What do you do when the Bible is hard to understand?
What do you do when the Bible is hard to understand?
This week — actually for the past 2 weeks — I’ve been working on writing a lesson for Daniel 9. Daniel 9 is a chapter that contains some prophecies that make it kind of tricky to understand. As I worked on this lesson this week, I thought I would share 3 tips with you to help you understand the Bible when it gets hard to understand.
Tip 1: It’s all about Jesus
All of it is about Jesus
The most important overarching principle of reading the Bible is that it’s all about Jesus. All of the Bible — both Old and New Testaments — tell us about Christ. The Old Testament tells us why we need Christ an what he will be like when he comes.
When the religious leaders were trying to entrap and kill Jesus he told them:
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me
John 5:39 ESV
From the very beginning of the Bible we see foreshadowing of Jesus. Following Adam and Eve’s first sin, God told serpent:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
Genesis 3:15 ESV
Then, he covered the first family’s nakedness by executing an animal and covering them with its skin. This anticipates the principle from Hebrews 9:22:
…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Hebrews 9:22 ESV
It also demonstrates that the failure of the man and woman to cover their nakedness with the clothing they tried to make from fig leaves was because they needed a covering for their sin that came from the sacrifice just as our righteousness is the gift of God purchased by the sacrifice of Jesus:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…
Isaiah 61:10 ESV
This thread of Christ and his deliverance is echoed throughout the Old Testament. For instance, when the nation of Israel needed a hero, David arrived on the scene and killed the giant while the other warriors cowered nearby. Jesus is the Savior who slew the giants of sin and death when all we could do was cower on the sidelines.
About Jesus, not me (or you)
The challenge we face as 21st Century readers is that we often try to find ourselves, rather than Jesus, as we read the Bible. The Bible is about Jesus. He is the main character of the Bible. Every story in the Bible primarily teaches us about him. Every other character in the Bible was a supporting Character whose arc was devised to tell us about Jesus. We have a similar role in redemptive history. Our own stories are brief interactions with Jesus that continue to show him and his glory to others.
Always begin reading the Bible by looking for Jesus.
Tip 2: Genre matters
We all read different types of books, but we don’t read them all the same way. Great fiction authors and historians are both trying to teach us something about our world, but they do it very differently.
Some people talk about reading the Bible literally. That’s exactly how the Bible should be read if, by literally, you mean according to a passage’s type of literature. Different books and passages from the Bible have to be understood differently.
Much of the Bible is narrative. God uses joy and heartbreak in the lives of his people to show us what he is like. Some of the Bible is poetry that proclaims the greatness of God. It often uses metaphors and allusions to show us who God is and how he has revealed himself to us. Some of the Bible is wisdom literature full of insights how to live in a way that allows our lives to point to Jesus. Some of the Bible teaches us very directly who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Much of the Apostles’ writings clearly tell us who Jesus was and what he was like.
Always try to understand what genre you are reading when you read the Bible.
Tip 3: Look for law and gospel
When many people think of God’s law, they think of The Ten Commandments or the first five books of the Old Testament. Those are full of God’s law, but there’s more to it than that. When many people think of the gospel, they think of the first four books of the New Testament or the passages in the New Testament letters that tell us about how Jesus died receiving the punishment for our sin and rose from the grave. That, of course, is the gospel. But, did you know that you can use the law and gospel as a tool for understanding all of the Bible?
When you read the Bible, always keep your eyes open for commands. Commands or imperatives are the law of God in both the Old and New Testaments. When Moses or David or Jesus or Paul or Peter gives us a command, that command is law. Law usually pretty easy to identify because it has a verb that involves doing something like: “Thou shalt,” “you must,” “you should,” “do this,” or “do that.” Back in the 16th Century theologians understood that these commands that make up the law of God exist for three big reasons (I used Ligonier Ministries web site to refresh my memory on these):
- To show us our sin — all of us.
When God gives us a command, if we are honest, we realize we don’t measure up to it. God’s law demands perfection, and we all break all the laws all the time. That’s why in the sermon on the mount, Jesus describes adultery as looking with lust and murder as being angry with someone. (No, not all anger is murder or every look at a woman is adultery, but we have all crossed those lines.) God’s law first shows us how we fall short, so we will look to Jesus for our salvation.
