How to Interpret the Bible
The Bible is an amazing book, which I’ve been obsessed with for nearly a decade. The Bible was written by at least thirty-nine different authors in three different language across 1500 years on three continents. The Bible presents a coherent worldview that has challenged human cultures since the dawn of civilization; this collection of ancient, inspired writings gives broad instruction about God, humanity, life, and nature. There are many subtle rhythms and themes to the Bible that scholars spend lifetimes analyzing; however, the Bible is also understandable to small children. The Bible is truly an amazing piece of literature that stands head and shoulders above all other ancient works!
The Bible is unique among ancient books for numerous reasons. First, it is much more common than other ancient books. Would you more readily believe that a stranger you meet in the local Walmart has a Bible on their coffee table or a copy of Plato’s Republic? Second, and this should offend you initially, the Bible is the only ancient book that people think they can interpret without a significant amount of work.
As a pastor, the bulk of my job is spent interpreting Scripture; I am thus keenly aware of how much work interpreting the Bible can be and of my own insufficiencies for this sacred task! I’m writing this on Tuesday, November 7; I preached two days ago. I spent about two hours today preparing for a 30-minute-long sermon that I’ll preach in five days. Between now and Sunday, I’ll spend at least ten hours preparing to talk for 30 minutes. Why do pastors spend so much time working on sermons? The reason is that interpreting the Bible well is hard work. To interpret the Bible well requires squeezing every passage for details like you would squeeze a lemon when making lemonade. To understand the Bible, you must learn to read the Bible like it is a love letter instead of reading it like it is grocery list.
As a Baptist, my theology says that every person has the ability and right to read and study the Bible for themselves. With that in mind, I’d like to give you a few pointers on how to understand the Bible on your own. This is my personal methodology for sermon writing and uses a lot of information from the books Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays and How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart. It will take me several weeks to get through all of it.
Step 1: Understand the Context
One of the things that kills me is when someone takes a Bible verse, rips it from its context, and plasters it on something. For example, when an NFL player writes Philippians 4.13 on their eye paint, know that they have taken that verse radically out of context. While this is relatively harmless in a football stadium, it is not an acceptable way to understand the Bible. As I tell the members of my church all of the time: A text without a context is a pretext for any interpretation you want.
The first step in doing a good job interpreting the Bible is understanding a given verse’s immediate context. The easiest, and usually the best, way to understand any verse’s context is to read what’s around it. For example, pick up your Bible and read Luke 14.26 in complete isolation. What kind of theology would you develop from that verse read in a vacuum? Well, you’d probably believe that you had to hate everyone else. Sorry mom, can’t come over for Christmas this year! Now read Luke 14.25-35; does verse 26 take on a new meaning with its context? When you read the verse’s context, you see that Jesus is being followed by a large crowd when He stops, turns to the crowd, and tells them to make sure they really want to be His disciples. Expanding to the broader context of Jesus’s ministry as related in the Gospels, we can see that when large crowds follow Him, Jesus frequently preaches with extremely offensive analogies and metaphors. Taking context into account, Jesus is not commanding anyone to hate their parents; indeed, to do so would violate a fair amount of Jesus’s message. Instead, Jesus is talking about how serious His disciples must be. To say anything else is to ignore the verse’s context, a heinous sin of which we must never be guilty!
The immediate context is usually the most important context, but it isn’t the only context. You’ll also need to pay attention to the broader biblical context. For example, why, in Job 9.33, does Job say that there is no mediator between God and humanity when 1 Timothy 2.5 says that Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity? Have we established the much sought after biblical contradiction? Not quite; once again, pay attention to the biblical context! Job is in the Old Testament which was written before Jesus lived; 1 Timothy is in the New Testament which was written after Jesus lived. Job laments the fact that when he lived, there was no mediator between God and humanity. Job had a big problem to take up with God, but he couldn’t because, as a sinner, he had no way to approach God.
The final realm of context I’ll mention is the historical context. If you buy a study Bible, it’ll help you with this. What does Habakkuk mean in Habakkuk 1.5? After reading that verse alone, it may sound like something that you’d want to put on a t-shirt or a coffee mug to sell at Lifeway. When you learn the historical context, you know why there aren’t any t-shirts with that verse. What Habakkuk meant was that God was about to use the Babylonians to ransack the nation of Judah. The Babylonians would then haul off nearly all of the Israelites into captivity for approximately seventy years. Definitely not the kind of thing we put on t-shirts and mugs! Knowing the historical background is key to understanding this verse!
I know that’s a lot of information. Here’s the thing to take away: When you study the Bible, always be aware of and yield to context. If our interpretation doesn’t fit with the Bible’s context, then we’ve got it wrong. Read your Bible and heed the context!