5 Ways to Understand the Bible Better in 2015

I just finished reading Revelation, and… I confess I don’t understand it all very well. Even in the New International Version, with its goal of “providing the best possible blend of transparency to the original documents and comprehension of the original meaning in every verse,” Revelation has one or two mildly confusing spots.

I know, that’s hardly a news flash. But the non-news comes with a point: I, like you, long to understand the Bible better. The good news is that I think I understand parts of Revelation better than I did five years ago. The other good news is that there is still much left for me to learn!

Brief story: About five or six years ago I was assigned to preach from Matthew 24–that confusing chapter about the signs leading up to Christ’s return… or is it the non-signs that occurred before the destruction of Jerusalem? Anyhow, puzzling over such questions aroused my interest in Bible prophesy, and I started wishing to understand Revelation better. I soon learned that if you hope to understand Revelation, you must first understand the OT prophetic books, where much of Revelation’s imagery comes from. Then I learned that if you hope to understand the OT prophetic books, you must first understand the five books of Moses, for the OT prophets were enforcers of the Mosaic covenant.

These observations shaped my growing interest in serious Bible study. So I listened to the Pentatauch repeatedly while pounding nails at work, and I read some big semi-technical commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus–straight through, cover to cover. It was very rewarding, but I got bogged down as I began a commentary on Numbers, and I haven’t yet read a commentary on any of the Major Prophets straight through. And my Revelation commentaries… well, I’ve dabbled in them, but not enough to fully defuse my confusion.

Thank God, you don’t need to understand much prophecy to become “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”! And thank God, he rewards the diligent student of “the sacred writings” so that we can become increasingly “equipped for every good work” as we grow in our biblical understanding (2 Tim. 3:15-16).

So, without further ado and in random order, here are…

Five Ways You Can Understand the Bible Better in 2015

  1. Read, read, and reread the Bible. This is obvious, yet it is exactly here where most of us fail worst. First, most of us read far less than we need to if we are ever going to understand the Bible well. Second, when many of us do read, we read in such a way (poor technique, poor heart condition) that our understanding doesn’t grow as it could. Two excellent blog articles I read recently address both these problems. “How to Change Your Mind” by Joe Carter describes a Bible reading plan that I heartily endorse, based on my own similar short-term efforts while preparing to preach and teach. “What Kind of a Thing Is the Bible? 6 Theses” by Gavin Ortlund reminds us of the forest before we get lost in the trees reading individual Bible passages. He says he’s “naming the obvious,” but this article is packed with pregnant points that invite deep consideration and help make sense of the Bible. Read these articles, then read your Bible–more, and more wisely. Bonus tip: Audio Bibles count, too!
  2. Read a book on biblical interpretation. Don’t let words like exegesis and hermeneutics scare you. They aren’t any worse than words like carburetor (had to check how to spell that one) or hemorrhage (had to look that one up, too). They’re just words that are suited for the job and help us understand how things work. There are books on biblical interpretation suited for every reader, and it’s a shame that more of us aren’t reading them. I’m a case in point: Despite graduating from a four-year Honours English Literature program with a bachelor’s degree, I had never read a single book on biblical interpretation! It wasn’t until Allen Roth assigned Understanding and Applying the Bible (McQuilkin) as reading material for our church leadership team that I opened such a book. Since then I’ve read at least four others through and scanned others, besides reading more specialized books on related topics. You don’t know which one to choose? I have a page (see here) that lists nine such books, with descriptions to help you find the right one for you. None of these books are perfect, but all have proven helpful again and again for hundreds and thousands of people. Better yet: find some friends and read one together!
  3. Listen to free seminary lectures on the Bible. If I had to name a single resource that has been most helpful in my own growth in biblical understanding over the past 5 years, it would probably be the website biblicaltraining.org. This website–the brainchild of Bill Mounce who served as the NT chair of the ESV translation team–aims “to help leaders in the local church become effective ministers of the Gospel by providing them with world-class, Christ-centered educational resources that will allow learning to take place in community. In other words, our goal is to help make fully-formed followers of Christ.” This website has free audio recordings of Bible classes for all levels, from new believers to graduate students. Free lectures from dozens of seminary courses are included. Most of the speakers are well-known evangelical professors and authors. I’ve listened to most of the seminary lectures on this site. I’ve found all the Bible courses helpful for growth in biblical understanding, and several courses like Robert Stein’s excellent “Biblical Hermeneutics” are especially relevant to this post. (By the way, one great thing about this website is that the speakers don’t agree on every point of interpretation or doctrine! This diversity-within-gospel-unity provides excellent training in discernment and nudges you back to the Bible to think things through for yourself.)
  4. Subscribe to some good blogs. The number of scholarly blogs and websites devoted to biblical interpretation and theology is astounding! The best you can do–which can be good indeed–is to pick a handful and begin following. Here are some I’ve been following:
    * http://readingacts.wordpress.com/  Phillip Long, a conservative seminary prof, started a blog on Acts but now writes on all things NT.  Includes helpful book reviews and monthly links to a “Biblical Studies Carnival”–long lists highlighting “the best and the brightest in the world of bibliblogs.”
    * http://zondervanacademic.com/blog/  Jeremy Bouma posts most often, with a wide range of thoughts usually triggered by some book he’s reading. Other blog authors take their turns as well, including Bill Mounce with his “Mondays with Mounce” about NT Greek and Lee Fields with a similar series about Hebrew. A great way to be introduced to lots of big name biblical studies and theology authors.
    * https://bbhchurchconnection.wordpress.com/  Louis McBride, the Bible and academic book buyer at Baker Book House, a Christian bookstore, writes on all things biblical and theological, again usually triggered by a book he’s reading. Lots of good stuff to chew.
    * http://marccortez.com/  Marc Cortez teaches theology and supervises doctoral students at Wheaton College and writes here at Everyday Theology. Thus says Marc: “The purpose of the blog is to connect theology with everyday life. I’m convinced that what we believe matters – it shapes who we are and how we live in the world. So I want to help people access the best that theology has to offer and see how it matters for life today. Having said that, I’m also a bit random. They say that a good blog should have 3-5 categories that provide focus and purpose for the blog. Following that guideline, my three categories are: life, the universe, and everything.” Yup, that’s about right!  🙂
    * http://www.challies.com/   Tim Challies provides a firehose for all things Reformed and conservative, with daily postings that include links to theological blogs and Kindle books on sale. Lots of very good stuff (even if you question his Calvinism and wish he’d include more diversity of voices at times). For example, the two blog articles I recommended in point #1 above were recommended by Challies. If you follow Challies you’ll soon learn of lots more helpful Reformed bloggers that I won’t name here.
    * This list could go on forever, and I know I haven’t even mentioned some of the best. For a dizzying list of helpful and not-so-helpful blogs, see this. I’ve only visited a tiny fraction of the blogs listed there.
    A final caveat is extremely important: Blogs like the ones I’ve listed contain a mixture of truth and error. (So does my blog!) Some others are only helpful as case studies of heresy. Of my five suggestions in this post, this is the one that is least helpful unless you already have some solid biblical grounding. That said, good biblical blogs have prodded my thinking with new insights and perspectives, helped me assess the strengths and weaknesses of popular evangelical scholars (good prep for book buying), and introduced me to valuable online and print resources. The five blogs I mentioned first generally do a good job of achieving these benefits without throwing in intentionally provocative or theologically liberal ideas.
  5. Attend a good Bible conference or training program. I’ll keep this point short by directing you to my page about upcoming events for Bible students: see here. Two things: (a) I recently added a couple more events that will be helpful for some of you; (b) the BMA Ministers’ Enrichment Weekend (end of January and open to everyone) is now open for registration. Go if you can!
    (By the way, thanks to those of you who have been sharing this events page on Facebook and elsewhere. Let’s spread the word and help people–especially our pastors–get some good training.)

