Let’s Get Back to the Bible: The Secret To Understanding the Scriptures
by Al Valdés, Bible Professor
I recently visited a church where the pastor did not seem to understand the passage he had chosen for his preaching, a difficult text from the Old Testament. He read the passage, and with little explanation jumped to an illustration that had no immediate connection with the reading. At the end of the service you couldn’t tell how the passage related either to the rest of the book or the lives of listeners. The congregation had no real understanding of that portion of Scripture. This same scene probably plays out in countless churches. Neither the pastor nor the congregation end up with a better understanding of the Bible. How do we fix this?
The title of this series, Let’s Go Back to the Bible, suggests that the church has moved away from the Scriptures. We do not mean that if you randomly ask several Christians whether or not they take the Bible as God’s Word they would answer “no.” We expect that all would respond in the affirmative. Yet, one can believe the Bible and still have little meaningful interaction with it.
Now, we can disengage the congregation from a biblical text in three basic ways: 1. Hardly use the Bible, 2. Use a biblical text as a springboard to jump to a message or illustration that has little or nothing to do with the original passage, and the worst, 3. Misinterpret it. These three practices create a disconnect between the believer and the Scriptures.
What then, is the secret to reestablishing the connection between the believer and the Bible? The answer is incredibly simple to say—but hard to implement. To renew the connection with the Bible we should read it! But how should we read to get the most benefit?
Read the whole book at one sitting
To understand any book of the Bible we need to read it without interruption— at one sitting. Yes, even the long books. It’s the best way to follow the train of thought and get the message. Perhaps we have seen reading plans where one can cover the entire Bible in one year by daily taking in two or three chapters of the Old Testament, some of the New, and perhaps a Psalm and a Proverb. On the one hand, these plans help one meet the goal of reading the entire Bible in 365 days. But they also interrupt one’s train of thought by mixing books, thus making it difficult to grasp the meaning and message of any of them.
We know that every book of the Bible consists of smaller complementary units. For example, Acts 4:32-37 and Acts 5:1-11 form a single story—though now separated by a chapter division. Also, we can’t understand the Book of Jonah until we reach the last chapter. Only there does it reveal the reason why the prophet disobeyed God in the beginning. And, John does not reveal the purpose of his Gospel until near the very end of the book, in chapter 20, verses 30 and 31. In this way, you have to read a book in its entirety to fully understand it.
Modern TVs come with a remote control that allows viewers to quickly switch from one program to another. What if someone looks at three minutes of a program where a girl shows up crying. Then, they change channels and see a person hiding in a forest. Then, they switch programs again and see someone screaming, “At last! At last!” Then, the person turns off the TV. Which program does he or she understand? How could they possibly explain the storyline, plot, or sense of any of the three? Something very similar happens when we only read a few verses or chapters here and there. We interrupt the author’s train of thought and inevitably lose comprehension. So, we must read the entire book in one sitting, in the same way that people watch an entire program, not piecemeal here and there. Then we need to repeat this important process until we achieve true comprehension.
Now, you might ask, how can I read books like Genesis (50 chapters) or Acts (28 chapters) at one sitting? Can’t I use another method? Well, you could use the second best method, namely, to read the books according to their natural literary divisions – those determined by the original author under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (see 2 Peter 1:21). Smaller units comprise all the books of the Bible. For example, we can divide Genesis, a long book, into the following divisions that seem to mark the literary units designed by Moses himself: 1:1-2:3; 2:4-4:26, 5:1-6:8, 6:9-9:29, 10:1-11:9, 11:10-26, 11:27-25:11, 25:12-18, 25:19-35:29, 36:1-8, 36:9-37:1, and 37:2-50:26.
Note that these units do not follow the chapter divisions. Rather, they essentially rely on the use of the phrase “these are the generations of” (which sometimes shows up with a different translation of the Hebrew word toledot) that appears ten times in Genesis (see 2:4, 5:1, 6:9 , 10:1, 11:10, 27; 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, 37:2). Now, other Bible teachers divide the book differently. For example, Genesis may fit into two (1-11 and 12-50), three (1-11, 12-36, and 37-50), or eight divisions ( 1-2, 3-5, 6-9, 10-11, 12-23, 24-26, 27-36, and 37-50). All these groupings fit the material into manageable units. However, all come from some interpreter of the Bible. And herein lies part of the answer to the original question. The provision of an outline in advance takes away the joy of your own discovery of Scripture. So, to first embark on the discovery process on our own (although difficult at times) always represents the best option for making our own observations and establishing our own initial impressions about a book. Without doing this we will lack our own criteria when we evaluate proposals from other interpreters, and we will not know how they arrived at their conclusions.
