As the last note of the pre-message song rings through the sanctuary, a speaker walks up to the podium, ready to share a Word from the Lord. “My text for this morning,” he says, after an unusually funny story, “is Jeremiah 29:11 – ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.’” Having quoted Scripture, he proceeds to instruct his congregation on the great and awesome plans God has for them, not realizing that God’s promise is not to an individual but rather to a people, the people of Israel. After 20 minutes of instruction, our speaker is found shaking the hands of the congregants at the back door, feeling confident that he has correctly shared the Word of God with the congregation.
What’s wrong with this picture?
How often have you observed a speaker, as seen in the above example, choose a certain topic and, after finding a verse or two that fits the topic, proceed to use it as a “proof” verse for his message – many times without checking to see if he has the correct interpretation. Honestly, I’ve seen others do this and I am ashamed to say that I have done the same. It’s easy to pull a verse out of Scripture and use it to prove my point rather than looking for the correct interpretation.
Does it matter?
Correct interpretation of Scripture is essential to the Christian life. First, God commands it. The apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, states “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”1 Second, correct interpretation brings about correct practice, thus bringing glory to God.2 If correct interpretation is a matter of bringing glory to God, shouldn’t we as Christians strive for the correct interpretation of every passage in Scripture? I’m sure most of us would say yes, but how often are we left feeling unsure of how to move forward? We know we should seek to understand the Scripture correctly, but that’s as far as it gets. Despite this, studying Scripture is not an unattainable task. God’s desire is for us to correctly interpret His Word and there are several principles that, when used, clarify Scripture study and interpretation.
Context – what context?
When studying Scripture, context is everything, a guideline missed by the speaker in our illustration. Too often a passage is pulled out of its setting to either prove a point or argue against one. We must remember that although Scripture is made up of 66 books, it is one cohesive book. So, as you begin your study, look at the immediate context. What is the passage about? What does the author say before and after your verse or passage? Then after looking at the immediate context, look at the larger context. Are there other passages in the same book that address the same issue? Where else in Scripture does an author address the same topic?
Literal or figurative?
Not only is context paramount, it is also important to differentiate between the literal and the figurative. In the case of Scripture we should, as a general rule, assume that each word is to be understood literally, because “God is speaking in normal language, common everyday communication. If it says man, it means man. If it says the man went somewhere, it means he went somewhere.”3 However, there are places where the biblical author intends to use a word picture to illustrate a point. For example, when Jesus is called a door in John 10:7 we know He is not literally a door. Rather “the door” is illustrating that Jesus is the way to salvation. Again, context is everything in understanding whether the author intends something to be literal or figurative.
An unclear passage
Taking it one step further, it is important to look at the whole of Scripture when you come across a verse or passage that seems contradictory or confusing. Doing this will allow you to gain a clearer understanding of what is being said. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:29 the apostle Paul makes a reference to the baptism of the dead. However, this is the only place that it is mentioned in Scripture and nowhere else is it condoned. We should be careful to let the clear passages shed light on the unclear ones, not vice versa.
History is different than poetry
Another point to keep in mind is the different biblical genres. The Bible contains literary forms ranging from poetry to history to theological instruction. We should be careful about building a doctrine on historical narrative if it is not explicitly taught elsewhere in Scripture. The story of Gideon is a great illustration. People often infer from this story that we should put out a fleece in order to discern God’s will. But did Gideon do the correct thing? Didn’t he already know the will of God?
The truth about experience
Finally, one of the easiest ways to distort our interpretation of Scripture is to judge a passage through the lens of our own experience. “The point of Bible study is not to shape Scripture to agree with your subjective opinions or your experiences.”4 Our emotions and feelings lie. Rather than allowing our emotions and experiences to shape our understanding of Scripture, we must seek to discover God’s timeless truth which is intended to shape our lives, not the other way around.
Okay so what do you do if, after coming to an interpretation that you feel is accurate to what the original author intended, you discover that someone has interpreted it differently? Now what? Should you just give up on seeking the correct interpretation of Scripture? No, there is a true interpretation, but as fallible human beings we often come to different interpretations. Despite our mistakes in interpreting, Scripture is not “flawed or lacking authority.”5 We should continue pursuing the correct interpretation, seeking help from the Holy Spirit.
Perseverance in Scriptural Study
God has given us His written Word to show us His character, His great love for mankind in Jesus Christ, and the ways He has called us to live if we truly love Him. As born-again Christians, we should never give up on studying His Word. Even if it becomes hard or confusing we can rest in the fact that the Holy Spirit lives in us and will guide us in understanding God’s Word. Unlike our speaker in the opening story, we must, as the Apostle Paul says, “present [ourselves] to God as one approved, [workers] who [have] no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”6
Where do you see a need for correct biblical interpretation in your personal or community experience?
|Aaron Beery and his wife, Sadie, live in Elnora, Indiana, where he serves as the Administrative Assistant at the Elnora Bible Institute. He enjoys playing the piano, singing, reading and horseback riding. He hopes to use his counseling training to speak into people’s lives in this sin-cursed world for the glory of God.
1. 2 Timothy 2:15 (ESV)
2. 1 Corinthians 10:13
6. 2 Timothy 2:15 (ESV)