How to Read the Bible

How to read scripture in context

The actor Charlie Chaplin once entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and lost. True story.

Why did Charlie Chaplin go unrecognized? Surely it was because we see what we expect to see. No one expected the real Charlie Chaplin to show up, so no one saw him when he did.

Even so, it was quite an oversight.

It’s not like Charlie Chaplin was unknown. At the time, he was the most recognizable person on earth. Along with the other contestants, he would have been scrutinized to see how much like Chaplin he was. Yet nobody saw him.

The same principle applies when we come to the scriptures: We see what we expect to see.

Or to put it another way, what you believe determines what you see.

If you believe the Bible is full of rules we must keep to please the Lord, you will find rules whenever you read the Bible.

And if you believe we must work hard or avoid sin to please God, you will find tasks to complete and sins to avoid on every page. Our beliefs filter what we see.

Me? I expect to see Jesus on every page and in every book from Genesis to Revelation.

Is this not why the Bible was written—to reveal Jesus? Is it not his story?

Is this not what it means to rightly divide the word of truth?

All the histories, poems, laws, songs, and stories of the Old and New Testaments point to him. To paraphrase Augustine, “Jesus is in the old concealed; Jesus is in the new revealed.”

Or to quote The Jesus Storybook Bible, every story whispers his name.

How to read scripture in context

Any preacher worth their salt will tell you that we need to read the Bible in context, but what is the proper context? Jesus is. He is the Living Word who gives meaning to the written word.

The word context means weave together. We take the words and weave a story. Try and weave a story from scripture without the central thread of Jesus Christ and you could end up with a bad story.

This is why we need to wear Son-glasses when reading scripture. We don’t read the Bible to find principles for success (although it has plenty) or rules for living (ditto); we read it to connect with the Author of Life. We read it to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

This seems obvious, no? But it is not common practice, particularly when it comes to reading the letters from Jesus.

Some interpret Christ’s letters through historical, cultural, or linguistic lenses. Others prefer a prophetic or dispensational approach.

A lens, or hermeneutic, to use the proper word, is a tool for constructing a story. If your lens helps you to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, it’s a good lens. But if your lens distracts you from Jesus, it’s a dud.

How Jesus read the Bible

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus interpreted “all the scriptures,” from Moses to the prophets, through a Christocentric hermeneutic (Luke 24:27). He said, “This is all about me.”

If the entire Old Testament, from Moses to the prophets, is all about Jesus, then so is the New Testament, from Matthew to Revelation.

With that in mind, let’s consider the first four words of the Book of Revelation:

The Revelation of Jesus Christ… (Revelation 1:1a)

What is the Book of Revelation about? It’s about Jesus. It is literally the revelation of Jesus Christ. Sure, it’s about other things as well. But like the rest of scripture, it is principally about Jesus, who has come and is coming again.

The New Testament was written by people who saw Jesus, and this is true of John’s Revelation.

“I saw one like a son of man,” said John, “and his face shone like the sun,” (Rev. 1:13, 16).

The old apostle saw Jesus in all his glory and was told to “write what you see” (Rev. 1:11). When we read Revelation, we are reading what John saw. If we see what John saw—Jesus—we are reading correctly. If we see something else, such as a projection of ourselves and our shortcomings, we are reading it wrong.

It is tempting for us to study the scriptures to find stuff we must do, but a healthier approach is to see what Jesus has done and is now doing.

For instance, in one of the seven letters, we find Jesus walking among the lampstands. It sounds mysterious, but it’s a powerful revelation of Christ-with-us. The lampstands, Jesus explains, are the churches. Jesus is walking among the churches.

How does this help us?

It sets us free from the false image of an aloof and distant Lord. Jesus is among the lampstands meaning he is with us and for us. It’s good news for those who feel far from God.

We are changed by beholding Jesus, so my purpose in writing is to help you behold Jesus. In his words, stories and letters we see aspects of Jesus that are found nowhere else in scripture. And we hear him say things that are recorded no other place.

In his letters we encounter his heart. While the Gospels record the words and actions of Jesus, his letters reveal his thoughts towards us, and they are good.

Extracted and adapted from Letters from Jesus: Finding Good News in Christ’s Letters to the Churches.


