The pastor has done it again.
You are sitting in church on Sunday morning. The pastor has just explained what the original Greek word for love is (agape), and how it affects the meaning of a passage in the Bible. You sit back, amazed at his Biblical knowledge, and think, “I can never understand the Bible on the same level as my pastor.”
Good news. You don’t have to be a formally trained minister or theologian to have a good grasp of the scriptures. You can have a solid, working knowledge of any passage in the Bible by applying some basic Bible interpretation methods to your study time.
Dust off that Bible or install the Bible app, cause we’re about to dig into four ways to study the Bible.
1. Get Some Background
When I meet someone new, I usually ask some basic questions to get to know the person. Some of the questions I ask are: Where are you from? What kind of work do you do? What is the quadratic formula?
By asking these questions, I gain a better understanding of who I am interacting with (and whether or not they can do algebra). The same thing should be done when you are studying the Bible. Ask questions about what you are reading so you can get a better understanding.
Fortunately, a lot of the detective work has already been done. Many Bibles feature a brief introduction at the beginning of each book that provides background info on what you are about to read. I like the introduction sections found in the Fire Bible: Student Edition.
If I wanted to do a study on Romans, a quick glance at the introduction to Romans in my Fire Bible would reveal (1) The Apostle Paul was the author, (2) Romans was written around A.D. 57, (3) and “Paul wrote this letter to prepare the way for his anticipated ministry in Rome and his planned mission to Spain.”¹
With this information, I could dig deeper if I wanted. Since I know Romans was written to Christians in Rome around A.D. 57, I could research what was going on in Rome at the time to get a clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding the book.
Take the time to get some background, and you’ll be the smartest kid in Children’s Church.
2. Read a Bible Commentary
My favorite sport to watch and play is basketball. After watching a game, I usually stick around to watch the post-game show, Inside the NBA. The show features three retired professional basketball players. When they talk about a game, they often bring up insights that I wouldn’t ever think about. That’s because they are experts. They’ve played the game at the highest level. They see things that I don’t see.
Thankfully, there aren’t only experts in the field of basketball. There are also experts in biblical knowledge. They don’t have a post-game show called Inside the Bible, but you can access their insights via commentaries.
Commentaries offer verse by verse and chapter by chapter analysis and interpretation of the Bible. If you are having a hard time understanding a particular verse in the Bible, grab a commentary, and see what an expert has to say about it. Some study Bibles include commentary in the margins for quick access as you read. More in-depth commentaries typically come as standalone books.
The Fire Bible features a great commentary. Check out what it has to say about the difficult-to-understand verse Romans 9:13. “Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” At first read, it seems that God hated someone. Is that correct?
The commentary offers this explanation: “This does not mean that Jacob and his descendants were chosen to receive eternal salvation while Esau and his descendants were destined for eternal damnation. Rather, God chose Jacob’s descendants to be the channel of God’s revelation and blessing to the world.”²
This commentary makes it clear that God did not hate Esau. The verse means that God did not choose Esau’s descendants as the channel of His revelation and blessing (the Word of God and Jesus).
Read a commentary or two, and you’ll surely impress your Sunday school teacher.
3. Don’t Take Things Out of Context
One of the biggest issues that affects how people understand the Bible is taking things out of context. Verses are not meant to be understood on their own. Each word is understood in a sentence. Each sentence is understood in a paragraph. Each paragraph is understood in a chapter, and chapters in a book. Books are understood in the overall Biblical context.
Ecclesiastes (Ecc.) 1:2 says “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Is this verse meant to be understood by itself? If so, then life is meaningless. Might as well resort to nihilism. Needless to say, that’s not how the verse is supposed to be interpreted.
Ecc. 2:4-11 clarifies what the author is calling meaningless. He talks about building houses, amassing gold and silver, and owning herds and flocks. Chasing after these material things is meaningless. At the end of the book, the author finishes with “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” So we understand the full meaning of each verse by looking at the surrounding text.
You’ll be the brightest Bible basher in your small group if you avoid taking verses out of context.
4. Find Out What Biblical Genre You are Reading
On July 28, 2017, The Babylon Bee published a report stating that Steven Furtick, the pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC, signed a $110 million preaching contract with Lakewood Church. The report was widely shared on social media. People were furious, accusing Furtick and the whole of Christianity of being all about money.
What the critics failed to realize is that The Babylon Bee is a Christian satire website. They erroneously believed that a satirical article was a genuine news report. That is the importance of knowing what genre you are reading. It makes all the difference in how you understand something.
The Bible includes a variety of genres. Some of the major genres are: Narrative, Poetry, Wisdom, Prophecy, and Epistles. It’s outside the scope of this article to explain the differences between the genres. However, understand that each genre is interpreted in a different way. You can’t approach poetry the same way you’d approach narrative. The article “The Many Genres of Scripture” by Mel Lawrenz elaborates on the differences between genres.
Get a good handle on biblical genres, and your pastor might just invite you to preach at the Sunday morning service.
That wraps up my list of Bible study tips. Keep in mind that the real key to understanding the Bible is effort and persistence with a healthy dose of prayer. The tips I’ve gone over are just the tip of the iceberg, but they’ll give you a head-start on the lifelong pursuit of understanding the Bible.
Have your own Bible study tips? Share your knowledge in the comments!
1. Fire Bible: Student Edition, New International Version, (Springfield, Life Publishers International), 1574.
2. Ibid., 1600.