Understanding the Bible
By Pastor Luke Jones | March 1, 2018
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have been convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2nd Timothy 3:14-17)
Passages like this one show us that God intends for his words for us in the Bible to be accessible to us. Though God’s nature should be too wonderful and complex for us to comprehend, God chooses to enlighten us through the power of the Holy Spirit to know the God who created us, who sustains us, who saves us, and who gives us new life. What an amazing gift! You don’t have to be a Greek or Hebrew scholar or have a Doctorate in Theology to read the Bible and hear from God.
Even so, many of us often feel unequal to the task of understanding the Bible on our own. We often think, “Well, I’m no good at theology. I’ll let people who are gifted at it tell me what the Bible means.” We might even pass on reading the Bible entirely, saying things to ourselves like, “reading isn’t my strong suit anyways.” But if “all scripture is God-breathed and useful…so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” then we all NEED the Bible in our lives. There is no question about it. If we want to serve the Lord we love, we must be submersed in the Word of God. If you want to dive deeper into the Bible but you are afraid that you are unequal to the task of interpreting it correctly, here are few general pointers for understanding scripture.
1. Talk about what you read with other Christians.
We often need to rely on each other for wisdom in interpreting the Bible. In Acts 8:26-40, God sends Philip to explain the prophecies in the
book of Isaiah that refer to Jesus to a traveling Ethiopian government official. This man was well educated, but had not experienced Jesus yet so the prophecies made no sense. We need to talk about what we read in the Bible not because some of us are better at understanding it than others but because the Spirit speaks to each of us at different times and for different reasons. Our variety of experiences often helps us apply what we read in the Bible in different ways, so we understand better when we work on it together. Theology is something that naturally happens and indeed works better in a community of Christians who are listening to the Spirit. Talk about what you read with other Christians.
2. Learn to recognize and embrace mystery.
In Isaiah 55:8-9, God says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” There will always be a certain amount of mystery about God, Heaven, the spiritual world, and the Kingdom of God because we humans just can not fully comprehend the truth about them. This mystery is a reason to celebrate, not to become frustrated. Would we really want a simple god? How much wisdom could we really expect to receive from a god who we could fully understand? Sometimes we try too hard to measure and categorize God. When we are reading the Bible and we realize that God is giving us a glimpse of something too great for us to fully grasp, our reaction ought to be gratitude for the truth God has enabled us to know even though we do not know everything. Learn to recognize and embrace mystery.
3. Never base a statement of faith on one Bible verse alone.
When God really wants us to know something, it comes up in more than one place in the Bible. Jesus may teach a life lesson that his apostles teach again and again in the book of Acts and beyond. An abstract truth may be stated in one of the letters Paul wrote to early Christian churches that is exemplified in the lives of earlier followers of God in the Old Testament. The prophets may refer to things of God than were not yet revealed in their own time but are obvious in the New Testament. The Bible was written by many different people over the course of centuries but they were all inspired and led by the same Holy Spirit, so we can expect the Bible to speak truth with one voice. When we read a verse that seems to be saying something that contradicts the witness of the Bible as a whole, we need to be humble enough to realize that we are most likely misunderstanding the one verse and believe the witness of the whole Bible. Never base a statement of faith on one Bible verse alone.
4. Focus on the purpose of the passage you are reading.
Sometimes we get hyper focused on one word or phrase, trying to figure out what it means and all the many things it can teach us when the chapter we are reading is focusing on something else entirely. We cannot and should not try to force the Bible to say something it doesn’t intend to say. When we find ourselves spinning in theological circles, it is often helpful to take a step back and ask the question, “What is this passage trying to communicate?” Sometimes we need to make our focus wider or narrower depending on the type of passage we are reading. For instance, many verses in the book of Proverbs are stand alone, one-verse thoughts that have very little to do with the verses that come before or follow after. If we do not focus on each verse separately, we may not understand. On the other hand, you have to read the entire book of Job before you can understand its purpose. If you read only one section from the middle, even if it is a whole chapter, you might miss the point entirely. If we can find the purpose of the section we are reading, we can avoid a lot of confusion. Focus on the purpose of the passage you are reading.
5. Always search for an application.
If all scripture is indeed God-breathed and useful, as 2nd Timothy 3:16 says, there will always be a way to live it out. God did not inspire and organize and preserve God’s words to us in the Bible over the centuries and across the boundaries of changing cultures and languages just so we would be well informed. God has written the Bible to each of us so that we could have a right relationship with God through the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ and so that we could live out the life God intends for us to live in the way God intends for us to live it, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Never settle for understanding the Bible when you could also apply it to your life. Always search for an application.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in the mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)
The Bible is from God to you, not just to your pastor or your Bible study leader. Don’t shy away from it out of fear that you will get it wrong. Dive in and be equipped by God’s Spirit for the good work God has in store for you!
- Pastor Luke