The Bible is a big book. How can you truly understand it?
Understanding the bible requires three important initial concepts. You need to be saved, you need a good translation, and finally, you need to understand practical hermeneutics. This post addresses these three areas so you can understand and then apply the Bible to your life. Just as importantly, it would be nice to get an overall perspective of the bible. From Genesis to Revelation, you can get an overview of the Bible in this post.
What the Bible says about itself
The Bible claims both to offer salvation and to be the inspired word of God;
“…you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-17 NIV)
The Bible claims that only those who are saved can even understand the Bible;
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,“Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16)
The Bible is complete unto itself and cannot be added to or taken away.
“Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.” (Revelation 22:18-19)
So, in summary, the Bible is the inspired perfect word of a perfect God, who can save and can only be understood if one is saved. Finally, the bible is complete unto itself, and both the Old and New Testaments contain warnings against adding to or removing from the Bible.
Of course, if you don’t believe in God or the Bible, it may be useful to at least read 1 John and determine the existence of God and the viability of the Word of God, the Bible.
Using a good translation
The original Bible was written in three languages: Hebrew was used for the Old Testament. About half of Daniel, two passages in Ezra, and one statement from Christ while on the cross were penned in Aramaic (a sister language to Hebrew.) Finally, Koine Greek was used for all of the New Testament. This is not the same as the language spoken in Greece today.
Unlike our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to which we still today have the original, no one has an original copy of the Old or New Testament. As time passes, we can discover earlier and earlier copies of the original biblical documents which were written by scribes.
Consequently, modern translators continue to strive to translate from the best available manuscripts of the original language into what is known as the “receptor language” or, for us, modern English.
Although several difficulties are present in translating, God is actively working to preserve His word, and the differences in various translations are minimal. Many of these differences are anything from mistakes of a few letters of a particular word to harmless editorializing;
In 1 Samuel 8:16
- KJV “he will take…your goodliest young men and your asses…”
- NIV “he will take…the best of your cattle and donkeys…”
In Hebrew, “young men” is bhwrykm, while “cattle” is bqrykm; a difference of a few letters.
Although an argument can be made for some scribes adding their theological point of view in some manuscripts, most errors were truly human errors of transcribing and were not meant to be nefarious.
The many versions of the Bible have evolved due to the following:
- The availability of more historic manuscripts – in other words, manuscripts closer to the time of authorship,
- A better understanding of the available manuscripts – that is what differences are human error or editorializing by scribes and which passages are closest to the original intent, and
- Efforts to develop literal, dynamic, or free translations.
- Literal translations include translations such as the KJV, NKJV, and NASB. These try to keep as close as possible to the “form” of the original language as can conveniently be put in understandable English. Although the effort may be meritorious, the ability to easily understand what is being stated will often suffer.
- Dynamic functional translations, which include translations such as the NIV attempt to convey the message and meaning of the writer at the cost of the literal. The benefit is that the text is more easily understood.
- Free translations, such as the Living Bible and The Message attempt to translate the ideas and expound on thoughts that may or may not be in the original.
Like most pendulums, you really have two extremes and a happy medium. Unlike some compromises, however, the dynamic approach to translating the Bible appears to strike a viable balance.
It is often good to read translations from all three translation efforts. I can, however, as someone who grew up on the NASB, I recommend the readability of the NIV, especially the 2011 update. The update to the NASB, known as the Legacy Standard Bible that both retains the literal understanding of the original languages and renders readability that is extremely understanding.
God commands us to make great efforts to dig into the word as stated in 2 Timothy 2:15 “ Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and correctly handles the word of truth.”
The closer, however, we can read God’s word and understand it simply, the better we can understand its true meaning and ask those questions which will lead us to deeper appreciation and application.
You may want to simply read similar passages alongside other translations and make your own determination. As an exercise, look at different translations in parallel versions of 1 Corinthians 7:36.
I suggest you use a smaller-sized copy of the Bible unless you need a big print version. For reading purposes, you don’t need cross-reference, word studies, etc. A size that you can easily hold and read will help you immensely spend quality time reading God’s word. Larger study Bibles with all the trappings of word studies and cross-references are great for further study but are simply too hard to handle for pleasurable reading.
It is best to read aloud and to read a book in as few sessions as possible. In other words, try reading 1 John in one session. Some books, because of their length, will require multiple sessions.
Hermeneutics is simply the art and science of interpreting the Bible.
The overarching rule in understanding what the Bible is stating is to recognize that the meaning of a bible verse can never be any different than the meaning of its original intent.
