The goal is not to understand the Bible, it is to become closer to God so we can glorify Him better.
We all need to have the proper goal when we start. Reading the Bible and understanding it better will bring us closer to God, which will help us bring Him glory. In the broadest sense, that really is what life is all about. Sometimes we look so closely at the trees, we don’t see the forest. Lets first spend a little time discussing this larger goal and how reading the Bible fits into this much larger goal.
Becoming closer to Jesus requires three major efforts for all of your life. Imagine you have a 1,000 piece puzzle, or a better representation is a 10,000 piece puzzle. Now divide the pieces into 3 “piles”. You could spend all the time and energy you want on any 1 pile (or even any 2 piles), and you will never get the puzzle put together. Even if you spent a year with one pile, and a year with the next, and a year with the third, you wouldn’t get the puzzle together. You need to work with all 3 “piles” at the same time. So it is with our relationship with Jesus. There are 3 large areas of discipline, and we need to work at all of them. Now thankfully Jesus doesn’t require us to be perfect at all of them, just working at all of them.
Becoming closer to God requires prayer – time communicating with Him.
Knowing someone can only really come by being around them. There is no substitute for spending time with God. If we believe He is alive and loves us, we should be able to be in His presence. Take the time to get to know the person who died for You.
Think of the person you talk to on the phone the most. Lets name this person Alex for the sake of discussion. When Alex calls, does Alex have to tell you who they are? No, you recognize their voice on the phone. Did that happen the first time you spoke to Alex? If I called you, assuming we aren’t close friends, would you recognize my voice? No. You know someone’s voice on the phone because you have spent time on the phone with them. Give God some time on the phone. Do you want Him to be surprised when He does hear your voice on the phone? How will you know when He is calling you, moving in your heart and soul, if you have never spend time on the phone with Him?
Spending time with someone helps you know what they think and what they would do in particular situations. If I asked you, “Would Alex enjoy going to a Bengals football game?”, you would know the answer because you know Alex. Now think about all the other questions I could ask you about Alex.
- Does Alex like poetry?
- Does Alex like to go to church?
- Does Alex think murder is wrong?
- Does Alex think abortion is wrong?
- Does Alex think capital punishment is wrong?
- Does Alex think a child dying from hunger in a world full of food is murder?
- Could Alex ever let a child he loved die of hunger?
- Could Alex ever kill his own son on a cross?
The more time you spend with Alex, the more likely you will know what Alex thinks about more complicated questions. Our relationship with God is like that. If we want to know what God thinks about things, we need to be around Him a lot. And if we know God well, won’t it be easier to understand the book He wrote?
Becoming closer to God requires that we work at living a life truly led by Jesus.
Lets go back to Alex. Lets say you met Alex and got to know Alex a little, and you decided you wanted to get to know Alex better. Would you not do the things Alex enjoyed so you could spend more time with Alex? Wouldn’t you talk about the things Alex like to talk about? Why would becoming closer to God be any different?
You can’t earn heaven, but you can live more and more like Jesus wants you to with His help. We all know we aren’t perfect, and God knows it too. Jesus told the Pharisees He came to the world for the sinners, not the people who thought they were perfect. But with Jesus’ help we can do more of the good He wants and less of the evil we want. Doesn’t it just make sense that this would help us be closer to Him?
Sin separates us from God. You can’t be close to someone you separate yourself from. If Alex didn’t ever use foul language, would Alex want to be around us when we are cussing like a drunken sailor? And if we are not around Alex, can we get to know Alex better? Or maybe Alex’s refusal to be around us when we are cussing teaches us something about Alex so in a way, we are getting to know Alex better, but it is not the ideal way for us to learn. Wouldn’t God be just like that?
If you made an effort to be just like Alex so you could spend more time with Alex, wouldn’t you learn a lot about how Alex feels and what Alex thinks? Wouldn’t making this effort, whether you succeeded or failed, teach you a lot about Alex? Why do we think of God so differently? We shouldn’t. God is just a perfect Alex.
Becoming closer to God requires reading and studying the Bible, the Word of God.
Lets go back to our friend Alex who we would like to get to know better. If Alex wrote a book or an article, wouldn’t you read it? As a matter of fact, if you spent a lot of time and effort writing a book about yourself and your life, and you had a friend who didn’t read that book, wouldn’t you question whether that person was truly a friend or not? Why do we treat God so different than we would treat any of our other close friends?
If Alex had 5 really good friends who decided to write a book about Alex, and you wanted to become a good friend of Alex’s, wouldn’t you read the book Alex’s friends wrote. The Bible is full of stories about the lives of people and how their lives were inter-twined with God. It was actually penned by about 40 people who spent their lives dedicated to serving and knowing God. Why would we not try to learn from them instead of re-inventing the wheel.
