How can someone know how to verse map the Bible and yet not know how to understand the Bible at all? I’ll tell you how. When I was a sophomore in college, I was required to take an Inductive Bible Study Class of the New Testament book of John. My weekly assignments to my professor included a compilation of individual verse mapping for that week’s chapter. To be honest, the verse mapping part wasn’t really a hard thing for me, because I was pretty good at English. And every week, I completed my assignment. But, every week I really struggled more and more with the fact that I was completely clueless about what the whole book of John was about.
The reason why I struggled to know how to understand that Bible, is the same reason why so many Christians struggle with understanding what they’re reading in the Bible as well.
The Best Way to Understand the Bible
Have you ever noticed that when we talk about reading the Bible, we sometimes hear the phrases studying the bible, meditating on the Bible, praying through and memorizing the Bible, all at the same time? This is a common tendency that we have as Christians. We can use all of these phrases somewhat interchangeably at times.
The problem is, that these are not all the same things and they can’t all happen at the same time either. But we don’t often think about each thing being different. So if you’re trying to learn how to understand the Bible and your definition of reading the Bible includes studying, meditating, praying, and memorizing—most likely you will get frustrated and discouraged.
Trust me, I’ve been there.
A couple years after my inductive study class, I really felt like God was impressing upon my heart that the best way for how to understand the Bible was to make sure that I was reading the Bible daily. And when I was first starting to try to read the Bible every day, I would constantly run into a big problem. I would start reading and then I would either forget what I had just read, or I wouldn’t understand at all what I was reading.
At times it just made me want to quit and to be honest I did for nearly 5 years.
Still…God kept gently inviting me to grow a stronger faith and tugging at my heart to read His Word daily. I knew that there were so many benefits to reading the Bible every day and that I really needed to be doing it so that I could grow a stronger faith. The combination of those too really helped me to pick things up again, persevere, and keep trying.
But, along the way, something happened to stoke the fire of that desire even more in my heart. My pastor at the time began to say some things that made me question;
“Is that really in the Bible?”
When that happened, it made me really want to know and understand what scripture really had to say, instead of relying on just what someone else told me. This made me start questioning what pastors, Christian devotionals, and popular Christian authors and speakers had to say. It wasn’t that I questioned the people—I was testing what they said in relation to what God tells us in scripture. (Which after awhile of being in the Word on a regular basis, I realized that this is what God wants us to do and how he guides us to live. It’s called having spiritual discernment.)
And this brings up a big problem for us as Christians if we don’t understand the Bible. Because if we don’t know what’s really in the Bible, then we only understand a little bit of it. And if we only understand a little bit, then how can we know what our faith really is all about? How do we know how to live as a Christian? How do we know who God is—and who we are?
The good news is that learning how to understand the Bible can really be a lot easier to do then we think it is.
3 Levels to Understand the Bible
In my own journey of learning how to understand the Bible, I discovered that there are some things we can do that will actually help us to learn things more easily and effectively. This is something I wish I would’ve known sooner.
If you think about how we best understand things—or learn—typically the best way is to take it one step at a time by utilizing repetition, review, and relationship with others. And the same is true when we’re trying to understand the Bible.
Likewise, most people don’t realize it, but there’s actually different levels of how we can begin to understand the Bible. And this is what makes trying to understand the Bible feel like it’s so hard to do—because we tend to think it’s more difficult then what it really can be.
So, to take some of that pressure off from you, I’m going to share with you three different levels to understand the Bible, one step at a time. What are they?
How do I begin to understand the Bible?
To get started in how to understand the bible easily and effectively, you need to just start reading the Bible. Not studying it or meditating on it. Just read it, like a book. It’s in this simple process of reading the Bible over and over—the same scripture—that you start to understand the Bible because it becomes repetitive. The words start to become more familiar to you and might find that in this simple process you have memorized some parts of scripture.
The next thing that you might recognize is a familiarity with what is said in a specific chapter or the whole context of a book. If you have a photographic memory, you may start to remember the words for a specific verse and where they are located on the page. For me, I’d often remember where something was physically in the Bible—I’d be able to flip to that section in scripture and point to the verse—but at this point I still couldn’t quite tell you the reference. I was beginning to build my understanding and this was evidence that God’s Word was being written on my heart and in my mind.
So, one way for you to know how to understand the Bible is, just by reading it?
That sounds too simple.
Yes, in fact, it may feel like it’s too simple, but this is one of the reasons I got tripped up in creating a habit of reading the Bible daily. It was that I was trying to read, understand, and study the Bible all at once—and I placed a very high expectation on myself to make it all happen.
