10 Tips For Understanding The Bible

 Each individual Christian needs to study the truth for himself. We must remember that false doctrines will arise and prosper (2 Peter 2:1-3).  We cannot always trust the preacher to see through the error and teach against it; sometimes preachers introduce errors (2 Timothy 3:1-9; 4:2-4).  Though elders are supposed to protect the church from error, sometimes they lead others astray (Acts 20:28-31).

The remedy for error, whether from false teachers inside or outside of the church, remains the same—the truth.  Some will believe a lie because they do not love the truth but enjoy unrighteousness, 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12.  Paul warned Timothy about false teachers and told him to hold to the truth of the scriptures, 2 Timothy 3:13-17.  In order to follow false teachers, one must turn away from the truth, 2 Timothy 4:4.  Though Paul warned that some elders would lead some Christians into false doctrines, but God would save those who follow His word, Acts 20:32.

Truth is the antidote to error.  If we are poisoned, the antidote will be useless if it remains in the bottle.  We must ingest the antidote so it can combat the poison.  Likewise, if we do not ingest God’s word, we will not be able to combat error.

How do we learn the truth and make it part of our lives?  We must read and meditate on God’s word daily.  Not only will God’s word insulate us from error, it will enrich our lives for we will grow in our knowledge of God, learn how to better live our lives, become better spouses, parents, and children, and see our heavenly hope vividly.

We should follow the advice of Paul to Timothy in regards to study.  Paul told the young preacher Timothy to “give attention to reading, exhortation, and doctrine,” 1 Timothy 4:13.


We must spend time reading the Bible to learn the stories and to become familiar with the overall Bible message.  Reading helps us learn the narrative and see how the whole Bible story fits together.  Reading is especially important for new Christians.  Often we will find something in our reading that will turn into a more in depth study.


 Exhortation is encouragement.  We can encourage others with the encouragement that we receive from God’s word, 2 Corinthians 1:4.  We should spend time reading passages that encourage us to continue in what is good.  We can read about Bible characters that did not give up even in the midst of terrible opposition or suffering.  We can also read about bad examples and avoid the decisions they made.  The encouragement that the epistle writers gave to individuals and churches can motivate us to live righteously.  The writers encouraged them to remain faithful and to be busy about God’s work.  Of course, reading about our Savior is exhorting for it reminds us about His wonderful love, profound teaching, and eternal promises.  When God’s word exhorts you, use it to exhort others.


 Doctrine means the teaching that we must follow.  Doctrine only comes from God’s word, 2 Timothy 3:16.  It requires more study and mental effort than simple reading or reading for exhortation.  We must consider what the entire Bible says about a particular issue—both directly and in principle—and draw valid conclusions.  We must know why we do the things we do in personal service and public worship.  Remember, we cannot leave this study to the preacher or the elders.  We must know the truth so we can discern error.

 In addition to the methods of determining authority from the first series of lessons, there are some additional principles offered here to help us read wisely and learn doctrine as taught in God’s word:

  1. Pray to God for wisdom, James 1:5.
  2. Be diligent, not lazy, 2 Timothy 2:15.
  3. Be patient; some things are difficult to understand and might require a lot of time to learn, 2 Peter 3:16.
  4. Be logical.  God’s word does not oppose logic but embraces it, Acts 26:25.
  5. Use common sense.  Jesus spoke to the people in their common language not some hidden code.  We can understand His word, Ephesians 5:17; 1 John 5:20.
  6. Keep it simple.  Since the Bible was written for the common person, do not look for hidden messages or other mystical meaning.  Look for the plain and simple message.
  7. Read in context.  Words and sentences have meaning within a broader context.  Do not try to force a word or passage to mean something not intended by the author.  Look at surrounding passages for understanding.
  8. Read in historical and cultural context.  The Bible events occurred in history so look at the historical and cultural setting and what impact it might have on interpretation.
  9. Handle illustrations and idioms wisely.  Sometimes writers use figures of speech, metaphors, and similes to illustrate points.  Do not make too much of symbols or apply them in ways in which the author did not intend.
  10. Let scripture interpret scripture.  This is probably the most important reminder.  Use clear passages to illuminate confusing passages.  You will find that the more scriptures you learn, the easier it is to understand unfamiliar passages.

Interpreting the Bible and Personal Feelings

“The Bible means different things to different people,” we often hear.  Some adopt this approach because they believe it is unkind to tell someone that their beliefs are wrong.  Others feel like no one can understand the Bible and since many Biblical scholars have different opinions about what a passage means, then it must mean different things to each reader.  In addition to being unscriptural, those who adopt such an approach fail to see the dangerous implications of the statement.

