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How to Understand the Bible

Updated on July 16, 2016
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Rev. Margaret Minnicks: Ordained Minister of Christian Education, BA English; MA Christian Education; M.Div. Divinity, Write since 2011.

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

In order to understand the Bible, you must read the Bible, and you must read it daily. Then as you read the Bible you will begin to understand it. When I was growing up my mother insisted that all her children read the Bible before leaving the house each day. Even though we did not understand what we were reading, we read it each day. When I grew up and left home, I continued reading something from the Bible each day even if it was just one verse or a scripture from the Psalms. I remember my girl friends in college used to laugh at me because while they were going out to party, I was staying in the dormitory reading the Bible. During the summer and during Christmas break I would work in New York. If I left home and was blocks down the street going to the subway and remembered that I had left without reading the Bible, guess what? Yes, I could hear my mother’s voice saying, “Don’t leave home without reading something from the Bible.” Needless to say, I would go all the way back home and read something from the Bible before I continued on my way.

Read something from the Bible before you leave home. I don’t think that was bad advice because I developed the habit that I keep even today. I have been reading the Bible for over 50 years now. When I read it as a child and while I was in college and while I was working in New York, I admit I did not know the meaning of the scriptures I was reading. It was merely mental assent; that is head knowledge. But believe me when I tell you this that when the Holy Spirt began to teach me, He brought back every scripture I had ever read over those many years. And not only that, but He gave me revelation knowledge of what all those scriptures mean. So, I say to you, “Read something from the Bible every day, and leave it up to the Holy Spirit to explain the scriptures to you in His own time.

I love reading the Bible. I enjoy studying the Bible. I am delighted to discover new things in the Bible. And I am sure you will be able to do the same once you know some basic principles for understanding the Bible.

Let me assure you that you will never learn all God wants you to learn by listening to an hour sermon on Sunday morning when the preacher takes one passage and interpret it his own way. God wants to study and learn how to rightly divide the scriptures ourselves. God wants you to do what Paul told Timothy to do: "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15) Attend Sunday School and Bible Study where you can ask questions. But attend a good Bible Study where the word of God is taught rather than one where personal opinions rule.

There are some basic principles that will help anyone who is serious about understanding the Bible.

The word “Bible” comes from the Greek work “biblia” meaning “a collection of books.” Even though we have 66 books, we do not have 66 stories. The Bible is only one story about the Jewish nation. There is a common thread that runs all the way through the Bible from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. So as you begin to read, remember that the focus is on only one story, the story of God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel.

THE HOLY BIBLE is God's diary of what’s on His mind and what’s in His heart. Don't you want to know that God is thinking?

The Bible was written by 40 different authors covering a period of approximately 1600 years. The Bible is divided into two parts. The first section is the Old Testament consisting of 39 books originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic. The second section is the New Testament consisting of 27 books originally written in Greek.

In order to fully understand the Bible, be aware that you cannot read all the books the same way because they are different literary types consisting of the law, the histories, parables, narratives, biographies, prose, poetry, prophecies and there is even a drama in the Bible. That drama is the Song of Songs or in some Bibles it is called the Song of Solomon. And you do not read each book the same way. You do not look for the same things in all the books. You should keep in mind that the books are NOT in the order in which they were written. The books as they appear in your Bible are grouped together by categories.

The first five books of the Bible consist of the Penteteuch or the Law or the Torah. These books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The next section consists of the histories. Then the Writings or the Poetic books such as the Psalms. Then all of Solomon’s books are together: Proverbs, Ecclessiastes, and Song of Solomon. After that we go into the four major prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s other book Lamentations, Ezekiel and Daniel. After the major prophets, we find the 12 minor prophets. Do know that the minor prophets are just as important as the major prophets. The major prophets are longer books whereby some of the minor prophetic books are much shorter. Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament consisting of only one chapter. After the prophetic books, we have a 400 year period called the Intertestament Period because it is between the Old Testament and the New Testament. During this 400 year period, God spoke to no prophets.

After the Intertestamental Period we go into the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Why are there four gospels? Wouldn't one have been enough? We have four gospels because each gospel writer spoke to a difference audience. It would help you to know that Matthew was not the gospel that was written first, but it is listed first in our Bibles to make the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament through the geneologies of both Mary and Joseph.

It helps to know that Matthew was a tax collector. That’s why we have so many numbers in his gospel. It helps to know that Matthew was a Jew writing to the Jews about a Jew. That’s why in his gospel we find “kingdom of heaven” rather than “kingdom of God” because it was offensive to use the name God. Mark was written first, but his gospel is short with no geneologies and nothing about the birth of Jesus. Luke is the only Gentile writer of the Bible who copied what he learned from Matthew and Mark to compile his information. John is altogether different because John is not a synoptic gospel. Rather, John talks about the person of Jesus Christ, His incarnation, His different names such as I am the Bread of Life, I am the Resurrection, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Now doesn’t that help you to understand the Gospels a little better?

