If that’s true, you wonder: Is my dress too revealing for a Christian woman? Can the Bible help me set limits for my teenage daughter? What about my sister who is having trouble with her out-of-control son? Does the Bible say anything about her approach to raising him?
Though you have been following Jesus for some time, understanding Scripture on your own has been elusive. You hear teachings in church and you gain some insight from a Bible study you attend. But in your most honest moments, you’d have to admit that you struggle to understand your own reading of God’s Word. Sometimes, you even find reading it tedious and boring.
Learning to interpret the Bible won’t require years at seminary struggling with ancient Greek. But you do need some study tools that will help you understand and correctly interpret what you are reading. Consider this a crash course in Bible comprehension. Toward the end, I’ll give you a fun, practical exercise in interpreting God’s Word. As you apply these methods, I hope you become as excited about Scripture as I am.
Understanding starts by approaching Bible verses in a balanced way. You want to discover what is actually in a wording, while never adding any ideas that aren’t there.
Do: Draw Out
To get the right meaning out of a verse, you want to understand it the way the original hearers did. In seminaries, this art is called exegesis (pronounced ek-si-jee-sis).
Don’t: Put In
Avoid putting in meanings that are not there. This is called eisegesis (pronounced ahy-si-jee-sis), and it leads to the bad theologies of false teachers and cults.
After you have examined the grammar, look at the context of a verse. Context is the whole passage; it is the complete section in which a verse is found. Compare the passage you are reading against verses with the same key words within the same book. Also compare with similar topics or related verses throughout the Scriptures. Are the same words used in all instances or is there variation? Are all the same characters involved? Sound interpretation is often found in understanding variations.
GETTING AT THE TRUTH
How do you draw out the true meaning of a verse or passage? First, ask yourself: What language is it written in? The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and some Aramaic; the New Testament in Greek. To dig deep into Scripture, you need to know something about the original languages.
Fortunately for us, there are great web tools available for Bible study. For word-by-word study, use the website blueletterbible.com. This site allows you to read a Scripture in English, then at a click of a mouse, see each word in its original language. Without knowing a word of Greek, you can study English definitions of Greek words. Another excellent tool is biblegateway.com. What once took years of diligent study to understand, can now be done in a few clicks by anyone.
There are several subtle ways in which words are used in the Bible that you should understand. The word usage definitions below explain some of these common writing language devices.
Inanimate objects or qualities are sometimes described in a way that make them sound human. They may even be described as somehow having human form.
An example of this can be found in Genesis 4:7, where Cain is ready to kill his brother Abel. God says to Cain, “Sin is crouching at your door. You must master it.” Does sin take on human form and do this? No, sin does not. The passage is a personification. It’s a language device to give us some visual understanding that sin is ready to pounce on you and take over!
Also called hyperbole, this is phrasing something as an extravagant exaggeration.
Jesus regularly used this device. He loved to exaggerate to make a point. But isn’t exaggeration a sin? Yes, but only if you are bragging to make yourself look better, such as “Hey, I caught a fish and it was huge.”
Jesus says, “If you see a brother with a speck in his eye, don’t worry about it until you’ve taken care of the log in your own eye.” An entire log in an eye? That’s more than an exaggerated expression, it’s so ludicrous, it’s almost a joke.
A Gospel author will write, “All the people from Jerusalem, Samaria and Judea came to see Jesus” All of them came, every single person in Jerusalem left to see Jesus? Do you think this is true? No, it’s not likely all of them, it’s just a language device telling the reader that multitudes were responding to Jesus’ fame and notoriety.
There are three kinds of comparisons, according to Bible scholar E. W. Bullinger. 1. Someone says to another, “You are like a snake.” This would be a simile, tamely stating a fact. 2. He could say, “You are a snake.” This is called a metaphor. 3. If he said simply, “Snake!” that would be hypocatastasis.
In Judges 14:18, Samson says his enemies “used my heifer to plow my field.” The Philistines knew “my heifer” was actually a reference to Samson’s wife. This comparison is hypocatastasis. He didn’t say “my wife is like a heifer” or “my wife is a heifer.” He just says “heifer.”
Using a nice word to stand in for an offensive or sensitive subject is a euphemism.
