Written By Tyler Edwards, USA
Tyler Edwards is a pastor, author, and husband. He has served in full-time ministry since 2006. He currently works as the Discipleship Pastor of Carolina Forest Community Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He is passionate about introducing people to and helping them grow in the Gospel. He is also the author of Zombie Church: Breathing Life Back Into the Body of Christ.
When I was applying to colleges years ago, I remember waiting to get my acceptance letter. One day, I sorted through stacks of junk mail to find an envelope with a college logo at the top. I tore open the letter and read it carefully. Unlike the other mail, this wasn’t some marketing ad to sell me more stuff I didn’t want. No, this letter was important—it would determine my future.
Isn’t that the way things go? We are barraged with messages through every sort of medium imaginable, but some messages are just more important than others.
The Bible is the most important thing we will ever read. What makes it so important? It’s like a long-distance love letter where God shares His love, His heart and desires with us. Reading it allows us to grow closer to Him and to understand how to love Him until the day that we can be with Him. So, with great anticipation, Christians should be not just looking over the words, but really trying to study and understand what God is saying to us through them.
Even so, reading the Bible can still feel like a daunting task. How do I know I’m reading it correctly? What if I twist God’s words to mean something He isn’t saying? It’s no surprise that many Christians don’t read their Bible regularly because they don’t have the right tools to help them make sense of it. But reading the Bible doesn’t have to be scary.
Here are a few simple tools that can help us fairly and accurately understand what God is saying.
Two Rules for Reading the Bible
Rule number one: What is the author’s intended meaning?
Have you ever said something that got taken the wrong way? Like telling a girl, “You look nice today.” But she responds, “Today? Like I don’t look nice most of the time?”
All communication requires interpretation. The listener needs to understand what the speaker is trying to say. This applies to all communication. Don’t just look at it—think about what the author is trying to communicate and why!
Rule number two: Context is king
If we do not consider the information’s context, we are prone to misunderstand it. When we read a passage, the first step is to look at what comes before it, and what comes after it. This can give us a better idea of what God is saying.
Let’s be careful not to take biblical passages out of their historical context. After all, the Bible wasn’t written to us—it was preserved for us. Every book of the Bible had an original audience, real people who lived long before our great-grandparents were even born. To understand what the Bible is saying, to apply God’s truths properly in our modern-day lives, we should first understand what the author was saying to his original audience.
The other day I was sitting next to my wife when she got a call. I didn’t see who it was, but I was curious. I listened. My wife’s tone said it was her mother, and she started talking about baby stuff. Hearing just one half of the conversation, I was able to piece together the context. The only thing I didn’t know was what her mother said. Even that, I could figure out partially based on my wife’s responses.
That’s what we do with Scripture. We fill in the gaps responsibly. There are some great tools that help with that: study Bibles, commentaries, biblical dictionaries. These tools give us a better understanding of the other side of the conversation.
Applying the Rules to Philippians 4:13
Let’s look at an example:
I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13, ESV).
This verse makes for a great motivational poster. I used to quote this to try and pass tests I didn’t want to study for. But it doesn’t really mean what I thought it means. After all, if I went to the gym and loaded 500lbs onto the bench, then quoted this verse, would I suddenly be able to lift 500lbs? No! That weight is going to come crashing down on me, hard. But why? Shouldn’t lifting 500lbs fall under the umbrella of “all things”?
Did I not have enough faith? Did Jesus fail me? . . . or perhaps, did I misunderstand the text?
If we apply our two rules and go back to read the verses leading up to Philippians 4:13, the picture gets a little clearer.
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:10-13, ESV).
In context, Paul is talking about plenty, hunger, abundance and need—the modern day equivalent to finances (Philippians 4:12, ESV). The earlier verses tell us that Paul has learned to be content in all things. Whether rich and comfortable or poor and hungry, he can endure the hardships and challenges of this life for the sake of the gospel because Jesus gives him the strength to be content regardless of his circumstances. Paul is showing us how to do something incredible. Philippians 4:13 isn’t about turning us into superman. It’s about contentment.
Getting to Know God Better
When we don’t read the Word of God in context, we can easily (and sometimes unconsciously) make promises for God that God didn’t make. When those promises don’t come true, we’re tempted to doubt God instead of really seeing who He is. Jesus says that eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3). All that we live for, hope for, desire, and pursue in the Christian life should be built on the foundation of our relationship with God.
I’ve learned that when I’m faithful in searching for context and intent, reading the Bible actually helps me know God better because I’m not just hearing His Word, I’m continually learning to understand it. The amazing thing is, the more we know God, the more we recognize His love for us and appreciate the grace He has given us.
So, as challenging as it can be to read the Bible, the best thing we can do is to open that love letter from God, and just start reading what He says to us!