“Getting something” out of your quiet time is an important topic. Understanding your Bible is a life-long journey because the depths of the riches in God’s Word are infinite! I wanted to take the time to walk you through some of the tips I’ve learned that make for a meaningful time in the Bible. I have often been discouraged with feeling like opening God’s Word was a waste of time because I walked away feeling like I had nothing to carry with me for the day. Some of the tips below completely changed my approach to Bible reading and as a result, what I gained changed dramatically. 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable…”
This truth challenged me to take another look at how I read my Bible, because if God is telling me all Scripture is profitable, but I wasn’t seeing it, I knew it was my vision that needed adjustment, not the Book.
I’ve divided these tips into four parts: As You Begin, Digging Deeper, Following Clues, and Application. It is a hefty list, so maybe if your time is limited, read one a day and practice implementing it. I’ve also created a bullet list graphic to help jog your memory. This would be a great thing to Pin for easy reference, or download and make it your phone wallpaper so you always have it with you. You can also grab a printable of that bulleted list in the Resource Library (just subscribe for lifetime access)!
As You Begin
1. Pray for understanding
The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity most often taken for granted or forgotten. Because He works behind the scenes and doesn’t have a relatable, anthropomorphic [human-like] identity (like God the Father and Jesus the Son), knowing how to approach the third person of the Trinity can feel like unfamiliar territory. That’s okay though. Even though we may feel sheepish for often forgetting the important and personal role the Spirit plays in our ongoing sanctification, He is near, and eager to open our eyes to the glories of God!
Asking for understanding is an important element of Bible reading. The Psalmist prays, “Open my eyes so that I may contemplate wonderful things from Your instruction” (119:18). Jesus encourages us to ask for spiritual gifts from our heavenly Father because “everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:8-11).
Furthermore, in Proverbs we see the wisdom and truth of God personified and someone calling out and seeking to bring life to those who will listen. Life-giving truth is held out to us, but we are also prompted to look, ask and call out for it! “My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, listening closely to wisdom and directing your heart to understanding; furthermore, if you call out to insight and lift your voice to understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it like hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and discover the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:1-5)
2. Set the scene
Much like a play or movie, a book (even the Bible) has a story to tell. It’s the details that provide context for what we are about to read. If you set the story up in your mind (or on paper), with the answers to these questions, you’ll gain a world of clarity.
– What is the genre?
Knowing whether you are reading poetry, history, law, wisdom literature, a narrative, an epistle, prophecy or apocalyptic literature is crucial to how you interpret the words on the page. Poetry speaks in metaphorical language, whereas History will be literal. Epistles were written to a specific person or group of persons, and Narratives are biographical in nature.
– Where does this take place?
Where do the events in this book take place? What city? Do the events move across different cities? Is there significance to this?
– When does this take place?
Where in the timeline of Biblical history does this take place? Try to get specific. For example, when in Israel’s history is this story occurring? Before God’s promise to Abraham? During their slavery in Egypt? On their way to the Promise Land? Before or after Jesus’s death and resurrection? After Jew and Gentile have been united through Christ?
– Who are the main characters?
Outlining the main players in a story can be helpful as you look back over your study of an entire book. Don’t forget to look for and include the Trinity at work in these stories! God is always a “main character” even when He is working behind the scenes. His sovereign rule dictates everything else.
– Who is the original audience to whom this was written?
Having a sense of who originally received these books or letters changes a lot about how you read them. We often think of ourselves as the first recipient. However, the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are believed to have been written by Moses and were intended for God’s people, Israel. This was their “Bible.” Knowing that allows us to ask what its purpose was for them, and also why it was preserved for us and how that purpose is similar or different. This leads us to the next question.
3. What is the author/Author’s intent?
Perhaps in college, or maybe just high school English, you remember the all-important thesis. The thesis is a summary of the purpose and intention of what someone is writing. Other helpful definitions I found are:
1. A proposition that is maintained by argument
2. A dissertation advancing an original point of view
Even within the Bible, there is a wealth of interesting and valuable truth to uncover by looking for the thesis of each book. While the Holy Spirit inspired these writers, each one brought their own perspective and voice to the books written. For example, each of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) tell the same basic story (the life of Jesus), but each writer does so with a unique perspective and agenda.
