The Bible is like an epic tale. It has its own setting, characters, plot, and twists along the way. It takes time to get familiar with it all, but it’s more than worthwhile when you do. Here are the essentials you need to get started to better understand the Scriptures.
How to Understand the Bible for Beginners
1. Read the Bible in Context
The first step to understanding the Bible is to read it in light of its surrounding context. If you’re stuck on the meaning of a single verse, read the entire paragraph that surrounds it. Then, read the entire chapter that it’s in. Even better than that, read the entire book of the Bible to give you its bigger context.
Before we look at how to read the Bible in its context: If this is your first time reading the Bible, I recommend that you start with the book of Mark. Here’s an article that I wrote on why I recommend the Gospel of Mark (link opens in a new window), especially if you might only read one book int the Bible.
If you’re planning on reading more than one book of the Bible, here are the 15 books that I would recommend (link opens in a new window). These will give you the main storyline and major themes of the Bible. The list below is from that article.
Those 15 books will give you a good context for the entire Bible.
Wherever you’re reading in the Bible, here is how you can think about what its context is:
The Context of the Bible (From Major Sections to Details)
- Old and New Testaments
- Genre of the Book
- Individual Book
- The Main Divisions of the Book
If you stick to reading the Bible in context, then the big picture will eventually become clear to you. Later on, you can fill in the details the more you understand the Bible.
It’s also helpful to know the genre of the book that you’re reading. Here are 2 tables that give an overview of the genre and sections of the Bible so you can read it in its context.
Genres of Books & Sections of the Old Testament
|Genre/Section||Books of the Old Testament||Theme|
|Law||Genesis to Deuteronomy||Origins & How God relates to Israel|
|History||Joshua to Esther||The history of Israel|
|Poetry||Job to Song of Songs||Psalms, Proverbs & Writings|
|Prophets||Isaiah to Malachi||Calling Israel back to God|
The books of the Law are historical content and stories mixed in with God’s Law for the nation of Israel. The historical part starts at the beginning of the world and is fairly straightforward.
The instructions for the people of Israel, like the book of Leviticus, can be a bit too much detail for those who are just starting out in the Bible. Feel free to skip those parts for now and come back to them later.
The books of History are fairly straightforward. A little bit of historical background from any good Study Bible or other Bible reference tool can be helpful here.
The books of Poetry are a mix of songs of worship, history, narrative, and proverbs.
Some of the Prophets wrote in verse and it’s possible they could have delivered the prophecies through music and song (2 Kings 3:15). Other books of the Prophets are historical and narrative.
Genres of Books & Sections of the New Testament
|Genre/Section||Books of the New Testament||Subject|
|Gospels||Matthew to John||The Life of Jesus|
|History||Acts||History of the Early Church|
|Letters||Most by Paul, several by others||Letters to churches or individuals|
|Prophecy||Revelation||Jesus’ Second Coming and Leadership|
The Gospels are 4 different records of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
The book of Acts is the history of the early church and sets up the scene for the rest of the New Testament.
The Letters, sometimes called Epistles, are written by Paul and others to individual Christians, or to churches. A good Study Bible can be helpful to explain some of the historical backgrounds. Even without the historical background, the letters are fairly straightforward. Sometimes, they can be quite dense with teaching, so don’t get stuck in the details when you’re starting out.
The Book of Revelation reveals the leadership of Jesus at the end of this age. People have different interpretations of what it means. Here’s an article you might find helpful if you’re interested in studying the book of Revelation: How Does the Bible End?
One resource that I recommend is Unlocking the Bible: A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible (You can check out the reviews on this link to Amazon) It has a chapter on every book of the Bible and explains how they fit together into the whole. It’s easy and clear to read and has great insights that will help you understand the Bible. Be sure to get the book and not the companion volume that only has diagrams, charts, and images. The covers look very similar.
