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How to Read the Bible Well: An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics

Once I heard a story of a Christian’s method for deciding who and who not to date. An unbeliever asked her out, and she was stuck. She opened her Bible and read an obscure passage in the Old Testament that she believed gave her the green light to say “yes.” As you can imagine, disaster ensued and the relationship ended in heartache.

How to read the Bible well

This is an example of, among other things, reading the Bible out of context. We’ve all done it and, to varying degrees, may even continue to do it. But poor Bible reading skills should be fought against. If we quote God’s Word out of context and distort the original meaning, we’re no longer quoting God’s Word.

Like many things, reading the Bible well takes time, help, and experience.

One way to grow as a Bible reader is to understand something called hermeneutics. Don’t let the word scare you. It simply means “the theory of interpretation.” It is the act of seeking to properly interpret Scripture, which I believe involves at least five things: personal prayer, literary analysis, literary context, historical context, and Christ-centered reflection. 1

Let’s take a look at each step.

How to Read The Bible Well: An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics

1. Prayer

The first step in biblical hermeneutics is prayer. Be sure to pray before, during, and after you read your Bible. Don’t overlook this step. As John Piper says, “Cry out to God day and night that you would see wonderful things in his Word.”

What should you pray for?

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Pray that God will help you to see wonderful things in his Word.
2. Pray that God will show you Jesus.
3. Pray that God will illuminate your mind to increase understanding.
4. Pray that God will convict you of your sin.
5. Pray that God will stir your affections and emotions for him.
6. Pray that God will speak to you through his Word.
7. Pray that God will help you to memorize his Word.
8. Pray that God will help you increase your love for him.
9. Pray that God will increase your love for his Word.
10. Pray that God will give you opportunities to share his Word.

Proper Bible reading begins with prayer.

After prayer, we move to the next step: literary analysis.

2. Literary Analysis

I hate to sound irreverent but the Bible is, well, a book. It’s an amazing book! It’s God’s authoritative and inerrant Word for God’s people. But it’s still a book. And like all books, you need to analyze the literary structure to grasp its true meaning.

In this step, you want to make good observations of the text and ask lots of questions.

Here are a few that you can ask:

  • How would you analyze the literary shape of the passage?
  • How does the structure of the story show the author’s intentions? 
Who are the characters?
  • How are they developed?
  • What’s their appearance, social status, actions, and words?
  • Are there any repeated words? If so, why?
  • What is the scene? Did you notice any shifts? Why did the author include them?
  • What sights, sounds, and feels do you notice in the text?
  • Are there any tensions? Any resolutions?

Ask good questions, make observations, and take note of what you see. That’s what literary analysis is all about.

Let’s move on to step three.

3. Literary Context

Literary context answers two important questions:

1. How does this passage fit in its immediate context?
2. How does this passage fit into the overall purpose of the biblical book?

The best way to do this is by reading the Bible verses before and after the text you are studying. You probably want to go a couple chapters backward and forwards. For example, if you’re studying Genesis chapter 3 (the famous chapter of “the fall”), be sure to read Genesis 1-2, and Genesis 5-7. Reading around Genesis 3 will help you better understand Genesis 3.

Also, it goes without saying that a good commentary can help out a ton.

But don’t sprint to a commentary without first doing your own work. One of my professors makes us say, “Start with the Bible, not with the commentaries” in the beginning of each class. He’s trying to beat this into our heads and, you know, after a while it sticks. There’s power in repetition. But eventually, you can check out a commentary. You can find a good one here.

Let me give you an example of literary context.

I once preached a sermon on Matthew 4:1-11. It’s the famous story of Jesus in the wilderness and how he defeats the devil with the Word of God. When I did the literary context, I noticed that in just the previous verses there is a ginormous, dramatic scene where Jesus is baptized and God the Father speaks from heaven. Few scenes in the Bible are more enthralling than this one.

And then Jesus goes into the wilderness.

When I read the verses directly after my text, I noticed that Jesus starts his public ministry after he leaves the wilderness. My text was in the middle. After studying the text and with the help of John MacArthur’s insights from his excellent commentary on Matthew, I concluded this: Suffering usually follows success, and preparation always precludes ministry.

I also noticed that “preparation” was a common theme in the first four chapters of Matthew, which gave me more confidence to say that Jesus was in the wilderness to prepare for his public ministry.

I don’t think this was a reach, and this insight would not have been possible without studying the literary context.

By studying the context of the passage, and not just the passage itself, you can grasp it better.

4. Historical Context

The Bible was not originally written in English. Shocking, I know.

Instead, the Bible was written by over 40 different authors, in three different languages, from three different continents, over a 1,500 hundred year period.

My point is that you have to understand the authors and their audience to understand the Book they wrote.

If you miss this step, you will inevitably read the Bible out of context.

How can you best understand the historical context? Knowing biblical Greek and Hebrew, of course, are helpful.

But if you don’t know the original biblical languages, the two best ways are with a study Bible and a commentary. But only consult outside resources once you have done the work of understanding the text yourself. It’s important to do your own work first. Otherwise, you’ll hinder your worship and your growth.

5. Christocentric Reflection

The last step is what I call “Christocentric reflection.” Don’t let my vernacular (I mean, vocabulary) confuse you (see what I did there?).

Christocentric means “Christ-centered.” The Bible — from Old Testament to New Testament — is about Jesus Christ. Any hermeneutical study that doesn’t get to Jesus is a failed attempt at biblical hermeneutics. So in this final step, we look for the redemptive purpose of Christ.

Look for God’s promises. Look for God’s initiatives. And then look for Christ.

Now, you can overdo this. You can fall into the trap of hyper-spiritualization. You can read the Old Testament visions, dreams, and prophecies and say, “The prophecies, dreams, and visions are all about Jesus! All of them!”

Well, sort of. Perhaps it’s best to think of this in general terms and not literal terms. What you want to do is pay attention to the redemptive-historical context. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible constantly shows the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as God’s appointed means to bring about the redemption of God’s elect. So as you’re reading your Bible, look for how Jesus can be the center of your text, and how your overall text points to what Jesus has done. He’s the hero of the whole story.

I’m sure you love reading your Bible and learning new things as you read. I do too. Since God took the time to reveal himself through his Word, then we should take the time to read it well. And one way to do that is through proper biblical hermeneutics.

You may also like: 

  1. 25 Bible Reading Tips
  2. The Best Bible Reading Advice I’ve Ever Received
  3. 4 Truths About the Bible Every Christian Should Admit

Notes:

  1. I learned much of what I know about #2-4 from Dr. Chapman, Dr. Sklar, and Dr. Williams during Covenant Theology I (seminary class). Some of the language and thoughts of this post are directly tied to handouts and lectures from class. Great professors and great class!

About David Qaoud

Thanks for reading! I'm David. And this is my personal blog. I'm a husband, writer, and MDiv student at Covenant Theological Seminary. Most importantly, however, I am a follower of Jesus Christ. Learn more>