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How to Interpret the Bible

2 Peter 1:20-21

20 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.

21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.


Leroy “Satchel” Paige was the first black man allowed to pitch in the American League. As a rookie at 42 years of age he was asked by his manager, “Do you throw that hard consistently?” “No, sir,” Satchel said, “I do it all the time.” Consistency is one of the marks of a disciple. Jesus says that we are his disciples if we “continue” in his word (John 8:31).

In keeping with that, the apostle Paul encourages Timothy to continue in the scriptures that brought him to salvation through faith in Christ. Then Paul tells us two things about the scriptures. First, they are inspired. The word inspired means “God-breathed.” Peter tells us that the Holy Scriptures are the result of holy men being “moved” by the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21). The word moved literally means “to be borne along” or to “be driven.” It describes a ship whose sails have been filled with wind and is driven forward by the power of that wind. The Holy Spirit of God moved upon men and drove them, and pushed them to write the scriptures.

All scripture is inspired. That means that every part of it is inspired. A businessman inexperienced in presiding at church meetings followed up the scripture reading with “If there are no corrections or additions, the scripture will stand approved as read.” The scriptures do not need any additions or corrections and their reliability does not depend on our approval. They are all inspired and are thus inerrant.

In a society that changes as rapidly as ours, big question marks are raised about absolutes. What can I believe? To what should I be committed? What is there in life that is lasting and permanent? We once believed, for example, that air was always safe to breathe, water was always safe to drink, policemen were always honest, and doctors came when they were called. We also believed that politicians could always be trusted, newspapers always told the truth, preachers always believed what they preached, right was always right, and wrong was always wrong. Changes have shaken all of these beliefs.

What can a person believe in today’s world? We can still anchor our lives to the word of God. It is completely reliable and trustworthy in matters of faith and practice. The end result of God’s word is that we might be “perfect” and completely equipped for every good work. The word perfect is the Greek word “teleioi.” It does not carry with it the idea of sinless perfection but rather maturity, wholeness, or completeness. The purpose of the Bible is to bring us to complete spiritual personhood.

One of our major problems is how to interpret the Bible. There are more than 222 different denominations in America. Almost every one of them claims the Bible is their final authority. Which one is right? Interpreting the Bible is one of our major problems.

Here are five principles that will help you in interpreting the Bible as you study it. They are the linguistic or grammatical principle, the historical principle, the theological principle, the practical or homiletical principle, and the spiritual or prayer principle. If you will use these five principles in studying the Bible, you will have a clear understanding of what God’s word says.

1. The Linguistic or Grammatical Principle

The first principle of interpretation is the linguistic or grammatical principle. The word of God has come to us in words. If we are to know and understand God’s word, we must understand the meaning of the words through which it has come. The problem is that the words were first delivered in the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic languages. This is good news and bad news. It is good news in that the Greek language in which the New Testament was written is one of the most precise and expressive languages ever. English on the other hand is a “funny” language. In our language, “a fat chance” and “a slim chance” mean the same thing, while “a wise guy” and “a wise man” are altogether different. So God chose to speak to us in a language that is much more precise and expressive than our own.

However, most people cannot read the Greek language. That’s the bad news. Since that is true, there are two things that can help us to know the exact meaning of the words that God has spoken to us. The first is a modern translation of the Bible and the second is a concordance.

The most popular version of the Bible is the King James Version translated from the Hebrew and the Greek in 1611. The problem with that version is that words—like children—never stand still; they are always growing and developing and changing. In fact there is a 17% language drift in word meaning every 100 years. Since the King James Version was translated into English 406 years ago, you would imagine that much of its language is out of date.

Let me illustrate. Back in 1675, some nine years after the terrible London fire, Sir Christopher Wren laid the first foundation stone in what was to be his greatest enterprise: the building of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It took him 35 long years to complete this task, and when it was done, he waited breathlessly for the reaction of her majesty, Queen Anne. After being carefully shown through the structure, she summed up her feelings for the architecture in three words: “It is awful; it is amusing; it is artificial.” Imagine how you would feel if words like these were used to describe the work of your life. However, Sir Christopher Wren’s biographer said that on hearing these words, he heaved a sigh of relief and bowed gratefully before his sovereign. How could this be?