2. Learn Who the Main Characters Are
Each section of the Bible has different figures that are central to the main storyline of the Bible. There are, of course, many more people in both the Old and New Testaments. Here are the 4 major figures in each of the Testaments with the general timeframe in which they’re alive.
Timeframe and the Main People in the Old and New Testaments
|Old Testament||Creation to ~400 BC||Abraham (2000 BC)|
Moses (1500 BC)
David (1000 BC)
Isaiah (500 BC)
|New Testament||The 1st Century (0-100AD)||Jesus|
Abraham (Genesis 12-50). In the Old Testament, God chooses one man, Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. Abraham responds to God in faith, becoming the father of all who believe (Romans 4). Abraham’s grandson, Isaac, has sons who will eventually become the nation of Israel.
Moses (Exodus 1-40). Moses is the man that God chooses to deliver the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt. The Israelites were living as slaves in the land of Egypt at the time. God delivers the people through Moses and gives them the Law. The Law describes how the Israelites became God’s people and how they’re supposed to live so that God’s plan to bless all the nations of the world will be fulfilled.
David (1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles). David was the second king of Israel. David ruled over the nation of Israel for 40 years. David makes Jerusalem the capital of Israel.
Israel was at the height of its glory during David and his son, Solomon’s, reign. It was a major step in establishing the nation of Israel in the land. During Solomon’s reign, there was a civil war that divided the nation of Israel into two: the Nothern region of Israel and the Southern region of Judah.
Isaiah was one of the many prophets that God sent to call the nation of Israel back to Himself. The people of Israel don’t follow God for many centuries with the exception of a few instances of revival. The Northern Kingdom falls to the Assyrian army. The Southern Kingdom eventually falls to the Babylonians. The people of Israel are sent into exile in Babylon for 70 years. After the 70 years, some of the exiles return to Judah.
3. Get Familiar with the Main Storyline
It’s helpful to become familiar with the main message and the storyline of the Bible. The Bible is not a random collection of 66 books. There is a common thread, a storyline if you look at the big picture. If you have the big picture overview of the Bible, you can find out what part of the storyline you’re at.
It’s best to stick to the main and plain things in the Bible. The main idea and themes are very clear. The Bible was written over a period of 1600 years and the main theme is unveiled over that entire time. It’s not necessary to make it more complicated than it is. It’s possible to read the Bible for years and still not have the big-picture overview of the Bible.
If you stick to the main message of the Bible, it’ll keep you from getting lost in the details. The details can be fascinating because every verse of the Bible is useful and meaningful (2 Tim. 3:16-17). You can literally spend years studying the details and still learn new things.
Getting lost in too many details can be frustrating, especially in the beginning. It’s easy to get stuck on one verse, or even one word and miss the main point and the big picture.
The Bible is meant to be understood by ordinary people. Remember that the whole point of the Bible is that God wants to communicate with you. The main things in the Bible are the plain things and the plain things are usually the main things.
The next few paragraphs are very dense, but if you can grasp the main idea, it’ll be very helpful to understand the entire Bible. If you get stuck, feel free to move onto the next section and come back here whenever you want.
|The two main sections of the Bible are the Old Testament and the New Testament.|
The Old Testament shows that mankind could not fulfill God’s original plan. God created a perfect world without brokenness in people’s lives. People choose to depart from God’s ways. This is what the Bible calls sin. Sin is when we choose to go our own way.
The Old Testament is about God’s relationship with the people of Israel. The Bible starts in the book of Genesis with the creation of the universe and then it explains God’s plan to bless the entire world (Gen. 12:3). God’s way of doing this is to choose one nation, Israel, to be His own.
In the Old Testament, God elects the people of Israel to teach all the nations that He will make a new way that everyone can be restored. The people of Israel could not keep up their end of the Law. God had already planned a better way.