To accomplish this objective, hermeneutics promotes certain disciplines such as follows:
- Understanding the original Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew word.
- Hebrew and Greek (Koine – not spoken today) are more precise languages than English and need to be studied for tense, gender, meaning, etc.
- For example, in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world…” “so” does not mean how much God loved the world, it means “in what way” did God love the world. As we know, the “way” in which God loved the world was by sending His own son as a sacrifice for our sins.
- Understand the history and culture behind the biblical passage.
- Understand the context of the passage. This is so important. Don’t take a piece of text out of context and try to make it say something it doesn’t say. You can read my post on commonly misinterpreted bible verses.
- Giving weight to doctrines or thoughts which are repeated vs. single occurrences. This is the synthesis principle and you can see related verses in a cross-reference study like Vines, a cross-reference Bible and a cross-reference feature on the internet such as Bible Cross Reference.
- Discerning what type of book of the bible is in view and interpreting accordingly.
- This will be covered extensively below and is one of the most practical elements of correctly interpreting the Bible.
- Understand that “narrative” in the Old Testament and in Acts is not necessarily a good reference for biblical principles and doctrines.
This is all well and good; however, a more detailed and foundational understanding of the bible would help transpose theoretical hermeneutics to practical understanding and application.
The Bible in Perspective
The Bible consists of 66 books, 75% of the content in the Old Testament. 39 books are in the Old Testament (“OT) and 27 books in the New Testament (“NT”).
The OT was written from approximately 1200 BC to approximately 445 BC.
There were approximately 400 years of silence from God between the OT and the NT.
The NT was written in the first century after the death and resurrection of Christ until approximately 95 AD, when Revelation was penned.
Division of the Bible
The Old Testament
(also known as the Pentateuch or Torah) – includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
Books of Wisdom
Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
Hebrew Poetry and Songs
The 4 Major and the 12 Minor Prophets
The designation "major and minor" refers to the length of the books, not their significance or importance.
The major prophets were Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The minor prophets include the last 12 books of the OT from Hosea to Malachi.
Ancient Judaism actually grouped the minor prophets in one combined book known as “the Book of the Twelve” or simply, “The Twelve.” Interestingly, the 12 minor prophets' combined length fits right in the middle of the 4 major prophets.
The remainder of the bible, especially Joshua through Esther, and portions of other OT books are narrative or stories.
The New Testament
The Gospels – Synoptic (common view) Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the different perspectives of John.
The History of the Early Church – The book of Acts.
The Epistles – Doctrines of the Church.
Revelation – Judgement and hope of the Second Coming of Christ.
Recommended approaches to understanding
Over 40% of the OT is narrative or stories.
All narratives have 3 essential parts: characters, a plot, and plot resolution.
The primary character in the OT story is God, the “protagonist. “ The person who brings about conflict or tension is the “antagonist” Satan. While the third group in the story, “agonists,” are God’s people.
The plot revolves around God, who has created a people for His name and in His image to be stewards over the earth that He has created for their benefit. An enemy, however, enters the earth and persuades people to turn against God, to bear Satan’s image, and become God’s enemy.
The plot resolution is a long story of redemption. How God rescues and redeems His people from the enemy and restores them back into His image and finally will restore them into a new heaven and new earth. This shows God’s patience, mercy, love, forgiveness, empathy, etc.; in other words, it reveals God’s character.
Over and over, and on different levels, this same true story is told in the OT. God saves, His people reject, God chastises, His people repent, and God restores.
The purpose of the OT narrative is to tell what God did in the history of Israel, not to dictate doctrine.
The OT narratives are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings. 1 Timothy 4:7 warns us against this “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; instead, train yourself to be godly.“
Unless the story specifies is part of an eternal covenant or is corroborated by the NT, it is dangerous to use OT narrative to moralize behavior or read between the lines.
For example, I once had a person attempt to show that the bible disapproved of cremation based on a number of stories in the OT. Unfortunately for him, some of the stories showed the practice of cremation while others showed burial. None of the stories concluded an inherent good or evil of cremation vs. burial. Additionally, nothing in the NT corroborated his adversity to cremation. To attempt to prove something from narrative alone is misusing the Bible and a poor and dangerous interpretative practice.
It is also dangerous to misappropriate a story in the OT.
We often hear of setting out fleece as a means of discerning God’s will. Unfortunately, Gideon’s fleece was really a story of his lack of trust in God, not a prescription to discern God’s will.