Lastly, If you were an athlete in a game that would end in your life or death, wouldn’t you read the rule book?
Reading the Bible, is not supposed to be simple or easy all the time.
Lets talk about this for a little bit. Perhaps we all need a shot of humility when we pick up this book.
The Bible is a lot like a very large puzzle.
Have you ever put together a 1,000 piece puzzle? Were you able to scan all the pieces and instantly see where each piece went? Were you even able to scan every piece at once? Of course not. But did you eventually get the puzzle together? How did you do it? If you were like most people, you first looked for the “edge pieces” because they had a distinct shape you could recognize. In other words, you could recognize something about them. Did you find them all the first time you looked through the puzzle pieces? Did you know where on the edge they all went right away? No, but you scanned through the pieces over and over and did eventually get the outer frame of the puzzle mostly put together.
This is just like reading the Bible. As you read verses over and over (scanning the puzzle’s many pieces) you find a piece here or there that you can relate to. You keep reading even though you don’t know where most of what you are reading fits into your life, but every now and then you find an “edge verse”. You can tell it is the type of verse, phrase or story that you can use, even though you may not know exactly where it fits into your life. As you find more and more of these verses you do eventually start to put a few pieces together to form the majority of the “frame”. At first you think you are “framing” the Bible, but later you will discover that it was framing you.
Now back to that puzzle. You keep looking through the pieces handling the same pieces over and over and over. Every now and again you find a piece that relates to the pieces you have already put together and you place it in the puzzle. Once in while you’ll be looking at the parts of the puzzle you have put together and you will realize that one of the pieces you saw fits at a particular place. You may not be immediately able to find the piece, but you remember it clearly and you know where it goes and the next time you see it you will grab it and immediately put it where it belongs. Now chances are you handled that piece numerous times without it having any significance at all, but now, it suddenly is very important and you want to find it and put it where it belongs.
Again, this is just like reading the Bible. You read verses and phrases and stories over and over and over and it can all be meaningless to you. But God is putting the seeds of His Word in your mind and heart. Then you will have a situation arise in your life, or you will read another story in the Bible, and suddenly that meaning less piece of the Bible puzzle will “fit”. It will make sense and you will know how and why it was put in the Bible, and more importantly put into your life. Again, you will likely think you are getting the puzzle of Bible put together, but in reality, it is the puzzle of your life and your relationship with God that is taking shape.
You guessed it, back to the puzzle. As you find more and more pieces to the puzzle and put them into place, the picture on the puzzle starts to take shape. You have gone over the pieces so many times you are starting to get to know them really well too. Suddenly you start putting pieces in faster, and faster, and faster. Now all the once it seams like every time you touch a piece it means something to you and you at least have an idea where it goes. The puzzle, the pieces, everything is coming together. You once thought you would never get the puzzle together, and now the end is in site.
The same thing happens with the Bible. As you get to know the pieces, they fall into place faster and faster. As the puzzle comes together you are starting to see God for who He really is and you know Him better and better. It is easier to see where the verses and phrases and stories of the Bible fit in. And really, as you see the puzzle come together you are seeing your life come together and you can see where God and the Bible fit into the puzzle of your life.
I’ve been reading the Bible almost every day for over 30 years now. I can honestly say I am more amazed and thrilled by it than I ever have been. I am also amazed at how much I don’t know. I really think I will spend all eternity putting this puzzle of my life, and God, and the Bible together and it will be a fascinating adventure. I am sure that God is so awesome and His Word is so meaningful that I will never run out of pieces to add to the puzzle. As a matter of fact, I already can see that what I thought was the outer frame of the puzzle, is really just an inner core and pieces are starting to fit around the edges making the puzzle grow and grow and grow. I know most of that growth is my growing acceptance of Jesus’ love in my life. I hope and pray a little of that growth is my growing love for Him.
Keep reading and studying the Bible. It is an eternal journey, or maybe a better word is adventure. God will reward and honor Your perseverance.
The Bible was written by the person who holds the universe in existence while he sits in a recliner, with his feet up, sipping a wine so wonderful only he can make it. Do you really think you should be able to easily understand it? Expect to be confused sometimes!
To carry our previous examples forward, think of the Bible this way. Imagine Alex is smarter than a million Albert Einsteins and has more resources available to him than everyone in the world put together. Now imagine Alex creates a puzzle that is 3 dimensional, the size of the actual Sears Tower, and it contains 10 billion pieces. All of that falls well short of properly depicting our awesome God and the wonderful Bible He has given us is.It is also difficult for us to understand the Bible because the author of the Bible in so many ways is not at all like us.
