10 Principles to Help You Better Interpret the Bible

Principle 1: Pray. “Lord, will you help me? Please give me a clear mind. Please enable me to wisely use what I have learned in order to understand your word.”

Principle 2: Be an Inquisitor. Never tire of asking questions of the text. You’ll get further, the more willing you are to ask questions. What is the context of this text? Who are the people who were the original hearers in the text? Who were likely the originally intended readers? What questions would concern them? What are unfamiliar words or phrases to me in this text? How can I discover what they mean? You’ll get better at asking questions the more you study the bible. Just like anything else, when we are new to something, we don’t even know the best questions to ask. The discipline of studying the scripture with others will help you develop these skills.

Principle 3: Use scripture to interpret scripture. Use more clear scripture to interpret less clear scripture. For example, it is wise to use the epistles to understand the meaning of the gospels because the apostles were given the commission by Jesus to proclaim and apply the gospel didactically.

Principle 4: Go big picture first. Let the large, explicit center of the passage you are studying/or the central theme of the particular book you are studying guide your interpretation of the more implicit details of the passage and book. The bible is not primarily about you. It is about Jesus. If we are not making connections to Jesus in our bible study, we are probably missing the forest for the trees. When I sit down at a text, ask big questions, like 1st what is this book teaching about God/Jesus, and 2nd what he calls his people?

Principle 5: Details matter. What is the context? Look carefully at the words in the text. Would the author or original audience understand the words in the text differently than a modern reader. That matters. For instance, a 1st-century middle eastern person would not hear the word “web” and have any idea we in a western modern world might be referring to the internet. When a modern reader hears Jesus is our ransom or redemption, the words might make less of an impression because we do not live in a context where slavery is commonplace. The ancient reader would pick up on that much more readily.

Principle 6: Genre matters. What is the nature of the text I am reading? It’s common sense, but we wouldn’t read a poem the same way we read board game instructions, A proverb is not a law. A law is not a proverb. We need to know what kind of text we are reading. This will determine meaning. Wisdom literature, prophetic literature, epistles, historical narrative, and gospel are a few of the many genres in the bible.

Principle 7: Modern meaning should flow from original meaning. Does the Bible have anything to say about cyber-bullying? Dating? Retirement plans? Whether I should buy a kitchen-aid mixer? Not directly, but the scriptures are sufficient. Therefore, understanding original meaning can help us to draw application that sufficiently addresses every situation we face.

Principle 8: Parables are tough. Almost always parables are intended to have one central meaning. But Jesus says that parables are not always aiming at revealing the truth to some but obscuring it (Mark 4:10-12). A person whose mind is captive to an idol may not have ears to hear. Jesus was sometimes using parables to reveal to those with ears to hear and obscure from those who did not.

Principle 9: Prophecy is not primarily about predicting the future. It is popular to associate prophecy with predicting future events. While some of Biblical prophecy was predictive (and spot-on!), that was not its main emphasis. Prophets’ main job was to call people to repentance, forth-telling, not foretelling. The bible as prophecy is calling on me to walk in newness of life as one in union with Christ. As Martin Luther famously wrote, “all of life is repentance.” Not, “our purpose is to put together puzzles by connecting modern, obscure events to obscure, symbolic apocalyptic details in prophecy.” As John Owen said, “be killing sin or it will be killing you.” We don’t need to come to the scripture assuming we are okay and the concerns are chiefly outside of us and for other people.

Principle 10: Be Humble. Have a Scale of Importance. Scripture is not equally clear on everything. Therefore, be should be firmly committed to what is clear, but we should also be gracious with those who disagree and acknowledge our own limits to fully understand all things. We all have different God-given capacities and experiences that impact our interpretation of scripture. Furthermore, the glory of Christ is so expansive that none of us will come close to fully comprehending it through a lifetime of prayerful bible study. Studying the Bible should lead us to be more humble, not less. If we become proud, we must ask, have we truly read and understood the texts we are studying?

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