The Bible tells us that we can understand it, Ephesians 5:17.  God did not give us the Bible in a mysterious code that some may interpret different ways.  The Bible was written in the language of the common person.  The English translations we use are easy to read and comprehend.  The Bible often uses everyday objects like seed, fishing, and the body, to illustrate spiritual concepts.  We cannot blame misunderstanding on the text itself for we can understand it.

If each reader can interpret the Bible differently, then the message is irrelevant for there would be no inherent truth—no objective standard—by which we could shape our lives and worship. Error and falsehood is known as opposition to truth.  Instead, the Bible becomes like clay that we can mold into whatever shape pleases us.  The Bible then becomes no different from any other book.  If this view is true, the Bible cannot be authoritative for no two people will understand the law correctly.  Of course, Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:17 opposes this.

The confusion comes when individuals interpret a scripture differently.  Peter acknowledged that some of Paul’s writings were hard to understand but he did not say that it was impossible, 2 Peter 3:15-18.  In fact, Peter said that by growing in the knowledge of God we could recognize and avoid the error of those who twist the truth.

The Bible exhorts believers to “be of the same mind,” 1 Corinthians 1:10.  Worldly approaches to the Bible lead to division, 1 Corinthians 10:11-13; 3:3-4.  Taking a view that is concerned with physical concerns more than spiritual needs will lead us astray, 1 Corinthians 2:14; 1 Timothy 1:5-7; 6:20-21.  This carnal/spiritual conflict will cause religious division.  Paul recognized that such an approach always leads to arguments over scripture because some are misusing God’s word, 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:1-9.  These people usually lead others into their error.

Some will quote “no Scripture is of private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20) to prove that we cannot understand the Bible, at least not without aid.  However, Peter really says, “no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation.”  Peter wrote that the prophetic word was made more sure because they saw it fulfilled in Jesus and the church.  Most translations make a marginal note that interpretation can also be translated origin.  Prophecy did not come by human wisdom or analysis, but God gave the prophets the message, v.21.  This verse has nothing to do with an individual interpretation of Scripture.

Some will acknowledge what the Scripture says but feel that they do not have to obey it or that it really does not matter what they do.  Jeremiah 17:9 warns of the danger of relying on one’s feelings; they can be deceitful.  How can a man decide what God does or does not want?  Even David, a man after God’s own heart, was rebuked for presuming to do something for God in service to Him that He did not command.  In 2 Samuel 7:1-7, David wanted to build a wonderful temple for God and the prophet Nathan told him to do it “for the Lord is with you.”  But God rebuked Nathan and told him to tell David that He did not ask for a temple to be built and prohibited David from doing so!  David and Nathan had a good idea but they acted presumptuously; only God knew what He wanted.  When we set aside God’s will for worship for our own desires, we also act presumptuously.

I studied with a religious group once that told me to pray about what they were teaching; if I had good feelings, what they said was true.  I pointed out an inherent flaw in their approach:  I have often had good feelings about bad things and bad feelings about good things.  I can remember when I have had to tell a good friend and fellow Christian that some friends saw her buying alcohol and were talking about it.  It was good and right for me to talk with her about the bad example she had set, but I had bad feelings of nervousness and sorrow that I had to confront her.  I also had a good feeling when I told off a person that was being a jerk, but I realized later that I handled the situation incorrectly.  Though I felt good about it at the time, I did the wrong thing.  Our basis for evaluating truth must lie outside of ourselves, James 1:23-25; 1 Thessalonians 5:21.

Many things seem good to us but do not please God, Proverbs 14:12.  It is presumptuous for us to put what we want to do above what God has commanded.  Paul wrote that there were many things he thought he ought to do for God, but he was wrong, Acts 26:9; 1 Timothy 1:12-13.  Jesus warned of religious people who would be lost for disobedience, Matthew 7:21-23.  They did what seemed to be wonderful things, but they did not please God.  We must not think that just because we are religious God will be pleased.  God wants obedience to His law, not our desires.

Problems With Greek Word Studies: “Real Meaning”

“Original” Meaning

Commentators can create meaning from word studies.  Luow cites the example of the Greek word HUPEERETEES, used in 1 Corinthians 4:1 (Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.) in a chapter titled “Etymology.  Barclay explained that the meaning was basically, a rower, from its etymology.  R.C. Trench also cited this usage though, in the classical Greek, it was never used in this sense, it always mean a servant.  However, J. B. Hoffman combined servant and rower to mean that the person was an “under rower,” and Trench said that it was the rower on the bottom deck of a Roman trireme.  Other commentators took this to mean a servant of the lowest position.  Yet, linguistic scholars note that there is little difference from this word, translated servant, and the word DIAKONOS, another word for servant.  A little error can go a long way.  (I do remember hearing a lesson on this very thing one time!)

