At last Wednesday’s Believer Service I taught an overview of the Bible including the Portrait, Proofs, and Practicalities of Scripture. Due to time, I was unable to finish with a complete explanation of how these truths can make their way into daily study. Thus, I pray this post provides helpful explanation on “Interpretative Policy” and assists you in daily study of God’s Word. This post is in no way comprehensive, thus I have provided further resources below.
PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION
2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped, for every good work.”
There are many truths evident in these two verses and two which stand most prominent. Firstly, the, “Inspiration” of Scripture, literally, “God-Breathed” meaning that Scripture is divinely original and divinely capable. Secondly, the, “Sufficiency” of Scripture, literally making the man, “Adequate” or, “Mature” clarifying that the bible is more than enough to sanctify any saint towards His complete glorification in heaven.
Thus, the goal of biblical study is to ascertain what the original author meant for the original audience in the original era, after which we may apply that singular truth to modern time. This interpretive method means that there are not multiple correct interpretations of a bible passage, there is just one. This also means that passages which give the reader “Goose-Bumps” are no more supernatural than those that do not. Finally, this means that biblical truth is not, “In the eye of the beholder” but stands outside of the beholder, as a standard of perfect measure. The bible is not to conform to man but man is to conform to the bible.
“The answer, my friend, is not yours to invent or create. It will be decided for you. It is outside you. It is real and objective and firm. One day you will hear it. You don’t create it. You don’t define it. It comes to you, and sooner or later you conform to it—or bow to it.” – Piper
To protect us from, “Reading our desires” into Scripture and to help us determine the specific meaning of biblical passages, the following interpretive principles must be used. I will break them up into four categories: Literal, Historical, Grammatical, and Correlating.
LITERAL INTERPRETATION supposes that the words of Scripture mean exactly what they say in the course of everyday language. Thus, if you read about a chariot, you interpret the word to mean chariot. Unless of course there is clear evidence of hyperbole, metaphor, allegory, or other marked literary devices. Common ways to determine figurative language is to note terms, “Like” or, “As”. This allows you to interpret parables as illustrations of Christ, often sharing his own applications immediately following, and usually centering on one applicable point to His original audience. A literal interpretation assumes that your bible isn’t meant to confuse but to explain, and also assumes that the bible isn’t only for the “anointed” but for everyone.
HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION expects you to examine the historical context under which the author wrote. Because the bible is thousands of years old and written from an Eastern vantage point, there will be many things written which require historical knowledge to best understand. Pastor John MacArthur often mentions one famous example in John 3 where Jesus says, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Because of our American colloquialism, where we say, “A woman’s water breaks” we tend to read the passage through our American lense and assume Jesus is saying, “You’ll be reborn both physically and spiritually”. But, Jews of the first century would not have known our common colloquialism, thus Nicodemus was surely hearing a contextual allusion to the prophet Ezekiel who wrote, “A day will come when He washes you with clean water and puts the Spirit in you…” Thus, accepting Christ to be referencing the advent of the New Covenant he’d been waiting for, and not some twenty-first century American semantic.
“We must understand the need for the historical principle. When Jesus walks in, for example, to the temple courtyard and said, “I am the Light of the world.” Why did he say that? Did He just go around saying strange things at strange moments? “I’m the Light of the world,” and somebody would say, “What did He say that for?” Well, why would He say, “I am the Water of Life. Whoever drinks of this water, out of his belly shall flow rivers of _____?” What is He talking about? Why does He outburst with these obtuse remarks? No, when He said in John 8, “I am the Light of the world,” He was standing in the temple courtyard and there was a huge candelabra that had been lit for eight straight days in the feast of lights, and it had just gone out the day before, and He walks in to that very setting and says in effect, this thing has gone out, but I’m the Light of the world and I never go out.” – MacArthur
When studying, you must begin at the beginning. What are the historical features? What is the significance of the city? What was going on there? Are their political issues? Who is the current government leader? Are their socio-economic issues? Are their tensions or crisis? Are their old customs or new values?
GRAMMATICAL INTERPRETATION means that you will study the words themselves and the order or layout of the words. This is often termed, “Syntax”. Although most biblical students will not learn about case structures, infinitives, and participles, it is still important to note what is a noun, what is a verb, what is a supporting participle, along with noticing how often a word, or words, appear in a certain segment of Scripture.
A most famous example is found in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20 where a study of the original language shows Christ clearly specify his main command, “Make disciples” and then list three supporting elements underneath it, specifically, “Go therefore” and, “Baptizing them” and, “Teaching them to observe all.” Thus, the English translation reads differently from the original Greek and a brief study of the original language brings great clarity to Christ’s focus and objective.
