If you’re like me sometimes Bible study can seem intimidating. Let’s face it, most of us don’t know the original languages, we aren’t experts in history, and sometimes, to be honest, we struggle just paying attention to some of those Old Testament books. What if you invest time and energy into trying to understand a passage only to run into someone who tells you that you completely missed the meaning due to your ignorance of a million other topics? What if you’re just not knowledgeable enough to understand the Bible?
The truth is you don’t need any special knowledge to study the Bible. Any person with a decent translation can adequately handle the word of God using simple principles. While those with the technical training to go deeper and use more resources in mining a Biblical text for all its worth are a tremendous blessing to the church and can add extra insight, most of them would probably agree that these three principles are foundational to their approach as well.
Following these three incredibly simple steps will help you extract meaning from the text (which is known as exegesis) and avoid reading your own meaning into the text (known as eisegesis).
1) Let the verse speak for itself
The negative way of stating this principle would be: do not advance any interpretation of a verse which contradicts the verse in question.
This seems obvious, but it is incredibly important and if you aren’t careful, someone can stealthily violate this principle. As an example, when I was in college, I was leading a small group and one day met a freshman and we got into a conversation about whether or not a Christian could lose his salvation. We were walking to his dorm and I quoted him the second half of John 10:28 where Jesus says about believers: “no one will snatch them from my hand.” To my great surprise he was ready with a retort: “Ah, but the next verse says that ‘My Father who sent me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Fathers hand.’ So this verse is just talking about the fact that the Devil can’t snatch you out of God’s hand…but you can crawl out.”
Now for some people, this might have been pretty persuasive. After all, aren’t we always told to interpret the Bible in context (Spoiler alert: that’s going to be point number two)? Based on just that portion of the interaction you would think that I was taking a verse out of context and that he was carefully handling the passage.
The problem with that version of the story is the verse itself. Here is the whole verse of John 10:28 as Jesus talks about what he does for believers: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (emphasis mine). The most forceful phrase in this whole verse is the phrase that tells us that those that have been given eternal life “will never perish.” Any interpretation of this verse that involves those who have received eternal life eventually perishing directly contradicts the verse.
Before you do anything else in your study, strive to wrestle with what the verse seems to be saying in the most straightforward way. This helps put you in a position where you are reading things out of the passage instead of reading your own thoughts into it.
2) Use the context to determine the meaning
It doesn’t matter if your looking to interpret a passage, a verse, a phrase or even a single word, the context needs to guide your every thought.
In a certain sense, point number one was just a very small example of this principle. The main reason I separated this point out is the fact that the context can actually get quite broad. Point number one was an example of contextual reading that utilized a very narrow form of looking at the immediate context, but the context could include the larger passage, the topic being addressed, even things such as who is the book’s intended audience is.
I saw a recent example of a pastor failing to consider the context of a verse. There was a moral command in the Old Testament (and repeated in the New Testament, incidentally, although he ignored that part) which this pastor wanted to pretend was not really a command of God. So he made his argument by quoting Galatians 5:3: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” The pastor’s argument was that someone who insists that something in the Old Testament is still applicable today is obligated to keep the whole law. That would mean keeping kosher and refraining from wearing clothes made of mixed fabrics and that sort of thing. He was essentially charging Christians with hypocrisy if they upheld certain moral teachings of the Old Testament without following the rest of the laws.
Was the pastor right in his argument? Not at all. He took the verse out of context. The very next verse says: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). In other words, if you are seeking to become righteous through following the law, you are rejecting turning to the Grace of Christ to become righteous before God and as verse three says, you’re going to need to keep the whole law.
Not only had this pastor selectively quoted Galatians 5:3 and ignored the very next verse, he ignored pretty much the whole book that had come before it. Consider some of these passages from the preceding chapters:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6)
“Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21)
“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law,imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3:23-24)
Anyone who considered carefully what the apostle Paul was saying throughout the course of the book would know when they got to chapter five that Paul was saying that the way that we are made righteous (Galatians 2:21), the way we become sons of God (Galatians 3:26), the way that we are redeemed (Galatians 4:5), is not through the Law but through faith in Christ.
The exact implications of the Old Testament law for Christians is too complicated to get into in this post, but the point is that had this pastor considered the context of the verse he was quoting, he wouldn’t have been able to use it to entirely dismiss the Old Testament law.
3) Use clear passages to interpret unclear ones
After you have let a verse speak for itself and have examined the context, the correct interpretation might still be unclear. If you can find a clear passage that is applicable, you can use that to help determine the correct meaning. It’s incredibly important for this step to come last and only after the first two steps have failed to render the passage clear. If you jump to this step you can chop the Bible up into small segments and rearrange it to say whatever you want.
An example of using this principle the wrong way would be how those who claim that homosexuality is compatible with Biblical Sexual morality claim that the “natural relations” of Romans 1:26-27 should be interpreted to mean “according to custom.” They base this interpretation on an appeal to the word “nature” as it appears in 1 Corinthians 11:14 claiming that “nature” means “custom” in that context and therefore might mean “custom” in Romans 1 as well. The problems with this are numerous: firstly the passages aren’t directly applicable to one another with one addressing the sins of unbelieving humanity and one talking about Church order and gender distinctives, secondly it’s not at all obvious that the word “nature” means “custom” in 1 Corinthians 11, and finally (and most importantly), the context of Romans 1 makes it perfectly clear that the meaning of “natural relations” is “relations in accordance with the design of God in creation.” This is clear through the references in the chapter of the truth of God being revealed in creation as well as the heavy allusions to the creation narrative in Genesis 1.
An example of how to do this well would be when trying to determine the meaning of the word “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3. Traditionally it has been understood to mean “authority over” but some who deny that the scriptures teach complementary gender roles have contended that it means “source.” Both meanings are possible based on the context; those advocating “source” can point to verse 8 to support their position and those advocating “authority” can point to verse 9. This is a prime candidate for finding a clear passage to settle the issue for us. It just so happens that there is a passage on gender roles that uses the word “head,” Ephesians 5:22-24. In it we read: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” So we read that wives should submit to their husbands. Why? because the husband is the head of the wife. In case that didn’t make things crystal clear, Christ is mentioned as the head of the church, and as the church submits to Christ it’s head, wives should submit to their head, their husbands. I’ve seen scholars who want to deny the Bible’s teaching on gender roles spill much ink citing every time in ancient Greek the word “head” was used to describe the source of a river. Two minutes spent cross-referencing Ephesians 5 is enough to trump all that effort.
As a side note I realize that in our modern context headship and Biblical gender roles are incredibly controversial and this post might not have been the most sensitive to bring them up for the first time knowing it could alienate some readers. While one day I hope to do a post where I do justice to the full Biblical teaching on the topic, it actually works well to tackle a controversial subject in a post about interpreting the Bible: it really challenges you to wrestle with the Biblical text.
While I hope that these principles yield spiritual insight into your Bible study, the far more practical use is to guard you from harmful errors. We all bring our various perspectives and biases to the table when interpreting the Bible. Without a consistent system in place to hold you accountable, those biases will color your reading of the text and slowly start to transform it into something that it is not. Using these principles is a safeguard against yourself; a roadblock to prevent you from putting your own thoughts and ideas on equal footing with the word of God.
I would love to hear from you. Did you find this useful? Are there any tips you want to add? Leave a comment and let me know.
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