While I was in university studying to become a Pastor I was required to do a class on the subject of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the method of understanding and interpreting the Bible. For this class all students were required to purchase the book, “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” by Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart (http://a.co/3aQAqy2) . Without a doubt, this one book on how to understand the text of the Bible has made me appreciate the scriptures more and has allowed me to grow in my comprehension of God’s Word.
Early on in their book, Fee & Stuart write, “The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the ‘plain meaning of the text.’ And the most important ingredient one brings to this task is enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text. Correct interpretation, therefore, brings relief to the mind as well as a prick or prod to the heart.” (Page 18)
As Christians who highly value God’s Word, the Bible, and understand it as God’s written authority, we are called to practice godly exegesis (to bring out the correct meaning of a text), and avoid self-serving eisegesis (putting our own opinions/thoughts into the text).
If you enjoy reading and want to grow in understanding God’s Word, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of Fee & Stuart’s book. But if you don’t have the time to do so, allow me to share with you a few simple things you can do during your personal Bible reading time so that you can correctly interpret and understand what God is communicating through His Word.
- Read the passage or text: I know that this sounds silly, but many times when we come across a familiar Bible story or verse we tend to skip actually reading it and rely on our (sometimes faulty) memory to recall what it says. My advice is simple, actually read what is written.
- Look at the context of this passage (see what happens before and after): How many times have we’ve memorize a verse in the Bible and we give it a certain meaning, yet when it is read in the context it is written in the verse seems to have a totally different meaning? Let me give you an example: Many people quote the phrase of Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are assembled in My name, there I am in their midst.” Many Christians know this verse and most say it when only a small crowd shows up for the church service on Sunday. But if you read this verse in its context, Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus is actually teaching about discipline in the household of faith. This verse is not about encouraging the congregation when only a few people show up (there are other verses in the Bible about this), Matthew 18:20 really means that when two or three Christians try to bring correction to a fellow brother or sister in Christ, the presence of Jesus will also be there. This verse is about encouraging people to not be scared when they have to bring correction to a fellow believer, it is not about small crowds at church. When read OUT of context it can be twisted to mean anything, but when read IN context, the true meaning shines through!
- Ask the question, is this verse in the Bible for a certain time or eternal? This is where interpreting the Bible can get a little tricky. Some people get upset at the fact that different parts of the Bible have to be interpreted and understood in different ways, but it is true. For example, when we read about the Hebrew salves in Egypt putting the blood of a lamb on the door posts of their homes (Exodus 12:5-13) we are reading a contextual event; Christians today are not called to put the blood of a lamb (or any animal for that matter) on their front door. This moment in Exodus 12 is specifically for the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. On the flipside, when we read Micah 6:8 which says, “He has told you, O man, what is good—and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God;” this moment in Scripture is an eternal principle. God does require all those who serve Him to do justice and to love kindness and to have a humble relationship with the Lord. See the difference between the two? This is a more tedious task as your read your Bible, but an honest heart and a discerning mind will allow you to see what principles and truths were for the moment and what are truths for the believer today!
- Ask the question, is the idea/principle of this verse found elsewhere in the Bible? One of my passions as a preacher is to highlight the fact that verses and passages of the Bible are not isolated moments; there are thousands of themes that run throughout the entire Bible. It is always a good idea to ask whether or not what you are reading is supported, exemplified, or repeated in another verse or chapter in God’s Word. By doing this, you can see the bigger picture that the Bible paints, and it also helps with deepening your understanding of what is being said. For example, in John 15 Jesus says that He is the true vine. It is a great moment in the Gospel of John, but if we only read chapter 15 and stop without searching the rest of the Bible for connections we lose the audacity of this moment. Jesus says that He is the true vine because in Isaiah 5 we read that God set up the people of Israel like a vine in His holy vineyard. But the vine (Israel) produced sour grapes and God removed it. Now, with that understanding, Jesus’ comments in John 15 ring with power: The nation of Israel failed as the vine, but Jesus is the true vine! Simply put, it is important to ask questions and see if there are any other biblical connections to the text/verses you are reading. Feel free to use your Bible app or Google to search for connections to what you are reading!
- Allow the Holy Spirit to guide you: This is the most important factor of any Bible interpretation. Jesus tells His disciples in John 16:1-15 that one of the responsibilities of the Holy Spirit is to reveal to the Christian truth. It is very important that every time to you read the Bible you invite the Holy Spirit to speak the truth of God’s Word into your heart and mind. It is important that you ask the Holy Spirit to help you discern the true meaning of a text or event in Scripture. Without the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, when you read the Bible none of the four tools listed above will be of any benefit.
The Apostle Paul tells us that, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16) If the Bible is profitable for believers, then we must be diligent in understanding its message & truth. Be encouraged, you don’t have to be a scholar or have a PhD to understand the Bible, but these simple tools can help you extract the truth of God’s Word today and forevermore.