How to Read and Understand the Bible
Conrad Mbewe | Zambia
As God’s Word to his people, the Bible exists to be read and understood. This is not to say such reading and understanding are easy. Indeed, some people have spent a lifetime studying the Bible and so are uniquely qualified to teach it to others. Yet anyone can, in God’s mercy, cultivate a deep and ever-deepening knowledge of the Bible, as long as they pursue such knowledge wisely.
This article identifies six keys to reading and understanding the Bible. Our Bible reading must be Spiritual, contextual, Christ-centered, reverent, communal, and repeated. Let us consider each of these in turn.
The Bible is a book written in many ways like any other, and can therefore be understood by anyone who is able to read. Yet the Bible is also unique, different from every other book, because it is inspired by God. The Bible is “breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Its writers “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). To understand what is written, therefore, we must have our eyes opened by that same Holy Spirit.
The Bible says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). A person can be intellectually qualified and educationally equipped to read and understand the Bible, but if his heart is not spiritually alive then he will fail to truly benefit from reading the Bible. Left to ourselves, the Bible’s contradiction of sinful living only evokes enmity from us. This is because “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God” (Rom. 8:7). It is prejudiced against his Word and thus incompetent to read it in the way it was intended to be read. In order to read and understand the Bible, then, we must be regenerated (born again) by the Spirit of God. The Bible can certainly be read and understood at some level by those who have not been born again—indeed, the reading of the Bible may be the very means God uses to bring sinners to new life in Christ. Yet experiencing salvation produces in us both the ability to see spiritual truths in the Bible that we did not see before, as well as a new desire to submit to and follow its teaching.
Along with being spiritually alive, we must also be dependent upon God himself as we turn to the Bible to read and study it. It is vital that we pray for light from heaven to understand its teachings, and also for God’s grace to apply what we learn (Ps. 119:18).
In order to read and understand the Bible we also need to have a growing knowledge of the Bible text and the times in which it was written. Remember that it is a book, and so there are aspects of understanding it that belong to the general principles of understanding any piece of literature. This includes reading any text in both its literary context and its historical context.
First, consider the Bible as a piece of literature. It is important, when we come to read any section of the Bible, to be aware of the different kinds of writing that are found in it. The Bible consists of narrative, poetry, prophecy, and so on. Just as we would read a historical novel today in a different way than we would poetry, so it is with the Bible. We must read with a sensitivity to what kind of writing it is. Sensitivity to literary context also includes reading every text in the flow of the book as a whole, remembering the broad purposes for which that biblical author wrote.
Second, we must be aware of historical context. The fact that various sections of the Bible were written during certain periods in history in and around the land of Palestine means that a growing knowledge of events in those periods in history, and of the land of Palestine, will enrich our understanding of the Bible. Much of what the Old Testament prophets wrote lands lightly on us if we are unaware of the might of Assyria, or Israel’s longstanding friction with Edom. The parable of the good Samaritan means little if we do not understand who Samaritans were and why Jews despised them. Due to the historical distance between us and the authors of the Bible, readers of the Bible today will do well to sit under sound preaching and to consult various scholarly resources that help them in their personal study, such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries.
Next, we must never forget the Bible’s “big story.” Specifically, it is crucial to understand that the whole Bible is about Jesus Christ—who he is and what he came to do. The Old Testament anticipates Jesus and the New Testament reveals Jesus. Every book somehow contributes to the Bible’s message of a holy God’s saving mercy in Jesus Christ.
While not every Old Testament passage explicitly anticipates Christ, every text does move the story forward, a story that climaxes in Jesus. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, devoted students of Scripture, for their failure to see him throughout the Old Testament: “You search the Scriptures,” Jesus said, “because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Later, when Jesus was on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection, he began with Moses and all the Prophets and interpreted to two bewildered and depressed disciples everything that was said about him in the Old Testament (Luke 24:27). He reminded all the disciples later that night that “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (that is, the whole Old Testament) would be fulfilled (Luke 24:44).
As you read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, you will notice that there is a coherent story line that holds it all together: the themes of this story line are creation, the fall, redemption, and restoration. These are not equal themes in the way the Bible treats them. Most of the Bible is given to unfolding the third of these, the great drama of redemption through Jesus Christ. But this redemption is set against the backdrop of creation and the fall, and this redemption will find its final completion in restoration and final judgment, when the original creation is restored to what it was originally intended to be. The Old Testament develops this story line, preparing for Jesus, and the New Testament fulfills this story line, portraying Jesus. The person and work of Christ, therefore, is what unites the entire Bible. As we read both Old and New Testaments through the lens of redemption in Christ, we will understand the whole Bible the way God wants us to understand it.
We must also read the Bible reverently if we are to understand it properly. The Bible is God’s Word to humankind, revealing heaven’s great plan of salvation. Scripture therefore comes to us from above, calling for reverence. While human authors were graciously used in the writing of God’s revelation, the Bible is not ultimately a book written by humans. It is a book from heaven. We are to follow in the footsteps of the Thessalonians, who, Paul says, “received the word of God, . . . not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13).
As we read, then, we are to sit under the Word of God, not stand over it. We must “receive with meekness the implanted word” (James 1:21; compare John 12:48). When the commands of God contradict our own desires, we must submit to what God has revealed to us. This requires a deliberate humility to receive the Bible in its entirety, whatever it says. Such is the reverence called for by the sacred nature of Scripture.
The Bible is not meant to be read in isolation. To be sure, God has given each of his people an ability to read and understand the Bible individually. Indeed, the Christian who does not set aside time to regularly study Scripture alone will be greatly impoverished. Yet spiritual nourishment through Scripture is received not only in individual study but also through corporate study.
The main way in which the Bible is received corporately is through the preaching of Scripture by those called and equipped to serve God’s people in this way (Eph. 4:11; 2 Tim. 4:1–2). The Bible is also to be read and understood in other contexts, however, in which believers can discuss the text with one another in a mutually illuminating and sharpening way (Acts 13:15; 17:11; Heb. 4:11–12; 10:24–25).
Finally, it should be emphasized that in order truly to understand the Bible with increasing depth over a lifetime, we must read the Scriptures repeatedly. The Bible is not a book to be read once and then placed on the shelf. As God’s life-giving Word, it must be read and meditated on with great care over and over again (Ps. 119:15, 48). As we grow in our knowledge of the full landscape of Scripture, every verse within that landscape becomes clearer and more meaningful.
Unlike other books, which we read and “finish,” believers never truly “finish” reading the Bible. Just as we must eat physical food each day if we are to be physically healthy, so we must eat spiritual food each day if we are to be spiritually healthy. As the psalmist prayed, “My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise” (Ps. 119:148). Portions of the Bible should be committed to memory, so that even when we are without our Bibles we can draw forth God’s Word and commune with him through it.
As we read the Bible under the illumination of the Spirit, with sensitivity to its literary and historical contexts, seeing Jesus as the point of the whole Bible, in sacred reverence, in a community of faith, and with meditative repetition, we will grow as faithful readers of God’s Holy Word.