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How to Understand the Bible: 7 Practical Tips to Help You Study the Bible

Why is the Bible hard to understand? God gave us his Word intending that we would understand it. If you can read, you can understand the Bible with these tips.

Do you ever find the Bible hard to understand? Maybe you skim genealogies, wondering why they’re relevant. Plodding through Leviticus, you ask, “Do we really need to read about entrails, discharge, and skin infections?” Sometimes a single verse confuses us, like Genesis 6:4 (Nephilim?), Luke 14:26 (hate our parents?), or 1 Peter 3:7 (weaker vessel?). Even the apostle Peter admitted that parts of the Bible are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16)! 

God gave us the Bible for a purpose. He wants you to understand the Bible so you can know the truth about who he is, who we are, and his plan for the world. The Bible is far more than an intriguing read, a mystery to solve, or a confusing historical record. God’s word is life (Matthew 4:4). It’s worth studying to understand it (2 Timothy 3:16–17). 

You can understand the Bible. God said so, and I’ll show you more about that later in this post. But first, let’s explore why the Bible is hard to understand. Then I’ll encourage you with some practical tips for understanding the Bible and five Scripture-based prayers you can pray when you want to understand the Bible. 

Why is the Bible hard to understand? Here are 3 reasons.

If you find the Bible hard to understand, you’re not alone. According to LifeWay Research, many Americans don’t read the Bible because they don’t understand how it relates to them or they’re intimidated by it. Why is this the case? 

1. Understanding the Bible requires effort

God intended the Bible to be a book we study (2 Timothy 2:15), but studying is work, and our sinful flesh resists work. Studying requires focus—an increasingly challenging achievement in this age of distraction. Our minds are full of other things (Matthew 13:22). To study effectively, we need to take time to meditate on God’s Word (Psalm 1:2) instead of racing through it just to check the box on our to-do lists. To understand the Bible, we must prioritize it. 

2. We’re sinners

God’s Word is the light that exposes darkness (John 3:20), and our sinful nature resists the discomfort of exposure. Some people are willfully ignorant of the truth in the Bible and have hardened their hearts to God (2 Peter 3:5; Ephesians 4:18). In our sinfulness, we make mistakes, and sometimes we misinterpret Scripture because of preconceived false beliefs.   

3. Spiritual truth is spiritually discerned 

Understanding the Bible is more than an intellectual endeavor. The psalmist tells us that God’s Word “imparts understanding to the simple” (Psalm 19:7). The “simple” are those who lack intellectual ability. So, the Bible is understandable to those the world might consider foolish or unintelligent (1 Corinthians 1:26–27). 

The message of God’s Word is clear. He’s not silent, but he ordained that we cannot fully understand his Word without him. We must not rely on our own intellect (Proverbs 3:5). By his Spirit, God reveals to us what we need to know (1 Corinthians 2:10–14). If you are in Christ, his Spirit is in you, and your heart and mind can receive and understand God’s Word (Romans 8:9; Ephesians 4:18; 2 Corinthians 4:6).  

How to Understand the Bible

Even after thousands of years of collective study, the minds of the world’s most brilliant scholars still have questions about some Bible verses and passages. But God’s Word is for us—even for children. He commands his people to teach his Word to our children, so he intends for us to study it and understand it (Deuteronomy 6:6–7; Ephesians 6:4; Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 2:15). 

See the big picture

Each book of the Bible was written for an audience that would hear the words read aloud in their entirety in a single sitting (in most cases). In contrast, we break the books into chapters, often read only a single sentence, and wonder why the meaning seems obscure. We’re missing the point if we open the Bible to a random page, hoping it will tell us how to live or provide a stand-alone, life-changing verse.

The Bible is God’s Word to us. It’s his message and it’s all about him—yes, even the Old Testament (John 5:39). From Genesis to Revelation, God wove a continuous thread that tells his story of redemption. The entire Bible reveals who God is and testifies about Jesus Christ. We read and study it to know him—that’s why it exists. God gave us his message as a book; like other books, it’s meant to be read as a whole. 

Consider the context

The context of each Bible verse, passage, chapter, and book matters. Each word is included in God’s holy Word for a purpose, perfectly fitting into the overarching message of the whole Bible. As you read the Bible, instead of asking, “What does this mean to me?” ask, “Why is this verse/passage/chapter included in God’s story?”

