How to understand the Bible

I have been reading the Holy Bible ever since I could learn to read. I still read it now as an adult. I study it, and preach the Gospel from it. I also give Bible study classes from it. Yet, I often hear persons say that the Bible is so hard to understand. I also hear people claiming to quote from the Bible to prove how it contradicts itself or how what it says proves Christians wrong. There are many claims being made from various people about the scriptures that are partially or even completing inaccurate. So, how do you start to understand the Bible? I think that understanding the scriptures first start with your heart being in the right place, and your mind being open to understanding what the Holy Bible actually is, and what it is designed to accomplish.

What is the Bible

The Bible is not a book. It is a collection of books, letters, poems, songs, diaries, laws, and various records, which have been written over a period of about 1500 years by more than 40 different authors and editors (35 of whom can be named and identified). We typically refer to the writings in this collection as “books of the Bible”. The word “Bible” itself comes from the Greek word biblos and the Latin word biblia, and simply means “book”. So, technically, a book that is not a book is being called a book (synonym for bible) although it is actually a collection of books. I personally prefer to refer to the Bible as “the scriptures”, since I feel most comfortable using that term as I have read it being used of the writers of the New Testament books to refer to the Old Testament books.

The most important thing to realize about the scriptures is that although it is a collection of writings by various authors over a period of 1500 years, the content is all connected and it not disjointed. It is truly a revealed mystery of how God has sort to reconcile us humans to him from our own fall through his completed work in Jesus Christ. Of course, this is my own summation or conclusion of how I understand the entirety of the scriptures, but I do believe it to be true. I also believe that many other God seeking believers will testify with me in this regard. As a result, ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit of God that has inspired all the authors of the various books of the Bible to record what is written.

Most holy books are written by one author or a few authors over a short period of time, often with some sort of collaboration. However, the Bible being written by many authors, with no relation or communication with each other over a long period of time, and still having the contents be connected shows how mysteriously ingenious God can be. This fact is often missed by many people seeking to prove Bible to be a myth or a set of fables, and it is especially missed by persons who seek to misquote or misrepresent the Bible in order to discredit it. Nonetheless, simply put, the scriptures can be better understood when we understand the scope of its contents.

Making sense of its contents

One of the biggest issues with understanding the Bible is understanding that there are numerous context throughout that entire volume of texts that need to be understood and applied to really grasp the truth that the Spirit of God seeks to reveal to us. This does not mean that you need to be a Bible scholar to properly do this. The context of most passages of scripture can be grasped by reading passages as a whole, and not just isolating individual verses. As most people know, the Bible is indexed in to books, chapters and verses. This has made it easier to reference important text, finding a particular passage, and being able to quote verses for effect. Originally, the Bible did not have any chapters or verses for hundreds of years. The current chapter arrangement of the Bible was the work of Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, in AD 1227. The indexing of verses was later done by Robert Estienne (also known as, Robertus Stephanus in Latin) in AD 1555 when he published the Latin Vulgate with verses. So, although the introduction of chapters and verses was revolutionary for making the scriptures easier to follow and communicate, it also brought with it the unintended result of persons taking verses out of context to say something that it never was intended to day.

So, what exactly is context? Well, I understand context to refer to understanding the circumstances and facts, preceding, following or surrounding a statement (or verse) that gives the full meaning and application of the point (or verse). Applying this to a scripture verse, it could mean understanding the cultural factors in which the verse’s content was made. It could also mean understanding the situational factors that lead to the verse’s content. It could also involve understanding the historical circumstances and factors that influence what was said and why it was said. You can actually discern a lot by also looking at the geographical, social and political factors. 

Some times when you study the scriptures, you also have to remember the timeline in which the scriptures were written. Some people are under the mistaken impression that everything stated in the Bible is automatically applicable to us today in every circumstance. This is simple not true, as it usually comes from persons taking a verse out of its context, not paying attention to whom it was was said, when it was said, and for what purpose it was said. What makes it more challenging is that the order of the books of the Bible are not even chronological. So, you also have to keep that in mind.

Despite all of these considerations, I believe, and have proven in my own life, that reading the scriptures in search of God, his will and his wisdom is an invaluable experience that can benefit everyone, from children to grown adults. I have found that God’s Spirit has a way to reveal his truth to anyone who seeks it with a pure heart. This may sound like a mysterious statement, but I believe this to be absolutely true, and many persons have given the witness that they have read a passage multiple times at various instances and have understood something new each time. This results from a gradual growth of understanding and openness with God in our spiritual walk. 