 Root Fallacy

An additional problem comes when one tries to find the original meaning of a compound word by breaking down its parts and considering the meaning of each.  If you were to break down the compound words horsefly (horse + fly) and butterfly (butter + fly) and research those words you would not end up with what we understand a horsefly and butterfly to be.  This error, called a root fallacy, assumes that by looking at the origin of the word roots, we can better understand the meaning.  This does not work with English—a pineapple is neither and apple nor does it grow on a pine tree—and it will not work with the Greek.

Some will commit a root fallacy with 2 Corinthians 9:7:  “God loves a cheerful giver.”  They note that the Greek for cheerful is HILARON.  From HILARON we get the English word hilarious.  Therefore, “God loves a hilarious giver.”  This was not Paul’s intention and we read our modern word hilarious into the first century word translated cheerful.  Another popular root fallacy is to take Romans 1:16:  “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation,” and deduce that since the Greek word translated  power is DUNAMIS, from which we can get dynamite, that “the gospel is the dynamite of God.”  Here, again, we read a modern word into an ancient context, erroneously I must add.  (Note:  D. A. Carson called this type of error semantic anachronism—putting words in the wrong time period)

Form and Meaning

Some problems come from trying to find meaning by the form of the Greek word.  A prime example of this, cited by Luow, is APOSTOLOS.  Commentators will sometimes break down the word into the components send + out and conclude that an apostle is one who is “sent out.”  While Jesus did send the apostles out to teach the word, the word is semantically closer to AGGELOS, a messenger.  The apostle is a messenger for Christ but, more than that, is his special messenger; an ambassador or representative (2 Corinthians 5:20).  Though “sent out” may relate to the word apostle, it is not the dominant meaning.  When you understand something, is there a sense in which you stand under the problem?  There is nothing in the words under and stand that would convey this thought; yet we will break Greek words down this way.

Ancient Meaning

Sometimes commentators will find an ancient use of a word and then explain a later use of that word from that perspective.  A common use is HARMARTIA, which is translated sin.  How many times have we heard (and I have preached!) that this literally means “to miss the mark?”  The poet Homer, who lived 800 years before Christ, regularly uses this word to describe one who missed a target when firing a missile weapon.  However, this ancient meaning is not the real meaning of sin.  If we consider all the passages where sin is used, we can come up with a better understanding of sin.  In addition, one should study all of the words and phrases used for sin.  This study will emphasize the disobedience to God’s law and the guilt incurred as a result.  “A very important fact, always neglected when [sin] is explained…as ‘to miss the target,’ is that among the oldest usages…it not only meant ‘to miss a target,’ but also ‘to make a mistake, to be deprived of, to lose, to neglect.’  Why is ‘to miss a target’ taken as the ‘hidden meaning’ but not one of the others?”

Is The Greek A Perfect Language?

Some have suggested that the Koine Greek (the Greek dialect used in the Bible) is extremely precise and so was a perfect language for the Bible.  I believe this has become part of church folklore.  I have a paper in my files by an unknown author who, in his comments about the Koine becoming a dead (unused) language, “This was a protective device for translators of the New Testament.  With the language static, it is easy to determine exactly what words in that period meant.”  This is oversimplifying the case.  Koine Greek was in use from about 300 B.C. to 500 A.D.—about 800 years—and was not limited to Biblical use.  Every language has change even within the generation of the speakers of that language.  Linguists are quick to point out that the Koine Greek is not an extremely precise language—no language is extremely precise.

Why Study This?

Some people might ask why we would spend time on this subject.  We must be careful in our Bible study not to make the Bible say what it does not really say.  We can do this by misusing Biblical language resources.  Some will try to build a case on the meaning of a Greek word but, if that person is not intimately familiar with the language, its nuances, symbolism, idioms, and other characteristics of the language, the chance for error increases greatly.

We are blessed to have many wonderful translations of the Bible in our own language.  If you read the section in a respectable Bible translation, you will often find that a large number of Hebrew and Greek scholars worked to translate it.  They are experts in these languages and they check one another’s work.  The English Bibles we have reflect the message of the original language.  We will not discover anything in the Greek or Hebrew that is not revealed in the English.

Related Article: Problems With Greek Word Studies: Word Origin

Reference Works

Studies in the Greek New Testament.  Stanley E. Porter.  Peter Lang:  New York, 1996.

Semantics of New Testament Greek.  J. P. Louw.  Fortress Press:  Philadelphia, 1982.

