Understanding the Bible: How to Read and Study For Yourself

Even if we’re trying our best every day, this imperfect world inevitably fails us. Who has time for more empty promises of success, wealth, or true happiness?

Enough is enough. We want lasting solutions for life’s challenges. We want to know the meaning underneath all this madness.

And what better place to look than within the #1 best-selling, most widely-distributed book of all time: the Holy Bible

But what kind of book is the Bible? Sometimes it can be hard to figure out how or where to start reading it.

The Bible is a rich, diverse, complex collection of 66 books written over thousands of years, and by all sorts of different authors. It’s an important book that has shaped major parts of history—and it can also help us find meaning, guidance, and insight as we get to know more about God, the Creator of the Universe, and His plan for each one of us.

If you’re wanting to study the Bible, you don’t have to go it alone. 

The Adventist Church grew out of a quest for answers in Scripture. This group of believers didn’t want to rely on tradition or hearsay, but on the Word of God. 

What they found shed new light on the struggles we all encounter every single day. They found answers providing hope that someday, everything really will be alright, and that each one of us was created with a unique purpose (Revelation 21:4). 

So when it comes to studying the Bible, all of its complexity doesn’t have to deter us from diving right in. It can actually be downright exciting!

The Bible was written by commoners and kings. It was written by prophets in the thick of the action, as well as curious bystanders, both rich and poor, all eager to document as many details as they possibly could. 
God’s Word is for anyone and everyone—not only for clergy or elite scholars! You can understand the Bible and benefit from the powerful principles within it.

To prepare for an informed, intentional reading of the Bible, here are 7 things to keep in mind as you begin:

Bible open with pages blowing in the wind

1) The Bible Reads Differently Than Other Books

When we think of reading a book, we often think about taking it to our favorite chair, leisurely taking in the words, reading a chapter or two, and sticking a bookmark in it to resume when we have another free moment. 

The Bible, however, is different from your typical novel, biography, memoir, etc. The Holy Scriptures read more like an anthology. But even beyond that, each book of the Bible works together to tell one powerful, complete story.

It may not seem like a chronological work of literature if you read it straight through. One book doesn’t necessarily start where the previous one left off. In a big picture view, however, it is chronological in that it begins with the creation of humankind and the world, and ends with Earth’s re-creation into a perfect New Earth

To tell this story in the most complete, relatable way, the Bible includes poems, songs, letters, memoirs, eyewitness accounts, prophecies, parables, allegories, historical records and more. All these types of literature work together in harmony to reveal a bigger picture of who God is, how much He loves us, and His plan to ultimately conquer evil for good.

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Young man sitting against stone wall thinking about deep life questions

2)  The Bible is about Real People with Real Problems—Just Like Us

Throughout the Bible you’ll find all different types of people, and you’ll learn with them through their struggles with temptation, sin, repentance, and finally victory as they learn to let God lead. You’ll notice many of their stories still relate to the challenges we encounter today.

All in all, Scripture provides us a profound perspective on what it really means to be human. And it can get messy. 

Some of the things you’ll encounter in the Bible are sad, infuriating, or even disturbing. Yet we know that God is an ever-loving God who seeks to save the human race. So what’s going on here?

Remember, you’re reading the whole story: How people were created with free choice, how they chose to find out what both good and evil were like, and how this turbulent process of learning, growing, and redemption is playing itself out on Earth—and beyond. 

You’ll learn about how and why free will is the distinguishing trait of humanity that demonstrates God’s unconditional love for us. You’ll read about the origin of evil through a once-angelic being, and how his influence became part of our history through Adam and Eve, the first humans. 

It’s not only Genesis, the first book of the Bible, that tells about God’s creation of the human race and how sin entered the world. The history of humanity involves the whole universe, and different parts of the Bible expound upon different pieces of the puzzle. 

Most importantly, you’ll read about prophecies yet to be fulfilled—ones that involve Jesus Christ coming back to earth to ultimately save us from this corrupted world and restore humanity and the earth to the perfection originally intended (see Acts .1:4-11). Now that’s something to look forward to!

Have you always wondered what all these Bible prophecies really mean?

Now’s your chance to dig into Scripture, history, and theology armed with helpful tools for study!  Sign up for Bible study lessons now!

woman sitting with open bible at wooden table

3) You may encounter passages that seem confusing, contradictory, culture-specific, or outright weird. There are study tools to help.

What happens when you come across a Bible verse you don’t know what to do with?

(I mean, “If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse” ?? {Proverbs 27:14, NIV} What?)

You’re not the only one. And it only makes things muddier when people quote single Bible verses as commands or stand-alone thoughts…or when they print a single verse onto signs or bumper stickers. Sometimes the underlying meanings can get twisted around or even misused when words from Scripture are removed from their context. 

This is why we study the Bible as a whole book. It was not written to be chopped into chunks and used to suit people’s own agendas. 

