|Series Theme: Difficult Questions|
Title: 4. Why is the Bible so hard to understand?
A series that helps consider difficult questions of the Christian faith
I've tried looking into the Bible but it doesn't seem to make sense and is so hard to understand. Why should this be?
The Bible, to the newcomer, isn't always easy to read for a variety of reasons. Let's look at them and see if we can help you.
1. Sixty Six Books
The first thing to note is that the Bible isn't just one book but a compilation of 66 different documents. Perhaps some of them should not be called 'books' because they are really only letters, some of them quite short letters.
Because there are 66 documents (some of them very long!), you may struggle with the variety of writers using a variety of styles.
To understand the passage, chapter or book that you are trying to read, it is important to recognise the nature of what you are reading.
It may be that it is historical narrative (i.e. story). If may be that it is poetry or prophecy that is written using allegories, or personification or other grammatical tools, and if it is that, it is not asking you to interpret it literally. It may also be straight forward teaching.
Different writers and different styles mean you need to be alert to what you are reading.
2. Different Languages, Different Cultures
The Bible books were written in either Ancient Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic, which means for us to be able to understand them, they have had to be translated into English. Sometimes the English does not very clearly convey the sense of the culture or the customs that were around at the time of writing.
The Bible is a book of what today we might call the Middle East, and therefore custom and thought patterns are Middle Eastern, which at times are very different from ours in the West.
Therefore, sometimes you will come across practices that are quite different from anything we might know today.
To make it even worse, the various documents were probably written between 2000 and 4000 years ago.
You might think that events of 4000 years ago have little relevance to events of today, but actually the opposite is true. Studying the Bible helps you realise that little changes in history. People are just the same today, in essence, as they were 2000 or 4000 years ago! And God is certainly the same.
3. Developing History, a Developing Book
A fact of the Bible's makeup is that the Old Testament largely developed over a probable fifteen hundred year period, built around the nation of Israel and God's relationship with them.
When God established them as a nation at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19) their understanding of Him was limited to the knowledge they had of Him as passed down from the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel).
At that point then, He gave them the Law, and that increased their understanding of Him a hundred fold. Later on through history and through the words that came from God through the prophets, the understanding of God increased even more.
When Jesus Christ came, revealing divinity in the flesh, our understanding of God increased a great deal more. There is no doubt, that with the development of the nation of Israel, and the development of their understanding, and the subsequent development of the Church, God changed His directives to His people.
An example of this would be the subject of animal sacrifices. (For a fuller explanation of such sacrifices, see the question in this series to do with animals being sacrificed.)
Animal sacrifices were instructed by the Law at Sinai but are no longer necessary because the New Testament teaches that such sacrifices simply pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ, (see Hebrews 9:26-28) who has now dealt with all sins, past, present and future, by his sacrificial death on the Cross.
Another example of this would be the two covenants that God initiated. The former covenant was an agreement with His people, Israel , at Sinai. Centuries later, through the prophets, we find God speaking of a new covenant that He is going to initiate in the years to come. (e.g. Jer 31:31-34, Isa 55:3, Isa 61:8,9) The latter covenant was all to do with Jesus.
Something else that we should note is that many of the Laws given at Sinai were given to Israel as a nation under God's direction, and today there are no other nations that can make that claim.
Although we may see the sense of those laws and the wisdom or reasoning behind them, we cannot expect a modern nation to enact them in the same way.
From just these few illustrations we can see the understanding that is necessary when reading and then subsequently seeking to apply the Bible to modern life.
In summary here, we need to realise that the formation of the Bible was progressive and so some things in the Old Testament have been superseded by the New Testament, and some things in the Old Testament were specific to the nation of Israel and cannot be applied generally today.
None of these things should stop you reading the Bible!
4. A Spiritual Book from a Spirit God to Spirit People
The reality is that the Bible is inspired by God and is all about spiritual realities.
To say this, we mean two things:
a) The book speaks about spiritual realities
e.g. heaven, hell, angels, demons, which do not equate with material reality.
b) The principles in the book may run counter to principles in the material world.
e.g. in the world, pride is often seen to be the driving force of successful people. In God's kingdom and in God's eyes, successful people are humble people.
To understand these realities we need to come with an open heart and we need to come looking for God's help in understanding what we are reading.
In other words, if you come full of pride and self-centred critical arrogance, you will find the Bible impossible to cope with. If you come with an open, seeking, submissive heart, seeking God, you will begin to see all the wonder of what is there between the covers.