Translations and meanings of words

The more you get involved in something the more you are exposed to the controversies that have surrounded it. This is true even of the Bible. Most of my young life, I have read the King James Version (KJV) of the Holy Bible. As I got older, I was made aware of more translations of the Bible, but along with that I heard many controversies from people I knew and scholars I didn’t know that debated the legitimacy of one translation over the other. As someone who has learned to seek the truth and hear the sides involved before coming to any conclusion, I did my own exploration, and it has helped me to understand the scriptures better each day.

Although some people would argue that the KJV is the only inspired version of the scriptures, the truth is that the original scriptures were written in three languages: Ancient Hebrew, Koine Greek, and some Aramaic. Essentially, the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, and in both OT and NT, there is some words in Aramaic. If you understand this you will realize that there is no definitive perfect English translation of the Bible, and there probably never will be. I say this because the English language has changed since the 15th century when the first English Bible was translated. Even today, the meanings and usages of words have changed since the last couple hundred years. As such, those of us who study the Bible must use other tools, such as lexicons and dictionaries to get all we can from the scriptures.

The interesting thing is that for about 1000 years, AD 400-150, the only translation of the Bible that was available was the Latin version, the Latin Vulgate. There was fierce opposition to translation of the Bible into other languages, including (Old) English. As a matter of fact, the first translation of the New Testament to English by William Tyndale in 1525 led to his betrayal and death by the Roman Catholic Church, where he was changed with heresy, strangled and burned at the stake in 1536. Tyndale lived and died for his belief that the scriptures are to be free and available for everyone to read. A Roman Catholic clergyman once told Tyndale, “We are better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s“, to which Tyndale replied,

I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!

 

It is in the spirit of this sentiment that Tyndale expressed that it is important for us to understand the scriptures. Tyndale died for normal everyday people to be able to read the scriptures to know God and our savior Jesus Christ. This is why I will never say that one translation is paramount over others. Rather if we truly want to grasp the scriptures, there are so many translations that are freely available, we can always read and compare and let the Spirit of God guide us accordingly. 

I strongly believe that in addition to referencing multiple translations, we should not be afraid of looking at the original Hebrew and Greek and their corresponding lexicons and dictionaries. When we do this we make the scriptures come alive, because translators can often use words that may not make a passage very clear to others. However, when we check the original Greek or Hebrew word and check its corresponding lexicon and dictionary, often times the meaning and intention becomes more apparent. Also, in the scriptures, it is not only the words that are important, but also idiomatic expressions. There are nearly 1000 idioms, metaphors, and figures of speech in the Bible that when properly recognized and understood will help us in our understanding of the scriptures.

Spirit not letter

Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God;

Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. – 2  Corinthians 3:5-6 (KJV)

With the entire Bible being translated in over 670 languages, and the New Testament alone being translated into over 1500 languages, there is so much opportunity today for us to be fed by God’s word by reading the scriptures. There will always be that dissenting voice that declares that an ordinary person cannot understand the Bible so don’t read it, just leave it to the expert clergy to interpret and tell you about what it really says and what God expects of you. However, men with a conscience towards God like Tyndale, who died for us to even have an English translation, would declare that all of use should be reading the scriptures. The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:5-6 teaches us that the letter kills but the Spirits gives life. In that passage, He, as the apostle who built the church at Corinth, was asked to provide a letter of commendation to prove himself, and he response was that the church members themselves were his letter of commendation. Understanding the scriptures if not by men’s approval, but by the leading of the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God that verifies and certifies. 

We must apply this principle to understanding the Bible. Learning about God, and understanding his word is not about going to Seminary or learning Theology, but it is about reading and meditating on the scriptures and making the Spirit of God guide us to all truth. 

Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. – John 16:13

Conclusion

I believe that anyone can understand the scriptures, from the youngest child to the oldest adult, from the barely literate to the most extinguished scholar. The desire of the first translator of the English bible was that even the youngest boy would have the chance to know the scriptures more than the greatest church official or clergy. I believe that God meets us where we are. As we continue to seek him and study his word, he reveals more of himself to us through the scriptures. 

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. – Hebrews 4:12

If you seek the Lord with a pure desire, the Bible will be an endless source to strength and life for you. If you seek it with impure motives, you will never find the peace you desire, but I still believe that you will get glimpses of God’s truth for your life. 

But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him. – Hebrews 11:6

With all the tools and translations available, it is an easy thing to start to read and study the Bible. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be discouraged. No one becomes an adult in one day from birth. Reading and studying the scriptures is a continuous process of drawing closer to God each day.

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