How to Understand the Bible

william-morris-letter-b
William Morris letter “B”

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth– 1 Timothy 2:15

I’ve heard the same story repeated. I’ve even experienced it myself. A Bible Study is underway and the person leading the study will begin by reading a verse or passage. Then he will ask those attending what that scripture means to them. In a group of 10 you might get 10 different answers. This is especially true with more ambiguous or mysterious passages. You might ask “what’s wrong with that? The Bible speaks to everyone differently depending on where you are in your life.” There is some truth to that. But let me provide another perspective:

You write a letter to a loved one. How much of that letter would you expect them to read? It would be safe to assume that the entire letter is to be read. While certain phrases or sentences may stick out in the persons mind, they are to be taken in context with the rest of the letter. If a sentence seems questionable on its own, usually it is the rest of the letter that will make sense of it. It’s all a part of communication. You want the reader to understand what you meant, not for them to inject their own interpretation.
This is how we should come to scripture.

The Bible is a collection of books and letters written to those identified as God’s people. Hermeneutics is the science of rightly interpreting the Bible.
Scripture in its original form did not consist of chapter and verse divisions. To be honest sometimes I wish it still didn’t. But, with such a large book, chapters and verses are helpful for finding the words you need. However, we fail when we pick out a verse without understanding the surrounding text, or context (with the exception of most of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes).   Take a verse like Matthew 7:1 “Do not judge lest you be judged,” which many of us take to mean you should never correct anyone in sin or wrong doing. However, a more thorough reading of chapter 7 will explain that we’re not being told NOT to judge. We’re being told that we shouldn’t judge others before we have judged and corrected our selves first (verses 3-5) on the same matter. Some chapters even begin with the adverb “therefore” meaning “for that reason”. Because of this, we should know what was being said in the previous chapter. This will bring new light to the following chapter. Since most books in the Bible are written as narratives or letters, it would greatly benefit the reader to read the entire book other than just a couple of chapters. This can and will bring the better understanding of each verse read.

In the grander scheme, reading the entire Bible can bring better contextual understanding of each of its included books. In regard to Matthew 7:1 we are told over and over throughout the Bible to judge rightly and to use discernment (judging). Making the common phrase “The Bible says not to judge,” erroneous and at best incomplete.

Literary context is only one step in “rightly dividing the word of God.” Duvall and Hayes in their book GRASPING GOD’S WORD, explain how to get a better understanding of scripture in 5 steps they call “The Interpretive Journey”.

Step 1 is called “Grasping the text in their town”. Basically what would the text in question mean to the original readers. How would they have understood it. This can be difficult if there is no general understanding of who the original audience was or how they viewed the world around them. Is the book written as a historical document, poetry, epistle?

Step 2 is measuring the width of the river to cross. In other words what are the differences between the original audiences and myself? What was their culture, language, and situation? Were they under a different covenant?

Step 3. “Crossing the principlizing bridge.” What is the theological principle this text presents? You come to a verse like “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this” in Deuteronomy 22:5. This isn’t just a commandment forbidding women to wear pants. If we look at the differences in culture as stated in Step 2, we can understand that there were no pants in the culture of the ancient Israelites. So they would have understood it to mean your appearance in general. God made man to be male and woman to be female. The way you present yourself to the world is to either submit to who God made to be or to go against it. Crossdressing could also be a matter of being deceptive.

“Consulting the Biblical map” is Step 4 of the journey. This goes back to using the rest of scripture as context for understanding. Is what I have gathered about this passage agreeing with the rest of scripture. Since God does not contradict Himself nor does He change His mind then if my understanding is contrary to what is explicitly stated elsewhere then it is my understanding that needs to submit to scripture, not the other way around.

The Last step on thee journey is “Grasping the text in your own town”. This is where you apply what you have learned in the previous 4 steps to your life and the lives of those around you. How does it apply in my culture now?

Biblical exegesis is a process of rightly interpreting. Exegesis is only done through careful and objective study of the text. The opposite of proper exegesis is called eisegesis. Eisegesis is when the reader interprets the text through subjective lenses and makes the scripture mean whatever he wants it to mean.

One way to properly exegete scripture is by studying the original languages it was written in. I’ll give a simple example that many of us have learned in high school. There is a famous scene in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is seen asking “Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art though Romeo.” Now in our modern English, that sounds like Juliet is inquiring about the location of her beloved Romeo.  But, in the 1500s, when it was written, that phrase would have been understood as “Romeo, Romeo. Why are you Romeo?” Since Romeo and Juliet came from feuding families she was asking why did Romeo have to be Romeo of the family that her family hated. The next line in the poem makes sense of this when she says “Deny thy father…”

Now if we need help understanding a poem written in the same language only a few hundred years ago, how much more so a book written in foreign languages thousands of years ago? Now I’ll use a biblical example to make my point.

In John 21, after Jesus’ resurrection, He asks Peter “Do you love me?” To which Peter responds “Yes Lord; you know that love you.” Jesus asks this question to Peter twice more. And twice more Peter has the same response. Now in the English this may seem like just a conversation about Peter’s love for Jesus, and that would be right. However, the conversation in the original Greek presents Peter answering a somewhat different question than he is being asked. The term love that Jesus is using is the Greek word “agape” meaning an unconditional love. The term for love that Peter uses is the Greek word “phileo” meaning more so a brotherly/friendship type of love. Both still “love” but different verbal expressions and meanings. It is believed that Peter was so ashamed after his 3 denials of Christ that he could not say with confidence that he unconditionally loved his Lord because his zeal turned to fear and he abandoned Jesus.

Back to the scenario being played out in Bible studies around the country. The goal should not be to come away with subjective interpretations of scripture. We can know what the Bible says and what it means when time is taken to properly study it. So to correct this scenario the person leading the study should already have a proper understanding of the text. Yet, he can walk his audience through how he got the understanding of what the original author meant. So, when the time comes to engage the group, they aren’t left with subjective interpretations; they will have an educated understanding of what was meant. What the Author actual meant. The subjective part comes in how each individual with apply it to his or her own life.

Some people ask me how they should begin reading the Bible. It is my personal opinion that starting with the New Testament is the wisest choice. Start at Matthew and read to the end of Revelations. When I began seriously reading the Bible I spent most of my time in the New Testament until I’d read it several times. I suggest the New Testament first because it teaches us what we need to know about salvation and Christian living. Then I say read the Old Testament, Genesis to Malachi. But as you are reading be sure to read each book just like you would a book. Only using chapter and verse divisions as reference points. Write down verses that speak to you (or baffle you) in a notebook for further study. And last but most importantly, always seek the Holy Spirit’s illumination. Reading the Bible without it will lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and misuse.

By Derrick Stokes
Theologetics.org

How to Understand the Bible