How to Read the Bible Correctly

Rightly dividing the word

We can all agree that we want to read the Bible more. And we could also probably agree that we want to understand it better, too. In my journey, there have been a couple principles that really helped me as I began reading and studying the Bible for myself. One of these foundations is laid out by Joseph Prince in his book, Unmerited Favor. Simply summarizing what he says, we read the Scripture viewing it as either Pre or Post Cross. It might seem simplistic, but it’s so powerful.



The Post Cross World

We live in a post-cross world. Jesus has already died on the Cross and paid for our sins, placing us in a right relationship with God that is not dependent on our deeds but rather on Christ’s finished work. So when we read Scripture, we need to keep in mind which side of the Cross we’re living on to better understand how the verses apply to our lives.

Take a look at Peter for example of what I am talking about. He heard Jesus say that He will deny those that deny Him before the Father. And we know that Peter denied Jesus three times just before the cross. Can you imagine what Peter was thinking? I denied Him, I spent the last three years of my life and now I have no chance because I denied I knew Jesus. Now he will deny me before the Father! Yet on the other side of the cross, Jesus is not denying Peter but instead builds His church on Peter’s life! We face the same things, we can look even at the words of Jesus and apply them wrongly because we forget the work of the cross and what it did.

The Old Testament is about a people who started out living in grace, but became subject under the law. And while today we might not abide by the letter of the law (let’s face it, blood sacrifices went out of style a long time ago), many of us still live under the spirit of the law. In theory, it’s easier – clear-cut do’s and don’t’s, black-and-white answers, a measuring rod to use on ourselves and others. But really, it’s a spirit that brings bondage because, as we established earlier, it is impossible for us to fulfill the law. And in fact, the law was never designed for us to be able to perfectly obey.

God’s purpose in establishing the law was to show us the unattainable standards of His righteousness and holiness. In fact, when Jesus walked the earth He went to raise the bar even higher by illustrating that the law applies not only to our outward actions, but to the inner world of our heart, attitudes, and thoughts. No way could any of us ever reach His standard!

The second principle that has helped me in rightly dividing the Word is summed up well in this quote from Miles Cloverdale (author of the Cloverdale Bible):

It shall greatly help thee to understand scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom, and unto whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstance, considering what goeth before, and what followeth after.”1

Now lets take these two pieces and put them together.

When we read the Bible, first look to see is the passage pre or post cross. Second, look at who the audience is, of special importance to us is whether it addressing believers or non-believers?

So many times, verses are taken out of context and applied to situations simply because it sounds good. The sad part is how very inaccurate these applications can be, and how very often they cause disillusionment in Christians.

Lets take a look at a couple of scriptures, one that I hear frequently that is used to justify coming to Christ but ignores the correct audience and one from Pastor Princes book that can have a huge impact on our understanding of confession in terms of grace.

In Revelations 3:20 we find a familiar passage that many pastors and evangelists use to invite a person to come to a place of repentance and find salvation, that is transitioning from a non-beliver to a believer. But this is wrong on two counts.

First, if we look at the whole chapter we can see that it is written to the church in Laodicean church who would be a group of believers, not non-believers. Secondly, the word translated “come to him” and subsequently “door” does not mean entrance to person, but rather a room or building toward a person. So in this case opening the door would mean opening the door to the Laodician church, a corporate or collective image rather than speaking to an individual.

While I am sure God will use the passage to touch hearts to come to Him, He is not talking to an individual to make a decision to Christ, instead he is talking to a church that has gone astray and He is inviting them to come back to Him and be with Him.

Lets look at I john below and see how another verse may have a much larger impact on 2our day to day walk.

When you are reading chapter 1 of 1 John, an important thing to clarify right off the bat is whom it was written to. Notice that in the first part of 1 John, there are no greetings to believers. Most of Paul’s letters follow the common pattern of the author greeting the church he was writing to. For instance, Paul wrote “To the saints who are in Ephesus” and “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”

When you compare 1 John’s opening verses with the greetings found in 2 John and 3 John, you will notice that John greets believers directly in the other two letters. In 2 John, he writes, “…To the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth…Grace, mercy, and peace will be with you from God …,”and in 3 John, he writes, “ …To the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth: Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.”In stark contrast, there are no greetings to believers in 1 John 1. Why would he leave something so important out? It is because John was not writing to believers in that chapter. He was addressing the Gnostics (a cult the Early Church had to battle) who had infiltrated the early church. Put simply, the Gnostics were heretics who refused to acknowledge existence of sin. That is why John wrote:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

1 John 1:8–10

When we read these verses, then what we should understand is that these versus to not apply to us any anybody that you hear using this verse to justify why we should confess our sins as believers is wrong. They may be well meaning but in the end, they are putting a burden on people that doesn’t belong there. This verse was written to non-belivers and I guess could be used to help bring a person to Christ, but more acurately, it was speaking to a very specific group of individuals, the Gnostics, that were missing the Gospel altogether.

So to recap, the first thing to do when reading a passage of Scripture is to determine whether it is pre-Cross or post-Cross. Then, establish the various contexts of the verses. Is it talking to believers or non-believers? Is it addressing an individual or a group? These are pretty simple tools to help study the Bible, but it sure makes a huge difference. And the best part is that there’s always more to learn. However hungry you are, you can still go deeper in the Scripture. There are classes to take, books to read, seminars to attend that all can help you learn more about how to rightly divide the Word of God.

1Coverdale’s Dedication and Preface, Coverdale’s Bible. Retrieved February 10, 2012 from

2 This argument is not original with me but heavily borrowed from “Unmerited Favor”