understanding the Bible: an introduction

Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. Matthew 7:24-25

The Bible is the Christian’s greatest resource on this pilgrim journey. Anyone who wants a mature faith and an enduring love must get to know it well. Many people struggle with reading the Bible, though, and understandably so – it is a complex and ancient document (usually the oldest in anyone’s library). When thoughtfully approached, however, it is accessible to anyone.

Often, people read the Bible in order to:

  • get inspired
  • be a better person
  • find solutions to their problems
  • find the right rules to follow
  • discover hidden, mystical meaning behind every word
  • know everything God says about ____
  • get material for the next moral/theological debate
  • find nice sounding verses to post as Facebook statuses
  • feed their ego
  • stifle their guilt

Although each of these approaches contain some truth (except the last two), they totally miss the main point. Inevitably they lead to discouragement, confusion, and boredom.

1. Read the Bible on its own terms.
The Bible is absolutely not an encyclopedia, a self-help book for modern problems, a book of systematic theology, or an entertaining and easy-to-follow storybook. If you try to force it to be something it’s not, you will be quickly disappointed.

The Bible is a story about how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will redeem his people and his world. It’s main subject matter is God interacting with humans in history; it’s main purpose is for humans to know God; it’s main message is the gospel of grace; and it’s main character is Jesus Christ (John 1:45, 5:46, 8:56, 12:41, Luke 24:27) .

2. Ask questions.
The key to understanding the Bible, therefore, is to understand how each of its parts contributes to this whole. Part of this is asking questions of every text, such as:

  • How does this passage relate to what comes immediately before and after it?
  • How does this passage fit into the overall story of the Bible?
  • What are the themes of this passage?
  • Why did the author write this?
  • What does this passage say about the character of God?
  • What does this passage say about the gospel and the work of Christ?
  • What does this passage say about humans? sinners? Christians?
  • What does this mean for me and how can I apply this to my life?

Use the resources provided by 2,000 years of church history and an Internet connection. In our day, scriptural insights and commentaries from the world’s greatest thinkers and saints are instantly available to anyone with a few clicks and couple bucks. Bible study has never been easier. My personal favorite resource is biblegateway.com and its ESV Bible cross-references (e.g. Hebrews 4:12).

3. Conform yourself to the Word; don’t try to conform the Word to you.
Watch out for reading the Bible with purely modern eyes, expecting Middle Eastern culture from thousands of years ago to match up with the values and standards of 21st century American culture. Also beware of reading your theological/philosophical assumptions into a text, or of stretching a text beyond what it is really saying in order for it to say what you want it to say. The purpose of the Bible is defeated if we become its authority.

The Word of God is amazing because it is both informing and transforming. It reveals God to us, and reveals us to ourselves. We have a faith, and a gospel, because God in his grace gave us a book. Not only does the Word inform the mind, but it transforms the heart. The Holy Spirit uses it to change us from the inside out by confronting us with our sin, teaching us God’s ways, and assuring us of his steady love. God, sin, love, gospel – there is in fact nothing more precious, more important or relevant to you and your life than God’s Word and its message, whether you realize it or not.

4. Pray
Paul says that the things of God must be spiritually discerned. The “natural man,” “human wisdom,” and the “spirit of this world” are unable to accept or understand the spiritual truths of God (1 Corinthians 2:12-14). Therefore, ask the Holy Spirit for his help, constantly. Pray without ceasing. He will not refuse (Luke 11:11-13, James 1:5).

I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation… How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Psalm 119:99, 103

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16

Simon Peter answered [Jesus], “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68