How to read the Bible

People who read the Bible often find it hard to understand. One of the best ways to read the Bible is follow the guidelines God gives us in the Bible itself. Here are six:

Patience, Comfort and Hope.

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 chapter 15 verse 4

In this verse the Apostle Paul is referring to the Old Testament Scriptures, but we may apply it to the Bible as a whole.

There are three things in particular that are mentioned, patience, comfort and hope. They go together, but the first two seem to lead to the third - hope.
As we read the Bible therefore we should have these things in view.

Patience (endurance or perseverance in some translations) is a key word in the New Testament for describing an important part of true Christian character. We are told that the followers of Christ will suffer trials and persecutions. In the scriptures we see this to be true, we see how believers rode the storm and how the Lord delivered them. We learn patience from their example. One particular example is the patience of Job (James 5.11). In the end only perseverance shows whether someone is truly saved. The (seed) that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8.15)

Comfort (consolation or encouragement in some translations ) is again something which we derive from the scriptures and is part of the work of the Holy Spirit (the Comforter). The bible word is stronger than our word comfort and can mean exhort. Timothy is to give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine (1 Tim 4.13). Our comfort does not therefore consist of shallow words, but of knowing the truth.

Hope you will see is the goal of it all - it is the anticipation of the future blessing. The scriptures reveal to us the promises of God and it is on these promises that our hope is based. They are promises for now, but also and more particularly for the future. It is as we look to the future that we need patience and comfort. But our hope is not wishful thinking, for what could be surer than the promises of God.

As we read the scriptures these are three things we should look for and seek to derive from them - patience, comfort and hope.

Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of ages have come.    1 Corinthians chapter 10 verse 11    (but see all of verses 1 to 13)

The Apostle Paul is referring here to the narrative parts of the Old Testament, that is the record of events in the history of God’s people. In verses 1 to 13 of 1 Corinthians 10 there are three particular guides as to how we should read these often difficult parts of the Bible.

This is what is meant by admonition in the verse quoted above.
One of the remarkable things about the Bible is that the faults of its heroes are never hidden. Whether it is King David or the Apostle Peter, their mistakes and failings are made abundantly clear. Only the Lord Jesus Christ is set before us as without sin. Therefore as we read the Bible we can learn by example, negative example, that is from the mistakes of others. Unfortunately as has often been remarked, we humans seem particularly bad at learning from the past, we prefer to repeat the same mistakes all over again.

It is learning from past mistakes which is behind 1 Corinthians chapter 10 - ‘these things became our example’ - verse 6. It is a negative example, we are to turn around the mistakes they made. So when you read the Bible there are particular things to look out for and so to avoid:

- lusting after evil (v6),
- idolatry (v7)
- sexual immorality (v8)
- tempting God (Christ) (v9)
- murmuring (v10)

Only a fool will think that these are not dangers to us today. Therefore one of the key purposes in reading the Bible is to learn from past mistakes.

Seeing Christ
For they drank from that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ (v4)

As we read the Old Testament we should see Jesus. To many this seems foolish and most biblical scholarship in recent years has insisted in taking the Old Testament on its own terms - many in our Churches have followed the same line. But the New Testament writers consistently and persistently saw Old Testament events in terms of the Lord Jesus Christ and this verse is just one small example.

Of course the practice arose with Jesus himself who said the people of the Old Testament looked to his day, that all the scriptures were fulfilled in him and that they pointed to him. He declared, ‘before Abraham was, I am’. His followers have simply followed their Lord’s example. Without being fanciful we should see the whole of the Bible as being about Christ. The New Testament is our clearest guide on how to read the Old Testament in this way.

Stand firm
For many people the trials of life or just keeping going in faith is too much. In one way to be told, as we are in verse 13, that our problems are nothing new, nothing unusual, is not a great help. But it is the words that follow that should sustain us and which should be what we learn from reading the Bible.
No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man:
but God is faithful

Whatever the difficulties you face, the saints of God have been there before.
Moses, Elijah and Job all wanted to die because of the weight of leadership, because of opposition and because of physical suffering and grief.
The Psalms are a constant companion for those in despair, even for those who with Jesus can only utter ‘my God my God why have you forsaken me’. There is no shame in despair, but again and again the Bible shows us that God is faithful.
This and this alone is the grounds of our hope, but it is a hope that should lift up the head of anyone who feels they are sinking in the mud, for the promise is clear, whatever the trial we will be able to endure and the Lord will provide the escape.

Wise for Salvation
from childhood you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus    1 Timothy 3.15

Timothy, it appears, had learnt his faith from his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois (see chapter 1). They had taken seriously a task laid on all Christian parents - to teach their children from the Bible. We cannot pass the buck to Sunday School teachers nor to Schools, it is the duty of parents.

Because Timothy had been taught the Bible he had therefore learnt the way of salvation. This then shows us one of the chief things which should be in our minds whenever we read the Bible. The scriptures are able to make us wise for salvation. This does not mean that they impart to us some hidden knowledge (that is the sort of things cults like the Scientologists claim). Rather, the scriptures teach us how it is that we may be saved, and this is summarised very neatly for us here - through faith in Christ Jesus.

