Tips for Understanding the Bible
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post that included a prayer to help understand the Bible better when we read it. However, even after praying at times there are still things we don’t always understand right away. There are occasions where we may want to do a little further study when we are having trouble understanding. Today I thought I’d share with you some of my own processes and tips for understanding the Bible based on things that seem to help me, personally.
I’ve been a consistent Bible reader and “student” for many years now, and there are STILL things I don’t understand. It might be a word, a custom, or it might even be when the Bible seems to contradict itself. We’re not crazy, abnormal, or unintelligent if we read some things that seem a bit confusing or out of whack! Even pastors who have been studying scripture for decades have questions and don’t always understand everything that they read. Take heart…we’re in good company!
A different take on struggles with understanding
Recently, after reading some of his devotions on my Bible app, I started following a guy named Dave Adamson. He has an Instagram feed with daily photo devotions that are always absolutely amazing! One of his posts this week fit right in line with how we struggle when we read the Bible at times. Dave had some tips for understanding the bible when we struggle based off of the story of Jacob, who was renamed Isaac. He posted a picture of his girls wrestling on the lawn at the National Mall in Washington DC. He compared it to how we wrestle with God and with scripture sometimes…
“See, I used to carry a lot of guilt whenever I questioned a paradox in Scripture or disagreed with something I heard in church. But there’s a story in the Bible of a man named Jacob who one night literally wrestles with God. By morning, God walks away from the fight and changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which in Hebrew means “struggles” or “wrestles with God.” This name is prophetic, signifying that God’s people will always wrestle with Him. The ancient Jews believed God invites you into this wonderful wrestling match with Him. Author Athol Dickson says, “What if God placed these paradoxes within the Scriptures to cause me to struggle for the truth? What if it is the struggle he desires as much as the truth itself?” When you wrestle with God, He’s right there with you, just like my daughters are with each other in this picture. So the next time you struggle with faith, that’s not a time for guilt, but celebration. God is inviting you to wrestle with Him so you can be connected with the Creator of the universe.”
I love how he used this analogy to free us from some of the guilt of having doubts and questions. You can also see more of Dave’s amazing photo devotions on his reading plans on the Bible app (YouVersion): 7 Hebrew Words Every Believer Should Know and 7 More Hebrew Words Every Believer Should Know. Dave also has a photo devotional book called Chasing the Light.
God wants us to understand
Nevertheless, like I said before… God wants us to read our Bible and to understand it. He doesn’t want it to be difficult or overwhelming for us. Because God is not a God of confusion, we should be at peace and not in a state of confusion. Scripture is given to us to help us, not to hinder us. It’s meant to be useful for us.
“For God is not a God of confusion but of peace…” 1 Corinthians 14:33 (ESV)
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.” 2 Timothy 3:16(NLT)
So on to the tips!
8 Tips for Understanding the Bible:
Find a translation that makes it easy to understand the Bible verses and passages
- Read a verse or passage in multiple translations
- Use a Bible commentary
- Read related verses or cross references
- Use a concordance
- Ask someone else
- Look up or research what you don’t understand
- Pray more specifically about a particular part that you don’t understand
Take Some Practical Steps With These 8 Tips for Understanding the Bible:
Find a translation that makes it easy to understand the Bible verses and passages
First and foremost, we should be reading in a translation that is easy to comprehend. I probably wouldn’t start with the King James Version! As a disclaimer though…I personally started reading the Bible and having a regular quiet time with a King James Bible. It CAN be done. It’s just a little more difficult to understand with all of the flowery language.
Sometimes we just have to use what we’ve got. The KJV Bible was all I had at the time, and there was no such thing as smart phones or internet Bibles. Yeah, yeah…I’m old okay! 😉 Anyhow, God will meet us where we are with what we have. Even if we don’t understand a lot of what we are reading, there is still typically something that stands out or that means something to us in that moment.
There are a few good, easy to read versions. With smart phones and the internet it’s easy to try out different translations (or even switch back and forth) to see what works best for us. Here are a few good, easy-to-read versions to start with: New International Version (NIV), New Living Translation (NLT), English Standard Version (ESV), and/or Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).
Read a verse or passage in multiple translations
With smart phones and internet Bibles, it’s easier than ever to read a single verse or passage in several different translations. If we come across something we don’t understand, we can just switch the translation or version and read the same verse or passage with different wording. Often this helps me to understand a verse better or see it in a different way. Parallel readers make this convenient to do.
Sometimes we can even look at them all at the same time. I love the “Compare” feature on my Bible app that lets me choose whichever versions in which I want to read a verse or passage all at once. I also love the website Biblehub.com which lets me do the same thing with a single verse at a time.
Use a Bible commentary
A lot of times it’s helpful to take something you don’t understand and see what a Bible commentary has to say about it. Some Bibles actually have commentary in them, often toward the bottom. My husband’s Bible is this way. His is an NIV Life Application Study Bible with commentary at the bottom of each page containing notes that not only explain difficult passages and give information on Bible life and times, but also goes a step further to show how to apply it on a personal level. Most commentaries will do the same thing.
