The Church began to have problems with interpretation early in its history. The Apostle Paul wrote several letters to individual churches during the middle of the 1st century AD to address wrong interpretation and disobedience to God’s revealed Truth. Jesus told the Apostle John to write letters to seven churches at the end of the 1st century AD to address wrong interpretation and disobedience to God’s revealed Truth. Major disagreements about interpreting the Bible eventually divided the Church into many splinter pieces during the early centuries of Christianity until we now have thousands of divisions (denominations) and most Christians struggle to understand how to do something God told us was vital to our spiritual health – rightly divide the Word of Truth.
What if true followers of Christ around the world made right division of the Word the priority in their lives? What if we worked hard, as Paul asked us to do in 2 Timothy 2:15, and became very good at interpreting God’s Word correctly? What do you think might happen in the Church if Christians understood and obeyed the Truth of God’s Word? What if the Church reversed the divisions of the last 2,000 years and came together to fulfill the Lord’s prayer for us – “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:20-21) Can you imagine the joy in Heaven and on earth if the Church was united again around the Word of God? What a powerful force we would be for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The first phase of methodical, inductive Bible study is to carefully observe everything in a passage of Scripture. The second phase is interpretation. As we’ve seen in previous studies, the bridge between observation and interpretation is questions for interpretation. The questions we ask are based on our observations of terms, structure, general literary forms, and atmosphere (Methodical Bible Study, p. 97, Dr. Robert Traina, 1952). When I was first learning how to interpret Scripture, I used a simple chart that had observations on the left half of a piece of paper and questions for interpretation on the right half. It helped me to see what I was “seeing.”
Important! Don’t make interpretations during the observation and interpretive question phases of your study. Be patient and wait until you have seen, asked and answered – then you can interpret.
Most Christians don’t see themselves as interpreters of Scripture, but they are. Even if they allow someone else to do the interpreting for them (e.g. pastor, teacher, evangelist, prophet, missionary), they have still interpreted Scripture by believing what they were taught. The process of “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” is personal interpretation of Scripture. Some Christians have told me that is a dangerous proposition because we’d never have agreement on anything in the Bible if every Christian came up with their own interpretation, but I think the opposite is true. The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of Scripture and knows the meaning for every word and verse in the Bible. I believe He wants all of us to know that meaning and has given us the way to accomplish it.
Steps to Interpreting Scripture Accurately
The process of accurate interpretation of Scripture is to hear from the Holy Spirit throughout your study. Talk with the Spirit Who lives in you as you begin your time of study and share your thoughts and ideas with Him as you read every word. Ask Him to help you during the observation phase to see everything fully and clearly. Ask Him to help you ask the right questions that will lead to the right answers that will lead you to the right interpretation of every verse of the Scripture the Spirit inspired. He will bring incredible light into your study and you will literally hear from Him. Some of the most exciting moments in my life have been when God’s Spirit taught me personally. I can’t imagine a better Teacher.
Interpretation begins with defining terms. God blessed me in my first year as a Christian with teachers who were proficient in Hebrew and Greek. Studying with them from the original languages of the Bible gave me a desire to learn how to do that myself. If you can, study with someone who knows Hebrew and Greek or take classes at a local Bible college or online. If you’re not able to study the languages, there are many online Hebrew and Greek websites you can use to learn more about specific terms in Scripture. Here are a few you may find helpful:
I began studying Greek and Hebrew long before the Internet was available to the public. I slowly purchased lexicons and dictionaries that have helped me define terms through the years. I still use them and prefer them to the online versions. You may eventually want to build your own library of study aids.
I do not recommend you read commentaries about the Bible until you have completed your own interpretation. After you have heard from God’s Spirit and know why you believe what you believe, reading commentaries by other Bible students may add to your understanding. However, if you read commentaries before the Spirit guides you to His interpretation, you may be misled by someone’s wrong interpretation. The more you practice your interpretive skills, you will find your ability to rightly divide the Word of Truth improve. You will also be able to identify commentaries worth your time and those that aren’t.
In our next study, we will look at how to get the right answers to the right questions for interpretation.
Also, read the companion apologetics study – Can I Trust the Bible?
In Christ’s Love and Grace,
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”