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.Jer. 31:31 (ESV)
This New Covenant that Jeremiah 31:31 mentions is the New Testament. The New Testament is about the life and work of Jesus Christ and the church He established. The Good News of the New Testament is that God pays for the penalty of our sin through the death of Jesus.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.Gal. 3:24 (ESV)
Our relationship with God is now based on our faith, or trust, in who Jesus is as the Son of God, and what He has done for us by dying on the cross for our sins. The Rest of the New Testament instructs us on how we’re to live now as God’s people.
4. Choose a Translation of the Bible That Best Fits Your Needs
There are many English translations of the Bible. Some are more literal, word-for-word to the original languages the Bible was written in, but might not read as smoothly in English. Others are paraphrases and flow well in the English language, but you lose some of the richness of the original languages.
Choose a modern translation that aims for a good balance of accuracy and readability. Some of the popular translations include the NLT or the ESV.
I wrote an article that goes into a bit more detail about Bible translations: What Version of the Bible Is Easiest to Read (link opens in a new window). I explain the differences and share my recommendations.
One way to understand the Bible better is to read a different translation or two to supplement the one you’re most used to. There are websites like Biblegateway that make looking at different translations very easy. I use one translation for my main reading Bible and look up the rest on my phone or computer.
5. Focus on Applying the Bible to Your Life
A great way to understand the Bible better is to ask how you can apply it to your life.
Questions to Help You Apply the Bible
- What does God want me to do?
- What is the change in perspective that God wants me to have?
- How will I think, feel, and live differently after I’ve read this?
Focusing on the application helps you stay focused on the big-picture of what the Bible is saying and not get lost in the details. Sometimes starting at the end helps you understand the intent. If you start with the end goal of what God wants you to do, the message and meaning of the Bible can become clearer.
The goal of Bible study is not to get more head-knowledge only. The Bible is meant to transform your heart, mind, emotions – your entire being.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.Heb. 4:12 (ESV)
If you ever search a controversial topic online, you might notice how harsh people can get in supporting their point-of-view. Don’t be put off by that. It’s good to develop convictions as you read the Bible.
But, it’s important to stay humble and teachable. Keeping the focus on applying the Bible to your life will help you do that. Heated theological debates usually do more harm than good for most people.
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness…2 Tim. 2:23-25 (ESV)
Whenever you read the Bible, let it be an opportunity to repent. To repent doesn’t mean to feel bad about your sin. To repent in the Bible literally means “to think again” or “to think differently after.”
After you read the Bible and try to understand what God is saying, how does it change your mind and your actions? What is the perspective God wants you to see? When you change your mind and have a new perspective, that’s repentance.
There will be times when you hear different interpretations of a particular verse. How do you decide which one is right? Consider these questions and when in doubt, go with the one that makes you pursue God more.
How do you decide between different interpretations of the Bible?
Keep the application of the passage in mind by asking these questions:
- Does this interpretation encourage me to pursue God more and love Him with all my heart soul strength and mind? Or does it make me comfortable with how I am so I don’t have to change?
- Does this verse challenge me to trust God to do things that I would not be able to do in my own strength and ability?
- Does this interpretation present to me a view of God that upholds His holiness, majesty, mercy, and justice?
Unless your goal is to get an academic degree in understanding the Bible, it’s more important to let God’s Word search you heart and let Him bring light and truth to you.
The Living Flame of God’s Word
As you seek to understand the Bible better, ask God to teach you and have a teachable spirit. God wants to communicate with you. The Bible is meant to be studied and understood by normal, ordinary people.
God’s Word is an open door and an invitation to know the mind and heart of God. Keep bringing your heart and mind before the living flame of God’s Word!
They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”Luke 24:32 (ESV)
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|If you found this article to be helpful, here are others that I think you’ll enjoy:|
21 Valuable benefits of Studying the Bible. The Bible promises these blessings for those who read and study it. I hope you’ll find encouragement and motivation to dig deeper into God’s Word.
In the Bible Explained for Beginners, I share a simple diagram that gives a helpful overview of the Bible.
If you want to read more about how to read the Bible in its context, here’s an article I think will be helpful: How the Bible is Arranged: The Main Structure and Its Meaning.