The OT narrative benefits are witnessing the consequences of obedience and disobedience to God and how God continues to execute His redemption plan in His love and mercy.
Also known as the Pentateuch or Torah, including Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy
One of the ways God deals with His people, in the old and new testament, was through “covenants.” Covenants are formal agreements or treaties between two parties with specific obligations and regulations. Additionally, covenants are either unconditional and eternal or conditional and temporary.
The unconditional covenants
- Noahic Covenant – essentially post-flood, God agrees never to destroy the earth by water and to provide stability.
- Gen 8:22 ““As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (Does this not answer the perils of global warming?)
- This is an everlasting covenant: “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” (Genesis 9:16)
- Abrahamic Covenant – shows how God plans to save people and restore all things.
- “The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
- Priestly Covenant – In Numbers 25:10-13, God promises a perpetual priesthood in the line of Phinehas that would continue all the way through the Lord’s earthly millennial temple.
- Davidic Covenant – In 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God refuses to allow David’s desire to build a dwelling place for God’s presence because David was a man of war. Instead, God promised the perpetuity of David’s descendants on the throne in Israel.
The one conditional and temporary covenant
- Mosaic Covenant – This is the “law” (Exodus 20) God gave to Israel through Moses to govern the life and conduct of Israel into the Promised Land of Canaan (Exodus 19:5-6.)
For over 400 years, the Jews were slaves in Egyptian culture when God rescued them to bring them into the Promised Land. To reconstitute this massive group of individuals, God deals with them through the Mosaic Covenant, which includes more than 600 laws and is referred to collectively as “the Law.” The Law dealt with civil and ritual practices, essentially everything that would be needed to put together a culture of people for God’s purposes.
The New Covenant with Church Age believers.
- The New Covenant – Ezekiel 36:26-27 predicts the New Covenant; “ I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
- Jesus fulfills the New Covenant in Luke 22:20 “ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”
For believers today, it should be understood that the New Covenant replaces the Mosaic Covenant unless specific laws are reiterated in the New Testament.
In fact, nine of the ten commandments (honoring the Sabbath is excepted) (Matthew 5:21-48, John 7:23) and the two basic laws – love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:40) are reiterated in the New Covenant.
Where is the Sabbath set aside? “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (Col 2:16) Also, 1 Cor 16:1-2 instructs NT believers when to take up collections; “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each of you should set aside a sum of money to keep with your income, saving it up, so that when I come, no collections will have to be made.” Finally, it should be understood that Jesus rose on Sunday, and several post-resurrection events occurred on Sunday.
All this is to state that the interpretation of the OT law is correctly done with an understanding that we are under the New Covenant and the only “laws” that still pertain to us are 9 of the 10 commandments and the two greatest laws; love God and love your neighbor. We do not sacrifice animals, we no longer worship on the Sabbath or tithe, we no longer stone people for civil offenses – all this has been replaced by the New Covenant.
Books of Wisdom
Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes
Wisdom is the ability to make Godly choices by applying God’s truth in your life. Choices chart the course of our lives.
Much of the wisdom is in the form of Hebrew poetry, the beauty of which much is lost in translation.
In Proverbs, for example, the last line concludes a couplet in which the second line is to be understood in light of the first line. The images are suggestive and figurative, not literal, and should be understood that way. For example, look at Proverbs 9:13 below. Again, suggestive and figurative, but this should not be taken literally.
Folly is an unruly woman;
she is simple and knows nothing.
The books of Wisdom are also not legal guarantees from God. Blessings and rewards are likely to follow where one is obedient and does Godly things – they are not automatic or guaranteed.
They are not technically precise but are worded to be memorable.
As with anything in the Bible, these books should be read on the whole vs. picking out only specific phrases that one finds satisfying.
Poetry – the Psalms
The Book of Psalms is a collection of Hebrew prayers and hymns in poetic form that is often lost in translation but allows us to express ourselves to God and consider God’s ways.
Again, like all poetry, the words and images are suggestive and metaphorical, not literal.
It is possible to group the Psalms into seven different categories.
- Laments – the largest group, there are over sixty individual (e.g. 3, 22, 31, 39, 42, 57, 71, 88, 120, 139, 142) and corporate laments (e.g. 12, 44, 80, 94, 137) to express struggles, suffering and even disappointment with God.
- Thanksgiving – these express joy to the Lord. In all, there are six community psalms of thanksgiving (65, 67, 75, 107, 124, 136) and ten individual psalms of thanksgiving (18, 30, 32, 34, 40, 66, 92, 116, 118, 138.)
