How to Understand the Bible More Clearly

Sometimes I worry that there are as many versions of “Christianity” as there are Christians. On matters of our faith, and especially on modern disputes, how can we understand the Bible more clearly?

Jesus preaching the sermon on the mount

When you see so many interpretations, you begin to wonder if it’s possible to know what the Bible even teaches about a given issue—until you actually read the Bible, that is.

A thousands errors disappear when we go to the source. Once we know what the Bible says, there is not nearly so much confusion about what it means.

This article is about four ways to grow in understanding the Bible. They are:

-Acknowledge that there is one, clear faith.
-Acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.
-Obey Jesus to your fullest ability.
-Devote your time simply to learning what Scripture says.

A First Key to Understanding the Bible:

Acknowledge that Christianity is a single, common faith. It was once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). The original Christians and Scripture itself attest to the fact that there is a faith—not many.

In a day when it is politically correct to assume an accepting stance toward all errors, we need a reminder from Jude: contend for the faith. That means you believe you are actually right, and you argue the point. When people try to rewrite the faith, Jude says, tell them they are wrong. I assume he means publicly.

What do you think about this way of leading? Are you concerned about the effect it may have on other people? If we find ourselves worrying about this, we should check our motivation. Do we know better than the Apostles we are seeking to imitate? Do we think our audience is special and needs a treatment different from the model the Apostles show?

When was the last time someone tried to kill you or run you out of town? Remember that Jude, Peter, and Paul spoke to audiences far less receptive than ours. Then consider what their version of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) consisted of:

Peter in Acts 2:23b:

You, with the help of wicked men, put him (Jesus) to death by nailing him to the cross.

Paul in Acts 17:30:

Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent.

Jude 14b-15b:

Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and to convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed.

Or consider John the Baptist in Matthew 3:10:

And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Finally, consider the words of Jesus himself in Matthew 7:20-21:

Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

Jesus will spew false believers from his mouth (Revelation 3). He will judge and make war, smite the nations, and rule them with a rod of iron (Revelation 19).

This was the message of the apostles. The message angered people to the point of violence. If our “version” of Christianity doesn’t allow for such a possibility, we may doubt its Christian-ness. Are you willing to tell someone that the Holy Creator God sent His Son Jesus to be the ruler of the world and that anyone who doesn’t obey Jesus as Lord will be conquered and sent to hell? There is one faith, and this is it.

A Second Key to Understanding the Bible:

Acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Those who think it’s so hard to interpret the Bible nearly always happen to be the ones trying to change what it means. It’s not a coincidence. It’s called sin. If the Holy Spirit does indeed lead us in all truth (John 16:13), then massive disagreements between Christians are sure proof that at least a large number of those involved are living out of fellowship with the Holy Spirit.

That’s frightening, but worse yet, these people are placing themselves in the position of teacher and leader over others. For that, God will judge them more strictly (James 3:1).

Many are even false teachers. How can we tell who is a false teacher and who is merely mistaken? Here is the distinction: a false teacher is not a follower of Christ. To know if someone is a false teacher, ask whether they meet the criteria of a Christian given in 1 Corinthians 12:3:

Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.

The criteria is: if they call Jesus Lord, then they are Christians, for they can only do it by the Holy Ghost. This is not to say a person could not lie and mouth the words “Jesus is Lord.” Rather, you will know a Christian by whether he in fact believes Jesus is Lord. And how do you know that? Is he willing to talk about the lordship of Jesus? Not merely the love of Jesus, but the demands of Jesus? Is he willing to tell others that Jesus condemns sinners to hell? Is he willing to agree with Jesus about what sin is?

False teachers don’t affirm these things. They may openly deny them, or they may simply avoid the topic. If a Christian teacher does not speak openly and often about the judgment of God, God’s hatred of sin, the reality of hell, and God’s standards for what constitutes sin and righteousness, then you have strong reason to suspect he does not truly believe that Jesus is Lord. If that be so, then he is a false teacher and a deceiver, no matter how moderate and friendly he may appear.

Those who speak only of “love,” and yet do not keep Jesus’ commandments, do not in fact know him, according to 1 John 2:4:

He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

Indeed, if we love him, we obey him (2 John 1:6a). It’s not easy to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Sound doctrine costs us something. It’s a challenge. That’s why 2 Timothy 4:3 speaks of “enduring sound doctrine.” Those who “heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” will merely follow their own lusts. But those who are willing to “endure” will understand the truth.

A Third Key to Understanding the Bible:

Obey Jesus to your fullest ability. An obedient heart is a prerequisite to a sound understanding of God’s will. You cannot wait until you understand it, and then decide whether you want to obey it. God doesn’t work that way. Your sin does not let you work that way.

Consider the example of King Saul. Since he was not a man after God’s own heart, he did not take God’s detailed directions seriously. He seemed taken aback when Samuel chided him for disobedience (1 Samuel 13:13-14). Was Saul’s judgment really so clouded by self-justification? It seems so. The only escape from this deception is a heart of submission toward God. Unlike Saul, King David was able to escape the cloud of deception (2 Samuel 12). The difference comes down to how seriously they took God’s commands beforehand and how often they had set their hearts on these commands over time.

Does it matter that we obey God to our fullest ability? Isn’t that legalism? Not at all. Legalism is trusting in your own works for salvation. Christians know they cannot be saved by their own works, only by Christ. Yet Christians also understand God’s commands as their way to life. God takes his commands seriously and we should too.

I’ll name two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, in which God’s own followers failed to follow his word:

  • In 1 Kings 13 a prophet of God failed to obey a minor detail of God’s instruction. At God’s command, he was killed by a lion.
  • In Acts 5 Ananias and Sapphira were struck down by God because they lied to the Holy Spirit.

It matters that we obey God’s word to our fullest ability. Many who seem not to understand the word of God are actually in a state of confusion that comes from not deciding ahead of time to obey. If we hold back part of our heart from being willing to obey God on even one single detail, we sacrifice the whole principle of obedience. Then we enter a cloud of confusion and may not even know it. But if you’ve ever been in such a cloud of confusion and then escaped it by repenting, you will know the sudden sense of clarity that comes when you give up the right to tell God he is wrong.

We grow in our understanding of the Bible when we leave sin behind and obey God to the best of our ability.

A Fourth Key to Understanding the Bible:

Devote your time simply to learning what Scripture saysLearn the raw material of the Bible with all diligence.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 helps us see the role of memorization and repetition for changing the heart. We should talk about God’s word all the time so that it becomes part of our every routine. Psalm 1:1-3 tells us to meditate on God’s law day and night and to delight in it. That is the way to blessing and prosperity.

Even a child can see through the errors of adults when he knows the content of Scripture. Remember the great understanding the boy Jesus showed when he spoke with the teachers in the temple (Luke 2:46-47). As a Jewish boy, he knew much of the Old Testament by heart. Simply knowing what Scripture says, that is sufficient to avert many an error and to solve many a problem. Given Jesus’ lack of sin, his judgment would have been outstanding. That kind of understanding of Scripture is available to us too, because we have the Holy Spirit. But we need to know what the Bible actually says!

Do you want to understand the Bible more clearly?

-Acknowledge that the Bible is already clear and unified in its message: the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.

-Acknowledge that Jesus is not only Savior, he is Lord. His way goes.

-Obey Jesus to your fullest ability.

-Devote your time to learning the content of the Bible. Seek to love it.

Then, like Jesus, you will increase “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52).