For example, after Lazarus died, Jesus told His disciples, “Don’t worry, he is only asleep.” The word “asleep” is a stand-in for death. There are Christian organizations that have taken the word “asleep” and they’ve built an entire theology of death on it. They teach that when you die, you don’t go to be with the Lord; you just go to sleep. How did they build this theology? By putting too much emphasis on “asleep” without understanding the language devices of Scripture.
This means giving human attributes to a being or a thing that is not human. You do this all the time in your own conversations. In the book of Exodus, the Bible tells the story of the children of Israel escaping from Egypt after long and arduous years of slavery. In Exodus 3:20 God says, “So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them.” Does God really have a body with unbelievably huge arms and hands? No, that is not the point. The phrasing is literary language meant to help us understand that God is the one who frees Israel.
Digging for the Truth
Rather than merely reading a portion of Scripture, take part in a short exercise that will show you how to dig deeper and understand what you are reading.
It starts with the simple questions: who, what, when, where and why. Answering these questions as you read leads to good interpretation. Take time, slow down and read Scripture without rushing. Don’t worry about how much you get through.
Let’s interpret one of the most widely known verses in the Bible, John 3:16. “For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
To understand this passage in context, you need to read John 3:1–20. I’ll ask you to note some words by marking your Bible. If you don’t want to mark it, print out John 3:1–20 and use a pen (or several pens with different colors of ink) to highlight various elements in it.
Circle the main characters, underline all questions, put a box around adjectives and make a check beside any significant words that appear more than once.
Take a look at your marks. Who are the main characters? You should have marked God, Jesus, Nicodemus, Moses and the Holy Spirit. Don’t overlook the Holy Spirit. He is a person of the Trinity—make sure He is included.
What are the questions in this passage? They include: “What do you mean?” “How can a man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” “How are these things possible?”
What are the adjectives? Among them, Nicodemus is described as “a Jewish religious leader.” The evening is described as a “dark one.” A man is “old” and we read about a “bronze” snake.
What are the repeated words? Born, world, believe, Son of Man, life and light are all repeaters. If they are used over and over again, they must be important to understanding the entire passage.
Search the entire book of John for any repeated words. For instance, what is written about believing? The book of John is all about believing! In fact, it says, “But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in Him you will have life by the power of His name” John 20:31 NLT.
Some passages in your reading may reference parallel passages in another book of the Bible. Are there any parallels in John 3:1–20 with other Scripture? Yes, the story about Moses and the bronze snake comes from Numbers 21:4–9, in the Old Testament. Look that up.
What Does that Mean?
Do you understand the point of the story in John 3? Here’s how I interpret the passage:
Jesus is teaching from the Torah. He’s talking to Nicodemus, a very respected Jewish man. He’s a good man who honestly lives a pure life. Have you ever met someone who is so upright you think, “You’re better than some Christians I know.”
But Christianity is not about being a “good person.” It’s not a moral system. Christianity is a relationship we have with Jesus Christ.
Jesus tells this moral man, “You must be born again.” The Lord is not telling Nicodemus to go to church and adopt a moral system. Born again is a transformational process, so this is important.
Now back to Numbers 21:4–9 and the bronze snake. Why do you need to read this? Because in John 3:14 it says, “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. So that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.” To understand John, you have to read the Numbers reference.
Why did God send snakes? He sent the snakes because of the people’s sin. It was their judgment, according to the passage in Numbers.
Note that after the Israelites were bitten, they died slowly. You know they died slowly because it says that whoever was bitten could look at the bronze snake and live. If you noticed, God did not take away the snakes; He just gave the Israelites a way to live, though the snakes were still there.
Let’s bring it back to John, because now Jesus is comparing Himself to a snake. What is He saying to a Torah expert and Jewish leader? Jesus is saying that when Moses lifted up the snake, the snake represented the judgment of God. What did Jesus do on the cross for us? He took your sin, He took your judgment. The bronze snake was actually a foreshadowing of what Jesus, the Messiah, would do when He came and died on the cross.
So now that you’ve looked at the passage in context and with care, you see that this section of Scripture teaches that you must be born again. Interpreted correctly, John 3:16 teaches us that good, moral people need a Savior to take their judgment! This is John’s message to us.
Of course, you know all this for yourself, now that you’ve learned, as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15, “to rightly divide the Word of Truth.”
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