The Bible is God's love letter to us. When we read it, we should first and foremost ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us through it. But relying on only our own individual perception can lead to poor interpretation; there are three questions we can ask to make sure our understanding is correct.
2. What did it mean to the original audience?Even though the Bible contains God's message for us, it wasn't originally written to us.
When you read "Count it all joy when you face all kinds trials" (James 1:2), is God talking to you about how you should respond to your little sister bugging you, or your internet going down? Well, maybe (especially if your response needs work). But when you stop to think that the people to whom James wrote (and 200 million Christians today) were literally thrown out of their families, and living under the threat of martyrdom for their faith... maybe your own "trials" won't seem so significant.
Each part of the Bible was written for a specific purpose, and it helps to understand that when considering what it means for us today. What sort of writing is it -- history, poetry, prophecy, personal letter? What was the author (or the recipient) going through at the time? Most Bibles have an introduction to each book that help you answer these questions and deepen your understanding.
Different times and cultures
The first readers of biblical writings would have a much different understanding about how the world works. After all, it was written over a span of ~3500-2000 years ago, in many distinct political and geographical settings that were quite different from ours. A good study Bible or Bible guide can go a long way in helping us appreciate what topics like this would have meant to the people first hearing it.
It shouldn't be any surprise that the Bible was written in Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). Thanks to the many English translations we now have, you don't have to be a biblical languages scholar to study the Bible. But these days, all kinds of books and online tools allow you to dig into the original language and try to understand better what it means. But use caution -- translating is tricky business!
Even if you leave the translating to the experts, it's important to remember that no Bible version is perfect. When doing serious study of a passage, it's always a good idea to read it in at least a couple of different translations, using different styles -- one using word-for-word (like ESV or NASB), one or more with thought-for-thought (e.g., NIV, NCV, or NLT).
Have you ever suddenly understood a Bible reference because of something you learned about the language or historical background?
Yesterday: 1. How does this verse fit with the rest of the Bible?
Tomorrow: 3. How has it been traditionally understood by the Church throughout history?