What must I do to study the Bible?: Preparations for interpreting God's word

I spent the summer of 1979 serving as a Baptist Student Union missionary in East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia.  Missionaries in Singapore had given my partner and me a duffel bag filled with paperback Malay New Testaments.  At our first church, we passed them out.  The people stood in line for over an hour in the hot sun, waiting to receive a copy of God's word in their language.  Most of them had never before owned a Bible.

I'll never forget the elderly woman who stood at the end of the line.  Patiently she waited.  Finally it was her turn.  I handed her a paperback New Testament.  Her hands trembled as she held it close to her heart, tears running down her face.  I thought of all my Bibles at home gathering dust.  And I didn't have to wonder if she would read what she had received.

Biblical authority is of little practical good in our lives unless it leads to biblical study.  We may believe that Scripture is divinely inspired, that it stands up to every test and critique from a skeptical world.  But if we do not put its truths into practice in our lives, our beliefs don't affect our lives.  And the purpose of God's word is to change those who read it, molding us in the image of Jesus (Ro 8:29).

So, how can you meet God in his word?  How can you study the Bible for yourself?  In this chapter we'll look at preparations necessary for effective Bible study.  In the next chapter we'll discover guidelines which apply to every passage in Scripture.  Finally, we'll explore principles which relate to specific sections of God's word.

Personal preparations

We will focus now on what is known as "general hermeneutics."  Hermes was the messenger god; "hermeneutics" is therefore the study of a message or principles of interpretation.  Biblical hermeneutics is that field of study which identifies necessary rules and guidelines for Bible study.

Before we can use such principles, however, we must first make three personal commitments.  Because the Bible is God's word, not the product of human knowledge and study, we must be ready spiritually to hear what it says to us.

Meet God personally

First, you must know the Author of this book personally.  Paul warned the Corinthians, "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor 2:14).

Paul does not mean that an unconverted person can understand nothing in the Bible.  Rather, he teaches that we cannot "accept" or "understand" the spiritual applications of Scripture unless the Holy Spirit guides us to such interpretation.  God's word will remain on the level of fact and knowledge, without penetrating to our hearts and changing us.  We must have a personal relationship with Jesus, before his word can accomplish its intended purpose in our lives.

For many years I thought I was a Christian, since I believed in God and tried to be a good person.  Most Americans think my definition of Christianity is correct.  We are self-made people who believe in morality and religion.  So long as a person believes God exists and tries to live by "the good book," we don't really need to know what the "good book" says.  I never went to church or studied Scripture, but I thought I would go to heaven when I died.

When I was fifteen, a Baptist church in our part of Houston, Texas started a "bus ministry."  They bought an old school bus, painted the church's name on the side, and started looking for people who would ride it to church.  So it was in August of 1973 that they knocked on the door of my apartment.  My younger brother and I didn't want to go to church, but our father put us on the bus.  And I heard the gospel for the first time.

As I came to church and Sunday school, I began to sense that these people had a joy and purpose I had never discovered.  And so a few weeks later, I asked my Sunday school teacher how I could have what the others in the class had.  She led me to personal faith in Christ that day.  Six months later, my brother came to faith.  A year later, we were baptized together.  He is now pastor of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Texas.

I was attracted to Christ by Christians.  People who studied Scripture and applied its truths to their lives were different from me.  I wanted what I saw in them.  But I couldn't understand the truths by which they lived until I made their Lord mine.

Augustine called the Bible "love letters from home."  We cannot understand them unless we know first their Author.  Have you met him?

Be willing to work hard

Paul challenged his young apprentice in the ministry to "Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching" (1 Tim 4:13).  "Devote yourself" translates a Greek term which requires previous, private preparations.  Like any area of intellectual investigation, understanding and applying the Scriptures requires personal work.  The more you invest, the greater the return.

