“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11-12.
As many of us know, God gave us teachers to help us study His Word and know Him better. Wise teachers over the centuries have provided us with some basic rules for interpreting the Bible. While volumes of books have been written on this topic, these are some my thoughts on the broad topic interpretation.
First of all, what we’re discussing is called hermeneutics, which is just a fancy word for the science or study of how to interpret. The subject matter of interest to us for the interpretation at hand is, of course, the Bible. Most Christians believe the Bible is not just a book. We know it was compiled by dozens of authors, in three continents, at least a couple ancient languages, and over hundreds of years. But we also believe it is God’s very words to us, as He personally guided the Bible’s creation.
Since these words are God’s words then, and they are holy, meaning set apart, different. Because of that, we are wise to approach these words with care and reverence, lest we be guilty of “twisting” them to teach and say simply what we want them to say and not what God has intended (2 Peter 3:16).
The attitude that we bring to the Scripture therefore is humility and a commitment to lifelong learning. We stand under the Word of God and see it as our authority. It has been wisely said that it is not our goal to “master” the Scripture so much as it is to have the Scripture master us. To say it another way, when we examine the Scripture, we should experience the reality that it is actually the Scripture that examines us. It is alive (Hebrews 4:12) and with it God accomplishes whatever he purposes. (Isaiah 55:11) So the Bible doesn’t just contain words about God. They are God’s own Words. Whenever we read what Paul teaches, for example, we are actually shown in that moment what God says. I’ve heard people say they disagree with something Paul said, but if we believe “all Scripture is God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), disagreeing with a teaching of Paul in Scripture is something we should not do. That is why Paul can say to the Thessalonians, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
Additionally, John 1:1 says “…the word was God.” In Revelation 19:13, Jesus “is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.” So we don’t study the Bible to learn about God so much we study the Bible to meet with God. Therefore I would also say the opposite must be true, that if we aren’t studying the Bible, we aren’t meeting with God. Prayer is the primary way we speak to God, and His Word is the primary way He speaks to us. The Word of God is how we know Christ better, and therefore is the primary way in which he has chosen to speak to us today. (Hebrews 1:2)
With these thoughts in mind as our foundation, everything else I am about to say is secondary, including the following tools for interpretation.
As a teacher of God’s Word, it is important to get familiar with two concepts that represent the two ways of approaching the text. There are only two. While you may not remember how to pronounce or spell the words exegesis or eisegesis, we should all be familiar with what they stand for.
Eisegesis is starting with an idea you want to teach and then finding Scripture to support your view. This is dangerous because it begins with a presupposition, and runs a greater risk of bias, or subjectivity. With this method we read into the text what we want it to say. Using this method one can potentially use the Bible to propound whatever ideas one wishes.
Instead, what we should be aiming for is exegesis, which means to draw out the meaning in the text. With this method, we first decide what passage of scripture to study, and only after our study are we able to say what it is we will be teaching about. Each time we study God’s Word, we humbly admit there may be something to learn, even if it is a passage we are very familiar with. If exegesis is our goal, then we will be far less likely to use the Bible as our own soapbox for our own agendas. We can’t fully escape our own biases and lenses in which we see the world, but we can pray and make it our goal to discover the message God has for his people, rather than deliver our own messages.
Here are some practical ways to “exegete” or draw out the meaning in Scripture. I’ll be discussing 1) Grammatical context and 2) Historical and literary context.
Part 1: Grammatical Context
What I mean by grammatical context is, without consulting any other resources, look first simply at the language or text itself.
It’s best to have read the entire Bible at least once in your lifetime before teaching any passage. Knowing Jesus himself tells us to “judge with right judgment.” (John 7:24) will give balance to what we say about him telling us to “judge not.” (Matthew 7:1)
When we study a verse of Scripture we should study 1) the surrounding verses 2) the chapter 3) the book or letter itself 4) what the rest of the Bible might say about that verse. The further away from the verse we get in the Bible, the greater chances of similar sounding verses having different meanings, and it’s important to understand the differences. For example, in Ephesians 6, it is widely accepted that the breastplate of righteousness actually refers mainly to right-doing, in context, rather than the righteousness we receive in Christ (Romans 4:22). Knowing this enhances what we might teach about Ephesians 6.
With this in mind, it follows that when we cite Scripture in our teachings, most of the verses we cite should probably be found closest to the very verse(s) we are teaching on. Entire sermons and entire books can be written on 2-3 verses of Scripture if we do our homework. In other words, when someone finishes reading our teaching they shouldn’t be left wondering which passage it is they just studied. It’s not likely people will be able to remember that if instead of primarily citing our passage we instead cited scripture from all over the Bible to support what we wanted to say.
