Can we really know how to read and understand the Bible? Is there a method we can count on to help us navigate through God’s Word? Is there a consistent way we can approach any passage, whether in the Old Testament or New, the stories or the poetry, and even prophecy?
Here at New Tribes Bible Institute we firmly believe that the Lord wants us all to know how to read and understand the Bible. But how do we get there?
A Method In the Madness
Some passages in the Bible are easy to directly apply to our lives, but others aren’t quite as clear. For example, you wouldn’t go around picking up snakes, expecting them to turn into a staff, just because God commanded Moses to do so (Exodus 4:3). You wouldn’t smack the nearest rock with a stick and expect water to come out of it, since that’s how God told Moses to get water for the Israelites (Exodus 17). You wouldn’t march around the house of your enemy and hope that it collapses after 7 days, just because that is how God ordered the Israelites to conquer Jericho (Joshua 5). Of course not!
You understand that these commands were given to specific people and not to you. We can learn from these stories, but they were not written to or about us personally.
Other passages are not so obvious.
The method we are about to discuss is a synopsis of a five step process laid out in a textbook called Grasping God’s Word, by J. Scott Duvall and Daniel J. Hays. The authors encourage us to think of interpreting the Bible as a journey, a journey to understand what God has said. We use a large portion of this textbook here at New Tribes Bible Institute, and have found it to be an invaluable resource to our students as they learn how to read and understand the Bible.
It can be easy to confuse what God’s Word is trying to communicate to us. These five practical steps are tools by which we can minimize this confusion. Each seeks to bring you, as a student of God’s Word, closer to a true interpretation of any given passage.
How To Read and Understand The Bible: Five Steps
Understand what the passage meant to its original readers.
The first step involves asking the question, What did this passage mean to its original audience? It’s not time to be thinking about our current culture, situation, or time in history at this point in the journey. We are thinking only of the people this particular portion of Scripture was initially written to. Who were they? What was their situation? What was the Lord trying to communicate to them, and why? This step is going to require you to put on your investigator’s hat – it will take close observation and most likely some digging into outside resources. Jot down all your notes to help you stay organized and get a clear picture of the original situation!
Grasp the differences between the original readers and us.
Next ask, What are the differences between the original audience and us? This will take some digging. As you research, ask questions like, What was different about their culture in comparison with ours? Are they under the Old Covenant of the Mosaic Law, or are they living in the Church age? Do they play a different role in God’s plan than I do (example: Were they apostles? Were they a prophet? Were they a king?). Keep a list of all the differences between yourself and the audience to get a good view of how big the separation is.
Find the consistent and applicable theology within the passage.
This step is crucial to a correct interpretation of Scripture, but it can also tend to be the most challenging. What you are looking for here is a principle in the passage that overrides time, culture, and people. It should be a truth that is applicable to the original audience and to us.
God was saying something specific to the original audience in each passage, but universal truths that apply to all are also woven into the passages of Scripture. The more thoroughly you understand what the passage meant to the original readers, and the more you grasp the differences between us and them, the easier it will be to accomplish this third step. When your foundation is concrete, you will more easily be able to pick out the consistent and applicable theology within each passage.
For example, in the first step we referenced Exodus 17. In this passage the Lord commanded Moses to strike a rock in order to get water for the Israelites. We aren’t the Israelites or Moses, and we aren’t literally wandering in the desert suffering from thirst. But we can draw these applicable truths out of the passage:
God provides for the needs of His people.
God is able to provide the needs of His people when it seems there is no way for provision.
God is true to His character, even when His people are wallowing in unbelief.
These are consistent and applicable theologies we can take away from this passage. They will apply to any of God’s people in any time, culture, or situation.
Compare the theology you’ve drawn out of your passage to the rest of Scripture.
Ask yourself, does this principle line up with what the rest of God’s Word? Is it theologically sound from what I know of the rest of the Bible? This system of checks and balances will help prevent you from building a faulty theology. If you get confused on one passage, there are others to help clear up what God is actually trying to communicate. Using a Bible with cross-references may help link you to passages with similar ideas in them so that you can compare your findings. Be sure to run ideas you are unsure about past other believers who also faithfully study the Word!
Understand what the passage says to us today.
In this final step it is time to take the overarching principle or theology in the passage and apply it to ourselves. You have made sure that the principle or principles you have interpreted from your passage are timeless, consistent, and applicable to any culture or people group. Now you can safely bring it into your own personal life. In the example above, we found the truth that God provides for His people, is able to provide when it seems there is no way, and is true to His character when His people are unbelieving. This is a consistent reality no matter what. You may be struggling with doubts, uncertainties, a seemingly insurmountable situation, or a host of other scenarios. In any number of circumstances this truth can be applied to whatever you are wrestling through.
A Worthy Investment
God wants us to know how to read and understand the Bible. Following these five steps is a process you can rely on to take you through any passage of God’s Word. Though they may take time and effort, they are well worth the investment as you grow in your knowledge of God and what He has communicated.
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Anna Wishart is a graduate of Ethnos360 Bible Institute and continues to seek ways to be involved with missions through writing. She currently lives in Winchester, Virginia, and enjoys biking, art, friends, the mountain views, and attending Fellowship Bible Church.