So, there you have it: five ways to understand the Bible better in this coming year. My advice would be to pursue #1 and then pick two or three others to supplement it.

What else would you add to this list? What has helped you understand the Bible better? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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15 thoughts on “5 Ways to Understand the Bible Better in 2015”

  1. I want to highlight one of the options in #5 that you have linked – Faith Builders Winter Term. The 3 weeks I spent in ‘Reading the Bible’ under Steven Brubaker’s instruction have proven to be very formative in my life. As far as I know, applications are still being accepted.

    1. Yes, thanks Richard. I affirm your endorsement based on second-hand reports and observations of others that have attended. I’ve dialogued briefly with Steven on this topic, enough to know he’s drawing on some good books as he teaches. I would love to sit in on that class myself to hear Steven’s approach. Thanks again for the comment!

  2. Thank you, Dwight, for the work you put into compiling this. I’ve spent the last two hours clicking on your links and reading and signing up to blogs and generally getting inspired to spend much more time with the Bible.

    Have you read N T Wright’s individual Bible book commentaries? And if so, do you like them? Can you compare Wright in general to some of the other authors you recommend? I did read and enjoy your review of “Surprised by Hope”.

    1. Hi Conrad! Thanks for the comment. Your excitement excites me. 🙂

      About N.T. Wright. I haven’t read his commentary series called New Testament for Everyone, but I have read and heard him in other ways. He’s massively intelligent and massively influential as a NT scholar, and I always find my head and heart stirred in helpful ways when I consider his words. He is a gift to the church in our age. That said, he’s also an exceptionally gifted writer (compared to C.S. Lewis at times for his ability to turn a phrase and craft an image), and I suspect some people think he’s even more intelligent and accurate than he is thanks to his writing ability. There are some points where I’m not convinced to follow him–such as his preference for translating “faithfulness of Christ” in the epistles where most translations have “faith in Christ,” or his insistence on egalitarianism in gender roles. I don’t follow him on all his political statements and I think he sometimes might over-emphasis the “already” aspect of salvation a little when it comes to social reform (I speak as one. At other times I think he becomes so preoccupied with his genuinely helpful insights (corporate aspect of salvation, for example, or his emphasis on Christ leading a “new exodus”) that he sees these emphases where they may not be as prominent as he thinks, or denies other emphases (personal justification, etc.) that are equally important. He states his rebuttals strongly, so some people have found they can affirm his affirmations but must deny his denials.

