In his account of the risen Lord's walk to Emmaus, Luke relates that Jesus reproved the disheartened disciples for not believing what the prophets had spoken. "And beginning with Moses, and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures" (LUK 24:27).
"Explained" is the Greek word diermeneuo, meaning "to unfold the meaning of what is said; to explain, expound; to translate into one's native language." The root of this word is Hermes, the Greek deity known to the Romans as Mercury. Hermes was the god of science, invention, eloquence, speech, writing, and art. It was Hermes who brought the messages of the gods to the mortals. From these words comes the English "hermeneutics," the science of interpretation.
2PE 1:20 says that there is only one interpretation of any passage of Scripture, and that is the Bible's own interpretation. Christians are confused today about biblical interpretation in part because they do not know what the word "interpretation" means.
In English, "interpret" can be defined at least two ways. In its oldest sense, "interpret" means "to explain or tell the meaning of." In a secondary sense, it means "to conceive in the light of individual belief, judgment, or circumstance; to construe."
In Bible study—as in most of life—the first sense of this word applies. The plain, literal interpretation of anything spoken or written is what the speaker or writer means by what he says; it is not what the listener or reader thinks or feels about the message he receives. So, for example, when an air traffic controller gives landing instructions to the pilot of an approaching aircraft, there is only one "interpretation" of his directions that matters. The pilot has a vested interest in making sure that he understands exactly what the controller meant by what he said.
The statement, "There are many ways to interpret this," is as meaningless—and potentially dangerous—to the student of the Word as it is to the pilot of the airplane. The only interpretation the pilot is seeking is the controller's; the only interpretation the Bible student should be seeking is God's. The first goal of Bible study is to determine what God meant by what He spoke through Scripture. This is biblical interpretation.
"It is the first business of an interpreter," said John Calvin, "to let his author say what he does, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say." This is not so difficult a task as most people think.
Biblical interpretation, like mathematics, is an exact science. We know that 1 + 1 = 2 in every country in the world. No matter what language the formula is translated into, 1 + 1 = 2. Thirty-five hundred years ago, one plus one equated two. The Bible says that Moses lived 40 years in the palace of Pharaoh, 40 years in the desert, and 40 years leading the people through the wilderness—a total of 120 years. Is it amazing that even in the time of Moses, they were somehow able to add 40 plus 40 plus 40 and come up with 120? Of course, it is not amazing—it is mathematics! No one would say of the conclusion that 40 + 40 + 40 = 120, "That's just your interpretation," because an absolute science cannot be tampered with.
When we work with the science of hermeneutics, we are working with the only science dealing with something more absolute than mathematics—the Word of God. Before mathematics was, the Word of God existed. Long after mathematics is forgotten, the Word will still stand. When the rules of systematic Bible study are followed, the interpretation of any passage is the same, whether the person studying is living in 21st-century America or fourth-century Ethiopia.
The science of hermeneutics demands that we approach any study of the Word of God from three perspectives: the historical (isagogics), the doctrinal (categories), and the grammatical (exegetics):
Isagogics is a word that has all but disappeared from English-language dictionaries. It is from the Greek eis, "into," and ago, "to lead." In English, an "isagoge" is an introduction, "isogogic," is defined in the 1955 Oxford English Dictionary as "introductory studies, especially that part of theology which is introductory to exegesis."
Isagogics is the study of the historical and cultural background of biblical passages. The Bible must be interpreted in light of the time in which it was written. All Scripture was written for every believer (2TI 3:16) but not all Scripture was written to every believer. If our goal is to understand what the writer wanted his readers to understand, then we have to know something about history.
For example, though the four Gospels are similar, each was written to a different audience for a different purpose. Matthew wrote primarily for Jews, to present Christ as king; Mark wrote for the Romans, to present Christ as servant; Luke wrote for Greeks, to prove the humanity of Christ; and John wrote for the world, to prove the deity of Christ. Certain words and phrases are used in each, which uphold these themes; and different historical conditions are relevant to the study of each book.
Another example is found in chapters 8-10 of First Corinthians, which cannot be understood apart from some knowledge of idol worship in Corinth. The city of Corinth was dominated by the temple of Aphrodite, where gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual immorality were a regular part of worship. Most of the Christians in Corinth had been raised in this system, and some were having a hard time getting out of it. In these chapters, Paul is not just talking about meat; he is talking about meat offered to idols.
A category is a specific area of Bible doctrine. The Bible is one book, inspired by one Spirit, with one unified message progressively revealed. To fully understand the biblical teaching on any subject, we must take into consideration all that the Bible has to say on that subject.
For example, what does the Bible teach about divorce? Anyone who attempts to teach on the subject cannot hope to give an accurate picture of the biblical teaching on divorce by only considering MAT 5:31-32. Balance requires that equal weight be given to other passages such as DEU 24:1-4;MAT 19:3-12, and 1CO 7:26-28. (On this subject, it is also important to understand the historical settings and, for MAT 19:1-30, to have some knowledge of the rabbinical teachings of the day.)
We will never have a proper interpretation until we take all the passages on a subject and put them together. That is contextual, categorical study; it is time-consuming work, but it is absolutely necessary for accuracy in teaching.
The approach to the Word must also be dispensational. God has divided history into ages or dispensations. So, for example, in the Old and New Testaments, the application of faith is different. It is the same faith, the same focus on the Messiah, but under the New Covenant we do not sacrifice lambs. Why? A dispensational approach to Scripture tells us that animal sacrifice is not necessary today. Many of the promises in the Bible are dispensational in character. Unless we understand that and know how to determine which ones apply to us, we will never be able to tap into the power of God.
