The answer is simple-they don't have the right frame of mind. We must approach the Bible with respect for what it is-God's divine revelation to us.
Curiously enough, we find that the Bible is not a book that everyone can readily understand. Many find it puzzling, difficult to figure out. How, then, can we come to understand it?
The first set of keys to comprehension can be grouped under the umbrella of the right approach we must have at the outset of our reading and study.
We must come to the Bible with the right attitude and perspective—looking with profound respect and reverence to the divine Author behind its pages, willing to believe and follow what He says.
Without this approach, we may be able to discern certain biblical truths on at least some level, but we will suffer profound blind spots regarding major aspects of scriptural revelation—blind spots that will seriously impair our overall understanding.
To get the big picture, we need to approach Scripture with the right frame of mind.
Going to the Source
Our first step is prayer, to humbly ask God for His help. This is the first vital key to understanding His Word.
God describes the kind of attitude and approach He respects: "But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite [i.e., repentant] spirit, and who trembles at My word" (Isaiah 66:2).
Understanding God's Word is not a matter of superior intellect. God looks on the heart, our attitude and approach, to determine whether to give us understanding. The apostle Peter tells us: "In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him" (Acts 10:34-35, emphasis added throughout).
Jesus Christ thanked God the Father for the way He chose whom to give spiritual understanding: "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes . . . No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him" (Luke 10:21-22).
God reserves the right to choose those to whom He will reveal spiritual understanding. Sometimes one whom God so chooses may initially hold to views that oppose the truth, as did the apostle Paul. God miraculously called this man who had vigorously persecuted the early Christians, then opened his mind and used him as a powerful tool to reveal a wealth of spiritual truth and write much of what we know as the New Testament.
Notice the importance of God's involvement in our understanding of the Bible. Christ said to His disciples: "These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me. And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures" (Luke 24:44-45). It was not their intellect that let them grasp the meaning; God had to open their minds.
Most overlook this point in studying the Bible. Even though we might possess the world's brightest minds, if God does not act to open our minds, the Bible will remain closed to us. As the apostle Paul explained: "These things [God's Word] 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" (1 Corinthians 2:13-14).
Because God inspired the Bible, it follows that it is not a mere book that takes only a measure of intellectual effort to understand. God reserves the right to grant an understanding of His precious truths to whomever He will.
Furthermore, we must realize that our motivation for reading and studying the Bible is important. If we feel compelled to read it simply to please others or pore over it only as a religious duty, God likely will not open the Scriptures' true meaning to us. His truths will remain hidden. How, then, can we discover these truths?
As we have seen, the first key to understanding Scripture is to ask for God's help with a right attitude. In Jeremiah 29:13, He tells us, "You will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart."
Why is attitude so important? Paul reveals the answer: "Instead, God deliberately chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose those who are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important, so that no one can ever boast in the presence of God" (1 Corinthians 1:27-29, New Living Translation).
No one will be able to boast that he was able to rightly understand God's spiritual truths with only his intelligence, his education and his own effort!
On the other hand, once a person humbly asks God for help and is committed to obeying what he learns, he is on the right path to understanding. Jesus Christ explained this to His disciples: "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3-4).
No matter how intelligent we may be, if we don't humble ourselves and become teachable like a small child, God will not help us to grasp His Word.
God promises that He will faithfully answer a humble request for understanding from those with whom He is working. The apostle James writes, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (James 1:5).
All through the Bible we see examples of people who asked humbly for godly wisdom and were rewarded. Among them are David, Solomon, Daniel, Esther and Jesus' first disciples.
On the other hand, others are prime examples of those who relied on their own ability and were subsequently humiliated, such as Adam and Eve's son Cain, the Egyptian pharaoh during the time of the Exodus, Israel's King Saul, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the religious teachers who opposed Jesus, and Herod Agrippa, the Judean ruler who persecuted members of the New Testament Church.
An example of a proper, humble, godly approach is that of the Bereans, mentioned in Acts 17:10-12: They "were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing" (New Revised Standard Version).
