A Guide to Understanding the Bible
Reading the Bible can be a daunting task. Practically speaking, when we open our Bible, we can feel like we’ve been dropped in an unfamiliar forest in the middle of the night without directions.
As a result, we can just stop reading our Bible all together or just read it on occasion. We don’t want to stop reading, but without help we just do what we can. What we need is a synthetic understanding of the Bible.
In other words, we need to know more than mere stories of the Bible in isolation (Abraham had many sons, Noah built an ark, Jonah was swallowed by a fish, David killed Goliath, etc.). What we need is to see how all the stories fit together, and more importantly how these stories advance a bigger story of God’s redemption for humanity along in history. A story of God’s mission.
It’s helpful then to have a grasp of God’s mission. What is God’s mission?
God’s mission is to redeem and reconcile a rebellious mankind by creating a new humanity based on God’s free grace, love through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and regenerating power and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. As we understand this mission, and how it fits the entire 66 books of the Bible together, then we can see how each book fits together and moves God’s
mission of redemption along.
Having said that, and in keeping the mission of God in mind, below are five basic questions that serve as a guide to thoughtful, discerning, heart changing, and enjoyable Bible reading, learning, and application to everyday life:
(1) “Where” does this letter/book fit in the biblical storyline?
Proximity is the heart of this question. When we pick up our Bibles and we turn to a book in the Bible, we often don’t know where it fits in the broader story of redemption. Perhaps even, we think it was written in isolation. In one sense it was written as a stand-alone letter. In a larger sense it was not. Isaiah certainly had a specific message for his audience, but Isaiah advances God’s redemptive message along in history. When we understand where it fits then we can ask the right questions and avoid the wrong ones. For example, Exodus does not offer insight into the temple of God. On the other hand, it does provide insight into God’s initiative to restore fellowship with a sinful humanity by providing specific details for the tabernacle that will serve as a type and an example of God providing a way to deal with sin.
(2) “What” is the message of the letter/book?
Context is the heart of this question. Is this poetry, history, an epistle, etc.? Knowing the genre or style of writing will help in understanding the message of the book or letter. When you understand the genre, then you can better understand the message. The first step in understanding the message is to read and then re-read and re-read. Shoot for 3-5 readings all the way through. What happens is that themes begin to bubble up. Make note of the words repeated or shifts in subject matter. For instance, when we read the poetic books (Job, Psalms, etc.) we feel something different than when we read history (Joshua, Judges, etc.).
Once we get the feel of the letter, then we can begin to see the message of the letter or book. We see the themes and the main points. At this point, you are reading to understand “what.” It’s a gathering of information and putting it in familiar categories. Is the author dealing with judgment, blessing, warning, encouragement, or all the above?
(3) “Why” was the book/letter written?
Connections is the heart of this question. This is where we answer “Why.” Why was the letter or book written? Why did he say what he said? It’s important to point out that this is one of the more challenging of these 5 hermeneutic questions, but it gets to the heart and purpose of why the letter or book was written. The most natural thing in working through this aspect is to revert to the “what” of the letter.
For instance, when Paul wrote in Galatians 1:1,
“Paul, an apostle (not sent from men nor through the agency of man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised Him from the dead),”
why did he say this? Why did he say that he is an apostle? Why would him being an apostle impact the rest of what he wrote to the churches of Galatia? We don’t merely say that he said that he was an apostle, but why did he say it?
As this question gets answered throughout the letter, the connections are made within the letter. In other words, it keeps you from segmenting select passages within the book and making them say something they shouldn’t say, and instead constraining the verses to the connections within the context of the letter. For instance, back to Galatians. When Paul refers to flesh in Galatians 5:13, 15, 17, 19, why does he say in the same context as the deeds of the flesh (immorality, impurity, etc.)? Is he referring to lustful things or is
he keeping the same connection of flesh to the law as in Galatians 3:3?
(4) “How” does it apply to the “original audience?”
Original intent is the heart of this question. When we move into applying the book to everyday life, our first step is not to make application for our life. Instead, we must start with the author’s intent to make application for the original audience.
For instance, when Paul confronts Peter in Galatians 2:14, he is dealing with a contextual issue in a certain contextual way. This is not a license to go publicly rebuking fellow Christians. Another example is the Sermon on the Mount. When Christ says in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” The first application isn’t to modern readers, but to the original audience. Christ’s audience was His disciples, and He was about to send them on a mission of sharing the good news of the kingdom of God. They needed to know that as they go out and share the news that God would supply all their needs. That’s the first application to the original audience. Once we get that down, then we can move on to our life, which would be really in principle in a lot of cases.
Thus, this fourth question forces us to slow down and see the application for the original audience before we start looking for applications for our own lives.
(5) “How” does it apply to “me” today?
Personal application is at the heart of this question. This is the part where we move into personal application for the modern reader. What I don’t mean by the previous sentence is that this application is historically contextual to our day and then changes 1,000 years later to another day. What I mean is that there are principles of application for the original audience that would apply universally to Christians today and into the future.
Take the two examples above, for instance. In the case of Paul’s public rebuke of Peter, we would principally make an application that standing for the gospel might mean that I confront a brother who is in open and public sin. My confrontation would be appropriate to the magnitude of the public sin and would be appropriate to the audience. In the case of Christ’s promise to His
disciples, we would draw a universal application based upon the principle that God will meet the physical needs of any of His followers as they carry His gospel message to the world. In other words, it’s not a blanket promise that God will always meet my physical needs in the way I want or think He should. It’s more than my understanding of my happiness, but instead about my willingness to be a vessel He carries and cares for as I advance His message to others.
In conclusion, as we gain a biblical vision on God’s Word and as we learn how to study God’s Word, we will find that our understanding of Proverbs
29:18 gets deeper and richer.
Bible Study Library Suggestions
There are many choices as it pertains to building a physical Bible Study library. Let me simplify by providing some recommendations below:
- Bible Atlas
- The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands
- Bible Dictionary
- New Unger’s Bible Revised & Expanded Dictionary
- Bible Handbook
- New Unger’s Bible Handbook
- Free and digital: www.soniclight.org
- Technical: www.bestcommentaries.com
- Bible Knowledge Commentary (Old & New Testament)
- Matthew Henry (Complete)
- New American Standard Exhaustive Concordance, NASB, New Strong’s Exhaustive
- Study Bible
- Zondervan NASB Wide Margin Bible
- Other Resources
- Nave’s Topical Bible; Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties