By Christopher VanDusen
If you’re a believer in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, then you need and want to know Him more, and become more like Him. And the main way that God has given us to do that is by learning the Bible, the only perfectly trustworthy source of information about Him. But the Bible is like no other book in the world. It’s the best-selling book of history, but it’s also the hardest to properly understand. Furthermore, understanding it is complicated even more by the fact that there are so many versions of the Bible, and there are so many different types of people saying so many different things about what it means and teaches. So what is the proper method of understanding the Bible?
In this article, I want to show you — from the Bible and from biblical reasoning — seven of the most important things that we need to have or do in order to properly understand the Bible as we read it:
- Remember that it’s God’s Word.
- Depend on, and seek, the Holy Spirit’s guidance and help in understanding it.
- Study it to be taught what and how to think and act.
- Use one or more accurate and understandable translations.
- Recognize that the contents of the Bible are historical documents with their own historical contexts.
- Try to study large sections at a time.
- Understand the central theme of every book of the Bible.
Remember that the Bible is God’s Word
The first essential thing that we have to do in order to understand the Bible is remember that the book we’re studying is God’s Word, or God’s Message. The clearest passage that teaches this is 2 Timothy 3:16a, in which the apostle Paul says,
“All Scripture is breathed out by God . . .” (ESV)
Now, what does Paul mean by “all Scripture”? The Greek word translated “Scripture” (graphe) literally means “writing”, but was used by the Jews, and then the Christians, to refer to their sacred documents, which at one time consisted only of the Old Testament.
But how does Paul describe all Scripture? He says that it’s “breathed out by God”. The Greek word from which this phrase is translated is theopneustos, and literally means “God-breathed”. In other words, Paul’s saying that God is the ultimate Author of all Scripture.
The second most important passage that teaches that the Bible is God’s Word is 2 Peter 1:19-21, in which the apostle Peter says,
“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (ESV)
Here, Peter calls Scripture “the prophetic word”. In the Old Testament, the essence of prophecy isn’t simply that it tells the future, but that it’s a message from God. In fact, much of the writing of the Old Testament prophets wasn’t a foretelling of the future, but simply the preaching of God’s message to people about events at that time. Hence, what Peter says about the “prophecy of Scripture” can apply equally as well to all Scripture.
So what does Peter say about Scripture? First, that none of its contents come “from someone’s own interpretation”. In other words, the authors of Scripture didn’t give their own interpretation of God’s message, as if they were the authority behind what they said. Furthermore, Peter says, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man”. That is, their message didn’t come from their own will. Rather, he concludes, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”. Here, Peter says basically the same thing that Paul said — Scripture is “from God”. However, Peter adds here that God spoke through “men”. And how did they? “They were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the Holy Spirit led them to say what they said.
So, when you read the Bible, do you recognize that you’re reading God’s message in the words of men?
Depend On and Seek the Holy Spirit’s Guidance and Help for Understanding the Bible
Why should we depend on the Holy Spirit to teach us His Word? Because without His help, we can’t understand it.
Paul teaches this in 1 Corinthians 2:12-13, where he says,
“What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.” (NIV)
What is the reason that Christians have received “the Spirit who is from God”? “So that we may understand what God has freely given us.” And what has God freely given us? Paul says they’re the things that he and other apostles “speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words”. To put it another way, the things that God has given to Christians are revealed in “words” that are “taught by the Spirit”. And these words explain “spiritual realities”. And where are these words found now? In the Bible.
In sum, Paul is saying that one of reasons that Christians have received God the Holy Spirit is so they can understand God’s gifts to His children. And the only way they can understand them is to be taught “by the Spirit”, and to have them explained “with Spirit-taught words”.
Not only do Christians need to depend on the Holy Spirit to teach His Word to them, but Paul also teaches that they need to seek His help through prayer. This is precisely what Paul says he prays for the Ephesians in Ephesians 1:17-19a:
“. . . that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe . . .” (ESV)
Whether or not you understand Paul to be speaking specifically of the Holy Spirit when he says “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation”, it should be obvious that it’s one of the Holy Spirit’s ministries to give “wisdom” and “revelation in the knowledge of” God, and to do the rest of what Paul asks for.
But what exactly does Paul ask for? First, that God will give His people “wisdom”. This refers to the ability to properly use knowledge. Second, Paul asks for “revelation”. This, obviously, refers to God revealing Himself to His children. And what is the purpose of these things? So that the Ephesians will know God, since these things are given “in the knowledge of Him”.
