. How to interpret the Bible

HOW TO INTERPRET THE BIBLE

 

The Word of God is alive, and most of us own at least 2 versions. But often when we want to study the Word of God we ask ourselves simple questions on how to study the Bible. It is an ancient document, Inspired by God and spans an enormous time of human history, and therefore it can be quite a daunting task. I want to make it as simple for you as possible today and give you 7 principles by which you can interpret Scripture.


I want to at the outset warn you against Pastor Google. Some people find the easiest way to study Scripture to simply google the meaning. Sadly, there is more rubbish out there than good stuff. You need to understand that the good guys get published, the rest publish on the Net. There is a lot of good information on the web as well, as long as you can discern what is good.

 

 

So, to understand the Bible, you need to interpret the Bible, as you are seeking to understand it’s meaning in the time it was written.

The science that is required for interpretation is called “Hermeneutics”. Hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts. When we encounter a challenging verse, passage, or doctrine there are a few key principles of hermeneutics that can make anyone’s Bible reading a more fruitful endeavour.

 

1. Listen for the truth


The best place to start is to read and read and read so that somehow you can get to the heart of Scripture. One of the dangers in Biblical interpretation is that people are familiar with most texts and therefore think that they understand the text in context, but more than often it is their own context enforced on Scripture.

 

We need to get to the heart or Scopus of Scripture, and the best way to do that is to read and re-read, and in so doing to listen to the truths that God wants you to know, and to meditate on them. Once you are familiar with the key thoughts you can then proceed to interpret them in a deeper manner, to make sure you understand it’s true meaning. Psalm 1.

As far as the Bible is concerned, truth is what corresponds to reality. Biblical authors, and the God who inspired them, never intended for readers to twist the Scriptures into clay figures that suited them. Instead, they had a very specific meaning they wanted us to grasp. This is crucial to recognize because Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to us. Revelation is about getting to know God, so it is essential that we understand the truth of what God is revealing to us so that we can know him truly.

 

2. Understand the context


One of the most critical forms of interpretation is to understand the Word of God in it’s grammatical and historical context. Simply meaning, that the original hearers spoke different and lived different than we do, and therefore they understood the meaning of a text different to the way we do. We now need to discover how they understood it, so that we can find application in the original meaning of the text.

Therefore, context is a very important part of interpretation. First, there is the original context and cultural setting of the Bible. It’s important to have some understanding of this so we can grapple with passages and apply them meaningfully to our lives today. Second, there’s the immediate context of a passage. Sometimes we read a single verse in isolation, forgetting that it has an immediate context: it is part of a flow of ideas before and after it. Remember that none of the books of the Bible were written in chapters and verses.

Furthermore, each word is part of a sentence, which is part of an argument, which is part of a book or letter. Each book of Scripture is also written within a specific genre and exists within the larger context of the Old Testament or New Testament, as well as within Scripture as a whole. This leads to the next principle. The Old Testament is the New Testament revealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament concealed.

To understand context, we must ask all the WH questions from the text. Who, when, what, why, where? This will help you majorly with context.

 

3. Let Scripture interpret Scripture


The Bible is a collection of divinely inspired writings written by several authors, living in different geographical areas in some cases, and written over a long span of history, yet it retains an amazing unity. Because the many voices of Scripture make up God’s unified revelation, we want to let Scripture interpret Scripture. This involves examining what the Bible has to say on a topic as a whole rather than just picking stray verses here and there and coming to a conclusion.

That is why these promise boxes that we knew as children are dangerous, as you pick out your verse and read it with no understanding of its actual meaning in Scripture. Today people post your verse for today on Facebook or through WhatsApp with no concern for its actual intention. It sounds good, therefore it is good. E.g. Jeremiah 29:11.

Scripture often interprets itself. For example in John 1:1, we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” A plain reading of the text will never allow you to understand what this Word was. You have to keep reading as the rest of the passage helps us interpret this verse as we read, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us …” (John 1:14), showing us that the Word is Christ.

