The Bible should be a vital part of every Christian’s life. It is God’s own Word that He has given to every person. In it He reveals His nature and character, His love for everyone, and the answers to life’s deepest questions.
Because it is God’s Word, Christians should diligently seek to understand what it is that He is communicating as much as is possible. The following list of the Top Seven Guidelines for Reading and Understanding the Bible should help accomplish this goal. All Christians should desire to read and teach God’s Word with integrity and to understand what He intended all of it to say, and these seven things can help tremendously in that effort. The Bible is truly an incredible book like no other and should be regarded with the greatest respect and care when handling its teachings.
1. Context is key
Whenever you read the Bible – Old or New Testament – pay close attention to the context of each verse. Be careful not to fall into the common approach of Bible reading and quoting today which involves “prooftexting” verses to fit whatever topic or viewpoint is desired. Some people do this knowingly, wishing to further their own personal agenda rather than biblical truth, but it can also be easy to do this unknowingly by surface reading or repeating what others say without checking what the Bible actually says. It is imperative that one not read or apply any Bible verse or teaching to his or her life without first examining and respecting the context of the surrounding verses, chapters, and the book as a whole, as well as the context and teachings of the entire Bible.
2. Read carefully and examine the details
Try not to speed through and surface read verses; really examine the text carefully and hone in on any details – especially ones that seem odd or excessive at first glance (these can often provide clues to historical and cultural context that may need further research or point to something that needs further study within the Bible itself). Also, try not to glance over passages that you know well just because you think that there is nothing left to learn in those verses. While the Bible can be read by anyone and need not be overly complicated, humans are finite in knowledge while God is infinite, and there are always things to be learned in His Word – many times even in verses that you may think you have exhausted.
3. Be aware of the historical background and cultural references
This is incredibly important, yet often overlooked or purposely ignored. While the Bible’s teachings are timeless, it is essential to remember that these books (which were often letters) were still written to people in specific times and cultures. There are some things that were meant to stay in those specific times and cultures rather than be applied to every time period and/or people groups thereafter. This takes very cautious and dedicated research to be sure that one does not try to make something universal that was limited to the time and culture of the author. On the other hand, one must also not try to take a universal principle and throw it to the side as something outdated or irrelevant today. Be aware that everything that is included in the Bible has some sort of significance – either in the past or now – so be careful not to skim over the details that may seem unnecessary or meaningless. Being aware of the historical and cultural background is extremely important and should not be overlooked. Some of the details about history and culture are still unknown, but learning as much as possible about these things can help clear up some confusion, especially regarding any seemingly contradictory verses. Taking this step can be the difference between understanding a verse correctly or getting it incredibly, and often dangerously, wrong.
4. Learn the specific words and different definitions in the original language, and understand the differences between the original language and your own
Keep in mind that Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek have very different structures than English (in fact, every language is very different), so be aware that there are various language barriers when it comes to accurately understanding meaning and translation. For instance, in English the word love is used in many different ways – romantic love, familial love, etc. – but in the Greek language, there are many different words to signify specific kinds of love. Though the word love in English is perhaps the best and closest translation for any type of love discussed in a verse, remember that the original language may use a specific word that holds a particular meaning that may not be completely represented in the English word love. This happens often when translating between two very different languages, so it is always a good idea to check the original language to understand the intended meaning as much as possible. It is also necessary to be aware that the English language has changed significantly over the years, so some translations may use words with current definitions that are different then the common definitions they had at the time of the translation.
5. Avoid over-spiritualizing or adding unintended symbolism
Be especially cautious with this one. It can be easy to get carried away with emotion or a seemingly good idea and get caught up in believing something about a verse that it never intended to suggest. This happens often today. Though there can be many ways to relate certain biblical concepts and teachings to life, one should avoid trying to make things fit or have a different meaning than they were meant to have.
This is particularly true with symbolism. The Bible is full of symbolism, but it is used very specifically and the text generally gives you the key to understanding its meaning. All Christians need to be careful not to add to the text by making everything a symbol for something else – many times what a Bible verse says is exactly what it means and nothing more and added symbolism can distract or, worse yet, lead to a completely incorrect and biblically-unsupported interpretation.
6. Try to determine what the author actually said and meant for the text to say, rather than what you think a passage might mean
God gave the authors of the Bible a very specific message to relay. Many people today take verses and change them to mean whatever they wish for them to say (this often has much to do with ignoring context), but if one truly respects God and His Word then he or she needs to be careful to not change the intended meaning of a verse or teaching. This is especially serious if one considers the fact that the Bible itself cautions against adding or taking away anything from God’s Word (Revelation 22:19).
7. Check your conclusion about a verse with the rest of the Bible’s message
This one is of utmost importance. Simply put – if a verse’s teaching seems contradictory to the rest of God’s Word or His character, something about that interpretation is incorrect. It’s going to require further digging to understand as much as possible about this teaching so that any confusion can be remedied. God’s Word is perfect and will never contradict itself. Though some biblical concepts may never been fully comprehended, such as the Trinity, all Christians can be certain that this does not lead to the conclusion that God’s Word must have mistakes or be contradictory just because it is beyond human understanding.
It’s also important to remember that every person has a finite mind and will never fully understand an infinite God, so do not get discouraged if you don’t understand it all or are struggling with a certain passage at this time. If one is diligent and continues to honestly seek God and learn with an open heart, God will provide the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding that each person needs at that time in his or her life.
Coming Soon – More in this Series: How to Study the Bible
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