The Bible has endless application for our lives, but only one meaning. Every part of Scripture means the same thing today as it did when it was written. In our desire to understand the Bible, our goal should be to discover that one original meaning. To grasp the eternal truth God gave us through the pen of man.
So, why do we struggle so often to understand the Bible? And why do so many sincere Christians understand parts differently? While there are many reasons for our individual struggles and the doctrinal differences between groups and denominations, there is one problem that affects many of us: We often read the Bible incorrectly.
4 Guidelines to Understand the Bible Correctly
We don’t have the time or space to do a deep dive into everything that hinders our proper understanding. However, we will touch on four key guidelines to aid us in our pursuit to understand the Bible correctly.
- Literary Genre – The Bible is literature. The specific style of a Bible book impacts how we should understand it. The Bible includes roughly six to eight different literary genres, depending on how its broken down. We don’t have time to fully explore each type of biblical genre and discuss tips for understanding it. However, see “How Biblical Genre Impacts our Understanding” for a list, brief description, and practical tips. (Other articles you may also find helpful: “The Many Genres of Scripture”and “How Should the Different Genres Impact How We Should Interpret the Bible.”)
- Context – Every book was written at a specific point in history to a particular audience with a specific purpose. This context greatly impacts how we should understand the text. (For more info on context, see “4 Things to Consider for Biblical Context.”)
- Historical/Cultural Context – Every book of the Bible was written at a point in history to a specific people with a particular set of circumstances. In order to properly understand a passage we need to have a grasp on its context. Who was the author, recipients, date, and location for the book? What was the author’s purpose? Knowing the world events, world powers, the economy, and world religions all aid proper understanding. The culture in which they lived also affects how we should understand the text. Tips: Consult resources like Bible dictionaries and commentaries to help.
- Literary Context – Keep each verse and passage within the context of the surrounding text. It is so easy to misunderstand when we pull one verse or short passage out by itself. Philippians 4:13is a very common victim of this. Tips: When possible, read the book in an entire sitting. Look at every verse and passage with a “wide angle” lenses.
- Meta–Narrative – All the individual books and stories of the Bible join together to tell us one big story: The rule, reign, and redemptive purposes of God. No individual will contradict the Big Story. Tips: Ask, where does this fit in the Big Story? What does this teach us about God’s rule, reign, and redemption?
- Interpret Scripture with Scripture – There is no conflict in the Bible only incorrect or incomplete understanding on our part. Therefore, we can use other passages to help us understand a difficult or obscure one. Tip: Use a concordance to look up other passages that cover this same topic or principle.
This post is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to properly understanding God’s Word. If you want to learn more, I recommend these two helpful resources: How to Read the Bible for all its Worth by Fee and Stuart and Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin. Both books give great information but you don’t have to be a seminary student to understand them!
What other great resources have you found helpful?