When we interpret a Bible passage, we are trying to find out what the writer originally meant to say. At that stage, we are not trying to figure out what it means. It’s important to learn the interpretation before we make an application of the verse. When we misunderstand the interpretation, we may make wrong choices about what we should do, or form wrong doctrines.
“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:20-21). God has set the interpretation. We don’t make up our own to suit our times. Every word, every letter written, was exactly what God intended to put down, so we should study them carefully with the respect they deserve.
We can discover a writer’s original meaning, its interpretation, by using several common-sense approaches. Here are a few of them.
Start with the plain sense of the word. Another way to put it is, “If the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense lest you get nonsense.” If the Bible writer used the word “day,” then we should accept that meaning unless there is a strong reason not to. That strong reason should be found in the Scripture, not from our times. This means we are to accept the literal meaning whenever possible, unless the Bible shows otherwise. In this way the Bible interprets itself.
The Bible uses figurative language. Sometimes the Bible will plainly state that it’s not to be taken literally, such as the use of the word “like” in the passage.
Keep the historical setting or usage in mind. For instance, we use the word “church” to mean the place where we gather, as in “go to church.” However, the literal meaning of the word is “called-out ones.” The believers are the church, not the building where they meet.
Keep a Bible dictionary handy, and don’t take for granted your understanding of the many specialized words you encounter. The Greek or Hebrew Interlinears are handy too; they show the English translation of the term right above the Greek or Hebrew word used. A Bible Almanac is also handy; it sheds light on the customs and times of the various cultures. Fortunately, good software exists with many excellent tools.
The Bible is about Jesus. He is the central theme. Make sure no interpretation dishonors him.
Check the context. Read the passages before and after the verse being studied. Just as you would not read at random through a mystery novel and expect to understand the story, so you should read the Bible and its books and chapters straight through. Many verses are more reliably interpreted when the entire chapter and surrounding chapters are read.
We can learn more about a word by finding out how it is used in other places in the Bible. Beware, though: if the usage of the word is in a very different context, then it may not apply. For instance, “house” would be different in “he went into the house,” and “all the house of Israel.” Many, many misinterpretations have come about because unlike passages have not been taken into account. Just think – our own words have more than one meaning, and the Greek and Hebrew do to. “Will,” for instance, is someone’s name, is a legal document, and indicates intent. The context will determine which meaning to use.
The Bible does not contradict itself! Though it was penned by about 40 authors over 1500 or so years, God has the same views throughout of heaven and @#!*% , life and death, God and man.
Don’t make up ideas where the Bible is silent. Don’t read into passages of Scripture words or meanings it doesn’t support. Don’t base a doctrine on a single passage of Scripture. It’s hard to be certain without corroborating texts.
Don’t try to force the interpretation to accept modern ideas or science. We look at the world through the Bible, not the Bible through the world.
What authority do we use to interpret the Bible? The Bible is the best authority and interprets itself plainly if we use common-sense rules like the above.
What Do You Think?
a. When you read a novel, do you read a sentence here and there, skipping pages as you go along? If not, should you read the Bible this way? Why or why not?
b. The Bible has its own meanings for “priest,” “church,” and “saint,” that you may not have. What is the usual understanding of these terms and how does the Bible differ?
c. Do you agree that the steps above are common-sense ways of getting to know what a text is saying? Why or why not?