How do I understand the Bible? It’s a book that was written many years ago by people of a completely different culture. On top of that, the world has changed drastically. Just think of communication. During biblical times letters were carried by some type of animal or ship. The process was tedious and time-consuming. Today we can call, text, or have a face-to-face discussion via services such as Skype.
With all of these challenges, the question seems to change from, ‘How did I understand the Bible?’ to ‘Can I understand the Bible?’. And rightly so! Rest assured, you can understand the Bible. God has revealed his love for us through his Scriptures. I want to share with you three steps to help you understand the Bible more.
You can understand the Bible…
From the beginning it is important that you understand this is a journey. After reading this, you will still have more to learn. I have been reading the Bible since I was fourteen, and even after all this time I am still learning. It is one of the amazing truths about God’s Word. It is an inexhaustible mine of spiritual gems, all waiting to be gathered and taken into our hearts.
These steps are in no order of importance, although I do believe them to be foundational to our overall understanding of the Bible. So grab your Bible, and let’s dive in!
Step One: Understand the world in which it was written.
I cannot stress this one enough. There is an abundance of bad commentaries, sermons, devotionals, and Christian-mindsets as a result of simply not understanding the world in which the Bible was written.
Let me give you one example. The world of the Bible was predominately a patriarchal society. (You can check out the Christians for Biblical Equality for a fair treatment on the topic of the patriarchal world.) When reading through the Old Testament, particularly, one can be amazed at the treatment of women. Granted, the laws and rules laid out in the Torah were extraordinarily better than surrounding nations. (Rob Bell book reference) Still, it is helpful to understand that women were seen as less than man, to put it nicely. So when reading through a passage about the selling of a daughter, one is able to understand that the world in which those books were written had a much lower view of women than many cultures do today.
Or how about another one. The Bible constantly uses the shepherd as a picture of God’s dealings with humanity (for a few references, check out: Isaiah 40:11; Psalm 78:52; John 10:11; Hebrews 13:20; and 1 Peter 2:25). But why? I mean, I have never met a shepherd.
Now, understanding the world of the Old and New Testaments, we see how important shepherds were. They helped raise animals that would have provided milk, materials for clothing, and food. Of course, there were also the sacrifices! So they were vitally important to the biblical writers. It was an easy way for God to point to something they knew well to picture his desire to be with and take care of them.
Without at least a basic knowledge of this, the imagery may be lost. There are other variants to consider, but this is more of an overview.
Step Two: Get an idea of what the meaning looks like today.
Once you have an idea of what is going on, then begin to visualize how that looks today. This step is a little more difficult, because while some resources are out there for this (devotional commentaries seem to be the best for this step), there are often few that convey the meaning in today’s terms. For example, Ephesians 5:22-28 address the husband and wife relationship within a first century, Roman household. (For a more thorough treatment of this passage, see Rachel Held Evan‘s help overview of various literature.) With that understanding, it is helpful to realize the relationship of headship of the husband over the wife was customary. Paul’s key point, however, is mutual submission, which he uses to begin the entire passage. Taking this understanding, then, we can begin to see that for today, in which an equality exists between husbands and wives, the idea of mutual submission is the focus.
Step Three: Make a personal application to your own life.
This is where reading Scripture begins to be awesome. Because this is where Scripture meets your life.
When Scripture teaches either a direct point (see Hebrews 3:1 in which we are commanded to consider Jesus), indirect point (such as are found in narratives, see 1 Samuel 15:22-23), or simply a story in which no apparent point is made (see the graphic events in Judges chapter 19), the whole purpose of it is to apply to your life (see 2 Peter 1:3).
The whole purpose of Scripture is to apply to your life.
Once we get to this point, it is time to get personal. What do I mean? I mean that when you come across Scripture, it is time to figure out how it can apply to your life. Perhaps an example would prove helpful. Psalm 1:1 says, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers.” (NAB) This will look different for each one of us. For me, however, it might look like this: in order to be happy (which includes a spiritual sense) I must avoid the company of bad people. Oh, in case you were wondering, this isn’t speaking about just being around people. Paul covers that in 1 Corinthians 5:11. The picture is the gate of a city, where government and social outings occurred. This is an intimate gathering, not simply an association. My application would be: I must consciously avoid building intimate relationships with people who are actively opposing God. I may take it a step further and say that I need to avoid a certain coffee shop where I am tempted to be around such individuals. But I think that gives you the gist of it.
Wrapping it Up
These steps will take time and effort. It is worth it! Push past the steps that may not suit your particularly personality and gifts. Personally, I love the first step and struggle with the second and third steps. What do you struggle with? How can I help you?