I hear this from many people in the course of my life. Cheer up, it’s not fatal and it isn’t even odd. Many people – Christians included – do not ‘understand’ what the Bible says or means. There are many reasons for this lack of comprehension.
As a disclaimer, I will stipulate there are any number of Christians who get real snippy when they hear the statement “I Don’t Understand the Bible”. Which just goes to show Christians are not exempt from missing the point. The fact is, no Christian understood the Bible on the first reading, and no Christian understands all of it. I would argue that not the entirety of Christendom collectively understands the entirety of the Bible. However, anyone – anyone interested, that is – can understand enough of the Bible to effectively form a relationship with God Almighty through His Son Jesus Christ, and then effectively communicate with Him. But it’s still not a one-time breakthrough to full comprehension. Like learning English or Math or shooting or driving, one gets better with practice. And a couple mis-steps.
So; reasons for not understanding. (What to do about it will follow this section.)
First: The Bible requires a specific perspective to fully understand. The Bible was written by people inspired by God, to write God’s message to those who want to hear from God. So believing in God and having a desire to learn more about God is the ‘proper’ perspective. This is NOT to say one cannot read the Bible as ‘literature’ or because one is not a believer but curious. There have been several folks who read the Bible with the intention of disproving it and ending up believers. Nor is a license or permission slip required to read the Bible. (One can even buy a Bible without a ten day waiting period. At least as of this writing.) However, it’s sort of like studying calculus; if you never studied arithmetic, calculus isn’t going to make a lot of sense.
Second: The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Some of the ‘purists’ mentioned in the opening paragraph will object to this, but it is still true. The KJV was translated in 1611. It has been ‘revised’ on a couple of occasions. The KJV was written in the English of William Shakespeare. No, Shakespeare did not write the Bible – nor did King James, for the record – but the language is the same. If one reads, studies and enjoys the plays of Shakespeare, one will better understand the KJV.
However, the KJV and Shakespeare are difficult to understand these days, because the English language has changed. Many of the words used in the KJV era of English no longer mean the same thing. For instance, one of the easier words that has changed is the word ‘maid’. In the KJV (and Shakespeare’s plays) a ‘maid’ was a young woman, with the connotation of being a virgin. Today, a ‘maid’ is a woman of any age who cleans one’s home. Another prime example is the word ‘know’ or ‘knew’. So when Adam ‘knew’ Eve, the KJV means the two of them enjoyed sexual intimacy. Currently, the word ‘know’ or ‘knew’ has a far less intimate meaning.
The English language has also changed somewhat in syntax and structure. All this can be rather difficult to follow and generally makes the KJV more difficult to understand. Especially for a ‘new’ reader.
None of this to condemn the KJV Bible as heretical, false, unreliable or bad. It’s just hard to read and understand for one who speaks modern English, and doubly so for one who is not already a believer.
Third: The Bible is not a novel. The new reader, or curious reader, is likely to begin at the beginning and attempt to read all the way through. Sometimes before lunch. This usually does not work very well.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bible is a single ‘story’ in a sense. The Bible is the revelation of how God created the Universe, set up the rules, created man, put up with man when man rebelled, and then established the mechanism by which man can be reconciled with God after the rebellion. However, it does NOT read like a novel, from ‘beginning’ to ‘end’. I suggest it is more like a cook book, dealing with some basic concepts and then some specific concepts and then specific examples. Some cook books may feature breads and pastries before meat dishes and some may not. The current ‘arrangement’ of the Bible – especially the Old Testament – is not in chronological order, either of historical event or order of writing. (For instance, Job is the earliest written as far as anyone knows; and Ezra and Nehemiah both happen after the events in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel. Go figure.)
Also, in the middle of some ‘historical’ books come the Psalms (Songs) and Proverbs. Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon are NOT historical books in the sense of Kings or the Prophets. However, they have their purposes even so.
But all this confuses the issue of ‘how’ to read the Bible. Again, it isn’t an Agatha Christie novel to be read front to back. It can be done, but is not recommended as a first read.
Fourth: Conflating Basic Concepts with Details. Usually, when this discussion of “I don’t understand…” ensues, the speaker asks about the difference between Ba’al of the Mountains and Ba’al of the Plains; or what did the Ammonites do that was so bad? Or the speaker fails to grasp the concept of the Trinity (a word not mentioned in the Bible, by the way. The concept is plainly explained, but that particular word is absent.)
