Ears to Hear

How to study the Bible and let Scripture speak for itself

Félix H. Cortez
Ears to Hear
Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered why the cross took Jesus’ disciples by surprise? Jesus repeatedly told His disciples plainly that He must “suffer many things . . . and be killed” (Matt. 16:21; see also Matt. 17:22, 23; 20:17-19). How did the disciples dismiss such clear warnings? Were their ears closed?

The disciples did not want to believe that Jesus would die. They resisted the idea (see Matt. 16:22, 23; Mark 8:32, 33). They wanted Jesus to be an earthly king, overlooking or forgetting the prophecies about the Messiah’s suffering; that He would be bruised while crushing the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15), “cut off” (Dan. 9:26), “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). These passages went against what the disciples had always believed about the Messiah and, perhaps more important, against their strong desire that Jesus would conquer the Romans and establish an earthly kingdom. They did not have “ears to hear.”

Perhaps you have wondered, How can I have “ears to hear” what God says through His Word, the Bible? How can I study the Bible in a way that allows the Bible to speak for itself? This article shares some simple, practical steps for how to study the Bible faithfully, beginning with seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit through prayer.1

Pray and Seek the Guidance of the Holy Spirit

The first step is to approach the Bible with the right attitude, asking God to guide us so we may see beyond our own inclinations and desires. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into all truth (John 16:13). In other words, ask God to take away your desires and misunderstandings and to give you ears to hear.

After Christ rose from the dead, He appeared to two followers on the road to Emmaus and “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). Crushed by disappointment and searching for answers, the disciples now had ears to hear what the Scriptures had to say about Jesus.

We need to have the same willingness to listen to God through the Bible—to hear “all the Scriptures,” even if there are some passages that contradict our beliefs or desires. Ellen G. White writes: “Were Jesus with us today, He would say to us as He did to His disciples, ‘I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now’ (John 16:12, KJV). Jesus longed to open before the minds of His disciples deep and living truths, but their earthliness, their clouded, deficient comprehension made it impossible. They could not be benefited with great, glorious, solemn truths. The want of spiritual growth closes the door to the rich rays of light that shine from Christ. We shall never reach a period when there is no increased light for us.”2

Often, wrong interpretations of Scripture stem not from the head, but the heart (see 2 Thess. 2:10, 12; 2 Tim. 4:1-4). So ask God to open your heart to receive His teaching.

Analyze the Text

Understanding a text requires work, including reading individual texts in light of other texts around them.

Begin by selecting a paragraph, the basic unit of meaning in the Bible. Bibles sometimes identify paragraphs with an extra space between lines or with an indentation at the beginning of a sentence. In most cases a Bible chapter is not the same as a paragraph.

Then analyze the paragraph in the following four steps:

First, identify the main idea of the paragraph. What is the author trying to say?

Second, consider how the author develops that idea. What is the logical structure of the paragraph and the shape of its claims?

Third, identify historical and cultural elements that might impact the meaning of the text. How might a better understanding of the author, the audience, and the historical circumstances help us understand the passage?

Fourth, note the important words in the paragraph. Are there words we need to understand better?

After this, read the same paragraph in two or more other translations (if possible).

Explore the Literary Structure

To understand the role the passage plays in conveying the message of the book and Scripture’s overall message, we need to understand the literary structure of the book that our paragraph is in. If the message of the paragraph does not seem to fit well with the book’s message, this indicates we have not interpreted the paragraph correctly.

The paragraph is a puzzle piece that lines up with the other pieces of Scripture. The disciples’ problem was that they failed to believe all that the prophets had said about Jesus (Luke 24:25). For example, if we want to understand Paul’s instruction that women keep silent in church, we need to look at other verses that talk about women in church. When we do that, we find that Paul’s guidance had to do with order during worship and not with preventing women from speaking (compare 1 Cor. 14:34, 35 with 14:33, 40; Luke 2:36; Acts 21:9).

Good study Bibles and Bible commentaries provide information about literary structure and function in the introduction to each book of the Bible. These introductions describe the book’s message and the structure of that message. Remember, however, that commentaries and study notes are written in accordance with the assumptions of their authors. Look for those that have a high view of Scripture—believing Scripture is the inspired Word of God (see 2 Tim. 3:16). And always give priority to what Scripture itself says. The writings of others may help you to understand the Bible’s teachings, but should never be used to judge or replace those teachings.

Consider the Genre

Next, consider the kind of writing (the genre) of a passage and the book it is in. For example, consider whether it is a narrative or poetry or something else (e.g., wisdom literature, prophetic writing, or an epistle). This makes an important difference in how the passage should be understood.

For example, narratives (such as Genesis 1 or 1 and 2 Samuel) describe historical events, but typically do not tell us exactly what lessons to take from those stories. Abraham, Jacob, and David had more than one wife, but the Bible does not endorse polygamy. Rather, these stories simply accurately describe what happened. We need to look at the consequences of such actions, which the books themselves describe, to understand the lesson and look to other clear teachings of Scripture about God’s ideal (see Gen. 2:24).