Another example is the parable of the sower in Luke 8. After Jesus shares the parable, we read, “And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he [Jesus] said …” (Luke 8:9). In the verses that follow (vv. 10-14), Scripture interprets itself by telling us what Jesus meant.

 

4. Read from the text, not into it


Too often we come to the Bible with our own pre-conceived ideas. If we do that, we’ll eventually fall into the trap of trying to make the Scriptures say what we want them to say instead of drawing out from them what the author—and God—intended. The technical word for this error is eisegesis—reading into the text. What we want to do is the opposite, called exegesis, which means drawing out from the text what the author intended to communicate.

Just this last week I dealt with the meaning of Hebrews 12:15 which says that we must not allow a root of bitterness to grow up. Based on a plain reading in 2018 we believe this verse talks about bitter and angry people who are somehow bearing grudges. But if you were to turn to Deuteronomy 29:18 you will quickly understand that in Hebrew culture, this was with reference to the root of a poisonous plant. Therefore, the root of bitterness is something in anybody’s life that if not dealt with, causes problems on the surface for the church. It is like the theologian who wrote a book on “Three strands that cannot be broken.” His verse was from Ecclesiastes 4:12 (ESV) and he conveniently quoted the section: “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” He then went on to say that he prayed long to the Holy Spirit to give him the meaning of the text, and the Holy Spirit told him that it is all about giving, because where there is a giver, there is always a gift and there is a receiver. This is the three-fold chord that cannot be broken. This was clearly the message he wanted to read into Scripture for the sake of money, because just by reading verse 12 alone it is clear that the meaning is about companionship versus loneliness. It says: 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”


5. Trust the clarity of Scripture


We can expect that Scripture will be clear as it is the sword of the Spirit. Since theologians love coming up with obscure names for things, they call this principle the perspicuity of Scripture. This means that the Bible is clear when it comes to letting us know about essential, important teachings. It doesn’t contain secret messages that only the elite can understand (though Greek and Hebrew scholars can give us insights). It’s not that there aren’t parts of Scripture that are difficult to understand, but on the whole its key points are clearly presented and are meant to be understood. All people can understand Scripture if they apply these rules.

 

6. Recognize literal and figurative language


The Bible uses literal and figurative language. In his book Scripture Twisting, James Sire observes that we can fall into an error of interpretation by, “Either (1) mistaking literal language for figurative language or (2) mistaking figurative language for literal language.” Context helps us determine whether what we are reading is intended literally or figuratively. I have often used the example of an Afrikaans saying: “Jy is ‘n regte pampoen” translated – “You are a real pumpkin,” which means you are somewhat dumb or stupid. Just think of the struggles 2000 years from now if they dig up a letter in which I said this to somebody. They must conclude that pumpkins were living beings 2000 years ago, and possibly that humans evolved from pumpkins.

There are times when we must not burn out our brains to understand symbols and metaphors, for example those used in Revelation. Rather look for the message, the heart of the text, seek to understand God and discover the heart of God for you. There are times you must live with the tensions. All you need to do to discover some of the tensions is to read different reliable theologians on the issues, and you will quickly discover that we have more to learn. This leads me to my next point.

 

7. Handle interpretation disagreements wisely


While the principles I’ve outlined here are intended to help better understand and interpret Scripture, in some cases we’re still left with disagreements of interpretation. This doesn’t mean that we all get to have our own personal interpretations and go about our business ignoring other people’s interpretations. One way to handle disagreements is first to determine if the area of disagreement involves a primary (closed-handed) doctrine or a secondary (open-handed) one.

Primary doctrines include the essentials of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity, Jesus as fully God and fully man, and salvation by faith in Christ. There are also secondary doctrines, such as worship style, mode of Communion, or belief in the rapture, which permit a range of beliefs providing they fall within the limits of biblical truth. If the interpretation difference is over a secondary doctrine, there is often room for some disagreement.

On the whole, Scripture’s key points are clearly presented and are meant to be understood.