CORRELATING INTERPRETATION assumes that once the former three steps are completed, you will cross-reference your learnings with other portions of the bible. The bible is it’s own best illustrator and it never contradicts itself, thus other passages will shine light on the passage initially studied and create a cohesive or synthesized theology.
As an example, let’s consider our previous diagnostic on the Great Commission. An insightful student may note that Christ’s words were given to specific disciples, at the end of the era of law, atop a mountain, some forty days before the Church age began at Pentecost (Acts 2). The student may also note that Christ references, “Lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” And, the student may begin to ponder if Jesus is speaking only to the disciples at the conclusion of the “Age of Law” or if He was providing a precursor command towards the soon forthcoming, “Church age of grace.” For a moment, the student may sit and ponder, but a simple cross-reference to Acts 1:7-8 where Luke takes time to coalesce Christ’s commands of Matthew 28:19, Luke 24:48, and Mark 16:15 all into one paragraph, will prove to the student that Christ’s commissions, and the out-workings of church history in Acts, prove it meant for the Church Age.
In summary, you must read the bible as literal, study to understand the historical culture of the original audience, use tools to learn of the original languages, and correlate your findings with the remainder of Scripture. At this point, you will be able to develop a singular over-arching interpretation of a passage (Hermeneutic) out of which you will apply it to modern life (Homiletic). You may apply it by asking: What does it mean to me? To my marriage? To my family? To my work? To my friendships? Over time, this form of study will redirect your paths to align with Christ. You will be freed from slavery to sin. You will become a bold witness of gospel truth. And, you will repel assault from the enemy.
UNDERSTANDING THE ERA & GENRE
The bible is made up of 66 books, written over 1500 years, by 40 various authors. It does not contradict itself in chronology, geography, prophecy, or historicity.
A second element vital to proper biblical interpretation is asking, “Who wrote the book I’m to study?” and, “When was this book written?” and, “To whom was this book written?” One grave mistake of biblical interpretation is to assume that everything in the bible was written FOR the current church age in which we live. It was not. Although all Bible is applicable and profitable TO a current Christian, not every book was written FOR the modern reader.
Throughout history, God has engaged with mankind in multiple ways. Between the life of Adam and life of Noah we observe an era of “Conscience” where man was expected to do what was right in his own eyes. Following Noah’s flood, God told man to scatter and multiply. God then chose Abraham and promised him descendants more than the stars, promising Canaan to the obedient. After Abraham came Moses, and God documented a written law to live by. After Moses came our Lord Jesus Christ and man has enjoyed two thousand years of relating to God by grace through faith. One day when the rapture comes, earth will spend one thousand years under the millennial reign of Christ Himself, this being the final era in the revealed human saga.
Picture this laid out on a 6,000 year timeline and realize that the bible is a book of progressive revelation that shows this advancement of God’s purposes and documents God’s revealed purposes in each age. In two sentences, Paul even goes so far as to clarify the church age, “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him…” (Ephesians 1:9) from the coming millennial kingdom, “With a view to the administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth…” (Ephesians 1:10)
Thus, when we select a book for bible study, we want to remember which era that book was written IN. Secondly, we want to work hard to clarify who the book was written FOR. Finally, we are able to discern how the book may be applied TO our modern “Church age.”
When we read the Old Testament Pentateuch, we are clearly reading the commands of God FOR the nation of Israel in the period of law. When we read the Old Testament Major and Minor Prophets, we are clearly reading prophecies FOR Israel along with the first and second coming of Christ. When we study the Old Testament Historical literature, we are learning about the men and women who shaped the nation of Israel, and getting a glimpse into records documented FOR the Jews. Thus, the Old Testament may apply TO us by providing the beautiful backdrop of God’s sovereignty, God’s attributes, relevant predictions of the coming Messiah, and Israel’s special place in God’s plan. But, it most definitely was not written FOR us.
This may not seem like a big issue, but if left unexamined, it can cause real difficulty in your biblical study. For example, let’s assume you enjoy reading Old Testament literature because some of the promises feel “Good.” For example, Jeremiah 29:11 gets quoted often, “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope.” At first glance, that seems to apply to the Church age and it does feel, “Good.” Yet, why do we ignore the verses previous? “When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.” (V. 10) Or, why ignore the verses to follow, “Behold, I am sending upon them the sword famine, and pestilence; and I will make them like split open figs that cannot be eaten due to rottenness.” (V. 17). It would seem if we are to use one verse, we must use them all. But, the reality is that we like verse eleven but do not care as much for the others and would not desire our worship leader on Sunday to quote verse ten or verse seventeen. This shows how an improper, or unsynthesized interpretation of Scripture, creates difficulty. We haven’t been in Babylon seventy years and we don’t want God to make our friends split open like fruit.
