How to read and understand the Bible

How to read and understand the Bible

Structured reading

Having recognised the importance of the Bible as God’s word, and a book of powerful words that can show the way to eternal life (salvation) we are faced with a challenge.  The Bible is a huge book of over seven hundred and eighty eight thousand words.  Where do you start with such a large book?  The Bible is not a book that is best read from cover to cover but rather in a more structured way, especially if new to it.  If required, the Old Paths Christadelphians can provide Bible reading plans to suit different levels of experience, from one that starts with just a few verses or a short chapter a day, to another which facilitates the reading of the whole Bible in a year (including the New Testament twice).  One thing is for sure, the more you read it the more you will understand!

A general rule

In the New Testament, in the book called the Acts of the Apostles, we read of a situation which the apostle Paul came across amongst the God-fearing inhabitants of a city named Berea.  It is a simple record of their commendable attitude towards their reading and understanding of the Bible.

“These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” Acts 17:11

Here we have an example of the sort of people that God describes as ‘noble’, or admirable.  They were to be commended because of the way they received and sought to understand the scriptures.  They did so with ‘readiness of mind’ – an open minded eagerness to understand.  And this was not something that they did now and then, it was something they did daily, checking to make sure that what the Apostles taught agreed with the scriptures teaching.

This is a great example to us.  We also should be prepared to open our minds and accept what the Bible says, removing any pre-conceived ideas which may affect our thinking.  We should carefully check what we hear and read, to make sure that it is consistent with what the Bible says.

A source of principles of truth

A superficial knowledge of God, coupled with living a good and honest life is not enough – we must accept the Bible as a manual containing teachings and doctrine which must be fully understood .

The apostle Paul very specifically pointed out that the gospel of Christ can only save those that believe in it.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Romans 1:16

If belief is crucial to salvation it makes sense that this refers to a specific set of beliefs, defined in the Bible as the gospel.  Look at what the apostle Paul said in the letter that he wrote to the Ephesians:

“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith [or belief], one baptism,  One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” Ephesians 4:4-6

He wrote in a similar way to the believers at Galatia:

“I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” Galatians  1:6-9

It is very important to believe the right things, and a very serious error to preach a distortion of the true gospel of God.

Applying the rule

An open mind is of great importance when we search the Bible for its true and consistent teaching.

DON’T, for example, believe that God and Jesus are one and the same person (part of a trinity) because it is the popular view, when the Bible says plainly,

“The Lord our God is one Lord” Mark 12:29

And Jesus said speaking of himself and God,

“The testimony of two men is true. I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me." John 8.17-18

DON’T believe in heaven going at death because everybody else appears to, when the Bible teaches,

“And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven.” John 3:13

And in Daniel we read,

“And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High.” Daniel 7.27

DON’T believe that infant christening is pleasing to God because most churches practice it, when the Bible teaches that,

“we are buried with him by baptism into death” Romans 6:4

And that John the Baptist specifically baptised in the river Jordan,

“because there was much water there” John 3:23

There are other examples we could give where popular religion has misinterpreted the Bible, but the three we have given above will have to suffice for now. The point is, it is essential that we read and understand the Bible’s doctrine with an open and receptive mind, to make sure that we understand exactly what the Bible is saying.

Consider things in context

It is true that whilst most of the Bible is straightforward and easy to understand, there are passages that are more obscure and take more time and consideration to comprehend.  It is important, however, that we don’t base our beliefs on the obscure.  An important principle of scriptural interpretation should be that plain testimony ought to guide us in the understanding of what may be obscure.  We ought to procure our fundamental principles from teaching that cannot be misunderstood, and harmonise all difficulties with it.  It is unwise to base a doctrine on a passage, which, from its vagueness, is susceptible of two interpretations, especially if that doctrine is in opposition to the unmistakable declarations of the Bible elsewhere.

Digging deeper

To assist us with determining the correct meaning of a difficult passage, it can often be helpful to take a closer look at the words and phrases that are used - whilst our Bibles today are in English, these are translated from the original text which was written primarily in Hebrew and Greek. With the aid of concordances (indexes of Bible words) and lexicons, we can look up the meaning of the original words, and find other occurrences of them in the scriptures, both of which regularly point us to an understanding of the passage that is not immediately apparent.

A source of discipline

There are hundreds of Bible verses we could quote which reveal different aspects of the way of life and service to God required of a true Christian.  Whilst believing in true doctrine is essential, it is not enough to simply believe and then rest content, expecting to obtain the reward offered.

We must act upon what we learn from the Bible relating to our way of life and conduct.  Jesus and the apostles were very clear about this.

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” Matthew 7:21
“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” James 1:22

The Bible is a handbook to life on many levels, most importantly as a source of teaching of the true gospel and a guide to living righteously in a wicked world with the prospect of reaping a rich reward from God in the future.