Generally speaking, I don’t like “tips” posts about how to understand the Bible. Everybody wants tips, hacks, tricks, and secrets that will turn devotions into some sort of magical experience. We live in a lifehacks society where we constantly want simple shortcuts.
It doesn’t quite work like that with the Bible.
In reality, what we need most is simply to read and pray on a regular basis. There is no replacement for persistence and the power of the Holy Spirit. God illumines and applies his truth to our hearts.
But when it comes to getting more out of the Bible, how to understand the Bible for all it’s worth, to gaining a fuller and holistic understanding of Scripture, I think tips can be helpful.
That’s the goal of this post. Here are a smattering of 21 tips, in no particular order, to help you dive deeper into the word of God.
Remember, these are methods. They don’t replace the Holy Spirit or diligent devotion.
With that said, let’s dive in.
#1 – Understand The Context
This is one of, if the not the most important thing when it comes to how to understand the Bible. Context. Is. Everything. What do I mean by context? I simply mean:
- Where a verse falls within a chapter.
- Where a chapter falls within a book.
- Where a book falls within a chronology.
- Where a chronology falls within the story of the entire Bible.
- Where a section falls within a logical argument.
- Where one word falls in relation to other words.
- Etc, etc, etc.
Reading a verse out of context almost always leads to terrible Bible interpretations (see Philippians 4:13 and weirdo interpretations about weight lifting).
The first and main principle in how to understand the Bible is to keep everything in context.
#2 – Take Everything Back To Jesus
Jesus said that all the Scriptures testify to him. This means that generally speaking, every portion of the Bible points to Jesus in some way. For example, the Mosaic law points to our inability to keep the law and Jesus’ fulfillment of the law. The temple foreshadows Jesus as the new temple.
You can go overboard on this, such as trying to literally tie every single item in the temple to Jesus (“The ashes represent the ashes that will fall when Jesus returns on a white horse!”), but overall this is a very helpful principle to keep in mind.
#3 – Read The Entire Bible Sequentially At Least Once
Obviously, reading the entire Bible multiple times is ideal, but reading it through sequentially at least once is essential. This gives you a feel for the overall arc of Scripture. For the grand Creation -> Fall -> Redemption -> Recreation storyline.
If you need help, there are loads of plans which can take you through the Bible in a year.
#4 – Read Groups Of Scripture Together
The Bible is grouped in relevant sections. The Old Testament is grouped into the law, the prophets, and the writings. The New Testament is the gospels, Acts, Paul’s epistles, the general epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation.
Each group of books has its own divine flavor. The law shows God’s perfect law and our inability to keep it. The writings contain God’s street wisdom for the all the situations we encounter in daily life. The gospels reveal the Son of God.
Reading in groups allows you to gain a fuller understanding of God’s ways and wisdom.
#5 – Understand Biblical Genres
This ties into understanding the context. Every book of the Bible falls into a particular genre. The Song of Solomon is poetry and should be interpreted as poetry, not as commands like the law. The epistles are letters and follow the conventions of letters. Revelation is apocalyptic, meaning it contains many symbolic elements.
If you don’t understand genres you can get really wacky interpretations, like that dude who wrote the book 88 Reasons Jesus Will Return In 1988. Or Left Behind (joke, yet not a joke because I don’t believe that interpretation!).
Do you want to know how to understand the Bible? Understand the genres.
#6 – Know The Original Audience
Knowing the original audience of each book is enormously helpful. It causes so many puzzle pieces to fall into place.
Take Galatians, for example. It was primarily to Gentiles who had been converted under Paul’s ministry. These Gentiles were being harassed by Jews who said they needed to follow Jewish customs in order to be true Christians.
Knowing this simple fact sheds light on why Paul was so fired up about the seemingly weird subject of circumcision (an important Jewish rite).
#7 – Know Your Theology
The better you know your theology (what the Bible has to say about a given subject), the better your overall understanding of Scripture will be. Understanding core theological doctrines can help you make sense of verses that seem out of place.
For example, in James 2:14-26, it seems to imply that good works are somehow necessary for salvation. Knowing the doctrine of justification keeps you from making this interpretation error and forces you to think through this verse from a different angle.
A simple starting place to learn theology is Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know.
#8 – Listen To The Bible
People forget that the Bible was originally intended to be heard. Many of the original recipients couldn’t read and learned the Bible through hearing someone read it out loud.
Hearing the Word read can give you new eyes (or ears) on particular passages and help you understand the Bible in ways never did previously.
Bible Gateway makes it really simple to listen to the ESV translation through their app. Plus, it’s read by Max McLean, who is basically the Christian Morgan Freeman.
#9 – Read Multiple Translations
I always recommend starting with a translation that is more literal (word for word) in its translation style so that you can get as close to the original meaning as possible. The English Standard Version and Christian Standard Bible are good options here.
However, reading multiple translations of the same passage can unlock different shades of meaning that you may have previously missed. Sometimes it’s helpful to move from a more literal translation style to a paraphrase, like The Message. I wouldn’t primarily rely on The Message but it’s a helpful supplementary resource.
#10 – Mark Up Your Bible
God’s word is sacred but the paper it’s printed on is not. Don’t be afraid to highlight, underline, circle, and draw lines between verses.
Use certain colors to highlight repeated words or themes. Come up with a series of symbols or shapes to put beside verses that connect them together. Underline passages that really hit you hard.
