Huge Mistake When Reading The Bible

Are You Performing This Huge Mistake When Reading The Bible?

I’m constantly amazed at the way’s many people read their Bible.

I’ve posted a few blogs on how to get the most out of reading your Bible.

However today I’m going to point out a huge mistake that many of us fall into when reading the Bible.

This mistake has a negative effect on what we get out of the Bible and ultimately our Christian walk. Be it the way we see ourselves, the way we see God, the way we see others or the way we see our circumstances.

Here it is… You might not have had this broken to you before so brace yourself…

The Bible is NOT God’s love letter to you.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase.

Aside from it being a bit on the silly side it’s also really damaging to the way we read the Bible.

The Bible quite simply was not written to you.

The Bible consists of many authors writing to many different groups of people.

And you are NEVER one of those groups of people.

Consider Paul writing a letter to his friend and disciple Timothy. He would never have thought people 2000 years later would be reading this letter. Not to mention them thinking “I must apply every word of this directly to my life.”

And in fact we kind of know this… I mean how many of you are trying to fulfil 2 Timothy 4:13?

“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.”

That’s quite the pilgrimage to try and fulfil!

So in some ways we know the Bible wasn’t written to us. We know that not everything would be applicable in exactly the same way to us as it was to the original audience.

But I’m not so sure we have that at the forefront of our minds as we turn to the Bible as we should.

Now hear me straight here.

I am NOT saying that we shouldn’t read the Bible. Nor am I saying it doesn’t have application in our life. God will speak through it and we can apply the truths of scripture to our lives.

But we must read it knowing that it was written to someone else and we must discover the context in which it was written first and foremost.

Know the historical context

When you turn to scripture if you don’t understand the context of what was going on, in both the author and the audience’s lives, you will always misinterpret the Bible to some degree.

These are the very basic steps one must take to properly interpret the Bible:

  1. Research who the author is and what was going on in his life.
  2. Research who the audience is and what was going on in their lives.
  3. Read the passage in light of 1 & 2 and try to figure out what the author was communicating from God to the people at that time.
  4. Ask God what you can learn from the message He was giving to these people. How does the message translate into today’s world.

There are many more steps I could add to this list but if you don’t do these 4 things I guarantee you will get yourself in trouble.

Reading the Bible outside of it’s historical context is one of the cornerstones of bad theology and cults.

Please, please, please don’t mishear me!

I’m not saying the Bible is irrelevant or that God will not speak through it. I believe the Bible to be extremely relevant and the penultimate way that God speaks to us today.

BUT I’m saying if you don’t understand this basic principle of interpretation you are going to find that you read the Bible incorrectly.

This leads to us staying the Bible says things it just doesn’t say, and on the flip side we dismiss often what the Bible truly is saying.

I don’t know about you but I want to read the Bible for all it’s worth!

So how do you start?

You might be thinking… “well that’s all well said and done but I’m no historian. How do I know what was going on in people’s lives thousands of years ago?”

Here are a few options:

  1. Just google it. There are loads of great resource out there to discuss the context of scripture.
  2. Grab a good Bible Commentary – I recommend these “Bible Background Commentaries” for the NEW and OLD testament.
  3. Study. Go deeper… there are some great free classes you can take online in Biblical History. Here is one a friend sent me yesterday that Yale make available for free! Introduction to New / Old Testament

There is no excuse to fall into this trap. In this day and age there are too many resources available at our fingertips for us to remain reading the Bible in ignorance.

So here is a question for you…

What historical fact have you heard about that gave you context to a scripture and changed your understanding of it?

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32 Comments

  1. Excellent Phil!!!

    I read that in a conversation someone said “Well the bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.” and the other guy replied “No, you read the bible which was written around 2000 years ago in culture completely different to yours and you applied a world view that is 2000 years removed and got something else out of it completely!”

    So…. great point about historical context!