Maybe that’s you too, you’ve been going along thinking, “Why do I keep reading the Bible and end up not understanding anything that I just read?” Or maybe you feel confused and wonder if it’s because you’re not starting in the right place or if you’re doing it wrong?
If this is you, then you’re in the right spot. The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with you—it’s likely that you are trying to do too much at once—like I was. This is why it’s important for you to start out by just creating that daily habit of reading the bible daily, in order to start building a foundation that will help you to understand the Bible. If you try to do more than that, then you’re likely to delay your progress in understanding and spiritual growth.
If you need help with creating that daily habit, grab the Quick Start Daily Bible Reading Guide to get started.
After you create that daily habit, then you could start to read a little more scripture at a time—reading the Bible for contextual understanding.
Reading the Bible for Context
Remember when I said that I could tell you where and on what page a verse was, but I couldn’t tell you the reference? This is because I was just learning to understand the Bible at a granular level—verse by verse. The good news is that I was learning and making progress! I was ready for the next step. And that started when God began to show me something through my reading. In order to fully understand the bible and fit all these pieces together, I would need to ramp things up a bit. I would need to read the Bible as a whole book, not just as a verse here or there.
This is what some describe as how to understand the Bible in context.
Understanding the Bible in context is another piece to establishing a firm foundation in growing in your faith. And this sets things up for Comprehension, but this is not something that most Christians pursue. It’s such a big problem, that some are calling it the Biblical Illiteracy Crisis.
So what is causing it?
Honestly I think when we get frustrated, we have a tendency to return back to what is easier to do. So, instead of reading the Bible to understand it, Christians can tend to have confidence in their faith by enjoying snippets of truth from scripture, or little “snacks” of the Word like Bible quotes and memes on social media. It’s easier to do this than read the Bible, because it’s quick and it’s not confusing. And it’s often right at our fingertips because our phones are a literal extension of our hand.
It’s highly likely that you’ve tried to intentionally sit down to read the Bible, then you end up being confused by what you read anyway and you get discouraged. Am I right?
The truth is that you’re not alone. Many Christians can fall into this category of being confident in their faith but confused by what they read in the Bible. As described in a recent study about confidence and confusion by churchgoers, Lifeway Research found that, “57% of Protestant churchgoers say they find it challenging to make sense of the Bible when they read it on their own.”
This is one of the reasons why I will always encourage you to just start reading the Bible—like a book.
- There’s no pressure in trying to understand it.
- Secondly, it reaffirms the biblical Truth that the Bible is the Word of God—living and active—it’s God’s Word for you.
- Third, it’s why I always give caution to those who only read devotional books. Please understand me here. I don’t want you to get the impression that I think ALL devotional books are wrong to read, but the point is that by reading them only, then you’re getting things second hand.
You’re only getting what God has intended for someone else—not what He has specifically for you in the Word. To be a little more to the point—it’s kind of like you’re eating a meal that someone else has regurgitated. Sounds gross doesn’t it? I know it’s graphic but you need to understand the real reason why I’m making such a big deal about this and why we need to make reading the Bible a priority.
Aside from reading the Bible to understand the Bible, I really like how Justin Dillehay and Ivan Mesa say it in an article from The Gospel Coalition about biblical illiteracy:
“When we neglect reading the Bible, we don’t just miss knowledge, we miss God.”
And this is it, my friend. When we read what someone else has read, or we only read parts and pieces of the Bible—when we “do everything with the Bible but read it” then we miss God.
Hold my coffee for a minute.
Isn’t that the whole point? For us to know and experience God? Yes.
In fact that’s exactly what I was struggling with back in my inductive study class. I was doing everything with the Bible, but I wasn’t reading it.
If you’ve been a Christian for awhile, have been attending a church faithfully for some time, and you’ve established a daily habit of reading the Bible—then you’re ready for the next level of understanding that will deepen your faith. Although…you might be surprised! It’s not Bible Study. But some people confuse it with Bible study.
How do I read the Bible and understand it?
After I established a daily habit of reading the Bible, I become more familiar with verses simply by repetition. But I still only had a few pieces of the whole picture of the Bible. I needed that next level of understanding.
The second level of how to understand the Bible easily and effectively is Comprehension. This is a little different and might be something new for you, so I’ll take some time to explain it.
