How to Study & Understand the Bible

Here are the general "rules" for reading and studying God's Word:

Before we even get to the general rules for this though, I want to mention one thing that's the most important part of studying His Word, and that's that you should always study His Word with Him. By that I mean you're not to study it like you would a history book or some other school book, but as though the Lord was sitting next to you helping you and guiding you as you study. Talk to Him about what you're studying, ask Him questions about it, make comments about what you're thinking about as you read and study it. That is the most important part of studying His Word there is. Never begin reading it without first talking to the Lord and asking Him to guide you to what He wants you to learn that day. Then keep talking to Him and follow His lead. You'll be amazed at the results! Don't be afraid or embarrassed to be "wrong" about something. God has been dealing with us for a very long time and there simply is no better teacher to be had. He never tells us everything there is to know about something all at once. We couldn't handle it. So like any good teacher, He starts with where we are in our understanding, and little by little leads us into deeper truth and understanding. It's an exciting journey and a privileged one to grow with him, so enjoy it!

1. Remember, the Bible can't be understood correctly without the Holy Spirit guiding you so always start by asking for the Lord's guidance and help. 

2. One of the first rules for understanding the Bible is "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; there fore, take every word at it's primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate text, studied in the light of related passages and fundamental truths, clearly indicate otherwise."

For example, when reading this:

Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.

We can know immediately that Jesus does not mean for us to literally hate our parents and loved ones. Why do we know that? Because the entire bible, tells us over and over and over again that we are to "honor our parents", that we are to love everyone including our enemies, etc. Jesus Himself says the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love others. Therefore since the entire bible says that, this one sentence cannot have been meant literally! So the next step would be to find out just what He did mean when He said that.

How do we do that? First we read some of what He's saying before hand to get a picture of what's going on. In this particular case although there's stuff being said before it, there's not much before it. The previous parables were told while they were eating but this one starts out as they are traveling to their next destination:

Luke 14:25-27 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

So we know now He's teaching a large group of people and not just His disciples. The next thing to do then since we can't get a lot out of what's gone on before hand in this instance is to read a bit beyond our difficult verse to see what else He has to say. When we do that we finally get an idea of what's going on and what He's talking to them about. He's telling them that they will have to sacrifice to be His disciple and that it's not going to be an easy road nor a road to glory and fame for them. As we're reading this we need to keep in mind a couple of other "rules" for studying the bible:

3.The next rule would be that the Bible interprets itself. God does NOT contradict Himself. So first make sure you are reading the verse's in context and then find out what else God has to say about that subject. The better you know the whole Bible the better you'll understand everything.

So considering our difficult passage, we now know that He's talking about the cost of becoming His disciple.. We still need to know a bit more about that though to determine what this "hate your parents" thing is about. So the next step would be to use a concordance or cross reference to find out what else Jesus has said about following Him. When we do that, we immediately come to this verse:

Matthew 10:37-39 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Ahh! Now it begins to makes sense doesn't it???
Let's look closely at the two passages to compare them now:

Matthew 10:37 “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;

Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.

Once you've done that, you now know what Jesus was really saying when He said we are to hate our parents!  In other words, He wants us to put Him above even our parents. So at this point, depending on the purpose of your reading, you can either continue on reading Luke as before until you get to the next verse you have a problem with, or if you're doing a study on a particular subject, you can continue on with the subject now until you get to the next passage you have difficulty with.

When you come to another difficult passage, you simply repeat the process we just went through to discover it's meaning.

The Lord knew that heretics, false teachers etc would try to prevent folks from reading His Word by telling them it was hard to understand etc. So He included this in His Word to encourage us:
2 Corinthians 1:13 For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand.
4. Another rule of thumb would be to consider the Bible as ONE book rather then a bunch of small books added together. Keep in mind too that the better you know the whole Bible the better you'll understand everything.

Don't leave out the Old Testament. It's there for a reason - to teach us and remind us of what's important. It's an excellent place to learn more about ourselves too. If God didn't want us to study it, He wouldn't have included it. It is every bit as important as the New Testament!

5. I also suggest that you get a bible translation that's easy for you to understand such as the NIV, ESV, or NLT or even the NKJV. The King James version is great but if you're having trouble understanding it, then reading it isn't helping you much. If you're jittery about other translations, try getting a parallel bible that has the NIV right next to the KJV and/or other translations as well. That way, as you study, you'll be assured for yourself that the NIV and others are every bit as good as the KJV is.

Many people when confronted with a need for a newer translation hesitate because they "know" their KJV so well already. They can find whatever they need usually etc in it and worry that they won't be able to do this in a newer version. In fact, that was exactly my worry when I determined to switch to the NIV. I went ahead and did it anyway because I felt it was much more important that I get all that I could out of the text I was reading then that I feel "familiar" with it and be able to find stuff easier.

I discovered, much to my delight, that not only was I right and I did get a LOT more out of the text by switching, but that while it was more work at first, that I quickly was able to begin to "find" the things I was looking for. Yes, it took a bit of extra work at first, but that's actually good because it forces you to learn yet more! So please don't be afraid to try a newer translation. I think the best and easiest ones to use are the NIV, the ESV and the NLT . (New international version, the English standard version, and New living translation )

6. One other thing I've found helpful knowing as I study is this: That the more often God mentions something, the more important it seems to be. It's like He's trying to drum it into our heads. Plus, it seems that when there are several verses scattered through the bible that speak to the same thing, that the very first time that concept is brought up, the verse it's first discussed in generally has more in it then we see when we first read it. This simply means that when we come to a verse like that, that we need to remember to really dig into it so we don't miss what the Lord is saying to us. There's just generally more in the context of that "first mention verse" then is obvious at first glance. 