In Mark, the details of the account seem to be answering the question “Who is Jesus?” And every story goes on to demonstrate the power and authority Jesus had over every situation to demonstrate that He was the fulfillment of the coming Messiah Isaiah prophesied about.
In John 20:31 the thesis is stated clearly: “But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name.”
Likewise, books of the Bible where the human author is not revealed, there is still a perspective being offered that is intended to lead you to a conclusion.
God, the ultimate Author chose these people and accounts for a specific purpose. Each of the books that make up the cannon of the Holy Bible were written and compiled to make one harmonious story of salvation. So as you read, look for the angle, ask yourself what unique truth the author and Author are adding to that story.
4. Read and re-read
In this digital age, we scroll and we scan. It is so important to slow down when you read, and allow each word to register with meaning in your brain. I find myself reading entire paragraphs and pausing to realize I couldn’t tell you one thing about what I just read. So I go back to the beginning and read it again.
It is also super helpful if you can summarize each paragraph or chapter in a journal. I find that I retain what I read so much more when I am able to reiterate in my own words, a summary of what I just read.
5. Where else does this person/event appear in Scripture?
The Bible is a complete story made up of smaller stories–this means all the information or significance about a person or event isn’t within just one book. Use an index or even a word search tool on a Bible App to find out what other books in the Bible make mention of that person, place or phrase. This will give you context and a greater understanding. For example, in 2 Samuel you will read about the events that prompted many of the Psalms written by David.
6. Cross reference unfamiliar words or topics
The Bible is a story structured by actual historical events. Often a person or event is referenced in passing, assuming the original audience would have been very familiar with those events. Today, if I casually made a comment about 9/11, you would know exactly what I was talking about and would have the necessary context to understand the rest of my comment. We do not have the same familiarity with names and events in the Bible, so it is important to research the reference to understand the context of what is being said.
For example: In Hebrews 12:14-24, the writer references Esau, Abel, Moses, a mountain that cannot be touched, and Mount Zion. All of these things point to the Old Testament. If you go back to Exodus, and Genesis and understand these people and references in their debut, the message in Hebrews will carry far greater meaning and clarity.
7. Compare translations for a clearer meaning
Translations are a funny thing. One translation never seems to get it 100% right. Each translation is forming a best guess of the intentions of the original Greek language. You may find one translation puts a verse in terms that are easier for you to grasp than another. I suppose it is like listening to someone explain how to play a board game: everyone explains it differently even though they are explaining the same game, but you may understand one person’s approach better than another.
For example: Psalm 84:5 in the Holman Christian Standard Bible reads:
“Happy are the people whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”
You might be wondering, “pilgrimage to where?” Consulting other translations will shed some light on this antiquated term.
New Living Translation
“What joy for those whose strength comes from the LORD, who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”
Okay, so a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But is that relevant to us today in America?
English Standard Version
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.”
From all of these we can formulate a more robust understanding that those who set their heart on their eternal destination, where God dwells, will be happy and blessed because the struggles of this life will pale in light of eternal glory.
8. Ignore chapter breaks
In their original form, the letters and histories that make up the Bible were not organized by chapters and verses, these were added later to help us easily reference things. It can be helpful to recognize the original breaks in the text, where the author intended to end or begin a new section. Often this happens in completely different places than the chapter markers! Seeing the narrative this way can be helpful for grasping the overall meaning of a particular section.
For example: In Genesis you will see the phrase “These are the family records of” or “This is the account of” or “These are the generations of.” Each time you see this phrase, it denotes a new section. Some are short and some are long, but they are all original starting points for each section.
9. Emphasis in lists
Often times, when there are lists you can recognize them by recurring phrases. Paul makes lists a lot, and usually it is to emphasize something. It is a crescendo. Take time to stop and calculate the value of what is being strung together. It may help to make your own list!
For example: In Ephesians 1, Paul begins by praising God the Father for blessing us with “every spiritual blessing.” Then He begins to list those blessings: “For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will…” Paul goes on for 10 verses.
