genre and Read Accordingly

There are several genres or literary forms in Scripture. The three most basic are narrative, poetry, and prose. When we read a narrative or a story, we look for the general principle being taught in that story. For example, the familiar story of David and Goliath reveals that Saul had been rejected as king (1 Sam. 15) and David, the shepherd boy, had been anointed as future king (1 Sam. 16). So the reader wonders why was David chosen and not one of his brothers? The story of David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17) reveals that David was so desirous of preserving God’s honor that he was willing to sacrifice his own safety and security. That’s the kind of person God chooses to use.

But poetry, as found in the Psalms, is written and understood in a different way. The psalms express passionate feelings using figures of speech. For example, the psalmist writes, “As the deer pants for the water brooks [a simile], so my soul pants for You, O God” (Ps. 42:1). The psalm writers use emotional word pictures to help convey their emotions toward God.

Prose is a much more straightforward style of writing—it reveals directly and explicitly what is being said. So, when Paul writes, “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3), it’s clear that we’re to make every effort to stay unified with fellow followers of the Lord Jesus. While many people think the biblical prophets are hard to understand, remember their books are filled with both prose and poetry. Understanding what genre the author is using can help open our eyes to the meaning of the Bible.

Use Helpful and Trustworthy Bible Resources

There are some terrific tools that help us understand Scripture. Of these, every Bible reader should have two resources. The first is a good oneor two-volume commentary on the whole Bible. A commentary will have an introduction to orient you to each Bible book and it will help clear up the meaning of verses or words that are hard to grasp. A good commentary also helps a reader understand the flow of thought in the Bible book or address theological issues present in the text. My suggested commentary is The Moody Bible Commentary, written by the Moody faculty. I had the privilege of contributing to this work and co-editing it.9 There are other good oneor two-volume commentaries and everyone should be sure to own one.

A second helpful Bible tool is a Bible dictionary. This doesn’t just explain words or concepts like Webster’s. Instead, it also has brief articles on just about everything found in the Bible. If we’re reading Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians, then look up the article on Corinth and learn about that city. Maybe we see the term “Messiah” or “propitiation” and wonder about its meaning—we should look that up in a Bible dictionary. There are a number of excellent dictionaries but I suggest The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, a work authored by Merrill Unger and edited by R. K. Harrison, two acclaimed Bible scholars.10 It will be a great resource for studying the Bible.

Read With a View to Action

Howard Hendricks, my former professor of blessed memory, always said, “We haven’t studied until we’ve applied.” He gave his classes an acronym, as a little memory device, to keep in mind as we read Scripture. He would tell us we need to put on our SPECS when we read the Bible. Ask these questions:

Is there a Sin to avoid?
Is there a Promise to claim?
Is there an Example to follow?
Is there a Command to obey?
Is there a Statement of truth (to believe)?

If we keep these questions in mind as we read, we won’t be merely filling our minds with facts but transforming our lives with Scripture.

Final Thoughts

Too often we’re afraid of the Bible. We think it’s too deep or too challenging or just too hard to grasp. But I’m convinced that the best way to understand the Bible is by reading it. And if we don’t understand it the first time, we need to read it again. Moreover, it’s okay if we don’t understand everything all at once. There are mysteries in Scripture that we’ll never understand. The Bible says, “The secret things belong to the LoRd our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). The book of ancient Jewish wisdom, the Talmud, says, “By all means a person should study (the Bible), even though he is liable to forget, yea, even if he does not understand all that he studies” (Avodah Zerah 19a). This reminds me of Mark Twain’s alleged comment: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” This is so true for us—the parts we understand will speak right into our lives and transform us to be more and more like Jesus.

For Further Reading:

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by Michael A. Rydelnik

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