Why can the Bible be so hard to understand?
The Bible is a book full of spiritual riches that can make us wise unto salvation, train us to live godly lives, and equip us for ministry (2 Timothy 3:14-17). It is also the world’s all-time bestseller–and the best-selling book in every year that sales have been recorded.
Even so, the task of reading the Bible can feel like putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle. As you read Scripture, you inevitably run across something you don’t understand and ask a variety of questions.
Who are the Amalekites? Why does God command us to wash so much in Leviticus? Who are the Pharisees and how do they affect me? What do the seals and trumpets mean in Revelation?
Many questions like these show that the Bible can be confusing. Why is the Bible so hard to understand?
9 Factors that Make Reading the Bible Difficult
The Bible was written between about two and three thousand years ago. Times have changed since Moses parted the Red Sea and David ruled as king over Israel. Understanding the historical setting of the Bible and specific book you are reading can greatly help you bridge the gap between then and now. If we don’t first understand what the Bible meant to its original audience, we will not faithfully interpret it in our 21st-century context.
The biblical authors wrote to distinctive groups of people in distinctive places throughout the ancient world. The Bible often assumes readers know specific cultural details and use the details to teach a lesson. For example, the woman at the well in John 4 might not jump off the page to a 21st-century American reader. A Jew around the time of Christ would have seen how Jesus crossed cultural taboos by talking to a Samaritan woman who was rejected even by her own people, and revealed Himself as the Messiah promised to her forefathers.
The 66 books of the Bible were originally written in Hebrew (most of the Old Testament with a little Aramaic) and ancient Greek (the New Testament). The nature of languages makes direct translation sometimes difficult. The original language might have words to express something crucial to the story that a receiving language may not have. Today we have many dedicated scholars who faithfully translate God’s Word into modern languages. Your Bible might even have small footnotes describing different ways a passage could be worded in Hebrew or Greek. While language is not normally a major obstacle for reading a modern translation, it can be an issue when studying the original language at a deeper level.
4. Scripture communicates spiritual truths
1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Our natural minds often struggle with what we cannot see and what is not easy to understand. This is one reason why God illustrates many spiritual truths with everyday things we do understand like God as our Father and our need to be “born again.” We can take heart that even the apostle Peter had a tough time understanding some of what Paul wrote (see 2 Peter 3:16)!
Our sin separates us from God and blinds us to spiritual reality–making reading and understanding the Bible more difficult. When we come to Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit who helps us in our fight against sin and also reveals the truth of Scripture to us (John 14:26). As we grow in holiness and are taught God’s Word through faithful study and the Spirit’s help, we will grow in our comprehension and delight in His Word.
6. Not knowing how the Bible storyline fits together
If a new Christian reads the book of Genesis, they may ask themselves, “Why should I care about a promise God made to Abraham thousands of years ago?” The reason is because God’s promise applies to us today in Jesus Christ. Understanding the Bible’s storyline and its great themes (often called the discipline of biblical theology) allow you to trace the development of themes across the timeline of Bible history and understand how each part of the Bible ultimately has its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
7. Weak reading comprehension skills.
Much of today’s communication is done through sound bites, tweets, and other forms of multimedia communication. People don’t read carefully anymore because they don’t have to, which makes reading the Bible (and other forms of literature) difficult. Learning simple techniques like looking for repeated words, asking good questions of the text, and keeping a close eye on context will empower readers to make helpful observations that will bring the meaning of Scripture to life.
Pastors: you have the opportunity to model faithful Bible reading and interpretation in your ministry and from the pulpit. Don’t force your flock to depend only on hearing the Word in a sermon but rather equip them to study the Word from the pulpit and by training them in the Word. Leadership Resources’ Fellowship of the Word program equips pastors to read and preach God’s Word and train others.
8. Not knowing how to read the genres of the Bible.
You don’t read the editorial section of the newspaper the same way you read the comics or advertisements. You adapt your thinking to the type of content you are reading. The same is true with the Bible: historical narratives should be treated differently than poetry and the apocalyptic literature of the Bible should be treated differently than New Testament letters.
9. Not working hard at understanding the Bible.
God knows that understanding the Bible takes work and prayer, but so often we want quick benefits from the Bible without putting in the necessary labor. A famous preacher once said that any true devotional reading of Scripture has to care about understanding what the text is actually saying to truly be devotional. It would be like a husband trying to show love to his wife but not trying to understand what she was saying.
In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul writes to Timothy to tell him that he is to work hard in his study, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Paul knows that a failure to work diligently at studying the Word can make people mishandle the Word and miss out on God’s approval.
How can we break down these barriers?
To break down these barriers, you don’t an advanced PhD degree in the Bible or a time machine to go back to Bible times (although, it wouldn’t hurt 😉 ). There is much in the Bible we can understand today if we would just pick it up and read!
God didn’t make His Word too difficult for us to understand or write it solely for the original recipients. God’s Word is for our instruction and our encouragement as well. Romans 15:4 says,
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (emphasis added).
If reading the Bible is difficult for you, approach study prayerfully with a willing and humble heart. God will help you and reward your effort.
In your Bible reading, seek to encounter the Living Christ and find life in Him (John 5:39-40). God promises that His Word won’t return to Him void (Isaiah 55:11). Dedicate yourself to become a person of the Word by studying it, obeying it, and treasuring it more than you treasure gold and silver (Psalm 119:72). God will reveal Himself to you in a powerful way.
May God richly bless your study of the Scriptures!