Epistles (letters) in the Bible, on the other hand, do offer specific lessons, but are written to a specific, original audience (more on this below). For example, when Paul left Timothy to pastor in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3), Paul instructed him not to include widows younger than 60 to receive church assistance, and expressed his desire that these widows marry and have children (1 Tim. 5:9-16). In Corinth, however, he suggested that single people and widows not marry if they could avoid it (1 Cor. 7:1-9). Paul was not contradicting himself. Paul was speaking to different historical and cultural circumstances in Ephesus and Corinth.

Poetic passages use figurative or metaphorical language to impress a message in our minds, but poetry is not meant to be understood literally. When Jesus talked about the everlasting or unquenchable fire that will destroy the wicked, He was referring to the poetic language of Isaiah 34:9-15. That passage talks about the destruction of Edom as an eternal fire that destroyed everything forever. It is clear that the fire did not go on burning forever, since the passage also says that animals and birds would dwell in that land.

Explore the Historical and Cultural Context

It is important to understand the cultural values, customs, symbols, and practices relevant to a passage to correctly understand its meaning. For example, we fail to fully understand the story of the good Samaritan when we forget the cultural and legal restriction prohibiting priests from touching the dead body of anyone except their closest relatives (see Lev. 21:1-4). Similarly, we will misunderstand the actions of Ruth (see Ruth 3:6-15) or Paul’s instructions about the veil (see 1 Cor. 11:2-16) if we do not understand the cultural and legal customs of the time.

You can learn more about the historical and cultural context of a passage from a good Bible dictionary or commentary. Always give priority, however, to what the Bible teaches about the history and culture relevant to the passage.

First, we need to understand the passage in the context of human history. For example, we need to understand Paul’s epistles in the context of the history of the church in Acts. We will not understand Galatians without understanding what happened at the Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15). Similarly, we cannot properly understand Daniel 8 and 9 independently of Jeremiah’s prophecies. Likewise, Malachi is best understood in the context of the life and ministry of Nehemiah.

Second, we need to understand the passage in the context of salvation history. The best way to understand the arc of God’s dealings with humanity is to read the story of Scripture. Wonderful insights into this story can be found in the five volumes of the Conflict of the Ages series by Ellen White (Patriarchs and Prophets, Prophets and Kings, The Desire of Ages, The Acts of the Apostles, and The Great Controversy).

Explore the Meaning of Important Words in the Passage

You can dig deeper into the important words in a passage by using a concordance or a digital Bible.3 Concordances list each use of a word by a biblical author or throughout the Bible.

When we understand how key words in a passage are used in other parts of the Bible, it helps us better understand biblical concepts, persons, or themes. For example, a search on the word “shepherd” helps us understand that when Jesus called Himself “the good shepherd” (John 10:11), He indirectly claimed to be Yahweh, coming to rescue His sheep that had been mistreated and dispersed (see Ps. 23; 80:1; Jer. 23; Eze. 34).

Further, everyone who speaks more than one language knows that different languages often do not have exact equivalents for certain words. For example, the Greek word teleios means “perfect,” but also “mature,” “grown up” and “initiated.” Thus, “perfection” in the New Testament does not mean exactly the same thing as it means in English. A good commentary can help you in this regard. Also, there are free websites that provide access to the original words of the Bible that can be used even by those who do not read those languages.4

Read the Bible with other People

God instructs us to gather together to read Scripture and encourage one another (Heb. 3:13; 10:25; 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:13). Reading the Bible with other people is important because it helps us see our own assumptions and blind spots. As we read Scripture together and pore over its text, trying to understand its meaning, we can help one another to have a richer and deeper understanding.5

Practice What You Have Learned

Finally, obedience is an important step in understanding Scripture. Jesus said that those who choose to do the will of God will know the truth (John 7:17).

This was the case with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. When they urged Jesus to stay in their home, suggesting they had accepted His message and wanted more, “their eyes were opened,” and they could recognize Him (Luke 24:31). On the other hand, Scripture explains that the crucial deficiency of those who will be deceived at the end of time will not be lack of knowledge but lack of love for the truth (see 2 Thess. 2:9-12).

The first step toward deception is not ignorance but lack of willingness to obey. Jesus compared those who hear His words and do them to a man who built his house upon a rock. When the floods came and the winds blew, his house stood firm. Those who hear Jesus’ words and don’t do them, He compared to a man who built his house upon the sand. When the winds of false doctrine and teaching came, his house fell (see Matt. 7:24-27).

Further, Paul warns that “the time will come when [people] will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:3, 4).

The more we practice what we learn, the more we will understand and come to love God. Increased love will make possible increased understanding. When we experience the truth of His Word, it produces even greater confidence that His Word is true and His promises are sure. When we experience the goodness of the Word of God, we will not want—in fact, we will not be able—to remain silent. Just like the disciples at Emmaus.

1 These principles describe the historical-grammatical approach. See “Methods of Bible Study,” in Biblical Hermeneutics: An Adventist Approach, ed. Frank M. Hasel (Silver Spring, Md.: Biblical Research Institute/Review and Herald Academic, 2020), pp. 463-473.

2 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958, 1980), book 1, pp. 403, 404.

3 For example, biblegateway.org.

4 Websites such as www.biblehub.com provide access to the original words of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek and list other places those words appear in the Bible.

5 For resources to assist with the interpretation of difficult passages of the Bible, see the Biblical Research Institute website: www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org.

Félix H. Cortez