There’s nothing more fundamental to living the Christian life than studying the Bible. As biblical scholar Charles Ryrie expressed, “The Bible is the greatest of all books; to study it is the noblest of all pursuits; to understand it, the highest of all goals.”1 Similarly, D. A. Carson writes that with the Bible “we are dealing with God’s thoughts” and are therefore “obligated to take the greatest pains to understand them truly and to explain them clearly.”2 Scripture itself exhorts us to engage with it deeply (e.g., Psalm 119) and to “do your best to present yourself to God as one . . . who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that we don’t study Scripture just to add to our storehouse of knowledge, but in order to know and love God more deeply, and to grow spiritually. Peter encouraged his readers to “crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Paul prayed that the Colossian Christians would be filled “with the knowledge of [God’s] will” so that they would “live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:9-10).
It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t study Scripture just to add to our storehouse of knowledge, but in order to know and love God more deeply, and to grow spiritually
Despite most Christians’ desire to understand Scripture better, the modern-day reader encounters some challenges. We’re separated from the original authors and audience of Scripture by time, language, culture, and (for most of us) geography. We also may not understand what the storyline of the Bible is about, and may not be aware of some important interpretive practices that we need to employ.
In what follows, we’ll commend some important principles for how to read and understand the Bible, and also recommend some helpful tools that will illuminate otherwise hidden or obscure meanings. If utilized, all of these together will greatly enrich your ability to enjoy and benefit from your study of God’s Word.
The Bible’s Big Story
Nearly everything about understanding any written text relates to context, and understanding the Bible’s big picture is the best context to begin with. If we know the overall shape of any story, it’s much easier to place any episode that happens within the context of the whole—just as it’s easier to put a jigsaw puzzle together if you have the picture on the box to go by.
The Bible’s overall storyline can be summarized as the redemption of human beings from sin by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This can be compared to a four-act play in which the story of redemption unfolds. The four acts include:
- (Act 1) Creation — God creates a perfect world and gives human beings the responsibility of caring for and developing it. Adam and Eve enjoy blessed fellowship with each other and with God. (Genesis 1 and 2).
- (Act 2) Fall — The first couple rebels by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and are banished from the garden and God’s presence. Creation comes under a curse, and Adam and Eve are alienated from God and each other, and every human being thereafter inherits a sinful, rebellious nature. (Genesis 3; Romans 5)
- (Act 3) Redemption — Immediately after the fall, God reveals a first glimpse at his plan to rescue humankind: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). God foretells that Jesus will one day defeat Satan for good, putting a final end to evil (cf. Revelation 20:10).
- (Act 4) Restoration — With evil defeated, God will create a new heavens and new earth in which he will have unbroken fellowship with his people, as he once did in the garden with Adam and Eve. What was lost will be restored, and the redeemed will live in joy and peace in God’s presence forever. (Revelation 21-22)3
Once you understand the Bible’s overall storyline, you can make better sense of any book, passage, or verse by seeing where it fits within this big picture. This structure also provides guardrails that help prevent misinterpretation of the Bible, since any proposed understanding that contradicts or distorts this story can be dismissed as contrary to Scripture.
Literary and Historical Contexts
Along with the big-picture context, it’s also important to explore the literary and historical contexts of a passage or verse. The goal is to determine what the author intended to convey by what he wrote. We want to uncover the author’s intended meaning rather than imposing our own meaning on the text.
The literary context involves determining the genre of the passage, along with how it fits within the verses that surround it, and within the book in which it appears. This is a basic interpretive principle that applies to any written text that we want to understand. Concerning genre, for example, since Jesus’s story about the prodigal son is a parable, we need not consider questions that would be appropriate for a historical narrative, such as on what dates the events took place, or if the son and his more faithful brother eventually reconciled. Similarly, the surrounding verses or sections or books of a passage are the best indicators of its meaning. Ignoring these will nearly always lead to misinterpretation.
Historical and cultural contexts are also important. As one author quipped, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”4 Numerous aspects of ancient Near Eastern culture are unfamiliar to us today, and understanding them can shed much light on biblical texts. To cite just one example, it’s difficult for us to grasp today just how radical it was for Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet as recorded in John 13. This was a task reserved for the lowest servant in a household, and for Jesus, a revered teacher, to wash his disciples’ feet would have been unthinkable. In doing so, Jesus turned the cultural expectation on its head, and demonstrated an astounding level of humility and service that he expected the disciples to emulate.5
Numerous aspects of ancient Near Eastern culture are unfamiliar to us today, and understanding them can shed much light on biblical texts
Once the author’s intended meaning in a passage is arrived at using these contextual clues, the final step is to consider how the passage applies to your own life. We don’t have space here to explore this step in detail, but biblical scholar Matthew Harmon suggests three questions to ask of a passage in order to discern how to apply it to your personal circumstances: 1) What does God want me to think? 2) What does God want me to desire? and 3) What does God want me to do? Echoing our earlier observation about the end-goal of Bible study, Harmon relates that the “goal of understanding the Bible and applying it to our lives is life transformation. We want God’s Spirit to use God’s Word to make us more like God’s Son.”6
The Right Tools
Since we as modern readers need help uncovering the literary and historical-cultural contexts of Scripture, we need a proper set of tools for the job. Two of the best to invest in are a good study Bible and commentary set. Study Bibles provide brief explanations of passages or individual verses that help uncover the original meaning of the text. Many study Bibles also suggest ways to practically apply the text to one’s life. For more in-depth study, a commentary is the most useful tool. Some commentaries cover the entire Bible in a single volume, while others devote one or more volumes to a single biblical book. Commentaries contain a wealth of information on the literary aspects of biblical passages (such as genre, or the meaning of original-language words), along with illuminating historical and cultural insights. Some commentaries are quite technical, while others are written for those new to Scripture, so it’s helpful to preview a sample or read reviews to ensure that you purchase a commentary that will best help you in your study of the Bible.7
Christopher L. Reese (MDiv, ThM) is a writer, editor, and journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of The Worldview Bulletin and cofounder of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. He is a general editor of the Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2017) and Three Views on Christianity and Science (Zondervan, 2021) and his work has appeared in Christianity Today, Bible Gateway, Beliefnet, and other sites.