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How to understand the Bible

Posted August 16, 2017 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

How to understand the Bible

Posted August 16, 2017 by Mark Anderson Leave a comment

The Bible may well be the world’s most misunderstood book. Having said that, it’s also the world’s best-loved book. Jews cherish its Tanakh, or Old Testament, while Christians take sustenance from both testaments. Muslims, too, believe that the biblical scriptures—which they call the Tawrat (Torah), Zabur (Psalms) and Injil (New Testament)—were given by God.[1] The Bible also provided the moral basis for the development of most of the West’s human rights and freedoms. For all these reasons, it’s important that everyone has some understanding of the biblical scriptures.

However, the biggest reason by far for seeking to understand the Bible is the question of its truth or falsehood. Because the answer to that question can change the course of our life forever.

My own experience is that the Bible guides me and feeds my soul. In fact, if we let it, it ceases to be an object we read and examine. Instead, it examines us, pulling us ever closer to God, its author.

That wouldn’t be good if God were the tyrant many think he is. But the Bible presents him as perfectly

  • Just and fair
  • Wise and good
  • Loving toward his creation
  • Gracious and compassionate
  • Faithful to keep his word[2]

Nothing else comes close to presenting him as clearly in these terms.

But despite its clarity, the Bible can very easily be misunderstood. Some of our difficulty relates to the fact that we no longer speak the languages it was written in—ancient Hebrew and Greek—meaning that most people must read it in translation. Fortunately, the complete Bible has now been translated into well over 500 languages—far more than any other book—and parts of the Bible into thousands more. In some languages—English, for example—there are numerous translations of it too.

Beyond the language issue, much of our difficulty understanding scripture is due to the fact that it reflects the ancient times and cultures it first addressed. Thankfully, though, the Bible is also the world’s most exhaustively studied book. So, everyone can understand it with the help of sound linguists, historians, commentators and theologians.[3]

What’s it all about?

Misunderstanding what the Bible is about can also make it confusing. But that can be helped by a brief overview of its contents and central themes. Basically, the Bible takes us from creation to the consummation and is arranged more or less chronologically, in terms of the unfolding of God’s plan for the world. Starting with creation, it moves directly to the rebellion of Adam and Eve, who carelessly sold to Satan not just themselves, but also the good earth God had entrusted to their care.[4]

Nine chapters later, we encounter God’s promise to bless all of humankind through Abraham,[5] this being God’s first disclosure of his great redemptive plan for the world. Forty some chapters later, he sends Moses to free the Israelites—Abraham’s descendants through Isaac—from slavery in Egypt. Through Moses, he makes a covenant with them, constituting them his people on earth, giving them his law, ordaining sacrifices to cover their sins, and he promises to live among them.

At the heart of God’s law is his commitment to his people—the idea that he loves them and asks for their love in return. Deuteronomy 6:4-5 says,

Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

It’s not that God needs anyone’s love. Rather, we need to love him for our own sake, since that’s what we were made for. Only by loving him, do we reach our full potential as human beings, become the people he intended us to be and find rest.

In the rest of the Old Testament, we find a variety of writings in which God explains what it means to love him and calls his people back to his law. The Old Testament prophets also pointed ahead to the Messiah, who would establish God’s new covenant with humankind.[6] Their predictions weren’t meant  to give the Israelites a detailed understanding of what the Messiah would do. Rather, their prophecies were meant to give them glimpses of what he would do meant to fill them with hope in God’s steadfast commitment to redeem them, despite their frequent rebellion.

In the New Testament, we first encounter four Gospels and the Book of Acts. They tell of the coming of John the Baptist, followed by Jesus, the Messiah, who accomplished our redemption. Among the many things he did, he

  • Gave the perfect law
  • Offered the perfect sacrifice
  • Established God’s new covenant[7]
  • Constituted his followers the new people of God on earth

In all this, Jesus simultaneously showed us how God loves us and what it means to love him in return. After he’d returned to God, he sent his Holy Spirit to continue his work in and through his people. Under the Spirit’s direction, they ceased to be a single ethnic group and became a multiracial, multicultural family instead.