This is the danger of a non-synthesized interpretation of Scripture. We determine that a section of Scripture was written directly FOR us instead of accepting that it was actually written FOR another group of people at another time, combining with the whole of Scripture, to provide truths applicable TO us. It may be egocentrism that prompts this method. It may be false prophecy. But, most often it is simple immaturity and lack of learning. The Bible is complex, and it takes time. We all must, “Study to show ourselves approved.” And, that is why Paul constantly urged that Pastor’s and Teachers uphold sound doctrine, entrust faithful men to do likewise, and “equip” the saints for ministry.
This is what makes the New Testament so special. When we read the Epistles and discourse materials of the New Testament (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude) we suddenly find ourselves peering through a mighty telescope, able to see the completion of Christ’s purposes, practicalities of His church, fulfillment of the Old Testament prophets, and obedient living of His once doubtful disciples. We suddenly find ourselves immersed in living history and standing as part of the building that began with apostles as foundation and Christ as the cornerstone. These portions of Scripture are written specifically FOR us! The wall has come down (Ephesians 2:14) and we, as Gentiles, get to unite in the plan of God for the ages.
After learning of the fulfilled plan through these epistles, the Gospels provide for us the detail surrounding our Lord and Savior. His heart. His words. His humanity. His deity. The Gospels are the color commentary of a sports writer, who sits side by side with his play-by-play man, and sheds ever larger pictorial around the linear subject matter. Suddenly, we see the very person from whom our belief system comes and for whom our worship exists. However, we must remember that the Gospels were documenting Christ’s life during an era of Old Testament Law. Christ was on earth commissioning a specific apostolic era and speaking to a largely Jewish audience. Thus, although the Gospels certainly apply TO us, there are portions of them that were not written directly FOR us, and proper interpretation will take care in attributing what Christ intended for the Jew, what He intended for the Church age Gentile, and what He intended specifically for His coming millennial kingdom.
Finally, the book of Acts. When we read the New Testament book of Acts, we are witnessing the historic development of the infant Church. It’s our only church history. The apostles are still alive. They are learning and traveling. They are brandishing their unique commissioning from Christ and launching His bride upon earth. Acts, similar to the Gospels, maintains much application FOR the modern church but also contains portions very specific to the apostolic era that requires care under interpretation.
“It is remarkable that the only church history we have is, ‘The Acts of the apostles.’ The Holy Spirit has not preserved their sermons. They were very good ones, better than we shall ever preach, but still the Holy Spirit has only taken care of their ‘acts.’ We have no books of the resolutions of the apostles; when we hold our church-meetings we record our minutes and resolutions, but the Holy Spirit only puts down the ‘acts.’ Our acts should be such as to bear recording, for recorded they will be.” – Spurgeon
Based on these principles, it is my suggestion that you consider beginning your deeper study (Utilizing the Interpretative Principles mentioned above) in one of the New Testament Epistles. Many young Christians have been mired in despair when attempting to begin their spiritual journey in the Old Testament. You are not a first century Jew. You are a twenty-first century Saint and you will find superior joy by beginning your spiritual journey in the biblical literature revealed for your day.
All Scripture is inspired and profitable, if you interpret it appropriately. Improper interpretation equals error. Thus, allow the Gospels to infuse life atop the sound doctrines of each Epistle – Like tasting the Apple Pie before learning of it’s ingredients, you are one of the few who get to live in the era of culmination, seeing the entire picture, knowing the final joys. Allow prophetic books like Revelation assure you of all that is to come, “Through Christ” only after you have been mercifully overwhelmed by all you’re currently offered, “In Christ.” Allow the Old Testament quicken your pulse as you see all that you’ve been saved from and set your imagination spinning recognizing all that you’ve been saved for!
In Summary, a synthesized interpretation will allow the complete counsels of God to make sense from cover to cover. It takes time but there is no greater joy. God has worked with man in various ways throughout history and the Bible specifies those various relationships. You live in the age of grace, one trumpet sound removed from the final age. Thus, the New Testament is replete with all that you need unto maturity and the rest of Scripture will add deeper dimensions with every new morning of study and prayer.
The following resources are user-friendly tools for new biblical students:
— Vine’s Expository Dictionary (W.E. Vine)
— Bible Knowledge Commentary (Walvoord & Zuck)
— MacArthur Study Bible (Word Publishing)
— Keyword Study Bible (AMG Publishing)
— How to Get the Most from God’s Word (MacArthur)
— Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (Jerome H. Smith)
— A General Introduction to the Bible (Geisler)