The world's number one best seller is, paradoxically, the world's least understood book. Why? Should it be understood? If so, how can one come to understand it?
As A YOUTH, I rarely went to church. Occasionally, a school chum would ask me to visit his church, and when I did so, the teacher would tell us stories about David and a giant named Goliath, Jonah and a whale, Daniel and his being thrown into a pit of lions, and Noah, who lived through a tremendous flood. At the time, of course, I regarded these stories as interesting, as most young children would, but they had no relevance to me, personally. I couldn't identify with any of the Biblical characters. Their age, time, and surroundings were too remote, too estranged from conditions of life in the space age of the 20th century. Our modern industrial civilization seemed so much more real. So, as I grew older, I lost whatever interest I had in the Bible. The question of reading the Bible never crossed my mind. It simply didn't concern me. I felt I was too busy with other things — work, sports, classes, entertainment, or reading the latest novel. But the Bible didn't appeal to me.
Why Read the Bible
"Why should I read the Bible?" I wondered. A few times I picked one up at an uncle's home, leafed through it, and put it down unread. It seemed too big, too heavy, too ancient. Today, I know that I was overlooking a fantastic treasury of knowledge, wisdom, and human experience. Now I realize that my neglect of the Bible was a detriment to my own growth and understanding. I have learned that the Bible is not merely a collection of misty fables, legends, or quaint romances. I have learned that it is a book about people — people like you and me — people who lived, made mistakes, and died. When I finally took the Bible off the shelf and began to study it as an adult, I discovered that it was, in reality, an action-packed saga of the human race. It didn't blue-pencil people's lives, mistakes, or problems, but told the unvarnished truth. I was intrigued. Here was a book that was really challenging! True-to-life episodes, violence, sadism, rape, adultery — plenty of raw human nature was revealed in its pages. The dark side of human experience was there, but also love, joy, happiness, and peace. I found that the Bible contained examples of men and women like myself in many respects, who faced life's difficulties and either mastered them or were mastered by them! As I continued to study, I found that it contained wisdom enough to solve the world's problems, if that wisdom were utilized. Unfortunately, I discovered to my chagrin that the nations of the world had failed to look into that book for answers. World leaders, I found, had usually neglected that source of knowledge! To my dismay and consternation, I found, as I continued reading the Bible, even more surprises. I found, in fact, that even religious leaders did not 'understand what was in the pages of the Bible! You do not have to take my word for these facts. You don't have to believe what I say, just because I say it. My personal opinion means nothing. The important thing for you to do is to find out for yourself. Check up, look into your Bible, and see if it is everything it claims to be.
Where Should You Begin?
The Bible is a challenging book. When I first began reading it, I didn't know what surprises were in store for me. I couldn't foresee what a tremendous effect it would later come to have on my life! You may be in the precise position I found myself in, twenty years or so ago. You may, at this very moment, have never read the Bible. But let me tell you about some of the shocks that occurred as I studied and thought about the Bible. Right away, I became confused and frustrated when I listened to what other men and religious leaders had to say about the Bible. I thought, at first, that their opinions might be helpful. But what I found was that religious leaders and other men were themselves mixed up and confused about the Bible! As incredible as it seemed to me at the time, I found that trained and educated men themselves could not even agree on what the Bible said or taught! One said one thing, and another said the exact opposite! It was baffling, confusing, mind-boggling. In the midst of this confusion, I made a decision that was to have a profound influence on my life. I decided that in view of the controversy surrounding the Bible I wasn't going to take any man's word for what the Bible taught. Rather, I decided to compare what each man taught with what others taught, and then — this is important — I decided that I would put them all to the test and read the Bible itself to,find out the truth! I was flabbergasted. at the result. When I went to the Bible and read it for myself, I soon found that some of the most cherished, time-honored teachings that I had heard as a boy, and had assumed to be true, were nowhere to be found in the Bible! Incredulous, with my mind churning, I learned that many popular "Christian" teachings, which I had always accepted and assumed to be Biblical, were really the diametric opposite to what I read in the pages of the Bible itself! Can you imagine my state of mind? For example, I found that Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5). I found that those who do Christ's will shall "reign on the earth" (Revelation 5:10), and compared this with the teachings of men. Upon further examination, I found that the Bible says that the patriarch David died and was buried (Acts 2:29), arid Peter, who lived 1,000 years later, said of David, after all that time, "For David did NOT ascend into the heavens... " (Acts 2:34, RSV). And finally, I read the very words of Jesus who declared: "No ONE HAS ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man" (John 3:13, RSV). I was astonished. But there it was, right before my very eyes, right in the Bible. And I couldn't argue with it! Of course I had heard the popular "Christian" teaching that the saints go to heaven when they die. But here was the Bible — and it said what I had never heard before. Obviously, all the different denominations neither rightly understand nor properly interpret the Bible! However, Jesus Himself said, "Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35, RSV). To make it even plainer, He added later: "Thy word [the Bible] is truth" (John 17:17). He said men ought to live by every word of God, referring to the Bible (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4). How, then, can you rightly understand the Bible — a unique book that contains a message which has endured through the ages?
