Five study tips to help navigate through tricky texts and perplexing Bible concepts
For example, you may remember reading Matthew 7:21, which says,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (ESV).
But then you get to Acts 2:21:
“Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (CSB)
Wait a minute…
The Bible is supposed to be the Word of God, right? Isn’t it an inspired work of literature meant to guide people into a relationship with Him? So why would it sometimes say one thing in one place, and then contradict itself in another?
There must be more to the story.
Let’s begin by unpacking the verse in Matthew. What’s the situation?
Starting a couple chapters back in Matthew 5, this is where Jesus began the “Sermon on the Mount,” teaching a multitude of people about what it really means to live a godly life. He addresses hate, selfishness, honesty, marriage, justice, charity, fear… just about every aspect of life.
By the time you reach chapter 7, Jesus is cautioning people about how to be a sincere follower of God, rather than just putting on an outward appearance. He discusses how to tell if a prophet is really a prophet, and then reveals how to tell if someone is really His disciple.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, do many might works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, ESV, emphasis added).
Think about a “friend” who’s nice to your face but is never there for you when you need them. Jesus was speaking out against those who offer only lip service, but lack commitment or sincerity. He was warning His followers that there are people who claim to be doing God’s will, but in their hearts it’s all about elevating their own status.
Yes, Jesus wants us to call upon His name! But He also knows our hearts. Looking at the context of the verse in Acts, Peter—Jesus’ disciple—is quoting the Old Testament book of Joel. He noted that those who sincerely call upon God’s name above all other names will be saved.
This is just one example of an apparent contradiction in the Bible. When these Bible verses are pulled out on their own and put next to each other, they merely seem to disagree.
You will find more of these as you study.
While hearing this might make you feel hesitant, be encouraged—you can do this!
“For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4, NASB).
The Bible is meant to be studied, tested, and discussed with others. After all, its purpose is to describe what is infinite and to a finite audience. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar, but complex and weighty subject matter will certainly require effort to discover all the why’s and how’s.
So, when you encounter passages of Scripture that makes you pause, it’s worth it to prayerfully dig deeper and find out the context. And there are plenty of resources, guidance, and assistance available to help you do just that.
It can even be fun!
Often the result of your in-depth study can reveal a profound truth that can greatly add to your spiritual perspective and to your relationship with Jesus. There is always something new to learn.
Helpful tools for interpreting Scripture:
Bible DictionaryA book or online source that defines Bible-specific words
Bible EncyclopediaA book or online source that gives more information into Bible subjects
ConcordanceAn alphabetical list of terms in the Bible with scriptural references
Bible CommentariesA book or online source that provides additional insight and explains Bible verses more in depth
Ready to start your Bible study?
We can help you navigate confusing passages and direct you to the most effective resources to support you along the way.
To help you start digging deeper, consider these elements of context when looking at confusing or contradictory passages of Scripture:
Author (Who wrote it?)
The books in the Bible were written by at least 40 different authors, all with unique points of view, writing style, and reasons for writing. Naturally, you’ll find distinctions between the writings of each author. It may be helpful to write down what you notice.
Why is this important? Varying opinions, perspectives, values, life experiences, etc., can speak to different audiences. And when we learn to see things through the eyes of others, it can help us grow individually.
A good example of these differences between authors is the four books of the Gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They lead the New Testament by describing the most pivotal series of events within the Plan of Salvation: the life of Jesus Christ on Earth.
While each of them cover the same overall story, they give us four very different perspectives. Each focused on different aspects of Jesus’ ministry and influence during His life, death, and resurrection while on Earth.
Just comparing gospel writers Matthew and Mark can tell us a lot.
Matthew was one of Jesus’ disciples. He was also a Jew and a tax collector—a profession that made him hated by his own people. (Tax collectors were known to take extra cuts of money for themselves, plus they worked for the Romans, a ruling power the Jews resented.)
This explains why Matthew’s writing often included Jewish terminology and several references to the Old Testament. He seemed to focus on getting the right message across to other Jews, or those already familiar with Jewish history.
Mark, however, seemed to write for an audience that included the Romans (or “Gentiles”). His wording was more concise, getting straight to the point instead of including every little detail. He focused on what was happening right then and highlighted the immediacy of God’s work on Earth through Jesus.
Then we look at Luke and John.
Luke is the third synoptic gospel—synoptic meaning, Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written and structured similarly. In Luke’s gospel, his audience is broader: he’s speaking to Christians in general. And since he was a physician, he wrote to a more educated audience.