After the four gospels, we have the birth of the church. If at all possible it would be good to read The Acts of the Apostles after reading the Gospel of Luke because Luke is the author of both books and The Acts of the Apostles is a continuing of the Gospel of Luke.

The first part of Acts is about the birth of the church, but Paul dominates the rest of the book with his conversion on the Damascus Road and his three missionary journeys. As you read about Paul’s missionary journeys, it would help tremendously if you would read his books that go along with his missionary journey. For instance, the book of Galatians was written while on the first missionary journey. So, go on and read Galatians and see if it doesn’t make more sense to you now.

The Pauline Epistle are not grouped in our Bible in the order in which they were written. I have just told you that Paul’s first book was Galatians. Paul’s writings are grouped by their length from longest to shortest. The Book of Romans is the longest of Paul’s books with 16 chapter and Philemon is the shortest with only one chapter. I’ve just completed teaching a course on the Life and Teachings of Paul which was an eye opener to the students. I taught Paul’s books not in the order in which they appear in our Bible, but I taught them as they are parallelled to his three missionary journey and when he was in prison. If you would read them in that order, you will get a better picture of Paul. Also, you will understand why Paul said what he did in each of his 13 books.

After the 13 Pauline Epistles, we have the General Epistles consisting of Hebrews, James, I and II Peter; I, II. III John, Jude and then the book of Revelation (no s). It is not the revelation of John as most people think. It is the Revelation of Jesus Christ told to us by John. Some people are afraid to read the book of Revelation and that’s exactly what the devil wants. The book tells us about 7 times that we are blessed if we read it. So get busy, read the book of Revelation and find out what will happened to us during the end times. There is nothing scary about the book at all. It does contain a lot of symbols and number and figurative language but with a good Bible teacher and some study, you can surely understand what lessons we are to learn from the book.

In order to understand the Bible, you must know something about the author’s background. Find out what was happening in his life at the time of the writing.. Find out what was happening in his surrounding at the time of the writing. For instance, Paul never wrote anything that didn’t need to be addressed. Find out the reason for the book, the theme of the book and the lessons the book teaches.

Now that you are ready to understand the Bible, let me give you some Methods of Bible Study.

1. Study the Bible by books. Select a short book to read. There are several books of only one chapter such as Obadiah an Philemon. 2. Do a character study. There are about 2,930 different people in the Bible. Read everything the Bible has to offer about their lives. Study the background of the characters you are reading about. You will find many interesting things that will surely help you with your Bible study.

3. Do a topical study. One of the best ways to learn of God is to study what God said about a given subject. Examine every reference made to idolatry, repentance, sacrifices, tithes, prayer or praise.

4. Do a prophecy study. Go through the Bible and see hwo many prophecies have been fulfilled.

5. Do a word study. The meaning of the word as you know it today might not be the meaning the author intended at the time of his writing. In order words, you must know what the Bible MEANT before you can understand what it means.

6. Do a study dealing with your particular need. It might be healing, finances, addition, love, forgiveness, or any other need you are experiencing the time.

ONE STORY: Remember again that the Bible is one story of the Jewish nation and we follow them through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We travel with them through the Exodus into the Promised Land where we learn their laws and the problems they encountered many because of their disobedience. If we take the Exodus and things relating to the Exodus out of the Bible, we wouldn’t have much Bible left because even the New Testament writings referred to it a lot.

CUSTOMS: The Bible is loaded with custom after custom and we must understand the custom in order to understand what the writer is telling us. Psalm 119:105 is a good example of a custom. The scripture says, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” You might think this is just a good thing to say, but actually it is based on the custom that because it got so hot during the day, most workers began their day early in the morning when it was still dark. Therefore, they tied a lantern around their ankles so they could have their hands free to work. Even so, they could see only one step ahead of them. That’s why the psalmist used the metaphor by saying, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Now don’t you understand that scripture a little better now?

NAMES: Did you know that names are important to God? Whenever he changed someone, He gave them a new name. Abram was changed to Abraham, and every time he heard his name it was a reminder that he would become the father of many nations. After Jacob wrestled with God, his name was changed to Israel to remind him of that event. Sarah laughed when she was told she would have a son in her old age. Therefore, Isaac’s name means “laughter.” Moses was so named because he was “drawn out of the water.” So when a name is mentioned in the Bible look closely in that same verse and often you can find the meaning of the name. Check out what Jabez’s name means in 1 Chronicles 4:9.