      That said, no serious publishing NT scholar today can ignore Wright’s voice safely. I love his insistence on integrating “cross” and “King” in our reading of the Gospels, his insights on the resurrection, his firm stance regarding homosexuality (while avoiding some of the harshness of some American “fundamentalist” voices) and his insistence on the historicity of the Bible despite the liberal academic world in which he circulates. He will be more accessible and engaging in this series than many commentators are in other books. I would say definitely go ahead and read him, but then compare him with others whenever you bump into something that seems radically new or strange. On the Gospels compare him with people like R.T. France, Craig Blomberg, Robert Stein and more. On the Pauline epistles compare him with Douglas Moo, Peter O’Brien, and more. Craig Keener, Ben Witherington, David Garland, etc. are helpful throughout. D.A. Carson will butt heads more directly with Wright on matters of justification and “the New Perspective on Paul” (as does John Piper, even more forcefully); I think both sides can learn from each other. Someone like Kostenberger is a good voice regarding gender roles. Those are not comprehensive suggestions. See my lists of commentaries or ask if you have a question on a specific passage.

      That’s probably more than you asked for. 🙂 Blessings as you read, study, believe, live, and teach!

      1. Thanks! That’s exactly what I hoped for. Your cautions on Wright’s possible imbalances match my partially-formed opinions. In particular, I found the social/political aspect of his already-not yet concept interesting. Which reminds me: Have you read “Christian Anarchy” by Vernard Eller?

        1. No, I have not. I’m not familiar with Eller’s name. Should I be?

          On the already-not yet balance when it comes to politics and social reform: I know Wright speaks out directly against the typical Anabaptist skepticism about political efforts. If I’m right, he also would disagree with our unwillingness to serve in the military. I do like Wright’s emphasis that the gospel is inherently political (if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar isn’t), but, even though I’m definitely not the anti-government sort that says government programs=socialism=communism=evil and all voting is wrong, I’m less sure of his optimism about seeing the kingdom of God flower through Christians serving in government positions.

          1. I don’t know how much Eller has written , I just read that one essay/book of his, and I found it very interesting and relevant. It’s available in electronic formats.

  3. Did you ever consider the possibility that Bible prophecy is less intended to show the future and more intended to help us understand what is happening when it happens?
    I think of Luke 21:28 and Acts 1:7 for instance.

    1. 1 Peter 1:12 would also suggest that that is sometimes the case. On the other hand, both that verse and Luke 21:28, in context, would suggest that some prior knowledge of the future is expected–enough so that the pattern is present beforehand, just not the ability to know exactly when or with whom the pattern will be fulfilled.

  4. I’m not suggesting NO prophecy shows the future, but I wonder if, when it is our expectation that ALL prophecy shows us the future, we can form a wrong understanding of prophetic meaning, perhaps as Jewish scholars of/before Jesus’ time seemed to have done on some of the Messianic prophecies?

    1. If I’m hearing you correctly, you’re not doubting that prophecy is often *about* the future, but you’re questioning whether we are meant to understand it in detail before it is fulfilled, and suggesting that pressing toward too specific an understanding beforehand can lead to misunderstandings. I agree. On the other hand, I was impressed in our Scripture reading tonight as a family how the scribes were able to specifically identify Bethlehem as the place where the wise men should look for the Christ. So they knew that detail specifically beforehand–just not who the Christ would be or what all constituted his role and person.

      1. In reading some of the comments I made last night I think I would have been better off going to bed, my natural state of confusion was becoming too apparent. You seem to have grasped what I was trying to say, thank you for your patience.
        My reason for using Luke 21:28 might be more apparent if reading it in the KJV or NIV, I believe it does show prior knowledge but possibly not full understanding as to necessary responses until the prophecy comes to pass. On the other hand maybe I’m reading something into the verse that isn’t there, does happen sometimes.
        Concerning the Messianic prophecies, good point about Bethlehem. I was thinking more of the suffering Servant aspect. There are Scriptures in the OT that we point to in order to show what Christ needed to do and be. Yet even when these things happened, they rejected the prophetic fulfillment. Do personal preferences sometimes get in the way of our understanding of prophecy, as they evidently sometimes get in the way of our understanding of other Scripture?

  5. Sorry, intended to add, our focus should perhaps be more on understanding, perhaps as a process, than knowing, without leaving room for a future clearer understanding.
    Not sure if that makes sense.

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