Each of these synoptic gospels serve different purposes: Matthew using his Jewish heritage to speak to the Jews; Mark focusing his writing for the rushed Roman; and Luke for the well-educated, Greek-speaking Christian. They present the same stories differently because different audiences need to hear them in specific ways.
For John, there are even more differences.
The gospel of John is not considered synoptic. It didn’t focus on different sides of the same story. Instead, he pointed out aspects of Jesus the other gospels didn’t touch on—like Jesus’ saving power rather than the kingdom of heaven. He didn’t use parables, but rather, analogies or metaphors. John’s gospel gives us an entirely new view of Jesus.
Differing perspectives can be helpful for us in constructing the big picture. The time period when Jesus was on Earth was a big deal, as you can imagine. It took four different authors to cover the necessary details.
Throughout the rest of the Bible, other authors portray different periods of history and demonstrate different types of relationships with God and the world. This creates a rich, colorful experience in studying the Bible. This also shows us why the author of the book is an important element of context when reviewing the meaning of God’s word.
Intended audience (Who were they writing to?)
In addition to the book’s author, you’ll want to consider who they were trying to reach with their writing.
While the Bible is indeed written for all God’s created people, there are books, chapters or specific verses that were intended to address a specific ethnic group, belief group, stage of life, stage of spiritual development, or even a type of personality or group behavior.
For example, the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written by Moses for the Israelites (later to become the Jews). This large group was considered God’s chosen people at the time—but after years of slavery in Egypt, many had forgotten their heritage, their responsibilities, their standard of living, or even how to properly relate with others.
But for these stubborn people during that time, the seemingly extreme or primitive-sounding topics in Leviticus were exactly what the Israelites needed to remind them that they’re children of God, not slaves of the world.
And put together as a whole, these words and stories give us a glimpse of how God cares for humanity when they’re going through a stage of much-needed growth and discipline.
There are also several books in the Old Testament that contain wild and crazy descriptions of prophecies about Israel’s future, or to illustrate how their past behavior affected their present time (Ezekiel, Isaiah, etc).
Other examples are the “Epistles,” or letters, in the New Testament. Most are named either by the author (1 & 2 Peter, etc.) or the intended recipient (Colossians, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, etc.)
With these very specific audiences in mind, it may be that some verses within these books will stand out as extreme or even contradictory to other Bible verses. But given the needs of the intended audience, those words were just what they needed. And despite the specific circumstances, there is always something to learn.
For example, Paul wrote the book of Romans for people living in Rome, who were very focused on outward appearances. His writings urged them to look at their spiritual life from a more personal, sincere perspective. He also pointed out how exclusivity and pride were in contrast to God’s love when he wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16, NKJV).
Even if these books are intended for such a specific audience, they can also provide insight and guidance for us today.
That’s part of the beauty of the Bible—no matter who you are or where you’re at in life, when you pick up this Book, there are principles laid out in detail that can relate to your questions, your challenges, your needs. And the more you know about context, the better you can understand these underlying principles and apply them to your own life.
Historical/Cultural (When—and where—was it written?)
The Bible was written over a period of roughly 1600 years. The world went through many drastic changes during the process of documenting what we know today as Scripture. Because of that, Bible verses can carry even more meaning for us when we realize the impact those words would have on an ancient society.
We can look at what Jesus had to say to the ultra-religious Pharisees, who were highly respected among the Jews during the time He ministered on Earth.
In His famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said,
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother without cause will be subject to judgment…’” (NKJV).
Well sure, that makes sense. Don’t hate people or hold grudges, etc. But statements like these were especially weighty back then because society had become fixated on outward appearances. It wasn’t about being good, it was about acting good. And then feeling good about how good you acted…
Jesus is quoting Scripture from the Old Testament (Exodus 20—the Ten Commandments). While the original commandment of “do not murder” was to teach an unruly people that killing out of hate is wrong, the true meaning became twisted in the Pharisaical culture. The way they lived, you could hate someone all you wanted, as long as you didn’t kill them.
Jesus knew they were manipulating the original intent of the Ten Commandments, so he chose to break them down to their fundamentals during this Sermon. While that might seem straightforward to us today, back then, it was a direct assault on how the Jewish leadership was letting sin masquerade as righteousness through their manipulation of biblical guidelines.
You’ll certainly come across verses stranger than this. And when you do, ask the Holy Spirit for guidance and feel free to open up a Bible encyclopedia or other recommended resources. Then ask yourself what that statement, story, symbol, etc. might have meant to you if you lived during that time.
Writing style (How did they write it?)
