Reading and understanding the Bible correctly is so important for followers of Jesus Christ. The Bible is God’s Word to us – it is how He has chosen to reveal Himself, His plans, and what He expects of us. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
So we need to make sure we are handling the Bible properly and interpreting it accurately. Here are some key principles to keep in mind when reading and studying Scripture:
The Bible is an incredible book – it’s actually a collection of 66 books, written by over 40 different authors over the span of 1500 years! Yet, despite having human authors from different eras and cultures, the Bible has a unified message because there is one divine Author – God Himself. The Bible is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16).
But this also means that we have to be careful not to impose our own ideas onto the text. We want to understand the intended meaning from the original context. Here are some guidelines that can help us read, interpret, and apply the Bible correctly:
Key Takeaways for Reading the Bible Correctly
- Pray for understanding and wisdom from the Holy Spirit
- Read in context – consider the historical/cultural setting
- Compare translations for clarity
- Reference credible commentaries
- Find the plain/literal meaning first
- Look for the author’s intended meaning
- Apply the general principles for today
Let’s explore each of these points further:
Pray for Discernment from the Holy Spirit
Before opening your Bible, pray for the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom, understanding, and discernment. We need the Spirit’s guidance to correctly handle God’s Word (1 Corinthians 2:14). Ask God to speak to you through the passage and illuminate Scripture’s meaning.
As Jesus told His disciples in John 16:13, “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth.” So sincerely ask the Spirit to lead and teach you.
Read in Context
To understand any passage correctly, you need to read it in its proper context. Consider things like:
- The immediate context – read the verses before and after to get the full picture. Don’t cherry-pick isolated verses.
- The chapter context – how does this passage fit into the overall chapter?
- The book context – how does the passage align with the theme and purpose of the book?
- The genre – is this poetry, history, a letter, prophecy? Different genres have different styles.
- The cultural/historical context – what was the setting? What customs or background details will shed light?
By understanding the context, you’ll be able to discern the author’s intended meaning rather than misinterpreting the passage.
Compare Bible Translations
It can be helpful to compare 2-3 different English Bible translations when studying a passage. Some translations are more word-for-word literal, while others aim more for readability and conveying concepts. Comparing versions gives you a fuller understanding.
Some good options are:
- New King James Version (NKJV) – a literal translation
- New International Version (NIV) – accurate and readable
- Christian Standard Bible (CSB) – a nice balance
Consult Credible Commentaries
Quality Bible commentaries provide valuable insight into the historical context and meaning of passages. They explain confusing terms and concepts, point out literary techniques, and cross-reference other relevant verses. Some good ones to use are:
- Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary
- The Bible Knowledge Commentary
- Believer’s Bible Commentary
But be aware that commentaries reflect the interpreter’s doctrinal views. So read them with discernment against Scripture.
Start with the Plain, Literal Meaning
When studying a Bible passage, first look for the plain, literal meaning. Don’t immediately search for hidden, allegorical meanings. Scripture should be interpreted according to the author’s intended meaning to the original audience. Look at the words at face value.
Factors like the grammar, vocabulary, and genre point to the literal sense. This anchors your interpretation so you don’t drift into subjective symbolism or taking verses out of context.
Understand the Author’s Intended Meaning
Your goal is to comprehend what the human author intended to communicate to the original readers. You want to read the text just as they would have understood it. This requires knowing the historical situation they were in.
Ask questions like:
- Who was the author and original audience?
- What was the setting and context?
- What customs, language, or figures of speech were used?
- What did these words and ideas mean to them?
This takes some research into the context, but it keeps you from misapplying the passage. The author had a particular meaning in mind.
Apply the General Principles Today
Once you determine the literal meaning and author’s intent, prayerfully consider how to apply general principles today. Scripture was written for us, but not always directly to us. See what universal truths apply across cultures and ages.
Identify doctrines, moral lessons, promises, and examples of righteousness that are still binding today. But don’t assume Old Testament laws or cultural details automatically apply. Recognize what was specific to the old covenant vs. the new covenant we are under in Christ.
Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how any personal applications align with core Biblical principles. What does God want you to learn and put into practice?