Comprehension vs. Bible Study
Comprehension is Bible Study, right? Uhhh, no. But, comprehension is a part of Bible Study. So what is the difference? Let me start by asking you the same question that my pastor, John Klumpp, asked us recently,
“How many of us are guilty of listening to the truth, and not doing anything about it?”
In other words, what do you do with what your pastor teaches you from the Bible on Sunday? What do you do with what you’ve read in your Bible? Do you just listen to, read it, then move on the next day, never to review it?
These questions reveal something deeper in our hearts. And can even hint at something deeper: without action, faith is dead.
Now you might be thinking, either, “That’s harsh, Sonya!” or “That’s in the Bible?” Either way, the answer is yes. Yes, it is in the Bible. It’s in James 2:14–26. And, yes, it might be harsh of me, but, my point is, how do I know that verse? Maybe I just googled it, copied and pasted it into the text. How do you know that?
Question what I say. Question what others say.
Just like I said earlier that I began to question my pastor, don’t trust me, go to the Bible. Review it. Look at the whole chapter of James 2. Did I use this verse in context?
Taking action with our faith goes along with that call for us to live differently and to be intentional—to take off the old self as it says in Ephesians 4:17–24 and put on the new self. First of all, how can you know what the old self is and what the new self is, if you don’t read the Bible and understand it? But to be even more practical, maybe you need to ask yourself, if you know what those things are—then how do you know that you’re doing them or not?
This is Comprehension—a second layer of how to understand the Bible. Comprehension involves questioning, review, and application. In the process of comprehending scripture we are not only trying to recall what we’ve read in the Bible, but we’re interacting with it by reviewing it on a personal level.
What are some ways that you can do this:
- Read the Bible, then review what your read regularly (nightly, weekly, monthly, yearly, etc.) using a Christian faith journal.
- At the end of the week, take out your sermon notes and review them. Compare this with what you are reading personally in the Bible. Are there any themes that overlap between the two?
- Test yourself – see if you can share with someone else what God is teaching you through your Bible reading.
- Pick a book of the Bible to read, then as you read each chapter, write down key observations. At the end of the Book, write down a synopsis of what the book was about—refer to your key observations for help.
- If you’re really brave, you can test your comprehension by volunteering in your children’s ministry—maybe even teach a Bible lesson.
The last example ties into the next level of understanding: deeper Bible Study. It will help you to know how to understand the Bible in a more dedicated and focused way by growing your faith even more. Bible study will also prepare you to help others grow in mature faith as well. I know for me, I learn more when I am teaching someone else about it!
Methods for Deeper Understanding of the Bible
As I eluded to earlier, comprehension and Bible study are often thought of as the same thing. And this is why. While I explained that comprehension involves questioning, review, and application, you will likely also do these same things when you do your own personal study of the Bible or in a group Bible study with others. The difference between Comprehension and Bible study this time, is that with Bible study we add another layer of context, interpretation, and application through inductive study.
First off, what is inductive Bible study?
Simply put, It’s an investigative approach to understanding the Bible by observing, interpreting, and applying the text to you personally. Remember, I actually learned this process for how to study the Bible in college? That Inductive Bible Study of John was a required course at my Christian Liberal Arts school. One of the benefits of that course was that I was also required to read two different books—Living by the Book and How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. Both of these books are what helped me to know how to map the book of John verse by verse as well as study more in depth.
Although I do believe that this class did help me to know how to study the Bible, this is just another testament to the fact that knowledge doesn’t equal understanding. And that it’s really important to simply start by reading the Bible first. After I cultivated that daily habit of reading the Bible, I really feel like that increased my spiritual growth when I participated in small groups and personal Bible study.
And that is what I would recommend for you as well.
The benefit of learning how to understand the Bible with others is that you get to hear different perspectives—both from life experience and also from how each person perceives the scripture as you read it. God created the church for us so that together we could learn and grow into spiritual maturity. Along the way we will find that there are differences in opinion and perspectives. The goal in this method of study is to sharpen one another in a positive way. Much like in Proverbs 27:17 where it says, “As iron sharpens iron, so does one man sharpen another.”
This type of small group Bible study could be Bible Study Fellowship, women only small groups, multi–generational small groups, life groups that eat, study, and do activities together, and couples small groups.
Here’s some specific examples:
- Small Group Bible Study – Typically a small group is associated with your local church and involves working through a book of the Bible together and following a Bible Study Guide to help you understand the Bible. Although some small groups will decide to work through a different type of Bible Study book that doesn’t really study a book of the Bible per se. It just highlights a Christian Living topic and references verses and concepts in scripture.