The explanation is simple: In 1710 the word awful meant “awe-inspiring.” The word amusing meant “amazing,” and the word artificial meant “artistic.” What to our ears sounds like a devastating criticism was at that time words of fulsome praise. This sort of thing happens all the time, for words have a life of their own and are forever undergoing a change of meaning.

We can see that readily happening all about us today. For example, there was a time when “grass” was something you mowed. Today it might mean something you smoke. There was a time when “fuzz” was something that grew on a peach. Today it might mean a policeman. There was a time when “bread” was something you baked in an oven. Today it might mean money. There was a time when “turkey” was something you ate at Thanksgiving. Today it might describe someone of whom you disapprove.

Words are always changing, and that makes it necessary to continually develop new translations of the Bible so that we have God’s original word in words we can understand today.

Another help in understanding the original words of the Bible is a concordance. A concordance is an alphabetical index of all of the major words of the Bible. It will tell you the meaning of those words in the Greek and the Hebrew and where those words are found in the Bible. A concordance is the second-most important book after the Bible itself if you want to study the Bible seriously.

Let me show you how a concordance works. Look for a moment at 1 Peter 5:7, “Casting all of your care upon him; for he careth for you.” There are three key words in this verse. They are, the word care, the word casting, and the word careth. Look at each of those words in the concordance, and you see their exact meaning.

The word care means “distractions, anxieties, or worries.” It is the same word that was used by Jesus when he said, “Take no thought for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on” (Matthew 6:25).

Now look at the word casting. It means “to lay upon.” It is the same word that is used to describe the disciples throwing their clothing as a saddle blanket on the colt Jesus used for his triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. Then look at the word careth. It means “to be of interest,” “to be concerned,” or “it matters.”

Put these all together and we find that Peter is admonishing us to put all of our worries and cares upon the Lord like you would put a saddle blanket on a horse because we are of interest to him, he is concerned about us, and we matter to him. Understanding these words literally makes the word of God come alive to us.

2. The Historical Principle

The second basic principle of Biblical interpretation is the historical principle. This includes a study of the author, time, place, circumstances, and context of the writing. Involved in the historical principle are studies of the biblical geography, biblical history, biblical culture, and related subjects.

The context of a verse or passage is of utmost importance. In ordinary life, we understand the importance of context. For a farmer, a donkey means a beast of burden. In the context of a national election in the United States, it means the Democratic Party. The word Yankees is different in Civil War context and in baseball context. For this reason we should seek to find the particular context of the biblical verse and as much other historical data as we can.

Let’s look at the passage in 1 Peter again. Verse seven is the meat of this passage. The verses on each side are slices of bread. The whole flavor of the passage is to be found in all of it. The fact that these words come from the pen of Peter the apostle gives them even more meaning. They are an encouragement to walk in humility and to trust in the Lord instead of in ourselves, because Satan is always close at hand.

No doubt these words came out of Peter’s own experience of failure. The Lord had warned him of Satan’s desire to “sift” him, but he was too proud and self-sufficient to admit his need. The end result was that he denied the Lord three times. To Peter’s utter amazement, the Lord did not discard him. Jesus instead came to him and reinstated him to his apostleship.

Out of this bitter experience, Peter warns us to humble ourselves before the Lord and to trust ourselves to him completely so that Satan will not have the advantage over us. Peter recognized that there is an absolute relationship between casting our cares upon the Lord and not being overcome by Satan.

Another example might help. The historical background of 1 Corinthians 11:5 reveals that the wearing of a veil was a means for a woman in the Corinth of Paul’s day to indicate her chasteness. In this context we understand why the apostle admonished Christian women to keep their heads covered. In days when the infant Christian movement could be misunderstood, he did not want the women of the church to be mistaken for religious prostitutes. Short hair and the lack of a veil would have put a woman under suspicion. An understanding of the historical facts concerning a passage is important in making a correct interpretation of it.

3. The Theological Principle

A third basic principle of biblical interpretation is the theological principle. The Bible is to be understood from its center, its heart—its Christ. This principle includes doctrinal interpretation. Included is the idea that difficult verses or verses on the periphery must be understood in the light of the plainest passages. Christ is the center of biblical truth. He is the object and the end of all scripture revelation. He is the central figure of the whole book, and directly or indirectly every passage in the word points to Jesus. Until you have caught a glimpse of him in the passage you have studied, you have not yet gotten to the bottom of it.

