"It wasn't a potential atonement actuated by the sinner, it was an actual atonement initiated by the savior."
"It wasn't a potential atonement actuated by the sinner, it was an actual atonement initiated by the savior."
The Bible is a big book. How can you truly understand it?
Understanding the bible requires three important initial concepts. You need to be saved, you need a good translation and finally, you need to understand practical hermeneutics. This post addresses these three areas so you can understand and then apply the bible to your life. Just as importantly, it would be nice to get an overall perspective of the bible. From Genesis to Revelation, you can get an overview of the Bible in this post.
The Bible claims both to offer salvation and to be the inspired word of God;
“…you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-17 NIV)
The Bible claims that only those who are saved can even understand the Bible;
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for,“Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16)
The Bible is complete unto itself and cannot be added to or taken away.
“Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2)
“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.” (Revelation 22:18-19)
So in summary, the Bible is the inspired perfect word of a perfect God, which is able to save and can only be understood if one is saved. Finally, the bible is complete unto itself and both the Old and New Testament contain warnings against adding to or removing from the Bible.
Of course, if you don’t believe in God or the Bible it may be useful to at least read 1 John and make your own determination about the existence of God and the viability of the Word of God, the Bible. Additionally, you may benefit from reading my Apologetics on Christianity.
The original Bible was written in three languages: Hebrew was used for the Old Testament. About half of Daniel, two passages in Ezra and one statement from Christ while on the cross, was penned in Aramaic (a sister language to Hebrew.) Finally, Koine Greek was used for all of the New Testament. This is not the same as the language spoken in Greece today.
Unlike our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to which we still today have the original, no one has an original copy of the Old or New Testament. As time passes, we are able to discover earlier and earlier copies of the original biblical documents which were written by scribes.
Consequently, modern translators continue to strive to translate the best available manuscripts of the original language into what is known as the “receptor language” or, for us, modern English.
Although a number of difficulties are present in translating, God is actively working to preserve His word and the differences in various translations are minimal. Many of these differences are anything from mistakes of a few letters of a particular word to harmless editorializing;
In 1 Samuel 8:16
- KJV “he will take…your goodliest young men and your asses…”
- NIV “he will take…the best of your cattle and donkeys…”
In Hebrew, “young men” is bhwrykm, while “cattle” is bqrykm; a difference of a few letters.
Although an argument can be made for some scribes adding their theological point of view in some manuscripts, most errors were truly human errors of transcribing and were not meant to be nefarious.
The many versions of the Bible have evolved due to the following:
Like most pendulums, you really have two extremes and a happy medium. Unlike some compromises, however, the dynamic approach to translating the Bible appears to strike a viable balance.
It is often good to read translations from all three translation efforts. I can, however, as someone who grew up on the NASB, I recommend the readability of the NIV, especially the 2011 update. and the update to the NASB, known as the Legacy Standard Bible that both retains the literal understanding of the original languages and renders readability that is extremely understanding.
God certainly commands us to make great efforts to dig into the word as stated in 2 Timothy 2:15 “ Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
The closer, however, we can read God’s word and understand it simply, the better we are able to understand its true meaning and ask those questions which will lead us to deeper appreciation and application.
You may want to simply read similar passages alongside other translations, and make your own determination. As an exercise, look at different translations as in the parallel versions of 1 Corinthians 7:36.
I further suggest that you use a smaller-sized copy of the Bible unless you need a big print version. For reading purposes, you don’t really need cross-reference and word studies, etc. A size that you can easily hold and read will help you immensely in spending quality time reading God’s word. Larger study Bibles with all the trappings of word studies and cross-references are great for further study but are simply too hard to handle for pleasurable reading.
It is best to read aloud and to read a book in as few sessions as possible. In other words, try reading 1 John in one session. Some books, because of their length, will require multiple sessions.
I’ve suggested some tools to further help you in understanding the bible in another post.
Hermeneutics is simply the art and science of interpreting the Bible.
The overarching rule in understanding what the Bible is stating is to recognize that the meaning of a bible verse can never be any different than the meaning of its original intent.