Unlike others, the Bereans did not immediately reject what Paul was saying, even though many things they heard contradicted their own long-held beliefs. They carefully reviewed the Scriptures with an open mind and saw that what Paul had said made sense. Then, after diligently searching the Scriptures, they verified that what he taught was indeed the truth, and they humbly accepted his teachings.
Similarly, if we want to understand the Bible, we need the attitude of the Bereans. We need to carefully review the Scriptures, not taking our beliefs for granted, because, as the Bereans found, our own ideas can be wrong.
Furthermore, God wants us to have a submissive, teachable attitude as we read His Word and hear it preached to us. Indeed, we must embrace it as a guide for living and follow it accordingly.
James compared God's law revealed in Scripture to a sort of spiritual mirror that can reveal aspects of our character when we look into it—often problematic thoughts, habits and behaviors that we should strive with God's help to change.
As James stated: "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:22-25, New International Version).
An attitude of prayerfully, humbly seeking help from God so we can learn, leading to putting into practice what we do learn, is critical to understanding God's truths in the Bible. You can put this principle to work by asking God to enlighten, teach, instruct and correct you from His Word and lead you in understanding it.
We will delve more into the importance of applying the truths we learn from Scripture at the end of this booklet.
All Scripture is inspired
Another vital factor in how we approach the Bible involves the way we view it. We must recognize that the Bible is indeed the Word of God. To understand the Scriptures, we must accept the authority over us of all the Bible (Matthew 4:4). All the books of the Bible—in both the Old and New Testaments—are inspired by God.
God assures us that we can absolutely trust the Holy Scriptures. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God," wrote Paul, "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" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
This is a powerful statement. It means we can confidently accept the Bible, as originally written, as the inspired and infallible Word of God.
However, the various versions and differing translations that have been handed down to us are not free of occasional human error. Therefore, a comparison among the versions is helpful, as we will consider further later. But we can rest assured that the differences are minimal among the major versions that are faithfully based on the Hebrew and Greek texts. Many ancient copies have been used to search out almost all mistakes introduced through copying the text by hand over the centuries. The Bible's basic truths are faithfully preserved.
What evidence do we have that all the Bible is inspired by God? That's an important question. If the Bible were just another religious book written thousands of years ago, why would we need it? After all, we have plenty of those already available, and new books on religion appear almost every day. What makes the Bible one of a kind is its consistency. Its underlying principles never changed throughout the 1,500 years of its creation.
Some 40 authors composed the various books of the Bible over the centuries, and only a few of its writers personally knew any of the others. Yet an unbroken unity of thought is obvious in their writings. The religious writings that form the basis for other religions and philosophies are imperfect. They contain both easily identifiable doctrinal and historical errors and inconsistencies.
Only the Bible has held up under centuries of scrutiny from historians, critics and the archaeologist's spade. Unparalleled in the history of literature, the Bible has proved reliable in ways unmatched by other books. (To learn more, request or download our free booklet Is the Bible True?)
Not only is the Bible historically accurate, but its unifying principles are found from the beginning to the end of the Scriptures. Faith, for example, is one of those unifying principles. Back in Genesis 4, at the beginning of human history, we see the faith of Abel, who paid for his faith with his life. Throughout the centuries of the biblical record, this same faith is to be found in the trials of Noah, Abraham, Moses and the prophets, Jesus Christ Himself, the apostles and the members of the early Church.
One New Testament chapter in particular, Hebrews 11, shows that for thousands of years a unity of thought was based on the principle of faith. Therefore, when reading the Bible we need to keep in mind the unity of its spiritual principles.
Whether we're studying a narrative, a psalm, an apostolic letter or the four Gospels, we find that all are connected to the same underlying principles inspired by God. If left to the devices of fallible men, the contradictions in its principles would long ago have been exposed—as they have been in most of man's writings. Many views and interpretations about what the Bible says are contradictory. But none of these human opinions affects the integrity of the Scriptures themselves.