Jesus said, “Search the scriptures for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). On one occasion Jesus began with Moses and all the prophets and he “expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). That must have been a wonderful experience, don’t you think?

Can you imagine how that must have been as Jesus shared scriptures that showed them pictures of himself? All of the Bible points to the Lord Jesus. In a real sense of the word we can say the Bible is a “him” book. Jesus is the central figure. Jesus is the main personality. All of the pathways of the scriptures ultimately lead to the Son of God. The Bible is like a vast art gallery in which there are many different pictures of the same personality.

I heard about a little chapel in the Italian Alps that has an unusual arrangement of statues. In the center of the chapel are statues of the Old Testament prophets, and all of those prophets are pointing toward the focal point of the little chapel, Jesus Christ, who is in the center of it all. Whoever designed those statues in that chapel understood the foundational truth that all of the Old Testament points to Jesus Christ. More than that, all the gospels center around Christ, and all of the epistles look back to Christ.

An old preacher once said, “My son, Christ is the key that unlocks every scripture. If you have any trouble finding the meaning of a certain passage, try putting Christ right in the middle and see how it will brighten up.” Try that for yourself and you will see that this rule works from the beginning of the Bible to the end.

Let’s go back to our passage concerning the cares of life. The theological principle of this passage is that God loves us so much that he gave his very Son to die for us, so we need to put our worries in his hands. When all of our worries are in God’s hands, Satan cannot get to us.

4. The Practical or Homiletical Principle

The fourth principle of interpretation is called the practical or homiletical principle. This principle places emphasis on the edifying aspects of the Bible for today. The Bible must not be read simply to gain information. It must be read to change our lives. The writer of Hebrews said, “Without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6). Salvation and spiritual growth depend upon faith. Faith is necessary in understanding the Bible. This is exactly where Israel failed. “The word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Hebrews 4:2).

Paul Little, in his book How to Give Away Your Faith, suggests seven direct questions we should ask about any passage we are studying: “Is there an example to follow? Is there a sin to be avoided? Is there a command for me to obey? Is there a promise for me to claim? What does this particular passage teach me about God, or about Jesus Christ? Is there a difficulty here for me to explore? Is there something in this passage that I should pray about today?”

Try to relate every passage you study to some personal need in your life. The passage in 1 Peter says that God loves us and so we should let him do our worrying for us. We should not be “yo-yo Christians” who keep laying our cares upon the Lord and then snatching them back again.

5. The Spiritual or Prayer Principle

The fifth principle of interpretation is the spiritual or prayer principle. At the beginning of every Bible study, we should pray and ask God to guide us. Why? Because the Holy Spirit, who inspired the scriptures, is able to enlighten our mind with regard to the meaning of them. The psalmist prayed, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Psalm 119:18). Prayer like that is a reminder that the human intellect, unaided, cannot grasp the true significance of scripture. If you have difficulty understanding the meaning of certain verses, then give the Lord credit for knowing more things than you understand. Remember that the secret things belong to the Lord.

James Hamilton was right when he said, “A Christian on his knees sees farther than a philosopher on his tiptoes.” When you pray over the passage in 1 Peter, remember to thank God that he cares about all of your cares, and ask him to help you not to worry, but to trust him more. Most of the authors of the books we read we never meet in person. We know very little about them. However, their writings accomplish the main purpose: we absorb their message, and we are inspired by their thoughts or are entertained by their story. We can understand the average book without knowing the author. But the Bible is different. Until we know the author of the Bible, we cannot know the book itself. If we want to understand the Bible we must be acquainted with the divine author of the Bible. We need that personal knowledge of God that comes when a person trusts Jesus as his Savior, enters into the experience of the new birth, and becomes a member of the family of God. When this happens, we are given the spiritual eyesight that is essential to study the Bible.

It takes the eyes of an artist to appreciate great art, and the ears of a musician to understand fine music, and it takes the eyes and ears and heart of the soul opened by the spirit of God to understand the wonders of the word of God.

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Paul W. Powell - www.PaulPowellLibrary.com

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