If we find ourselves in disagreement over a central doctrine, then we want to make sure that we’re not holding to a view that is less than orthodox. Tradition isn’t on the level of Scripture, but we can learn from the history of the church, such as by studying creeds and other statements of faith. If it turns out we’re holding to a view that is not in line with what the church as a whole has agreed on for some two thousand years, that’s a good indication that our interpretation is probably off and that we need to revisit it.

 

In addition to the traditions of the church, when we find ourselves in disagreement over matters of interpretation, it’s a good idea to talk to a pastor or elder about the issue in question. In many cases a simple conversation with someone who has spent time working through issues of interpretation can clear things up.

It’s important, too, that we handle disagreements of interpretation with the love Christ wants us to display. This means we are to be kind and gracious to one another even if we find ourselves disagreeing with a fellow Christian about a particular point of interpretation.

Hermeneutics is a deep and rich subject, but these guidelines will help you get a long way in “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Most importantly, ask the Holy Spirit to guide and illuminate you as you sincerely seek to understand God’s word.

 

 

BIBLICAL ILLUSTRATION ON WHY INTERPRETATION IN CONTEXT IS CRITICAL.

Jeremiah 28-29:32 (ESV)


1 In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah king of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, 2 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3 Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. 4 I will also bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, declares the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” 5 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to Hananiah the prophet in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord, 6 and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord make the words that you have prophesied come true, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. 7 Yet hear now this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” 10 Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke-bars from the neck of Jeremiah the prophet and broke them. 11 And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord: Even so will I break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years.” But Jeremiah the prophet went his way. 12 Sometime after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke-bars from off the neck of Jeremiah the prophet, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “Go, tell Hananiah, ‘Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars, but you have made in their place bars of iron. 14 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put upon the neck of all these nations an iron yoke to serve Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and they shall serve him, for I have given to him even the beasts of the field.’ ” 15 And Jeremiah the prophet said to the prophet Hananiah, “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie. 16 Therefore thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will remove you from the face of the earth. This year you shall die, because you have uttered rebellion against the Lord.’ ” 17 In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died. 1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord. 10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.


11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.


12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. 15 “Because you have said, ‘The Lord has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,’ 16 thus says the Lord concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who dwell in this city, your kinsmen who did not go out with you into exile: 17 ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, 19 because they did not pay attention to my words, declares the Lord, that I persistently sent to you by my servants the prophets, but you would not listen, declares the Lord.’ 20 Hear the word of the Lord, all you exiles whom I sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon: 21 ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, concerning Ahab the son of Kolaiah and Zedekiah the son of Maaseiah, who are prophesying a lie to you in my name: Behold, I will deliver them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he shall strike them down before your eyes. 22 Because of them this curse shall be used by all the exiles from Judah in Babylon: “The Lord make you like Zedekiah and Ahab, whom the king of Babylon roasted in the fire,” 23 because they have done an outrageous thing in Israel, they have committed adultery with their neighbors’ wives, and they have spoken in my name lying words that I did not command them. I am the one who knows, and I am witness, declares the Lord.’ ” 24 To Shemaiah of Nehelam you shall say: 25 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: You have sent letters in your name to all the people who are in Jerusalem, and to Zephaniah the son of Maaseiah the priest, and to all the priests, saying, 26 ‘The Lord has made you priest instead of Jehoiada the priest, to have charge in the house of the Lord over every madman who prophesies, to put him in the stocks and neck irons. 27 Now why have you not rebuked Jeremiah of Anathoth who is prophesying to you? 28 For he has sent to us in Babylon, saying, “Your exile will be long; build houses and live in them, and plant gardens and eat their produce.” ’ ” 29 Zephaniah the priest read this letter in the hearing of Jeremiah the prophet. 30 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 31 “Send to all the exiles, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord concerning Shemaiah of Nehelam: Because Shemaiah had prophesied to you when I did not send him, and has made you trust in a lie, 32 therefore thus says the Lord: Behold, I will punish Shemaiah of Nehelam and his descendants. He shall not have anyone living among this people, and he shall not see the good that I will do to my people, declares the Lord, for he has spoken rebellion against the Lord.’”