By Sammy Alfaro
Faculty, College of Theology
How can I understand the Bible when I read it?
This is a fascinating question! At first glance, this seems like a very simple question because every week across the world children are being taught the Bible in Sunday school classes. Thus, it’s strange to think an adult man or woman with a college education would have a difficult time understanding Scripture.
However, because the Bible is an ancient text, important factors make the reading of the biblical text a much more challenging endeavor. There is a great chasm of chronological, contextual and cultural distance between what the Bible meant for its original audience and how we might come to understand it today. So one might ask: how might we bridge the historical, religious and linguistic gaps in order to understand the biblical text more fully?
This reminds me of the time when Philip, the evangelist, conversed with an Ethiopian traveler who was returning from his visit to the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 8:27-28). Having been led supernaturally to run beside the traveler’s chariot, Philip overheard him reading out loud from the prophet Isaiah 53:7-8. Upon hearing him, Philip asked: “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). After this, Philip jumped on the chariot and continued to explain what the passage said concerning the good news of Jesus Christ.
We really cannot overestimate the value of sound instruction by qualified leaders. Although it is true the Spirit guides us into all truth (John 16:13) and His anointing teaches us (1 John 2:27), this does not mean human teachers are not needed. There is greater danger in learning in isolation. Besides, even the apostle Paul who had received a vision of Christ eventually met with Jesus’ disciples to learn more about his faith (Galatians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 15:3). There is a reason why God has gifted the church with able leaders to equip believers for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).
So to return to the original question, if one really wants to understand the Bible in a deeper way for oneself it’s important to understand the need for tools. Fortunately, some of the best tools are free and located at your local church. God has equipped church leaders who have loving hearts to teach and answer your questions. At just about every local congregation you will find gifted teachers who love the Bible. So take the initiative and join a weekly Bible study that will challenge you to search the Scriptures.
Along with joining a Bible study, you need to invest in reference tools to guide your reading of Scripture. Reference books like a study Bible and a Bible dictionary will help you navigate through the ancient world of biblical times. They will help you understand who wrote the book, when and where the book was written and why its author wrote it. These are the essential questions for anyone studying the Bible on their own, and wrestling with them in the company of Christian authors will do wonders for your understanding of Scripture.
Picture it like this, there are modern day Philips who want to walk alongside you and assist your understanding of Scripture. We must all be willing to ask and do like the Ethiopian traveler: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to “come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:31). For us, this may mean asking a pastor or church leader for guidance or opening up a book written by a biblical scholar. These simple actions will prove to be the first steps in a long journey of discovering the meaning of Scripture.
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