How To Read The Bible

Language is one of those things we often take for granted. We use it every day, whether in written form, verbal or artistic expression, or what we call “body language,” or physical interaction. It embodies history, culture, background, peoples, traditions and lifestyle. In fact, it is considerably more complicated than we often realize. Let’s take English and look at a few examples of word combinations and their meanings.

  • Same three basic words with three different meanings based on their combinations:
    • “There you are!” (I’ve been looking for you and have just found you)
    • “You are there.” (You are in a specified location, place or position)
    • “Are you there?” (Questioning your presence, or your location)
  • Cultural, historical or technical impact:
    • “Elvis has left the building.” Before Elvis’ time, this would have been a simple statement that a person by the name of Elvis had literally left the specified building. Today it means “it’s all over” or “the show has come to an end.”
    • “Google it” or “Bing it” were meaningless before the Internet and search engines. And so was “ungoogleable.” That is a modern word. Look it up.
    • “Corinthianize” – Be immoral. Based on the old city of Corinth and its immorality.
  • Expressions or Idioms:
    • “A hot potato” can literally refer to a potato that is hot, or it can refer to a controversial or highly disputed issue or topic, or to a situation that nobody wants to handle.
    • “A piece of cake” can literally refer to a slice of cake, or it can refer to an activity that is simple or easy.
    • The man is “sitting on the fence” can mean that the man is literally sitting on a fence, or that the man cannot make up his mind about a given topic or decision.
The above word combinations are only a few examples of thousands that make up our English language today. How do we know what is meant by a given statement or expression? We rely heavily on context. For example, if someone hands you a plate with a potato on it and says “It’s a hot potato,” you would hear “The potato on the plate is hot. Be careful with it.” If, on the other hand, in the middle of a conversation, that same person said “It’s a hot potato,” you would hear “It’s a controversial topic or difficult issue that nobody wants to address.” The context clarifies the meaning and intent of the language. Without it, the meaning may be ambiguous. And that is using our current spoken mother tongue.
The languages of the Bible are many centuries removed from us. Just as our English language encapsulates culture, tradition, and history, ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek were similarly shaped. To isolate the language from its history can lead to drastic misinterpretations and misunderstandings. To complicate matters, we also have to consider multiple other factors, such as transcription (how the manuscripts were copied and preserved), and interpretation. That is one reason we have multiple versions today (KJV, NIV, NAV, etc.). Ancient manuscripts had a single continuous string of characters without any punctuation, sentence breaks, paragraphs, or titles. As an example, see the picture linked to this post that shows Papyrus 46, an ancient Greek Manuscript of 2 Cor. 11:33 – 12:9. As an illustration, let’s take this very simple English continuous string: “GODISNOWHERE.” You can read it as “God is nowhere” or as “God is now here.” How do we determine the author’s intent? Context is again a primary factor for interpretation.
Given the above (and more), it is understandable that we sometimes struggle to interpret and understand the Bible today. As a new believer in 1979, I struggled to understand the meaning of Scripture and did not know how to read and understand the Bible. I had decided to read the Bible from start to finish, but then quickly got overwhelmed when I got to Leviticus.
A few examples:
  • Lev. 19:19: “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” Most of my clothes were of mixed fabrics (20% Polyester, 80% Cotton and so forth). Was I going against God’s word by continuing to wear these clothes?
  • Lev. 19:28 speaks against tattoos. I had Christian friends with tattoos of crosses and “Jesus is Lord” on their arms. Were they sinning by having a “Jesus is Lord” tattoo?
  • Amos 4:6: “… I have given you cleanness of teeth…” Does this mean I do not need to worry about my yellowed teeth?
  • Hosea 10:8: What is meant by “high places?”
  • Hosea 10:9: What is a “trained heifer?”
  • Gen. 49:29: What does “gathered to his people” mean?
  • And, even in the New Testament, 1 Cor. 11:13 – “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head covered?” Does this mean that all women should cover their heads in church, or even when they pray? Why?
At the time, I did not know that “cleanness of teeth” was actually an idiom or saying that referred to starvation as opposed to a blessing. It was a judgment that people’s teeth would remain unstained by food because they would not have food to eat. Like many of my peers, I simply read the Bible at face-value and glossed over the difficult parts that I could not understand. I even thought that by asking questions, I was possibly showing a lack of faith, and that I simply needed to read the passage, believe it and act on it. But, this became an unsustainable model for studying the Bible.
I did not know if I was correctly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). I struggled with 1 Peter 3:15 – “… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…” How could I give a good answer if I did not have the answers to my own questions?! Then, that same verse hit me hard. “Always be prepared” meant that I had to do something to prepare myself. To what purpose? “To give an answer to everyone who asks.” That meant three things. First, it implied that asking was not only acceptable, but expected. Secondly, it implied that the question should be answered. Thirdly, it clearly stated that I needed to “be prepared” which implied digging, asking questions, searching, studying, discovering and truly being a student of God’s word.
In the early 1980’s there was no Internet, no Google or Bing, and I did not have easy access to resources. I did not even have a concordance until the mid-1980’s. But, I poured into the Bible, cross-referencing verses and passages, talked to other believers, and read what I could find. Over time, I realized that I could miss so much by simply reading the Bible at face-value, or by not using the brain God had given me. A system of study developed that I still use today, and it is centered around CONTEXT.