Bible Versions and Original Languages. Do check out multiple translations but please be careful which ones you consult. It’s important to realize that all Bible versions are translations from manuscripts of ancient Hebrew for the Old Testament, Greek for the Old and New Testament, and sometimes even from Latin or Aramaic or other languages. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, more modern Bible versions are actually considered more accurate than older translations because they had direct access to even older manuscripts. For example, if you like the KJV I would encourage you to instead try using the NKJV which consults the oldest manuscripts we have access to today. For example, one verse that comes to mind is 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Modern translations show that Scripture there seems to be teaching us to avoid “all kinds” of evil rather than the “appearance” of evil. This has great implications, as it seems Jesus certainly appeared to be evil to many people, associating so much with the lowly that he was called a glutton and a drunkard. So we are to avoid being and doing evil, not necessarily appearing evil. We may appear evil while actually doing good! If we are to avoid doing the right thing as to not appear evil, then Jesus certainly wouldn’t have been able to die on a cross for us.
One of the reasons I like the ESV translation is that it is a word-for-word translation, whereas the NIV is a thought-for-thought translation. For this reason the NIV may be easier to read and understand since entire thoughts are translated into modern language, but the ESV may be better for Bible teachers because it translates the definitions of each word more accurately. I am not against using the NIV, in fact I would recommend it to a new Christian for reading through the Bible. But knowing that the New Testament was written primarily in one language (Greek) should prevent us from searching for translations of verses to support what we would rather they say. Instead as teachers we should ask ourselves, is this the best way of translating this from the Greek? Translations like The Message Bible are actually paraphrases and not actual Bible translations. The Passion Translation is not a genuine Bible translation, and in my opinion and according to my research is also a poor paraphrase. Please just be careful how you use translations and consider how faithful they are or aren’t to the original languages.
Part 2: Historical Context and Literary Considerations
After reading your scripture passage, surrounding passages, cross references, other versions, and perhaps even the original languages, jotting down your notes and observations, the best place to go next are Bible Commentaries by recognized Christian scholars.
I first want to point out that Protestants typically believe in the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains what we believe when we speak of the perspicuity of Scripture: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all. Yet, those things that are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or another, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” In other words, not everything in Scripture is easy to understand, but what we must understand in order to be saved is clear.1
The unlearned and those without access to commentaries can still preach God’s Word. But since God has seen fit to provide most of us with commentaries, we are wise to use them to enhance our ability to communicate God’s messages to his people. We consult commentaries to hear what the rest of the Church has gleaned from studying God’s Word. We take our study out of a vacuum and participate with Christ’s body, the Church, as it proclaims the gospel in the world.
I recommend reading at least 3-4 commentaries on any passage you plan to teach on. Please also use good judgment with what commentaries you select and read them critically. A professor of mine used to say that if you agree with everything in a book you either didn’t read it, or you wrote it. Here is a list of commentaries I personally recommend.
Be careful with prooftexts. Reading commentaries provides us with more context than we receive simply by observing the Scripture. Theologian Dr. Donald A. Carson attributes his father saying, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” In other words, writing a sentence and then citing a Scripture after that sentence without providing the background and circumstances of that Scripture is a poor justification for whatever is being taught. All Christian Bible teachers use prooftexts from time to time. I’ve used them throughout this very article! They ought to be used carefully after those passages have been studied, but we often use them to keep the flow of thought going, and we don’t always provide context. The point is that a teaching that consists of prooftexts without context may still be helpful in some ways, and thought provoking, but may or may not be something God’s Word teaches. This very article is such an example of this. A certain level of trust is being given to me to explain some general principles I’ve found over the years on Biblical interpretation, but I’m claiming these principles are only generally true. In other words, this article is not a teaching on a passage of Scripture. I started with what I wanted to say and I’m now attempting to prove that to you based on experience (which happens to include studying the Bible). This is okay, as long as we all understand the difference between this article and a faithful Biblical teaching on a passage of Scripture.
Commentaries by Bible scholars provide us with research that is not always given to us in the Bible about the passage we are teaching on. There are six or so categories of information that we should be familiar with when teaching Scripture such as authorship, date, setting, purpose, audience and themes:
- Whenever I talk about authorship I like to point out that God is the primary author of all Scripture. After this, it is helpful to know whether it was Moses, David, the Apostle Paul, or another person God inspired to write the passage. For example, it matters, and is even more powerful, that four different people wrote their accounts of the four gospels because they all agree in their overall message regarding Christ’s death and resurrection as a historical fact.