Ministry students sometimes tell me they want to pastor a "New Testament church."  I always ask them which one.  I'd enjoy pastoring in Antioch, not so much in Corinth.  According to Paul, one of the Corinthian problems was their immaturity: "Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly--mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.  Indeed, you are still not ready.  You are still worldly" (1 Cor 3:1-3).  Milk is food digested by a mother and made palatable for her child.  Unfortunately, the Corinthians wanted their spiritual truth the same way--digested by someone else.

Many Christians suffer from the Corinthian desire to let others study Scripture for them.  That's what we pay a pastor for, they say.  I've not been to seminary; I don't have time to study the Bible; so I'll listen to my minister or Sunday school teacher.  I'll let the professionals do it.  But the Bible is meant for every believer.  Baptists affirm strongly the priesthood of every Christian.  You are privileged and responsible to interpret God's word for yourself.

In this chapter we'll learn how to use the various tools of Bible study.  Translations, commentaries, and a Bible dictionary, concordance, atlas, and encyclopedia will all help.  But these tools are meant to assist your study, not replace it.  Christianity is not a spectator sport.  Decide you are willing to work hard to meet God in his word.

Obey what you discover

The Bible is not meant to inform our minds so much as it intends to change our lives.  Jesus said, "If any one chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own" (Jn 7:17).  Obedience leads to relationship.  Faith is required.  We must position ourselves to receive what God wants to give by grace.  The Israelites had to step into the flooded Jordan River before God would stop its flow (Josh 3:15-16).

Decide before you open God's word that you will obey what you find there.  Write your Father a blank check of obedience.  He will not reveal his will as an option to consider, but as an ordinance to follow.  If you will not do what he says, you'll not understand what he says.  No father can lead a child who is unwilling to follow.

Guiding presuppositions

My high school geometry class acquainted me with the concept of "axioms."  These are unprovable presuppositions, guiding beliefs which are basic to the study of mathematics.  We cannot prove that parallel lines never intersect, so we accept this principle in the study of geometry.  All knowledge is built on such presuppositions.  Scientists believe the physical universe to be stable and predictable; otherwise, experiments could never be repeated.  If Zeus and his cohort change the composition of water every day, marine biologists are in trouble.

Bible study is built on certain presuppositions as well.  Three are especially important to our interpretation of God's word.

Believe that you can understand Scripture

Luther and the Reformers were adamant: the Bible can be understood.  God has given us his revelation in such a way that we can discover and apply its truths.  We need not depend on creeds, councils, and church tradition.  Every believer is his or her own priest before God and his word.

And so we will begin Bible study with the Bible.  Not with the teachings of the church on a particular subject, but with the teachings of Scripture.  We will ask theologians and church teachings to guide us along the way, believing that we can learn from others as we study.  But we will not allow the opinions of humans to replace the revelation of God.

Use the New Testament to interpret the Old

Baptists believe that "the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."  We agree with John that Scripture exists to lead us to faith in Jesus (Jn 20:30-31).  The New Testament, which reveals Christ, is therefore our means of interpreting the Old Testament, which prepares the way for him.  As he said repeatedly, he fulfills the Scriptures which told the world of his coming (cf. Mt 5:17).

In other words, we will study Scripture according to the theological doctrine of "progressive revelation."  We believe that God reveals himself progressively, building later revelation upon earlier truth.  As a mathematics teacher must teach arithmetic before she can teach geometry, and trigonometry before she can discuss calculus, so God reveals himself progressively to us.  Upon the foundation of the Law, God spoke through his prophets.  They in turn focused on the Messiah, God's personal revelation.  The New Testament builds on this revelation in a Person through revelation in words.  The New Testament is therefore God's fullest revelation of himself to us, and our means of interpreting his earlier revelation.

This guiding presupposition leads to an important principle, one we will meet again in the next chapter.  Whenever an Old Testament law is renewed in the New Testament, it retains the force of law for Christians today.  For instance, by endorsing the Ten Commandments, Jesus made them obligatory for his followers (Mt. 19:16-19).

On the other hand, any Old Testament law not renewed in the New Testament retains the force of principle for Christian living.  For instance, the Jewish dietary codes were made non-binding on Gentile converts by the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:28-29).  However, these laws still demonstrate the relevant principle that God cares about our physical health.  We will study them to discover principles and truths which apply to our lives as we relate to God through grace.

Make the Bible its own commentary

Our third guiding presupposition is that the Scriptures interpret themselves.  Because God's word is unified, coherent, and fully inspired, every word is the word of God.  And so the best way to study any single passage is to interpret it in light of the rest of the Bible.  We will seek to compare Scripture with Scripture, interpreting the part by the whole.

Five important principles emerge from this presupposition.  First, interpret unclear passages in light of clear truth.  Study the difficult parts of Scripture in light of its clear teachings.  For instance, Jesus tells his disciples, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple" (Lk 14:26).

Does Jesus condemn the family?  Absolutely not.  Matthew's Gospel explains: "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Mt 10:37).  Luke's version means that we are to "hate" our families in the sense that we place them under Jesus in priority and commitment.  The clear version helps us understand the more difficult.

Additionally, the New Testament contains other clear teachings which affirm the value of the family (cf. 1 Cor 9:5; 1 Tim 5:8; Eph 5:25).  These clear references help us understand and apply Jesus' teachings to our lives.

Second, do not base doctrine on only one text.  Consider the "millennium," found explicitly only in Revelation 20:1-6.  This is obviously an important subject, but it should not be made a test of orthodoxy.  At least seven theories on the subject are held by Bible-believing scholars.  No person's belief in biblical authority should be questioned because of his or her theory on the millennium.  We should seek to build major doctrines on more extensive biblical texts.

Another example is Paul's question of the Corinthians, "if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?" (1 Cor 15:29).  This is not the place to discuss various ways of interpreting this passage.  Just know that the Bible makes no other reference to being "baptized for the dead."  Do not build a larger doctrine on this single verse.

Third, study brief passages in light of longer texts.  Interpret a single verse in light of the larger passage in which it is found, that passage in light of its book, and the book in light of the entire Bible.  As you consider the larger counsel of God's word, you will allow Scripture to interpret itself.

Fourth, apply doctrine taught in various parts of Scripture to all times and cultures.  There are a variety of contexts and circumstances behind the various passages of God's word.  Whenever a statement is found in a number of different contexts and is taught by a variety of biblical authors, we may know that it was intended as a timeless statement of truth.  If it is taught only by one author in one place, we can know that it was a specific statement for that time and context.  It will apply in principle to our lives, but perhaps not in precept.  In this sense, it is like an Old Testament law not renewed in the New--it teaches spiritual truth, but not binding obligation.

One controversial example of this principle regards the biblical teachings on the subject of homosexuality.  It is claimed by some who defend this lifestyle that Scriptural prohibitions are culturally conditioned, that they apply only to that time and place.  They are likened to kosher dietary laws and polygamy--practices which are not applicable to our culture today.

Those who interpret Scripture this way would do well to follow the principle under discussion here.  The Bible comments on homosexuality seven times, across both the Old and New Testaments, in a variety of cultural contexts:

In Genesis 19 we find the attempt by men in Sodom to "have sex" with Lot's angelic visitors (v. 5), and God's consequent punishment against the city.  While homosexual practice is clearly part of the text, the passage is less clear as to whether God's judgment is against homosexuality itself, or the crowd's abusive attempt to commit homosexual rape.

Leviticus 18:22 clearly prohibits homosexual activity.

Leviticus 20:13 prescribes the death penalty for such activity.

Deuteronomy 23:17-18 outlaws all prostitution, whether male or female.

Romans 1:26-27 describes homosexual acts as "unnatural" and "indecent."

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11 are considered by some to refer to homosexual prostitution; however, they seem more objectively to forbid homosexual practice in any context.

Additionally, no biblical passage can be cited with confidence as an endorsement of this activity.  No biblical leader or ethical model taught by the Scriptures can be construed accurately as practicing this lifestyle.

Here's the point for our discussion: when the Bible speaks across cultures and contexts to a subject, we can take its words to be equally relevant to all time and circumstances.

