by Frank Haegler
16 Bible Study Tools for Interpretation – The List
(Details about each of these “tools” are discussed below this list.)
- (1) Approach the Bible believing that it is God’s revealed Word.
- (2) Aim to discover the meaning of the original text.
- (3) Aim to discover what the text meant to the original readers.
- (4) Take the Word of God literally in its simplest meaning.
- (5) Interpret the Scripture in context always.
- (6) Compare Scripture with Scripture.
- (7) Bear in mind the great theme of the Bible.
- (8) Truth for the past must not be read into the present.
- (9) The present must not be read into the past.
- (10) The future must not be read into the present.
- (11) One part of the future is not to be confused with another part of the future.
- (12) Recognise figures of speech.
- (13) Don’t read into the Bible what isn’t there.
- (14) Distinguish the difference between the interpretation of Scripture and its application.
- (15) Do not spiritualise the Scriptures.
- (16) Rightly divide the Word of Truth.
16 Bible Study Tools for Interpretation – an overview, and more details about each one.
One of the vexing questions in and about Christianity is “If there is only one Bible, how did so many denominations come about?” Put another way, “how do all those different denominations get so many different (and sometimes conflicting) beliefs from the one Book?”
Certainly one way that it happened is that although there have been many Statements of Belief, Confessions and Systematic Theologies throughout time, these were generated with a fixed view in mind and Scripture was not allowed to speak for itself.
Is there a way to study the Bible that will give us, as much as possible, a guarantee that we are on the right track? Are there general rules that will help cement thought without the bias that comes from any theology, no matter how well meaning? How can we read the Word without denominational bias raising its head?
Below are 16 Bible study ‘tools’ for your use. Each is followed by one example of many possible ones. Of course these are for your consideration; any or all you adopt will help you gain more from the Bible as you study and for that matter, even as you have a casual read. Even knowing that these rules exist will make you pause as you read the Word of God and also as you read or listen to what others have said about it.
Sixteen rules, really! Do I expect you to remember them each time you just sit down and have a casual read of the bible? No, but being aware of them will help greatly, I believe. Besides, they are really common sense rules and most Christians will be doing them without conscious thought anyway.
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(1) Approach the Bible believing that it is God’s revealed Word. Of course, if we don’t believe that the Bible is God’s Word to us then we will not get anything out of it. The Book will be closed to us and will seem as though it is a set of unrelated books all jumbled up into one volume. Not only should we believe that the Bible is God’s Word but when setting out to read/study it we should do so prayerfully asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate it to us.
(2) Aim to discover the meaning of the original text. Now I know that very few of us are Hebrew or Greek scholars and we probably aren’t going to become such either but in this information age there is no excuse for not having a good exhaustive concordance. Anyone with a computer can get a free programme (or you can pay for one if you wish), which will give a variety of Bible versions at your fingertips. Reading the Bible in a few versions brings out shades of meaning that are lost when only using one version, it is probably the next best thing to reading the original.
(3) Aim to discover what the text meant to the original readers. What I mean is, find out the background of whomever it was that was spoken to originally. When was the book you are reading written? Where were the people it was written to? If written to Jews, then were they in the Land at the time of writing or were they in captivity? Get a Bible atlas and use it to gain a better understanding of the layout being spoken of. How far did Joseph and Mary have to travel from their home to Bethlehem before Jesus was born and how long would that journey have taken them?
(4) Take the Word of God literally in its simplest meaning unless it contradicts other Scriptures or known facts. The Bible uses symbols quite often of course but most of the time it doesn’t. Almost always what is said is quite plain. The Bible is written to simple people remember, you and me and although we may never plumb its depths it is in essence a fairly simple Book. Scientists have a rule they call Occam’s razor, which states, in layman’s terms that “all other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.” May I rephrase that for Bible study and say “all things being equal, the simplest meaning of a passage is the best.”
(5) Interpret the Scripture in context always. Nothing is written that exists outside of a context. Except for two very obvious verses, there is always a verse before whatever we read and one after it. When reading and especially when studying we must always take the context into consideration. For instance, Romans 8:1 starts by saying that there is therefore now no condemnation etc. The phrase may be hackneyed but when we see a therefore in the Bible we really should go back and see what it is there for. Reading something (Romans 8:1) that starts with because of that (therefore) we should be asking “because of what?” and going back to the previous chapter to find out what the that is. Reading a text out of context is a pretext, as has been correctly said.
(6) Compare Scripture with Scripture. There is no need to go outside of Scripture to find the meaning of Scripture. For instance, when studying the book of the Revelation we get much help from referring to Daniel, Isaiah, most of the Minor Prophets and other OT Scriptures. I would go so far as to say that without at least a basic understanding of these OT books any understanding of the Revelation is all but impossible.
(7) Bear in mind the great theme of the Bible. It is The Lord Jesus Christ and God’s revealed purpose in Him and also the purpose of the ages. Reading the Bible with this in mind can help make sense out of what might otherwise be a daunting task into a somewhat simpler one.