    “What historical fact have you heard about that gave you context to a scripture and changed your understanding of it?”

    Learning about the Babylonian creation story “Enuma Elish” and its links with Genesis 1 and 2 which makes the creation account so much more rich and amazing!

    Gary

    • Thanks for sharing that interaction Gary – that’s a great way to sum it up!

      I’ve not done nearly enough research re. the connections between Enuma Elish and Genesis but will hopefully get time to do so in the coming months :)

    • Gary, you mentioned the Babylonian creation story “Enuma Elish” and its links with Genesis 1 and 2–I’d love to read that; is there a specific place I can find the one you did? Thanks.

      • Hi Cindy,

        The course that Phil mentioned at the end of the blog post at Yale (http://oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies) is excellent on this. The 1st 4 lectures (they are around 45 mins each) give you the literary and cultural context of the time the creation account was written.

        It gives a great foundation of the difference between polytheism and monotheism (Judaism was the 1st religion to be monotheistic) and how the Genesis account is deliberately different from the widely told creation story of Enuma Elish.

        If you are convinced that God is all together good and creates good things and chooses to do good you will not be disappointed!!!!

        Hope that helps.
        Gary

        • It’s a great series – very in depth, very complex at times and very challenging – but very worth while if you are willing to put in the time and effort! Thanks for sharing Gary!

        • A fantastic article! Thanks for sharing it with us Gary! Andre is one of my favourite people on the planet!

  2. Phil – interesting perspective and a lot of good points. There is one fundamental that you omitted, which must be added. The bible is essentially a story about Christ. Old testament is Christ concealed, while the new is Christ revealed. The most important point to bible interpretation is to be open to seeing God as he really is, which is the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit has come to teach us truth. Christ is the TRUTH, thus the holy spirit wants to reveal the LOGOS. If you read the bible looking for anything other than Christ, you are susceptible to the spirit of the anti Christ.

    In short, the purpose of the bible is to help us grow in Christ. It all starts and ends there, as he is the alpha and omega

    • Of course Karl – that’s a whole other kettle of fish though – far too big to get into in a simple blog about historical context.

      I will be doing another blog entirely on that topic – as you say it’s the absolute through which we look through scripture.

      • Phil – after following and enjoying your teachings for some time, it’s clear to me that you know the scriptures are all about Christ. I did still want to make the point though, because I believe it is the biggest impediment to understanding bible, much more so than context, Greek, Hebrew, culture and anything else. I say this because the onus is on God to teach all people truth. This means he has to deal with ask the things that you mentioned. Nobody has to study Greek to learn about him. The only requirement is that we seek after Christ! Seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened.

        As you and I both know though, anyone with a strong desire to know Christ will likely jump thru a few me hoops to understand scripture. I clearly see this is your method operation, as no one will see what you’re seeing without going deeper. But I don’t think this is the primary way we should teach people to grow their understanding. It all starts and stops with a desire to know him. Preach the true beauty of Christ and let him draw all men to himself. Yes, I believe the biggest impediment to growth is our own desire to grow.

      • Looking for Christ is the key to seeing Christ. The bible is a spiritual book, thus no intellectual technique will help one to see God without the help of the holy spirit. But if finding Christ is not the goal, all of one’s intellectual tools can only lead to the wisdom of men.

        Take the story of Jonah for example. It is all about Christ. If you do not find Christ in the story, you will likely see the disobedience and rebellion of man. But is that what the holy spirit came to reveal? Well he focus on imperfect men or did he come to reveal Christ? Every old testament story from Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Elijah, etc are all about the life of Christ! Who can interpret each story in this way? Only the holy spirit of truth.

        • Absolutely Karl – I appreciate your kind words and know you know where I’m coming from.

          I think as you do it’s paramount that we understand all scripture needs to point to Christ and reveal who He is and what He has done ultimately.