- To restrain us.
God’s law given through scripture and through civil authorities gives all of us a sense of right and wrong throughout all history and in every culture. We all understand that taking from others is wrong even though different cultures draw the lines a little differently.
- To tell us God’s will.
How do we know God’s will? The law tells us how God wants us to live. When we are obedient to God’s law, we are doing God’s will. When we have a decision that is not guided by God’s law, we act in wisdom and freedom. (More on that another time.)
What about the gospel? Whenever you see in the Bible a statement that tells you who you are in Christ, you are reading an announcement of who God has made you in Christ. Throughout the Bible, we see statements about us that tell us we are healed, resurrected, forgiven, righteous and children of God among many, many other promises in Christ. All of these promises find their “yes” in Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20).
No, I’m not talking about prosperity gospel because the fulfillment of these promises is in our resurrection in Christ — the completion of which we will not experience in this life. But, we do receive the firstfruits of our resurrection in this life as the Holy Spirit dwells in every believer as the seal of our salvation as well as Christ’s presence with us in the Spirit as we go about the task of making disciples.
So, as you read the Bible always keep your eye open for commands and promises that teach us our shortcomings and God’s will for our obedience as well as God’s promises to us in Christ.
What if you need a little more help?
Well, I guess it’s time for me to finish my lesson on Daniel 9. Say a prayer for me that I get it right. That leads me to the last tool we have when we need to know what the Bible says: commentaries.
Just about any time I write a lesson or a sermon, I find a good commentary to help me correctly understand the passage I am teaching. I like to think of commentaries like having another believer (who is way smarter than I am) to guide me through the text I am teaching.
When I’m reading a passage in order to teach through it, I often have insights that bring the passage to life. Those are really exciting moments because I know the people I will be teaching will be wowed by something about God or what he has done for us. Commentaries are very important to me in these moments because I want to make sure that insight is not something new.
I know you’re probably thinking: “Wait a minute! Don’t you want to share something new?” Yes. I want to share an insight that is new to the people I am teaching. However, I don’t want to share a completely new idea. Because the Bible has been studied for over two thousand years, someone has had just about all the correct understandings of the Bible. Any new understanding I have about a biblical text is probably wrong. So, when I’m studying a passage, and I come up with an idea I can’t find in a commentary, I check another commentary. If I can’t find it after checking a couple, I move on. As much as I want to share new ideas with the people I teach, I want to get it right.
The problem for most people is that commentaries can be kind of expensive. Here are a couple solutions:
First, John Calvin has written commentaries on just about every book of the Bible. His commentaries are available online for free. They are not super easy to understand, but they are a great place to start if you don’t have another option available to you. You can find them here: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/commentaries.i.html
Warren Wiersbe has also written a commentary on just about every book of the Bible. These are available individually or together in two volumes. You can probably find them wherever your order books. Here is a link to the set at lifeway.com. The lifeway version comes with a CD ROM I assume is searchable:
Another great solution is to simply make sure the commentaries you are purchasing are worth having. Before I buy just about any commentary, I check bestcommentaries.com. There you can find a list of commentaries for every book of the Bible. Each commentary is rated with info on how helpful it is to people with different purposes.
Because the Bible is worth getting right, I would encourage you to begin investing in commentaries as you work to understand the Bible.
Oh yeah. And pray. Maybe, we should have started there. God’s Spirit who dwells inside every believer works in us, so we can understand God’s word. Jesus is God’s revelation to us — he is all the revelation we need (Hebrews 1:1-3). The Bible about 1,500 years of God-breathed words telling us about Jesus. God’s Spirit illuminates that revelation, so we can understand who Jesus is and how to follow him at the deepest part of who we are. So, anytime you open your Bible, pray. Ask God to cause his Spirit to use those words to change you at your very core, so you can be a disciple of Jesus and a disciple-maker.
And, as you pray, please pray for me. When I read the Bible God uses his words not just to instruct me, but to instruct hundreds of other people.
God’s word is rich. It is active in every believer by his Spirit, so read it, understand it and let God’s Spirit change you.