- Praise – these praise God for who God is, what He has done for us.
- The following psalms are praise psalms; as Creator (8, 19, 104, 148);
- as protector and benefactor of Israel (66, 100, 111, 114, 149); and
- as Lord of history (33, 103, 113, 117, 145, 146, 147.)
- Salvation History – these psalms review the history of God’s saving works among the people of Israel (78, 105, 106, 135, 136.)
- Celebration and affirmation – these are varied,
- some are covenant renewal liturgies (50, 81);
- Davidic covenant psalms (89, 132);
- the kingship or royal psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 144);
- a royal thanksgiving (18);
- a royal lament (144);
- enthronement psalms (24, 29, 47, 93, 95-99); and finally,
- Songs of the City of Jerusalem (46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122.)
- Wisdom – declaring the merits of wisdom and the wise life (36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128, 133.)
- Trust – these center on the fact that God can be trusted and that even in times of despair, God’s goodness and concern for His people can be expressed (11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125, 131.)
Knowing the divisions of the Psalms and the nature of Hebrew poetry is a giant step forward in understanding the Psalms. You now know exactly where to go to express your laments, thanksgiving, praise, etc.
The 4 Major and 12 Minor Prophets –
Sixteen books of the Old Testament comprise the Prophets. As discussed earlier, major and minor are not terms of significance; rather, they pertain to the books' length.
The primary focus of the prophets was to speak for God to their own contemporaries. Their function was to be covenant enforcement mediators.
There are five common literary forms that the prophets used to compose their oracles or prophecies to the Jews:
- The Lawsuit – the prophets presented an allegorical literary form called a “covenant lawsuit.” In this, God is presented as the plaintiff, prosecuting attorney, judge, and bailiff against the defendant, Israel. There is a summons, a charge, evidence, a verdict, and a sentence. See, for example (Isaiah 3:13-26, Hos 3:3-17 and 4:1-19.)
- The Woe – Through the prophets, God makes predictions of imminent doom using the “woe.” See (Habakkuk 2:6-8, Mic 2:1-5 and Zeph 2:5-7.)
- The Promise – Blessings in the future, radical change, and blessings are indications of promise forms. See the following: (Amos 9:11-15; Isaiah 45:1-7; Jeremiah 31:1-9; and Hosea 2:16-23.)
- The Enactment – Here, God combines prophecy with symbolic actions to reinforce what the prophet spoke: Examples include the following: (Isaiah 20:3-4; Ezek 4:1-4; Zech 11:4-17; and Zech 12-14.)
- The Messenger Speech is the most common and often includes “This is what the Lord says…” See the following: (Num 20:14; Sam 11:9; Sam 11:25; Isaiah 38:108; Jeremiah 35:17-19; Amos 1:3-2:16; and Malachi 1:2-5.)
The Prophets need to be read within their context – that is, OT covenant enforcers as representatives of God. Obedience to God resulted in salvation and blessings, and disobedience resulted in dire consequences. God wants the same from us, obedience, and He will chastise His children. However, we are under a new covenant, which should always be kept in mind when reading the Prophets.
The Synoptic (common view) Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the different perspective of John is probably the most read portions of the Bible but still not the most understood.
Unlike the Book of Acts, the Gospels present not only a narrative on the life and ministry of Jesus but large portions of His sayings. The Gospels cover the same material from different viewpoints, giving four separate but similar perspectives. All of the Synoptics essentially agree, while John offers a more unique perspective. As such, it is helpful to look at the different renderings for a fuller picture of the various passages. A Gospel Harmony is helpful for this purpose.
It should also be recognized that this is still OT times with the ushering in of the New Covenant and the Church Age. You are genuinely looking at a transition perspective. The Spirit has not yet come, and Christ is completing the predictions of fulfilling His sacrificial death on the cross. What Christ states is critical to understanding this period, but much of the remainder of the Gospels are genuinely narrative and require some of the same cautions discussed earlier.
The Book of Acts
Luke records the early Christian church's first 10 to 15-year history in the Book of Acts.
It is interesting to note that Luke covers Peter in Chapters 1-12 and switches to Paul in Chapters 13-28. He also covers the Church’s expansion from Jerusalem in Chapters 1-7, Samaria in Chapters 8-10, and Judea and to the ends of the earth in Chapters 11-28 as depicted by Christ’s Great Commission.
Yet another division depicts the forward movement of the church's growth from Jewish settings in Jerusalem with Peter towards a predominately Gentile church with Paul.
