Skip to content

How to read the Bible well. Seven guidelines


This article contains seven guidelines that will help us read the Bible well.  We need to pay attention to the context, to God’s ongoing revelation, and to the genre of the text.  We don’t expect to find new revelations and only take literally what is meant literally.  We realise that narrators hardly comment on events and we recognise the limitations of translations.

Believers in Christ know that the basic message of the Bible is clear: it is about God’s promise of salvation for all who believe in Jesus and live by it.  But we also know that there are considerable differences of opinion about the further interpretation of the Bible, even among believers.  For example, denominations can be deeply divided on the issue of ‘women in ministry’ and on ecumenical relationships.  It appears that many things in the Bible are not unambiguous. In this article, I want to provide some guidelines to help us read the Scriptures without touching any concrete points of contention.  These seven guidelines appear in no particular order; one is not more important than the others.  I also don’t claim completeness.

Guideline 1: The context

When reading any book, including the Bible, we must pay attention to the context in which the words and sentences appear.  This framework or setting determines the meaning of the text and its individual words.  The context of a word is the sentence or passage in which it appears; the context of a sentence is, in fact, the whole book of the Bible and even the entire Bible.  Context is important in any communication.  When you read in a book that someone walked into the darkness, it can mean anything: Is she running away from home, maybe from an abusive relationship?  Is she going to get help for her sick child?  Is she heading for her doom or to get a takeaway?

In the Bible, the three friends of Job say beautiful, pious things to him, but in the context of the book of Job, in God’s eyes, these words are proven wrong (Job 42:7).  We have to handle all their words with great care.

An example that deals with the meaning of a word is the word flesh.  When Paul uses the word flesh (in Greek sarx) he usually does so in a negative sense: he refers to sinful human nature and the NIV often paraphrases it thus, e.g. in Romans 7:5, 18 and 25.  Yet sometimes Paul uses the same word flesh simply to refer to physical descent, as in Romans 1:3 and 4:1; again note that the NIV does not offer a literal translation.

But in the case of the writings of John, the word ‘flesh’ often denotes something positive: the Word of God became flesh, Jesus is truly human (John 1:14; 1 John 4:2-3) and we confess that He was sinless.  So the meaning of the word flesh depends entirely on the context. 

Guideline 2: Continuing revelation

This guideline is actually an elaboration of the previous one.  We need to see the different parts of the Bible in the context of the complete book.  In this book, God increasingly reveals himself, more and more profoundly, to people.  His deepest revelation comes thus not at the beginning of the Bible, but only in part two, when Jesus Christ appears on the scene.  This gives the revelation in the Old Testament a provisional character.  For example, in the Old Testament it seems at first as if there are other gods than the God of Israel, even though they are not to be worshipped.  After that, much emphasis is placed on the fact that there is only one God; but it is only in the New Testament that it becomes clear that God is triune.  In this case and others, the later revelation surpasses the earlier one, and we must read the Old Testament in the light of the New.  And when the number three appears in the Old Testament, it probably does not refer to the Trinity.  Yet it is also useful to note the enormous respect with which Jesus and for example the author of Hebrews treat the Scriptures.

Guideline 3: No new revelations

We need to be aware that the Lord’s Church has now had twenty centuries to study the Scriptures.  This would suggest that all the important things contained in them have been discovered and discussed in the meantime.  Of course, it is possible that certain biblical truths have been forgotten or ignored in the course of time, so that they need to be brought forward again.  This happened, for example, with the reformation of the Church in the sixteenth century, as with the emergence of the Pentecostal movement and later the charismatic movement. 

But it is extremely unlikely that in our time an individual reader, a congregation or even a denomination discovers something that no one had ever noticed before and yet is important to all Christians.  Such an expectation goes against what we know about God, what we confess about the Church as the body of Christ, and what we believe about the clarity (perspicuity) of the Bible.  Consequently, if someone thinks that they have discovered something new in the Bible, and claim that they must proclaim it, there are several possibilities: 

  1. We already knew this, but this reader was not aware of the many good books (websites, etc.) about the Bible that have been published in the last 2000 years.
  2. They have rediscovered something that had been forgotten in their circle or country; a better knowledge of church history and of the history of the interpretation of Scripture will make this clear.
  3. They have misread the Scriptures and must be corrected, for example by the elders of their congregation.

If we believe that God’s revelation in Jesus is complete – and that is what we confess, isn’t it? –, that the canon of the Bible is closed and that God’s Spirit has been at work in his Church for 2000 years, then we must also assume that there are no more hidden treasures in the Bible.  Thus, it is impossible to become famous or rich by discovering something entirely new in the Bible.  To fully understand this, we must not read the Bible individualistically but ‘together with all the saints’, in fellowship with the Church of the ages.  This reading guideline thus goes against the individualism of the time and protects us from sectarianism.

Guideline 4: Genre

The Bible is a collection of 66 quite different books.  As with all books, it is good to be aware of what kind of book you have open in front of you.  There are cookbooks, poetry collections, books about sports and many more.  The Bible contains historical books, poems, letters, precepts and prophecies.  Just as you don’t consult a recipe book for information about sports, you won’t find dogmatic statements in a psalm and no rules of life in the stories about Abraham. 