- We are weak, He is so powerful He calmed the wind and the waves.
- We are sickly, He healed us.
- We are harsh and judging, He is forgiving and kind.
- We are selfish, He was a selfless servant all the way to the cross.
- We are impatient, He can wait thousands of years to return as King.
So to truly understand the Bible better, we must become more and more like God. This seems impossible, at least to me, and yet that is exactly what God wants to do with us and within us. How can this happen? Here is a story that may give you some hope and insight.
There once was a young monk who was frustrated with his prayer life and his study of the Bible. He went to an older monk to talk to him about it. The older monk listened, and then told the young monk to take a basket, fill it with sand, and place it outside his door. Every morning the young monk was to pray to God for enlightenment, read the his Bible, and then pour a bucket of water on the basket of sand. After 3 months, the young monk was to return to the older monk and bring the basket with him.
The young monk thought the instructions were rather strange, but out of respect he followed them. Three months later he returned to the old monk carrying an empty basket. The older monk asked the young monk “What happened to the sand that was in the basket?”
The young monk replied “It was all washed away by the water.”
“Do you know what drop of water washed away what grain of sand?” asked the older monk.
“Of course I don’t know that.” The young monk answered.
The old monk responded: “The sand represents the sin in your life. The water is the Word of God and prayer. Prayer and the Word will wash away your sinful acts and thoughts just as the water washed away the sand. But you will not know what Word or what prayer washed away what sin any more than you can know what drop of water washed away what grain of sand.” The young monk thanked the older monk, picked up his basket, filled it with sand, and put it outside his door again.
Because of the awesomeness of our God and His Word, only God can reveal it to us. Thank you Holy Spirit! So as you read, never forget to start with a prayer asking God to open your ears and more importantly your heart. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the Word to you, and ask Him to give you the courage, and love, and humility to be changed by it. The Holy Spirit will honor that prayer. Sometimes He will wait to reveal something till you are at a point in your life where you really need it. Sometimes He may let you wonder in darkness so you appreciate His light. But in the end, He will reveal to you what is best for you, if you are willing to accept it.
Practical, working knowledge of the Bible.
The Bible is not one big book, though when you get to know it well you will likely conclude it has one true author because it is so interwoven. No, the Bible was written by approximately 40 different men over about a 3,000 year period. The different writings of these men were collected and over time accepted as inspired by God. This conglomeration of books makes up the Bible. We have since then made division of the Bible so we can find passages and discuss it etc. I will start with the broadest of these divisions and work down to the most finite.
First, the Bible is divided into 2 large sections. The Old Testament, and the New Testament.
The Old Testament is everything before Jesus’ conception. Before Jesus, the agreement God had with His people was that if they obeyed His law, He would be with them and bless them. The Old Testament is a long description of how this agreement worked out, which was not well at all. It is an endless stream of stories and people who fail, and fail, and fail. Not one among them keeps the law. Some do better than others, but they all fail. And throughout this long relationship there is a constant calling for salvation from God. The Old Testament refers to Jesus over and over and over. Of course, the better You know the New Testament, and really, the better you know Jesus, the easier it is to see the references to Him in the Old Testament. Really, the Old Testament shows us how all man kind is completely incapable of being good enough to keep a relationship with God. It is a mirror in which if we are honest we can see the hopelessness of our own works and efforts and our utter need for God to rescue us.
The New Testament is everything after Jesus’ conception. It is the story of Jesus’ life among us and His establishment of a new agreement between God and man. The 4 Gospels are the story of Jesus life on earth as told by 4 different people. Acts is the story of how Jesus’ church started through the work of the Holy Spirit. The remaining books of the New Testament are letters written to help us understand and live out the new agreement that Jesus established.
The New Testament is really all about how God loved us so much that He was not willing to let us die in our failure to keep the old agreement which depended on keeping the law. It is the story of someone who came and bore our guilt for our sins so we could go free and have a relationship with God. It is a story of hope, and freedom, and love, and mercy. It gives us life and helps us understand how God can be alive in us through faith, and hope and trust in Jesus.
The Old Testament shows us how sin dooms us to death. The New Testament is about how Jesus died for us so we could live through His resurrection.
Now both the Old Testament and the New Testament are a collection of many “books”. These books are different writings by different authors. Some people wrote several books, other authored only one book. Some of the books are long, others are very short. Many of what we call books, especially in the New Testament, are really just letters written to a particular person or to a church.
Books are then divided into chapters, and the chapters are divided into verses. Now the chapters and verses are NOT inspired by God. They are simply instruments we use to help us find and discuss particular phrases or sections of the Bible. When we read the Bible we need to remember that just because it starts a new chapter or verse that doesn’t mean this is a new thought or section in God’s mind or the mind of the human God used to pen His Word to us. Sometimes people are criticized for quoting only half a verse or quoting the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. That criticism is entirely inappropriate. The chapters and verses in the Bible are extremely useful in our studies, but they are not inspired by God.