"Exegete" is from the Greek ek, meaning "out," and hegeomai, "to lead out or go before." To exegete is to lead or bring out of a passage what is there. Exegesis refers to the grammatical study of the Word of God. This means the study of individual words and of how words are put together in sentences and paragraphs.
Because the Bible is inspired by God the Holy Spirit, every word in the Bible is important. In the book of Galatians, Paul builds an entire doctrine of grace on the fact that one word in a passage in Genesis—seed—is singular rather than plural in the original text. EXO 20:13 is another place where the exact word used in the passage matters. Ratsach is one of 10 Hebrew words that means "to kill." It is used only for premeditated murder. The commandment is, "Thou shalt not commit homicide." Knowing that makes it easier to understand that God did not contradict Himself when He commanded Israel's leaders to kill their enemies in military situations.
It is important to be able to go back to the original Hebrew and Greek words in Bible study, and books are available that make that easy to do. But in most cases, apparently obscure words can be clarified by studying the immediate context.
Probably the most important rule to remember in Bible study is to study in context. To understand words, study the sentences and the verses that surround them. To understand verses, study them in light of the chapters where they are found. Think about where they fit in the scheme of the entire book. Consider whether they are in the Old or the New Testament.
An example of the danger here is found in MAT 16:28 where the promise is severed from the continuing context of Matthew 17, where it is fulfilled in the transfiguration of Christ. In the same way, many people separate 1CO 2:9 from 1CO 2:10, thus removing to an uncertain future time a promise that God gave us for today.
The Reformers taught what they called the "analogy of faith"—principles for Bible study based on what the Bible says about itself. Three of the most important of those principles are:
1. The Bible can be understood.
How would a loving God communicate? In a way that we could understand. God loves us and wants our obedience. We have to believe that He speaks clearly and that if there is confusion, it is in us and not in the passage. So, we use common sense and persistence when we study. That means:
• we study from the center out, explaining difficult or obscure passages by the light of clear passages;
• we look for the simple, logical explanation or interpretation of a passage—chances are that is the most accurate interpretation;
• we come to a passage that we do not know whether to interpret literally or figuratively, we go for the literal interpretation if it fits; and
• we look for repetition—of words, of ideas—because we know that if God says something more than once, it is something He probably wants us to take notice of.
2. The Bible is a book of progressive revelation.
A message is being developed in Scripture and it is more fully and clearly developed toward the end than at the beginning. More about Jesus Christ and salvation is revealed in the New Testament than the Old; more about the function of the Church is revealed in the Epistles than in the Gospels; more about the future of the world in Revelation than anywhere else. So, we try to understand Old Testament prophecy in the light of the New Testament account of its fulfillment and Old Testament characters in light of New Testament comment on them.
3. The Bible does not contradict itself.
As God, by nature, cannot contradict Himself, neither can His Word to man. To accept this principle means that when we find apparent contradictions, we continue to search for answers in the certainty that there is a perfect agreement in Scripture—which careful study will bring out.
The Bible clearly lays out three spiritual requirements that must be met before we can expect to understand the Word:
If we approach the Word without the Spirit, we may find information, but wisdom and power will be beyond our grasp. This is true not just for unbelievers, but also for believers who are walking in the flesh rather than in the Spirit. This is why it is so important to confess our sins and be cleansed every time we open our Bible (1JO 1:9).
God shares His deepest secrets only with those who approach His Word in humility and trust. True understanding and power are reserved only for those who are willing to obey God. When we find Scripture at odds with our ideas or our desires, we must let the Bible be the authority. Where the Word of God contradicts what we think, our thinking is wrong; where it contradicts what we want, our desires are wrong.
Lewis Sperry Chafer
Consider the purpose of the Bible as a whole.
Note the distinctive character/message of each book.
Ask to whom a given Scripture is addressed.
Consider the immediate context.
Compare all Scripture on a given theme or doctrine.
Determine the exact meaning of the determinative words.
Avoid personal prejudice and preconceptions.
Dr. Harry Ironside
10 Questions on a Chapter
What is the principal subject (doctrine, theme)?
What is the leading lesson (application)?
What is the key verse?
Who are the principal persons involved?
What is the main teaching about Jesus Christ?
What is the primary example to follow?
What error is there to avoid?
Is there a command to obey?
Is there a promise to claim?
Is there a prayer to pray?
In Bible study—more than in anything else in life — we get exactly what we have coming. Sloppy study will never fill our thirst. But the more minute and tireless our study, the more we will be rewarded. The people who have great insights into the character and Word of God are the people who have put in time and effort and who do not quit when study turns to sweat. If we will carefully follow consistent rules of study, we will gradually develop the skill of interpreting the Bible; we will eventually learn how to get to the heart of God's message.
The goal of Bible study should never be intellectual achievement. We should always approach the Word with the desire to be transformed a little more into the image of Christ. We should never end our study without asking ourselves how this portion of Scripture applies to our circumstances and what we are going to do with the things we have learned.
This is especially important for teachers to remember. We study to learn, not just to teach. If we study only to teach others, the truth never penetrates our own soul or convicts us of our own need for correction. Neither do we continue to grow, for we ourselves are not subject to what we study. If we remain students—if we are disciples—then we will have no difficulty having sufficient information to teach to others, and they will be moved by those things which God has made real and exciting to us in our own growth!
This material was originally a highlighted topic in "The Basics." Additional topics can be found here.