Because there are different genres, the Bible does not contain a continuous story.  For that reason we should be careful not to tell someone who does not know the Bible to read the book in its entirety front to back.  After the wonderful stories in Genesis and the first half of Exodus, such a person might get stuck in the legislation of the rest of Exodus and the remainder of the Pentateuch, if not in the bloodshed of Judges.  We must point new readers to the passable paths.

Letters are an interesting genre.  The writer of a letter tends to respond to the situation of the addressees, so it is important that we try to get an idea of that situation.  In the Bible, the Book of Acts often offers some help, but most of the time we only have the letter itself.  You can compare this situation to listening in on someone else’s phone call.  To see what I mean, you might read, for example, the three letters of John and then ask yourself what the situations of the various recipients were.  Do you see that these situations are very different?

Within the Gospels, the parables of Jesus are striking in terms of genre.  While the Gospels contain historical information about Jesus, the Lord himself tells stories that contain profound truths but did not really happen.  There was never a shepherd with 100 sheep who left 99 of them behind; yet it is true that there is joy in ‘heaven’ when a ‘lost sheep’ is saved.

Guideline 5: The narrator doesn’t comment

I just wrote that the Bible contains stories, histories.  Much of the Old Testament and the first five books of the New Testament are history.  What we often don’t realise is that the authors of these books barely comment on what they tell us.  They describe events and states of affairs but – unlike most modern reporters – they don’t make value judgments. Consider the story of Jephthah in Judges 11.  This man makes at least two blunders: first, he promises God an unnecessary sacrifice, and then he does indeed sacrifice his innocent daughter.  Modern media reporting on this would be full of disapproving comments, but the author of Judges only gives the bare facts.  The author leaves it up to the readers to form their own opinion, to come to their own judgment.  

This is the normal situation in the Bible.  In Genesis, Sarah’s ugly behaviour toward Hagar is described but not commented on.  In Genesis 13, Lot is rude to Abraham, but as a reader you have to draw that conclusion yourself.  The other narrators in the Bible likewise merely describe situations and events.  Thus we are treated like adults who can think for ourselves, but we are often not aware of it.  With the Torah to hand, and for the New Testament also with the teachings of Jesus in mind, we as readers can determine whether what was described was right or wrong.  

In the history of the Church much has gone wrong because this guideline was not recognised.  Many actions of kings like David and Solomon are certainly not exemplary for us, despite what was once thought.  Regrettably, due to the abundance of influencers and social media in our time – and in the past due to the raised finger of the preacher and the moralising tone of children’s Bibles – we are still ill-prepared for handling the sparse style of the biblical storytellers.

Guideline 6: Not everything literally

Certain literary genres contain a lot of imagery, which should not be taken literally.  This is especially true of the biblical poetry of the Psalms and other songs.  Almost everyone understands that the Lord is not literally ‘my rock and my fortress’ (Psalm 71:3). And just as the proverbial ‘ray of sunlight’ is not literally a source of light and warmth, so God is not a literal source of light, because we recognise that Psalm 84:11 contains a figure of speech. 

Of course, this does not mean that these poetic statements are not true.  On the contrary, they often express deep truths, as does my statement that my wife is the sunshine in my life.  So when Amos compares the speech of God to the roar of a lion (1:2; 3:8), it makes no sense to pick up a biology textbook, yet Amos does say something essential about the speaking of God.  And the same is true of all imagery: it is true, it is important, but you don’t do it justice by taking it literally.

Many images are explained in the Bible itself.  For example, Jesus is the lamb of God.  From this image in the Gospel of John we understand Isaiah 53 on the one hand and Revelation 5 on the other. In the latter chapter Jesus is presented not only as a lamb but also as a lion.  The book of Revelation does itself explain many of the images that John uses: in 1:12-16 the Lord Jesus walks among seven lampstands with seven stars in his hand. Before John can ask what these things mean, the Lord says in 1:20, ‘The mystery of the seven stars which you have seen in my right hand, and of the seven golden lampstands, is, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you have seen are the seven churches.’  Which suggests that the Lord knows everything about the churches to which John is to send his book.

This guideline is probably the trickiest of all.  The rule of thumb when reading the Bible is that you (only) take literally what is meant literally.  So you take history and legislation literally, but not poetry.  The prophetic books present difficulties in this respect because they contain all kinds of material mixed together.  Methinks that the examples above show that much of Revelation also consists of imagery and metaphors.

Guideline 7: The original text

As a final guideline, I must mention the priority of the original text, that is, the Hebrew text for the Old Testament and the Greek for the New Testament.  If you really want to contribute something significant on the meaning of a word, a sentence or a passage, you actually need to read it in the original language.  And knowledge of a language goes beyond knowledge of a few words in transcription, although it is good to know that shalom is more than the absence of armed conflict and that agape usually indicates the special love of God. 

Fortunately, there are good translations available, and fortunately the NIV 2011 is an improvement over the original NIV – but see my criticism above.  It is best to compare various translations side by side, and the internet contains much guidance to access the original text. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *