How do I study the Bible?: General principles for interpreting God's word

As we discovered in chapter ten, there are some preparations necessary for studying any literature and especially God's word.  As we will see in this chapter, there are principles and practices which guide all effective Bible study.  These tools are intended for every person who wants to meet God in his word.

As we begin our study of a specific passage, first we will ask the background questions of the last chapter.  Then we will read the text in question, preferably in several translations.  Note what seems to be the major idea of the passage, and its relation to the author's intended purpose for the book.

Now ask basic questions of the text:

Who is speaking, writing, and/or acting?

What is the subject of the text?

Where is it happening?

Why and/or how?

With this information in mind, we are ready to proceed.

Grammatical principles

I will suggest in this chapter the "four-fold" approach to all Bible study:

Grammar: what do the words mean?

History: what are the circumstances behind the text?

Theology: what spiritual and theological truth does the text intend to communicate?

Practical: what applications does the text intend to make in my life?

We'll start with grammatical questions.  Baptists believe that the Bible is intended for all believers, and that we are each our own priest before God.  And so we come to the text in the belief that it intends to be understood.  No advanced seminary degrees needed.  The words will reveal their meaning to those willing to study them.

Word study ("lexicography")

Begin with the words themselves.  We want to know that the author intended them to say, not just what they seem to say to us today.  Word which survive long in any language acquire added meanings and implications.  We want to know that meaning which the author intended.

For instance, Jesus told us of a man who entrusted his servants with "talents" (Mt 25:14-30).  Today the word refers to gifts or abilities.  In Jesus' day it was a measure of money (worth more than a thousand dollars in our currency).  We misinterpret the parable if we think it relates to our God-given abilities and spiritual gifts.

The King James Version tells us that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus "and could not for the press, because he was little of stature" (Lk 19:3).  We picture this short man trying to see around the reporters who are interviewing Jesus on his way into Jericho.  Of course, "press" in the 17th century means "crowd" today.  Luke is not condemning the media.

How do we do a word study?  Ask these five questions.  First, how was the word defined?  With the help of a Bible dictionary, look up all unclear words in the passage.  Be careful to confine your work to the definition of the word as it was intended by its original author.

Second, what is the context of the word?  Often the sentences surrounding the term will explain its meaning.  For example, Jesus referred to the Kingdom of God in the Model Prayer (Mt 6:10).  What was this "kingdom"?  Our Lord defined it himself: "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  Jesus used parallelism, a kind of Hebrew expression where the second line repeats or defines the first.  The "kingdom" is where God's will is done.  The context defines the term.

Third, what is the history of the word?  A dictionary or encyclopedia will provide its background and root meanings.  But again, be careful to confine your interpretation to the intended meaning of the author.  And work with the word in its original languages, as the commentaries enable such study.

Note that the history of the translated word may have little to do with the author's intended meaning.  Consider "blessed," the word with which Jesus begins each of his Beatitudes.  The English word may come from the Old English "bliss," meaning "joy."  It could come from "blod," referencing "blood sacrifice"--someone is "blessed" if they have been atoned for by sacrifice.  It may come from "benedicere," a Latin word meaning "to wish well."  When I first preached on the Beatitudes as a college student, I used each of these definitions in my explanation of the word.

Only later did I realize that Jesus did not use our English word "blessed," but the Greek word makarios.  And it has none of this background in its history.  "Makarios" describes a happiness which transcends circumstances, a joy beyond words or the world.  By importing definitions from the English translation, I missed the meaning of the original word.  Don't do that.

Fourth, what are other biblical uses of the word?  A concordance or dictionary will help here.  Since Scripture interprets Scripture, other passages can often help clarify the meaning of the words of the text.

For instance, remember that Jesus warns us that one who calls someone a "fool" is in danger of the "fire of hell" (Mt 5:22).  Why?  Because "fool" in the Bible describes a person of the worst moral deficiency, someone who rejects God for a life of terrible corruption.  This is the person who "says in his heart, 'There is no God'" (Ps 14:1).  To call someone a "fool" was to malign their character and value, the worst form of insult.  Other texts make clear Jesus' intention.

Fifth, what is the cultural background behind the word?  What practices current in the author's day affect his use of the term?  Jesus told us, "If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two" (Mt 5:41).  Was he talking about joggers out for a run, or bikers on a trail?

Actually, he referred to a Persian custom taken over by the Romans, by which a subject could be forced to carry a soldier's pack for one mile.  This was done not to help the soldier so much as to remind the subject that he serves the Empire.  Jesus is saying, If someone humiliates you, allow him to humiliate you even further.  Don't return slander for slander, insult for insult.  Treat even your enemies with humble service.  The cultural background clarifies the intention of the phrase.

