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’s 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 that is missing pieces!
Who are the Amalekites? Why does God command Israel 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?
I know every jot and tittle of Scripture is important for us today, but why can the Bible be so hard to understand? Here are nine reasons and some encouragement.
- We live at a different time
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 will greatly help you bridge the gap between then and now.
- We live in a different culture
The biblical authors wrote to distinct groups of people in distinct places throughout the ancient world. Biblical writers assume readers know specific cultural details and often use these details to teach a lesson. For example, while the woman at the well in John 4 might not jump off the page to a 21st century 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. In crossing such boundaries, Jesus honors a woman Israel would despise and demonstrates that His gospel is for all.
- We speak different languages
The 66 books of the Bible were originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancient Greek. The nature of language makes precise translation sometimes difficult. The original language might have words to express something crucial to the story that a modern language may not have.
- We have natural minds that struggle understanding spiritual truths
1 Corinthians 2:14 says that, “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 in Scripture with everyday language we do understand like God as our Father and our need to be “born again.”)
- We are sinners
Our sin separates us from God and blinds us to spiritual reality (Isaiah 59:2; Psalm 115:4-8). When we come to Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit who helps us in our fight against sin and reveals the truth of Scripture to us (John 14:26). Even so, sin presents a barrier from fully grasping what God reveals to us. This truth is expounded when God’s communications through His prophets sometimes had the express intention of hiding truth from some and revealing it to others (see Jesus’s explanation of why he taught in parables in Mark 4:10–12; Isaiah 6:9–10).
- We don’t know how the Bible storyline fits together
The Bible is fundamentally a story of God reconciling the sinful world to Himself through Jesus Christ. Every part of the Bible story advances that storyline or provides commentary on important issues fleshed out in the story (think Proverbs or Leviticus, for example).
Understanding the key promises, people, and events of the Bible give it structure and a flow. A key chapter of the Bible is Genesis 12 where God promises Abraham descendants, land, and to be blessed and be a blessing. The rest of the Old Testament develops those promises as Abraham’s family (later known as the nation of Israel) grows, ultimately leading to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The discipline of Biblical Theology helps us read the Bible as it should be read.
- We have weak reading skills.
Modern technology and social media don’t encourage careful reading. Many today don’t read carefully because they don’t have to, which makes reading the Bible and other forms of literature difficult. Learning simple techniques like asking good observation and interpretation questions of the text, looking for repeated words and phrases, and keeping a close eye on context will empower readers to discover the meaning of Scripture.
Part of reading the Bible well includes knowing how to read different biblical genres. 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 should be 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.
- We are lazy
So often we want quick benefits from the Bible without putting in the necessary labor. We may spend time reading a chapter of the Bible and only think about what comes to mind easily and what we like—missing what God wants to communicate to us entirely. A famous preacher once said that any true devotional reading of Scripture has to care about understanding what the text is actually saying. It would be like a husband trying to show love to his wife but not trying to understand her words!
In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul writes to Timothy to, “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.” If we don’t do our best to handle the Word correctly, we not only might have reason to be ashamed, but we may forfeit God’s approval.
- We don’t approach the Bible correctly
So many approach the Bible trying to find what they want (i.e. tips for a better marriage or how to fight anxiety) instead of first asking, “What does God want to communicate to humanity?” Without that last question, we approach the Bible as if it were first about us instead of about God. The Bible is not an encyclopedia of spiritual truths or a book of random magical phrases that we can use however we want. It is God’s self-revelation through sixty-six distinct books that contain distinct messages. A self-centered approach to the Bible almost always misses the most important things God wants to communicate about Himself, our sin, His glorious provision in Christ.
Reasons to Rejoice
Considering the difficulties I mentioned above used to discourage me. Why can’t God make it easier?
If you’ve ever thought this way, take heart. Every reason I listed above is an encouragement to study hard or a motivator to praise God.
- Yes, the Bible was originally written thousands of years ago in different cultures and foreign tongues. But we can rejoice that the Bible is for all peoples at all times (Romans 15:4) and isn’t confined to one specific people group in one specific location. Our God is the King of history and will be praised by people from every tribe and tongue and nation (Revelation 7:9)!
- Yes, our lack of spiritual understanding makes some of Scripture hard to grasp (even for the Apostle Peter! See 2 Peter 3:16). But if we did understand everything, our God and His gospel would be tiny. Rejoice that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8) with the words of Romans 11:33 “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”
- Yes, some biblical genres still trip us up. But praise God for the literary beauty through which He communicates spiritual truths to our heads and hearts!
- Yes, our sin makes reading the Bible hard, but praise be to God for the offer of forgiveness and new spiritual understanding in Christ!
Growing in the Word
Want to grow in the Word? Consider incorporating these suggestions into your life to grow in your understanding of the Bible:
- Dedicate yourself to the study of Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15). There are no shortcuts to knowing Scripture well. You must read it. As you read, make it your delight (Psalm 1; Psalm 19:10).
- Pray for greater understanding. God gives us wonderful words to pray in Psalm 119:18: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.”
- Study Scripture in community. God never meant for us to understand Scripture or grow spiritually apart from His church. He gave us gifted pastors and teachers to build us up to grow into maturity (Ephesians 4:11–16). Don’t neglect His gift.
- If given the opportunity, study in seminary or an informal training program.
- Read good books, listen to expositional sermons, take advantage of free resources like online courses and The Bible Project. Logos Bible Software is a tool I recommend, but buying a great library doesn’t automatically equate to being able to handle the Bible better yourself.
My prayer for all reading this article is that they’d be encouraged to dedicate themselves to the study of God’s Word so they would encounter the living Christ and find life in Him (John 5:39–40).
A version of this article posted in 2016. A Spanish version of this article is posted here.