“Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 18:22)
“Truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves.” (John 6:53)
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Jesus made some startling statements. These three quotes alone are enough to leave us scratching our heads. However, the Bible is full of what we call “hard sayings.” The question is, what do we do with them? Whenever you encounter a difficult biblical passage, here are seven suggestions for how to proceed.
- Don’t avoid the passage. Understanding difficult passages takes considerable time and effort. For this reason, many readers tend to skip over them and move on to clearer passages. Let me encourage you to avoid this temptation. Paul reminds us in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that “All Scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” If that’s the case, every passage of Scripture is worthy of our study and consideration – even the hard sayings.
- Pray for understanding. God delights in helping us to understand His Word. Whenever you encounter a difficult passage, pause and ask the Lord to help in your understanding, much like the psalmist prays in Psalm 119:18, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (ESV).
- Study the passage’s context. Take a moment to understand this passage in its proper context. What is happening immediately before and after the passage in question? Are there unique historical or cultural characteristics that shed light on the verse(s)? A good study Bible or commentary will help you understand the passage in its proper context.
- Compare to other relevant passages. A good rule of biblical interpretation is to let Scripture interpret Scripture. In other words, interpret unclear passages through the lens of clearer ones. For example, James 2:26 is a problematic verse for many as he declares, “Faith without works is dead.” Taken on its own, some might interpret this verse to mean that we are saved by good works. However, we read in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” As Paul continues in verse 10, he provides insight into the point that James makes: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” So, Paul’s clear teaching in Ephesians helps us to understand what James is saying. We’re not saved by good works; we’re saved for good works. And those good works provide evidence that our faith is alive and well.
- Ask other spiritually mature Christians. Whenever you encounter a difficult passage of Scripture, the chances are high that others have had difficulty with it as well. Who are some spiritually mature Christians in your life? Take the time to ask them if they have ever studied the passage in question. They may be able to provide some keen insights for you.
- Consult reputable sources. The keyword here is reputable. Look up your passage in a study Bible, commentary, Bible dictionary, or Bible study software. You’ll find a wealth of information about the passage in question. However, avoid doing a simple google search. The internet may have many articles on your passage, but it will be difficult to discern which ones are reputable. Stick with those sources that are trustworthy.
- Accept your limitations. At the end of the day, God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). There are some things in the Bible that we will never fully comprehend this side of heaven. And that’s ok. You may have to accept that fact, for now, trusting that a day will come when our understanding will be complete. As Paul declares, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. It’s a glorious gift from the Creator to His creation. While we may not understand everything in the Bible, we can trust that it is truth without any mixture of error (John 17:17). Therefore, we should immerse ourselves in its pages and regularly feed on the very Word of God. Remember, all Scripture is profitable – even those parts that are difficult to understand. May God bless you as you read His Word!