- Structured Group Bible Study – Some examples of a structured group bible study include, groups that are organized by a specific church denomination or para church ministry organization—like Bible Study Fellowship or Community Bible Study. Each year you work through a scheduled book of the Bible.
PERSONAL INDUCTIVE BIBLE STUDY
Over the years, I’ve personally participated in several small group Bible studies, but the greatest example of me learning how to understand the Bible came through me pursuing personal Bible study.
Here are some examples that I’ve used over the years in studying the Bible on my own:
- Use the Word to Interpret the Word – My most favorite and easiest way to better understand the Bible is to use scripture to interpret scripture. So, what do I mean by that? There are ways we can use passages in scripture to better understand other passages in scripture. You can use Bible dictionaries and commentaries to help, but the simple way is to look at the cross references in your Bible. That’s a good place to start.
- Practice the Spiritual Disciplines – In my early thirties, I was still single, and I read the Bible for hours and hours at a time. I prayed the Word, journaled what I was learning, and studied more in depth the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting, scripture memorization, praying the word, and others.
When I became a wife and mom, my time of studying and reading the Bible dramatically decreased, but the quality of my study got deeper as I developed a pattern of journaling my Christian faith every day. In addition I spent more time meditating on smaller passages of scripture though memorizing one verse a day.
(This is how I memorized the whole book of Titus. Two years ago, with the season of Covid upon the world, I read entire books of the Bible in one sitting. It was so refreshing.)
- Utilize Bible Software – Specifically, I used the Logos Bible Software. It includes commentaries on Books of the Bible, Greek and Hebrew KeyWord Lexicons, and Bible Dictionaries. In my early twenties when I was single, there was a season of my life when every Tuesday and Thursday I came home from work and locked myself in my bedroom (I had 3 other roommates). During that time, I studied the Bible for nearly 4 hours. This is when I purchased the Bible library software Logos, and I immersed myself in gaining knowledge about scripture. In addition, I cross referenced several different Bible translations, commentaries and even looked at the root word in the Hebrew and Greek Lexicons. This was a time in my life when I thirsted to know more and understand the Bible.
Now, I share all of these examples from my life, merely to express a 20 year journey. Can you see it—all the layers of learning how to understand the Bible?
How to Start Reading the Bible (for Beginners PDF)
Do you remember the reason that I found it so frustrating as I tried to read the Bible in the beginning? It was because I was trying to do too much all at the same time. I wasn’t ready for it. I needed to grow and develop a method for myself in how to understand the Bible.
And for me that has been the process of Reading, Comprehension, and deeper Bible Study. Today, nearly 20 years later, I actually do a lot of those first things that I tried to do in the beginning. Now it actually increases my understanding of the Bible because I built a firm foundation.
- Daily, I go through a process where I actually journal my faith.
My journaling includes worship and quieting my heart, reading the Bible, meditating on verses throughout my day, and incorporating those verses into daily prayers. I always end the day with gratitude.
- Weekly, I spend a longer amount of time that is specifically dedicated to deeper study of the Word.
Every Saturday I take time to reflect on everything I’ve journaled—daily devotions, deeper Bible study, weekly sermon notes, answered prayers, and thoughts on gratitude. And I also journal about what I look forward to in the upcoming week.
- Quarterly, I take a look at my spiritual growth and how I’m doing. I look back over my 12 weeks and celebrate how God is teaching me, leading me, and how I learning more and being transformed by scripture.
- Yearly, when others are making New Year’s Resolutions, I’m taking the whole month of January to reset. That includes taking a look at how I’m doing in my spiritual growth—along with every other area of my life. It’s the best resolution for the New Year!
Do you see everything I’m doing today?
There’s a lot I’ve grown in learning how to understand the Bible—to not just be a hearer of God’s Word, but a doer (James 1:22–25). But all of this started first with an established habit of daily bible reading. Maybe you already have an established habit? If so, then start to work on that second level of Comprehension and then Deeper Bible Study. Before long you’ll be understanding more and more of the Bible.
But what if you don’t have that established habit of reading the Bible every day?
You can do the same thing as I did—and the best part is that God will help you to be successful too! It says in James 4:8 that if you draw near to God, then He will draw near to you. Draw near today with the FREE Quick Start Daily Bible Reading Guide—a PDF for beginners in how to start reading the Bible. It’s the detailed guided plan that I used to established my daily habit. I’ve also included the exact 30 Day Bible Reading Plan that I used—so you’ll know exactly what you need to do and where to get started, and you can be sure it works! If it worked for me, it can work for you, too.