I don’t understand the Bible. But whose fault is that?

This week, I was busy preparing for the Bible study group that we organize every week. And that’s quite a job because let’s be honest… not every chapter of the Bible is an easy chapter to understand. Almost every day we hear someone say: “I don’t understand the Bible, it is so complicated, so do you know the solution to problem X that is going on in my life”?

It takes a while before we understand the context and I wondered how the readers of, for example, the first readers of the letters to Corinthians, Galatians, Hebrews, or Ephesians, did this. They received that letter “in the mail” and then what? How did they understand what the writer wanted to say to them?

The explanation is, that the original readers of those letters in the Bible could read it a lot easier than us at the time, among other things, is in the following. What is the common denominator of the Bible verses below?

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,

Acts 2:46

Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.

Joshua 1:8

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Acts 17:11

The people who received these letters studied the Bible. Every day! It had merged into their lives. It wasn’t an afterthought, no, it was an essential part of their lives. But there’s more…

The early church (including the Bereans) did not have the entire New Testament as we know it! They only had the Torah, some stories, some traditions and that letter they received. If you look a little further at that verse from Acts 17, for example, notice the order in which they investigated: the Bereans received, investigated, and ultimately believed the truth (Acts 17:11-12). This means that although they must have had many standards of their own, the Bible (in a basic form as they had it at the time) is the ultimate standard that normalized their standards. Those Bereans also believed in the Christian faith through what we now call the Old Testament. The Old Testament therefore also contains the same truths as the New Testament, and they do not contradict each other, but reinforce each other.

And as mentioned… they didn’t have the Bible as we know it yet, but they studied what they had A LOT. Daily, together, day and night as stated in Joshua 1:8

So once they got that letter in the mail, they understood it WAY better than we understand it now. Because the Old Testament is quoted a lot in those letters. Because they studied that Old Testament, they understood what was in those letters and also understood that the writer referred back to that Old Testament in many verses, without the precise old Old Testament verse being mentioned in that letter. That was not necessary, because the writer of the letter could assume that they, the readers, knew the Old Testament inside and out.

As an example of how that works, we can look at Hebrews 4, for example, where it says the following:

Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’” And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world.

Hebrews 4:3

If you read this “as it is”, there is little to understand. But those readers at the time knew, from studying, the Old Testament. And they immediately recognized a quote that comes from Psalm 95:

“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah[b] in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

Psalm 95:8-11

And they recognized exactly what this was about because: that refers to the story in Numbers 14:

The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.

Numbers 14:20-23

In other words, if you want to understand Hebrews 4:3, you MUST know Psalm 95:8-11 and Numbers 14:20-23. Only if you have that knowledge ready, if you have it active, if you have it clearly on your mind every day, then you will understand what Paul (in this example) is saying. And that is what the Hebrews, Bereans, Jesus himself, and many, many more people did at that time. That was their daily routine. And then we are only talking about Hebrews 4 verse 3, if you want to understand the entire chapter you need to have even more knowledge ready to even understand what Paul is talking about. And they had that knowledge! Ready!

That also means… that if we don’t do that… we often don’t understand what is written. We read a piece, and then quickly say: “It’s so difficult” or “I don’t understand much of it” and we get back to the order of the day. Without understanding the complete picture of what it is about. And that is, to put it mildly, a missed opportunity.

The problem that we often do not understand is not that the Bible is so unclear, but our own choice is the problem, in contrast to those Hebrews, Bereans, Jesus himself, and many, many more people at that time, , spend far, far too little time studying what is written in the scripture.

The Bible is clear, VERY clear, but if we don’t study it, put little to no time into understanding it, then it’s our fault. And we are left behind in confusion, understanding little about it, and that confusion does not decrease, only increases. “What a complicated book.”

And now the question… if you know that next Wednesday you, as a participant, have a Bible study on topic X… what does your preparation look like for that Wednesday? Do you prepare it at all, or do you go there and “gun it / send it”?

If that is your plan, there is a good chance that even after that study on Wednesday you still don’t understand much, you didn’t get everything out of it that you needed to get out of it, or that you might fall even for an explanation that was not correct to begin with… oops. Because you did not build your knowledge on Scripture like the Hebrews, Bereans, Jesus himself, and many, many more people of that time. And that is not only life-threatening, but also eternally dangerous.

So, next time, how early will you start your own personal Bible study that is then scheduled for (for example) next Wednesday to further discuss it with the group? It has been on the agenda for weeks, we sometimes know weeks in advance which topics are scheduled. Don’t procrastinate, wait until the last minute, or worse… don’t prepare anything and just show up unprepared. Don’t, be like the Hebrews, Bereans, Jesus himself, and many, many more people of that time and study. Every day. With the tools God has given you in His scripture and with His Spirit in you (John 15:26), you will see that reading the Bible is a lot easier than you may think.