Week Five: How am I supposed to understand the Bible?
Maybe you’ve tried to read the Bible and put it down because you couldn’t understand it. The Bible does contain some odd names, unusual settings, and unfamiliar situations. Yet we are also told that the Bible is God’s word to us, and that God meant it to be our “road map” for living.
But how can you use a map you can’t understand? Do you have to be some kind of spiritual “expert” to understand God’s Word?
No. We’ll admit that some portions of Scripture may be confusing, but other sections are easy to understand. The apostle Peter wrote that some of Paul’s comments in his letters are “hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture” (2 Peter 3:15-16). But most of the Bible is simple—so simple, in fact, that parents are to teach the laws of God to their children. “And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up” (Deut. 6:7).
Psalm 19:7-8 says that the Word of God is easy enough for a simple man to understand—and furthermore, it will make a foolish man wise! “The instructions of the Lord are perfect, reviving the soul. The decrees of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The commandments of the Lord are right, bringing joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are clear, giving insight for living.”
In another psalm David wrote, “The teaching of your word gives light, so even the simple can understand” (Psalm 119:130).
It is important to understand, though, that people whose hearts are set against God may not want to understand the Bible. Consider the following verses:
1 Corinthians 2:13-14: “When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means.”
2 Peter 3:5: “they [scoffers] deliberately forget that God made the heavens by the word of his command, and he brought the earth out from the water and surrounded it with water.”
James 1:5-6: “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking.”
1 Corinthians 1:18-19: “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the Scriptures say, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.’”
Isaiah 29:14: “Because of this, I will once again astound these hypocrites with amazing wonders. The wisdom of the wise will pass away, and the intelligence of the intelligent will disappear.”
If God gives us wisdom when we ask, and if the Holy Spirit will help us understand the Scriptures, then why do so many people disagree on what the Scriptures mean? It’s important that you understand this—when people disagree on what a portion of the Bible means, the problem doesn’t lie in the Bible, but in the people. Clearly, someone is mistaken. Either they don’t understand because they haven’t been given spiritual knowledge, or they are misinterpreting a passage based on their own knowledge.
Remember this—the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had the writings of the prophets, who wrote hundreds of prophecies about Jesus himself. Yet when he stood in front of them, the Lamb of God, born of a virgin in Bethlehem, bound to die upon the cross for their sins, they didn’t recognize him. They had the Scriptures, they were staring at living proof of the prophets’ words, but the truth didn’t sink into their hard hearts.
The Bible is a rich book—some chapters are simple enough to be understood by children; other chapters and verses require a certain amount of wisdom to understand. But most of all, the person who wants to understand God’s word must read it with an open heart and a willingness to believe that it is God’s word. Those who are not willing to believe will never understand it.
Memory verse: “You made me; you created me. Now give me the sense to follow your commands” (Psalm 119:73).
1. Read the following verses written by Isaiah, an Old Testament prophet, and discuss how they were fulfilled during the life of Jesus Christ:
Isaiah 52:13-15: “See, my servant will prosper; he will be highly exalted. But many were amazed when they saw him. His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human, and from his appearance, one would scarcely know he was a man. And he will startle many nations. Kings will stand speechless in his presence. For they will see what they had not been told; they will understand what they had not heard about.”
Isaiah 53:3-11: “He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God's paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all.
“He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream. But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man's grave. But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands. When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.”
2. As Christians, how can we make sure that we correctly understand the Word of God when we read it? Yes, we should pray for wisdom, and yes, we should look for good teachers. Anything else?
3. Will the Bible ever contradict itself? If the Bible seems to be telling me to do something in one passage, and not to do that same thing in another passage, where does the problem lie—in the Bible or in my understanding of the Bible? How could I solve this problem?
4. Why is the Bible so important? Why do we need to study it? Can we understand God without reading the Bible? We’ll talk more about this next week.