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15 Comments on How to Read the Bible

  1. Yes! I’ve come to realize that one of the difficulties we have in reading the Bible is that the lens is assumed and not always overtly stated. Paul, John, Peter, etc. often assume grace and an unbreakable relationship with Jesus, so they don’t feel they need to state it. It seems like when we read something that appears to be a list of rules, we need remind ourselves to interpret them through the lens of grace. It will reveal a deeper meaning.

  2. Dear Paul,
    I just wrote to you my first attempt at telling you my thoughts – on a post from 2 years ago. I have been your student for many years …. so I think you might pick up that I did a time trip from the Nicolaitans into a spiritual battle that left me exhausted.
    so here is a BIG thank you al you have been feeding this sheep over the years past – and with this I am turning a new leaf with this timely reminder to focus on the heart of Jesus, the core of his letters to us and the importance of context and not neglect
    May you be blessed with wisdom and perseverance.

  3. It seems crazy that we as Christians would need to be reminded that it’s about Jesus, but we do, so thanks.

  4. Thank you Paul in this revelation of truth to go after the entire truth. As I see all Jesus is as perfect as he is, which makes him one with Father, the Spirit that led him in all things. Here today after Pentecost to enter in each that believes it is finished, As said by Son, Jesus in John 19:30. Amazing being reconciled completely from Father of Son that approved of Son’s one time death for all to be reconciled to him through Son for them.

    My only motive is to know Father and Son, seeing this truth, releases to me we are free to be. Amazing how seeing that, began the change in me from being under Law that revealed the curse of the Law, Not the Law itself, For the Law itself is perfect, yet to fathom the truth is from God himself via Son first in his one time death of reconciliation for all. Thank You again, reading to know Father and Son as Won: I see this at the end of revelations, Son hands back Father the keys

  5. Thank you for this Paul!

  6. Overwhelmed with the wisdom that emits from every single article in this blog, I can only say, THANK YOU LORD JESUS FOR CREATING THIS BLOG.

  7. When I was younger I always wondered if people discovered what existed or discovered what they expected. I have read a lot about quantum physics and it appears that the latter is more true. Thngs become what we expect to see not necessarily what already exists.

    • Stephen Meek // October 30, 2019 at 6:58 am // Reply

      What the Saints expect is not what they might better utilize as best – “if” they are born from water & the spirit – Jn 3 – “if” they are living out of the mind of Christ. As new Creations, the Saints are in Christ & He is in them – “if” they choose to go out of the mind of Christ & go back in to a carnal-mind – they will want what they expect. The Saint who lives by the Spirit of God does not expect but receives the Truth by living from the mind of Christ.

      Example: Jn 3:16. If the Saints use their carnal-mind, they will want what they expect – the text is not the context & context is lost.

      For centuries Christendom has taught the Saints – go & tell others that God Loves them – claiming that this is the Gospel. Is the context here? I suggest – Jn 3:14 says, “yes”. It is never a good thing to leave context buried to make the text say what we expect. And that is what I believe Christendom has done with God’s Love… and worse out of one verse, it teaches God’s attraction to & for humanity – without reviewing the verses before Jn 3:16 – to get context for what God’s Love is – as is seen in Jn 3:14.

      His Love is based in His actions since the Creation; His interactions with us. Jn 3:14 shows God’s Love is actionable – when He killed thousands in the desert for grumbling about the food he graciously provided for them. What they expected was not theirs to judge yet, they chose to God on what they wanted instead of seeing His Provision. God was Loving them by providing food for them when there was no food. They did not die because they loved God or because He was being unloving; they died because they were ungrateful to God’s Provision to them. If they had returned that Love, they would have lived. Actionable Love is not based in attraction – God’s Love is about Him; not what humanity expects.

  8. Jenny L Beauchamp // September 28, 2019 at 1:24 am // Reply

    Thanks Paul. So glad I found this blog. There’s something my mother use to say, “energy flows where your attention goes”. She said this when she would teach about mean people/bullies and why it’s so important to walk away and not give them any of our time/energy. I have had this confirmed in this message. We see what we want, as our carnal minds give it credence. However, when we look to the Person of Jesus, it changes everything! I thank Him for renewing my mind, daily. Blessings.

