How to read the Bible

How to read the Bible

God’s word is a light to our feet. It reveals the wonder of the salvation found in Jesus. It shows us how to live in God’s world and what it means to glorify God. Through it, we hear the voice of our living God. Considering this, Christians must read God’s word the Bible. How could we not?

And yet, sometimes it isn’t easy. We read the Bible and we just don’t get it. Don’t despair, God’s word will produce incredible fruit in your life and the life of your church. It is worth sticking at reading God’s word, the Bible. The next two pages are written to help dig deep into God’s word. First there are some Big Principles and then Steps for reading and understanding a passage.

Big Principles[1]

1.     Interpret the Scriptures by the Scriptures (read the Bible by the Bible)  

God spoke his word by his prophets with the Holy Spirit. God had his word written down. The Scriptures have a single author, God. Furthermore, God is perfect in his character and never changes. Thus, God’s word will not contradict itself. The true meaning of a passage of Scripture will not contradict other passages. Or put positively, the best way to understand a passage is to consider it in light of other passages.

Look for the key themes in a passage and ask yourself, what other parts of Scripture explore these themes. Understand the passage you’re reading in light of these other passages.

2.     Interpret early Scriptures in light of later and clearer Scriptures

The Bible unfolds as a progressive revelation. As the story or the narrative of the Bible progresses, more and more is revealed: more about God, his people, his character, his plan of salvation. So, we should read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. But even within the New and Old Testament we need to think through where we are in the plotline of the great events of salvation.

3.     Jesus is the key to the Scriptures

Following on from the above, God’s word, the Bible, is ultimately about Jesus and the implications of what he has done. This is not just true of the New Testament but also the Old Testament. Consider this passage to Christians referring to the Old Testament prophets and their writings:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that would come to you searched and carefully investigated. They inquired into what time or what circumstances the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when He testified in advance to the messianic sufferings and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you. These things have now been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Angels desire to look into these things.

1 Peter 1:10-12

Or consider this where Him refers to Jesus Christ:

For every one of God’s promises is “Yes” in Him. Therefore, the “Amen” is also spoken through Him by us for God’s glory. 

2 Corinthians 1:20 (See also Luke chapter 24)

Thus, Jesus is the key to the Scriptures. This doesn’t mean every passage is directly about Jesus. But it does mean that passages ought to be understood and considered in light of God’s saving work in Jesus. This can be summarised as Old Testament: Promise. New Testament: Fulfilment

4.     We read the Scriptures dependent on God to make himself known

God is the author and the one who makes himself known. Thus, reading the Scriptures is a profoundly spiritual activity. Understanding the Scriptures depends on the Holy Spirit and living in obedience to the Scriptures requires the Holy Spirit. So, pray as you come to read the Scriptures and as you read them. Ask God our Father to work through you by the Holy Spirit. He, the Holy Spirit, will be at working answering this prayer for this is a work he loves to do.

5.     Context is King

Words and their meaning derive their meaning from the words and sentences around them. So, the best way to work out what a passage is saying is to look at the book, chapter, the passage and the sentences (verses) before the one you’re reading and those that follow. Keep reminding yourself – context is king. Look to the context to understand the meaning. Let me say it again, context is king when it comes to meaning.

Steps for reading and understanding a passage[2]

As we read Scripture we are first and foremost seeking to understand the plain reading or plain meaning of the Scriptures. We are not trying to understand what they mean for us. That comes later. First, we must understand what they mean. And we do this by understanding the Scripture in its original context written to the original recipients. Only after this can we start to ask what the passage means for us individually, as a church or as a community.

Overview of the book

Get an overview of the book. What are its main themes? What is the author’s purpose? What ideas, words and phrases are repeated? What is going on in the life of the author and recipients?

Overview of the passage

Read through the passage several times:

·      What stands out?

·      What is difficult to understand?

·      What is clear and obvious?

·      What key words or ideas are repeated?

·      Who are the main characters? And what do I learn about them and their situation?

·      When and where is this taking place?

·      Are there commandments?

·      Are there warnings?

·      Are there points of praise and thanks?

·      Does Jesus get a mention or is he the focus? How so?

·      Follow the logic of the passage. Look for any connecting words that reveal the logic of the ideas. Look out for

§  Therefore

§  So

§  Thus

§  But

§  And

§  However

§  Also

Follow the logic and you’ll find the meaning.

Question bombardment

Dig into the difficult bits. Don’t let them go. They can often be the key to the whole passage. What words or phrases are difficult to understand? What ideas are hard to grasp? What seems out of place and strange? Then sit with them! Tease them out. Reflect on them. The difficult bit is sometimes the key that unlocks a whole passage for you.


·      Is there any background information in the passage?

·      Does the passage reflect customs or practices that we don’t do or may not understand today?

·      Are the historical details essential to understanding the passage?

Flow of the passage

These questions help establish the biblical context.

·      What are the major themes of this passage? What other passages address these? (Cross references and indexes can be very useful here.)

·      Is this passage quoted or referenced by other passages in the Old or New Testament? (Again, cross references and indexes really help.)

·      Does the passage contain promises that will be fulfilled?

·      Does the passage contain fulfilment of promises already made?

·      Where does the passage fit in God’s saving work? (Context is King)

·      What does the passage say about Jesus, his deeds and his purpose in coming?


Draw it together

·      What is the author’s central point? What he is trying to say to the original hearers?

·      What are your supporting truths for this central point? Ie What is your proof from the passage?


Now you can ask, ‘what does it mean for me?’

If you want to think this through some more I’d recommend:

1.     Growth Groups: A Training Course in how lead small groups by Colin Marshall. Chapter 4.

2.     Know the Truth by Bruce Milne, 2nd edition. Pages 60-61

3.     Multiply Movement – Unit 9 – Studying the Bible Logically

4.     Gospel and Kingdom by Graeme Goldsworthy

[1] The first two points are adapted from Know the Truth by Bruce Milne, 2nd edition. Pages 60-61

[2] Adapted with minor changes from Growth Groups: A Training Course in how lead small groups by Colin Marshall. Chapter 4.