WORD STUDY: A word in one part of the Bible might mean something, but it might mean something else in another part of the Bible. In fact, Paul used the word “elder” in the first part of 1 Timothy 5:17 to mean an overseer in the church, but in the same scripture, he used “elder” to mean older people. Another good example is the word “stronghold.” Upon first hearing it, you might think it means something that keeps you in bondage. But if you read it in the Old Testament you will see that a stronghold is a place of protection or a hiding place. When David was being chased by Saul, he escaped to a stronghold.

PLACEMENT OF WORDS: Say what the Bible says the way it says it. For example, the Bible says Noah was a just man, but to say Noah was just a man has an entirely different meaning. So do not rearrange the words of scriptures.

The specific word given to someone in the Bible might not be a specific word for you. Let me give you two examples. When Joshua entered the Promised Land, God told him to march around the walls seven times and the walls came tumbling down. God told Joshua to do it. That is not a rhema word for you. God could, but it is unlikely that God would tell you to walk around the walls of Jericho. He told Joshua. Joshua did it because that was a specific word for him. Another example that people use to substantiate their drinking wine is to say that Paul said to drink wine. Yes, he did, but he told Timothy to drink wine for his stomach because the water was bad. So, if you want to drink wine, do it, and you don’t have to try to justify it by saying the Bible told you to do it because it didn’t.

PARADOXES: A paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself. For instance, the Bible tells us to give that we may receive. It tells us to die in order to live. It tells us to humble ourselves in order to be exalted.

PROOFTEXT: Look for cross references to other scriptures. No scripture stands alone. This is called prooftexting. Many Old Testament references are in the New Testament. Jesus quoted Old Testament scriptures and so did Paul.

PARABLES: Know that a parable in the Bible is a story to teach a lesson and not a real occurrence. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story to teach a lesson. It didn’t really happen. Neither did the story of the Good Samaritan.

REPETITIONS: Pay attention when things are repeated such as Paul saying “Rejoice and again I say rejoice.” If something needs to be emphasized, it will be repeated.

READ THE COMPLETE SCRIPTURE. Read the passage from the beginning to the end in order to understand the context. So many times people take part of a scripture to fit their needs. For example, they often quote Romans 8:28 as “All things work together.” That is not what the scripture says. It says, “And we know that all things work together to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” I cringe every time I hear people misquote Philippians 3:14 when they say, “I press toward the prize.” That is not what Paul said. He said, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” If you profess to press, know what you are pressing toward according to the scripture.

PAY ATTENTION T0 FIRSTS, LASTS, AND ONLYS. Whenever something happens first, it sets the precedence for what continues to happens. For instance, the first miracle of Jesus is recorded in John 2. We were first called Christians at Antioch in the book of Acts. The book of Genesis has a lot of firsts since it is the book of beginnings: first man, first woman, first murder, first sin, etc.

Notice several times in the Bible something is recorded as the last time something happened. In the book of Acts straws were drawn to confirm the disciple to replace Judas. And this was the last time drawing straws happened in the Bible.

Remember onlys in the Bible. Let’s see if I can think of an only in the Bible. Oh, yes, the only time we see that Jesus stood up after His ascension was when Stephen was stoned and Jesus welcomed Him him. Acts 7:55 clearly states that “Jesus stood.” Can you think of any other things that happened only once?

In order to understand the Bible is to STICK TO THE TEXT. Read and explain ONLY what you see. Read out of the text instead of into the text. Do not change the wording. For example, John 11:35 says, “Jesus wept.” The meaning is not the same if you say, “Jesus cried” or “Jesus sobbed.”

One FINAL THING: Remember that the Bible is the only book you can read and the author is always present! So if you don’t understand something when you are studying the Bible, ask God to reveal unto you those things He wants you to know. And then pray Psalm 119:18 that says, “Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.”



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      Baldwin Henley 3 years ago

      Very informative, I do appreciate the many opportunities to learn, grow and grasp the spriptural insights availing for better understanding.

    • Dian'swords4u profile image

      Dian'swords4u 6 years ago from North Carolina

      I'm new also. So I welcome you to this site as a new comer.

    • revmjm profile image

      Article Written By Margaret Minnicks 6 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thank you so much for your comment. I'm new here, so that makes me feel good.

    • Dian'swords4u profile image

      Dian'swords4u 6 years ago from North Carolina

      That was a wonderful hub. God Bless You in your work. Thank you so much for speaking up. I feel the same way that you do about the Bible. If I were to have to give all my books up but one, I would definitely keep my Bible. It is the only book I have with the complete truth about life and all the answers that I need to keep living my life. Gave you a vote up.