When I first began regularly reading my Bible, I had a very subjective view of Scripture. I’d randomly select verses, with little if any consideration for the surrounding text, and “let it speak to me” depending on how I felt at that particular moment. In so doing, I was placing myself in authority over the text instead of submitting to it.
I wasn’t intentionally trying to misuse God’s Word. I simply didn’t know how to read it. No one had taught me how to diligently study Scripture in search of God’s intended meaning. But as I grew in my faith, learned from others, and took seminary classes, my respect and appreciation for the Bible expanded.
I came to recognize, though God’s Word is indeed living, speaking to each of God’s children personally and uniquely, it is also timeless. God’s message to us today will never contradict His intended message for the original audience, and vice versa.
Our role isn’t to bend Scripture to say what we want but instead to come to our reading with an open and expectant heart, trusting God to say precisely what He wishes to say how He longs to say it. It took me some time to realize this.
If you want to grow in your Bible study application skills, perhaps you can learn from my past errors. Here are three common mistakes to avoid when reading Scripture.
1. Ignoring literary context.
Imagine if you wrote someone a long letter or email and they randomly read a few lines midway through. How likely would they be to understand what you were trying to say? What are the chances their interpretation of your message would be in error?
Or consider picking up a novel, reading one scene, then attempting to discern the story’s premise.
When it comes to nearly every other book or writing, and even in conversations held with one another, we understand the importance of context. The same holds true with Scripture. Each verse is best understood in relation to the passage surrounding it.
Similarly, each passage furthers ideas, truths, and thoughts presented in the encompassing chapter and book. Each book of the Bible, in turn, in some way, furthers God’s overarching redemptive story.
Therefore, to understand God’s intended message for a particular text, we must take time to understand the book of the Bible it comes from and the words surrounding it.
- What is that book’s overall theme?
- Why was it written?
- What main point was the author attempting to make?
- What truth is God revealing?
Once we answer those questions, we are better able to discern how He wants us to apply that particular truth to our lives personally.
We also need to pay attention to syntax, which includes ‘if, then’ statements and conjunctions. If a verse begins with ‘therefore,’ it indicates the writer is building on a point presented earlier.
The truth won’t change over time and across cultures. How God wants us to apply it, however, may.
2. Ignoring historical context.
When reading Scripture, we often want to jump immediately to the application. We may want guidance for our particular circumstances or encouragement in a struggle we’re facing. But if we don’t investigate the historical context, or backstory, of a narrative or passage, we risk misreading it and missing much of its depth.
Consider Moses, whom scholars believe wrote the book of Genesis, the Exodus event, and the narratives leading up to it. You may be familiar with his history. Born into slavery during a period of national infanticide, his mother saved his life by setting him in a tar-pitched basket which she placed in the Nile. The Pharaoh’s daughter found him, pitied him, and brought him into the palace to be raised as a prince.
As a man, God called him to free his people, who were still enslaved, and to instill within them a biblical worldview. Basically, God pulled the Hebrews out of an idolatrous nation that worshiped countless idols, revealed His power and sovereignty, and taught them how to love and serve only Him. These newly liberated people were Moses’ original audience.
Knowing this, now consider Genesis as a whole, known as the book of beginnings. It starts by revealing God as Creator and sovereign ruler—the only being worthy of our worship. But it also reveals man’s rebellion against him, first in the garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3), then during the time of Noah (Genesis 6-7), and perhaps most notably for our purposes, the tower of Babel and the city of Ur (Genesis 11).
In these last two examples, we see man’s attempts to reach God in their own strength and according to their own plans, which included pervasive idolatry.
Then, in Genesis 12, after mankind traded knowledge of the one true God for worship of everything from the sun to four-legged creatures roaming below it, God called one man named Abraham out of idolatry and, through a lifelong journey, taught him and his wife how to worship Him and Him alone.
Do you see the parallels in these accounts? Can you sense the significance both prior events would’ve had on the Hebrew people, as they were going through their own worldview shifts?
This helps us recognize an underlying truth principle: God is the only one worthy of worship, and He shows us how to have a right relationship with Him.
Once we understand this unchanging truth, we’re better able to prayerfully consider how God might want us to apply it to our lives.
3. Failing to consider genre.
The Bible is one interconnected book that tells a cohesive redemptive story. And yet, it is comprised of 66 books of eight main genres.
In these genres, we also encounter various literary devices such as the use of metaphors, hyperboles, parables, sermons, and riddles.
According to Doctors Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays, authors of Grasping God’s Word, “Literary genre acts as a kind of covenant of communication, a fixed agreement between author and reader about how to communicate.”
For example, biblical narratives, such as those I referenced earlier, present selective history—stories and parts of stories that illustrate a particular point. They tell how things were, not necessarily how God intended them to be. Just because we read of a king with many wives doesn’t mean God wants men to engage in polygamy.
Wisdom literature, like Proverbs, presents precisely what the name implies—wisdom. Consider these verses and passages as general teaching on how one should conduct oneself. Though these statements are generally true, they aren’t necessarily promises.
For example, we all know parents of rebellious, self-destructing children whom they diligently “trained in the Lord” (Proverbs 22:6).
(Read this article on the Gospel Coalition website to understand more about the Bible’s wisdom literature.)
Scripture is a beautiful, complex, yet readily understood living book designed to draw us closer to God; reveal His character, will, and heart; and show us how we are to relate to Him.
Though we can find libraries full of resources on how to discern God’s intended message, we can also rest assured that God will guide those who truly want to hear from Him toward His perfect truth. Perhaps even more beautifully, as we read His supernatural words each day, He will develop within us the mind of Christ.
This is an ongoing, ever-deepening process whereby His truth becomes a part of who we are. And isn’t that our goal, whenever we read God’s Word—to grow in truth and closer to the one who Himself is truth?
Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who’s addressed women’s groups, church groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of Restoring Her Faith and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.
Photo Credit: GettyImages/gustavomellossa
Photo Credit: GettyImages/gustavomellossa