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The Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. These are the four rivers that flowed out of the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:10–14). They are emblazoned on my memory. Why? When I was fifteen, I became a Christian through the ministry of Young Life. A year later, my Young Life leader left to lead the same ministry in another state. I hadn’t joined a local church yet, and so I was left churchless and mentorless. In his absence, I figured I should do my best to learn what the Bible taught since I was now a Christian. So, I started reading in Genesis, taking notes as I went. I stopped at chapter 3, because in that chapter I encountered a talking snake. I was vexed. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe the truthfulness of the Bible. Instead, I had simply reached a difficult part and didn’t know how to understand it appropriately. That simple but difficult passage derailed my focused Bible study until I finally joined a local church during my second year of college.

My story highlights the importance of learning what to do when you encounter difficult passages in the Bible. The Bible is a majestic and large book, covering centuries of time and numerous cultures. It’s been said that the Bible is a book wherein a child can wade and an elephant can swim. If you are a Christian, for the rest of your life you will come across passages in the Bible that will require you to do the hard work of studying in order to understand them. To that end, how should you proceed when you reach a Bible passage that you simply don’t understand?

If you are a Christian, for the rest of your life you will come across passages in the Bible that will require you to do the hard work of studying in order to understand them.
Don’t Go There

Imagine for a moment that you’ve just run across a difficult part of Scripture. You’re like a traveler who has lost his way. Which way do you turn? What street do you go down? First, let me point out a few of the places you shouldn’t go.

Be extra careful with Google. I know. It’s so easy. It’s so tempting. You think, “Google tells me where to go when I’m physically lost; why can’t it help when I’m lost in the Bible?” The problem is that Google only shows you what’s popular; it cannot differentiate between sites that provide truth and sites that provide ignorance. Avoid your natural impulse to click the first link that appears in a search. There are good websites out there to find answers, but you have to be discerning.

Be discerning about social media. This is a good rule of thumb: Don’t trust Facebook comments for good answers to serious questions.

Not all study Bibles are created equal. I see it time and time again as a pastor. Someone is converted. They want to start studying the Bible. They go to the local bookstore and pick up the first study Bible they see. They assume that the proximity of the study notes to Holy Writ makes the study notes somehow more accurate and trustworthy. Good study Bibles are amazing and rare, but bad study Bibles are common.

Most software base packages are base for a reason. This is very similar to the study Bible rule above. With online Bible study tools so readily available, many folks will commit to a software product and its base package of commentaries, assuming that they have struck hermeneutical gold. Probably not. There is a reason that the base packages are “free” with the software. Usually they’re mediocre.

These Are Your Friends

I’m going to guess that at least one of the resources above has at one time been your go-to resource for difficult passages. If so, don’t get frustrated yet. Let me show you where you should go if you get stuck on a particular Bible passage. These resources are your friends.

The Bible is your only inerrant commentary. Most difficult parts of the Bible are elucidated in other parts of the Bible. In that way, the Bible serves as a commentary on itself. Make sure you have a reference Bible with footnotes, and then use them. If you come across a difficult passage, follow the cross-references and see if other passages of the Bible help shed light on the difficulty.

Your local church is a gold mine. The people who attend your church, especially the ones who are leaders or seasoned Christians, are invaluable resources. When you come across a difficult passage, go to a mentor, small-group leader, Sunday school teacher, or elder and ask for help. They may know the answer or know where you can find it.

Use resources that have stood the test of time. Outside of the Bible and your local church, there are great resources and tools for Bible study. But you want to make sure you use time-tested resources. The creeds and confessions of Reformed theology fall into this category, as do the commentaries and works of trusted Bible teachers such as John Calvin, Matthew Henry, and the Puritans. Most of these are accessible online for free.

Go to trusted organizations. There are also trusted organizations that provide orthodox resources for Christians as they study their Bible. But you must ensure that the organizations you go to for help are trusted organizations with clear confessional commitments.

Staring Down Opportunity and Danger

Look at difficult passages in the Bible as opportunities for growth, but also understand that they can be dangerous. Every time you approach one, consider that your method of finding an explanation of a difficult passage is nearly as important as the explanation you find. You want to train yourself in the use of trusted and reliable resources so that you don’t face difficult parts of the Bible with fear. More importantly, using solid resources means you won’t, through the use of a heterodox or unreliable resource, be diverted in your study into serious error or heresy. Even Peter looked at Paul’s writings and said, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Anyone who studies the Bible will find challenging parts, but learning to work through them well will keep you growing in your faith as you seek God in His Word. After all, there is so much more to know of God and His Word than simply the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates.

Interpreting the Bible

How Jesus Read the Scriptures

Keep Reading Living by the Word

From the November 2018 Issue
Nov 2018 Issue