How to Interpret the Bible Part 2
This is part 2 of a series. For part 1, click here.
Since we believe the Bible is God’s primary way of speaking to us, there is absolutely no reason for not interpreting it correctly. Interpreting the Bible, however, can be quite difficult. We’re separated from the original authors by at least two thousand years, language, and culture. This means that we can miss things if we aren’t careful. For example, what do angels do? Well, the Bible isn’t always clear; however, the Greek word for angel, angelos, means messenger. Since we speak English, we are prone to miss something that would have been obvious to the original audience: Namely, that angels are first and foremost messengers of God. To interpret the Bible correctly, we have to be aware of the differences between the original audience and ourselves.
Last week I said that when interpreting Scripture, we must be aware of context. Context is always king when interpreting the Bible! We pay close attention to context in order to understand what the verse we’re reading meant to the original audience. The example from last week used Philippians 4.13: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” By paying attention to the verses around this famous verse, we are able to understand what Paul meant. He did not mean that God would give him the strength to kick the game-winning field goal in the Super Bowl, nor did he mean that God would give him the strength to win a hot-dog eating contest. What Paul meant was that when serving God endangered His life, God would take care of him. Knowing a verse’s context tells us what that verse meant to the original audience. If our interpretation would confuse the original audience, then we’re probably wrong somewhere.
Step 2: Be Aware of Significant Differences
When we pay attention to context, the differences between the original author’s situation and our own situation become apparent. For example, in Joshua 1.9, God tells Joshua: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” In studying this passage, context would require us to understand why exactly God told Joshua this. In other words, what events in Joshua’s life brought him to this point. Here’s what we would discover by reading Joshua 1.9’s context: Moses—a colossal figure in the Old Testament—had just died within sight of the promised land, Joshua now has to fill Moses’s boots, and Joshua, the newly commissioned leader, is about to lead the people into the Promised Land, an adventure 40 years in the making. Joshua was probably a little more than nervous; thus, before Joshua even gets started, God tells him that He will always be alongside Joshua in Israel’s coming battles. The meaning here is that when we do the things God has called us to do, He will always help us, no matter how impossible the future may appear.
Step 2 is simply being aware of these differences. Here’s why this is important: Sometimes these differences can obscure a passage’s meaning, especially in the Old Testament. Let’s consider another example from Joshua: After the walls fall at Jericho, the Israelites entered the city, “devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” What message are we to take from this brutal story that shocks our sensibilities?
Though there’s much more to it than I can mention here, we have to remember their unique circumstances and how these circumstances differ from our own. We are not ancient Israel, and we are not entering a hostile land at God’s command. Further, God has not explicitly told us that He wants to use us to judge another nation for their sins. What’s more, we are not the nation from whom the Messiah will come. For these reasons and more, we cannot, for example, say that the Israelites destruction of Jericho is instructive for how we ought to handle our enemies. Here’s why: There are numerous, significant differences between our situation and that of the Israelites. Step 2 is all about seeing and appreciating these differences.
Before I finish, here’s an example of how this principle works in the New Testament: In Acts 2 there’s an interesting, and somewhat humorous, story about when God gave the Holy Spirit to believers for the first time. The apostles are all gathered when suddenly the Holy Spirit descends upon them and they begin speaking in tongues. This scene is apparently so strange that the on-lookers thought that Peter, James, John, Matthew, etc. were drunk! While that’s interesting, here’s the big question: On the basis of this story and others like it from the book of Acts, are modern believers supposed to speak in tongues when they receive the Holy Spirit?
When we consider the special circumstances of this event, and of the other events like it in the book of Acts, we don’t have much reason to say yes. Here’s why: The context of the book of Acts is significantly different from our own. The book of Acts is all about the establishment of the Church. Since God was establishing an institution that He intended to use for at least the next 2,000 years, He did some special things, such as performing miracles and giving people the gift of tongues for short periods of time. After all, God never wastes a miracle; the miracles in the Bible are always indications that God is doing something new or unexpected. When interpreting the book of Acts, we should expect our experiences to be somewhat different because, and this is really important, God is not using us to establish the Church. To correctly interpret the book of Acts, we must keep these important differences in mind.
That’s a lot of information! When you study your Bible, be aware of the passage’s context: Context is always king when interpreting Scripture! Also, be aware of how your situation is different from the original author’s situation. Sometimes there isn’t much difference; other times, however, you can’t understand the original passage without appreciating the differences.
Notes & Sources
 Philippians 4.13, NASB.
 Joshua 1.9, NIV.
 Joshua 6.21, NIV.