Very few of us have the inclination or interest in diving into three years of seminary education in order to get a better handle on the Scriptures. However, every believer should long to get a better grip on the Bible. The good news is that it does not require a graduate education to do so.
At seminary, I learned Greek, Hebrew and all manner of intimidating subjects ending in –etics, but some of the things that have stayed with me most clearly were not things from textbooks, but off-the-cuff comments from teachers who had walked with God far longer than I had. They were post-it sized truths, easily understandable and readily applicable. Years after graduating, these are the things I still remember.
1. Read ‘King’ When You See ‘Christ.’
Christ, or Messiah, means “anointed one,” and priests and kings were anointed. Substituting "King Jesus" for "Christ Jesus" when reading draws attention to the fact that Christ was not Jesus' last name, but in fact His title: one of great honor and esteem. Making that one switch alone breathes new life into reading the New Testament.
2. Read ‘You’ Differently.
Almost all the "you" words in the New Testament are plural you's rather than singular you's. The Southern "y'all" expresses it beautifully: the epistles are written to believers corporately, not believers alone. This does not diminish personal responsibility at all, though. If anything, it heightens it: we pray together, believe together, suffer together, raise the armor of God together. All y'all.
3. If You See a ‘Therefore,’ Find Out What It’s There For.
Therefore, take note in bibles where paragraphs are divided up with headings inserted by editors. If the paragraph begins with "therefore,” you might have to pick up a bit earlier to understand the context.
4. Realize That Not All ‘If’ Statements Are The Same.
This was a watershed one for me: not all "ifs" are the same. Conditional “ifs” are not the same as causal “ifs.” Some IF statements are always tied to the THEN one (if you stand in the rain, then you will get wet). Others have more risk involved: the IF statement is necessary, but not sufficient, to bring about the THEN one (if you study for an exam, then you will pass).
This makes the world of difference in studying Romans 8: "If you are led by the spirit of God, you are children of God." I had always read that and been afraid I wasn't spirit-led enough to be considered God's child. It was a glory-hallelujah moment to realize this was the first type of if: "If you are led by the Spirit of God (and you ARE!), then you are also always and forever His child.” What a difference!
5. Recognize That Lamenting is OK.
Yes, there is joy and peace and hope in Christ. But true believers still mourn and lament. There is space in the life of faith for complaining, tears, grit and depression. Just look at the Psalms.
6. Realize That Prophecy is More Often FORTH-Telling Than FORE-Telling.
So often, our focus in approaching prophecy is to ask “what did they say about the future?” However, often the prophets weren’t talking about the future (foretelling), they were explaining and interpreting Israel’s history and current predicaments in light of their covenantal behavior (forth-telling), and had little to do with the future. Israel may have painfully aware that they had just suffered military defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, but it took the prophet’s words to explain from God’s perspective why this had happened and what lessons they were to learn from their experience. Poor old Jeremiah.
7. Become Familiar with the Idioms of Your King.
Jesus' words were so often hard to understand: cryptic, in parables, couched in Hebrew idiom. He spoke of eyes being lamps and people being salt: language often so far removed from my understanding it was temping to skip over the gospels to the much more familiar epistles.
However, if we have called Jesus "King" and “Lord,” we dare not skip over His words just because they are hard. Commentaries and a little Internet research on the gospels go a long way towards filling in some of the cultural and linguistic blanks. As his followers and servants, it is our responsibility to keep on seeking understanding.
8. Remember What You Learned in English Class.
The Bible is not an instruction manual. It's not a "how-to" book for life. It is a collection of 66 books of literature, and to interpret it correctly, you need to remember what you learned in English class about interpreting different genres of literature.
Biblical truth is found in poetry, but we must read it as poetry. It is found in narrative, but we must read those as stories. It is found in proverbs, and we must treat those as such. Just a quick moment to think “what book am I reading from? And what type of literature is this?” can make a world of difference. Truth be told, the Bible is not an easy read, but it is absolutely worth the effort.
9. Read to Study. But Also, Read to Refresh Your Heart.
Amid the hours of serious Bible study, I treasured this advice. Sometimes, we read to study and understand and wrestle with the truth. But sometimes, we read to make our hearts happy. “Delight yourself in the Lord,” for “your words are sweeter to me than honey.”