How Do You Decrypt Confusing Bible Verses?

1 Peter 3:19–20


Treasure hunters must be willing to dig to find gold. The same is true for Christians searching for spiritual gems in the Bible. In this lab, Pastor John models what to do when we don’t know what a verse means.

Principle for Bible Reading

Wrestling with a Difficult Text

What happens when you come across a passage that’s hard to understand? It’s easy to skip it and move on, right? But instead of running from hard texts, if we dig deep and wrestle with difficult texts, we can find gold in God’s word.

So, when difficult texts have you in a headlock, what can you do? Here are a few options:

  • Identify what is clear from the passage. Start with what you can figure out from the passage as a whole and then return to the unclear parts.
  • Find the main point. Often the confusing parts do not contain the main point of the passage. Identifying the main point can give us clues as to the meaning of the confusing parts.
  • Look for clues within the book and surrounding context. Search the book for key words and phrases found in the tough passage.
  • Cross-reference. Utilizing cross-references, especially when a New Testament verse cites the Old, helps us to have a fuller understanding of what the authors were trying to communicate.
  • Ask specific questions of the text. Addressing a challenging text as a whole can seem insurmountable. But breaking a passage down by asking specific questions about it can help unravel the meaning, question by question and answer by answer.
  • Use a trusted commentary. Be careful with commentaries. This caution includes trusting bad commentaries and relying too much on good ones. But commentaries can be used well, and great biblical scholars give helpful insights.

Study Questions

  1. Read 1 Peter 3:18–20. What do you think it means that Jesus “proclaimed to the spirits in prison?”
  2. When confronted with a difficult text like 1 Peter 3:18–20, what do you do to get more clarity? Think of steps you can take next time a Bible passage confuses you.
  3. After watching the lab, what steps does John Piper take to decrypt difficult texts or passages?