To summarize, begin your study of the biblical text with the words.  Define and clarify their meaning, with the help of a dictionary, concordance, encyclopedia, and/or commentary.  We must know the meaning of the words of God if we would interpret the word of God.

Sentence structure

Often the grammar of the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek text will affect its translated meaning for us.  Here the sentence structure employed by the author is vital.  A good commentary will help in this regard.

For an example of the importance of Hebrew sentence structure, consider Genesis 3:12: "The man said, 'The woman you put here with me--she gave me some of the fruit from the tree, and I ate it.'"  Who is Adam blaming for his sin--the woman or the One who made her?  The grammar answers the question.

The Hebrew words translate literally, "the woman / the man / and he said / with me / you gave / whom / the tree from / to me she gave / she / and I / ate."  The use of "she" in the Hebrew subjective case before the verb places focus on the one performing the action.  Adam is directly and emphatically blaming Eve for his sin.  Don't be concerned--you don't need to know Hebrew to understand such a point.  But you should consult a commentary written by someone who does.

An example of the significance of sentence structure in the Greek New Testament is 1 John 3:9.  The King James Version translates the verse, "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God."  This rendering has caused many people to question their salvation when they sin.  If we are "born of God," we "cannot sin."  Or so the text seems to say.

Here's good news for all of us who are God's children but still disappoint our Father.  The Greek verbs are in the "imperfect tense," which mean continued action.  Thus the NIV translates, "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God."  The syntax makes the intended meaning clear.

Literary type

We discussed in chapter 11 the importance of knowing the kind of literature used in the book we're studying.  However, the specific text must also be considered in the same way.  For instance, Matthew's Gospel contains symbols, teaching discourses, and apocalyptic sections.  We will interpret a parable differently than we will an historical narrative.

"Figures of speech" are an important topic within the subject of literary type.  One is the "metaphor," an illustration using a direct comparison which is not intended to be understood literally.  For instance, when Jesus calls himself the "true vine" (Jn 15:1) he is clearly using metaphor.

Another figure of speech is the "simile," a comparison which employs "like" or "as."  For example, "the sight of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire" (Ex 24:17, KJV) is a simile.  A third figure is the "hyperbole," a statement which uses exaggeration to make a point.  Like the metaphor and simile, it is not intended to be interpreted literally.  When we read Jesus' admonition, "If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away" (Mt 5:29), it is vital that we interpret the text as Jesus intends!

Context

As we consider the grammatical dimensions of the passage we're studying, we want to study the larger context of the text.  Ask three questions.  First, what is the general idea of the larger passage where the text is found?  Second, how does the text contribute to the flow of the author's thought and intention?  And third, is this passage teaching "prescriptive" or "descriptive" truth?  This is a crucial issue in biblical hermeneutics.

Prescriptive statements are intended as commands for the reader.  When Jesus warns us, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" (Mt 7:1), he prescribes behavior for all believers.  On the other hand, descriptive statements simply disclose the event, without endorsing it as proper behavior.  1 Kings 11:3 states that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.  The description does not prescribe such behavior for us.

Many of the wrong ideas which have been blamed on Scripture have originated in this area.  Polygamists claim that "the Bible says Solomon had 700 wives," so why can't we have several?  The Bible also says that the crowd wanted Jesus to be crucified, that Ananias and Sapphira tried to cheat the church, and that the town of Lystra stoned Paul and left him for dead.  None of this behavior is prescribed for us today.  Much of what we find in Scripture is there to warn us of what not to do.

As you study the text itself, think in contextual circles.  Move from the text in question, to its chapter, to its section in the biblical book, to the book, to the Testament, to the rest of Scripture.  As you understand the words in their intended meaning, you have made the most important single step to effective Bible study.

Historical principles

The second major part of our "four-fold" approach concerns the historical background and context of the text.  You will have already learned some of the history behind the text when you studied the individual words and their circumstances.  Now you'll ask questions about the larger context and culture in which the text is found.

Geography

Locate the biblical event in its proper geographic circumstances.  The more you know about the land where the event took place, the more you'll understand its text.  It's a good investment of time to familiarize yourself with the basic layout of the Bible lands.  A good atlas or map at the back of your Bible is all you need.

In addition, you'll need to know the geography behind any specific text you are studying.  Two examples are often cited by hermeneutics textbooks in this regard.

First, consider Jeremiah 13:1-5:

This is what the Lord said to me: "Go and buy a linen belt and put it around your waist, but do not let it touch water."  So I bought a belt, as the Lord directed, and put it around my waist.  Then the word of the Lord came to me a second time: "Take the belt you bought and are wearing around your waist, and go now to Perath and hide it there inacrevice in the rocks."  So I went and hid it at Perath, as the Lord told me.