Fifth, if two biblical statements appear humanly to contradict, accept both.  Divine truth is not bound by human logic, and often must be expressed by two statements which appear to contradict each other.  This is known as "antinomy," the acceptance of two principles which seem mutually exclusive but are each independently true.

For example, I am often asked about the "freedom--divine sovereignty" question.  If we have complete freedom of will, is God's knowledge and control of the future limited?  Or, if God knows the future, how can we have freedom to choose?

In truth, the Bible often states both principles.  Jesus assures us that a sparrow does not fall to the ground apart from the "will of your Father" (Mt 10:29).  But two verses later he calls us to decide, "So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows" (v. 31).  On another occasion, Jesus stated both principles in the same sentence: "The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him" (Lk 22:22).

In summary, these presuppositional decisions will guide you in interpreting and applying God's word accurately:

Believe that you can understand Scripture yourself.

Use the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament.

Make the Bible its own commentary.  As a result:

--Interpret unclear passages in the light of clear truth.

--Do not base doctrine on only one text.

--Study brief passages in light of longer texts.

-- Apply doctrine taught in various parts of Scripture to all times and cultures.

    -- If two biblical statements appear humanly to contradict, accept both

Background questions

Now we're ready to begin asking questions of the specific text we wish to study.  As with any literature, there are certain facts we need to know before we can understand the author's intended meaning.  These questions are as relevant to an e-mail you received this morning as to the timeless word of God.

Who was the writer?

First, who wrote the text you will study?  What can you learn about his background, circumstances, and experiences?  What was happening at the time when he wrote the book you're about to read?

Surely you've shared the frustrating experience of listening to only one side of a telephone conversation.  You can understand every word being spoken at your end.  But if you don't know the identity of other person in the conversation, you can easily misinterpret what is being said.

Knowing the author and his circumstances brings much light to bear on the text at hand.  For instance, many believers appreciate the Book of Philippians as a treatise on joy.  The apostle uses the word "joy" in the letter 16 times.  He exhorts us to "Rejoice in the Lord always" (Phil 4:4).  His joy in writing to his Philippian friends is tangible and encouraging.

But when we learn Paul's circumstances at the time he wrote the letter, its theme becomes even more significant.  Philippi was the first town to imprison Paul during his ministry.  In fact, he and Silas were beaten severely before being locked into their jail cell (Acts 16:16-24).  Now the apostle is in another jail cell, this one in Rome.  He has no way of knowing if he will be released or face execution.  Writing from a jail cell to the town where he was first in a jail cell, Paul can nonetheless celebrate his joy in Jesus.

"Joy in a jail cell" is a fitting title for the letter.  Knowing the author and his circumstances makes the epistle even more transforming for us.

Who are the recipients?

The second question follows the first: to whom is the author writing?  Are they believers or unbelievers?  Persecuted or safe?  A church, a group of churches, or an individual?  What can you know about their circumstances, needs, and issues?

Why does Matthew quote the Old Testament more often than any other New Testament writer?  Because his audience is Jewish, and he wishes to show them that Jesus is their Messiah.  Why does Mark go to such lengths to explain Jewish customs (Mk 7:2-4; 15:42) and translate Aramaic words (3:17; 5:41; etc.)?  Because he is writing to Gentiles, most probably in Rome.

Why does Luke employ more medical terminology in his Gospel and Acts than we find anywhere else in Scripture?  Because he was a physician (Col 4:14).  Why does John begin his first letter with the claim, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" (1 Jn 1:1)?  Because every word you just read refutes incipient Gnosticism, a Greek philosophy which separated physical from spiritual and contended that Jesus could not be both divine and human.  And this is John's purpose.

When you know the recipients of a biblical book, you will be able to join them.  When you sit with the Philippians as they listen to Paul's letter, you'll be able to understand better its relevance for your life and needs today.

What is the author's purpose?

Writing in the ancient world was too hard to do without a compelling purpose.  Today we drop a note in the mail or send an e-mail in a moment.  Ancient writers paid a high price to produce the biblical books we read today.