Knowing the history, culture, and geography of the Bible passage we’re reading will significantly increase our understanding of it. The genre of the book affects its interpretation, and literary context can drastically impact our understanding. Learn more about context in these articles:

Be patient

Have you ever encountered a verse you’ve read countless times before and suddenly understood it in a way you never did before? The meaning seems obvious, and you wonder, “How did I miss this before? Why has it taken me so long to understand it?” This is not an indication of failure on your part but the reality of spiritual maturity and biblical comprehension—it happens over time with increased knowledge and experience. 

Throughout the Bible, meditation is encouraged to understand, obey, and delight in God’s Word (e.g. Joshua 1:8–9; Psalm 1:1–2). Meditation involves repetition, reviewing the words over and over again. This takes time. Like studying, it’s a slow process. Don’t rush it. Biblical understanding is not a race or a destination you’ll finally complete. As long as you seek to understand it, your understanding will increase.  

Use Bible study tools

After praying and wrestling through a passage on our own, Bible study tools can help us understand the Bible. However, we must remember that these tools are not a replacement for God’s Word; they’re written and created by fallible human beings, so we must still rely on the Holy Spirit and practice discernment as we study. 

Useful Bible study tools include:

  • Study Bible—contains cross-references, notes, and commentary on each book and passage
  • Bible dictionary—word definitions based on the original language of the Scripture
  • Concordance—lists all Scripture references related to a particular word
  • Commentary—verse-by-verse explanations written by Bible scholars 

Many of these resources are available for free online at BlueLetterBible and BibleHub, such as Matthew Henry’s classic commentary. For help in choosing a good commentary, read Lara d’Entremont’s excellent article for the Well-Watered Women Co., Should I Use a Commentary for Bible Study?

Reach out to a friend

The Bible is for us—not just as individuals, but as a community of believers. Remember that the original Scriptures were intended for groups of people and read corporately. Personal Bible study is valuable, but we must guard against isolating ourselves in our study. We must be teachable, not “wise in our own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7). 

Are you actively involved in a local Bible-teaching church community? We are the body of Christ, designed to help each other. Reach out to your pastor, another church leader, or a friend to help you work through a difficult passage. It’ll benefit you both!

Take notes

Notetaking significantly improves our memory retention and understanding of the subject matter. (See results from various studies here, here, here, and here.) Take notes when you listen to sermons or other Bible teaching and when you study the Bible on your own. Consider a dedicated notebook for this purpose or add sticky notes to the pages in your Bible. I like to take sermon notes directly in my Bible so I review them every time I read the passage.

Ask God for help

James 1:5 tells us God generously gives wisdom to those who ask for it, so let’s ask! We know we can’t understand the Bible on our own and that the Spirit reveals it to us, so it makes sense to humble ourselves and ask him for help. After all, the Bible is God’s Word—only he fully understands every word, so only he can give us perfect understanding. 

5 Things To Pray Before You Open Your Bible

Jesus said that when we ask for anything according to his will, he will grant it (John 14:12–14). We know God desires us to understand his Word. As believers in Jesus Christ, we can boldly ask God to help us and confidently anticipate his answer (Hebrews 4:16). 

Here are five Scripture-based prayers to pray before we read our Bibles so we can understand God’s Word. 

1. Pray for understanding and discernment of God’s Word

God, I don’t want to lean on my own understanding or intellect. I need your help to understand and discern your word. Fill me with the knowledge of our will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, and open my eyes to see wonderful things in this Book (Proverbs 3:5–6; Colossians 1:9; Psalm 119:18).

2. Pray for spiritual nourishment from God’s Word

Lord, your Word is life to me (Matthew 4:4). As I feast on it today, may it be the rich spiritual nutrition I need to be faithful and glorify you (Matthew 6:11; 2 Peter 1:3).  

3. Pray for a renewed mind according to God’s Word

God, my Bible study is an act of worship. Search my heart and mind and show me where I need to change. Use my time in your Word to renew my mind, give me discernment, strengthen me to stand firm and not conform to this world, and transform me according to your will (Psalm 139:23–24; Romans 12:1–2). 

4. Pray for wisdom to apply God’s Word

Lord, I need wisdom to understand your Word. James says you give it generously without reproach, so I thank you for your faithfulness and look forward to the life-giving truth you’ll reveal to me as I study the Bible today (James 1:5). 

5. Pray that you would delight in God’s Word

God, teach me to delight in your word. Help me to slow down and focus so I can meditate on it, and help me to think of it throughout the day so it works its way deep into my heart (Psalm 1:1–2). 

You Can Understand the Bible!

The God of the Bible wants you to know him. By his Spirit, you can understand the Bible! It may not be easy and certainly doesn’t happen quickly, but the effort is infinitely worthwhile. 

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7).

I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” (Proverbs 8:17).

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