Getting Started With Personal Bible Study

Preparing to Study

  • Make time to study.  Study time will not “just happen.”  There are too many things that can help us waste time.  We must set aside time every day to focus on God’s word.
  • Have a place to study.  An ideal place will have adequate lighting, minimal interruptions, and study resources available.
  • Have a plan for study.  The plan should be realistic and flexible.  It may be the study of an issue or a section of scripture. This will help us focus your study.


  • Get help when needed.  Don’t be afraid to ask someone for help in understanding a passage.  Check the answer with other scriptures to make sure that it is true.
  • Pray to God for wisdom, James 1:2-8.  We are told to pray to God for wisdom for He gives liberally and without reproach.  Knowledge comes from study, wisdom is the ability to use what is studied.  We cannot hope for wisdom if we do not study.  When we study we should not neglect to ask our benevolent God for wisdom.
  • Study with an open mind.  We must be willing to do what God commands.  We must have a “speak Lord, Thy servant hears” attitude.  James likens it to a man looking in a mirror, examining what is pleasing and what must be changed.
  • Use common sense.  The Bible is written in logical language and was written to the common man.  We can understand it.

Approaching the Text

  • Rightly divide the word.  Realize the difference between the Old and New Testaments, the physical and the spiritual, etc.  The context will help determine the difference.
  • Read, re-read, ponder, and read again.  Take time to just read the scriptures and absorb the ideas.  Think about what is being said.  Some passages will become clearer later in the day, in a sermon or class where the text is discussed, or much later through increased knowledge.
  • Be patient.  Some passages are difficult to understand the first couple of times they are read.  Be patient with yourself.  As you know more you will understand more.
  • Look at the context of the passage.  Examine the previous paragraphs and sentences to get the gist of the message.  Ask the probing questions: Who, to whom, what, where, why, how.  Some things are not applicable to us today (i.e., build an ark) but teach important principles.
  • Notice the “little” words and connecting words.  Little words like “if (then),” “so,” “for,” “and,” “but,” etc. are significant for understanding a passage.  Some words like “except,” “therefore,” and “because” link thoughts and arguments.  The omission of these words can drastically affect the meaning.  This part of study cannot be overemphasized.  It is critical to understanding the word of God.

A GREAT Bible Study Launch Pad

Reprinted from Ferrell Jenkins Blog with his permission.

NOTE: Ferrell Jenkins has an insightful blog providing photos, descriptions, and insight into the people, places and cultural practices of the Bible at http://ferrelljenkins.wordpress.com/. Before that he maintained the Biblical Studies Info Page that has extensive links to scholarly resources and other material worthy of study for one’s spiritual growth. This recent article from his blog expounds on the value of the site much better than I could. Visit and bookmark the site today!

Biblical Studies Information Page. For the past ten years I have maintained the Biblical Studies Info Page here. The site was established under another name about four years earlier, then transferred to my own domain. While there are some articles posted there, the site is mostly a series of links to material that I consider worthwhile, especially for the person who has a limited number of sources available in his/her own library. I have fewer hits now than I did several years ago. I think one major reason is that people use search engines such as Google and Yahoo.

Let me suggest that there is still a value to using the Biblical Studies Info Page. The material is divided into several categories which are noted on the left side of the home page. The Links page is of primary interest to readers associated with churches of Christ. The Bible Places category can be very helpful if one is looking for information on biblical sites. (Incidentally, to my knowledge this page was online a few months prior to the highly popular Bibleplaces.com.)

Biblical Studies Info Page

Front page of the Biblical Studies Info Page.

Probably the most important category is marked Scholarly. This page is not scholarly in the sense of doctoral dissertation’s are scholarly (or should be!). I envisioned it as a page of material that a “lay” person could read and be able to have some confidence in. Sometimes there are two links to differing views on a subject. I intend for people to think, examine, and draw their own conclusions. The categories within the page are important: Apologetics, Culture; Archaeology & the Bible; Bible Study Software & Tools; Bibles Available Online; Biblical Backgrounds; Biblical Criticism: Manuscripts & Translations; Blogs and News Pertaining to Biblical Studies; Books; Church History; Documenting Your Online Research; Evangelism; Greek Studies; Judaism; Maps of Bible Lands; Museums and Traveling Exhibits; New Testament Background; Old Testament Materials; Patristics; Periodicals: Scholarly Journals; Photos and Art; Resource Indices; Restoration Movement (history); Study Materials: Online; Theology.

A Video Surprise

By surprise one day I received an Email from Tony Eldridge, a young author and book marketing expert. Tony writes a blog filled with good tips for people who have books to promote. Begin with his home page here, and move on to the blog.

What surprised me was that Tony had prepared a short video explaining the value of the Biblical Studies Info Page for members of the church where he is a member. You might enjoy his introductory video here. He also reviews other web sites that he considers helpful to Bible students.

Our thanks to Tony.

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