Principles for Understanding the Bible
“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
Here are some points that hopefully will help you to become a better student of God’s Word. This brief paper is obviously not meant to be a thorough discussion of Biblical hermeneutics. ["Hermeneutics" is from the Greek word "hermeneuo" usually translated "interpretation" in the Bible.] You will find considerable “overlap” from point to point. But a careful consideration of these points will help us understand more clearly what “Thus saith the Lord.”
The Bible is God’s Word and has authority over our lives.
Approach Scripture with great reverence and awe.
Watch out for the temptation to “explain away” passages that bring conviction.
Some Christians are tempted to think: “Tithing is for Old Testament believers.” “Witnessing is for those who are good with people.” “Worship is for those who can sing or who are more outgoing.”
Study the Bible as a whole.
Use cross-references to see what else God has to say about a particular subject.
Consider related passages together before drawing conclusions.
Deut 13:5 says that false prophets are to be put to death. Numbers 28:8 says that we are to sacrifice a lamb. But we must understand these commands in light of the New Testament.
Consider Carefully the Context of the Passage.
Each passage you study has a context. In other words, we must look
carefully at the verses that precede and that follow the verse we are studying.
When we take a passage "out of context" we are in danger of misinterpreting it.
A passage can often be taken more than one way--until we look closely at the
larger picture, perhaps the entire chapter or even the entire book.
Some have taught that Rev 4:1 (“Come up hither”) is a reference to the rapture of the church. But a careful reading of the context makes it clear that the plain meaning is that these words are addressed specifically to John regarding the revelations he was about to be given.
Make sure you understand the words and sentences.
Check out different translations, lexicons, and commentaries to help.
1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Evil communications corrupt good manners.”
1 Peter 3:1 says, “They also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives.”
You must do careful word studies to understand what those verses mean.
Remember the definition of the English words may be different from the definition of the Hebrew or Greek words. If you check out an English dictionary for the word “manners” in 1 Corinthians 15:33, you may still not really understand what the word means in this particular verse.
Be VERY aware of
the difference between “exegesis” and “eisogesis”. It can be very tempting to
“read into” a passage what we want it to say.
"Exegesis" is a Greek word meaning, "To draw out of." When we do this, we are doing good Bible study! We are attempting to "draw out" the meaning of the passage.
"Eisegesis" is a Greek word meaning, "To draw into." When we do this we are not doing good Bible study! We are reading our own ideas into God's Word, rather than "drawing out" His meaning.
Matthew19:14 says, “ But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” This verse has been used to validate infant baptism. But, of course, it really says nothing about infant baptism.
Rabbis used to teach that the reason God confounded the tongues at the tower of Babel is that the men were falling off the tower and dying and that the builders were mourning more over the lost bricks than the dying men. To teach that we should care more about people than things is a good lesson. But it is not found in Genesis 11.
Unless there is a strong Biblical reason otherwise (for example, other Bible passages that clarify the subject), take Scripture at its face value.
Assume the Bible literally means what it says. Just because a passage reminds you of a principle, doesn’t mean that particular passage teaches that principle.
John McArthur shared these examples:
A pastor preached a series on Nehemiah in which he said Nehemiah represented the Holy Spirit. The king's pool was the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The mortar between the bricks was speaking in tongues. He said that the whole point of Nehemiah is that God wants to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and build the fallen walls of your human personality through speaking in tongues.
Another preacher preached on the rapture from John 11. McArthur said the sermon was about an hour long and very clever. People were saying, "This is deep! Wow!" He preached that Lazarus was the church. Lazarus coming forth from the dead was the dead saints being raised. Martha was the Old Testament saints. Mary was the living New Testament saints. But, as McArthur said, “It just wasn't there.” McArthur went on to say, “When it was over we met again and he said to me, ‘Had you ever seen that in John 11?’ And I said, ‘No one has ever seen that in John 11.’”
Allegorizing the Bible was once very popular. But it is dangerous to take the plain meaning of the text and try to draw “spiritual” conclusions that are not found there.
Caution: The danger of allegorizing does not mean that the Bible does not contain “typology.” In typology there is a strong connection with Bible history. The New Testament makes it clear that some Old Testament people events “foreshadow” or “prefigure” or are “types” of New Testament teaching. However, typology taken to an extreme, can become allegory to the extent that we are reading our creative, but very human, ideas into the passage.
difference between the meaning of a passage and an application of
Hebrews 10:25 says, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together”. A good application of that verse would be to come to Sunday School. But the verse itself does not specify a time or place or frequency. The meaning of the verse is simply that Christians must not stop gathering together with other Christians.