This seems a rather routine narrative, until we discover that Perath lay 430 miles from where Jeremiah received this command.  The long, arduous trip described points up the sacrifice often necessary to obedience.  The setting and intention of the text would not be clear unless we understood the geography as well as those who first read the passage.

A second example of geographic interpretation is found in Luke 2:4: "Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David."  This was a journey of some 90 miles, made on a donkey's back by a woman who was great with child.  Fulfilling God's promise that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2) required great sacrifice for his mother.  The geography of the text makes it alive and relevant.

In addition, Judea was "up" in elevation from Galilee, explaining the reference in the text.  We typically think of "up" as north and "down" as south, and are puzzled to learn that Joseph and Mary went "up" but "south."  The geographic context explains the text.

Social context

Knowing the customs or general historical situation often illuminates the biblical text.  First, consider material objects.  In Matthew 27:34 we read, "There [on the cross] they offered [Jesus] wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it."  However John 19:28-30 describes Jesus' requesting and drinking wine on the cross.  Do the accounts contradict each other?

Not at all.  The drink to which Matthew refers was a kind of narcotic often given to crucifixion victims to dull their senses.  Jesus refused this anesthetic, choosing to be fully awake and alert.  John's reference occurred six hours later, when Jesus needed a mild vinegar-wine to moisten his lips and make possible his final words from the cross.  Knowing the objects in question clears up the confusion.

Second, study social customs.  Rites or practices which society observed in biblical times can be crucial to understanding the biblical text.  For example, Jesus' words to the Samaritan woman at Sychar shocked even her: "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman.  How can you ask me for a drink?" (Jn 4:9).  Her question makes sense when we learn that Jews hated Samaritans, and that Jewish rabbis would typically refuse to speak to any woman in public during the day, even their own wives.  Jesus broke with this popular prejudice in winning the woman to himself.  Often we must do the same today.

Third, investigate historical facts.  Basic facts of everyday life are often presupposed by the writer but unknown to readers today.  For example, Jesus' parable in Luke 11 describes a man whose friend awakens him at midnight to ask bread for a guest who has just come.  The man is frustrated: "Don't bother me.  The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed.  I can't get up and give you anything" (v. 7).

Every detail of the story made sense to Jesus' hearers.  Typical homes in his culture were one room.  The back one-third was an elevated wooden platform where the family slept.  The front two-thirds was a dirt floor where the animals were kept for the night.  The door was locked only when the residents were asleep and wished not to be disturbed.  The man without bread has committed a major social mistake, as keeping bread for hospitality was a sacred responsibility in their culture.

Now he makes his problem his neighbor's.  His pounding on the locked door will awaken the family and animals, ensuring that none slept again that night.  Nonetheless, the man got up and gave his neighbor the bread he needed.  Here is Jesus' point: if the man would answer such a request, how much more will God answer our prayers.  Knowing the historical culture makes the parable live again.

As you investigate historical context, be especially alert to changes between the first century and ours.  For instance, calling someone a "Good Samaritan" today is a compliment.  In Jesus' day, the term was an oxymoron.  For a Samaritan to help a wounded Jew after his priest and Levite had refused him would be akinto a black man in the 1960s helping an injured white man after his pastor and deacon chairman left him for dead.  When we understand and communicate the historical situation behind the text, its meaning is still as relevant as when the biblical writers first recorded it.

Once you are familiar with the author's purpose for his book and the particular text you're studying, you know the meaning of his words and phrases, and you understand the historical and social background of the passage, you are ready to interpret the text theologically and practically.  You have laid an excellent foundation for the application of God's word to your life today.

Theological principles

The third part of our "four-fold" approach deals with theological principles intended by the passage.  Here it is important to consider two topics.

Scripture interprets Scripture

Now that you have developed the grammatical/historical meaning of the text, relate this meaning to the rest of God's word.  Use a topical Bible or concordance to find other passages on the subject.  But be careful--never take any other passage out of its context to make it fit your study.  Only relate those texts which are intended by their author for this application.

I teach a Men's Bible Study at our church on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.  Just this week we were discussing James 3 and the warning against sins of speech.  One of the men asked, "Which kinds of speech does he mean?"  James doesn't specify.  But I had looked for other scriptures on the subject, and listed them in my notes: lies (Ex 20:16), false appearances (Ps 62:4), withholding the truth (Lev 5:1), and slander (Eph 4:31; Tit 3:1-2; 1 Pt 2:1).  God's word was its own best commentary, and made the passage in James more specific and relevant.

General theological concepts

Now you are ready to look for intended theological principles within the passage and larger word of God.  See what the text has to say about:

God

Humanity

Creation and the world

Sin

Salvation

Missions

The future

What other theological significance is found within the text?  What key theological contributions does the passage make to our lives today?