The rest of the New Testament is made up of a series of letters written to the family of God, Christ’s Church, reassuring them of God’s love and telling them what it means to follow Jesus. Then, concluding the Bible, the Revelation underscores a number of points made earlier in the New Testament—in particular, that Jesus

  • Now reigns as King over all the earth
  • Will one day return in power and glory to judge all of humankind
  • Will live and reign with his people on a newly restored earth

In brief, this is what the Bible is about. Most importantly, it declares that, in fulfillment of his promise to Abraham, God anointed Jesus to bring his redemption to humankind. Since the New Testament completes the Old Testament in this way, we find scripture marked by an organic unity that attests to its divine authorship.

In that sense, the books of the Old Testament prophets are like a seed that takes root and grows into a plant, while those of the New Testament are like the plant’s flower and fruit.

The following verses from the Old and New Testaments[8] will give some sense of this:

  • To Abraham: “…All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”[9]
  • “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”[10]
  • “The law of the Lord is perfect; it gives new strength. The commands of the Lord are trustworthy, giving wisdom to those who lack it.”[11]
  • “Our steps are made firm by the Lord when he delights in our way; though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand.”[12]
  • “I will raise up a prophet like you [i.e., Moses] from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf.”[13]
  • “The Lord will redeem those who serve him. No one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.”[14]
  • “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”[15]
  • Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and over-burdened, and I will give you rest! Put on my yoke and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”[16]
  • “How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.”[17]
  • “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”[18]
  • “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”[19]
  • “Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’”[20]
  • “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[21]
  • “All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”[22]
  • “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”[23]
  • “God’s purpose is therefore plain: that the blessing promised to Abraham might reach [non-Jews] through Jesus Christ, and the Spirit might become available to us all by faith.”[24]
  • “Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God.”[25]

The verses above give but a small taste of the rich fare scripture offers. Since newcomers to the Bible may find it confusing, it’s very helpful to know something of what makes the Bible unique—specifically, how it was written and how it came to us. It’s also important to know how authentic and reliable the text of the Bible we now have is. That question will be addressed in a subsequent articlse


[1] However, nearly all Muslims today would qualify this statement, arguing that the text of the Bible has been seriously corrupted. They thus deny the authenticity of the Bible in its present form and are rarely encouraged to read it. For a discussion of the Bible’s authenticity, see the third in this series of articles.

[2] Psa. 119:64, Rom. 2:11, Jas. 3:7, Exod. 34:6, Isa. 30:18, Isa. 40:11, Heb. 10:23.

[3] Isn’t it contradictory to say that the Bible clearly reveals God’s love for humankind and yet admit how difficult some Bible passages are to understand? No, the problem is similar to what happens if you try to read while wearing someone else’s prescription glasses. However clear the printed text is, you’ll find it hard to read it due to the distortion caused by the lenses you’re looking through. Similarly, despite the Bible’s clarity, misunderstood linguistic, cultural and theological issues can seriously distort its text on us.

[4] Gen. 1-3

[5] Gen. 12:1-4

[6] Jer. 31:31-34

[7] Luke 22:20

[8] The first 7 texts are from the Old Testament, followed by 10 texts from the New Testament,

[9] Genesis 12:3 (NIV)

[10] Proverbs 4:18 (NIV)

[11] Psalm 19:7 (GNT)

[12] Psalm 37:23-24 (NRSV)

[13] Deuteronomy 18:18-19 (NLT)

[14] Psalm 34:22 (NRSV)

[15] Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

[16] Matthew 11:28-30 (J.B. Phillips)

[17] Matthew 7:14 (HCSB)

[18] Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV)

[19] Mark 8:35-36 (NIV)

[20] John 8:12 (NRSV)

[21] Matthew 23:12 (NIV)

[22] 1 Peter 5:5-7 (NRSV). This passage includes a quotation from Proverbs 3:34, in the Old Testament.

[23] 1 Peter 3:9 (J.B. Phillips)

[24] Galatians 3:14 (NCV)

[25] Revelation 21:3 (HCSB)

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