Remember that historical events recorded in the Bible are not the same as Biblical commands directed to us.
There will always be principles to learn from any Bible passage, but remember to consider the context!
The Bible says, “Go and wash in Jordan seven times” (2 Kings 5:10). This passage does not teach that all Bible believers are to make a pilgrimage to the Jordan River!
1 Corinthians 15:29 says, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?” This verse is not a command for us to be “baptized for the dead.”
The fact that some of the Old Testament patriarchs practiced polygamy does not mean God approves it.
Remember that some passages are obviously meant to be taken as figurative language.
When Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth,” He is obviously not saying, “You are sodium chloride.”
When Judges 7:12 says, of the Midianites and Amalekites, that “their camels were without number, as the sand by the sea side for multitude,” we don’t necessarily conclude that there were literally billions of them.
There are times when the spirit of a passage must be interpreted in light of the culture.
Romans 16:16 says Christians are to greet one another with a “holy kiss.” Most Bible students recognize that the emphasis here is not on the kiss, but on the holy greeting. In New Testament culture (and in many cultures today) the kiss is a common greeting. In other cultures the greeting is a handshake, bow, smile, friendly words, or hug.
Always pray for wisdom and understanding when studying a Bible passage but do not assume that every thought you have is a correct understanding of the passage.
It takes time and careful study to understand some passages.
Acts 17:11 says, “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”
1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
You might read 1 Samuel 3:10 “Then shalt thou go on forward from thence, and thou shalt come to the plain of Tabor, and there shall meet thee three men going up to God to Bethel, one carrying three kids, and another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a bottle of wine:”
You might think: “Carrying three kids” reminds me of the importance of supporting our children. “Three loaves of bread” reminds me that Jesus is the Bread of Life and that God is the Holy Trinity. “Carrying a bottle of wine” reminds me of the dangers of drunkenness. So you proceed to teach a lesson on how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are displeased when a father allows alcohol to keep him from supporting his children.
All these “conclusions” are Biblical truths, which are taught in other passages of Scripture. But it is not what God is communicating in 1 Samuel 3:10!
You might think, "Well, what is the problem as long as the conclusions are Biblical?"
Suppose someone read the above passage and proceeded to teach that we should all raise goats, make sure we always had at least three loaves of bread on hand, and carry a bottle of wine with us? That passage might "remind" them of these kinds of ideas. But obviously this is bad hermeneutics! And these conclusions are not Biblical! Just because one gets an "idea" from a passage, doesn't mean the idea is Biblical.
When we wish to communicate that the Bible teaches a principle or truth, we should use the passage that actually teaches that truth. To try to use a passage that doesn't teach that truth is to misuse the Scripture and to open the door to the possibility of using a passage to try to teach something that the Bible does not teach at all.
To attempt to use a passage to teach something that is actually taught elsewhere in the Bible, or perhaps not taught at all is not "rightly dividing the Word of Truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)
We have a stern warning in 2 Corinthians 4:2 of the danger of "handling the Word of God deceitfully." There are those who disrespect God's Word to the point that they willingly and knowingly distort it with bad principles of interpretation.
Now I know that many who misinterpret Scripture this way are very innocent about it. Their motives are good. But still, we certainly don't want to follow the example of those who do "handle God's Word deceitfully!"
Be humble and keep a teachable spirit.
There are equally sincere Christian Bible-believing students of the Word who come to very different conclusions about the same passage of Scripture. We must each stand on what we believe to be true, but be aware that we may someday learn that we were sincerely wrong!
Don’t confuse the sins of arrogance and spiritual pride and self-righteousness with the virtue of standing firm on God’s Word.
Many sincere and godly students of God’s Word have changed their minds about what the Bible teaches about the second coming of Christ after careful Bible study. Others have changed their minds about one or more of the points of Calvinism.
It is always unwise to have a spirit of arrogance. But if sincere Christians disagree about what the Bible says on certain issues, it is doubly unwise to be arrogant about the position we happen to hold. It is possible to believe something very strongly, yet very humbly. If we are truly humble, we will not “blast away” those who disagree with us!
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