On its face, “how do I read the Bible” seems like an easy question. The obvious answer is to use the skills we hopefully learned in elementary school to make sense of the words on the page, but reading the Bible goes much deeper than reading “see spot run.” We don’t just read the Bible for the sake of reading or for entertainment; we read it to understand its message and through it to know who God is. The simple question “how do I read the Bible” can then be better asked as “how do I understand the Bible,” which is a much harder question.
Whenever we try to read and understand the Bible we are essentially asking it a series of questions; “What is God’s will for my life?” “How do I reconcile Paul’s ‘salvation by faith alone’ with James’ ‘faith without works is dead?’ ” Who is this Jesus guy?” “Who or what is the beast in Revelation 13?” “If God is good, why is there so much suffering in the world?” “Should I take this new job?”
Asking a bunch of random questions with no method behind them, however, is not the best strategy because some questions might be better than others. One (hopefully) very clear and ridiculous example would be to ask what I should have for dinner when I’m studying John 3:16. Or, maybe, your approach does allow for asking those kind of questions, in which case you would need to have a method which ensures that you are asking those “spiritual” or mystical questions rather than contenting yourself with the bare facts of the passage (though, it will probably become clear that I believe this is not how we should study the Bible).
In order to develop a method for reading the Bible or an approach to understanding it, we need to decide what kind of questions we are going to ask. Usually this can then be summarized as one, overarching question which any of our more specific questions will help us answer. This idea is what spawned the title for this website, because what I’m trying to say is that figuring out how to read and understand the Bible is really figuring out “the right questions.”
My Own Journey
Growing up, I believed that the overarching question when we study the Bible should be something like “what does this mean to me?” For example, if I was reading John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”), the result of my reading should answer the question “what does John 3:16 mean to me?” and I might have answered something along the lines of “John 3:16 means that because I believe, I will have eternal life” or “I know I am enough and I can be confident because God loves me.” I probably wouldn’t have been able to say what my overarching question was, but the way I studied the Bible and the questions I brought to it showed that my main goal was to answer “what does this mean to me?”
And I had this approach mostly due to my own beliefs about what the Bible was and how God spoke through it, but also due to the way I was taught in the churches I grew up in. The small groups and youth programs I was in rarely taught how to study the Bible, but when they did it was clear that our goal was to seek God’s specific, individual message for each of us. More importantly, though, this approach was modeled for me in my pastors’ sermons. Fortunately, there was normally a Bible verse or passage read at some point during the service (I know many churches have done away with this altogether), but the sermons weren’t commentaries on the text. Instead they were explanations of the topic the pastor wanted to preach on that Sunday, meaning the sermons were loosely based on the Bible and more concerned with answering how they believed it should affect me.
But this post isn’t about expositional vs. topical preaching. I just mean to say that I was taught both directly and by example that our main goal in reading the Bible is to answer the question “what does this mean to me?”
The problem with this approach is that if two people come up with contradictory answers, there is no way to determine which is right. If I read John 3:16 and said “to me, this means that the Father sent the Son so that we can be saved” but someone else read it and said “to me, this means that God created the Son so that everyone who believes and obeys him can be saved” (which is similar to how the Jehovah’s Witnesses read this verse1), there is nothing objective for me to point to and say “no, the Son was not created and salvation is by grace through faith not based on our obedience.” Both are equally correct answers to the question “what does this mean to me,” and if that is our overarching question, then both read and understood John 3:16 correctly. However, if the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us (Psalm 19, Romans 10:13-17, 2 Timothy 3:12-17, 2 Peter 1:16-21, etc.), then there is a right way to understand it, namely, the way which leads us to rightly understand who God is. More importantly, though, making “what odes this mean to me” our overarching question puts the focus of our study on ourselves or on the way the Bible affects us, but since the point of the Bible is to reveal who God is, then the focus of our study should only ever be on him.
While in college (where I first studied worship and then switched into the biblical studies program with a track to get my MDiv), I started learning better ways to read and study the Bible and, despite my stubbornness and reluctance, I began to realize that “what does this mean to me” is not the kind of question we should bring to the Bible. It was only out of pride that I thought studying the Bible should be about me and how it affected me. Instead, both through classes directly on hermeneutics and through the modeling of good Bible study by my professors both in and out of class, I learned that I needed to focus my study on the Bible itself and on the objective message of the biblical authors (both the men who physically wrote it and the God who inspired it). Over time, the main question I asked when reading the Bible changed from “what does this mean to me?” to “why did the author write this?”
Obviously, I’m not perfect and even now my approach to reading and understanding the Bible grows and changes as I learn more and as the Holy Spirit continues to mature me in the faith, but I believe that asking a question like “why did the author write this” or “what is the author’s purpose/message in this passage” is the best way to read the Bible and truly understand it.
Having an overarching question is only the beginning, though. With “why did the author write this?” as our main question, we still need to figure out how to answer it what other, more specific questions we are going to ask to do that.