But how will the Ephesians be given these things? By “having the eyes of [their] hearts enlightened”. This basically means that they’ll be given understanding, or light to see. And what will they see? First, the hope that God has called them to; second, the riches of His inheritance; and third, the greatness of God’s power toward them. But what is the source of all this revelation? God’s Word. Therefore, put in more concrete terms, Paul’s asking that God will give the Ephesians understanding of His Word, which will give them the knowledge of all these things.
So, are you relying on the Holy Spirit to teach you His Word?
Are you seeking the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and revelation in your knowledge of God?
Are you seeking the Holy Spirit’s power to enlighten the eyes of your heart, so you can better know your hope, your riches, and God’s power toward you?
Study the Bible to Learn What and How to Think and Act
The third essential element of our Bible study has to be the reason that we’re studying the Bible. We shouldn’t misuse Scripture. It has specific purposes in our lives, and we ought to use it to fulfill those purposes. So what are they?
Again, Paul teaches us what they are in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (ESV)
In this passage, Paul gives us four practical uses of Scripture. First, it’s “profitable for teaching”. In other words, people can benefit by using Scripture to teach. In fact, Scripture is the ultimate textbook, since God is the Author. Second, Scripture is profitable for “reproof”. If you look closely at this word, you’ll see that it could be literally broken down as meaning “to prove again”. The word “prove” at one time was used to mean “test”, and that’s similar to how it’s used here. It means to test something that may have been tested before, but found wanting. In English dictionaries, it means “to criticize or blame for a fault”. To put it another way, it means to point out what’s wrong about someone. The third action that Scripture is useful for is “correction”, which goes a step further than “reproof”. Whereas “reproof” is solely negative, or confrontational, “correction” is the act of showing how something is to be fixed. Finally, Scripture is profitable for “training in righteousness”. The word “training” refers to ongoing and continual discipline and instruction in order to learn to think or live a certain way. And what is that way? “In righteousness”. The word “righteousness” refers to character and behavior that is literally “right” or “just” in God’s sight. And how do we know what’s right, or what pleases God? Christ and His apostles teach us in His Word.
Finally, Paul says that the purpose of using Scripture in all of these ways is “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”. Since Paul was writing to a pastor, Paul refers to “the man of God”, but this could be equally applied to every single Christian, since they all belong to God as His servants. Here, Paul says that Scripture is to be used to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness, so that Christians will be “complete”, or spiritually mature, and fully ready to do “every good work” they are commanded to do by God.
A second passage that teaches us how we ought to use the Bible is Romans 15:4, where Paul says,
“. . . whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (ESV)
Here, Paul’s referring to the Old Testament, and says that it was written “for our instruction”, or the instruction of Christians. And what is the purpose of this instruction? First, so that Christians can endure, or persevere in following Christ to the end of their lives. Second, so that Christians will be encouraged, or emboldened to become more like Christ through Scripture. Finally, the goal of both of these things is so that Christians will “have hope”. In this context, Paul’s not referring to a wish, or “hoping” something will happen, but a confident expectation that something will certainly happen. And ultimately, what is that thing? That the Christian will be made exactly like Jesus in His human nature, and given an eternal dwelling place with Him.
So, are you using Scripture to teach?
Are you using it to reprove?
Are you using it to correct?
Are you using it to train in righteousness?
Are you using it for encouragement?
Read the Bible in an Accurate and Understandable Translation
The fourth thing we need to do in order to understand Scripture is to use the right translation, or version, for us. The best translation is going to be the one that is most understandable to us, but is also very accurately translated from the original languages. Here’s a list of the six best popular English translations:
- New American Standard Bible (NASB)
- English Standard Version (ESV)
- Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
- Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
- New King James Version (NKJV)
- New International Version (NIV)
For those who don’t know English very well, the New International Version is probably the best choice. This is the most readable of the six, but is least accurate in translation, since it doesn’t translate every single original word to English, but rather, at least in the New Testament, translates every expression of thought or idea that is conveyed by the words. Hence, more things than usual are lost from the original when translating it into English. However, it’s still accurate enough to use for study.
The next step up from the NIV is the CSB, which may be slightly harder to understand than the NIV, but translates more of the original from individual words, rather than individual thoughts. The result is a slightly more accurate translation. It’s actually an update of the HCSB, which uses the word “languages” instead of “tongues” in the 1 Corinthian passages about speaking in tongues, and uses the word “Messiah” instead of “Christ”.
The next harder to understand is the ESV, which is more of a literal, word-for-word, translation, and uses more formal, or old-fashioned, words.