To accomplish this objective, hermeneutics promotes certain disciplines such as follows:
This is all well and good, however, a more detailed and foundational understanding of the bible would be helpful in transposing theoretical hermeneutics to practical understanding and application.
The bible consists of 66 books, of which 75% of the content is in the Old Testament. 39 books are in the Old Testament (“OT) and 27 books in the New Testament (“NT”).
The OT was written from approximately 1200 BC to approximately 445 BC.
There were approximately 400 years of silence from God between the OT and the NT.
The NT was written in the first century after the death and resurrection of Christ until approximately 95 AD when Revelation was penned.
(also known as the Pentateuch or Torah) – include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.
Books of Wisdom
Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.
The 4 Major and the 12 Minor Prophets
(note: the terms major and minor refers to the length of the book, not significance or importance.)
The remainder of the bible, especially Joshua through Esther, as well as portions of other OT books, are narrative or stories.
The Gospels – Synoptic (common view) Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the different perspectives of John.
The History of the Early Church – The book of Acts.
The Epistles – Doctrines of the Church.
Revelation – Judgement and hope of the Second Coming of Christ.
My point in dividing the many books of the bible into the above divisions is to emphasize that the various divisions have a significant influence on how the bible is interpreted. For example, as noted, much of the OT is narrative. As such, various stories may detail what is done or what is not done, and may not even comment upon whether the story is good or bad.
Having a hard time memorizing the sequence of the books of the new testament? Here’s a tip:
The Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
The Early Church – Acts
The Epistles of Paul (all together) – Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon
The Book with an unknown author (maybe Paul, maybe not) – Hebrews
The non-Pauline epistles – James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2 & 3 John, and Jude
John’s last book of the Bible – Revelation
See the progression, the Gospels, Acts early history, Pauline epistles, Hebrews in the middle of Pauline epistles and the others – James, Peter, John and Jude and finally Revelation.
Over 40% of the OT is narrative or stories.
All narratives have 3 basic parts: characters, a plot and plot resolution.
The primary characters in the story of the OT, is God, the “protagonist“. The person who brings about conflict or tension, is the “antagonist” Satan. While, the third group in the story, “agonists,” are God’s people.
The plot revolves around God, who has created a people for His name and in His image to be stewards over the earth that He has created for their benefit. An enemy, however, enters the earth and persuades people to turn against God, to bear Satan’s image and become God’s enemy.
The plot resolution is the long story of redemption. How God rescues and redeems His people from the enemy and restores them back into His image and finally will restore them into a new heaven and new earth. This shows God’s patience, mercy, love, forgiveness, empathy etc., in other words it reveals God’s character.
Over and over, and on different levels, this same, true story is told in the OT. God saves, His people reject, God chastises, His people repent, and God restores.
The purpose of the OT narrative is to tell what God did in the history of Israel, not to dictate doctrine.
The OT narratives are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings. 1 Timothy 4:7 warns us against this “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.“
Unless the story specifies, is part of an eternal covenant, or is corroborated by the NT, it is dangerous to use OT narrative to moralize behavior, or read between the lines.
For example, I once had a person attempt to show that the bible disapproved of cremation based on a number of stories in the OT. Unfortunately for him, some of the stories showed the practice of cremation while others showed burial. None of the stories concluded an inherent good or evil of cremation vs. burial. Additionally, nothing in the NT corroborated his adversity to cremation. To attempt to prove something from narrative alone is misusing the Bible and a poor and dangerous interpretative practice.
It is also dangerous to misappropriate a story in the OT.
For example, we often hear of setting out fleece as a means of discerning God’s will. Unfortunately, Gideon’s fleece was really a story of his lack of trust in God, not a prescription to discern God’s will.
The benefits of the OT narrative are to witness the consequences of obedience and disobedience to God and how God, in His love and mercy, continues to execute His plan of redemption.
(also known as the Pentateuch or Torah) – include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy
One of the ways God deals with His people, in the old and new testament, was through “covenants.” Covenants are a formal agreement or treaty between two parties with specific obligations and regulations. Additionally, covenants are either unconditional and eternal or conditional and temporary.