When it comes to how to understand the Bible, few things help like this kind of intense engagement.
#11 – Use Commentaries
I don’t think commentaries should be your first stop when it comes to understanding the Scriptures. It’s better to work through verses yourself, allowing the Holy Spirit to give you a deeper understanding.
But commentaries by really smart men and women can really help, especially when coming to stickier passages. Commentaries give clarity on word meanings, historical context, the biblical storyline, and more.
They’re super helpful for denser people, like myself.
Tim Challies has a helpful list of the best commentaries for each book of the Bible.
#12 – Use A Reliable Study Bible
The same principle applies to study Bibles as commentaries: don’t make them your first stop. But again, they can be very helpful as you work your way through different sections of the Bible.
I’m a fan of the ESV Study Bible. It’s got loads of insightful notes, historical charts, diagrams, and more. Plus, it’s big so it doubles as a self-defense weapon.
#13 – Read A Single Book Multiple Times
Sometimes it can be immensely helpful to immerse yourself in a single book for an extended period of time. I remember hearing pastor Mike Bullmore say that there was a lengthy period when he read the book of Psalms repeatedly for the health of his soul.
Diving way deep into a single book allows you to pick up nuances you would never get on a single pass. It forces you to grapple with the logical arguments of the author and pushes you to a more thorough understanding.
#14 – Interrogate Your Bible
You should always be asking questions of the text. Why did God want this particular verse included? Why did God want me, a 21st century Christian, to know the genealogy of Jesus? What hath circumcision to do with now?
Don’t just skip over verses you don’t understand. Stop. Question. Push deeper. Go back and read earlier verses and following verses. Examine the bigger context.
If you want to know how to read the Bible, it’s hard to beat simply asking tons of questions.
#15 – Don’t Put Yourself At The Center
Remember, the Scriptures testify to Jesus, not you! Yes, there are thousands of things that are incredibly relevant to you, but Jesus is at the start, middle, and end of the Bible.
IT’S. ALL. ABOUT. JESUS.
It’s easy to put yourself smack dab in the middle of stories that are really pointing to Jesus. You’re not David in the story of David and Goliath, you’re freaked out Israel. Jesus is David, the conquering king. The story of Adam and Eve isn’t mainly a primer on the ways of Satan, it’s the tragic story of the Fall and God’s promise of a snake-crusher.
Keep Jesus at the center and you’ll be safe.
#16 – Don’t Believe Anyone
That sounds super paranoid and it isn’t really what I mean. I simply mean that when it comes to understanding the Bible, don’t rely on what someone else tells you. Find out for yourself. If your pastor says something, test it against what the Bible.
Be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11 –
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.
#17 – Join A Bible Study
The Bible is meant to be studied in solitude and community. Both are necessary for a holistic understanding of God’s word. Joining a Bible study puts you in a place where you can gain the insights of others.
Yes, it takes humility to say you don’t understand every part of the Bible. But God honors humility and will give you understanding you wouldn’t have gained otherwise.
If you want to know how to understand the Bible, ask others how they read it!
#18 – Memorize Scripture
Full disclosure: I suck at memorizing the Bible. I mean, like, seriously bad. I probably have more Star Wars facts in my head than Bible verses.
That being said, memorizing passages of the Bible can help you understand the Bible in new and fresh ways. As you turn a verse over in your mind repeatedly, the Holy Spirit will often unlock things you never saw before.
If you want to go super hardcore, check out this article from Andy Naselli about how to memorize entire books of the Bible.
#19 – Pray Through Passages
Praying through particular passages can deepen your communion with God. And, you’re praying God’s own promises back to him! You can be sure that he will be faithful to his promises because He can never deny himself.
A simple example of this would be to take Psalm 23 and begin thanking God for the ways he will be your Shepherd. Father, thank you that you’ll lead me beside still waters. I pray that in [insert situation], you would guide me to still waters.
Charles Spurgeon said:
Every prayer is an inverted promise. That is to say, God promises us such a blessing, and therefore we pray for it. If God teaches us to pray for any good thing, we may gather by implication the assurance that he means to give it.
#20 – Read With Reverence
I admit that too often I treat God’s word flippantly. I don’t give it the attention it deserves, the passion it is worthy of, or the devotion it commands.
It’s the Word of God! God himself has breathed out these words, inerrant and inspired, to teach me, reveal himself to me, and guide into joyful, eternal living.
Dear God! Forgive me! I can’t believe how much of a sinful moron I am at times.
God’s word deserves your (and MY!) deepest reverence.
#21 – Read Humbly
You will never understand God’s word if you read it arrogantly. God will not allow his words to be judged by you, or anyone else for that matter. Those who refuse to submit to God’s word will find their understanding muddled, as if they’re trying to see one of those 3D pictures that are basically impossible.
The proper posture before the Bible is one of humble receptiveness. An attitude of God, teach me. I’m here to listen not speak.
How To Understand The Bible – In All Things, Pray, Pray, Pray
Basically, all these “how to understand the Bible” tips are nonsensical garbage if you don’t pray for God to meet you. The Holy Spirit can’t be manipulated by tactics and tricks. He blows where He will, enlivening our hearts and deepening our passion for Him.
I really hope these simple methods help you, but they are never a substitute for simple prayer and reading.
God WILL meet you. Just ask Him.