It is worth remembering that for Timothy ‘the scriptures’ meant first and foremost the Old Testament. Therefore, as we read the Old Testament in particular, we should find that it makes us wise for salvation; it teaches us about how we may be saved through faith in Christ Jesus. This is a remarkable claim, but it comes from Jesus himself.

There were religious people in Jesus’ day who knew their Bibles inside out. But Jesus confronted them:
You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of me.
Jesus makes it clear here that the Old Testament testifies of him. So as we read the Old Testament we should see Jesus! But Jesus continues:
But you are not willing to come to me that you may have life.

Therefore we should never see reading the Bible as an end in itself. Nor are we reading it chiefly to find blessings or commands. Our greatest concern should be to see Jesus and from this to learn how it is through Jesus that we have salvation. We must ask the questions, even of the Old Testament, how and what does this show me about Christ? What does this teach me about my own salvation? What does it show me about faith?

Feeding the minds
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,.    2 Timothy 3.16

This famous Bible verse not only tells us a important truth about the authority and trustworthiness of the scriptures but also tells us two particular ways in which we should read the Bible. The first think, is that we should read the Bible to feed our minds. Paul tells us that all scripture is useful for teaching and rebuking. That means teaching what is right and rebuking what is wrong.

So as we read the Bible we should be seeking to learn. The Bible tells us many things but particularly about God, about the Lord Jesus Christ, about our own spiritual need and God's solution to that through Jesus. Many people seem to be afraid of learning, particularly of learning spiritual things. But in addition to what we have seen in previous weeks, the Bible is given to instruct us, to teach us. There are two sides to how it does this.

(On the one hand we will discover what we should think, what we should believe, what is true. The Bible teaches us.

(On the other hand we will discover what we should not think, what we should not believe, what is false. If we hold wrong views, then we will find that as we read the Bible we are rebuked.

Now of course sometimes (many times) when we read the Bible we encounter things to which we respond, 'I cannot possibly believe that'. There are three options, either we have misunderstood what the Bible says, or the Bible is wrong, or we are wrong.

Whenever people argue 'the Bible has been misunderstood', this is really an excuse. Scripture is given to rebuke us, if we are honest and open to God when we read it, then we will find that God rebukes us. Through the Holy Spirit, God will then change us, teaching us what is right and true.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,.
2 Timothy 3.16

In the second half of this verse we see that the Bible should be used to teach us how to live, to govern our conduct. Many people seem to imagine that the Bible is simply a book of rules. This is not true, but it is quite plain that it does contain many instructions about how we should live in a way that is pleasing to God. This verse from 2 Timothy makes this plain. As with teaching there are again two sides to this, the negative and the positive.

Therefore as we read the Bible we should always be open to the fact that there may be things in the way we live our lives now which are wrong. If we are open and honest in reading the Bible then these things will be brought out into the light and if we are wise we will correct our conduct according to God’s word. We should never imagine that this will be easy, change is always painful. Indeed there will always be temptations to try and ignore what the Bible says, the serpent’s trick with Eve is the commonest ‘has God said’. Today on many issues where the Bible is quite plain (take homosexual behaviour as an example) people try to water-down or negate the teaching of the Bible because they do not want to correct their behaviour.

Many people imagine that the Bible is simply a kill-joy’s manual, it contains all sorts of lists of things a Christian is not allowed to do. Of course there are many negative commands in the Bible, the Ten Commandments, for example. But the Bible should also train us in righteousness. This is entirely positive, and perhaps Jesus’ summary of the law (which actually comes from the Old Testament remember), love the Lord and love your neighbour is the best example of this. As we read the Bible we should allow God to tell us how we should change our lives that we might bring out the fruit of righteousness.

Both these things must go side by side. We are called to change from (correct) and to change to (train in righteousness), to put off the old and to put on the new. It is through hearing and doing the word of God that this change will take place.

About Jesus
Jesus said: "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think  you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life." John 5.39 & 40

In part 3 when looking at 2 Timothy 3.15 we saw how the scriptures makes us wise for salvation and considered this saying of Jesus then. It is the constant claim of Jesus and the apostles that all the scriptures, Old and New Testament are about Jesus, they testify concerning him. It is remarkable to realise that on the day of his resurrection when he first appeared to his disciples on the Emmaus road and later in the locked room, his priority was to teach them from the Old Testament (the Law and Prophets) concerning himself. Indeed later in verse 46 of John chapter 5, Jesus goes on to say that Moses wrote about Him.

Therefore as we read the Bible, whether it is Old or New Testament, we should be asking the question ‘what does this teach me about Jesus?’ This does not mean we taking odd verses and trying to twist their meaning so that they seem to say something about Jesus. Rather, we should be looking for the way in which the whole message of the Bible points to Jesus. In the Bible we find God’s unfolding plan of salvation, a plan that comes to fulfilment in Christ. Everything in the Old Testament therefore points forward to Christ.

We must also recognise that these words of Jesus contain a warning. The more we read the Bible and understand the Bible and come to love its message, the greater that danger becomes. We can begin to trust in the Bible itself, we can even make the Bible our god. But always the scriptures testify concerning Jesus, they direct us to Him. Therefore, Bible reading must never be an end in itself. Our aim in reading the Bible should be to know Christ more and to understand his will for our lives.

David Phillips 1997

© David Phillips 1995-2021