How To Read The Bible

For a follower of Jesus, there is nothing we need to understand more in order to answer the challenges of skeptics, critics, and other religions than the Bible. The scriptures are our look into the character of God, and the world as He made it. Our effectiveness as Christian ambassadors can depend on whether we are able to articulate the Gospel and its necessity in the story of humanity. We can learn all the answers to different questions that an atheist or some adherent to a different religion might pose, but if we don’t understand God’s word, we will not be able to lead a person as far as we are called to.

In addition to this, it is our understanding of the truth of God’s word that will protect us from being led astray by empty deception, contradictory philosophies, and theological cults that seek to twist the Bible for their own agenda. Statistics show that close to 80% of Mormon converts were former Christians, and the figures are similar for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both of these groups see the Bible as a source of authority, but convince former Christians to follow them by twisting the Bible and reading it improperly. The reason so many Christians are persuaded by these groups is that we don’t read our bibles properly either, and therefore don’t have any idea how to defend the essential truths of the Christian faith, without which we are lost.

Hopefully this helps to establish some good basic ground rules in biblical interpretation, and in doing so, creates a deeper understanding and a deeper love for God’s word.

  1. Never Read A Bible Verse

This is by far the most important tool we can learn in reading our bibles. Groups like the Mormons and the JW’s have created entire doctrines out of their habit of ripping verses out of their context, and thereby distorting the intended meaning in the process. So when trying to understand a doctrine or concept in the bible, NEVER READ A BIBLE VERSE. Always read at least a paragraph or more to make sure you understand the flow of thought that is going on in the text. Have you ever walked in on the middle of a conversation? You most likely won’t know what they are talking about at the moment unless someone tells you what has already been said. The same problem happens when we take a verse in isolation and try to figure out what is going on in the passage. We likely might get it wrong because we don’t even know what the context is. In reality, we can isolate all kinds of verses in the bible that will support all kinds of things, but if the verse we are using clearly means something else, then it is not God’s word. Often times a clear indicator that we need to read more, is when a verse start with; For, Therefore, Because of this, etc. If the passage you are reading starts with a word like that, it means you need to read back further. It would be similar to a friend starting a sentence with the word “because,” and then continuing on. You would need to know what came before the “because” in order to make sense of what he or she might be saying. Apply this to your favorite Bible passages, and you may be surprised how the meaning changes.

  1. Genre

There are many different genres within the bible, and the genre or type of book it is will have a great bearing on how and where the passage in question will fit into our interpretation of the bible as a whole. The bible after all, is not one book, but rather 66 books, and therefore the individual book we are reading will have different weight on different subjects. The different genres within the bible are poetry, wisdom, prophecy, historical narrative, apocalyptic, etc. We don’t read Proverbs to learn about the end times, and we don’t read Deuteronomy to learn about the code of conduct for the church. Those books serve a different purpose in God’s revelation. Both are important, but only when used and understood properly.

 

 

  1. Historical Context

Sometimes it is necessary to understand the backdrop in which a specific book was written in order to understand what broader point is being made by the writer. This can often require a bit of research on our part, whether in a commentary or history book or google (with caution), to come to grips with what is really going on behind the scenes. One clear example of this comes from Leviticus chapter 20. Here we read;  The Lord spoke to Moses: “You are to say to the Israelites, ‘Any man from the Israelites or from the foreigners who reside in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death; the people of the land must pelt him with stones. I myself will set my face against that man and cut him off from the midst of his people, because he has given some of his children to Molech and thereby defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If, however, the people of the land shut their eyes to that man when he gives some of his children to Molech so that they do not put him to death, I myself will set my face against that man and his clan. I will cut off from the midst of their people both him and all who follow after him in spiritual prostitution, to commit prostitution by worshiping Molech.” Why such a harsh punishment for “giving “your children to Molech?  An understanding of the historical context can often give a greater insight into a passage, and sometimes even change the way we interpret it. What we have learned from studying the Canaanite culture through archeology, is that Molech was a Canaanite god. When people gave their children to Molech, they actually burnt their children alive by placing them into the arms of a Molech statue with fire underneath them until they had been so thoroughly cooked that they fell through the statue’s arms into a big pot. As we can see, when we understand what was really going on at the time, we see why God was so angry about this, and it was one of the reasons God told the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites completely.

