This is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Understand the Bible” series. This and the following six installments of “How to Understand the Bible” address the all-important subject of how to interpret Scripture. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
I shudder to think how close I came to giving up on the Bible. Like many people, I tried for years to read Scripture in ways that were doomed to fail. My way of reading made the Bible hard to understand, and it made me think this book was perhaps too inscrutable or too out of date for me to pay attention to it. Yes, it was convenient when other people picked out the good bits and made juicy quotes just perfect for a bumper sticker: “The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1
), “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matt. 6:34
), “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4
And then there is, “God helps those who help themselves.” Oops! That’s not actually in the Bible. But like many biblically illiterate people, I thought it was.
This was dangerous. I was missing the word of God. Worst, I was misinterpreting the word of God because when we quote a verse out of context, we usually twist its true meaning and use it to reinforce our preconceptions. The solution is to read Scripture on its own terms. To read it widely and repeatedly. To accept the fact that these are ancient documents written in a time and place far removed, and so it takes patience and work to understand. But as any gold miner knows, it is worth as much time and effort as it takes to get gold out of the mine.
What is the most natural way to read the Bible?
1. We need to learn the context of the particular biblical book we are reading. We read Jeremiah differently than we read Ephesians or Revelation. These are all the word of God, but given to us through the words of three very different men in different circumstances. If you have a good study Bible, all you need to do is carefully read the introduction at the start of the book, where the biblical scholars will outline the author, circumstances, and content. Look up the biblical book in a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia, and you will get much more information—and more yet if you read the introduction in a commentary.
[NOTE: One of the most helpful books on reading Scripture is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.]
2. Read the translation that you can understand and that motivates you to keep reading. Remember, the best translation for you is the one you’ll actually read. There have been times in my life when reading a thought-by-thought translation was the best thing to do (see chapter 4 on translations), and other times reading a word-for-word translation. It is best to settle into one version you’ll typically read and reread.
3. Read at a reasonable pace and try to ignore the chapter and verse numbers. We would all understand the Bible much better if we read it freely and naturally, rather than like a step-by-step instruction manual. When you get a letter from a friend or relative, you just sit down and read it through because that is the best way to understand his or her message. No one watches movies in five-minute installments, and no one would say that after viewing still photos of a movie, you have seen that movie. Yet reading a “verse of the day” is very popular. If you take 20 minutes instead of 5 to read a biblical book, you will get through Romans in three sittings, Genesis in about six sittings, and many biblical books, like the epistles, in single sittings. Reading for comprehension is all about synthesis—connecting all the small ideas with the large controlling ideas. The payoff is enormous.
[Check out The Story: The Bible as One Continuing Story of God and His People.]
4. Follow a reading plan. No one wants to open the Bible randomly each day and read what is there. There are many excellent reading plans that organize a comprehensive reading of Scripture. Some go from Genesis to Revelation, but many help the reader by moving about the Bible, going back and forth in the Old and New Testaments, for instance. Many offer a way to read the whole Bible in a year. This is not too difficult. It takes only 15 minutes a day.
However, this is the key: Don’t get bogged down when you’re doing that 15 minutes of reading and you are having a hard time understanding it. This is why most people give up. Just keep reading. Read if you understand and read if you’re in a passage you do not understand. If you are reading the word of God as a lifestyle, you’ll come back to that passage again and again. It may be that you’ll understand it the fourth time you read it, or you’ll understand it when you get to the end of the book. If you have doubts you’ll be able to be committed to reading 15 minutes a day, then choose a two-year reading plan, which takes just seven minutes a day.
[Check out Bible Gateway’s Bible reading plans.]
Look at it this way: God is there for you for your whole life. On good days and bad days. And the word of God is there for you for your whole life. Just read. Just read. Just read.
Get the whole book version of How to Understand the Bible here. Not yet signed up to receive “How to Understand the Bible” via email? You can follow along here at the blog, but we recommend signing up for email updates here. “How to Understand the Bible” is available as a print book at WordWay.org.
Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.