Insight #290 – How Can I Understand the Bible?

The Bible says, “You shall not steal” (Rom. 13:9). Who has trouble understanding that? The Bible contains everything: from the simplest to the most complicated. It contains beautiful accounts that a child can enjoy. It contains profound concepts that good students ponder over. As Hebrews 5:12-14 points out, it has “milk” for beginners and “solid food” for mature Christians.

Those Difficult Things

The apostle Peter agreed with us that Paul was sometimes hard to comprehend. “Our beloved brother Paul… wrote to you; as also in all of his letters… there are some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:15-16).

When the evangelist Phillip asked a traveler, “Do you understand what you are reading?” the latter replied, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” This Ethiopian was reading a prophecy. We need access to historical data in order to grasp the fulfillment of a prediction. In any subject matter, the person who knows more can help the person who knows less. So Philip, “beginning from this Scripture, preached to him Jesus.” (The full account is in Acts 8:26-39.)

We all often need help from one source or another to understand some things in the Bible, but this in no way means that we can’t understand much of the Bible through our own efforts.

Beginning Principles for Fruitful Bible Study

Start with the Easier Things
I have visited people who want to begin their Bible study with something like 666. Sure, it’s fascinating, but that’s like trying to learn trigonometry in the third grade. No matter what subject we study, common sense tells us that we must begin with the simple concepts and gradually progress to the more difficult. That’s as true of the Bible as of anything else.

In Peter’s mention of Paul’s writings, he went on to add, “which the ignorant and unsettled twist, as they also do to the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). There are people who twist the easy things as well as the hard things. The right approach is to set aside our prejudices – as best as we can – so that we can correctly understand the easy things. Then, with that knowledge we can move on to more difficult things.

Don’t Start in Genesis
When you read a novel, you start at the beginning. But the Bible is is not a novel. It is more like an anthology or compilation. The first thing to notice is that the Bible is divided into the Old Testament and the New Testament. Without even digging into important texts that discuss the basic differences between the Old and New, common sense tells us that the “New” is likely to be more relevant to us than the “Old.” Please don’t misunderstand me. Reading and studying the OT is important. It’s just not the place to begin. If you do, you will soon get bogged down and discouraged with details that mean nothing to you.

Start with the Gospels
Since the New applies to us today, start there. And where in the New? Well, the first four books tell the life of Jesus on earth. And who doesn’t know that the entire Bible – and history of the world – revolves around Him. So, there is no better place to start. Of the four Gospels, Mark is the shortest and easiest to understand. But any one of the four can be a good entry point into Bible study.

After that, the Acts of the Apostles is the logical place to continue, since it relates the events that followed Jesus’ ascension into heaven, giving the early history of the Lord’s church and relating what people did to become followers of Jesus.

After that, the letter of James is one of the easiest to understand and one of the most practical – though a definite challenge to put into daily practice.

Beyond Reading
Of course, just reading is not enough. A person must study it; examine what it says. In Acts 17:11 we are told that the people in Berea “were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of the mind, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” They were checking their Bibles to see if what the preacher was telling them was true. Did you notice the word “daily”?

Put into Practice What You Learn
These are just a few elemental concepts to initiate the process. In the Hebrews passage contrasting “milk” with “solid food,” the Holy Spirit adds, “But solid food is for those who are full grown, who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). “By reason of use.” We must get into the Word and let the Word get into us to change our lives. We need to study it, meditate on it, open up to it, and apply it to our lives Then gradually we’ll be able to make better decisions about what is right and wrong as we step by step understand more of the Word.

Understanding the Bible is not just an intellectual exercise like a college class in literature. As James so aptly challenges us: “Be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deluding your own selves” (James 1:22).

If you are reading this, you have opened the Internet today. Glad to have you with me. Have you opened your Bible today?