          My hope is that the basic hermeneutical process I outline in this blog of reading the scriptures in context will help people see Christ more clearly in the scripture and divide the Bible in the context of the old and new covenants to help them see through the lens of the cross.

          Appreciate your comments and examples! Great points!

  3. Hey Phil,

    Great post today. So true. I read the bible wrong for years and consequently got hurt by what I read, thinking it was directly for me. It wasn’t. God has since shown me that. Curses are not for me, promises are! How freeing.

    What historical fact have we heard? I heard that the mustard seed that Jesus talked about – that he was actually describing the local plants that grew large in very dry and rocky soil. That it was a parable about perseverance in hardships rather than mustering up more faith. No pun intended. ;) That one fact opened my eyes to how things may not be as I’ve originally heard them or how God intended.

    Thanks Phil,

    Lorilee

    • Great examples Lorilee! Glad you liked the post.

      I agree – knowing which covenant we live in and remembering what covenant the audience were in helps us navigate a lot of the OT in ways that are much more healthy than some of the ways we were taught in the past!

  4. Phil, what is wrong? You seem to have this obsession with trying to convince everyone the Bible is not for them! WOW! Maybe we should just all discard it and simply pretend that it never has any significance to anyone of us today! I don’t know why but I have always thought that all scripture was given by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and is PROFITABLE FOR REPROOF, CORRECTION, GUIDANCE, TRANSFORMATION. I just really don’t understand your mission to discredit scripture, it’s mind boggling! Why don’t I ever see you write something just POSITIVE about the Bible? All of your emphasis seems to be to take people away from the scripture rather than to guide them to it! Of course it was written to specific people during a specific time, for a specific culture! But to say it has no relevance for me directly is just so wrong! I found salvation because of the Gospel message of Christ being crucified FOR ME, IN THE SCRIPTURE! You mean that wasn’t FOR ME? Of course it happened over 200 years ago but its message is FOR ME and ALL PEOPLE TODAY! Why is it that we feel we cannot uphold scripture as being for people today? No literally, it wasn’t written to me, so that means I cant find HOPE, PEACE, JOY, LIFE for me from the writing of it?
    THE CROSS OF CALVARY WAS GOD’S LOVE EXTENDED FOR ALL MANKIND INCLUDING ALL MEN. WOMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS TODAY! If that is not a love letter I do not know what is!
    Sorry I just don’t understand the whole premise of what you are trying to do by taking people away from scripture when it is there that we find the GIFT OF GOD offered to us in the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ.
    Just a thought!

    • Don,

      Thanks for your feedback but honestly it feels like you are trying to find grounds to disagree with me here.

      To say that I’m saying the Bible has no relevance to you seems very unfair given that I twice state quite emphatically in this post that the Bible has EVERY relevance to us today. The key is understanding that it wasn’t written about you and I today that makes it relevant to us today.

      What I talk about in this post is taught in any Bible College or University in the world. It’s basic Biblical Hermeneutics. It’s far from controversial and is written to HELP people get the most out of their Bible not to put them off writing it.

      Additionally I have multiple posts throughout this website helping people get more out of the Bible I linked to one such post at the beginning of this article.

      Sorry me talking about this topic seems to upset you so much but I’m not going to stop equipping people in getting the most out of the Bible as I see it.

      Sorry if I seem argumentative but we seem to be having the same conversation over and over again where you consistently seem to be saying I’m saying things I’m not. I don’t really know how else to communicate to you that I’m not trying to diminish what the Bible is and instead I’m trying to help people get the most out of the Bible.

      Hope that helps.

      • Phil I am sorry I just have a hard time understanding what your trying to say about scripture. As far as Bible Hermeneutics, well I have actually taught it in a Bible college, I guess I have some kind of knowledge of it, I think! My concern is that we lead people further into the depths of scripture and not away from it. I get really concerned to think that some think we can know Christ without it. What would any of us know about the sacrifice of Christ, His being the Son of God and a revelation of God to mankind without the scripture. Without scripture we may believe in ” A GOD” but would it be the God of scripture? I don’t know maybe there would be some other way to know of Christ without scripture, I just don’t know how!
        I’m not trying to be antagonistic, just a concerned believer is all!

        • No problem Don – again, I’m not trying to lead people away from a solid foundation upon scripture and a high view of scripture.

          I’m trying to lead people away from a primitive “monkey see, monkey do” interpretation of the scripture that is extremely prevalent in much of Christianity.

          My goal is to help people understand what the Bible is and how to get the most out of it as God intends.

          As for how can people believe in God (as we Christians understand Him) without the Bible – I think I have to adamantly disagree with you… millions of believers around the world hold firm and fast to the Christian God without a single page of the Bible never mind the whole Bible.

          I have spoken to multiple believers in my travels around the world – especially in the Middle East – who have met Jesus in person or in dreams and been saved and have only managed to procure Bibles long after a conversion experience. Would you say their faith is not genuine or their relationship with God false because they do not possess a Bible?

          I agree the Bible is incredible important and a massive help to our relationship with God but I refuse to state that it is required. The Bible assists relationship with God but relationship with God is not dependant upon it… something I would say almost all of God’s people throughout history are very glad of (given that it is only in recent years that we have had such a thing at our disposal)

          Thanks for entering into discussion – as I’ve said countless times – I can’t overly see where we are disagreeing, bits and pieces sure but you seem to be taking what I’m saying far beyond what I’m saying.

  5. Great blog Phil. For over a year now I’ve been grappling with a revelation about the Bible. Only I came at from a little bit different direction. The Bible was 100% written by Jews. Even the New Testament is written to mostly Jewish audiences. Paul’s writings addressed Gentiles, but he often said things to indicate that he was speaking to a mixed audience. For example he said, I speak to those who know the law. The book of James – Martin Luther thought did not belong in the Bible, is addressed to the 12 tribes scattered abroad. Yet many grace believing Christians stumble over this book, and try to reconcile it to the things that Paul is teaching. I had not considered your point about the individual letters that were written, but it is a valid point. As you pointed out there’s a lot of good things that we can learn by reading the Bible. We just need to remember that it was written for our use, but we are not the target. A lot of controversy over end times theology would dissipate if we realized that Jesus was speaking to Jews in Matthew 24, and the apostles had a revelation when they were writing their letters that time was drawing short. The judgment of Judaism was about to take place in their lifetime.

    • That’s a great example Jim – 70AD is definitely a big one I would have mentioned as being one of the big ones in the church… most of the NT epistles were written before 70AD – indeed there is extremely strong evidence Revelation was as well! Definitely brings a lot of light to passages about the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish system of religion.

  6. When God moved the writers to write He knew we were going to read it, so it’s certainly for us. Written to them for us. It’s His letter to me, just indirect.
    Phils right about understanding the context of culture etc in which it was written.
    2 points i will like to make
    1. Be very careful of the web. you will find whatever you want to believe there. Get good broadly accepted commentaries used in theological schools
    2. I have a problem with your 1st point Phil. If I look at Pauls life how his knowledge of the law ended up with the Lords remark to the pharisees (he was one) “how can you escape the condemnation of hell” I would presume he now had a real hate for the law & thats why he wrote about the law the way he did. I will therefor give less credence to what he says about the law & that would be wrong.
    We need to accept that when God moved them to write, they were in a good frame of mind & led by the Holy Spirit.
    We certainly need to know why God wanted a particular message to a certain people but need to be careful not to give less credibility to ANY part of the bible & write it off as “for someone else”
    It’s all good for all of us now
    I don’t think Phil was trying to diminish it’s importance in any way

    • Thank Ian,

      As you said I had no intention to diminish the Bible – if anything I wanted to help people see the importance of what the Bible is really saying.