The main way you answer “why did the author write this?” whether you are reading John 3:16 or a passage from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy is to read it in its original context. by this I don’t mean to research the historical setting of its writing or to speculate as to what happening in the life of the author when he wrote it, but simply to read whatever passage, verse, or sentence in light of what’s around it. So if you are reading John 3:16, this means reading the rest of chapter 3 along with it. But the context doesn’t stop there, because chapter 3 of John was written in the context of chapters 2 and 4 and chapters 2 through four were written in the context of the rest of the book of John. Even more than that, the book of John is found in the context of the other three Gospels in the Bible and those are found in the context of the rest of the New Testament and, finally, the New Testament is found in the context of the entire Bible.
You may be thinking that this sounds like a lot, and it is, but no verse or passage in the Bible can be properly understood unless it is read in the context of what’s around it. Some verses seem like they make sense on their own and sometimes you can make sense of them without the context, but they can only be understood fully and properly (as the author would have you understand them) in their context and at the very least you can never be sure that you have understood it correctly without the context.
Because of this, I suggest answering “why did the author write this” by asking three main questions of any passage or verse; “What is the Bible about?” “What is the book about?” and “What is the passage/verse about?” This means that as we read any part of the Bible we are keeping the context of passage or verse in mind and always with an eye toward answering what the author’s message is. Sometime soon I’ll dedicate a post to each of these questions, but they’re fairly straightforeward.
The first question we should ask when we approach a passage of the Bible is “what is the Bible about?” Doing this means that we will always begin by recognizing the purpose and message of the entire Bible and the structure of how that message is developed through the 66 books. Since the purpose of the Bible as a whole is to reveal who God is and what he’s done, any specific passage we read will fit into and serve that purpose.
Then we should narrow our focus to ask “what is the book about?” The purpose of this question is to acknowledge the purpose of whatever book our passage is found in, because any specific passage within a book of the Bible was included by the author to serve his overarching purpose. To use John 3:16 as an example again, John writes in 20:30-31 that his purpose in writing the book was so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Therefore, however we answer the question, “why did the author write John 3:16,” it has to serve the purpose of showing us that the Messiah of the Old Testament is Jesus and that by believing in him we would have life in his name. Also, just as the first question includes the structure of the Bible as well as its overall purpose, this question includes both the overall purpose of the book as well as how the author has structured the book to develop his message. By starting with the Bible as a whole and then narrowing our focus like this, we force ourselves to interpret shorter passages and verses in light of their contexts.
Finally, the third question is “what is the passage about?” Here we finally interpret the passage or verse itself, keeping in mind the context found by answering the first two questions and always looking to answer our overarching question, “why did the author write this?” The broader context, however, does not whitewash the meaning of the passage or verse, so it is still important that we faithfully and diligently work to understand individual words and sentences on their own terms, but we should also never divorce those units from what’s around them.
Naturally, these three questions will bring up more questions, but structuring how we study the Bible in this way will help make sure that we are asking the right questions and reading the Bible to know God better (which is the purpose of the Bible) rather than focusing on ourselves.
What are the Right Questions?
A good rule of thumb is that we can only really ask questions that the author answers. Of course, it’s not wrong to ask other questions and those can sometimes be helpful, but as we seek to study and understand the words of Scripture, it only makes sense to ask those questions which are actually answered in the inspired text.
This, though, is a skill that needs to be developed and doesn’t always come naturally, but, as Christians, we should seek to conform our minds to the Word of God, which is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), and that might mean releasing our grip on the questions we think should be answered in the Bible and seeking to ask the questions that God wants us to ask. Here humility is required because we might think a question is important or even necessary, but if the human author didn’t answer it in his book then it we shouldn’t try to force an answer into the text, and if God, who inspired the human authors to write what they wrote (2 Peter 1:16-21), decided not include an answer to the question in his Word then it must not be as important as we thought and certainly can’t be necessary. For example, we might think it’s important to know what the thorn in Paul’s flesh is in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, but if God, in his perfect and infinite wisdom decided not to include it, then we don’t need to know it, and if Paul decided not to put it in his book, then it also isn’t necessary for figuring out what his message is in 2 Corinthians. It would be wrong for us, then, to try and study this passage by asking “what was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?” Not only will any answer we come up with to that question be only speculation since Paul doesn’t tell us what his thorn was, but this question would also distract us from the question “why did the author write this” or “what is the author’s purpose for this passage” since it has nothing to do with Paul’s message here. A better question might be “how can Paul boast in his weaknesses like the thorn in his flesh?” or “how does Paul use the example of the thorn in his flesh to illustrate that God’s grace is sufficient and that his power is made perfect in weakness?” or even “how does Paul’s example of the thorn in his flesh connect to his discussion about the ‘super-apostles’ starting in verse 11?”
Ultimately, the right questions are those that the Bible itself is leading us to ask. The Bible is not just an objective artifact of the ancient Middle East and reading it is not a detached, scientific observation. The Bible is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart, and no creature is hidden from its sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account” (Hebrews 4:12-13) and every word of it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). As we read and study the Bible, the Holy Spirit works in us to conform us to the image of Christ. This includes growing our ability to interpret and understand the Bible, leading us to ask the right questions and showing us the answers we should be seeking rather than the answers we pridefully decided we wanted.
This is how we should read the Bible, with the humble recognition that we don’t always come to Scripture asking what we should be asking and with the knowledge that the Holy Spirit will not let us be content with the selfish and pitiful answers we seek. Instead, God, in his Word, has answered the questions he decided were important and it’s only by identifying and asking those questions that we will understand the Bible.