(8) Truth for the past must not be read into the present. Although salvation has always been a free gift, there were a people that were given the Law and they were told to keep it or face dire consequences. Galatians chapter 3 talks about the difference between the works of the law and grace. I don’t think that anyone would argue that we are now in an age of grace. But what happens if we try to bring truth from the past (the Law) into this age of Grace? What was surely true for then cannot be true for now because by bringing the Law into this age of Grace we make Grace a mockery.
(9) The present must not be read into the past. In Ephesians 3:3-5 and Colossians 1:26 we are told that Paul was given the revelation of the Mystery. We are told in Ephesians 3:3&5 that by revelation He made known unto me the mystery…which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed. In verse 9 it says that the mystery…was hid in God. Since it was hid in God then saying we can find this truth anywhere in the Old Testament or in the earlier books of the NT cannot be true and must be sheer unbelief.
(10) The future must not be read into the present. In Isaiah 2:10-12 &17 we have the first mention of The Day of the Lord. The LORD must be put into His rightful place. This is not a time of Grace but of judgement. Isaiah 13:9 says that this time will be cruel both with wrath and fierce anger and verse 10 hearkens to what Jesus said of His second coming in Matt 24:29. Zephaniah 1:14-16 says of this time that this day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wastefulness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness . These events are in the future – it is a nonsense to think that God can sit on a throne of grace and sit on a throne of judgement at the same time. One day God’s mercy will run out and when this day of opportunity is finished He will then judge in righteousness.
(11) One part of the future is not to be confused with another part of the future. The great truth of the resurrection will help us here. Rev 20:4-5 speaks of the first (or former) resurrection, so this must be preparing us for another resurrection to come. And although we may not understand fully what these resurrections might mean at least we can say with safety that there are two resurrections in the future as revealed in Rev 20. Otherwise what the Apostle John has written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit means nothing at all. If they are one and the same thing and there is no difference why would John say the rest of the dead lived not again until the 1000 years are finished? And even if someone says “well I don’t believe in a literal 1000 years” you still have the fact that there are two different resurrections. So even if the 1000 years is symbolic (of what?) then there are still two resurrections, which must not be confused. And 1 Cor. 15:23 says “every man in his own order” will be raised, so again, while both the resurrections are future we must keep them apart.
(12) Recognise figures of speech. What is a figure of speech? Many people use “figures of speech” as a sort of trump card, “oh, you can’t take that literally, that is just a figure of speech” and to their mind that finishes the argument. A figure of speech is definite and it can be recognised. No one should say “this passage is figurative” unless they can prove it. There are certain rules for figures of speech, which we won’t go into here but simply put a figure of speech is a warm and vivid way of presenting literal fact. So what we need to do when we see one is to determine what is the literal fact that it is trying to portray. The figure hasn’t emptied the literal fact or promise, you recognise it is a figure; all you have sought to do is to look underneath it to find what is the literal statement or fact. Of course if you really want to get into Figures of Speech in the Bible then the book by EW Bullinger of that name is invaluable.
(13) Don’t read into the Bible what isn’t there. In Acts 2:47 the KJV and others say and the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. However the word church is not in the original and a better rendering would be like one from Weymouth who says also, day by day, the Lord added to their number those whom He was saving. Those who “know” that the church started in Acts 2 “know” that the church is meant here and so they supply the word. But even if they are right the bottom line is that the word is not in the original no matter how much one may want it to be and so it should not be supplied.
(14) Distinguish the difference between the interpretation of Scripture and its application. Isaiah is written to Judah and Jerusalem and so when reading we should keep that in mind. Whilst remembering that I am sure we can apply Isaiah 53:6 to ourselves when it says All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. The question “what does this passage mean to me?” should only be asked after establishing what the passage actually means.
(15) Do not spiritualise the Scriptures. Recently I had occasion to review a book in which the author put forward the idea that all the prophecies to do with the end times were fulfilled at the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in AD 70. There were, he admitted, Scriptures that argued against that viewpoint. His answer was to say that if these passages were interpreted spiritually then all was solved. So we have a spiritual return of Christ, spiritual lamb and lion lying together, spiritual? peace on earth, even ‘spiritual’ New Jerusalem I guess! Where might that end I wonder? If there is any part of the Bible that doesn’t agree with my set of beliefs and all I need to do is “spiritualise” it then language becomes of no use at all and we might as well throw the Bible out as a bad joke.
(16) Rightly divide the Word of Truth. 2 Timothy 2:15 – if we want to be approved workmen then we must rightly divide the Word. If you would rather a modern translation that says correctly handle because you don’t like the KJV way of saying it then that is fine. But you won’t be correctly handling the Word of God unless you do what I have tried to point out above. Every Christian does this without even knowing it. Pretty much all Christians can see that there is a difference between law and grace and since the OT is largely law and the NT is largely grace you can quite easily tell them that they have chopped the Bible into half.
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Every time we don’t keep these rules we run the risk of doing what Hymenaeus and Philetus did as recorded in 2 Timothy 2:17-18. They destroyed the faith of some. Why? Because they said that the resurrection had passed already. Oh, they believed in the resurrection alright and they were believers but they took something from the future and put it into the past and so turned the truth into an error.
To sum up, let us always remember that the Bible should be read as no other book. It is the Word of God and should be approached with the reverence it deserves. My prayer is that, by using the tools above, no matter how well versed in the Bible we may be; we will get more from it.