By: Dr. Sam Lamerson
Whether you have been in church your entire life or are brand new to the faith, you will undoubtedly, at times, encounter Bible passages that are difficult to understand. The scriptures themselves speak of this, as the Apostle Peter says, “. . . just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15–16).
Here are a few keys to help you gain a proper understanding of what the Bible is actually saying.
1. Read slowly
We live in a culture that values doing things fast. A simple look at the available books on speed reading, time management, and “getting things done” is enough to convince anyone that, for many, faster means better. This is not so with our reading of Scripture. We need to slow down and read carefully. How do we learn to read slowly? Here are a few tips. First, if you read in another language (particularly if it is Hebrew and/or Greek) spend time reading the text in that language. Second, write out the text. Writing out the text forces the reader to pay careful attention to what is being said, and to listen to even the smallest of words or phrases. Third, compare several English versions. This will help you to see where the translation of the text is obvious (i.e., the translator has no problem or question) and where the translation is difficult (often versions will differ greatly). Try using a timer and forcing yourself to read much more slowly than is your custom. You will be surprised at what you might discover.
2. Read widely
When you come to a difficult passage in scripture, make sure to read at least the entire chapter in which it occurs. I once had a professor of Greek tell our class, “If you fall asleep in class and I call on you the best answer you can give is, ‘Context!’” Placing the verse or verses in the proper context (the passages surrounding the verse you are studying) is one of the most important things that any reader can do. One of the great problems with modern-day Bible reading is that many have been taught to read the Bible in a way that we would read no other book. Many simply pick up the Bible, turn to a page and read a few verses for that day’s direction. We would never pick up a novel or a textbook, turn to some random page, and expect to make any sense out of the book. Only by reading the entire book does anyone really see what the author is trying to communicate. By understanding that books of the Bible were written to be read (or heard) as a unit, you can come to understand a great deal simply by reading through the whole Gospel of Matthew, book of Isaiah or letter to the Ephesians.
3. Read memorably
When you read an entire book of the Bible, you should do so by looking for and remembering certain literary devices. You will often see a word repeated over and over (for example, forgiveness in Matthew) and this will help point out a theme of the book. Another key can be looking at the start, finish and center of a book or of a particular section (called a “pericope” by theologians). Whatever is being emphasized in the start, finish and center will often point to the more important themes in that section.
Lastly and most importantly, we should always read prayerfully. Our final teacher is the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). Only our relationship with the triune God of the universe will ever allow us to truly understand the Bible. There is absolutely no substitute for speaking to the ultimate author of the scriptures.
The next time you are reading your Bible and come across a difficult passage, you might want to turn to a commentary or a pastor to ask for the answer. Don’t turn too quickly. Read the text yourself first and meditate upon it, asking the Lord for help. In this way you will truly come to know the scriptures.
Dr. Sam Lamerson, Professor of New Testament and Greek, was just named Interim President at Knox Theological Seminary. He can be reached at
[email protected] or by calling the Seminary at 954-771-0376.