The Bible is the most popular book in the world, and naturally churches often encourage their congregation to read it regularly. But usually that is as far as the instruction goes. People are often told why they should read the Word of God, but rarely are they told how to read the Word of God. The first thing we, as the church, do for a new believer is give them a Bible. But then for some naive and ignorant reason, we just assume they will automatically know how to read and interpret it correctly. It’s like telling someone (that doesn’t know anything about money) that they should really get their finances in order, without giving them any practical steps or guidance on how one might go about doing that. People don’t just need to be told to read their Bible, they need to be told how to read their Bible. While it would be impossible to list every important aspect, here are 9 tips to get you started in the right direction.
1.) Read Prayerfully – This is often the most overlooked practice in how to read the Bible. If you’re anything like me, you will read this tip and agree but not actually do it. Start off, before you ever open the Bible, asking God to open your eyes to the truth of His Word and to handle it accurately. We should rely on the Holy Spirit more than ourselves.
2.) Know the HISTORICAL Context – This is key. You need to do everything you can to learn about the culture of that day. Otherwise, we will wrongly assume things that are true for us today but may not have been in that context. This will open up proper interpretation. Try to find out all about the geographical context, the persons or groups involved, the author, the date, etc. This can be done by referencing a good study Bible, commentary, or Bible dictionary.
3.) Know the LITERARY Context – Neglecting this is one of the easiest ways to surely misinterpret the intended meaning of a verse. You need to make sure you aren’t taking a verse “out of context” or singling it out. Think of when someone has taken a few words you said to mean something totally different than what you intended. They likely took your sentence out of context and contradicted the bigger picture of what you were saying. Not only should you be conscious of the direct literal context (paragraph, book, etc.) but also compare what you read in light of the whole Bible. Scripture should never contradict Scripture. This tip is why you should, when possible, try to read the book as a whole. Some books are longer and may be unrealistic. But a lot of the New Testament or minor prophets can, and should, be read in one sitting.
4.) Read Humbly – Don’t assume a verse means what you want or think it should mean. You may come to a passage that is offensive or just doesn’t sit well with you. Don’t just assume “Well it couldn’t mean that, because I don’t like it.” Instead, realize that maybe God knows more than we do and you should humbly pray that God would align your natural tendencies to His.
5.) Read Objectively – You need to do everything you can to read without your own “cultural lenses”. We come in with all of our assumptions, opinions and baggae. You need to be aware of your own worldview and try to read objectively. You must realize that the books of the Bible weren’t written to you. The books were written to an original audience who lives in a completely different world than you do now as you read this on your iPhone, tablet or laptop.
6.) Don’t Jump Straight to Application – This is another surefire way to misinterpret the Bible. You can’t automatically jump straight to “How does this apply to my life?”. That will come, but before that you need to figure out, “What did this mean to the original readers or hearers?”. Some things may not be intended to directly transfer over to our own context. When Paul tells Timothy to bring him his cloak, that probably isn’t a metaphor that we should try and spiritualize in order to apply it to our own lives. Paul probably just wanted his dang cloak back.
Application should come after observation and interpretation. David Platt compares it to going to a different country. When you go, you may observe two men holding hands. Later you interpret that it is a way that they show friendship in that context. Lastly, you find a way to apply expressing friendship and love for others in your own context. We should do the same with the Bible. Use the steps: Observation (What does the text say?), Interpretation (What does the text mean?), and lastly Application (What does the text mean for me today?). Too often we try to skip the first two and jump right to application. Sometimes our situations will be extremely similar to theirs and this will be easy, other times this can be extremely difficult and should only be concluded after careful study and prayer.
7.) Find the Plain and Obvious Meaning – You should look for what is obvious in Scripture. Some parts of the Bible are difficult to understand, but honestly, a lot of it is straight forward. Unfortunately, I’ve spent a lot of time reading the Bible trying to look for a hidden meaning, so that I could go and show off what I “learned”. That comes from pride. Don’t try and spiritualize something to be symbolic that is supposed to be literal. When Jesus says to “Go and make disciples”, he probably wanted them (and you) to literally go and make disciples.
“When God spoke to human beings in the Bible, they understood Him and acted according to the plain meaning of His words. When God told Israel to build a tabernacle, they didn’t perform some sort of dance as a spiritual interpretation of His words. Instead, they took His words at face value and created a tabernacle in accordance with the plain meaning of God’s words. Our approach to Scripture should be the same.” – Francis Chan
8.) Be Aware of the Genre – You should make sure you are aware of what kind of book you are reading. The Bible is filled with various types of literature. Some are letters (epistles), others are historical narrative, others are law, and others are wisdom literature. You shouldn’t read and interpret a historical narrative the same way you would an epistle. They are completely different types of literature. Be aware of the type of book and language used (hyperbole, narrative, parable, literal, etc.)
9.) Read For Transformation, Not Information – While it’s important not to jump directly to application, we should be reading in the hopes of being transformed into the likeness of Christ. If we just read for knowledge or information, that is worthless and is “the knowledge that puffs up”. Read for knowledge so that you can be transformed and empowered to put into action what you learn in your reading.
When you don’t understand something, ask a trusted friend or pastor, but wrestle with it by yourself first. Stick with it and remember that you are investing time, discipline, and effort into a relationship not a religion. Feel free to comment any other questions. Here are some other great resources to learn more:
Photo via Katie Lynn Photography