It is also important to remember, that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is NOT in chronological order. I confess that I do not know how the books were put in the order they are in, but it is not a timeline. The Old Testament is especially repetitive and out of order. So if you find things a bit confusing sometimes, that is natural. Many Bibles have time-lines in them and these can be very helpful. Often at the beginning of a book there is a short synopsis that will tell you about when it was written and what time period it covers.
For more detailed information about the Bible and its divisions, you can start here.
What about all the different translations of the Bible and all the study helps?
There are 2 types of translation “goals”.
1. Try to translate each word or phrase from the original to the desired language as accurately as possible.
These are great if doing serious study or you are researching a particular subject etc. Sometimes they can be hard to read. To truly understand many of the stories or phrases, you need to know about some of the customs, sayings, and lifestyles etc. common at the time and place the book was written.
Examples of this type of translations are:
- New International Version
- New American Standard Version
- King James
2. Try to grasp what the phrase or story meant at the time and bring that point or meaning to the current language.
This type of translation is good for more casual reading and for new readers. They help bring old stories and phrases into a time and language we can relate to. You must realize you are reading the thoughts etc. of the interpreter though, so be a little careful. Don’t use these version to make judgements about serious articles of faith or a particular church’s view
- Examples of this type of translation are:
- New Living Translation (The “Study” version is especially good)
- The Message
- The Way
When confused and it is important to you, go to a website to research and you can read many different translations. Some good websites are noted below.
Also, most bible translations have a “Study” version, or an accompanying study guide. These usually have footnotes to explain things and sometimes have maps and a host of other helpful items. These can be extremely helpful, but again, remember, the footnotes are NOT inspired and they can be misleading.
Different ways to read the Bible.
Casually read, and pray something sticks. I don’t mean to sound derisive when I describe this style. If you sincerely pray that the Holy Spirit will guide you and open your heart and mind, He will!
Read and highlight and take notes. This is a bit more complicated, but the dividends can be enormous. It is important that you get highlighters that won’t bleed through the thin pages of most Bibles. An example is here, but you can get them many places. Having pens that are the same color as the highlighters will allow you to write notes in the margins that easily match what you’ve highlighted. There are many, many different systems for color coding your studies. Below is just one example.
- RED for the plan of salvation, restoration, and related subjects. Red signifies the innocent blood of Jesus, shed for the sinner.
- GREEN for lessons related to the second coming of Christ, heaven and our new life in Christ.
- ORANGE for promises God makes to us.
- YELLOW for Bible prophecy.
- BLUE for the commands and instructions regarding how we are to live our lives.
- LIGHT BLUE is for instructions on how to avoid sin in particular.
- BROWN for sin, death, hell, and related subjects. Brown symbolizes the color of dust.
Sometimes you may need to highlight something with several colors. If your careful you can do that. These systems help you recognize what you are reading, but they can get a little tedious.
Read and keep a journal. This is one of my favorite things to do obviously. It is what this website is mostly built upon. The journal can be of many different type. I have been reading and then writing down the prayers that the scripture leads me to. You could just write down your thoughts about what you have just read. You could meticulously write down everything you think God is teaching in what you read. I have found this to be extremely helpful over the years.
Read looking for fulfilled prophecies. This can be incredibly eye-opening. You can read the Bible in a year just by reading 3 chapters a day. If you go through the entire Bible looking for fulfilled prophecies it will convince you that the Bible was written by a God who knew and could control the future. It is very faith inspiring. It will take some work because sometimes you will read something that sounds like a prophecy, so you will have to do some historical research to see if it has been fulfilled or not. Of course with the web, this is much easier than it once was. There are entire websites dedicated just to this.
Read as if written just for you. This really can be combined with many of the other methods described above. This is simply starting with a prayer that God would show you how what you are about to read applies to you and you alone. Then, when you read, be very careful to look only at how the Word is calling you to change, and pointing out your sin, and show you what God is promising to you. We have a tendency to be judgemental and find passages that make us think, “wow, my friend so-and-so should read this.” This method concentrates on you. I strongly recommend this method because you are the only person you can really change anyway!
So get started!
This has been a lot of information. I hope it has been a help. Reading it is a complete waist of time, unless you pick up your Bible, and start reading. I suggest you start with the New Testament. Pick a method of reading, and go. Just do it and keep doing it. You are at the start of an amazing adventure with God. You cannot imagine what is in front of you if you are willing to just keep reading, praying, and living for Jesus.