Five Steps for Understanding the Bible

The Bible is a book written over thousands of years on multiple continents in several languages by many people. It includes parables, history, prophecy, poetry, letters, and more. There is significant historical and cultural distance between believers today and those who initially heard the Word. These are just a few of the realities that can make understanding the Bible difficult. Since the Bible identifies itself as a sharp sword (Heb 4:12), it is necessary for those who read it to know how to handle it correctly. The following list contains five steps (and some follow up ideas) that can help you read and grasp what God says through his Word.

1) Careful Reading
Ask yourself, “Have I carefully and thoughtfully read through this passage? Can I sum up what the author of the text said in a clear/concise way?”

Tip: When reading, we are striving to understand the author’s intended meaning. When we comprehend what the author meant to say, we are on the right track.

2) Context
Ask, “Do I understand where this fits in the big story of the Bible? And do I grasp what was going on immediately before and after this passage?”

Tip: Never read a Bible verse… always read a paragraph at minimum.

3) Characters
Ask, “Who is involved in this story? Who is speaking? Who is being spoken to?”

Tip: When the Bible uses the words you, we, us, etc., we need to know who is involved. For example, in 2 Tim 4:13, Paul says, “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.” But we know that this is a command to Timothy, not to us today.

4) Consistency
Ask, “Does my understanding of this passage line up with the truths from the rest of the Bible?”

Tip: If our understanding does not align with the character of God, the nature of the gospel, or the greatest commandment/commission, we are off track.

5) Connection
Ask, “How should I act, think, or be in light of what this teaches about God, his world, and my relationship with Him?”

Tip: Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7), so one of the best connections that we should always look to make is to improve our understanding of who God is. We will respond in a life of worship when we see Him for who He really is.

PS: Some people find it helpful to organize this under a three-step inductive approach:

I propose reading in three steps—information, understanding, and action.

1) Information: What does this passage say? Sum it up in your own words.
2) Understanding: What does it mean? Why does it matter? What does it say about God? What universal principles can be found here?
3) Action: What should I think, do, or be in response?

Mark Strauss recommends these four questions: 

(1) Where is this passage in the larger story of Scripture?
(2) What is the author’s purpose in light of the passage’s genre and historical and literary context?
(3) How does this passage inform our understanding of the nature of God and his purpose for the world?
(4) What does this passage teach us about who we ought to be (attitudes and character) and what we ought to do (goals and actions) as those seeking to reflect the nature and purpose of God?

Mark L. Strauss, How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God’s Word Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 78-79, Kindle.

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