Another favorite commentary of mine is Matthew Henry’s commentary. I use an app that I purchased with his complete commentary, but you can also get the hard copy book or find it for free on a website like this one or this one.
Read related verses or cross references
Sometimes Bibles will contain cross references which are verses throughout the Bible that contain commonalities. According to this helpful post by Sarah Travis, “the whole idea behind cross-referencing is to let Scripture interpret itself. If you are unsure of the meaning of a verse, you can search the Bible and find other verses that reference the same themes, words, events, or people to gain a deeper understanding.”
I’ve noticed that many verses in the Bible are listed more than once but might be rephrased a bit or have additional information that makes it easier to comprehend. When you read similar verses in the different contexts, it will increase your comprehension. In my Bible app, cross references are indicated with an ellipsis (“…”). Additionally, I’ve seen numbers or footnotes indicating a reference in other bibles. Most Bible study websites will list cross references in the side margins or columns or at the bottom of the page.
Use a concordance
A Bible concordance can help you look up words to research or learn more about. It will often give you other verses that either contain the exact same word or cover a similar topic (much like cross references). Looking at other verses with the same word or a similar theme will occasionally help you to get a better grasp of the meaning of the verse.
Many Bibles contain a concordance in the back of the bible as a resource. In addition to finding one in a Bible there are concordance apps available (many of which are free) and you can also find free Bible concordances online. Bible Hub has a few here, or there are a handful here on this site that you can use. You could always get a hard copy concordance too if you prefer.
Ask someone else
Ask others what they get or understand from the verse or passage that you are having difficulty understanding. Now and then we can gain insight from somebody else’s perspective. They may see it in a different light or with another meaning. More times than I can count another person will share what a verse meant to them, and I’ll say, “Oh…I never thought of it that way. That makes a lot of sense!” God means for us to help one another and to be “iron sharpens iron” to each another.
“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)
Look up or research what you don’t understand
Be careful when googling for answers! You can’t always trust everything you read in the internet. I know…shocker right?! 😉 Remember these tips for conducting research.
There are a lot of “false teachers” of “false prophets” out there, and the number is growing day by day as the end times near. God warns us about this in the Bible.
“And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people.” Matthew 24:11 (NLT)
“Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world.” 1 John 4:1 (NLT)
“But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them. In this way, they will bring sudden destruction on themselves. Many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality. And because of these teachers, the way of truth will be slandered.” 2 Peter 2:1-2 (NLT)
As we study or research things we don’t understand, we should always make sure that it completely aligns with scripture. Find sites and people that you trust and that are like-minded in faith. Furthermore, listen to the Holy Spirit inside of you. Pay attention to any red flags, things that maybe rub you the wrong way, or if something just doesn’t seem right. The Holy Spirit will give soft nudges or urges, NOT feelings of panic, fear or anxiety–those are from the devil. If you feel that, it’s NOT from God. God is a God of peace, and He will guide you to answers peacefully.
Finally, pray more specifically about a particular part that you don’t understand
Pray and ask God specifically about a passage you don’t understand. Sometimes it just takes MORE prayer and specifically asking God what something means. Then we need to just be patient waiting for an answer because they don’t always come immediately.
For example, I remember several years ago when singing during praise and worship at church a phrase in a song said “show me your glory”. Not long after that I read it again in the Bible.
““Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”” Exodus 33:18 (NIV)
I remember thinking, “What does ‘glory’ mean? I thought ‘glory’ was a term of praise. How can God show us His praise?” It didn’t make any sense to me. So I prayed about it…”God, what does “glory” mean? How can you “show me your glory”? Then, I waited for an answer. Nothing came right away, but then several months later I was listening to a message from Beth Jones. She explained that “glory” meant God’s physical, tangible presence. Ah! Light bulb moment…I got it! “Show me your tangible presence” made a lot more sense to me than “show me your glory”, and it made sense to sing that in a praise and worship song too. Then, some time later I read that same verse in a different version:
“Moses responded, “Then show me your glorious presence.”” Exodus 33:18 (NLT)
Where was that translation the first time I read it?! Apparently, that was before I started the habit of comparing translations when I didn’t understand something. See what a difference that could make? Regardless, God brought me the answer after I prayed about it more.
Now it’s your turn! Go try out a few of these 8 tips for understanding the Bible better and see how they help.
Do you have any tips for understanding the Bible? Share them by leaving a comment below.
Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are rude, disrespectful, sarcastic, offensive, or off-topic. By posting on this site you agree to my Comment Policy.
P.S. If you liked this post, you might enjoy receiving new posts delivered right to your inbox each week! Sign up here.
If you know anyone that could benefit from this, please pay it forward! Share this post via the sharing links below. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV)
There are affiliate links in this post (I may get a small commission at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase).