When you read Scripture are you confident that you interpret the Bible correctly? Although we will always be growing in our knowledge of God and His Word, with the right tools and approach, we can understand the meaning of Scripture. This post gives 9 practical tips to help you “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
The need to interpret the Bible
Every Bible passage has just ONE MEANING. (See also “Don’t Ask What This Bible Passage Means to You.”) That’s the one God originally gave it when He inspired it to be written. The original meaning is still it’s current and only meaning. Our task as students of the Bible is to seek to understand that meaning and then apply it to our lives.
So why isn’t that meaning always crystal clear for us? Why do we need to do the work of interpreting what we read?
I can sum it up in one word: DISTANCE
Twenty-first century, western believers are separated from the original meaning of Scripture by language, time, and culture. The Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek, and a little Aramaic. And it was written thousands of years ago in a cultural and historical setting very different from ours today. All of this separates us from an immediately clear meaning of a Bible passage.
Good, solid translations help a lot but they cannot fully bridge the distance gap. That’s why good study techniques are vital. Understanding the Bible doesn’t have to be hard. It just has to be done correctly. (See also, “Why are there so Many Bible Translations?”)
Before you read
1. Set aside preconceptions– None of us come to Scripture like a clean slate. We all have previously held understandings, preconceived ideas, and biases. These can hinder or alter a correct understanding of the passage. So, before you begin to read set all these aside and ask God to help you understand His meaning.
2. Recognize the literary genre – The Bible is comprised of different types of literature. We cannot read and understand historical narrative the same way we do poetry or wisdom literature. (For more information see “Quick Tips for Handling 8 Different Literary Genres.”)
3. Know the background – Finding facts like the author, original audience, and the author’s original purpose for writing lays the right foundation for right understanding. This doesn’t always need to take a lot of time. Check the notes of a study Bible or keep a good Bible handbook close by. (Take a look at “Talk Thru the Bible” by Wilkinson and Boa.)
As you read
4. Observe the text – Before we can know what a passage means, we must first know what it says. Observation is the first step of inductive Bible study. (Find out more about my 4R Inductive Bible Study Method.) Recording things like facts, commands, lists, key words, and comparisons helps us determine what it says. (For more about observation see “10 Observation Tips for Better Bible Study.”)
5. Identify any figurative language – The Bible uses many literary tools like metaphors, similes, and hyperbole. For instance, Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26 ESV). Jesus used hyperbole here to show that He alone is first in our lives.
6. Keep the passage in context – Taking a verse or passage out of its original context may be the most common mistake we make as Bible students. We should consider a passage’s literary, historical, and cultural contexts. (For more on context see “4 Tips to Help You Understand the Bible” and “How Literary Context Helps You Understand the Bible.”)
After you read
7. Use cross-references to clarify – One of the best ways to add insight or clarify a confusing passage is to look up other passages that deal with the same topic. You can find cross-references for every passage in a study Bible or a concordance. Good Bible students always interpret Scripture with Scripture!
8. Summarize, paraphrase, or outline the passage – This step will help you think through what you observed and give shape to your understanding.
9. Look for application – One reason we interpret the Bible is so we can apply its truths to our lives. Now identify things like spiritual truths, commands, and principles for godly living. God wants to use these to shape your beliefs, attitudes, and actions.
Did any of these tips surprise you? Which of them do you think will be most helpful to you? Why?