Everybody has to start somewhere. In our society, there are more and more people who know of the Bible and know about the Bible but who do not know the Bible. Yet, there are many who want to know and understand the Bible but do not know how to get started. In this article, I want to offer some advice for getting started based on the story of an Ethiopian.
The story is recorded in Acts 8:26-40. To summarize: a preacher named Philip is instructed by God to meet a man traveling along the road south of Jerusalem. The man happens to be studying the writings of Isaiah, and from that passage, Philip is able to show him that Jesus is the Christ. The man, an Ethiopian official whose name we do not know, becomes a Christian as a result.
When we look at the details of this story, we can see a helpful roadmap for understanding the Bible…
#1 – Obtain It
It is interesting that the Ethiopian is riding along in his chariot reading from an Isaiah scroll. Such scrolls were extremely valuable and were not necessarily easy to acquire. Copies of scripture were hand-written and produced with tedious care. Usually, it took a whole community of Jews (a synagogue) to justify purchasing and possessing something so valuable. But you don’t live in ancient Palestine! You live in a time when access to the biblical text is as easy as driving around the corner to a book store or ordering a copy online. There are also some good electronic copies of the text that are designed for your phone, tablet, or computer.1 The first step in improving your understanding is to obtain a copy of the text – preferably a well-designed, contemporary English version that you will actually use.2
#2 – Read It
The Ethiopian did not have his copy of Isaiah stowed in the trunk with the luggage. It did not gather dust on his bookshelf or coffee table. He had it with him, actively reading it. Many people own bibles that they never read. As a result, their understanding comes from others who tell them about the bible. This is intellectual laziness and leaves a person dangerously vulnerable.3 Read it! If you are not very familiar with the bible or with the story of Jesus, I would highly recommend reading Luke followed by Acts.4
#3 – Seek Understanding
That the Ethiopian was doing more than merely reading the text is evident in the questions he asks Philip when the two meet. It is clear that this man was seeking to understand the meaning of what was being said. Reading is important, but leisurely reading of the bible is not going to provide the insight that you long for. Read critically and meditatively. What is the author driving at? Who is he talking about (the question the Ethiopian was pondering)? What is the point? Asking critical questions and seeking to understand the answers to those questions is how we learn, and the study of the bible is no different. Don’t just read it. Meditate on it. Study it. Seek to understand it.
#4 – Seek Guidance
When Philip asks the man if he understands what he is reading, he replies “How can I, unless someone guides me?”5 I don’t believe that the Ethiopian means that the text of the bible is unintelligible without someone telling us how to read it. Rather, he is acknowledging that there are times when we need help to understand the text better. This does not mean that we switch off our brains and run get someone else to tell us what it says (see above). But there is no denying that sometimes a little guidance goes a long way in opening our eyes to the meaning that is there before us. There are plenty of written resources available,6 but often the best way to get the guidance you need is to approach someone who you trust to provide that guidance in good faith. Don’t be too proud to ask for help to understand what the text is saying!7
#5 – Make a Decision
The Bible is not the kind of book that you can read and remain undecided on. The very nature of the message compels you to respond – to make a decision about what you believe. When the Ethiopian’s eyes were opened to the meaning of the text he had been reading in Isaiah, he realized that this had implications for his life. He made a decision. What do you believe?
Is it time for you to get real about your understanding of the Bible? I hope these things help you along they way. They changed the Ethiopian’s life, and you might just find that they transform how you view the Bible (and the world) as well.
1 biblia.com provides an excellent resource if you have access to a browser.
2 I use the English Standard Version (ESV)
3 What if the things you’re told about the bible aren’t true? How would you know if you aren’t reading it for yourself?
4 The gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are two volumes by the same author and form and nice continuous narrative.
5 Acts 8:31
6 Word of caution: The internet is filled with unreliable resources!
7 I’m happy to help in any way I can! firstname.lastname@example.org