- 1:1 – 6:7 The primitive Church in Jerusalem, with the predominance of the Jewish culture, concludes with the division between the Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking believers.
- 6;8 – 9:31 The first geographical expansion was carried out by the Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jewish Christians) to Greek-speaking Jews in Diaspora. Here Paul is converted and contributes to his ministry.
- 9:32 – 12:24 The expansion to the Gentiles with the conversion of Cornelius.
- 12:25 – 16:5 The geographical expansion in the Gentile world, with Paul now as the lead character.
- 16:6 – 19:20 Ever westward expansion in the Gentile world now in Europe, where the Diaspora Jews reject and the Gentiles welcome the Gospel.
- 19:21 – 28:30 Paul moves the gospel to Rome by discussing Paul’s trials even though innocent. All of this happened because God willed it, and the Holy Spirit carried it out.
The history of the early growth of the church gives us a strong indication of how the church operates, but not all events are operative. For example, the selling and sharing of property really was a result of persecution and God’s effort to expand the church, not an absolute pattern of Christian living.
Both the Parables and Revelation share allegorical misinterpretations.
There are true parables, story parables, such as the Good Samaritan, and “similitude parables” such as the Yeast of the Dough.
The difficulty with understanding parables is similar to understanding a joke. We get the joke because we identify and are caught off guard by the punch line. Once the joke has to be explained, however, it loses its humor because the intimacy is no longer present. In a sense, Parables are the same in the sense that when originally spoken, there was an intimacy and understanding with the hearer that we, two centuries later, lack and therefore require further explanation.
As such, story parables almost need a new reference for modern-day hearers to understand.
All of Jesus’ parables are, in some way, vehicles that proclaim the coming kingdom.
Indeed, outside reading, commentaries, etc., are helpful in understanding Parables.
The Epistles are indeed the doctrines of the Christian faith.
It should be noted, however, that the epistles differ in several degrees. Some are specific letters to Churches, while others are specific letters to individuals. Most are occasioned or called forth by some specific circumstance such as the influence of false prophets, behavior needing correction, a doctrinal error that needs to be set right, or a misunderstanding that needs further clarification. As such, they are not theological treatises, nor summaries of theology, but theology being written for or brought to bear on the task at hand.
It helps, therefore, to know as much as possible about why and how the epistle was developed. Was it to address problems at a local church, or heresies that were spreading into the church, etcetera? Knowing this will help a great deal in understanding why the reply – Epistle – has been written. It also helps to recognize that some of the issues the early Christians faced, for example, involvement with Pegan temples and worship, whether women should wear head coverings, etcetera, probably won't impact many of us today. Other issues, for example, sin, which extends across cultural lines, do, however, impact us all.
It is essential then to distinguish cultural issues and concentrate on moral issues in understanding and applying the Epistles to our Christian lives. Again, solid commentaries help understand the Epistles.
Like other portions of the Bible, the book of Revelation is not to be analogized.
Even though it contains images that border on science fiction, the fact is, this is the fulfillment of the promise of the Second coming of Christ.
John starts with a warning to the Seven Churches, which are atypical of churches even today. He then shifts to the prophecy of the end times.
As opposed to modern predictions of end times; e.g., overpopulation and global warming, etc., Revelation depicts the unholy Trinity of Satan, the Anti-Christ, and the False Prophet in their effort to take over the world, and a Christian revival led by the Two Witnesses, the Globe circling Angels, and 144,000 rabid Jewish evangelists, culminating in the second coming of Jesus Christ, the ushering of the Millennium Kingdom and the eventual creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth.
The prophetic majesty of these events told to John in 96 AD is what leads to some creative and phenomenal imagery. Nonetheless, it is simply an unfolding of the Second Coming and requires no additional elaborations. It is, at the time written, and today for that matter, true and pure prophecy.
It is simply the fulfillment of the Second Coming of Christ, the establishment of the Millennial Kingdom, and the creation of a New Heaven and New Earth. With an overview of the story, interpretation is much easier to comprehend.
You can read a comprehensive review of the Book of Revelation here.
This post has shown what the bible states about itself, how it may be divided, and how each portion should be approached to understand God’s world.
I can’t overemphasize the need for a readable translation and the effort to read (even aloud) complete chapters and books vs. picking up bits and pieces.
Indeed, the most important thing you can do is spend time in God’s word. Hopefully, this will help.
Note: Much of the materials researched to complete this post come from Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth” and from MacArthur and Mayhue “Biblical Doctrine.”Back to top of page