For those of us who have devoted our lives to the study of scripture, it’s easy to forget how intimidating reading the Bible can actually be. Church doesn’t usually help make the book any easier to approach either. I talk with believers often who seem to portray that they feel stupid or embarrassed asking such basic questions of their spiritual leaders, such as, “How should I study the Bible?” or “How can I make sense of a difficult passage?”
Maybe you’ve felt this way before. What should you do?
Ask a friend?
Perhaps you even came across this article because you’ve been fearful about asking someone in your life similar questions. Don’t worry, it’s simpler than you think.
Here are 7 easy steps that you can employee in order to study any given passage in the Bible:
1.) READ THE TEXT
This might seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at the number of people I see studying or even teaching aspects of scripture prior to taking sufficient time to properly read the text. Specifically, if I’m approaching a “problem passage” (i.e. a passage that I’m struggling to derive the meaning of or perhaps a passage that appears to contradict another portion of scripture) before making any conclusion about the text, I would first take time to read the verses in question, as well as, the verses leading up to and after the select passage. This allows for me to gain a better understanding of the verses’ context, which is crucial to proper interpretation.
2.) CONSULT MULTIPLE TRANSLATIONS OF THE PASSAGE
For those of us who are unable to read the original text of the Bible in Hebrew or Greek, the next best thing is the existence of multiple translations. The original text of the Bible has been translated into roughly one hundred unique English translations or paraphrases of the Bible. Don’t let this confuse you – any of these translations that have any serious merit are based upon an extremely well preserved original text has been scrutinized, calibrated, and verified by thousands of historians, scholars, and archeologists over the centuries. These translations in most cases differ little, and none of them differ about major doctrinal items, such as, the humanity and divinity of Jesus, sin, eternal life, hell, grace, faith, or a long list of other core beliefs of the Christian faith. What does change though in each of these translations is the emphasis of certain words or phrases within a passage that might help better communicate the meaning behind the original language. Consider Hebrews 11:1 in these three unique translations:
King James Version – “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
New International Version – “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
The Message Bible – “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.“
Each version essentially states the same thing, while also giving a unique angle to the truth of the passage. Which one is true? Well, they all are.
3.) Study the Original Language
Okay, so unless you really are a Bible scholar, then you probably don’t read fluently in New Testament Greek or ancient Hebrew. The good news though is that there are dozens of resources for the novice reader of the Bible to glean invaluable information from the original text of the Holy Scriptures. Usually best when used in conjunction with one another, Bible dictionaries, exhaustive concordances, and Greek and Hebrew lexicons can all be dusted off to locate a particular word in question in the original language and glean it’s meaning, as well as its various usages. This takes practice, and I recommend seeking proper instruction on how to utilize the resources first, but after some practice, you’ll be able to dig into the original text like a pro. (There are also many online lexicons and dictionaries for those with an aversion to books.)
4.) Cross Reference the Passage
Another skill that gets better with time and practice is cross-referencing. Cross-referencing is the process of allowing the Bible to essentially be a commentary on itself and, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to read the Bible for all its worth. The more you know the text of the Bible, the easier this will become. For example, as I describe further in chapter five of my book, Good God: The One We Want To Believe In But Are Afraid To Embrace, Hebrews 12:4-11 is a New Testament passage that explains God’s discipline of his people. Read by itself, it would be easy to conclude that God uses pain in order to teach us. This though would be a false conclusion drawn by a poor study of the Bible. When you apply cross-referencing to this passage, you would find that the writer of Hebrews is quoting Proverbs 3:11-12, which explains that God’s rebuke takes place through his Word and not physical circumstances. This doesn’t change the text, but it does greatly affect one’s understanding and application of the passage. By using scripture in order to interpret scripture, one can begin to find more clarity and truth in each individual text and the book as a whole.
5.) Read Commentaries
Often the first place people turn, I prefer to reserve the study of commentaries for much later in the investigation process of a passage. Personally, my goal is to have commentaries confirm what I’m learning and not to establish it. Commentaries are individuals’ notes regarding the Bible, usually famous preachers or theologians, organized and compiled verse-by-verse in a large volume. Although there are wonderful rich and scholarly commentaries available, I’d rather first approach each passage with a fresh set of eyes in order to see what God is speaking to me through the text, prior to becoming persuaded by another perspective. My go-to commentaries include: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Matthew Henry, Andrew Wommack, as well as Welsey’s Notes. None of these are perfect (though Wommack’s is pretty close), but together they can help to paint a clearer picture of a historical understanding of the passage and perhaps provide some new insight into the context and meaning.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be – you found this article after all. For many their main method of understanding tough passages of scripture starts with seeing what Google might have to offer. The problem with this is that although search engines provide ample results and large volumes of information to review, the sources are rarely known and the background of the authors are sometimes obscure at best. Does this mean that we shouldn’t utilize the internet when studying the Bible? Of course not, but we should make an effort to keep it in the appropriate place in the process. Instead of being our first step, I prefer to push it further down the list and only use search engines after I’ve exhausted other more reliable methods of understanding the meaning of the Word. Start with the steps above and if you’re still stuck…spin the wheel and see what Google has to offer.
7.) Talk to Other Believers
Even though I reserved this step for last, it can really be utilized throughout the study process. The fellowship and community derived from other believers is perhaps sweetest when the focus of the conversation is the meaning of the scriptures. I love engaging trusted friends about certain passages, how they read it, what they have learned through it, and hearing how the verses have shaped their life. It’s important though to note that I said “trusted” friends. I encourage new believers especially to guard themselves around others whom they haven’t had a chance to see the fruit of their lives or the results of that individuals doctrine. I’ve seen so many people fall into false doctrines, such as Universalism or various forms of legalism, due to being inspired by someone they met. Before we simply embrace new “teachings”, it’s imperative that we first establish our hearts in the core of the gospel – the person of Jesus Christ. With over 2,000 years of Christian thought and writings, I encourage people to be very cautious of teachings that take them too far away from the simplicity of salvation is “by grace through faith.” To avoid this, while talking to other believers about passages in the Bible, ask them questions, such as, “What other verses reinforce your belief in this?” or “How do you think that this lines up with Jesus’ teachings or the foundation of the Old Testament?” These questions should go along way in exposing errors and ensuring that the opinions you are getting from others strengthens your understanding of scripture and doesn’t harm it.
The Good News is this – God delights in revealing the Word to His people! Scripture wasn’t written to hide truth from you, rather it was recorded so that you might be able to read and understand who God is! The Bible is the only book that’s word contain the power to truly come alive in our hearts. It’s time to throw away all the excuses that we have for why we don’t read the Bible and dig in! Whether you are just getting started or you’ve been a Christian for years, I pray that God would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you read!
(If this article helped you, I’d love to hear from you at Lucas@lucasmiles.org and I would ask that you consider sharing the link with others on your social media. Feel free to tag me as well as I love responding to my readers!)