Yes, you can understand the Bible

A recent article in The Christian Post highlighted a poll done by LifeWay Research on the ability of Christians to understand the Bible. Two of the findings were that over 80% of believers felt they could help someone else who was confused over a Bible passage, but nearly 60% of the same group admitted they find it challenging to make sense of the Bible when they read it on their own.

Courtesy of Robin Schumacher
Courtesy of Robin Schumacher

Setting aside the fact that those two stats seem to be at odds with each other, it’s definitely a bad sign when more than half of Christians struggle to comprehend God’s Word. However, the good news is, you can absolutely understand the Bible. Let me provide five quick steps that will put you on the right path.  

1. Be born again

I spent the first nineteen years of my life in church, and for those years, I was an unbeliever who had zero passion for the Bible because I didn’t understand its importance or what it was saying to me. But during the summer of my junior year in college, God saved me and everything regarding my desire for Scripture and ability to grasp its truths changed.

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The first step to understanding the Bible is you must be born again (John 3:3). God’s Word tells us that Scripture “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

If you have no draw to Scripture whatsoever and find it a puzzle when you do read it, the first thing to do is, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (2 Cor. 13:5) because unless you have been saved, the Bible will always remain a mystery to you. As A. W. Tozer says, “The Bible is not addressed to just anybody. Its message is directed to a chosen few. Some believe and some do not; some are morally receptive and some are not; some have spiritual capacity and some have not. It is to those who do and are and have that the Bible is addressed. Those who do not and are not and have not will read it in vain. As the pillar of fire gave light to Israel but was cloud and darkness to the Egyptians, so our Lord’s words shine in the hearts of His people but leave the self-confident unbeliever in the obscurity of moral night.”[1]

2. Choose a good Bible translation

With all due respect to the King James Bible lovers out there, when most people start reading all the “begets” and “begats” in it, they’re “begone”. Selecting a good, readable Bible translation[2] to use is important as is understanding the three general translation approaches used to produce the Bible you’ll use on a daily basis.

A paraphrase approach, such as The Message, is just that – an interpretative end result based on the author’s summarized/restatement of the text. While interesting to reference, I don’t recommend paraphrase translations as the primary vehicle for personal Bible study.

The other two translation methods are dynamic equivalence and literal formal. Dynamic equivalence is a “thought for thought” method, with examples being the NIV and New Living Translation Bibles. Literal Formal is a “sentence by sentence/word by word” approach, with popular options being the NASB and the ESV.

I was influenced early on by Bible teachers I respected who used literal formal translations and have been using both the NASB and ESV for decades.

3. Use the right techniques

The one seminary class in which I most wanted to excel was hermeneutics, which is the study on how a text is to be understood. In short, it is the science of biblical interpretation.

The hermeneutical process is easy to understand and consists of three steps, the first of which is observation – what’s in the text? Observation concerns itself with everything from the terms being used, the structure and genre of the book itself, and the historical background.

Observation feeds into the next step, which is interpretation. Contrary to what some believe, there is only one right interpretation of a particular verse of Scripture. Yep, just one. As John Calvin said, “I acknowledge Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man, at his pleasure, may assign.”

While there is only one meaning of a biblical text, there can be many applications of it. Application is the third hermeneutical step and deals with the significance of the text vs. the meaning. Application functions in a way where Scripture first convicts us, then convinces us, and finally converts us to apply and obey what God has said.

A short book that helps you practically use these three hermeneutical steps is Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All its Worth.  

4. Use the right tools

There’s never been a better time to study the Bible. Traditional help aids like biblical cross references, concordances, interlinear Bibles, lexicons and other tools are almost all now freely available online. There’s also Bible study software that can be purchased (some of which, like Logos, can get pretty expensive).

A simple tool that anyone can make use of is a good study Bible. The major ones have done a lot of work for you and have commentary that provide word studies, verse references, historical context descriptions and more allowing you to interpret the Bible with the Bible.

The study Bibles I use on a regular basis include the MacArthur and ESV study Bibles, which are also available as apps for your phone and tablet.

5. Choose the right teachers

Every day at the gym, I listen to podcasts from my favorite Bible teachers and theologians. Selecting solid expositors of God’s Word is a critical part of your ongoing Bible education and you’ll want to choose ones that take an exegetical approach to their work.

A Bible exegete works through the Bible in a verse-by-verse/book-by-book fashion, which is great because if what God’s Word says is true and “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), then you don’t want to miss out on a single verse.

There’s nothing like the Word

Tozer wrote, “I think a new world will arise out of the religious mists when we approach our Bible with the idea that it is not only a book which was once spoken, but a book which is now speaking.”

The five steps we’ve covered will help get you on the right track where understanding and hearing what Scripture says is concerned. You do your part, and I guarantee God will do what He promised where His Word is concerned:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Is. 55:10-11).

[1] A. W. Tozer, “Why People Find the Bible Difficult” in The Best of A. W. Tozer, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe (Camp Hill, PA: Baker, 1980), pp. 164-166.

[2] By Bible translation, I mean a work that takes the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek manuscripts and translates them into the language of the reader. 

Robin Schumacher is a former software executive and Christian apologist who has written many apologetic articles, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at various apologetic events. He holds a Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament.

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