Years of Bible study have convinced me that as we use sound principles of interpretation, our conclusions will agree with those made by respected biblical scholars. So don’t be afraid to interpret Scripture. Adopt the guidelines presented here, and make them work for you.
At the same time, realize that published commentaries can be helpful. Use them, but be careful not to depend on them too much instead of doing your own study.
Approach Scripture from a normal, literal viewpoint
Read the Bible as you would other literature, accepting the fact that it includes figures of speech.
For example, when Jesus said, “I am the gate” (John 10:9), he was comparing himself with the nature of a gate. A gate opens and closes. It both provides entrance and prohibits entrance. In the same way, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus is the gateway to God.
On the other hand, realize that a passage should not be “spiritualized” unless the context requires it. There are some who spiritualize the resurrection of Jesus, claiming that he did not physically rise from the dead. But the normal understanding of resurrection in Scripture is a bodily resurrection. When Lazarus was raised from the dead, a body which could be seen and touched walked out of the tomb. Likewise, when Jesus rose from the dead he said to the disciples, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39).
Remember, too, that the Bible was written centuries ago within the context of an Eastern culture. Your job as an interpreter is to recognize the timeless truth that Scripture contains, and to relate it to your life today.
Approach Scripture from a critical viewpoint
The term critical raises a red flag to some because it implies criticism of the Bible. But your critical eye should focus not on the Bible, but on your interpretation of it. Ever interpretation must be questioned.
It is good to say, “This is what I believe the passage means.” But it is more important to say, “This is why I believe the passage should be interpreted this way.”
Ask yourself, Does my interpretation agree with what the rest of the Bible teaches? This will help keep you from going off on some radical tangent.
Also compare your interpretation with what you know has traditionally been taught in the Body of Christ. Your own discoveries in Bible study will be new and richly rewarding to you, but they probably will not be new to the church as a whole.
Many contemporary sects would not exist today if their founders had realized that believing “only we are right” is a sure sign of fallacy. Paul wrote that all members of Christ’s body are interdependent. Each one can be helped by the other (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). No single person has a corner on the Holy Spirit or his teaching.
Remember this as you investigate Scripture, realizing also that your own educational, religious, and cultural background and your particular personality greatly influence your view of biblical teaching.
Another basic danger to avoid in interpreting Scripture is the belief that a “spiritual” person will always interpret Scripture accurately. Spirituality in this sense has to do with someone’s personal and inner relationship with God, and does not necessarily guarantee his ability to interpret the Scriptures accurately.
God has revealed himself to man. He is not hiding. His revelation of himself comes to us through nature, through our conscience, through the Bible, and through Jesus Christ.
This revelation is progressive in the sense that God has revealed himself in various ways over the centuries, and each time he has imparted to us more information about himself.
An example of this progression can be found in Hebrews 8, which discusses the covenant God made with Israel at the time of Moses, and how it relates to the later “new covenant” which was prophesied by Jeremiah and fulfilled in Jesus Christ Verse 13 concludes, “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.”
Because of progressive revelation, the teachings in the earlier parts of Scripture find fulfillment and clarification in the later parts of Scripture.
God did not reveal everything about himself at any one time or to any one person. Therefore, in studying a topic in Scripture we must investigate truth from all of Scripture.
Before asking, “What does this passage mean to me,” we should ask, “What did the writer of this passage mean when he first wrote it?” Understanding the passage in its context will help us grasp this single, original meaning.
The verse “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” may have a variety of meanings to those who hear the statement by itself. But when reading this verse in context-Philippians 4:10-13-we see that these words of Paul focused on his ability in God’s strength to always find contentment regardless of his living conditions. This passage encourages us to know the Lord can strengthen and help us even in times of financial and material need.
Although a passage of Scripture has many applications, it has only one primary meaning. The context of the passage-which includes both the verses that come before and the verses which follow-throws light on what that single meaning is. Many faulty interpretations are the result of taking passages out of their context and giving them a surface meaning.
Several years ago I encountered a communal group whose leader advocated total allegiance to himself alone. As I spoke with some members of this group, they told me that the sole allegiance to this leader was justified in their minds according to Proverbs 5-15-“Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well.” They explained that the leader was their cistern and well, and they were obligated to learn from him alone. But this interpretation doesn’t agree with the context.
Let the passage speak for itself
No one who studies the Bible is totally exempt from imposing on a passage his own ideas or ideas learned from someone else. So you should always attempt to let the passage speak for itself.
You are probably familiar with the verse, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.” Do you interpret the primary meaning of this command to be prohibiting marriage between a Christian and a nonChristian? If not, you are an exception. Most Christians think of marriage when reading this verse because this is how it is so often taught.
But if you read the passage in its entirety (2 Corinthians 6:14-18) you will discover that Paul never mentions marriage. Relating the verse to marriage is simply one of many applications we can make.
Make an effort to extract meaning from the text rather than reading meaning into it.
Compare Scripture with Scripture
Many Bibles have cross-references as an excellent built-in tool for better interpretation. Learn to make use of these references for they direct you to other passages that will shed light on the one you are studying (You can also find cross-references in a concordance, a topical Bible, or other reference books.)
The Bible is its own best interpreter, so compare Scripture with Scripture.