Interpretation - Understanding the Bible


By William J. Brown

Understanding the Bible, for the Christian, is what digestion is for the human body. A person can take in food. But if his body does not digest it properly, the food has no use to him.

Our spiritual nourishment is the Bible. But if we can't understand it, God's Wisdom has no meaning.

At the heart of all this is biblical interpretation.

What is biblical interpretation?

It's understanding the Bible properly.

We'll try to discuss this practically. If you're looking for theories and conjectures about interpretive method, you've come to the wrong place. God has made His Word available to everyone. So...

...understanding the Bible shouldn't have to be learned as if it were quantum physics.

We'll try to "place the cookie jar on the bottom shelf" with this study. To do this I'll lay out a few principles for properly understanding the Bible. Unfortunately, we don't have time to look at every rule regarding biblical interpretation. We'll just look at few.

Then we'll go over together various passages that will allow us to see the principle in action and in a practical, applied way.

But you'll have to excuse me for using the first person singular pronouns (I, me, my, etc.) I have tried to avoid that in most of the Bible studies on this site. But I couldn't avoid it in teaching rules of interpretation because many of these principles are my own. So I look at them from a "first person singular" perspective.

Understanding the Bible is so important. It's my passion to lead others to better understanding of Scriptural Truth.

I hope I don't offend anyone because of this.

Enough of that. Let's get into understanding the Bible better...

Spiritual Nourishment for the Soul

As we said, the key to understanding the Bible is properly interpreting it. Our "Bible Study Guide" alluded to this in the previous lesson. Now we get into the meaty stuff, the stuff that feeds our spiritual life.

Let's look at a few (certainly not all) principles that will help us in understanding the Bible better...

Principle #1 - Be careful to understand the context.

Some of you may not know what I mean by context. Very simply, context in biblical interpretation refers to all the verses before and after the verse or verses you're looking at. If we were reading fiction (and we're not!) then this would be the plot line.

It would be ridiculous to try to start, say, in the middle of Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities and understand the plot. Logically the book would have no meaning without the context of what we are reading.

So God's Word has certain logical boundaries. A verse or group of verses should be taken within the context of the entire passage or book of the Bible.

Let's look at an example. John 1:1a says...

"In the beginning was the Word..."

Hmmm. What do we make of this? If we were to take this and try to interpret it, what would be the result?

We would probably assume that the "beginning" here is referring to the creation of the world. Also, we would assume that "the Word" is a reference to the Bible, God's Word.

This sounds good at first blush. But if we examine the rest of the verse and the rest of the chapter we see something different. The rest of the verse and the next says...

"and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God."

Here the text very clearly states that "the Word" and God are one and the same. Read the rest of the passage and we find that Jesus is "the Word." This is not speaking of the Bible at all.

And our idea that "the beginning" is speaking of the creation of the world is invalid as well. Verse three says this...

"All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made."

The point John is making here is not that Jesus was at the beginning of the world. His point is that Jesus was there before the beginning of the world. In fact, Jesus was the One who created it all!

We would never have gotten that from just the first part of John 1:1. We had to read its context to understand the verse.

My point in all this is...

Be careful to interpret God's Word within the context its given. Or...

Make sure the verses around the verse you're reading agree with your own understanding. Let the Bible interpret itself. This is most important in understanding the Bible properly.

Principle #2 - Take the Bible literally unless the text says otherwise.

This principle seems simple enough. Yet, it also seems like the one principle that many reject in biblical interpretation.

Usually, there are two extremes. One group takes everything in the Bible literally. Even if the context says other wise. Take it literally!

Another group goes to the opposite extreme. They say that nothing in the Bible should be taken literally. It's all a "mysterious allegory." All we have to do is have some "leap of faith" experience and we'll understand.

Sorry folks. I don't think understanding the Bible and biblical interpretation are that hard.

Sometimes the Bible does use literary imagery (similes, metaphors, anthropomorphisms etc.) to make difficult things easier to understand. Now, if you have no idea what I just said, hold tight. I'll explain...

If you're a parent, you probably remember telling your child stories when they were very young. Perhaps you told them the one about "The Three Bears." Have you ever wondered about that?

In the story you have humans and animals all acting like...ah...humans. Why can Goldilocks communicate with bears? Why are bears living in a house, eating soup and sleeping in beds? Why would we tell stories like that?!?

