God wants us to understand His Word. So why do we sometimes struggle with the meaning of a particular Bible passage? And why do sincere believers sometimes reach different interpretations of the same passage?
Key point: The problem is always on our end, never with the Bible. Every Bible passage has just one meaning – the meaning God originally inspired. It is our job as students of the Bible to find His meaning through proper study techniques. (See “4 R Bible Study Method” for a simple, but solid method for studying Scripture.)
A few reasons for misunderstanding or disagreement
The following are a few of the more common reasons we struggle to understand difficult Bible passages or understand the same passage differently than others.
Sometimes we handle the Scripture incorrectly. For instance, we may take a passage out of its literary context. (See “Do You Misuse Philippians 4:13?” for an example.) Or we may fail to consider the historical-cultural setting or the literary genre. Thankfully, these common mistakes can easily be avoided with the proper study techniques.
Sometimes we open our Bibles with a set of assumptions. Maybe we’ve heard a passage explained a certain way before and that prejudices our understanding even before we study it for ourselves. Or we may hold to a certain belief – right or wrong – that acts as a filter as we study. For instance, if we hold to a specific end times doctrine, those views will color everything we read about the last days.
Sometimes a passage is vague for us. The original audience understood it clearly, but they may have had previous letters or in-person conversations that we lack today. That definitely makes them more difficult Bible passages to understand. Other things, like the distance created by time and culture, can add to the confusion. Finally, some passages are so obscure that even the most educated and sincere scholars don’t agree on the meaning. The good thing is, there are only a few of these kinds of passages and none deal with foundational truths like how we are saved.
Helpful Strategies for Difficult Bible Passages
There are some things we can do to ensure we come to the best possible understanding of most Bible passage. However, no matter how thorough our study we may still struggle to understand. And we may still disagree with another sincere Bible student.
We must keep a passage in its literary context – the surrounding passage, the whole book, and even the whole Bible. Taking a verse out-of-context may be the most common mistake we make when we misunderstand a passage. When you pull back, look for the situation, running arguments, and themes. And consider the Big Story (Meta-narrative) of the Bible. No one part will contradict the whole.
Before we can understand what a passage means, we must see what it says. Observation is the first step of proper Bible study. Bible students act like investigative journalists, noticing things in the text like key words, facts, truths about God, commands, and more. (For more on this see “10 Observations Tips for Better Bible Study.”)
3. Other Scripture
God’s Word is a beautiful, unified whole. When we struggle to understand one part, we can find clarity by reading other passages that deal with the same topic or truths. A good concordance is a useful tool. Here’s a great one.
We can also read what trustworthy biblical scholars have written on this topic. But do your own study first and give God a chance to give you understanding through His Spirit.
Want to Learn More on this Topic?
I will be leading a workshop on this topic at the upcoming online conference “Enjoy God’s Word 2022 – Romans 8 Deep Dive.” Not only will I expand on the above points during this 30-minute workshop, I will also be using Romans 7:14-25 as my example. This well-known passage may not mean what you think it does! Early bird tickets for this conference go on sale Wednesday, March 16th, so watch for more information or check it out now!
What Bible passages do you struggle to understand? Which ones do you think are most often misunderstood?