As you read the Bible, you will find things that are hard to understand. Some of it may seem so irrelevant, confusing, hurtful, and even offensive that you're tempted to bypass the Bible completely. Before you do that and miss God's message for you, consider these simple principles for understanding the Bible.
As a seminary student, I learned about Bible commentaries and exegesis, historical and literary criticism, translating the ancient texts, and more. I recommend all these tools for Bible study and interpretation, but I recognize not everyone has that luxury or desire.
After I was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, I just wanted to read my Bible and conect with Christ. I didn't want exegesis. I wanted Jesus. I wanted to read the Scripture and hear his words of love, comfort, guidance, all of his words of life, being spoken to me.
Providentially, a little more than a year into my cancer journey, I pulled from my bookshelf “To Love & To Pray” by Roberta Bondi. In the final chapters, she offered several guiding principles for reading Scripture based on ancient monastic life.
Her insights helped me. Informed and inspired by her work, here are six basic guiding principles that I found helpful. I’ve taken the liberty to expand upon each, adding my own two cents.
1-God intends for His word to speak to you today.
The Bible was written long ago in a vastly different context, yet God means for the words to speak to you now, right where you are.
The Bible stories, characters, teachings of the past and its visions of the future are meant to impact you in the present. You are invited to be part of the story. The enemies the Psalmist faces or the waves Peter walks on can be your challenge, your cancer, or whatever you’re facing.
2-The words are intended to bring life.
Jesus said, “I have come to give you everything in abundance, more than you expect—life in its fullness until you overflow! (John 10:11, TPT
If you read something that kills your spirit, makes you feel far from God and others, demoralized, or rejected, set that passage aside and move on to the next. Jesus came to give you life!
When you read about the taking of lives found in some parts of the Old Testament - murder, brutality, etc. - don’t throw out your Bible. That passage, and others like it, must be interpreted in the light of the new covenant of Jesus Christ. If they cannot align with or enhance Jesus’ message and witness, set them aside.
3-God wants you to be healed.
As you engage Scripture, listen for the healing words of Jesus. When you read accounts of divine healing, place yourself beside the one being healed. Know that God is working in you to heal whatever is broken, even if you’re unaware.
4-Read with a desire to know God.
Knowing the Bible is not the goal; knowing God is. The Scripture reveals Who God is? What God has done, is doing now, and will do. It shows us God’s desire for us, God’s character, attributes, and expectations. It teaches us God’s heart and mind.
Above all, the Bible communicates God’s love for YOU and desire to have a relationship with you. In Scripture, we meet Jesus Christ. He is the word who became flesh. As Jesus said, when we get to know him, we get to know his Father.
5- It’s all about relationships.
First and foremost, the Bible calls us to know God as His beloved child through a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. We are drawn into a relationship with the Holy Trinity: the Father, Son, and Spirit.
As we become closer to God, we become closer to the people in our lives. Those relationships grow as God uses the Bible to show us how to love our neighbor as our self.
6-You can’t interpret Scripture alone.
Only with the help of the Holy Spirit will the Bible make any sense or any difference in our lives. The Holy Spirit, the third member of the Holy Trinity of God, is among other things, our ever-present Teacher.
Before reading, consider praying this or something similar. Throughout my ministry, the church and I prayed this before the Scripture readings. It always meant alot to me.
Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.
We also need the community of faith, the Church.
We need Christian friends, scholars, pastors, and teachers. We need to know the way others interpret the Bible.
Finally - The Most Important Principal of All
Finally, even with these guiding principles, you will still find Scripture that is hard to understand. If all else fails, remember this one foundational truth: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!”
Discussion Question: What do you think of these principles? What helps you understand the Bible? What challenges your ability to understand?
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
Psalm 1:1-2, NIV