Remember reason number one? This is actually an extension of the ‘perspective’ problem. The main purpose of the Bible is to heal the rift between God and man resulting from man’s rebellion. As the preacher Alistair Begg is known to say, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things”. Once one ‘gets’ the concept of a relationship with God, the story of Paul and the snake are easier to comprehend.
Fifth: Preconceived ideas. Everyone who reads the Bible has some preconceived ideas, even long time Christians. Some preconceived ideas are relatively benign, and some are downright heretical. In short, the problem of preconceived ideas is that one reads the Bible expecting to find the ideas one desires and suppressing the ideas one does not expect.
I remember talking with one young person who was horrified at some of the history recorded in the Book of Joshua. That young person was a Christian believer, who had the idea God was – only – Love. When she read that God ordered the wholesale massacre of some groups of peoples, she was horrified. Why? Because the Bible didn’t meet her preconceived notion of God’s nature being limited to her view. What she missed was the truth that while God is Love, God is also Justice. Just for the record, death has been a penalty for certain forms of misconduct long before the time of the Mosaic Law.
Another preconceived – perhaps misconceived – idea from long ago is God’s identity. Here’s the wind up: Since Almighty God first designated the nation of Israel – the Jews – as His chosen people and then later sent the Messiah as a Jewish man, God was rather assumed, logically, to be Jewish. The Jews are of the Semite language and ethnic group, which is a sub-group of Caucasian humanity. Therefore, God is white.
Nice try, no cigar.
A very basic read of the Bible shows God pre-dates – by the first half of eternity or so – anything even close to human, let alone Jewish. Not to mention Jesus declared God to be ‘spirit’. Contrary to some ‘spiritualists’, a spirit does not have an ethnicity – or gender. God is typically referred to in the male pronoun, but God is not ‘male’ in the same sense as humans, dogs, horses or ducks.
Okay, now you know why you can’t really understand the Bible. What now?
I’m glad you asked. (Yes, I know; you didn’t ask, I did. I’m going to explain anyway.)
One. Find a modern translation of the Bible. My own favorite is the New English Translation (sometimes called the NET Bible). Another usable translation is the Good News Translation (GNT) Bible. There are others.
If you have Christian friends, you might see if they have a modern translation you could use or they could recommend. If anyone tells you to use the King James Version only, smile politely and change the discussion. There are some ‘modern’ KJV revisions on which I cannot comment; if you can read a few lines without consulting a Shakespeare dictionary, it will probably work.
I would suggest – no, urge – NOT using the New World Translation. It is published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and features some ‘unique’ translations in several places that deny the Deity of Jesus. This translation disagrees with all other translations by all other groups.
Two: Read the book ‘Gospel of John’, or just ‘John’ (not 1st, 2nd or 3rd John) in the New Testament first. It is one of the ‘gospels’ or biographies of Jesus. This account of Jesus’ life is probably the easiest to read and contains the most important concepts regarding Jesus and Jesus’ purpose. Then read the other gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. They also are biographies of Jesus from differing viewpoints. They also talk about Jesus and His message.
After that, I would suggest the ‘letters’ or ‘epistles’ of Paul. Then you’re on your own.
I would also suggest that the reader join themself to a Bible Study group associated with a mainstream, evangelistic church. One can learn far more from a study group than one can on one’s own. I mentioned ‘evangelistic’ church; if one has roots in any of the Orthodox Christian Churches (and didn’t run from Christianity due to that association), one might well be more comfortable in those organizations. My life-long preference is Southern Baptist. Most Baptist denominations are pretty solid, as are the Berean Bible Fellowship churches. There are any number of Christian groups who are solid, Bible based groups and trustworthy in terms of doctrine. That I do not mention them should not be taken as condemnation, but lack of space and in some cases, lack of information.
I would suggest avoiding groups that are ‘quasi-Christian’. In specific, I mean the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) Church, Christian Science and Unitarian. They all teach a need for the Bible AND something else. Usually the Bible is the minimal part and the something else is the majority of the belief. Not good if one seeks to understand the Bible.
For that matter, the reader is more than welcome to contact me here for specific area suggestions. I’m not beating the drum for any group in particular – other than Christianity.
I’ve probably forgotten something I should have included in this. Questions are encouraged.