But even as you read, you’ll probably encounter a verse or ten that sounds bizarre or radical. That’s why it’s crucial to consider: 

  • Context—What is happening at the time of the writing, who is writing it, what is the purpose of it, what was the culture like at that time, what style of writing it is, etc.
  • Translation—Different versions of the Bible may use different words or descriptions, or varying sentence structures.
  • Underlying principles—Many passages of Scripture contain metaphors, stories, symbolism, or heavy reference to the culture of the time—though the overall principle can be made clear through study.

During your study it can also be helpful to consult biblical commentaries, history books, or other materials to help describe what the setting was like when that part of the Bible was written. 

We can save you time and help you find useful supplementary material for your personal Bible study. It can be exciting to discover just how profoundly the Bible influenced history…which we’ll look at more in the next section.  

Want to enrich your journey through the Bible by learning about the culture and context of the times?

woman standing in field wearing a white dress holding a black bible

4) Prophecy is an Essential Part of the Bible

Some of the seemingly bizarre verses we just talked about have to do with prophecy. Which is why they can seem perplexing. But God has many reasons for communicating with humanity through prophecy. 

God has historically selected certain individuals to reveal divine details to their people group. Sometimes it’s to warn them about potential enemies or about behavior that will ultimately lead to destruction. Sometimes God’s prophets would provide healing, or acknowledge a radical act of faith. 

And in many places you’ll find extensive prophecies about the future.

Some prophecies are fulfilled later in the Bible, such as the prophecy that Jesus Christ would come to Earth as a baby, born in a stable. Some prophecies were fulfilled after the Bible was written…and some are yet to be completed. 

The symbolism used by the authors to describe these prophecies is vibrant, dramatic, and can often be unsettling. Keep in mind that there was—and is—a purpose to each prophecy. Diving into their meanings can be absolutely fascinating. 

Would you like additional guidance as you study prophecy in the Bible?

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man with open arms happy to discover bible answers

5) Scripture often relies on symbolism to get the point across.

In the same way symbolism is used in countless other works of literature, in the Bible it’s used to describe something to the reader they have never seen before. Readers have no existing frame of reference on the topic yet, so it makes sense to compare this new concept to something readers are already familiar with.

As for the Holy Scriptures, they exist to describe an infinite God to finite minds. Often the only way to do that is through various forms of symbolism, such as metaphors, similes, parables, allegory, and more.

You’ll notice this colorful symbolism throughout the whole Bible, regardless of the author or type of writing—though you’ll see a lot of it in those prophecies of the distant future. 

While it can feel overwhelming at first, take it slow. Some of the imagery might make you feel like you’re reading a fantasy novel, but it’s meant to ultimately make things clearer. Even the most complicated symbolism can be broken down into its fundamentals to be studied in-depth.

What’s more, you’ll soon find that even the wildest and weirdest of the Bible’s symbolism ultimately illustrates that no matter how mixed up and evil things can get, God will always prevail. You can always have hope in Him.

When encountering parts of the Bible heavy with symbolism, this is where taking notes, sketching a picture of what is being described, or referencing history books or Bible commentaries can also be helpful.

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woman sitting at table with closed brown leather bible

6) It’s OK to Say “I Don’t Know”

Throughout your study, you will come across things that don’t yet make sense. That’s OK. 

The Bible is a huge book about…everything. Reading something like this will naturally be a lot to take in.

If you come across a passage you’re not sure how to process, or even a whole book you don’t know what to do with, don’t let it stop you. Take notes. Write down what you found confusing and why. 

Remember, the Bible isn’t compiled chronologically. To keep your study moving forward, it’s alright to save things for later. 

You may find clarification later on, as you continue reading. 

You may also want to share your notes with someone you study with

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young girl with bible on lap sitting on steps praying

7) Prayer goes hand in hand with Bible study.

Before you begin your study each day, a quiet moment in prayer helps get your head in the game. We recommend finding a quiet, solitary place where you’re least likely to encounter distractions. By intentionally turning your mind toward God, you’re inviting His Holy Spirit to guide your study of the Scriptures. 

While it’s absolutely true that the Bible’s words were written for everyone, studying them still requires care, respect, and guidance. And the best guide you could ever hope for is God Himself, who sends us his Holy Spirit to help us understand His profound, infinite truths (see John 14:26, Acts 2:39, 2 Timothy 1:14).

Rest assured that even if you’ve never prayed before, God hears you. He wants you to get to know Him, and the best way to begin that relationship is through His Word—the Holy Bible. Simply acknowledging that you want to get to know Him can begin this process.

Your prayer can be as simple and straightforward as this:

Dear God, I want to believe in You. I want to get to know Who You are. I pray for Your guidance as I start studying the Bible. Amen.

Yes, that’s all it takes to begin a relationship with God. He recognizes your decision to get into the nitty gritty of the Bible and learn more about Him. Even if it feels awkward or unfamiliar at first, remember that trying anything new can feel strange until it becomes a habit.

As far as habits go, putting these two things together is indeed the healthiest habit you can ever develop.

And as you move forward in faith, remember we are here to help you along the way. As you encounter puzzling verses, strange symbolism, questions about ancient cultures described in the Bible, or how to interpret the underlying meaning of a passage, you can be confident you have the right tools and support to help you get the most out of your study. 

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