Access to God’s written word is greater for believers today than at any other time in
history, and yet its meaning is not always readily apparent. Some passages of Scripture
leave believers scratching their heads or simply seem irrelevant to modern life. The
real danger, however, is in thinking we understand when we really don’t.
So what does it take to understand the Bible? How should we approach it? It may
seem like any oxymoron, but the answer is an attitude we could call humble
Whether we’ve thought about it in these terms or not, we’ve all seen humble
confidence. It’s in the rookie with a four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. It’s in the
daughter asking her father if she looks pretty in her prom dress. She already knows
what he’s going to say, because she knows her father’s heart.
As those who have been forgiven and adopted by God, we can trust that He wants to
be known by us when we come to His Word. There is reason for confidence when a
Christian opens the Bible.
And yet, it’s a humble confidence, because we know that this is bigger than us. It’s
more than we can understand on our own. The rookie is humble because he knows
he’s not the deciding factor in the victory. The daughter is humble because she knows
her father’s love began before she could even form words.
So what does this humility look like as we read the Scriptures?
Initially, it’s an acknowledgement that this may not mean what I think it means. We have
to be humble enough to admit that our first impression may not be accurate.
Then, it’s a matter of asking good questions. We have to be confident enough to
reject apathy and think hard about the Bible.
With any passage of Scripture we hope to interpret, we ought to ask these three
First, Where is it coming from?
If you want to understand what any passage of Scripture means, you have to learn
what it meant. The author of this passage had an intention in writing it, a particular
message he meant to communicate with particular implications for these particular
people. So if we want to understand what this passage means, we need to learn what
we can about its author, audience, date, geographical setting, and cultural setting. We
call these pieces of data historical background.
But the goal of reading the Bible is not a mere history lesson. With the scene set, it’s
now time to read the script. This brings us to the next question.
Second, What is it doing here?
There’s a cheesy old adage that you may have heard a preacher say: “If you see a
‘therefore,’ you have to ask what it’s there for.” What this phrase is getting at is called
literary context. That is, we need to recognize that most of the Bible was not written in
one-off, disconnected, feel-good, fortune-cookie style. Even the Proverbs, known for
their pithy wisdom, have an overarching structure – How much more the letters of
Paul, with their long, run-on sentences! Instead of extracting a verse or two from its
surroundings, we should seek to understand how the ideas here are interacting with
those that come before and after. This means reading, and lots of it.
After we have taken a wide-angle look, we need to put our own passage under a
microscope, examining with precision the words that are used and their relationships
to one another. You may have thought that English 101 was over, but things like
conjunctions, prepositions, and verb tense are all deeply important to studying the
Don’t let this scare you off! Diligently think over the message of the passage,
displaying a humble confidence in the wise and loving God who inspired it.
Between historical background and literary context, we can often come to our first
goal: the author’s intended meaning. But is that really all that we’re after? Not if we
believe what Paul said about Scripture, that “All scripture is breathed out by God and
profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy
We have not rightly understood any passage of Scripture until we know what to do
about it! That’s why there is a third question to answer.
Third, Where do I fit?
Sometimes we skip straight to this question without asking the first two. Some verses
seem to be encouraging and inspiring because we ignore their historical background
and literary context, but they never really yield fruit in our lives.
But there is another danger: We might wrongly apply a passage of Scripture because
we don’t recognize the difference between our situation and the situation of the
original audience. One aspect of this is what’s called canonical context. That is, we
need to think about how the ideas in a passage of Scripture play out through the rest
of the story. The character and heart of God is never-changing, yet there is a massive
difference between the obedience of the Old Covenant people of God and New
Covenant believers, for instance.
Not only are there differences between Old Covenant obedience and New Covenant
obedience, but there are sometimes important cultural differences between the
churches of the first century and those of today. Our task is to discern the principles
underlying their instructions and apply those to our context. In some cases, there is no
difference at all. In other cases, the difference is drastic. This is a matter of wisdom and
Whatever the result, our aim is obedience to God’s Word, with a humble confidence
that He will empower us to persevere by the blood of His Son, “who will sustain [us] to
the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8).