Friday, May 10, 2013

Suggestions for interpreting Scripture Correctly

Revelation 1:20 "As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches."

As you can see in the above text, the Apostle John included a built in interpretation system for the Book of Revelation.  Knowing how to interpret Revelation is vital, since how you interpret the book will determine how you will ultimately apply it.  But before we get to the Book of Revelation specifically, we need to understand the importance of interpreting the Bible generally, which is the focus of today's blog. 

Introduction - How you interpret a Biblical text is just as important as the application
When it comes to studying God's Word, we must take into consideration that no one person can approach the text from a neutral standpoint.  Whether you are a Christian or non-Christian will affect whether or not you are able to extract the intended meaning of the scripture, since the meaning of the text is made available only to the converted human heart. (John 16:8-16; 1 Corinthians 2:10-16; 1 John 2:20,27)  In addition to spiritual considerations, other factors can often shape the assumptions one brings to a given text.1 

How can you tell whether or not you are interpreting the Bible correctly?
With the idea of there being no such thing as a "neutral standpoint" in approaching the Bible, then the question is: how is it that we are able to know whether or not we are interpreting the Bible correctly?  Two answers.  First and foremost, we have the promise from Jesus Himself that the Holy Spirit, who comes indwell the Christian at salvation, will guide us into all truth. (John 14:17; 16:8-16; 1 Corinthians 2:12, 3:6; 1 John 2:20,27)  It is the Spirit who takes the interpreter's preconceived notions and sifts them through the grid of the world of scripture so that the reader can be transformed by the renewing of the mind. (Matthew 22:37; Romans 12:1-2) 

The second answer has to do with the science or rules of of Bible interpretation that have been utilized over the centuries by countless Christians.  When it comes to interpreting scripture aright, the science of interpretation is what we call hermeneutics (herm-i-noo-tiks, from a greek word meaning "interpretation").  We see an early example of this in Acts 8:30-31 "Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him."  

As you read on down through the remainder of Acts 8, Phillip explained Isaiah 53 to the Ethiopian Eunuch by way of showing the prophecy's connection to Jesus Christ's death, burial and resurrection. Clearly Phillip was guided by the Holy Spirit in his ability to extract the correct meaning from the passage as well as sound principles and rules of interpreting the text in light of Jesus Christ.  The only way one can be led to a right response or application of the text is through the right interpretation and sound manner of interpreting the text.   

Why getting the interpretation of the Bible right is so important
Roy B. Zuck in his classic work "Basic Biblical Interpretation" notes the following:

"Seeing the words on a page of the Bible does not necessarily mean that the reader catches their meaning.  Observing what the Bible says is the first of several steps in Bible study." (Page 9)2

As Zuck continues on writing about the importance of interpreting the Bible correctly, he draws out why proper Bible interpretation is so important:

1. It is essential for understanding and teaching the Bible properly
2. Bible interpretation is essential as a step beyond obeserving what is in the text
3. Bible interpretation is essential for applying the Bible properly3

Howard Hendricks writes in his very helpful book: "Living by the Book" the following on why you and I should study the Bible and practice sound methods of interpretation:4

1. Bible Study is Essential to Growth.  1 Peter 2:2
2. Bible Study is Essential to Spiritual Maturity.  Hebrews 5:11-14
3. Bible Study is Essential to Spiritual Effectiveness.  2 Tim 3:16-17

A suggested four step plan to studying the Bible: Observation, Interpretation, Application, Correlation
As you study God's Word, four steps are necessary:

1. Observation - Observe the setting, the author and the audience of the text in question.  Note repeated words, ideas and changes in tone.  Note cross references to others scripture, information that any good study Bible in the margins will give to you.

2. Interpretation - Since the New Testament is almost 2000 years old (with the Old Testament being 3500 years old in some books), the authors and readers of that day are separated from us who read its pages today.  Good online resources such as and can aid greatly in connecting you to resources such as Bible Dictionaries (which help explain Biblical Backgrounds, culture and words), Bible Encyclopedias (which contain feature articles and pictures) and commentaries (resources that comment on a given verse of scripture).  In interpreting the Bible, you are relying on the Holy Spirit to close four gaps between you and the text: literary, geography, culture and history.

3. Application - Once you have observed the text and taken the steps necassary to close the four gaps just mentioned by way of prayer and consultation of Bible Dictionaries, Encyclopedias and Commentaries, you are now ready to ask the all important question: "How then would God have me to live this out?" 

4. Correlation - This fourth step is where you not only figure out how you are going to apply what you have studied to your own life, but also how you are going to take the application and be used of God to affect others areas or other people. 

The Goals of Interpreting the Bible
So when it is all said and done, how can you tell whether or not you have interpreted the Bible correctly?  What end results should you see or what patterns should be emerging in your faith-walk as you regularly give yourself to the daily study of God's Word?  Here are some suggestions that will tell you whether or not you are on the right track:

1. Have I made meeting Jesus Christ in the text my primary goal.  For even though I may not find Jesus in every verse, yet from every verse of scripture I should be able to get to Jesus. (Luke 24:44)

2. Unless otherwise indicated, the literal historical meaning as intended by the author is to be the primary governing sense.  An old rule says it this way: "In order to make sense of the text, use the literal sense.  However whenever the literal sense makes no sense, seek some other sense."

3. Is my life, my speech and attitude being transformed into becoming more like what the Bible describes as the lifestyle, speech and attitude of Jesus Christ? Is the text governing how I act and think or does how I want to act and think shaping how I read the text.  How you answer that last question will determine how you answer the first.

4. The Old Testament should be read in light of the New Testament as a general rule, since the Old in the New is revealed and the New in the Old is concealed.  However be sure that you retain the context of the Old Testament passage in your interpretation and be careful not to forcefit a New Testament insight, unless of course the New Testament has sanctioned a change in the understanding of the passage. 

5. Have you prayed over the course of your study?  Prayer and Bible study go hand in hand. 

We could mention others, but for now those should be sufficient enough.  I would urge the reader to consult the books I cited earlier as great resources that offer far more detail and better explanation of these issues.  I hope today's blog has been helpful in equipping you with a couple tools on how to approach Bible study in general.  The principles in today's blog will provide the backdrop for the more specific consideration of tomorrow's blog concerning how to interpret the Book of Revelation......

End Notes____________________

1. A person living in an urban area of New York will come with a different set of expectations than say a person who grew up in the suburbs or the country. A man growing up in a Europe will come with European shaped ideas that are different than a person who grew up in Africa, the United States or any other part of the globe. Even your station in life will shape how you approach scripture, since a 20 year old college student will have different expectations about the scripture than say a 39 year old person with teenage children. 

2. Roy B. Zuck.  Basic Biblical Interpretation.  Victory Books. 1991

3. Roy B.  Zuck.  Basic Bible Interpretation. Victory Books. 1991. Pages 10-15

4. Howard Hendricks.  Living by the Book.  Moody Press. 1991.  Pages 18-22

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