For over 400 years, the Jews were slaves in an Egyptian culture when God rescues them to bring them into the Promised Land. In order to reconstitute this massive group of individuals, God deals with them by way of the Mosaic Covenant which includes more than 600 laws and is referred to collectively as “the Law.” The Law dealt with civil and ritual practices; essentially everything that would be needed to put together a culture of people for God’s purposes.
For believers today, it should be understood that the New Covenant replaces the Mosaic Covenant unless specific laws are reiterated in the New Testament.
In fact, nine of the ten commandments (honoring the Sabbath is excepted) (Matthew 5:21-48, John 7:23) and the two basic laws – love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:40) are reiterated in the New Covenant.
Where is the Sabbath set aside? “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (Col 2:16) Also, 1 Cor 16:1-2 instructs NT believers when to take up collections; “Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do.On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.” Finally, it should be understood that Jesus rose on Sunday and a number of post resurrection events occurred on Sunday.
All this is to state that the interpretation of the OT law is correctly done with an understanding that we are under the New Covenant and the only “laws” that still pertain to us are 9 of the 10 commandments and the two greatest laws; love God and love your neighbor. We do not sacrifice animals, we no longer worship on the Sabbath or tithe, we no longer stone people for civil offenses – all this has been replaced by the New Covenant.
Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes
Wisdom is the ability to make Godly choices by applying God’s truth in your life. Choices chart the course of our lives.
Much of the wisdom is in the form of Hebrew poetry, the beauty of which, much is lost in translation.
In Proverbs, for example, the last line concludes a couplet in which the second line is to be understood in light of the first line. The images are suggestive and figurative not literal and should be understood that way. For example, look at Proverbs 9:13 below. Again, suggestive and figurative but this should not be taken literally.
Folly is an unruly woman;
she is simple and knows nothing.
The books of Wisdom are also not legal guarantees from God. Blessings and rewards are likely to follow where one is obedient and does Godly things – they are not automatic or guaranteed.
They are not technically precise but are worded to be memorable.
As with anything in the Bible, these books should be read in the whole vs. picking out only specific phrases that one finds satisfying.
The Book of Psalms are a collection of Hebrew prayers and hymns, in poetic form which is often lost in the translation but which allows us to express ourselves to God and to consider God’s ways.
Again, like all poetry, the words and images are suggestive and metaphorical not literal.
It is possible to group the Psalms into seven different categories.
Knowing the divisions of the Psalms and the nature of Hebrew poetry is a giant step forward in understanding the Psalms. You now know exactly where to go to express your laments, your thanksgiving, your praise, etc.
Sixteen books of the Old Testament comprise the Prophets. As discussed earlier, major and minor are not terms of significance rather they pertain to the length of the books themselves.
The primary focus of the prophets was to speak for God to their own contemporaries. Their function was to be covenant enforcement mediators.
There are five common literary forms that the prophets used to compose their oracles or prophecies to the Jews:
The Prophets need to be read within their context – that is, OT covenant enforcers as representatives of God. Obedience to God resulted in salvation and blessings and disobedience resulted in dire consequences. God wants the same from us, obedience and He will chastise His children. We are, however, under a new covenant and that should always be kept in mind when reading the Prophets.
The Synoptic (common view) Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the different perspective of John is probably the most read portions of the Bible, still probably, not the most understood.
Unlike the Book of Acts, the Gospels present not only a narrative on the life and ministry of Jesus but large portions of His sayings. The Gospels do cover essentially the same material but from different viewpoints which give four separate but similar perspectives. All of the Synoptics essentially agree while John offers a more unique perspective. As such, it is useful to look at the different renderings for a fuller picture of the various passages. A Gospel Harmony is helpful for this purpose.
It should also be recognized that this is still OT times with the ushering in of the New Covenant and the Church Age. You are truly looking at a transition perspective. The Spirit has not yet come and Christ is completing the predictions of the fulfillment of His sacrificial death on the cross. What Christ states is critical to understanding this time period but much of the remainder of the Gospels are truly narrative and require some of the same cautions discussed earlier.
Luke records the first 10 to 15-year history of the early Christian church in the Book of Acts.
