At Bibles.net, we want to help you jumpstart your adventure in productive Bible reading with a few principles to help you interpret the Bible. These will guide you on the right path of understanding it.
Before we begin, keep this in mind: Because the Bible is God’s Word, it’s a spiritual book that requires spiritual understanding.
That is why the Bible says,
The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:14 NIV)
Reading the Bible is not simply an intellectual exercise; it’s first a spiritual one.
This means that having genuine faith in God is necessary for properly understanding his Word. It also means that we should pray and ask God to help us through his Holy Spirit to discern what he has to say in the Bible.
Let’s take a look at seven simple principles to help us interpret the Bible.
Psychologists speak of “confirmation bias.” They mean that most people approach information looking for things that confirm what they already believe. Subsequently, they ignore anything that doesn’t fit their preconceptions.
It’s really important that you understand your own presuppositions and assumptions before you read the Bible. Be honest with yourself. Recognize that you aren’t objective—nobody is totally objective. Be willing to allow the Bible to challenge your perspective, or even to contradict what you believe.
Remember, this is God speaking. He knows reality perfectly; you do not. Submit yourself to his Word, rather than allow your own preferences and biases to dictate to God what is true.
Reading the Bible properly is an act of humility and trust in God and his wisdom.
Become Familiar with the Bible
Unfortunately, many people read the Bible like they read the newspaper. They quickly flip through it, looking at the headlines. They skim through it, but rarely study it.
Who do you think is going to understand a passage of the Bible better: someone who skims over it once, or somebody who reads the passage several times, carefully considering every word in it?
Read and re-read the passage before jumping to conclusions about what it means. Become familiar with the different literary genres in the Bible, and look for excellent Bible study resources to consult.
Pay Attention to Details
Proper Bible reading involves cultivating excellent observational skills.
Take your time. Pause to consider individual words and phrases. Look for figurative language. Identify the keywords, themes, and ideas for each passage. Try to summarize the passage in just one sentence, or even one word. Be focused. Treat the Bible like you would any book that you’re trying to genuinely understand.
Developing your powers of observation will also include the next two steps.
Approach the Bible as if you were an investigative reporter. Come armed with questions to ask of a passage as you dig deeper into its meaning. Remember these five “W’s” and an “H”: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.
For example, consider the short verse, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Asking some simple questions will help tease out the meaning of this verse:
- Who is this command given to?
- What does it mean to be holy?
- When was this written?
- Where were God’s people when he told them this?
- Why should I be holy?
- How can I be holy? Am I, a sinner, able to be holy like God is holy?
In this way, you begin to unpack the verse’s meaning. You can ask similar questions of any Bible passage.
Know the Context
You know the old real estate adage: location, location, location? When it comes to Bible interpretation, there is a similar rule: context, context, context.
The better you know the Bible overall, the better you will be able to understand an individual verse or passage. Words only have meaning in their context.
Here’s a quick example. Suppose you walked past a room where two people were talking in hushed tones, and all you heard was: “Then Rico killed Mary.” Would you immediately call the police to report a crime? Would you confront the people talking?
You can save yourself embarrassment by asking questions and not making assumptions. In this example, two friends were discussing their favorite soap opera.
Similarly, we can’t cherry pick a Bible verse out of its context and pretend to fully understand what it means. Think again about Leviticus 19:2: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (NIV). The only way to properly understand verse 2 is to read the whole chapter, and the best way to understand chapter 19 is to read all of Leviticus. And to fully understand how Leviticus fits into the story of the Bible we need to read both the Old and the New Testaments.
Yes, this is hard work! But the gains far outweigh the work. Before you know it, this way of looking at Scripture will become a habit.
Analyzing text in its context is what we have to do to properly understand the Bible, but this hard work is also how we will be able to truly understand what God has to say to us in his Word.
Two Kinds of Biblical Context
When looking at biblical context, we consider two broad areas:
- Historical context: This involves understanding the big picture of a passage, like when the book was written, who wrote the book and to whom, and what was the historical situation and cultural background of the original audience.
- Literary context: This involves understanding the actual verses being studied, answering questions like, “why does the author use this word here?” Or, “how do we follow the reasoning of the author through the book?” Or, “why does the author say this now instead of earlier or later in the book?”
For example, the apostle Paul wrote this verse in a New Testament letter called Ephesians:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm. (Ephesians 6:12 NIV)
For historical context, we could look up the city of Ephesus and learn about what life was like in the first century when Paul wrote his letter. We’d discover that Ephesus was the heart of paganism and witchcraft in that part of Asia Minor, so it had a particular problem with the spiritual forces of evil.
For literary context, we would study the other verses in chapter 6 of Ephesians, attempting to discern why Paul says these words here near the end of his letter.
Don’t Jump to Application
Here’s one reason why understanding the historical context of the Bible is so important. We need to take time to observe what the passage actually says before jumping to personal application. A passage cannot mean now what it didn’t mean to its original audience.
So try to discern the author’s intention for why he wrote what he wrote. Consider the original audience and situation (what did it mean then?) before rushing to apply the text to yourself (what does it mean for me today?).
Interpret Scripture with Scripture
Lastly, because all of the Bible is the inspired Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16), one part of it will never contradict another part. We call this the “analogy of Scripture.” We can use one passage of the Bible to help us understand another passage.
If you come up with an interpretation of a verse that contradicts another Bible verse, you can be certain that your interpretation is wrong.
Again, this means that the more of the Bible you know, the better you will be able to interpret any single passage of it.
Reading the Bible well is a matter of the heart, but it also requires that we think hard and well. It’s both spiritual and intellectual.
When it’s time to open up your Bible, walk through the above steps when you read a passage of Scripture. In time, they will become more and more automatic for you. And as it becomes easier to understand, we pray you will find ever increasing joy in opening it up again and again.