The Christian bible is an ancient text written by dozens of people over thousands of years spanning multiple cultures and customs. It is deep and mysterious, yet you can understand the Bible. It is accessible to you and me.
The Apostle Paul writing to his young protege, Timothy, said this,
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.” -2 Timothy 3:16-17 NLT
If you want to know God, one of the best places to start is the Bible.
Most people searching for God inherently understand this, but when they pick up a Bible it’s too hard. Where do I start? How do I understand what is being said? How do I know if this is literal or metaphorical?
Those are all great questions, but let’s start here…
Where to start in the Bible
If you are brand new to the Bible, I suggest you start by reading in the New Testament with the Gospel of John. The New Testament is the story of Jesus, his disciples, and the letters written by some of his followers to various churches across the Roman Empire. The Gospel of John is the last version of the story of Jesus written by his disciple, John.
If you are more experienced in reading the Bible, challenge yourself with something you haven’t read as much. You might try one of the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah or Ezekiel. Maybe you’ve never been able to get through the stories of Moses in Numbers and Deuteronomy…go there!
The easiest translation to understand the Bible
If you are new to reading the Bible, I suggest you read the New Living Translation (NLT). It’s my suggestion because it is a newer translation of the Bible written in a way you and I speak today. It’s a great version, and one I read on a daily basis.
When it comes to reading the Bible, you can use the YouVersion Bible app on your phone, tablet or computer to read many different translations. It’s completely free and a great but basic tool for studying the Bible. You may find a physical copy of the Bible to read from works best for you. It is a way to take notes as you read.
I also know some people who don’t like to read or have a hard time reading, so they consume the Bible via an audio version. The YouVersion app is a great tool for the audio version of the Bible. It’s completely free!
Now that you know what and how you are reading the Bible, it’s time to learn how you go about understanding what you are reading.
1. Pray for Clarity and Understanding
Prayer is both the most important and probably the most overlooked factor to understand the Bible. It doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself a Christian or not. You don’t have to make the prayer long, drawn out and flowery either. Keep it simple like this example:
God, will you open up my eyes and heart as I read your Word today. May I see what you intend for me to see in this passage. Thank you. Amen.
I’ve found when I make this simple but conscious prayer before I read, I see more, I have more clarity, and I understand the Bible better.
Again, while it is a simple and important tool, it’s so easy to overlook. It’s easy to skip ahead to the doing rather than the being, and the being is where spiritual life begin.
2. Read and Meditate on the Bible
It’s finally time to read…so go ahead and read. But read slowly, and don’t worry about reading chapters and chapters or pages and pages in one setting. I try to stick to about one or two chapters in a single reading. The key is comprehension not volume.
Many times I become distracted as I read, and I find myself re-reading the passage. That’s okay. You see, there is an enemy of your soul who wants to destroy both you and your faith. So one of this enemies greatest tools is distraction. Therefore, go ahead and re-read. If you find yourself unable to gain traction, pray. Be bold and ask God for the ability to read and comprehend easily.
After you’ve read the passage one time through, skim through it a second time. This time do it in a more meditative way. Quiet your heart and mind as you read this time, and ask yourself this question, “What in the passage ‘jumped off’ the page?”
The author of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament tells us,
“For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” -Hebrews 4:12 NLT
The Word of God is alive. The reason that word or phrase jumped off the page at you is because it’s living. God knows what you need. He knows what your soul needs to hear. So don’t miss this moment! One of the biggest challenges to understanding the Bible is leaving times of introspection too quickly.
3. Ask Questions and Take Notes
When you come to one of those words or phrases that seems to have a bolder font, spend some time thinking about it. It’s these words and phrases that are key for you to understand the Bible. Ask this question:
What does this mean?
Ask what does that mean for you? Consider what does it mean for the world, your work or school situation, your family? Question what does it mean for your faith?
Asking these questions will make scripture both alive and personal to you. Again, don’t let this moment slip by, so take a physical note of what you are seeing. This note can be in a paper notebook or digitally. The YouVersion app even has a note function you can use.
Consequently, these notes will be invaluable as you look back at your search for knowing God and yourself. Most likely, you’ll find there is as much that you don’t understand as what makes sense. Make a note of this too. Your notes will help you immensely with the next step.
4. Seek Wise Counsel
One of the wisest people to walk the earth was the ancient king of Israel, Solomon. He wrote this piece of wisdom on seeking counsel in the book of Proverbs:
“Without good direction, people lose their way; the more wise counsel you follow, the better your chances.” -Proverbs 11:14 MSG
In the 21st century, there are two ways to seek counsel.
1. Find a friend.
Hopefully there is someone in your life who is a step or two ahead of you in faith. It might be a friend who attends church. It could be your small group leader. You may have access to meet with a pastor, priest, or minister. Leverage these relationships to help you understand the Bible.
Whether it’s a weekly meeting or an occasional coffee get-together, make sure to take your most pressing questions from your notes and ask this question,
This is what I see; what do you see?
2. Search online.
Thankfully, we live in the 21st century, and we don’t have to rely on an expert we may or may not know. We can go old school and find books – bible dictionaries, concordances, commentaries and more. Or we can just use the computer and our friend Google.
There are so many times I continue my quest for understanding by simply typing in this search:
“BIBLE PASSAGE” commentary
A word of caution – online searches (like searching anything online) may bring more confusion than clarity. Typically, the best way to research online is to find a resource you like and go back to it on a regular basis. I’ve found the following resources to be very helpful:
5. Give Yourself Time to Understand
You’ve prayed, meditated on scripture, taken notes on how you interpreted a passage, done research with experts and online. It’s entirely possible you still don’t get it. The passage may be just as confusing as when you read it the very first time.
I’ve been following Jesus for over 30 years. I’ve been in professional ministry for nearly 25 years. I study scripture more than the average person, but I still don’t understand much of it.
However, my knowledge has increased year after year. One piece opening up to me is like a domino knocking down the next piece, and then the next. It’s okay if you’re stumped. Continue to meditate, think, and pray. Understanding will come over time.
At the same time, God is mysterious. He wants to be known, but He remains God. Some things will always be unknowable, and that is okay. So give yourself time, and commit to continuing to seek to understand both scripture and the God who inspired it.
Believe it. You will be changed.
I can promise you this. If you commit to seek and study the Bible, you can understand the Bible, and it will change you. If you both study the Bible and choose to follow Jesus, you will be transformed. The person you are today will be changed for the better in 5, 10, 20, 50 years.
So I challenge you to seek God through the Bible. See if He may be something more than what you’ve given Him credit for. I truly believe if you search with an open mind and heart, you will be surprised in what you find.
You will be transformed.