Read the Book
To come to grasp the real meaning of the Bible and its contents, you must first of all read it. Reading books about the Bible is not enough. The place to begin is with the Bible itself — read it, study it, as you would any worthwhile book. Generally, the place to start is in the beginning — that is, with the book of Genesis, the first book in the Old Testament. However, many people begin with the first book of the New Testament. It really doesn't matter, as long as you begin. Of course, if you begin with the book of Genesis, and then read right through, you will begin to see a story flow through the entire Bible. You will learn the history and background of many of the events mentioned later in the New Testament. To come to understand any book, whether, a textbook of biology, civics, or history, you must read the book itself. The apostle Paul praised the Bereans, "for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11, RSV). What translation should you read? That is up to you. There are many good English translations, including the popular King James Version and the more modern Revised Standard Version. Other helpful translations are the Moffatt version, the Goodspeed version, and The New English Bible. A popular modern paraphrase of the Bible is The Living Bible, but it is not as accurate as the more literal translations. Begin reading the Bible with an open-minded, inquisitive approach — don't take for granted what you have been taught. You have probably heard the old refrain, "Nobody can understand the Bible, because it contradicts itself." That, however, is not true. I found that when studying any subject, if I maintained an open mind and compared the scripture passages carefully, apparent and alleged contradictions could be solved with a minimum of effort! Those who waste their time reading the Bible to discover "loose bricks" will stumble over many easily explainable passages, merely because of their critical attitude. But if one studies the Bible in a humble, teachable frame of mind, his study will be richly rewarded.
Purpose for Study
If you just study from casual interest, your Bible study will soon be over. A cursory, superficial interest in the Bible will soon be filled, your curiosity will be satiated, and there will be no more value in Bible study for you. In order to make your study really worthwhile and meaningful, you must study with the attitude of seeking understanding and wisdom to apply to situations that arise in daily living. If you do this, you will find that the Bible contains examples of people who went through problems similar to your own, and you will see how they coped with them. You will be able to draw on lessons from the experience of others, so that hopefully you won't make the same mistakes. Set your mind to obtain understanding. If you do this, you will be ready to receive instruction from the Bible. As Solomon wrote in the book of Proverbs: "Have two goals: wisdom — that is, knowing and doing right — and common sense. Don't let them slip away" (Proverbs 3:21, The Living Bible). He added: "Determination to be wise is the first step toward becoming wise! And with your wisdom, develop common sense and good judgment" (Proverbs 4:7). If this is the attitude you have or the reason you study the Bible, then your life will be profited immeasurably, as many men of business have found.
