6 Guidelines for Clarifying Confusing Passages
We’ve all had those moments: you come across that difficult passage in the Bible. After reading it again, you just sit there, blankly staring at the words, and feeling remarkably ignorant that you have no clue what this text means. It can be tempting to skip that passage and move on, or to get discouraged and give up.
If you’ve ever been dumbfounded by a passage of Scripture, then you’re in good company. The Apostle Peter said that parts of Paul’s letters were “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16), and we would certainly agree, but then Peter wrote 1 Peter 3:18-21, so he too is guilty of writing a few brain-benders. Martin Luther said this of 1 Peter 3:18-21:
“A wonderful text is this, and more obscure passage perhaps than any other in the New Testament, so that I do not know for a certainty just what Peter means.”
Go ahead and laugh out loud. If Martin Luther (a Hebrew, Greek, and Latin scholar) was confused by the Bible sometimes, then you’re probably doing alright.
Since we know that it is all “breathed out by God and profitable” (2 Tim 3:16), how do we make the most of (even the difficult) verses that God wrote for our profit? How do we begin to unscramble them?
I want to give you a few principles to think about when you encounter the tough ones. This may not answer all your questions, but it will set your feet on the path to discovery. There are probably more that could be given, but here are 6 important ones.
- Know your Bible. The best interpreter of the Bible is… the Bible. So being proactive in knowing Scripture will prevent confusion when you encounter unfamiliar passages. For example, if you know a theology of angels and demons, and are familiar with Revelation 9 and Genesis 6, you may not be as thrown off by 1 Peter 3:18-21 as most people are. God wrote the bible to be clear, not confusing. Like anything else, familiarity allows greater clarity.
- Dig for Treasure. Diamonds are expensive for one reason: they are hard to find, so it takes a lot of work. Don’t give up easy on a difficult passage. Seek wisdom like it’s silver and hunt for it like its buried treasure (Proverbs 2:4). You won’t discover the greatest wisdom of the Bible without effort. Bible study is just that: you have to take the time, and put forth the effort, and want it –– enough to strive for it. John Piper once said, “The Bible does not yield it’s treasures to lazy Christians.” Paul said, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
- Start with the main point of the passage. Usually, the most confusing verses in scripture are some kind of a tangent, rather than part of the main point of that passage. Identifying the main point gives you a really good starting place to begin thinking about the meaning of the confusing parts.
- Read the Context and the Cross-references. Look at the context of the passage you are reading (the big picture of the surrounding verses and chapters). Especially when it comes to key words in the confusing text, ask where else they occur in the same book. Utilizing cross-references — especially when a New Testament verse cites from the Old — helps us to have a fuller understanding of what the authors were trying to communicate. As you do this, use notes on a sheet of paper or computer document to help you keep track of your discoveries, questions, and thoughts.
- Write down specific questions. Delineate exactly what it is in this passage that is confusing. Write it down (yes, write it down) in the form of questions. Facing a tough text as a whole is like trying to solve a Sodoku puzzle all at once. Sodoku doesn’t work that way. You have to get it one step at a time. Just so in studying scripture. Breaking a passage down by asking and answering specific questions, one at a time, slowly disentangles the meaning of the verse.
- Use Resources Last. Commentaries and online helps should be last – not first. Don’t short circuit this. The mental discipline of figuring it out for yourself is part of the learning process. Our quickness to “google it” does not serve us well. However, there were godly men and women wrestling with that text before you were born. We’re served well when, after studying for ourselves, we also benefit from the wisdom of godly scholars and the helpful insights of church history.
Some commonly forgotten resources are the teachers, pastors, and elders at your church. The clarity of scripture and the help of the Spirit have never meant that believers do not need to be taught. On the contrary, God gives pastors and teachers for this very purpose (Eph 4:11-16). Take advantage of your local resident theologians.
Throughout the process, humility assists us greatly in bible study: when we realize that we are not meant to know everything. Some of our frustration in our bible study can stem from a desire to have every single question answered, when that is sometimes not possible. For example, the Apostle John was taken to heaven in order that he would write down what he saw so that we could know. However, there was a moment when John saw something of which he was told "do not write" (Rev 10:4). There are some things that God does not mean for us to know or understand yet. We can be OK with that. A soothing remedy for the troubled student is this: remembering that the goal of bible study is not to know everything, but to know God better as we discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim 4:7).
I hope that these few principles for interpretation of difficult texts will be helpful to you. God wrote so that we would know, not be confused. God has written with clarity in Scripture that bleeds through over time, but it sometimes takes work to arrive there. The same Holy Spirit who wrote the bible (2 Pet 1:21) now lives in you as a believer and helps you to understand scripture (1 Cor 2:14-16)
Spurgeon said, “If you do not understand a book by a departed writer, you are unable to ask him his meaning, but the Spirit, who inspired Holy Scripture, lives forever, and He delights to open the Word to those who see His instruction.” So let us continually go to God, asking, “Open my eyes, that I may behold Wonderful things from Your law.” (Psalm 119:18)
*AUTHOR’S NOTE: Several of these suggestions came from John Piper, and I have borrowed heavily from him throughout this article. Read his helpful notes on this here, as well as watching his video about 1 Peter 3:18-21.