As a result, we need to know all we can about the author's intended purpose before we try to interpret his writing.  Much of Scripture is "task theology," produced to accomplish a specific task or purpose.  If we don't understand the task at hand, we'll miss much of what the writer wants us to know and do.

Often the text will make its purpose clear.  Consider Luke's obvious reason for writing his Gospel:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Lk 1:1-4).

Luke intends to produce an "orderly account" of Jesus' life and work, based on eyewitness records he has investigated and affirmed.  He wants his reader to have "certainty" in the things he has been taught.  When we read this Gospel, we can expect to find excellent Greek and detailed historical narrative.   And that's exactly what we discover.

John also disclosed the express purpose of his Gospel:

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:30-31).

John wants to lead his readers to trust Jesus as their Messiah, so that they might find "life in his name."  We would expect to find numerous signs and evidences of Jesus' divinity, and examples of the transforming power of his love.  And that's exactly what John gives us.

Note that Luke stated his explicit purpose at the beginning of his book, but John waited to the end to disclose his.  When you are preparing to study a passage in Scripture, it is always a good idea to look over the larger book in which it is found.  Find those statements which convey the purpose of the book, and interpret the specific text in light of that intention.  Commentaries and encyclopedia articles can help in discovering the purpose of the book.  Be sure you have it in mind before proceeding in your Bible study.

What kind of literature is this?

Scripture contains a wide variety of literary styles within its pages.  Unlike most books ancient and modern, it is composed of many different kinds of literature: history, law, poetry, letters, figures of speech, and apocalyptic literature.  The way you interpret poetry is not the way you read the newspaper.  When Robert Frost claims that "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," we don't stop and ask for the location on a map.

Let's look briefly at the literary categories we find within Scripture.

History is the literature of Genesis, Exodus 1-9, Numbers to Esther, portions of the prophets, Gospels, and Acts.  It should be read as factual narrative, seeking truths and principles within the events themselves.  We should avoid seeking symbolic or spiritual meaning within historical occurrences.  Despite Bultmann, Easter is a fact of history, not merely the resurrection of faith in his disciples.

Law is found primarily in Exodus 20-40, Leviticus. It should be read to discover principles for living today, except where it is renewed in the New Testament and retains the of law for Christian faith and practice.

Poetry is used from Job to the Song of Solomon, and in other places throughout Scripture.  It should be read symbolically, without pressing the details for historical accuracy or specific promises.  For example, the Psalmist promises, "The Lord watches over you--the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night" (Ps 121:5-6).  This poetry deals with God's care for his own, and is obviously not concerned with sunburn or exposure.  Interpret poetry in terms of its intended symbols and spiritual meaning.

Letters are found in the Old Testament prophets, and in the New Testament from Romans to Jude and in Revelation 2-3.  They should always be read with their immediate audience and concerns in mind.  We must not apply a letter's intended meaning to our situation until we are sure of the author's intended application to his audience.

Apocalyptic literature is found in Zechariah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and Revelation.  This material is highly visionary, and tends to be symbolic and future-oriented.  The method you choose for interpreting these books will largely determine the meanings you find there.

It is vital that we approach the book we are studying in a way which is consistent with its type of literature.  Only then can we discover the intended meaning of the text, which is the object of all Bible study.  You may be surprised at how much this preliminary work will help you interpret the passage in question.  Here you lay the foundation for all effective Bible study.

Conclusion

The preparations suggested by this chapter are vital to understanding any kind of literature, especially writings which are more than 20 centuries old.  It is part of the miracle of God's word that when we make the investment of such preparations, the Scriptures come to life for us as fully as if we were their intended audience.  That's because in a very real way, we are.

 Sources for this study include A. Berkeley Michelson, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989 [1963]), still a classic in the field; Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3d. rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1971), still used in seminary classrooms; Walter Henrichsen and Gayle Jackson, Studying, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids: Lamplighter Books, Zondervan, 1990); and Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 2d. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993).

 Fritz Rienecker, A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, trans. and rev. Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1980) 2:281.