How can I understand what the Bible means?

Hi friends,

One of the most common questions in our community is, “What does this passage of the Bible mean?”

I thought it would help to outline some of the important steps we can take to interpret the Scriptures properly.


When we study the Bible, we want to be intentionally connected to God.

We experience God’s word as a whole person - heart, mind, soul, and will - in the context of our community and social situation.

By starting in prayer, we ask God to work within our innermost being.

We want to be wholehearted worshippers of God.

Approach the text

  • Who was the author?
  • Who was the original audience?
  • What happened before and after the text?

Identify the genre

Common genres include:

  • Historical narrative
  • Law/instruction
  • Wisdom literature
  • Poetry
  • Prophecy
  • Apocalypse
  • Gospels
  • Epistles
  • Parables

Identify how the genre affects how you read the text.

Read the text

  • Read the passage slowly and carefully multiple times in one translation.
  • Read the passage in different translations.
  • If you encounter unfamiliar terms, look up their definitions.

Evaluate the text

Pay attention to grammar. For instance, look for connecting words like “for” or “therefore.”

Note literary devices: metaphors, hyperbole, symbolic speech.

Identify the main point

  • What is the text talking about?

  • What is the text saying about what it is talking about?

For instance:

“This text is about God’s character.”
“It says that God’s character is loving.”

Consult commentaries

We always learn in community.

Avoid commentaries that take a modern interpretation of the text. This is anachronistic. We don’t want to know what the text means as if it was written by Americans to Americans (or Nigerians to Nigerians, etc.). We want to know what was meant when it was originally given.

Reliable, thoughtful commentaries will explain the culture and context of the text in its own time.

Reach for the highest level of academic and/or technical commentaries you can access. Libraries are a great resource!

Broaden your perspective

Think about what the text means in light of the storyline of the Bible.

How does this text make sense in light of who Jesus is and what Jesus did?

Check cross-references.

For instance, Matthew 5:7 is a short verse about mercy. In Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus tells a parable about mercy.

Look back (to earlier in the Old Testament) and forward (to the New Testament).

Avoid common errors

Some examples:

  • Jump to a conclusion that fits our biases
  • Ignore, rather than wrestle with, difficult passages
  • Literalism - taking figurative or symbolic language as literal
  • Allegory - spiritualizing passages that are meant to be literal
  • Folly - not noticing how the Scriptures are forming us to be wise and mature
  • Moralizing - flattening the text into moral imperatives (of course, the Bible teaches us ethics!)
  • Don’t ask for help - assume you have all the answers

Write down your interpretation

Writing creates clarity. We work through the fog - and we move past our immediate reactions to the text - by writing out what the text means.

After reading the text and reliable commentaries, writing is how you synthesize what you’ve learned. It enables you to “own” what you’ve learned.

Ask for feedback

Rarely do we get to the right interpretation on our first attempt. Ask others - in your local context or in Uncommon Pursuit - for feedback on your understanding.

Instead of becoming proud, we want our time with God to cultivate humility and love.

What would you add?

What process helps you to interpret God’s word in an accurate manner?

It’s important that we use our very best to study the Bible. Otherwise, we risk taking God’s name in vain. We will say, “God said…” in error. This can be damaging to ourselves - and to others.


I wish I had been taught this two decades ago! It’s only in the last few years I’ve grown to study the Bible like this. I think I could have done with this being taught clearly but never remember in church or youth groups hearing this process talked about. Consequently I recognise all the common errors in my own practice of Bible reading in the past.

What Bible commentaries would you recommend to get started with (both digital or hard copies)?


Hi @alison,

Thanks for sharing that - same here! I think overconfidence in myself has been a consistent problem. It’s one reason I’m grateful that this community - and my local church community - are environments where I can be challenged and learn from other perspectives. And it’s why I do the deep-dive interviews for the YouTube channel - I want to listen to what an expert has come to understand from a lifetime of study.

I’m happy to recommend some Bible commentary series.

But first, a caveat: they don’t all agree with each other. And I certainly haven’t read all of them! I don’t know if anyone has. I also find myself disagreeing with them from time to time. The attitude I attempt to have when I read a commentary is appreciative respect for their scholarship. Ultimately, we don’t want to be dependent upon commentaries. Rather, the goal is for them to empower us to make mature, adult, wise judgments about how the Bible teaches us to love God and our neighbors.

Second, I recommend getting these commentaries as part of either the Logos or Accordance software packages. Then, as your personal library grows, it’s very easy to pull them up as you look at any particular passage of Scripture. It is massively more convenient.

Third, commentaries can be ridiculously expensive. However, how many do we need? Let’s say that we want to really study the Gospel of Luke. Ok, that could take a year or two. Why not invest in two solid commentaries - maybe $100? - and then slowly work through the gospel with each of these as a resource.

I understand even that price point could be out of reach for many people. However, if we live in a country with a good library system, these commentaries can often be borrowed and renewed for as long as we’re studying a particular book of the Bible. Even then, I know that access to the best scholarship is unevenly distributed. Hopefully, this community is one helpful resource.

Here are some Bible commentary series I would generally recommend:
(These are Amazon affiliate links that will support Uncommon Pursuit’s ministry).

General Reference:

  1. The IVP Old Testament and New Testament Bible Background Commentaries

These resources are super helpful to understand the cultural context in which the text was written!

  1. The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology

An international team of scholars developed this resource on the Biblical imagery that runs throughout the Bible and its theological significance. As a Biblical theology, it retains the multi-dimensional kaleidoscope of how God revealed his truth to us. It also generally avoids shoehorning everything into a particular theological system.

Commentary Series:

  1. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Series (revised)

  2. WORD Biblical Commentary

  3. The Pillar New Testament Commentaries

  4. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT)

  5. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT)

I hope that’s a helpful starting point. I look forward to learning what others have found helpful.


So helpful! You mentioned the Dictionary of Biblical Theology ages ago but I’d forgotten it’s name so thanks for the reminder. I think that’s going to be my first purchase. I have a systematic theology so it will be good to compare to biblical theology as I study.

1 Like