If you’ve spent some time reading the Bible and trying to study God’s word, you’ve probably experienced this situation: You begin reading a passage and the first few verses are uncomplicated and straightforward. “Don’t be anxious about tomorrow.” Got it. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, you come across a verse that leaves you with a furrowed brow. You read the words again and again but are left asking yourself, “What does this mean?”
This dilemma can leave you feeling like you are in high school trying to understand Shakespeare again. Our obstacles in understanding scripture are similar to when we were in the classroom. We’re separated from the context of the Bible by thousands of years. Our culture and language are drastically different from the biblical authors. Although these challenges can seem daunting, there are some steps we can take to help us better understand God’s word when we face this kind of challenge.
First, we can look for clues within the context of the passage, asking ourselves:
- Who is the author talking to and why?
Is he addressing a particular situation of the nation of Israel or in the church? Is it a personal letter to a single person? Is the audience before or after Christ came to earth? Figuring this out allows us to recognize what this verse would have meant to the original audience.
- What is the larger passage talking about, looking at the verses before and after?
If we attempt to remove a single verse from its position, then its meaning can be significantly distorted. Conversely, if we consider what the surrounding verses are addressing, it will be easier to discover what the difficult verse is talking about.
- What type of writing is this?
Maybe you’re reading a personal letter, a narrative, or possibly a psalm of poetry. We certainly don’t read a news article the same way we read a poem. We approach these writings differently because of their different genes. Scripture is the same way. Keeping the genre of the verse in mind will be beneficial.
- What words are important?
Are there any conjunctions, like “and” or “because” connecting this verse to the earlier verse? Do you spot words like “if” and “then”? These words communicate connection or causation and will help you understand your verse and how it fits into the larger passage.
- Where else does the Bible talk about this?
Some verses may also have parallel passages, like the stories in the Gospels or passages in the New Testament quoted from the Old Testament. Looking at these passages will also aid in your pursuit of the message in this verse.
As you answer these questions, you will be able to discover the meaning of those difficult verses. However, if the meaning of your verse is still foggy after considering these questions, a study bible is a good resource to utilize. Faithlife offers a great, free study bible here. A study bible, online or printed, will usually include summaries of the historical background of each book and insights on individual verses.