Have you ever read a passage of scripture and thought, “What in the world does this mean?” If so you are in good company because even the Apostle Peter said that some of Paul’s writings are “hard to understand.”
Because some passages are harder than others, I want to share three easy tools I use to untangle hard verses.
Tool #1. Read 3-5 other translations.
If you read an English Bible, you are reading a translation of God’s Word. Hebrew and Greek are the two languages that most of the Bible was written in, and those Hebrew and Greek words are literally “God’s Words.” All English Bibles are translations of those original inspired words, so English speaking people can read a translation of what God said without learning Hebrew or Greek (which is not very easy to do). So praise God for Bible translators!
Bible translation is a big topic, and every translation is a bit different. Some translations take a word-for-word approach, while others take a thought-for-thought approach. So which is better? Well, it depends on how you are interacting with God’s word. If you are studying a passage, a word-for-word translation is best. If you are just reading large chunks of scripture, you may prefer a thought-for-thought translation.
I say all this to say you can use various translations together to help unpack complex verses.
When I come across a hard verse in my ESV Bible, I open up Biblegateway.com on my iPhone or computer and click through a few different translations. Here is the order I usually follow: CSV, NASB, NIV, KJV, NLT, The Message. Typically after reading the same verse through 3-5 different translations, I can begin to untangle the words and discover what the writer was trying to say.
Let’s take 1 Timothy 2:15 through 3 various translations.
ESV – “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”
Wait, did Paul just say women will be saved through having babies? I thought we are all saved by faith alone, through Christ alone? This is a hard verse, so let’s read it in two more translations.
NLT – “But women will be saved through childbearing, assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.”
Well the NLT is about the same. Now let’s look at the Message.
The Message – “On the other hand, her childbearing brought about salvation, reversing Eve. But this salvation only comes to those who continue in faith, love, and holiness, gathering it all into maturity. You can depend on this.”
In this last translation, Eugene Peterson (author of the Message) offers some help. Peterson takes liberty from the context of Paul’s argument to add “reversing Eve.” So it’s not through having babies that women will experience personal salvation, it’s rather from the birth of one baby (Jesus) that the curse is broke. Therefore the women (and men) who experience salvation are those who continue with faith in Jesus.
Since the Message cleared that verse up, why not just always study from the Message? In the Message, Peterson translates the “meaning” of the original languages into our modern thought, rather than just translating the Hebrew and Greek words. So I like to think of the Message translation as one man’s understanding of what the Biblical writers were trying to say, rather than what they actually said. So I use the Message to help untangle hard text, or just read large portions of scripture, but not as my primary Bible translation.
Tool #2. Use a Study Bible.
I highly recommend buying the ESV Study Bible. I recommend this one because it’s the one I use and have found it to be wonderfully helpful. Plus if you buy a hardcopy, you get a code for a digital version (which is how I almost always use it).
I love study Bibles because they are short and sweet, and pack a lot of punch. Commentaries are great resources but require lots of reading. Study Bibles, on the other hand, get right to the point with very few words. So when I need a little help with a troubling verse in my devotional study, the second base I run to is my Study Bible.
Tool #3. Look up Words.
The big truth I learned taking Hebrew and Greek in Seminary is that we have really good English translations of the Bible. However, the problem with our English Bibles is that we often don’t know English! So for the third tool for unpacking hard text I am going to recommend looking up Hebrew and Greek words, not because you need to know Hebrew or Greek, but because you need to know English.
There is a great online resource for looking up words called Blue Letter Bible. At the top of the site click “search” and then type in a verse you want to study. When the reference appears, you can click on the verse and an interlinear toolbar will appear. Here you can see all the words used in that verse, and the Strong’s number associated with each.
Click the Strong’s number to get a detailed description of the Greek word, but keep in mind your not trying to learn Greek, you are trying to learn English!
The phrase “as a ransom” is used in 1 Timothy 2:6. Well, what does “ransom” mean? It’s one of those church words we use but may not understand. When you click the Strong’s number, the definition appears and says, “what is given in exchange for another as the price of his redemption, ransom.” This means Jesus paid the price for our sins when He died the death we all deserve.
Now be careful here. Often a Greek word will have a range of meanings (just like English words do). So unless you have a Ph.D. in Biblical Languages, trust the people who do and go with the meaning they chose to use in the verse you are studying. Your job is not to find and insert a different word, but rather understand fully the word chosen.
The Apostle Peter was right; some scriptures are just hard to understand. However, using these three simple tools can sure make them a little easier.