Keys to Understanding the Bible

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Keys to Understanding the Bible

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The Bible may be the most controversial all-time best-selling book. Millions consider it to be the written Word of the true God, and even those who don't accept it as divinely inspired often still regard it as a collection of some of the greatest literature in the world.

It is often used as a source of encouragement in times of difficulty and stress. Yet others reject it, saying it is confusing and hard to understand.

Are you one of those who believe the Bible is inspired by God but have trouble understanding it? Would you like to get more benefit from the Bible in our modern world? These tips can help you gain a better understanding of the most powerful and relevant book you will ever study.

God's Word

It's been said that no one is totally unbiased. We all read, hear and see things from our own personal perspective, which is often shaped by our background and life experiences. That means we tend to interpret what we see, hear and read based on what we already know or have experienced. If we approach the Bible from this common human perspective, we will miss much of what God wants us to gain from it.

In Isaiah 55:8-9 God says His ways and thoughts are vastly superior to our human ways and thoughts. We are extremely limited compared to God. We know that we require oxygen to survive, will only live for a limited number of decades and must eat, drink and sleep to maintain our lives. God requires none of this because He lives forever as spirit. He created everything that exists—both visible and invisible—through the One who became Jesus Christ, as explained in Colossians 1:15-17. The One who created us is (and always will be) superior to us.

That being the case, we must approach God's Word ready to be inspired, ready to listen and with an attitude of being willing to change our views. That is the core of the message Jesus brought when He lived as God in the flesh. Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15 both say that when Jesus began to preach, His core message was to command all people to repent—which means to change.

So to get the most out of the Bible, we must be willing to accept it as God's instruction book for His creation—human life—and be willing to change our perspective to match His, no matter what changes in our thinking that requires of us.

Think addition

Many who try to discredit the Bible do it on the basis of passages they see as contradictory. For example, if one Gospel writer records an event and refers to some aspect that the other Gospel writers don't mention, a skeptic might pounce on that and say the Bible is unreliable. But it is important to think "addition" when reading the Bible. In other words, look to assemble all the pieces of information given by the Bible writers to get the complete picture. God inspired writers from many different backgrounds, personality types and cultures to record His Word over a period of about 1,500 years.

Most of the Bible is written with some information in one place and more in another, so that it takes effort to get the full picture.

Wise King Solomon expressed it this way in Proverbs 25:2: "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter."

One example of this is the historical account of Satan's tempting of Christ. Matthew 4 records that Satan took Jesus up to the top of a pinnacle on the temple in Jerusalem and challenged Him to throw Himself off. Satan quoted Psalm 91:11-12, which says God will protect us with His angels, even to the point of holding us up so we don't dash our foot against a stone. Jesus recognized the incomplete perspective and refused to do that, saying it is also written that we should not tempt (or test) God, quoting a totally different part of Scripture in Deuteronomy 6:16.

It will take work to do a thorough search to find all the relevant passages in the Bible about a particular topic. But remember, Jesus said the path to eternal life is not the broad and easy path. It is the narrow and difficult one (Matthew 7:13-14). Thinking "addition" will help you realize the value in studying the complete Bible—not just part of it.

Various types of material

When studying the Bible, it is also important to realize there is a lot of variety in the material God has recorded for us. You will find there are narrative passages that simply tell what happened, such as in the creation account in Genesis. There are passages that record historical information, such as events in the lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (in Genesis 12-50), or ancient Israel (much of the Old Testament), or the early New Testament Church (especially the book of Acts).

Other passages focus on instruction in right living (Proverbs, most of Paul's epistles and other books). And there is a lot of prophecy in both the Old and New Testaments. Narrative has a very different feel and purpose than passages that instruct us in right living (the process of learning to think and act more like God). And both of those are very different from reading prophecy, which tells in advance about events that will come to pass. Knowing how to recognize each type and where you are most likely to find it will be a big key to increasing your understanding.

Basic time line

In addition, having a basic time line of the Bible will help you better recognize what type of passage you are likely to read in any book or section of the Bible.

Genesis is a book about the start of many things—from creation to the extended family of Abraham, which became both the nation of Israel and several other nations. Exodus through 2 Chronicles covers the history of Israel being freed from bondage in Egypt, inheriting the Promised Land, repeated oppression during the time of the judges, the united monarchy and then splitting into the two nations of Israel and Judah, and eventually going into captivity for repeatedly breaking their covenant with God.

Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the return of the Jews to Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity. The prophetic books were written during the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The rest of the books in the Old Testament are mostly poetry and wisdom literature collected and written during the same time period—around 1,400 B.C. to 400 B.C.

The New Testament covers the life and teachings of Christ in the early first century (the four Gospel accounts), the history of the early Church (Acts), and the epistles (letters) from various apostles to churches or individuals during the first century. It ends with the prophetic book of Revelation—a capstone on the whole Bible—in which the apostle John was shown specific details of what would lead up to the return of Jesus Christ to earth.

Plan of salvation

Finally, it is also good to have a basic understanding of God's plan of salvation, which can be simplified as the process of a new creation. God created people with the potential to be changed into spirit beings who will live forever with Him. That process requires human beings to repent, accept Jesus Christ as their Savior and be changed (converted) to think and act more like God. The whole process is outlined in the festivals God established for mankind. For more details on that topic, please refer to our two-part series "God's Feasts Answer the Big Questions" in the April-June and July-September 2010 issues of Vertical Thought (and our free booklet God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind).

These tips won't answer all the questions you will have about the Bible, but they can get you on the road to a better understanding and will help you live in a way that pleases God. As the apostle Paul wrote to the young evangelist Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, "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." VT