If you simplify it by creating your own list, you can really begin to see what Paul gets so excited about.
• He chose us
• He predestined us to be adopted
• We have redemption
• We have forgiveness
• We have been lavished with the riches of His grace
• He made known to us the mystery of His will
• We have received an inheritance
• We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit
So much is ours in Jesus! No wonder Paul overflows with thanksgiving!
10. Reason for repetition
Genealogies are notorious for repetition, and for that reason they are usually glossed over, right? Understandably you may not take the time to pronounce every bizarre name in those genealogies, but many times there is a purpose to the way they are recorded.
For example: In Genesis 5, shortly after the account of Adam and Eve’s rebellion and the curse that resulted, we read a genealogy of 9 generations.
“Adam was 130 years old when he fathered a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. Adam lived 800 years after the birth of Seth, and he fathered other sons and daughters. So Adam’s life lasted 930 years; then he died.”
“Seth was 105 years old when he fathered Enosh. Seth lived 807 years after the birth of Enosh, and he fathered other sons and daughters. So Seth’s life lasted 912 years; then he died.”
A pattern emerges, and for the next 6 names you see “then he died.”
Because the serpent lied and God’s Word stands true. “When you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17). The genealogy emphasizes the truth that God’s Word never returns void; disobedience brings death.
11. Why do we have this today?
It’s not by accident that we have the stories we have, so it begs the question, why these? The obvious and first answer is that the parts make up the whole, and the story of our redemption through Jesus could not be told effectively without Genesis through Revelation.
More specifically though, what does each story hold out for us to glean from the Father’s heart?
For example: How does a short, oddly personal letter like Philemon make it into our Bibles, when the events and circumstances it addresses have long passed?
Philemon is a wealthy Christian, who owned Onesimus as a slave (I’ll suffice it to say, culturally, things were very different then). Onesimus runs away and Paul ends up taking him on as a helpmate and then writes to Philemon asking him to forgive Onesimus and receive his runaway slave as a free man and dearly loved brother!
What does God want us, a distant 3rd party, to gain from it? This is a very important question, and one not always easily answered.
Some time ago I heard a great sermon that illuminated Philemon for me like never before. It clicked for the first time that the story of Philemon demonstrates that whatever our rights may be, when we are followers of Christ, we are called to lay aside our rights for the sake of the Gospel– for love. Man that was such a tough lesson for me to swallow, but so good! I am continually challenged by that truth. As a mother and wife I feel I have a right to be heard, respected, and listened to, but all too quickly I can sacrifice love and obedience to Jesus to my “rights.” I yell at my kids or even my husband when I suddenly feel that I am not getting what is “owed” to me. Yikes. Philemon is such a rich lesson in what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
12. How does this point to Jesus?
All signs point to Jesus. The Old Testament points to Jesus, foreshadowing Him and predicting Him so that we might recognize Him. The New Testament makes explicit that fulfillment, explains what it now means for us, or points forward to eternity with Jesus as the fulfillment of all we have longed for.
When you recognize these “signs,” the Bible comes alive!
For example: In 1 Kings 8, the dedication of the temple Solomon built for the Lord. Three chapters are spent describing the opulence of this temple, and yet ultimately this temple is later destroyed. This all emphasizes the truth that a man-built temple was never going to suffice! We would never be able to give God the holy dwelling He deserved, which is why it is so ironic that Solomon quotes the LORD’s promise to his father David:
“Yet you are not the one to build it; instead, your son, your own offspring, will build it for my name.”
Solomon assumes that prophecy is a reference to him, but he is just the shadow. Ultimately David’s offspring was Jesus, and He was the one to build an indestructible temple, one not made from stones, but constructed within our hearts, by His cleansing blood.
Ahh! So good, right? As a writer or lover of books, you have to appreciate the genius of this real-life-plot. Little nuggets like this are all over your Bible!
I hope this motivates you to search the pages of your Bible with renewed zeal for the hidden treasure you will most surely find there. I pray that we would sing with Paul, “Oh the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” His infinitude will be captivating our hearts for all eternity. Let us press on to know the Lord.
“Teach me Your way, Yahweh, and I will live by Your truth.”
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