      I couldn’t agree more with point 1 – we can twist anything to mean what we want and when considering the internet (just as with commentaries) it’s a good idea to check multiple sources and fact check.

      Regarding your second point – I can see your point but that wasn’t overly what I meant by the importance of understanding the author. I wasn’t meaning we should cast doubt upon the author or the intention of God to use his words. Rather we should understand who he is, what his background is and what experiences he is going through so we can understand the way he communicates and what he communicates.

      The some of the prophets can become very confusing if we remove their personal experiences.

      Or the gospels of Mark and Luke take on new light when we understand that they spent a lot of time with Paul and would have written the gospels to support his teachings!

      That’s the sort of stuff I mean.

  7. A great resource to use with your bible to accomplish exactly what Phil is talking about in this post is Frank Viola’s “The Untold Story of the New Testament”. It supplies exactly what is necessary to really understand what you’re reading. The author, the recipient, the circumstance, the culture, the economy (sometimes) and even the political environment. Then with all of that information, keeping in mind that the epistles are “letters” written in total and not to be dissected sentence by sentence. It changes everything and you can gain true understanding.

    • That’s awesome David – I just bought that book last week – haven’t had time to start it yet!

      Thanks for the recommendation I’ll maybe post a review or something when I finish it for anyone who needs a bit more convincing! I love Frank’s stuff!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to share!

  8. Excellent points in the post and comments–always as good, thoughtful/thought provoking read!
    I could list hundreds of historical tidbits that have changed my understanding of the Word, but two that were most profound relate to Jesus’ statements “turn the other cheek” & “walk the second mile.”
    As I understand it, in the Jewish culture of the time, only slaves/servants were slapped with a back handed blow. It was a sign of contempt. Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” then was very deliberately yet quietly reminding His audience that no human being is “beneath contempt” since if someone slapped you (open handed)–this indicated a rebuke from a peer (or at least someone who considered you on a more equal basis than a slave). Turning the other cheek after someone slapped you is inviting them to use a backhand–and in the midst of their anger, reminding them that you too are created in the Image of God. Very humbling w/o letting words get in the way.
    Go the second mile–a Roman soldier had the legal right to require any non-citizen to carry his equipment for a mile. Volunteering to go farther could have gotten him in trouble since it was illegal for him to force a second mile.
    And don’t even get me going on the ancient practice of Covenant! Oh, I could go on and on!
    Really enjoy the work you do here, Phil!

    • Thanks so much Jeff!

      Those are great examples, which I have heard as well – although must confess I haven’t looked into either before.

      Thanks for sharing :)

  9. Phil,
    Great post my friend.
    I always had a statement that many people I speak with fail to understand and I don’t know how. It goes like this “The bible was not written to us but rather for us to believe in God”. And by this I mean that it’s not everything in the bible that we must do. An example is the scripture you used in the beginning of your post. There’s no Paul asking me to bring him a cloak anywhere. Another is this scripture
    2 Timothy 3:2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
    Should we follow these statements and become like that?
    I believe the bible and everything it represents but I also believe it was written to specific people that lived in a particular time frame. Israel in Moses’ day was different in Pauls day and definitely different from our day. What I’m saying is in applications, we can apply the good aspects of the bible and take caution from the negative aspects.
    Have a fruitful day Phil. My love to your help meet.

  10. I’m not sure this applies, but all my life I was taught that a woman should have long hair because ‘the bible says so’. What people leave out is that at the end of those verses in Corinthians is Paul’s statement that HE has no such CUSTOM and NEITHER does the CHURCH…!!! So, hairstyle is a cultural custom and my hairstyle is NOT indicative of my holiness or the status of my relationship with God.

    • Oh wow – that’s a good one Robin! I hope you ran out and got a fabulous haircut after you found out the context! :)

  11. Hello Phil,
    This is exactly what every believer needs.
    This will really save a lot of trouble in understanding God’s word.

    Thanks for the post!

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