After the ESV comes the NASB, which is my favorite popular English translation on the market. This is because it’s the most literal in its translation, and it uses newer Greek and Hebrew documents to translate from than the NKJV. If you want to get as close as possible to reading the original languages in an English translation, this is the version to choose.
Finally, I’d say the least understandable is the NKJV, which is a modernized version of the King James Version. This is probably less accurate in its translation than all the other versions, except for the NIV, and uses the most old-fashioned English, without using “thee’s” and “thou’s”. The best thing about this version is that it is very poetic in its language, so it may be easier to memorize, and have a more powerful effect on the emotions and/or imagination.
If you’re using a Bible version that’s very hard to understand, if possible, you need to switch to a more understandable version. However, don’t think that you have to only use one version. In fact, in your Bible study, it’s very helpful to use at least two. That way you can compare how different groups of scholars thought a passage should be translated, and come up with your own decision on what is the best way to understand what the passage is saying.
Recognize that Every Bible Book is a Historical Document with a Historical Context
The Bible isn’t just one book that is written by one human author in the same format, the same style, and following the same exact line of thought. Rather, it’s a collection of 66 historical documents that were written by many different authors, at many different times, in many different places, to many different people, for many different reasons. That’s why it’s important to always recognize, when studying a book of the Bible, that “this book has a certain author who was writing for a certain reason at a certain time in a certain place to certain people”.
There are several things to keep in mind when reading a book of the Bible.
First, we have to remember that the book we’re reading had one or more authors. When reading a passage, it’s helpful to know who the author is, so we can understand why he’s writing, and what he’s writing.
Second, we should consider the type of literature that we’re reading. The Bible consists of many types, or genres, of literature. Here are some of the main ones:
- historical narrative: A story about historical events.
- poetry: Writing that teaches through a lot of figurative language and word-pictures.
- apocalyptic: Prophetic literature that describes future events through extremely detailed symbols and other figurative language.
- New Testament epistle or letter: A document that is sent from one or more persons to one or more persons, usually with a description of the author, a greeting, an expression of thanks and love for the audience, teaching, practical instruction, and then a final farewell.
The third thing we should keep in mind is the original audience of the passage. Who were they, and what was their relationship to the author?
Fourth, we should try to get an understanding of why the author decided to write the document. This requires us to know more historical information about the time and place in which the document was written. What was going on with the author and audience at that time?
To sum up, there are four main questions about background information that usually need to be answered to understand a book of the Bible:
- Who who was the author?
- What type of literature is this book?
- Who was the audience, and what was their relationship to the author?
- Why did the author decide to write the document?
Try to Read Large Sections of the Bible at a Time
The sixth thing that’s usually essential in our Bible reading is to read longer, rather than shorter, sections of the Bible. Why? Here are some reasons:
- The original audience almost always read or heard large sections of a book, if not the entire book. For example, when the New Testament letters were read to churches, they didn’t read part of it one day, and then continue reading the next week. The whole thing was read without stopping, at least at first. Hence, in order to get the best feel for the overall message of a letter, and for any book of the Bible, it’s necessary to read the entire thing without stopping.
- If we read sections that are too short, we’re more likely to ignore the context of the section, and fail to interpret it based on that context.
- Reading longer sections, rather than shorter sections, allows us to better understand the author’s line of reasoning. In other words, we’re more able to see the connections between different smaller sections of the book.
- Reading longer sections allows us to be taught on a greater range of topics, and see how they relate to one another.
So, how do we put this principle into practice? Obviously, we need to make enough time to read enough of God’s Word, so we can learn what we need to learn. If at all possible, we should try to read all of a historical narrative, a letter, or an apocalyptic document in one sitting, at least at our first reading. Proverbs and Psalms are different, since they aren’t unified books, but are collections of proverbs and psalms. If we break up a book of the Bible, we need to make sure to break it up carefully, following the author’s line of thought, and not blindly following the chapter divisions, since these are often put in places that interrupt the author’s line of thought.
Understand the Theme that Unifies Every Book of the Bible
The final principle for Bible study that is very important is understanding the main message of the Bible, which is found in every single book of the Bible in some way. This message, or theme, is clearly taught in several passages in the Bible.
In order to understand one of these passages, there’s one phrase that we must understand that is in a few of them: “the fullness of the time”.
First, let’s turn to Galatians 4:4-5, where Paul says,
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive the adoption as sons.” (ESV)
So, what is this fullness of time? The time when God sent His Son to be born of a woman, under the Old Testament Law for the nation of Israel, as Jesus of Nazareth. And why did He do this? To redeem those who were under this Law — that is, the Jews — so Christ’s people would be adopted as God’s sons.
