The Bible is a very creative and powerful book.
It inspires countless people toward remarkable acts of love, miracles, selflessness, and world changing significance.
Others chop verses from the Bible to justify bizarre beliefs (and establish some pretty weird cults as well.)
The Bible was penned by over 40 authors (all believers in God) on three continents over two thousand years. So, how should we rightly understand this book in it’s varied literary forms, time periods, stories, and personal letters?
Here are 10 principles I’ve picked up over the years for understanding (and enjoying) the Bible.
10 “Commandments” for Understanding the Bible
1) Context matters.
The author’s intent, the audience, and the historical and cultural setting should influence our understanding. When we take scripture out of context, we may accidentally stand up for a “truth” that’s out of line with the original intent of a part of scripture.
2) Understand obscure parts of the Bible in light of the whole of the Bible.
Ever find something in the Bible, and you’re like, “Say what?!!” When you find something that sticks out as odd, give it time and dig deeper. Understanding the whole of scripture will help you understand the obscure parts. (And, yes, like any normal person, you will probably still have a ton of questions. I’ve learned to run from anyone who thinks they’ve got the answers for everything.)
You can’t “cherry pick” a scripture, say, “The Bible says…” and build a whole new doctrine out of it when it contradicts the obvious major teachings of the rest of the Bible. (When people do this, weird cults are often the result).
If we use the Bible without this understanding, we can become judgmental, arrogant, and harmful in how we apply it.
3) The Holy Spirit teaches us through the Bible.
The Holy Trinity is not “Father, Son, and Holy Scripture.” The written Scripture points us toward God, but it is not God. We worship God, not the Bible. God created us to have a dynamic relationship with Him, not just with a book. If the stories of God’s interactions with people in the Bible tell us one thing more than any other, it’s that God is close, He’s not far away. He reveals Himself to anyone who genuinely seeks for Him.
Jesus told his disciples, “The Holy Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of everything I have told you.” (John 14:26) We can trust the authors of scripture were guided by the Holy Spirit. In the same way, we can trust the Holy Spirit to teach us through the scriptures.
4) The Bible tells the story of God’s redemptive plan for His people and for the planet.
Knowing the overall story puts the varied parts of the Bible into context.
5) The Bible is best understood in community and interaction.
One of my favorite activities is to sit with diverse groups of people over a meal, read a Bible story, and discuss together how it applies to our lives. I’m continually amazed at how other people’s insights into scripture give me new perspective for applying them in my life.
6) The Bible was written during different covenants God made with His people at certain times.
God is unchanging. But it helps to understand the terms of the covenant in which different scriptures were written. For example, much of the “Old Testament” is written under a covenant incorporating a Levitical priesthood, food and cleansing rituals, etc. Within this Old Covenant, prophets continually prophesied that one day the Messiah would come would remove all sin and incorporate a new covenant. Today, those who are aligned with Jesus live under that New Covenant God made with us through Christ.
7) The clear commands of God in the Bible apply to everyone, everywhere (ie: Love God and love your neighbor, Believe the Good News, etc.) but not every individual scripture immediately applies as a precise rule for all people, everywhere.
There’s a ton of stuff in the Bible that was directed to specific people and situations. We can derive insight and advice from those stories, but we must understand those sections in light of the history in which they were written. For example, “Now, go. Attack the Amalekites…” Imagine trying to obey scripture if you’re taking that out of context.
8) There are three levels of authority when we read the Bible. Here they are in order of highest to lowest:
The Clear Commands of God (apply to all people, everywhere)
Apostolic Precedents in the Bible (New Testament anyway)
Modern Church Traditions – inherited practices from previous generations that may or may not align with the higher levels of authority above.
If we get the levels of authority out of balance, things get wacky quickly.
9) Read the Bible to develop a meaningful relationship with God and others.
The Bible is a gift from God to us. It tells stories of real-life interactions between God and people who lived in specific times, places, and varied socio-economic conditions. Some had a great relationship with God; some not so great. We can learn from their examples.
These stories invite us to get to know God and do life with Him.
10) The entire Bible points to Jesus.
If we miss who Jesus is and what he’s like, we will easily misapply the Bible.
The Bible is described as the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17). (of course, not a physical sword, but a spiritual one). Like any weapon, it can be wielded rightly for good or wrongly for harm.
“There is one who speaks rashly, like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18)
Nations have tried to outlaw it. People have died for it’s preservation. It remains the best selling book in all of history. More than any other text or philosophy, the Bible is the ultimate literary guide for pointing the way toward what God is like and how He thinks and feels about the world. But, similar to how my own children don’t know me because they read a book about me, the Bible can inspire us to get to know God personally. As our relationship with God grows, we will increasingly reflect God’s character (Love) in the world.
I love the Bible. Let’s dive into it with understanding. Then we’ll become people who truly know God and speak with wisdom to bring healing to our world.
What other helpful principles for understanding the Bible have you discovered?