Before I explain the system, let me just say that Scripture is multi-dimensional. This means that God can take any part of His word and use it to get our attention. We do not need to be scholars or multi-lingual to be blessed by God’s word. God’s word is alive and active (Heb. 4:12) and will accomplish what God desires (Isa. 55:11). Do not be afraid of reading the Bible, or of asking questions. “… The Holy Spirit … will teach you all things…” (John 14:26). Here are a few simple suggestions to help you:
  • Before you start reading, say a simple prayer “Lord, please help me understand your word and apply it in my life every day. Open my eyes to see, my ears to hear and my heart to receive what You have to say to me today.”
  • Turn off your phone, your TV, and block distractions and spend time reading the Bible.
  • Get a notebook and use it as a journal of sorts. Use a new page for every day, date it, write down the Bible chapter and verses, and then jot down any thoughts or questions that come to mind while you are reading.
  • Pray
You do not need to be an expert scholar to follow the above steps. God will draw near to you as you draw near to Him (James 4:8; Heb. 10:22).
Having said that, please keep in mind that the Bible that you are reading, regardless of version, is based on a lot of hard work to interpret and translate from the original Biblical languages, taking into account factors like culture, linguistics, history, geography, archaeology, and much more. And that in itself is relying on the scholarly interpretation that went into the English edition that you now have. It is therefore important to ask questions, dig deeper, and search the meaning of verses. Why? This will deepen your own understanding of God’s word and who He is. It will help you appreciate the significance, background, history and fuller meaning of what you read. And, the more you understand, the better you will be able to apply it in your own life. Ultimately, that is the end goal. It is not about amassing head-knowledge, but about applying God’s revelations in our daily lives.
To that purpose, I will now share my system of study that can also help you with your understanding of Scripture and its application in your life. Whenever I read any Biblical passage, I always ask three primary questions and then use a methodical approach to unpack each question for that passage.
This question seeks to uncover the background, history, geography, people, culture, language, terms, sayings and purpose. I ask questions such as:
  • What is this writing?
  • Who wrote it?
  • Who was the audience?
  • Where was it written or sent to?
  • What was going on at the time?
  • What do we know about the location (geography, culture, economy, history, traditions, etc.)?
  • What did the words mean (example: “white teeth” refers to starvation)?
  • Why was it written?
  • What else can I learn about the time, people, history, background, etc.?
These are not exhaustive questions. I’m sure you’ll think of other “what?” questions. Ask them. Then research them. Look online or use reputable references to search for details. In the process, weigh what you read. Not everything published is accurate and true. Look for multiple sources and consolidate your answers to give you a good synopsis of the “WHAT?” as described above. If you are still unclear, seek help from others. Compare notes. Reach out and ask your leaders. Don’t give up on finding an answer. And don’t get discouraged.
This question takes what you learned above to the practical level at the time of writing. By combining the WHAT and the SO WHAT, you uncover the CONTEXT of the writing. I ask questions such as:
  • What was the outcome of this writing at that time?
  • What difference did it make to the people who read this back then?
  • How did the audience interpret and understand this passage with respect to their circumstances and environment (as learned from the WHAT above)?
  • How did it change their lives? What did they stop doing? Start doing? Continue doing?
  • What was the significance of the writing to their faith and its development?
Again, these are not exhaustive questions. The main point is to grasp the broader context of the writing. This is very important because it will guide you in correctly handling God’s word, both in studying and in teaching (2 Tim. 2:15).
Let’s use a silly English language example to illustrate this point. If someone tells you “I’m going to let the cat out of the bag,” do you yell at them for being cruel to the cat by keeping it in a bag?! Of course, not! You don’t, because you understand the CONTEXT of what was said. You understand that it’s not literal, but an expression that means “I’m going to tell you a secret.” In a similar way, when you grasp the full context of Scripture, it helps you in interpreting and understanding its meaning. To go back to the “white teeth” example, once you know that it refers to starvation, you will never use that passage as an excuse for not going to the dentist. Believe it or not, I’ve actually been told that by someone who had completely misunderstood the meaning of this expression!
As a rule, teach yourself to think contextually, and not in isolation. When you see a lone verse, look it up in its full context. It will significantly deepen your understanding and application of the Bible.
Once you have the context defined and understood, you can then apply it to your own life. I ask questions such as:
  • How does this passage apply to me today?
  • Based on the full context of this passage, how can I apply its principles and grow in my own life?
  • What do I need to change in my own life? Stop doing? Start doing? Continue doing?
  • What is God saying to me through this passage?
  • How do I overcome the challenges that this passage addresses directly and that the original audience struggled with in their own way and time?
  • What are the principles that I can apply in my life every day based on what I have learned in this passage?
  • How do I pray through this passage?
Don’t be afraid of digging, searching deeper, reaching out for help and asking God to help you. “… Seek and you will find…” (Mat. 7:7).
“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing His will, and may He work in us what is pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Heb. 13:20f).

Highly recommended reading:
“How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.