Jesus uses a similar phrase in Mark 1:14b-15, where Mark says,
“. . . Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (ESV)
So what happened when this time was fulfilled? The kingdom of God came near, and people were commanded to repent and believe in the good news about it, and its King — Jesus.
So far, we’ve seen that the fullness of time, or when the time was fulfilled, was when God sent His Son to become a Man, to preach, to bring His kingdom near, and to redeem His people, so they could be adopted into God’s family.
Paul again uses this phraseology in Ephesians 1:7-10, where he says,
“In him [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his [God’s] grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (ESV)
What does Paul say about this time here? First, that it’s a part of “the mystery of [God’s] will”. The word “mystery” literally means “secret”, and is in this case a secret that’s been made known to Christians about God’s will. Second, Paul says that the fullness of time is “according to [God’s] purpose”. That is, God purposed that this fullness of time would come to pass. Third, he says that God’s will for the time was “set forth in Christ as a plan”. That is, this fullness of time began when Christ was sent as part of God’s eternal plan. Finally, when this fullness of time came, God began to “unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth”. The Greek word translated “unite” could also be translated “sum up”, “gather together”, or “bring together under one head”. Paul’s meaning is that, when God sent Christ in the fullness of time, He began to wrap up history, and begin the new creation, of which Christ was the first Man.
Paul further describes the mystery of God’s will in Colossians 1:24b-28, where he says,
“. . . in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (ESV)
In this passage, Paul sums up the basic message that he and the other apostles taught, which was prophesied in the Old Testament. What was it? Paul says that it was “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints”. Then, he explicitly says that it’s “Christ in you, the hope of glory”. In other words, this mystery is the secret that Christ would live inside of His people, and especially the Gentiles, and therefore give them “the hope of glory”. Finally, Paul reduces what he taught to one word by saying “him [Christ] we proclaim”.
In Acts 10:36, Luke records Peter defining God’s main message by saying,
“‘As for the word that he [God] sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all) . . .'” (ESV)
This was God’s message to Israel: the offer of peace through Jesus Christ, the Lord of all.
In 2 Corinthians 1:19-20, Paul describes the main message of the Bible in this way:
“. . . the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you . . . was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” (ESV)
So what did Paul and other preachers proclaim among the Corinthians? That “all the promises of God find their Yes in” Christ. In other words, every one of God’s Old Testament promises are being kept and fulfilled through who Christ is, and what He has done, is doing, and will do.
In Hebrews 1:2, the author says,
“. . . in these last days he [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things . . .” (ESV)
Here, the Holy Spirit declares that God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the ultimate Prophet of God, and is Heir of the universe. Thus, the message of the Bible must be understood to be essentially who Christ is, what He’s doing, and what He taught.
Finally, Paul concludes his Epistle to the Romans in Romans 16:25-27 in this way:
“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.” (ESV)
So what is the message of the Bible according to this passage? Well, first, Paul says that “the preaching of Jesus Christ” is “according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret”. And where was it kept secret? The same place through which it’s now revealed — “the prophetic writings”. What are these writings? They’re the Old Testament Scriptures, which prophesied of “the preaching of Jesus Christ”. And what is the purpose of this revelation? “To bring about the obedience of faith” — that is, to grant people faith to obey the preaching of Jesus Christ. And what is the ultimate purpose of all of this? That “the only wise God [will have] glory forevermore through Jesus Christ”.
In one sentence, this is how I would put the main message of the Bible:
God is glorifying Himself in His Son through the redemption and sanctification of His people by the promise, incarnation, life, death, resurrection, lordship and promised coming of the Lord Jesus Christ; who has prepared for, begun, and promised the creation of a new universe, all for God’s glory.
So, do you understand and believe in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ? God sent His Son with His eternal and divine nature to earth to become a Man, Jesus of Nazareth, to let Himself be hung on a cross, where God punished Him for our rebellion against Him, and to raise Him from the dead. He then appeared to His disciples and to more than 500 people at one time, and went into heaven as the King of the universe. God’s now commanding everyone to change their minds and to trust in the Lord Jesus as their risen Lord who died for our sins to receive His forgiveness of their sins and peace with Him, since He’s going to judge everyone through Jesus perfectly according to everything we’ve done, said, and thought, and punish everyone who is guilty of sinning against Him by confining them to eternal torment. Please make sure you’re trusting in the Lord Jesus, His death, and resurrection, as the only grounds of God’s forgiveness of your sins, and your peace with Him.
Most Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
One Scripture quotation is taken from the:
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®