In addition to considering the author and the culture of the time, many verses throughout the Bible may not make much sense until you consider the author’s writing style.
Many books of the Bible are detailed historical narratives meant to benefit future generations. Think of books like Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Esther, and even John and the synoptic gospels. They are written as prose, describing events as observed.
One thing to note in these historical accounts is that the author usually didn’t interpret what these events meant, or even judge their overall significance. Reading it today calls for prayer and study by the reader. Remember—you may know a lot more about the story you’re reading than the author actually did at the time.
Some books of the Bible are written like poetry. The book of Psalms is known for this. But there’s also Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, parts of Isaiah, and even the story of Job is told in poetic form.
So, what do we do with all these poetic verses? Think of the same reasons poetry is respected today. Rather than providing a list of facts, it can reveal the full meaning or depth of a concept by focusing on the experience of the author. It’s often an attempt to describe the indescribable. That’s why metaphors are used frequently, since the human mind tends to compare exciting or unfamiliar things to those that are familiar to them.
Because of this, if a verse within a poem is pulled out on its own, it will not have the same meaning or impact. Comparing it at face value to another verse in the Bible written in a different style would be pointless.
Books of prophecy can be some of the weirdest—and utterly fascinating—parts of the Bible to read. The metaphors used in prophecy are beyond poetic. How would an author attempt to describe future events completely beyond their current comprehension? God often had to communicate His message in symbols, allowing the readers at the time to have familiar images to use in representation of these brand new ideas.
Books like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation are full of prophecies about the future, using symbols of animals or even mythical creatures to portray the events and the people involved.
“I looked up, and there was a ram standing beside the canal. He had two horns. The two horns were long, but one was longer than the other, and the longer one came up last. … As I was observing, a male goat appeared, coming from the west across the surface of the entire earth without touching the ground. … I saw him approach the ram, and infuriated with him, he struck the ram, breaking his two horns.” (Daniel 8:3-7, CSB).
Pretty crazy, huh?
If you just looked at one verse from this chapter on its own, you might think the Bible was describing a mutant goat battle. But looking at it in the context of prophecy, these rams and goats and even the horns are later interpreted as rival kingdoms. The rest of the book describes how the timelines and power struggles of these kingdoms set the stage for important future events.
Parables are stories that illustrate a specific concept. Jesus told these types of stories frequently throughout the Gospel, using relatable scenarios to teach higher-level principles. One famous parable is the “Good Samaritan,” where Jesus sought to break racial biases and show what it really means to “love your neighbor.” (Luke 10:25-37.)
Even though parables use conversational language and few include fantastical elements, taking a verse or two out of the context of its parable could be problematic, as they are not literal accounts of events or experiences.
Translations (How has it been translated?)
Let’s first be clear—this is not giving preference to one translation over the other. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, all translations preserve the core message.
However, when it comes to individual verses or short passages alone, some versions of the Bible may differ. If you get to a verse or paragraph that you want clarification on, try reading it from 2-3 other versions. Remember to also read the surrounding paragraphs, and preferably the entire chapter in these different versions, before determining the contextual meaning of the verse.
Try searching BibleStudyTools.com!
Type in your verse and select different versions to see how they compare.
These tips about how to put passages of Scripture in context can give you additional insight when you find verses you’re not sure about.
And it’s okay to write things down and come back to them later. Don’t let one or two perplexing texts keep you from moving forward with your study.
Later on, if you’re still stumped, ask a friend, teacher, or pastor. Many others are on the same journey you are—seeking the profound truths found in the Bible and building a relationship with Jesus Christ.
While the Bible is a unique piece of literature—written over thousands of years by different people, in different styles, under different circumstances—it was still all for one ultimate purpose: to lift up God as the loving ruler of the universe, and His Son Jesus Christ as the Savior and Redeemer of the Earth.
Even when we come upon a part of the Bible that seems to contradict a verse you read earlier, these study methods and resources, combined with prayer, can help you discern the purpose of those passages.
Remember, the Bible is meant to be studied.
You might find it exciting to regard difficult verses or statements as an opportunity, rather than a hindrance. It’s an open door to further study, which can have a profound effect on your spiritual growth.
With prayer, willingness to learn, and guidance from the Holy Spirit, you can confidently study the Bible with the assurance that ultimately, all of Scripture points to our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Ready to start your Bible study?
We can help you navigate confusing passages and direct you to the most effective resources to support you along the way.
“The sum of your word is truth; and every one of your righteous ordinances endures forever.” – Psalm 119:160 (NRSV, emphasis added)