Read Through the Lens of Jesus
Ultimately, we want to read and interpret the Bible through the lens of Jesus Christ. He affirmed the divine inspiration of the Old Testament, but also resolved ambiguities about how to apply some passages. We understand the Old Testament in the light of the New. And we read both Testaments in accordance with the timeless moral character of God revealed through Christ.
As Hebrews 1:1-2 tells us, “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son.” So we read all Scripture guided by Jesus’ teachings and example – the living embodiment of God’s Word.
Different Genres Matter
Since the Bible contains different genres and literary forms, we can’t interpret everything exactly the same way. Consider the genre and nature of the literature you’re reading:
Narrative: This includes stories and historical accounts like Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels, and Acts. Interpret them as you would other ancient history. Consider story elements like setting, characters, plot, and sequence. Don’t assume each small detail is symbolic. Take key lessons from the overall accounts.
Poetry: Books like Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations contain emotional poetry. Look for the use of parallelism, metaphor, simile, and other devices. Don’t take poetic language literally. Seek the overall meaning it conveys.
Wisdom Literature: Books like Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes have thoughtful sayings and reflections. Remember Proverbs gives general principles, not ironclad promises. Ecclesiastes has skeptical tones. Job teaches patience in suffering. Consider the perspective and purpose.
Prophecy: Prophetic books like Isaiah and Revelation employ vivid imagery and symbolism. Consider the historical context and the prophet’s main message. Don’t get stuck dissecting every symbol. Expect some hyperbole as warnings.
Epistles: Letters like Romans, Corinthians, Hebrews, James instruct early believers. Pay attention to who is writing and the situation being addressed. Note the logical arguments made. Identify timeless doctrines distinct from cultural applications.
Apocalyptic: Daniel and Revelation contain apocalyptic visions. This genre uses cryptic symbols of destruction and deliverance. Don’t take fantastical details literally. Focus on the overall message of hope and God’s sovereignty.
Using a good modern translation helps you accurately understand what Scripture says. Word-for-word translations (like NASB, ESV, NKJV) closely follow the original Greek and Hebrew. Thought-for-thought translations (like NLT, NIV, NET) express the concepts in more readable English.
Here are some examples of John 3:16 in different versions:
NKJV – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
ESV – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
NIV – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
NLT – “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
The NKJV uses more literal Greek terms like “begotten” and “perish”, while the NLT expresses concepts more freely for readability. Use a balance when studying. Compare multiple versions and original language tools when possible. But translations won’t differ on essential doctrines.
The New Covenant in Christ
One key for interpreting the Bible correctly is recognizing the difference between the old and new covenants. Certain Old Testament regulations and practices were for the covenant under Moses. We interpret them through the lens of the new covenant established in Christ.
For example, Christians don’t need to follow OT dietary laws, offer animal sacrifices, or uphold the priesthood. Jesus fulfilled these aspects of the law (Hebrews 7-10). We interpret the OT through the teachings of the apostles, who were authorized by Christ to establish His Church. This gives us the correct context for following God’s Word without confusion.
Watch Out for Proof Texting
Some misuse the Bible through “proof texting” – plucking isolated verses to support an argument while ignoring the bigger picture. We have to consider passages in their full context, not cherry-pick certain phrases.
For example, some may quote Matthew 7:1 “Judge not” without also reading verse 2 qualifying how to judge rightly, or John 8:7 “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” disregarding the rest of the story. We need the full counsel of Scripture for accuracy.
Seek the Spirit’s Guidance
While having good interpretive skills is crucial, we still rely on the Holy Spirit’s illumination to rightly understand God’s Word. As 1 Corinthians 2:13-14 explains, “These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
So keep prayer at the center of your Bible study. Keep seeking the Spirit’s wisdom to correctly handle Scripture and receive its life-changing truths.
Learning to read and interpret the Bible accurately takes time and intentional effort. But it’s so worth it to correctly understand God’s Word and implement its timeless principles. Follow these guidelines of praying, reading in context, comparing translations, checking commentaries, finding literal meanings first, understanding authorial intent, and bridging contexts appropriately.
Let the Holy Spirit instruct you as study God’s Word. Keep growing in your Scriptural discernment. God wants to transform your life through the power and truth of the Bible when it’s handled well. So keep pursuing accurate interpretation through prayer and the Spirit’s guidance. God bless you as you engage with His living Word in the right ways!