Also, we should also consider that this alternative method of reading little by little (even if we follow the natural divisions of a book) may actually take more effort than to read it at one sitting. Why? Because every time we start to read again we have to remind ourselves again of what we read before. And in the process our memory can fail and we can again lose the author’s train of thought. Now, who said that we should start with the longer books? Someone has said that many of the books of the Bible fit on the first page of a newspaper. So we can start with short books such as Jonah, Haggai, Habakkuk, 2 and 3 John, and Jude, and then move on to longer ones like Ephesians, Romans, John, Luke, and others.
Read the book several times
We encourage both the reading the books of the Bible from beginning to end, at one sitting and also to do so repeatedly until you can gain an overall comprehension of it. In other words, we aim to reach the point where we can explain how the entire book develops in a concise, accurate, panoramic manner. As a simple example, in his Gospel, John presents seven signs or miracles that show that confirm Jesus as the Messiah (chapters 1-12), the last meeting of Jesus with His disciples before His death (chapters 13-17) and His death, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances (18-21), so that the reader may understand and believe in Jesus as the Messiah and thus enjoy eternal life (20:30-31). So, while reading the book we begin to ask questions such as: What does this book talk about? Can I discern the different units of thought? What overall message did the author intend? For what purpose did he write? Thus, we will note our initial reactions which we must later follow up with further study.
Some years ago I spoke about this subject with a teacher who had taught Greek for 27 years in a renowned seminary. At that time I taught a course at a Christian college where I required my students to read every book in the New Testament at one sitting. I told him that I had told my students that if they read the Bible using this method they could get to know the Scriptures better than someone with knowledge of the original languages of the Bible. The professor affirmed that we can only appreciate certain things in the original languages. However, he agreed. We cannot overestimate the value of learning Hebrew, Greek and other languages. But this does not diminish the great value of striving to read the books of the Bible in their entirety, without interruption, and so aim to know them, teach them, and preach them well (see 2 Timothy 2:15).
By the way, we do not need to read a book at one sitting several times in one day, although we could. However, we do need to read this way if if we want to achieve better comprehension. Now, we should look at another step that will help us.
Read the book in several versions
In addition to reading the books of the Bible at one sitting, and several times, we must read it in various versions. We do not suggest jumping from one version to another without understanding any of them. Rather, stay with the one version until you feel comfortable enough that you understand it, before moving on to a different one. If we simply jump from one to another we will become confused again. Now, why use more than one version? Why not simply adopt a single one and live and die with it? Well, the various translations have their own particular strengths. Thus, sometimes a different version can help us to discover or better understand the meaning of a passage.
As an illustration, we can look at Philemon v. 6 where the various versions have translated the word koinonia differently:
- “I pray that the faith you share with us may deepen your understanding of every blessing that belongs to you in Christ.” NET Bible
- “…that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus.” New King James Version
- “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” New International Version
- “…and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.” New American Standard Bible
- “And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ.” New Living Translation
As we can see, one may translate the word koinonia in several ways. But which of the translations listed above reflects the sense of the apostle Paul? The answer lies in the broader context of the entire letter to Philemon. (We challenge the reader to use the teaching of this article to help them arrive at a conclusion.) Now, this raises the question: how can I afford to buy so many Bibles? Fortunately, Biblegateway.com offers several versions of the Bible free of charge in English as well as other languages.
Once we understand that we must read the Bible to understand it, we should also establish a method and work plan. (Remember that the Holy Spirit helps us in the whole process of reading, studying, and applying the Bible.) What kind of plan should we have? A simple one. Start with a Bible, a notebook and a pen or pencil to write down ideas and questions that come to mind while reading. Also, depending on the book, we must determine the appropriate time and place in order to complete the reading without interruption.
Note that we have intentionally left out biblical commentaries, concordances, and Bible computer programs. All of these have their uses, but at this point we want to reach our own overall understanding of a book without the influence of other opinions. This step will enable us to better assess the contribution of commentaries and reference books that we all must consult.
So we have a book “in process”, and one that is “ready for action.” What do we mean by this? The book that we have “ready for action” represents the one which we have both worked with using the plan suggested above and put through a more detailed study, which we will discuss in future articles. The book “in process” has begun but not completed the steps detailed here.
Essentially, we want to preach or teach a book that we know well enough to do so with accuracy and integrity. This way as we get a better understanding the book transitions from “in process” status to “ready for action”— at hand for effective preaching and teaching. However, in both categories, the starting point remains the same: read a whole book of the Bible without interruption, from beginning to end. Now, this only represents a first step. Future articles will explore further steps in the detailed study of the Bible.