7. Keep in mind that it's never enough to just read God's Word, we have to study it; and it's never enough to just study it, we must always remember to take what we've learned and apply it to our life. So you should always be asking the Lord to show you how what you're studying applies to your life today and then for His help in applying it.

8. Finally I want to discuss reference tools you can use such as bible commentaries, bible dictionaries, theology books, etc. These are all great tools, but don't ever forget that they are just that, a "tool". They are NOT necessary to have in order to study your Bible. God can and will teach you everything you could learn from them without you having one.  How do I know?  Because He taught me that way. On the other hand, if you can get one, that’s fine, as long as you remember not to use it as your teacher.  It’s only a tool.  God is your teacher. Never make the mistake of reading a bible commentary (no matter who wrote it or when) and assuming that it's 100% correct, or even 99%! When studying a passage or subject, it's great to read what various commentaries say about it, but do it to get ideas from, to get possible meanings, cross references from, the historical and cultural background etc. There are no short cuts.

When you have the resources it can also be helpful when studying a difficult passage to be able to look up what the actual words were when they were written in the original language. With the Logos program I can do that and it's very helpful, but again you have to think for yourself with the Lord guiding you.

God wants us learning from Him, and from His Word, not just from what John MacArthur says, or
Spurgeon, or anyone else. Always remember that God is your teacher and your school book is His Word, not what someone else says about His Word.

Having said that however, you'll find that when you do discover some good godly scriptural teachers like MacArthur, Warren Wiersbe, or others, that they will all agree with each other about most everything. They may say it differently, and may explain it differently, but the basic understanding will all be the same. That's one good way to know if you're on the right track or if an unknown teacher is a good one or not. If they don't agree for the most part with the others that you've already determined to be scriptural teachers, then that should be a big red danger flag for you.

Some of my favorite commentaries and study guides are:
1. The Bible exposition commentary By W. W. Wiersbe, Or the "Be Commentary Series" by Wiersbe.
2. The MacArthur study Bible
The Bible knowledge commentary : An exposition of the scriptures

Having said all this, I want you to understand that I'm not suggesting that you shouldn't read of trust good solid biblical teachers like MacArthur or Wiersbe. After all, God Himself gave us teachers for a reason and He expects us to use that resource. The reason I wrote what I did is because too many people read only what others say about God's Word and don't study it for themselves and that's wrong. No godly teacher would ever want you to do that. So by all means, use good commentaries, just don't forget to listen to the Lord and study with Him because you'll never find a better teacher then He is. When I write studies here in FH, I try to write them in such a way that someone can read them and not only understand what the scriptures are saying on that subject, but can take what I've said and use it to study either that subject or another one, on their own with the Lord.

9. It's generally best to set up some kind of reading and study plan for yourself as that tends to help us stick to it. For people who aren't used to reading and studying the bible daily, I would suggest a plan that isn't going to overwhelm you. It's no big deal if you read/study more then you're "supposed" to, but it can be detrimental to our resolve if we frequently find ourselves unable to complete whatever reading our plan calls for each day.

Once you set up your plan for the first time, don't be afraid to change it if you find it's too much for you, or if you find it's not enough. It's always better to start "small" and work your way up rather then the other way around too.

So I would suggest for beginners that they start out reading and studying perhaps a chapter a day.

There's several ways you can set up a can read the bible from Genesis to Revelation- straight through a few chapters a day. (don't worry if it takes you one year or two or even more! that's not what is important) Another way is to read a couple of chapters from the Old Testament daily and a couple from the New Testament Daily. Yet another way would be to read from both testaments as I just said, 5 days a week and on the weekends just read from psalms and/or proverbs. There are probably as many different "plans" as there are people, so just ask the Lord what He would have you do and work one out with Him that you're comfortable with to start.

10. Although it's best to set up some kind of plan for yourself, remember, you're not the boss, God is! So if you're supposed to read one thing on a certain day but find the Lord has brought you from there to an entirely different book in His Word, don't fight it! Trust me, it's not worth it! The purpose of the plan is to help you have the discipline to study daily, it's a guide, not a straight jacket. Follow the Lord's leading and He will open His Word to you and show you amazing things just as He says He will. If your study time ends and you find you haven't done the chapter you were "supposed" to that day, then start there again the next day.

Last but not least, reflect on whatever you've studied as you go throughout your day and enjoy the great adventure you're on with the Lord! I hope this helps!

I also want to explain what I mean when I say "study with the Lord." I hope, that this may clarify what I mean by that:

How to Study with the Lord:

1) Pray asking the Lord to guide and teach you and to lead you into what He has for you to learn today. (Remember, prayer is simply talking to the Lord)
2) Read the 1st verse in your reading plan for that day.
3) What are your thoughts about this verse?  Remember, the Lord is right here with you, right now, watching, listening and guiding your thoughts and questions. So talk to Him about your thoughts and questions.  4) Follow where your thoughts, questions, ideas lead you: to other verses, other ideas, other questions and consider each in the same way, always discussing it with the Lord as you go. Finally, if you haven’t already been led to do so, you can check your concordance, index, and cross references to see what other scriptures might pertain to this.
5) Continue on to the next verse and repeat unless the Lord has taken you off into an entirely different direction

This entire process isn’t really studying so much as it’s a conversation with the Lord. It sounds strange writing it out this way,m but basically it's constantly talking to the Lord about what you're reading - making a comment, asking a question, or whatever.  Just as you'd do if it was another human being in the room with you.  When you study this way, you wind up with an enjoyable time spent with Him, learning about Him and all the wonderful surprises He’s hidden in His Word just for you to find today.

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