- The date a certain passage of Scripture was written provides us with an idea of what events were taking place either during the events being recorded, or at the time those events are being written down. This may seem obvious but the date of writing is not always the date of when the events written about took place. In fact, some may be surprised to learn that several of Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels or Acts were written, even though the events recorded in the Gospels happened long before Paul became a Christian. It’s important to keep a timeline in mind when possible. Perhaps the most important area the subject of date concerns is prophecy. For example, Isaiah’s prophecies contain such details of the future that non-Christian scholars want to say the author of Isaiah was actually writing history. The date therefore changes how we might teach the text.
- The setting of a passage includes things like the geographical location, the climate, the culture at the time. It makes a difference, for example, that Laodicea was located in an area known for very cold water springs and hot springs, as well as lukewarm and nauseating mineral springs. So when Jesus says he will spit out lukewarm water (Revelation 3:16), he is not saying that being good or evil is okay as long as you’re not somewhere in the middle. Cold and hot water are useful while lukewarm water is generally not useful. Jesus is saying to be useful, purposeful and do what is right.
- The purpose of a certain passage of scripture is sometimes found in the letter itself. For example, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” (1 John 2) Other sections of Scripture are not always so clear. The background for the entire book of Galatians for example likely has to do with the events surrounding the ones recorded in Acts 15 regarding whether or not gentiles should be forced to be circumcised. Checking cross references will help with things like this.
- Understanding the original audience becomes important for example in Romans, which is written “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” which included mostly gentiles, as did most of Paul’s ministry. So in Romans 9 where Paul discusses election, he is not giving a history lesson to Jews about good works, but is showing the Romans why they ought to be humble regarding their faith and calling.
- General themes of a Biblical book are good to keep in mind as you teach any passage. I don’t recommend teaching on any verses until you have had a fresh reading of that book, perhaps even reading that book 2-3 times. Doing so will allow you to see repetition like the phrase “In Christ” for example that is repeated 13 times in the short book of Ephesians. “In Christ” therefore is not a throwaway phrase but carries significant meaning.
- In recent days the Bible has been classified by its various literary genres.
- Knowing that Philippians is an epistle (letter) from the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi should cause us to pay close attention to the commands from God we receive there as a letter to a pupil from a master teacher.
- In contrast, knowing that 1 and 2 Kings is narrative or historical writing can help us remember that the evil recorded in it is not a prescription for the behavior of God’s people. That Abraham is praised for his faith in the Bible and yet had more than one wife is an example of where the Bible simply records truth and doesn’t always give a commentary on what should have happened. By the way, this is also an indication that the main point of the Bible is not morality, but faith in Christ Jesus to rescue us from our sins.
- Proverbs is wisdom literature with maxims and principles for life that are generally true, but not always true. For example, “The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.” (Proverbs 12:24). It’s true that hard work can generally make a person a candidate for leadership and being lazy can bring a person trouble, but we’ve all seen lazy people in leadership, and hard working people being taken advantage of.
- Poetry explains the intense expression of emotional despair sometimes found in the Psalms. Some scholars find that the genre of prose also accounts for things like God creating light on the first day in Genesis 1 and the sources of that light on the fourth day; or that all plants are made before man in Genesis 1 but that “no shrub” exists until after Adam in chapter 2.
- Daniel and Revelation contain both prophecy and highly symbolic apocalyptic writing. Understanding apocalyptic as a genre gives us permission to be less literal in our interpretation, whereas we should probably generally elsewhere take the Bible literally instead of interpreting everything symbolically.
Let’s conclude with a couple examples of commonly misinterpreted Scriptures:
- “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.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13) Remembering that this was spoken specifically to Israelites under the oppression of Babylon and that it was spoken for their encouragement, that God had intentions to make Israel prosper, reduces the chances we will use this Scripture to teach that Christians will always be prosperous today (or never experience harm if we just have enough faith). Jesus said we would have trouble in this world. (John 16:33)
- “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14. God’s people should always pray for our governments and those in authority, for the peace and welfare of the nations in which we live. However, this was spoken to Israel regarding their holy and promised land. Our “promised land” today is in heaven and is not, for example, the USA. As Christians, the countries we live in are not “Christian” lands. The Kingdom we belong to is the Church and a heavenly one (1 Peter 1:4), and our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). As “aliens” or “exiles” on the earth (1 Peter 2:11) Christians should pray for our world but also expect difficulty in the non-Christian nations we live in until Christ returns.
In summary, having studied the grammatical, historical and literary context of a passage, we are far less likely to twist the Scripture into saying what we want, but will faithfully proclaim God’s message of the gospel, which is all we are called to do. “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15)