It is interesting to note that Luke covers Peter in Chapters 1-12 and switches to Paul in Chapters 13-28. He also covers the Church’s expansion from Jerusalem in Chapters 1-7, Samaria in Chapters 8-10, and Judea and to the ends of the earth in Chapters 11-28 as depicted by Christ’s Great Commission.
There is yet another division depicting the forward movement of the growth of the church from Jewish settings in Jerusalem with Peter towards a predominately Gentile church with Paul.
The history of the early growth of the church gives us a strong indication of how the church is to operate but not all events are operative. For example, the selling and sharing of property really was a result of persecution and God’s effort to expand the church, not an absolute pattern of Christian living.
Both the Parables and Revelation share in allegorical misinterpretations.
There are true parables or story parables, such as the Good Samaritan, and “similitude parables” such as the Yeast of the Dough.
The difficulty with understanding parables is similar to understanding a joke. We get the joke because we identify and are caught off guard by the punch line. Once, the joke has to be explained however, it loses its humor because the intimacy is no longer present. In a sense, Parables are the same in the sense that when originally spoken, there was an intimacy and understanding with the hearer that we, two centuries later lack and therefore require further explanation.
As such, story parables almost need a new reference for modern-day hearers to understand.
All of Jesus’ parables are in some way vehicles that proclaim the coming kingdom.
Certainly, outside reading, commentaries, etc., are helpful in understanding Parables.
The Epistles are truly the doctrines of the Christian faith.
It should be noted, however, that the epistles differ in a number of degrees. Some are specific letters to Churches, while others are specific letters to individuals. Most are occasioned, or called forth, by some specific circumstance such as the influence of false prophets, behavior needing correction, a doctrinal error that needs to be set right, or a misunderstanding that needs further clarification. As such, they are not theological treatises, nor summaries of theology, but theology being written for or brought to bear on the task at hand.
It helps therefore to know as much as possible why and how the epistle was developed. Was it to address problems at a local church, or heresies that were spreading into the church, etcetera. Knowing this will help a great deal in understanding why the reply – Epistle – has been written. It also helps to recognize that some of the issues the early Christians faced, for example, involvement with Pegan temples and worship, whether women should wear head coverings, etcetera, probably doesn’t impact many of us today. Other issues, for example, sin which extends across cultural line do, however, impact us all.
It is important then to distinguish cultural issues and concentrate on moral issues in understanding and applying the Epistles to our Christian lives. Again, solid commentaries are helpful in understanding the Epistles.
Like other portions of the Bible, the book of Revelation is not to be analogized.
Even though it contains images that border on science fiction, the fact is, this is the fulfillment of the promise of the Second coming of Christ.
John starts with a warning to the Seven Churches which are atypical of churches even today. He then shifts to prophecy of the end times.
As opposed to modern predictions of end times; e.g. overpopulation and global warming etc., Revelation depicts the unholy Trinity of Satan, the Anti-Christ and the False Prophet in their effort to take over the world, and a Christian revival lead by the Two Witnesses, the Globe circling Angels, and 144,000 rabid Jewish evangelists, culminating in the second coming of Jesus Christ, the ushering of the Millennium Kingdom and the eventual creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth.
The prophetic majesty of these events told to John in 96 AD is what leads to some creative and phenomenal imagery. Non-the-less, it is simply an unfolding the Second Coming and requires no additional elaborations. It is, at the time written, and today for that matter, true and pure prophecy.
It is in total, simply the fulfillment of the Second Coming of Christ, the establishment of the Millennial Kingdom, and the creation of a New Heaven and New Earth. With an overview of the story, interpretation is much easier to comprehend.
This post has shown what the bible states about itself, how it may be divided up, and how each portion should be approached in understanding God’s world.
I can’t overemphasize the need for a readable translation and the effort to read (even aloud) complete chapters and books vs. picking up bits and pieces.
Certainly, the most important thing you can do is spend time in God’s word. Hopefully, this will help.
Note: Much of the materials researched to complete this post come from Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth” and from MacArthur and Mayhue “Biblical Doctrine.”