  1. Desciptive vs Presciptive

Another very important principle for interpreting our bibles properly is distinguishing properly between what is descriptive and prescriptive. In other words, sometimes the bible is telling us what happened, and sometimes it is telling us what we should do. Most of us make this distinction in obvious cases, but fail to do it in less obvious cases. For example, we all understand that when the bible describes David’s adultery with Bathsheba, it is not suggesting that it supports this behavior. It is descriptive. Sometimes the bible seems like it is telling us to do something, but the passage falls into the category of descriptive because of who it was written to and why. An example of this would be when we read Leviticus 19. In there we read prohibitions against everything from planting two kinds of seed in your field, to not shaving hair off the sides of your head, to not wearing clothes made of different kinds of cloth. These were all things commanded of the Israelites to keep them separate from the surrounding nations, not marching orders for New Testament believers. Despite this, many people will pick certain verses in this chapter and apply them to people in the church today, even though they are not justified in doing so. Not allowing any tattoos, based on Leviticus 19:28, would be a common example. However, when an Old Testament law is repeated in the New Testament, or when one of the Apostles for example, gives instructions to new believers in one of their letters, it is prescriptive. Take the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor[a]effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” We can be assured that he is prescribing what is unacceptable behaviour of followers of Jesus, and that people who see nothing wrong with these things cannot truly call themselves Christians.

 

  1. Interpret the Vague in light of the clear

If we come across a passage in our reading that seems a bit vague, we should never interpret that passage in a way that contradicts a much clearer verse on the same subject. If we are affirming a contradiction in the bible, then our interpretation needs to change. A clear example of this would be in John 17:3, where Jesus says,”  Now this is eternal life—that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent.” Jehovah’s Witnesses use this verse to explain how the Father, and not Jesus is the “only true God.” However, if we hold this interpretation to be true, we have a contradiction with many other passages. If we read just a few verses down in verse 5, Jesus says,” Now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with that glory I had with You before the world existed.” How can Jesus be asking to be glorified? Isaiah 48:11 says,” I will act for My own sake, indeed, My own, for how can I[a] be defiled?
I will not give My glory to another.”
In other words, if Jesus is saying He is not God, then he commits blasphemy a couple of verses later by claiming glory for Himself. Furthermore, John 1:1-3 says,” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” The Gospel of John is clearly teaching here that Jesus was not created, but that He created all things, because He is God. So as we can see, the Jehovah’s Witness interpretation of John 17:3 cannot be correct, or it creates MAJOR problems in the rest of the Bible. We always use verses that are much clearer to interpret verses that are not so clear, and in this way, there are no contradictions.

  1. Translations

I am sure most people are aware that there are many different translations of the Bible. There is The NIV, the KJV, the NKJV, the NASB, the RSV, the HCSB, and so on. The reason is because each version is designed to suit a different purpose. Some versions, like The NASB for example, are called a formal equivalency translation. This means it is essentially a word-for-word translation. The result is a text that is very true to the original words, but often awkward to read. This type of translation is essential when a single word makes the difference. Other translations, like the NIV, are called dynamic equivalency. This is more of a thought-for-thought translation. The result is a text that is much nicer to read, but with the words in a different order and using more contemporary language to relay the spirit of a passage with more clarity. When studying the Bible, we should always cross reference with a word-for-word version like the NASB, to make sure we are correct in what we think a passage is saying.

The Bible is a source of reliable truth, and approaching it with the proper tools will help us to see what we were meant to, and discard what we were not.  I hope these tools will help you as much as they have helped me.

 

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