As I have mentioned before, one of the purposes of this blog is to share what I learned in seminary with others. I’ve learned so much that it would take me years to tell you everything and I would have to leave out the Greek and Hebrew because there’s no way I could explain a whole language, let alone two. But there is stuff that I can share in little chunks that might prove helpful to you as you study the word of God. A lot of this will be familiar but I’m going to start slow and build each time I talk about Bible interpretation. Today’s material is a building block that is necessary to move to the next level. I’m not going to assume anything (and if we can spend weeks on this material in seminary then you can stand one or two articles on it).
Today I thought I would share something I learned from my Hermeneutics class. This article is based on a series of lecture notes that my professor, Dr. Vern Poythress gave us. We will be looking at the process of interpreting the Bible. Here are some things to keep in mind as we study God’s word:
1. When we study the Bible, we need to be aware that this is the word of God, He is the author of Scripture and it says exactly what He wants it to say, down to each individual word chosen. The Bible very clearly states that men were moved by the Holy Spirit to write his words, but they are also the author’s words. In some way that the finite mind can’t understand, men were involved in the process of writing the word of God. They wrote what they wanted to write and in the way they wanted to write it but ultimately, God is the author. So we can say that the Bible was written by God through the words of human authors. We see this in the following passages:
2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness2. The Bible is God-centered. It is about God, He is the central topic. It is the story of God’s redemption throughout the course of human history – it is about redemptive history. It is Christ-centered, it is all about Him. He is central to all that happens in Scripture:
2 Peter 1:19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Luke 24:25 And he said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.From this passage we can see that the totality of the Scriptures is in view, not just select prophetic passages. He was the main theme of the Old Testament:
Luke 24:44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures
Luke 24:46 and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.And from other passages:
2 Corinthians 1:20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.
Peter 1:10-12 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
John 5:39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me
John 5:46-47 If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?"
John 8:56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad."
4. Which leads us to the next point which is we should be aware that we approach Bible study with presuppositions. We all have them and the most dangerous person is the one who says that he can put his presupposition aside when he reads the Bible. Sorry but it can’t be done. We bring our experiences, our knowledge of God and His word, the theology of our church, pastor, teachers and others to the Bible each time we try to interpret it. Coming to the Bible with a fresh slate is not even desirable because we need to look at the Scriptures from the light of other passages and from our knowledge of God and the purpose of the Bible. We would not understand Matthew without an understanding of the Old Testament and we would miss so much of what John wrote without an understanding of Isaiah and other books of the Old Testament.
5. Reading the Bible should be done in a similar way to reading any book but keeping in mind that it’s not like any other book because it is the very word of God. Many people will read a passage, think about the meaning and think about how it applies to them and then they go on about their day. But the Bible was never meant to be read in this manner, it is a story with a beginning a middle and an end. It starts in Genesis and goes all the way to Revelation. Reading from beginning to end helps you understand the whole story.
When you read a novel from the beginning, you don’t know what’s going to happen, things might not make sense, there are clues there but you miss them because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. And then you reach the ending and all those things fall into place, they make sense. This is a first reading of the book, getting to understand the basic structure and plot. A second reading helps you to see the things you missed in the first reading. You can understand each part of the book in light of the whole book. In the same way, we should read the Bible to understand the intent of the author, God, in writing this book. In the first reading we get familiar with the characters and the plotline as its revealed and then in a second reading we see the parts in light of the whole, how the story of Genesis fits in with the story of redemptive history. We understand the story of David in light of redemptive history and so on. A third reading helps us to understand the author’s view is different from our own, we aren’t thinking the same way and a fourth reading helps us to start adjusting our thinking to the author.
6. The Bible is meant to transform us, we should be different from our reading. We should understand that interpretation is not an academic exercise but it’s a way for us to learn about God and about us and what is expected of us as His people. We should understand that the goal of our Bible study is to learn to serve God:
Psalm 119:105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.Now that we have the foundation laid, let’s take the first baby step in interpretation.
According to Poythress there are three obstacles to interpretation:
2 Kings 22:13 "Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us."Misunderstanding
2 Peter 3:16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.Inaction
James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.The way to overcome these obstacles is the following:
Ignorance is overcome by observation – what does the text say?
Misunderstanding is overcome by interpretation – what does the text mean?
Inaction is overcome by application – how does the text change us?
For each text that we read we can ask ourselves these three questions. This will help us to focus our attention on the passage and allow us to understand what we need to know.
From Poythress notes:
Note each work, each phrase and each arrangement of words in to sentences.Interpretation
Ask who, what , when, where, how:
When and where did this happen?
Who is mentioned?
What are they doing?
Ask all kinds of questions, particularly, “What does this word mean, and what does it contribute to the passage?”
Answer questions whose answer is obvious.
Answer questions raised under “Observation.”Application
Unpack any obscurities.
Note how the parts reinforce and qualify one another.
Make interferences about general principles embodied in the passage.
Draw conclusions about the main points and overall structure of the passage.
Ask and answer questions about what you should believe or do on the basis of the passage.This has been pretty basic stuff. If you are doing this stuff already, good keep up the good work and do it for Revelation 1:1-8. If you haven’t, now is the time to start. Write out your observations and your answers to the questions and it can be very helpful to lay them out in a column form.
Do what you have seen you should do.
Now, don’t be afraid that it’s Revelation. The passage that you are starting with is very easy to interpret and you shouldn’t have any problems. I think if you try to study the Bible this way, you will be more successful than just reading it straight through and not questioning the text, you will get more out of it. You will be more engaged with the text. And you will get a clearer understanding of the word of God so that you can serve Him better.