How to Understand the Bible

When we read the Bible, we want to understand it and apply it. We want to know what the Bible says and how it affects our lives. We want something to happen, we want to get something out of it.

But we’re often left frustrated and wondering what we missed.

The following questions come from Matthew Harmon’s book Asking the Right Questions: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible. I’ll add a few ideas to each one.

Before we can apply the Bible, we must understand it. I can’t stress this enough, because too often we jump to applying it to our lives, and when we skip this first step, we will often miss what God has for us and what the Bible actually says.

1. What do we learn about God?

In this question we are looking for God’s character (who he is, what he is like), God’s conduct (what he is doing) and God’s concerns (what things, events, people, he is concerned about).

We are trying to understand who God is. Since we believe that the Bible is God’s inspired, true and authoritative word, without error, we want to know who God is and what He is like.

2. What do we learn about people?

In this question we are looking for what it means to be created in God’s image, but also our fallen condition as sinners in need of grace. We are also looking for any insights into how God’s people should live.

We are beginning to look at what is happening in the text. Are they in a city or a village? Understanding the context of every single passage, the original audience, and what is happening on this page of the Bible is crucial to understanding the Bible.

3. What do we learn about relating to God?

The Bible is not just about God but how we relate to Him. Once we see who God is and who we are, we see how those roads cross. In this step you can begin looking for things to praise and thank God for and for sin to confess and repent. Don’t think about other people at this point. Don’t think about who you are going to share this verse with. This is for you and God right now.

You can also look for promises and truths to believe. It’s also very important to see if the promises God has given to us in Scripture are for us or for the original audience; what transcends all time and what was specific for that time. If we miss this, we can cling to things in a way we aren’t supposed to.

4. What do we learn about relating to others?

Most of the Bible is written to groups of people, about groups of people, especially the letters in the New Testament. When you get to there, look for how we should interact with and treat others, ways to pursue reconciliation with others and specific ways to love, serve, and care for others, not for how they can do this for you. Too many times we want others to do what we are called to do, especially in an age of social media when we are quick to talk about what Christians should be like without asking, “Am I doing that? Am I treating my friends and enemies the way God calls me to?”

After understanding the passage you are reading, it is then time to move into applying the Bible (which I’ll unpack in another post).