Another Key to Understanding
Even with the right approach and goal, there is another vital key to Bible understanding. It is revealed in the Bible itself. One hot day, an Ethiopian was riding in a caravan across the Judean desert. He was passing the time by reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He was perplexed. He could not make out what the prophet was really writing about! At this juncture, Philip ran up to his chariot and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" The befuddled Ethiopian official replied, "How can I, unless some one guides me?" He then read a passage of Isaiah aloud to Philip and asked, "About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?" (See Acts 8:30-34.) Philip, in response, explained the whole passage to him. Why is this incident recorded in the book of Acts? The answer is simple. Sometimes you will not entirely understand a certain passage of Scripture, so in order to fully grasp the meaning, you will need someone who already understands the passage to explain it logically and sensibly to you. But since there are so many different interpretations of the Bible and its contents, you must be very careful to check up on whatever you read, or are told, and to compare it with what the Bible really says. Take nothing for granted, until you clearly see what's in the Bible. Don't rush to false conclusions. This brings up the next key to understanding the Bible. And that is, never attempt to read into a passage what it doesn't clearly say. If you run across a perplexing scripture, don't immediately begin to search your own mind for a possible explanation. The key to understanding difficult passages, whether on prophecy, or various Biblical symbols, is first of all to read the passage in context. Never try to lift it out of its Biblical setting and study it in isolation. Various symbols and prophecies may be explained more fully in other portions of the Bible. The apostle Peter was faced with people who misinterpreted the Bible in his day, so he wrote: "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (II Peter 1:20-21, RSV). The whole point is this: The Bible interprets the Bible. It reveals the meaning and explanation of its own symbols, figures of speech, allegories, and prophecies.
Avoid Tunnel Vision
Another mistake many Bible students make is that they form an opinion on a topic without studying all the scattered scriptures which are relevant to the subject. From just a few verses in one part of the Bible, they may gain a wrong impression because of the slant they have put on those verses. A scientist, before he formulates a hypothesis, researches all the available literature on the subject. He studies all the relevant items, marshals and assembles his data, and then proceeds to interpret that data. If he has only partial data, however, his conclusions will, most likely, be in error. So it is with Bible study. When you examine or study a particular subject in the Bible, gather all the relevant scriptures on the subject — all the Biblical facts, data, and information available — and then, putting it all together, draw your conclusions. If you fail to do this, you have only yourself to blame for any errors you fall into.
The Big Test
Finally, and most important — if you desire to understand the Bible, you must be willing to obey the words of your Creator. You must be willing to live by His instructions to mankind. Isaiah the prophet wrote, "Yet I will look with pity on the man who has a humble and a contrite heart, who trembles at my word" (Isaiah 66:2, The Living Bible). Some of the prophecies of Daniel, for instance, seem very obscure and complex. Daniel himself was not allowed to understand the meaning of certain things revealed to him. He was told, "Go now, Daniel, for what I have said is not to be understood until the time of the end. Many shall be purified by great trials and persecutions. But the wicked shall continue in their wickedness, and none of them shall understand. Only those who are willing to learn will know what it means" (Daniel 12:9-10, The Living Bible). David put it this way: "How' can men be wise? The only way to begin is by reverence for God. For growth in wisdom comes from obeying his laws. Praise his name forever" (Psalm 111:10, The Living Bible). To understand the Bible is to obey it and to live by it. But if you ever reject what you see in the Bible, if you ever cease to live by it, then what knowledge you have gained will slip away. You will lose the understanding and knowledge that was once yours. Why is this? Simply because the Bible is a spiritual book. And carnal, rebellious minds without God's Spirit cannot comprehend spiritual truths. To the carnal mind, spiritual truths seem foolish. It cannot take them in, digest them, and grasp them (see I Corinthians 2:10-14). Once you begin to put these steps into practice, you will find the Bible coming alive to you. You will find it filled with interesting and meaningful knowledge of vital significance to your life and the age in which we live. The Bible, very likely, will completely change your life, as it did mine, about fifteen years ago!
Your Next Step
To help you in your study of this challenging book, Ambassador College has created a unique in-the-home instruction program for those interested in studying and understanding what the Bible says. It is the Ambassador College Correspondence Course. There is no cost. This fascinating course makes the Bible vibrant with interest, meaning, significance, and relevance. It poses and delves into the big questions of life — showing what the Bible says in answer. It discusses such topics as: Why human life? Where are we headed? What does the Bible reveal about the future? What is the purpose for your drawing breath? Also, questions regarding heaven, hell, the soul, salvation, death, and prophecy are explored — and answered straight from the Bible. If you are interested in studying the Bible, you cannot afford to be without this unique correspondence course. And if you follow the keys of Bible study outlined in this article, then your own life will be enriched and blessed far above expectations. Your whole life will be challenged, changed, and you will experience the exhilaration of learning truths hidden from millions throughout the ages of human history. It is entirely up to you.