God's commandments are another example of a unifying principle. His laws form the backbone of Scripture, the basis for His relationship with mankind. They begin in Genesis, where basic principles are revealed, and are expanded on throughout the rest of the Bible. And finally, in the last chapter of the Bible's last book, Revelation, we read, "Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city" (Revelation 22:14).
God's commandments do not change from the beginning to the end of the Bible, even though they are amplified in the New Testament. The same Author, God, inspired all of the Scriptures.
Jesus Christ mentioned the principle that Scripture is built on the framework of the commandments of God. He explained in Matthew 22:37-40 the two greatest scriptural and spiritual principles. One covers the First through the Fourth Commandments, and the second deals with the Fifth through the Tenth.
Quoting the Old Testament, Jesus said: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." These two great principles, said Jesus, form the foundation of all of God's laws.
Another example of biblical unity of thought is found in the genealogies listed throughout the Bible. Some think they are only a remnant of history and of little worth. Yet these genealogies, in Genesis 5 and 10 and 1 Chronicles 1 through 9, form the basis for the lineage of New Testament figures, including Jesus Christ in Matthew 1 and Luke 3.
These genealogical records present Christ not as a legendary figure, but as descended from Old Testament personalities whose existence can be verified. Historical and archaeological evidence has confirmed the existence of several people in these genealogical lists, giving credence to the prophecies about Jesus' descent from Abraham (Genesis 12:7; Galatians 3:16) and King David (Matthew 1:1). Genealogies thus serve as historical guideposts for the existence of Jesus Christ.
Although many Bible writers lived centuries apart and didn't necessarily realize they were writing words that would become part of Scripture, God saw to it that their writings fit with the rest of the Bible, carefully intertwined according to His will and purpose.
Yes, the Bible contains history, genealogies, poetry, letters, prophecies and symbols, but they were all inspired by the same infallible God, and each section is a part of a greater whole. Christ Himself said that "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). God does not contradict Himself.
This is one of the main reasons, in spite of countless attempts to destroy it, that the Bible is still with us after several thousands of years. It will survive as long as mankind is on earth, and it is intended for our reading and understanding. As Paul tells us, "For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope" (Romans 15:4). Christ stated that His words in the Bible would be preserved: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away" (Matthew 24:35, NIV).
The principle of the inspiration of the Bible means that our beliefs must be brought in line with and conform to Scripture, which consistently conforms to its own principles. God does not make mistakes; He does not contradict Himself. We see in the Bible an intricate interweaving of God's truths and the revelation of His plan from beginning to end.
The apostle Peter said of the inspiration of the Hebrew prophets: "Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you . . . To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into"(1 Peter 1:10-12). All Scripture is unified, clearly manifesting divine inspiration.
Peter explains further, in 2 Peter 1:20-21, that "no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." God's Spirit is the guiding force behind the Scriptures.
As early as Peter's time some were already twisting parts of the Old and New Testament writings to their own folly. "Therefore, beloved," he warned, ". . . be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:14-16).
When Paul explained in 2 Timothy 3:15-17 that all Scripture is inspired and is important to righteous living, this was before the books of the New Testament had been canonized or portions of it had even been written. So the "Scripture" to which Paul referred was the Hebrew Bible, what we commonly call the Old Testament. For several decades in the early Church, this was the only "Bible" available. Later, as we saw in 2 Peter 3:14-16, the apostle Peter referred to Paul's writings as Scripture also.
Accepting only a part of the Scriptures as a basis for faith has resulted in literally hundreds of denominations professing to be Christian, but holding contradictory beliefs. Yet if we do justice to what the Bible says, all Scripture should be respected and believed, from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus plainly told us to live by every word of God (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4). We should rely on Scripture, and not man's ideas, to explain God's truths.
It's one thing to view the Bible as a mere collection of stories. It's quite another to accept it as an inspired body of unified and related instructions, history and illustrations. The Bible is full of examples of people like us whose lives demonstrate their obedience or disobedience to the principles of God.
The right approach is to accept Scripture for what it is—God's revealed Word—and to prayerfully and humbly embrace and follow its teachings. With that crucial background and attitude we are ready to embark on learning what the Bible has to tell us.