Let's say you're studying Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.

What is "therefore" there for?  It takes us back to the mercies of God for which Paul expresses gratitude in Romans 11:33-36.  In light of all he has done for us, this is what we are to do in response: "offer your bodies as living sacrifices."  In the Greek culture of the first century, the body and the spirit were separated.  The spiritual is good, the physical demeaning.  The point of life is to free the soul from its physical prison.

Now Paul wants us to offer our "bodies" to God, our entire lives.  Not just Sunday but Monday.  Not just our salvation but our service.  Not just our religion but the rest of our lives, money, abilities, and opportunities.  Knowing the theological context of Paul's statement helps us understand its application to our lives.

And asking theological questions brings the text into relevance.  What does Paul say about God?  That he loves and wants us.  About ourselves?  We can and should give ourselves fully to him.  About this world?  That we must refuse its pattern and priorities.  About spiritual growth?  That we must be transformed daily as we make our minds new in God's presence.  About his will?  That it is good, pleasing, and perfect, but available most fully to those who are most fully his.

The theological principles discovered in a biblical text are especially important to the passage's relevance today.  However, these principles must be grounded in the author's intended meaning, as discovered by grammatical-historical study.  That is why our "four-fold" method builds theological application upon textual investigation.  We should never reverse the order.

Practical principles

The last area in our "four-fold" approach deals with practical applications of the text.  Since human nature does not change, the Bible is always relevant and applies personally and practically to our lives.

The Scriptures were given to us to help us find and follow Jesus.  If we do not seek the practical applications of the text, we have not completed its study and interpretation.  Our objective should be to reproduce the original meaning of the text in today's culture.

There are five steps to take in applying the Bible practically.

One, write out the intended meaning of the text.  On the basis of your grammatical-historical study, define the meaning and purpose of the passage for its author and original readers.

Two, note differences in setting and context.  In your historical investigation, you will have observed changes in culture and context from the text to our day, some of which will significantly affect its contemporary application.

Three, make direct applications where intended by the author.  Where the writer's intended meaning and purpose transfers directly to our culture and needs, make this application as practically as possible.  For instance, Paul's call to "offer your bodies as living sacrifices" calls us to complete surrender and obedience.  Is there a part of your life not on the altar?  Make this practical and personal application of the passage.

Four, seek principles within the passage when the text does not apply directly to our day.  Sometimes we will study an Old Testament passage not renewed in the New Testament (such as a dietary code), or a historical event which does not prescribe a specific application (such as the Battle of Jericho).  In this case, do not apply the text as directly as if it were prescriptive.  Otherwise, all Christians would be required to obey kosher dietary laws and warfare would be reduced to marching around enemy walls.

Instead, seek principles within the text which might apply to today's situation and needs, keeping these principles consistent with the author's intended meaning.  Dietary laws reveal the practical principle that God cares deeply about our bodies and health.  The Battle of Jericho shows us that God's will, when obeyed, always leads to the victory which is his will and intention for our lives.  Find such general principles within the author's intended purpose, and apply them practically.

The use of principles is often the best way to approach culture-bound biblical statements.  For example, "Greet one another with a holy kiss" is a common command in Paul's letters (Ro 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thes 5:26).  The meaning of the words and grammar are just as Paul indicates.

But in Paul's society, unlike ours, people often greeted each other publicly with a kiss.  In our context, these verses suggest the principle that Christians should greet one another with great kindness and love, whether this is by word, hand, or other physical expression.  We are commanded to obey the principle of the text.

In the same way, commands to individuals in Scripture are not always commands to us today.  Abraham was commanded to offer Isaac on the altar (Gen 22); this prescription is not incumbent on fathers today.  We need to apply the principle of the text--as a father, even my sons must be dedicated to God and his will.

When we discover practical principles within the author's intended meaning, we find that every passage in the Bible possesses personal relevance today.

Last, define at least one action which the text suggests today.  When you have finished your study of the text, you should be able to describe at least one practical action you will take as a result of the author's intended purpose.  Then you can determine ways to communicate this application to others.

Mark Twain speaks for most of us: "When I read the Bible, the parts that trouble the most are not the ones I don't understand, but the ones I do understand."  We should have a sense of conviction and direction every time we interpret God's word.

Conclusion

The principles we have discussed in this chapter apply to every part of God's word.  As we use them, we discover the meaning and application of Scripture in a way which brings its truth to life.  Then we can say with the writer of Hebrews, "the word of God is living and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Heb 4:12).

We don't break the word of God--we break ourselves on it.  When last did the truth of Scripture change your life?

 

 Quoted in Parables, Etc., May, 1990, 8.