This is a good example of anthropomorphism, giving human characteristics to objects or animals.

Obviously, we can't take the story literally. But we can learn a lesson from it...

"Don't take things that don't belong to you!"

Jesus used many such illustrations in His ministry. He called them parables. Although the stories were not real the underlying principles were very real, and we ought to heed them.

Here's another clue I've found useful. If "like" or "as" is used, it's probably not speaking in literal terms. It's illustrating a difficult fact by using something simple and easy to understand. Many have misinterpreted Old Testament passages by taking these types of ideas to an illogical extreme.

Don't do that!

Make sure that you're sure if the passage is speaking literally or figuratively.

Most of the Bible speaks in literal terms. So we should interpret it that way. If it were something so mysterious that we can't understand it why did God give it to us?

God wants us to know His Word. Understanding the Bible is a large part of knowing and obeying it. God has given us clear instruction. We should at least try to oblige.

Principle #3 - Be careful to understand the difference between culture and truth.

By this I mean that we need to be careful to discern between what was meant for that specific time and what is meant for us now.

Let me tell you what I don't mean. I don't mean to tell you to throw out the parts of the Bible you don't find relevant today. II Timothy 3:16 says...

"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness."

Notice it not only says that "All scripture is given," but it also says "All profitable." God has given His Word to us that we might grow. There isn't anything in there by mistake.

Then you might ask about passages like I Corinthians 11? It speaks of a woman having long hair. The text seems to indicate that a woman should have long hair. If she doesn't, she has broken a biblical commandment. Or so it seems.

If you carefully examine this passage, you'll find it's speaking about more than just head coverings and hair. Paul, right at the beginning of the passage, says in verse three...

"But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God."

His whole argument revolves around the discussion of godly authority and obedience not hair. And if you look at how Paul ends the discussion, it all becomes crystal clear. He says in verses 15 and 16...

"But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God."

Did you notice what Paul said? He attributed the idea of "long hair" on women to custom, one the church did not hold to as doctrine.

His point was that women should be subject to their husbands as the spiritual leader. This passage is pregnant with so many different truths we would be here all day if we tried to discover them all. But for now we will leave this discussion at that.

Understanding the Bible remains within the distance of our spiritual reach. Once again, God's Word is clear as to what it means.

Principle #4 - Always keep in mind that God's Word is our foundation.

This isn't as simple as it sounds. Many have forsaken Christianity because they just couldn't believe what the Book says because they had difficulty understanding the Bible. If you carry nothing else away with you today. Remember this...

"If you reject the Bible as truth, you reject your entire faith."

I know I'll probably raise a few eyebrows with that one. I may step on a few toes as well. But let's get this straight right now...

God's word is truth (John 17:17.)

There are some who call themselves Christians out there who try to take passages (I Corinthians 11 for example) and say it was for another time. Therefore, how can we trust any of it?

Let me ask this of those who use such arguments...

How can you trust the part that says "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16) if the rest or most of the Bible is in error. Logically speaking, either you believe all of it or none of it. There can be no in between.

I'm not smart enough to determine if certain parts are correct or not. I just take by faith that what God says is Truth (John 17:17.)

If you don't take this Book as divine Truth, you can't truly call yourself a Christian because your foundation is faulty. It contains error.

Try mixing dirt in with concrete sometime and then pouring it. The impurities will leave weakness in the slab when it dries and will cause cracking and ultimate destruction. You'll have to dig it up and pour it again.

Your faith has an even more important Foundation, the Word of God. This is a foundation that's sure. Take it all as the Word of God. No cracking and crumbling here!

So, if God calls it good, then embrace it.

If He calls it sin, run from it. It's as easy as that...

His Word is Truth (John 17:17.)

This is so important to understanding the Bible.

Principle #5 - Ask God for His help.

Understanding the Bible takes leading from God, Himself. Although this one doesn't deal directly with biblical interpretation of texts it remains as the most important part of Bible study. Make sure you first ask the Author of the Book to give you insight into what He really means.

Without the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit of God we can't truly understand the Bible. God gives us the ability to understand His Word. That means we need to have a close relationship with Him first.

That means we need to accept Him as our Lord and Savior first. If you haven't taken that first step in true Bible study click here to meet the Author of the greatest Book of all, the Bible.

We hope this study has been valuable to you. God bless.

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