How Do I Really Know I’m Interpreting It Correctly?

A church member asked me a great question this past Sunday.

 

The question went like this: “When reading the Bible alone or on our own, outside of church, etc, how can I be sure that what I am interpreting is correct? Obviously, I can reach out to you; but as a whole, word for word, how do I really know I’m interpreting it correctly?”

 

That is a great question! I wish every Bible reader was concerned about understanding the meaning of Scripture. I want to answer the church member’s question here.

 

      Dr. Wayne Grudem writes, “Anyone who has begun to read the Bible seriously will realize that some parts can be understood very easily while other parts seem puzzling. In fact, very early in the history of the church Peter reminded his readers that some parts of Paul’s epistles were difficult to understand: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). We must admit therefore that not all parts of Scripture are able to be understood easily.”[1]

 

      On the other hand, he writes, “But it would be a mistake to think that most of Scripture or Scripture in general is difficult to understand. In fact, the Old Testament and New Testament frequently affirm that Scripture is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by ordinary believers.[2] The Bible’s clarity and the responsibility of believers generally to read it and understand it are often emphasized. In a very familiar passage, Moses tells the people of Israel:

And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deut. 6:6-7)

 

All the people of Israel were expected to be able to understand the words of Scripture well enough to be able to “teach them diligently” to their children. This teaching would not have consisted merely of rote memorization devoid of understanding, for the people of Israel were to discuss the words of Scripture during their activities of sitting in the house or walking or going to bed or getting up in the morning. God expected that all of his people would know and be able to talk about his Word, with proper application to ordinary situations in life.”[3]

 

The Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it.

 

      Grudem correctly states. “….however, we must also recognize that many people, even God’s people, do in fact misunderstand Scripture.”[4]

     

  I am convinced that the Bible’s clarity should be an encouragement to all Christians to read their Bibles daily and do so with great eagerness and expectation to understand the meaning of what they read. Because words usually have a normal, plain meaning, then most of the time we can take what the Bible says at face value. Admittedly, there are some factors that come into play. These factors include: 1) There is only one meaning of any Bible text. 2) Meaning is found only in the author’s original intent. 3) A text’s range of meaning is what the author states outright, and what he implies.  

 

      Although it is dangerous to make assumptions about the opinions of the original author if the author does not make such opinions clear, there are times when the author’s words imply meaning that he does not state explicitly. For instance, the word “Trinity” never appears in Scripture, but we know this doctrine is clearly implied by the author in verses such as Gen. 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.’”

 

      In many ways, studying the Bible is similar to studying history, literature, language, or science. We apply the same mental discipline. But in one important way, studying the Bible is completely different. We can study math, for example, without having it particularly change our lives. But when we study the Bible, we confront moral questions. Our lives can be changed through Bible study, and that makes it unique.

 

      We need five basic tools to study the Bible: (1) a good study Bible that is an accurate translation (I recommend the New King James Version, New American Standard, or English Standard Version) and has paragraphed divisions (2) a complete concordance, like Strong’s or Young’s based on the English version that you use (3) a Bible dictionary to look up background material (I recommend Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary) (4) a Bible atlas to learn where the events take place; and (5) a one-volume commentary such as the Wycliffe Bible Commentary or the Bible Knowledge Commentary to check what someone else has said about the passage.

 

*I ask three basic categories of questions when I study the Bible:

 

1. Observation. What do I see? What is happening in the passage? Is it a miracle? Is it a parable? Is it a teaching? Where is this taking place? When is it taking place? Who are the people? Are there instructions? Is it descriptive or is it prescriptive?

2. Interpretation. What does it mean? Why is this passage in the Bible? What did it mean for the original audience? What is its place in the broad overview of biblical teaching? What is the normative principle within the teaching that works across time? 

3. Application. How does it work in my life? What difference does this passage make to me? Can I apply it in my home, in my office, at school, etc.?

      After I understand the meaning of the passage I need to apply the Bible to my daily life.

 

Here are some steps to application.

1. Know. To apply a Bible passage, you have to know what it says. If you don’t know what it says, you may apply it incorrectly. Good application is always built on good interpretation. If the interpretation is wrong, so is the application.

2. Relate. Relate the passage to your life. Does the passage show a sin to avoid, a promise to claim, a prayer to pray, a command to obey, a condition to meet, a verse to memorize, an error to identify, a challenge to face?

3. Meditate. Think of specific ways to apply the passage to your life. If studying the passage has made you realize you need to appreciate a family member or a coworker, spend time thinking about what the person does that you appreciate. Then come up with a concrete way to express your gratitude.

4. Practice. Having an idea of what I want to do is not application. I have to translate it into actual experience. When the passage has resulted in changed action or attitude, then I have applied it.

 

We need to remember that Bible study is not just about information – it is all about transformation!

 

      If you want more help on studying the Bible, I would recommend 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert L. Plummer.

      

A true believer can properly interpret Scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit and you will get better with practice.

 

Pastor Tim Mann, D. Min

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[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 105.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 105-106.

[4] Ibid, 108.