Learning How to Study the Bible is a Process
As you are learning to read the Bible, your notes, research, observations, and conclusions won’t always be perfect. That’s just part of being human, and it’s okay. Continue to read, continue to talk with other believers about what they are learning, and trust the Lord to help you correctly interpret His Word as you faithfully study. Instead of depending on yourself to be flawless, depend on our perfect God.
That being said, always keep in mind your own personal responsibility as a believer to “be a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15b). There are two sides to every coin. God will be faithful to illuminate His revealed Word to you, but you must study it for Him to be able to do so!
As you are learning to read the Bible, there are several common pitfalls that students easily fall into, and being aware of them will help you to guard against them as you seek to learn truth.
1. Taking Scripture Out Of Context.
Take note that the historical, cultural, literary, and surrounding contexts are extremely important to correct interpretation. It can still be really easy to twist the meaning of a verse or passage when you take it out of context. This problem is especially common with verses that are quoted and applied a lot within Christian culture.
Jeremiah 29:11 is frequently quoted in Christian circles. We engrave it on necklaces, hang it in our homes, and write it in graduation cards. It says this, “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you’, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” It’s a great verse. We use it often to give each other hope and comfort. But if we studied the context of that verse, we would find that it has a different meaning than we might think at first.
The historical context and the text surrounding this verse tell us that it is part of a letter that Jeremiah the prophet wrote to the Jewish exiles that had been taken as captives to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. God’s people had not obeyed or followed his law, but instead had scorned His warnings and continued in their sins. In accordance with the covenant He had made with Israel way back in the time of Moses (Deuteronomy 28-30), God cursed them for their disobedience. By rejecting Him, the Israelites had chosen punishment. God had prophesied this over and over again, giving them chance after chance to repent. But when they persisted in sin, he allowed King Nebuchadnezzar to take them into slavery. This letter is written to a group of those slaves, specifically those taken from Jerusalem. In it, God promises the richness and hope of the future, where He would deliver them from captivity and bring them back to the Promised Land.
Can you see any problems with applying this verse directly to us today? God has never promised us land or freedom from our current earthly situations. He has not promised us welfare or that we will become rich because we are His people. He has not promised to give us a bright future in this world. This world his hard, and God has not necessarily promised us relief from it. Though we do have the hope of future glory and eternity with Christ, we cannot count on this verse to claim that God has promised earthly abundance of material possessions.
There is an underlying principle of God’s care for his people, and yes, He will take care of our future, but to lean on this verse as a promise for wealth and ease in this world would be a misinterpretation and would eventually disappoint us in the trials of life.
As you are learning to read the Bible and apply it to your life, be careful to consider the context of whatever passage you are studying. Avoid taking God’s Word out of its proper context so that you will interpret it correctly.
2. Looking For Scripture To Fit Your Theology.
This pitfall is hard to detect at times, and is a temptation for all of us. We all have certain views about morality and theology, whether we know a lot or little about the Bible. You may have been raised in a Christian home, being taught Christian principles all your life, or you may have never had any Christian influence at all. Either way, you do have assumptions and beliefs about God, whether you are conscious of it or not.
When we read God’s Word, we don’t read it objectively. We come and look at it through the lens of our worldview, our assumptions, presuppositions, views, and values. We don’t actively choose to do this, it’s simply how we function as human beings.
Because of this reality, it’s extremely easy to breeze through Scripture and pick out verses or passages that seem to align with what we already believe or think.
It’s also very likely that you will fall into this pitfall if you staunchly adhere to doctrinal systems that have been organized by scholars of the Word. For example, if you consider yourself a proponent of Calvinism, Arminianism, Free Grace, Lordship Salvation, or other well-known doctrines, these theological arguments and systems have already educated you to think a certain way. When you come to certain passages in Scripture, it may be very easy for you to read these theological arguments into the text, because you already believe them to be right. Instead of depending on the writings and ideas of other people, be sure to search the Word out for yourself. The systems of theology that you believe may be true, or they may not. Let God’s Word determine what you think. Remember that God has gifted certain people to be incredible teachers, and we can learn a lot from these believers. But we cannot trust that they will be infallible in all of their conclusions. We should not come to the Word thinking, “What passages can I find to support what I believe?”, but instead, “Does God’s Word actually communicate what I have been believing?”
Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” We can trust God’s Word to transform our minds. As we are learning to read the Bible it will reveal our wrong thinking and renew our minds if we allow it to.
3. Assuming Everything You Read Was Written To You.
Everything in the Bible was written for you, but not everything in the Bible was written to you. Make sense? You were not the immediate audience for Scripture. Different parts of the Bible were written to different people: The Israelites, different kings, specific followers of God, certain groups of believers, Gentile nations, churches, and more. These original audiences were the first recipients of what God was writing. The Bible was written to them.
However, everything in the Bible is for us. It is for us to learn from and for us to know God through. It’s for us to come to understand mankind and ourselves and for us to examples of how to live and how not to. Even though we weren’t there when Moses was giving the Law to Israel in the wilderness, there is a ton we can learn from those passages. Although we weren’t members of the churches of Ephesus, Philippi, or Colassae, we can still glean a huge amount of wisdom from the epistles. God didn’t originally write the Gospels to us, but He did mean for us to be changed and taught by them.
The danger in assuming everything you read was written to you is that when we do that, we often take passages out of context or twist them to fit our situation. This truth may initially make the Bible seem less personal or accessible to you, but the opposite is true. God wants you to glean as much as you can from what He has communicated, and He has preserved His Word through the centuries so that you and others can know Him. By keeping the right perspective and realizing your place in history, you will be able to understand even more of this truth that He has so graciously invited you to partake in.
4. Ignoring Passages You Don’t Understand.
We all do it.
“Uh-oh, there’s that really confusing sentence that Paul wrote. Guess I’ll just skip over that.”
“I’ve read this verse a hundred times, and I’ve never known what it meant.”
“That book is impossible to figure out. Even I have to admit it seems contradictory.”
It’s so easy to just move past passages of Scripture that we don’t understand or that seem controversial, instead of stopping to study them. Some parts of the Bible are just flat out confusing to us! But let’s remember that God put every word into the Bible for a reason, even those sections that are initially really hard to understand.
If you are confused about what a section of God’s Word is saying, don’t get frustrated, bored, or uneasy. He gave us His Word, and He wants to help us grow to understand it more and more. Be willing to put the work into studying hard passages. It’s easy to read through really clear passages, but don’t miss out on hidden treasures! Sometimes the most confusing passages end up communicating the most encouraging and comforting messages.
5. Forming An Idea From A Passage And Neglecting The Rest of Scripture.
As you are learning to read the Bible and gaining knowledge, it’s important to keep in mind that Scripture adds to Scripture. All of it connects and was progressively revealed. God didn’t tell us about himself all at once, but slowly through the ages revealed Himself and His plan more and more. So even though what we know of God in Genesis is true, adding Exodus broadens our knowledge even more. Make sense? The Gospels give us a picture of Jesus, but the Epistles add to and deepen our understanding more still. God’s Word is a network of information that all ties together. Some books come at ideas from different aspects and angles than others, and we need all Scripture to balance us out and keep us from going to extremes.
Be careful to not take an idea from one verse and run with it. Every verse in Scripture is true, but we as humans tend to take things and twist them. We hear something we like, and we take it so far that it means something different to us than what God was actually trying to communicate. Be sure to compare all the ideas you are drawing out of God’s Word with the rest of His Word. If you come up with an idea that is not found anywhere else or seems to contradict the rest of Scripture, you are probably interpreting the passage you are studying incorrectly.
You are learning to read the Bible, so remember just that – you’re learning! It’s a process that is a lifelong journey. Your human efforts won’t be flawless. But we serve a perfect God who through His Word is seeking to correct and renew your thinking. Seek to educate yourself, avoid common errors in personal Bible study, and trust our faithful God.