Christians have been studying the Bible for centuries and theologians have written countless books about how to understand particular verses – and they don’t always agree. Does that imply that the Bible is too difficult to read for common people? Can we just start reading for ourselves, or should we follow some courses first?
The essence of the Bible is not hard to understand, but difficult to accept
You do not need be a theological expert to understand the basic message of the Bible (click here for a summary). Jesus even says: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Matthew 11:25-26). In Luke 18:16-17, He says: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
The reason many people do not “receive the kingdom of God” is not their lack of understanding, but rather their unwillingness to accept the truth, to entrust themselves to the Lord and to submit to His will. After all, it is not pleasant to learn that you are sinful, deserve God’s wrath, and can’t solve this problem on your own. At first, it does not seem attractive to give up your old life style and obey God’s commandments. That’s what holds people back, not their inability to understand the Bible. Jesus’ words make clear that being “wise and understanding” is no prerequisite for being a child of God. Heartfelt repentance and faith are.
Gradually grow in your understanding
If you read the Bible for the first time, you won’t understand every detail and you won’t notice all the relevant links between different verses within the text. Even if you read the Bible for the 21st time or for the 39th time, you will miss something. But as you continue reading, meditating and growing in faith, your understanding of the Bible will deepen. As 1 Peter 2:2 encourages us, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation”. If you do so, you will eventually become a mature Christian. “Everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:13-14)
Background information can help you to better understand the Bible
The Bible has been written over centuries, and many readers today are not familiar with its cultural background. Therefore, if you want to grow in your understanding of the Bible, it’s helpful to follow a course or to read some books that provide background information. Another way to better understand particular Bible verses, is to read summaries of the books they are in, to get more textual context. See for example our series of articles on various Bible books.
Read the Bible together with other Christians
Another great source of help is fellow believers. Some of them may be real experts, as they have read the Bible for decades or have studied at a Bible school or theological university. Some churches have ordained pastors who can help you with your questions, or Bible study groups where you read and discuss Bible verses in small groups. During church services, Bible verses will be read, explained and applied. Studying the Bible should not be an individual exercise. It’s very helpful to complement your personal Bible reading with collective Bible reading.
Above all, you need the Holy Spirit
Ultimately, understanding the Bible is not only about intellectual knowledge. It goes way further. Deep understanding is not limited to our brain, but involves our heart and soul. Therefore, we need spiritual guidance, which is provided by the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Bible, we find examples of people who did not understand the Scriptures or Jesus’ sayings (see e.g. John 8:27; 10:6; 20:9). We may be inspired by their prayers for enlightenment: “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.” (Psalm 119:34)
Jesus has promised His disciples: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26) And He did. Those same disciples who understood so little of Jesus’ words at first, became His witnesses over all the earth. And this promise of the Spirit’s help is not limited to Jesus’ first disciples but applies to all believers: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13) So, if you don’t understand the Bible and want to grow in faith, ask for the Holy Spirit to teach you. Really understanding God’s Word requires a living relationship with its Author.