  9. Dan Nichter // October 9, 2019 at 5:04 am // Reply

    Love the truth! Love it, Love it, Love it!

  10. Stephen Meek // October 25, 2019 at 2:52 pm // Reply

    Perhaps the problem is just that; what we expect is not really there – in the context of the text of the biblical-record. It is common for the carnal-mind to want what it wishes yet, when a true Follower (Believer, Born-again) listens & hears through the Spirit… they will truly see & enter the Kingdom of God (Light-Presence).

    When we choose to say & do from our carnal-mind, we will not understand that just as Jesus & the Father are one; that Jesus can say that His Kingdom is not of this (physical-carnal realm) Darkness – so then too, the Saints are one with the Father & Son. There is no individual nor the many in Messiah (Spirit-realm) – the Body of Messiah is one.

  11. Stephen Meek // October 30, 2019 at 5:43 am // Reply

    Is reading the bible the problem? In reading the bible, many believe by their reading they will gain Salvation – Jm 5:39 [that is not true].

    The carnal-mind vs the mind of Christ. A carnal-mind wants what it expects; the mind of Christ wants what is of the Spirit of God. In the case of: “How to read the Bible…”, the carnal-mind cannot not see context through the text – Case in point: “When we create a pretext out of context by putting words in to the text that are not there”.

    Example: Jn 3:16 – It is said & taught in Christendom that this verse is the Gospel (Good News of God’s Love to & for all humanity). Is there anything in the text that says, the Saints are to go & tell others about God’s Love? Even the Body of Christ has created a pretext out of context & made a doctrine about God’s Love. This vs Jn 3:16, is only one of 35 verses that even speaks the words, “God’s Love”.

    God’s Love is not his attraction to or for us on Earth and that is what so many are teaching today. His Love is about His actions with respect to His interactions with humanity in time & space (physical-realm); since the Creation. His Love saw Him kill (an action, not attraction) thousands in the desert – see Jn 3:14, when the people grumbled about the food he gave them. He is saying in Jn 3; 16 that His Love is greater than the general term for “love” is known by in Christendom – or Earth wide, for that matter.

    The answers we seek are not in the text; the context of the text is found in the mind of Christ, the Spirit of God. If we are born-again – Saints… put on the mind of Christ which is our gift from God. The Gospel is God’s (the Father) testimony with respect to His “His-story” – starting with Creation; capped off with the Son. What we do with that is a matter of hearing & listening to the voice of the Lamb – Son-man, Christ (Messiah).

    • Interesting:
      Thank you for your view you got and get I hear this: It is each person’s response to this love offered to us all through Son’s death for all, yet that does not give life in just being forgiven, no life in death
      Yet Life is in the risen Christ waiting to be given us to act on in trust to Father who raised Son from the dead for us
      Romans 2:1-4 floors me, to see what his kindness is meant for us. Also Matt. 18:24-35
      I see that man’s response of in no appreciating being forgiven. Now all are forgiven, yet not one is saved in being forgiven
      Saved by the risen life of Christ, installed into us each, collectively, then share in care one fopr the other as led to do that too.

      So complex, yet simple, as only Father in Spirit and Truth reveals this to each of us, having no respect of persons

      Wow, woe is me and all that begin to see. John 3:16 is a fact, as Father takes us in and begins the new work in us each, that do not give up belief even in adversities

      Just what I am seeing by his Love, knowing this not anyone can love truly, without first seeing they are loved first as said in 1John 4:19. And it has to be imputed in us by God himself, and then we do as led to, yet not always, being at war between Flesh nature and Spirit of God that we are given to abide in, not having to, trust seeing to do it in agreement with Father and Son as Won for us in them we become new, and when make mistakes as we all do, learn how to not to, and by no means of self effort is this ever done, at least this be what I am learning.

      Phil 1:6, Eph. 1:6-7,13 seeing appreciation, Psalms 100:4, 103:12,

  12. I really like your analogy Paul. Believers have certain presuppositions before reading a particular passage of Scripture. That’s why we see doctrinal statements that are different in many denominations. We also see believers who are “afraid” to modify or change their hermeneutical position because they may lose their job as a pastor or professor. I have seen this first hand and it’s unfortunate because it’s very difficult to change one’s mind, even if you open up the Bible and show them. Blessings to you!

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