You Can Understand the Bible
Some of us fall out of Bible reading because we fail to make time for it. Busyness crowds out the minutes we might otherwise give to sitting and hearing from God. There’s always something that didn’t get done yesterday or something relatively urgent that’s come up today. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it, just how many things in our little worlds seem to trump listening to the one who made them all?
For others, it’s not busyness that gets the best of us, but a subtle cynicism about reading the Bible. How am I ever going to understand this? It’s hard to keep getting up extra early and setting aside precious minutes when you’re not convinced you’ll be able to make sense of what you see, when you might finish and strangely feel further from God, when you’re chasing a full heart morning after morning and yet often walk away just scratching your head.
If you’ve felt that way before, you’re not alone. In fact, even the men who wrote the Bible know something of what you feel. The apostle Peter says of the letters Paul wrote, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Think about that: Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote books in the Bible, and yet even he struggled to read Romans or Thessalonians (or whatever particular letter he had in mind). If he could write on behalf of God and have a hard time understanding Scripture, we shouldn’t be surprised if we do too.
And I, for one, definitely do. I’ve battled to get through the census records in Numbers. I’ve labored through the kidneys, livers, and “entrails” of the Levitical laws. I’ve grown weary of the repetitive failures of Israel in 1–2 Kings. I’ve sometimes struggled to see what Hebrews sees in the Old Testament. Much of the imagery of Revelation is still a mystery to me. And so, I regularly find these clear and accessible words from Paul all the more meaningful and encouraging:
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (2 Timothy 2:7)
Understanding Is Possible
This is an amazing acknowledgment from Paul to Timothy. He says, in essence, “I know some of what I am writing won’t make sense to you immediately, and you’ll be tempted to think you cannot understand it — but you can. So, don’t give up too easily. Don’t assume this is above you. Assume that God can make his words clear to you.”
Those apart from Christ cannot understand the things of God. They flip through the Bible’s majesty and wisdom in vain. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). But not you. If you’re in Christ, you can see things that they can’t. You can understand things that they can’t. Where they see foolishness and irrelevance, you see unspeakable beauty, a radiant window into reality. Not because you’re smarter or more educated or merely a better reader, but because you’re not a natural person anymore; you’re a supernatural you, with a supernatural mind and heart and eyes.
“Because you’re someone new, you can understand more of the Bible than you might think.”
Or as Paul says elsewhere of natural people, “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). But not you. You’re not alienated from God anymore. Through the cross, he’s brought you near, and in bringing you near, he’s softened your heart and unlocked your mind. The God who flooded all creation with light “has shone in [your] heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). That’s who you are when you open the Bible.
And because you’re someone new, you can understand more of the Bible than you might think.
Not only can you understand more than you think, but the apostle goes even further: “ . . . the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” If God lives in you, nothing in the Bible is above you — not the genealogies of Numbers, or the sacrificial laws of Leviticus, or the prophetic visions of Ezekiel, or the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation. With God, all are within your reach.
Lest we think Paul’s talking only about the verses immediately before this one, he comes back to the same reality in the very next chapter: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). As much of the Bible that has been breathed out by God — all of it! — that much is now profitable for you. Even on the most obscure, most confusing pages, God means to teach you, to exhort you, to correct you, to train you, to equip you — he means to speak to you.
“Even on the most obscure, most confusing pages, God means to teach you.”
Before any of that can happen, however, we first have to understand what God is saying — which is exactly where God promises to help us: “The Lord will give you understanding in everything.”
Varied Means of Understanding
None of this means we just sit alone with our Bibles until we understand everything. No, God gives the gift of understanding in a hundred different ways. Remember, most Christians in the history of the world didn’t own a Bible (much less carry it with them everywhere in their pockets). They depended on the regular reading and reciting of Scripture in community. From the first church to today, believers have depended on faithful teachers to rehearse, explain, and model the words of God for them.
And God has multiplied pathways to understanding in our day — first and foremost through our local churches, but then through messages, articles, books, study Bibles, online courses, commentaries, podcasts, and more. So understanding may come in any number of ways. The point here, however, is that you really can understand what’s in this book — everything that’s in this book, Paul says.
Now, to say that we can understand everything in the Bible is not to suggest that we will understand everything immediately and fully. We won’t — and certainly not the first (or second or even tenth) time through. God can give us understanding in every passage without giving us understanding of every part of a passage. He also often chooses to give understanding, not immediately, but over years or even decades. As we keep reading (and living), familiar verses will emerge with new or deeper meaning and relevance. Some questions will be answered slowly. So don’t expect to understand everything now, but expect to understand something now — and then more tomorrow.
Up until now, we’ve seen only that we can understand more than we may assume. You should be asking how. What makes this kind of supernatural reading possible? How do the lights come on?
Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.
On our own, we can’t understand the Bible. If God leaves us alone with this book, it wouldn’t be worth getting up early, pouring more hours in, and pressing through difficult verses and chapters. We would search and ask and wrestle in vain. But if it’s God who makes things clear, then he can overcome our limitations and blind spots. You can understand the Bible because God will give you understanding. When you read, he’s not just over your shoulder; he’s inside of you — in your eyes, your mind, your heart — showing you what you’d never see on your own.
The one who reveals himself in the Bible wants to make himself clear. He’s not content to have divinely inspired words on the page; he wants them written on our hearts. He wants to see understanding, and satisfaction, and transformation — and so he won’t leave you alone with your Bible. This may be why Paul ends the letter the way he does: “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you” (2 Timothy 4:22). We need the present, spiritual help of God in all we do all the time, and especially in understanding his word.
This understanding, however, doesn’t float down from the clouds and land softly on our heads. No, God gives the gift of understanding through the hard work of reading well. This verse demands almost as much as it promises: “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” This won’t come easily, Timothy. Yes, God is the one who gives understanding, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have to work for it.
Isn’t it strange that some of us hear that God sovereignly gives understanding, and we assume that means we need to do less? Satan teaches this kind of calculus all year round (and not just in Bible reading).
No, 2 Timothy 2:7 is far more like God’s words to Joshua before Israel entered the promised land:
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. . . . Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:8–9)
“I will be with you” didn’t mean “You won’t have to fight.” Along with his promise of help and protection, God gave Joshua a charge: “Be strong and courageous.” Fight all the harder because you know I’ll fight with you and for you.
So, when you open your Bible, be strong and courageous. God will be with you wherever you read. Don’t be discouraged or intimidated. Think harder and longer because you know the Lord loves to give you understanding.