In recent years I have been caught by a shift that has been occurring within the body of Christ. It seems that a desire for “experience” has replaced an encounter with him through his written word. I would never diminish a genuine encounter with the Spirit of God, but these blessings should not be a substitute for diligent study of the Scriptures. In this article I would like to provide some recommendations for believers who recognize this trend and are seeking help in “rightly dividing the word of truth”. In your studies of the scripture, please consider the following points as a starting point. Obviously, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but if followed it will get you moving in the right direction.
Context – What is Context?
Reading in context is relative; there can be many different contexts in the Bible. Let’s take a look at a few examples of different ways to consider context.
- Target Audience
As an example, when reading Galatians it’s important to understand that Paul was writing primarily to Gentiles who were struggling with the law’s purpose and questioning whether it applied to them. But in another book, Jeremiah, we find the author addressing people who are being sent into Babylonian captivity.
Takeaway: Who is the author’s primary target audience? What are their challenges? Being able to answer these question will help you set the context of the book.
- Cultural Context
Closely related to the first point, consider the audience’s worldview. When reading the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), it’s easy to make the mistake of looking at it through the eyes of a twenty first century gentile. Although we receive great benefit from reading these books, they were not written primarily to us. The Torah was written for an audience 4000+ years ago – with their worldview in mind.
Takeaway: Ask yourself the question, how can I understand the original culture? Seek out ways of discovering this context for a deeper understanding of his Word.
- Cherry Picking
This should go without saying, but it needs to be said. The Bible is not our personal weapon to justify our positions, prove a point or push forward a pet agenda. We need verses before and after, as well as the chapter context. Topical sermons easily fall into this trap.
Takeaway: Follow the Berean example with the teaching you receive. Acts 17:11
- Language Morphology
Pay attention to words, phrases, idioms, word meanings, grammatical structure, etc.
- Have you seen a phrase elsewhere? What is the connection to the last time it was used? For example, the two lamp stands in Revelation – might those be theologically connected to the two lamp stands in Zechariah?
- Another example is the phrase “to uncover one’s nakedness” as used in Leviticus – what does this actually mean? ((Hint….it’s not to uncover nakedness.)
- Love – the Greek language (original language of the New Testament) has multiple words for different kinds of love, but in English they are all translated as love. Consider what the original meaning was.
Consistency / Coherency
Much error occurs because the Bible is not taught as one coherent book. When considering a topic for study, all relevant passages from Old and New Testaments should be considered. God is not a God of confusion who arbitrarily changes his mind. The challenge for the Bible teacher and serious student is to search out how the pieces fit together.
A good study on this topic would be to follow the thread of redemption from Genesis to Revelation to understand how it fits together.
Translation / Paraphrase
Consider whether the Bible you have for everyday use is a translation or a paraphrase. While a paraphrase may be fine for devotional reading, it does not lend itself to in depth study.
There are many definitions of translation but the one I like is “Translation is the art of expressing an author’s intended meaning in another language in which they are not fluent”. The key point here is that the words the translator uses do not have to be identical in both the source and target language, it is the meaning which is the crucial element.
A paraphrase is a restatement of the meaning of a text or passage using other words. It is typically used to further explain and add richness to the text being paraphrased thereby providing greater clarity for the reader.
In addition, even with translations it is good to read scriptures in multiple translations to get a clear understanding of the passage.
Interpret the Bible with the Bible
Since the Bible is the Word of God and God cannot lie or contradict himself, one passage will never contradict another passage. This principle provides a system of checks and balances to keep us from falling into error. It is crucial for us to humbly approach Scripture and realize that if we believe we have found a contradiction, then it is our interpretation that is flawed, not the Scripture. It is at this very point that I take my questions to the Lord in prayer asking for insight and understanding. It’s amazing what he will show to those who are sincere in the quest for understanding.
You will however, find places where the same story is told from different perspectives (such as the synoptic gospels: Math, Mark, Luke). This is to be viewed as different eyewitness accounts so of course the details are different. The study of “types and shadows” also helps in interpreting the Bible with the Bible.
Types and Shadows
The Scriptures make extensive use of “types”. Understanding their usage will be yield rich rewards in your spiritual journey. In the New Testament the relevant terms seen are “types”, “shadows”, “copies”, and in some versions “figures” or “likeness”. So what exactly is a “type”?
Wick Broomall has a concise statement that is helpful: “A type is a shadow cast on the pages of Old Testament history by a truth whose full embodiment or anti-type is found in New Testament revelation”. Or another way of thinking about this topic is, “the old is in the new revealed and the new is in the old concealed”.
Easily seen types include the Hebrew deliverance from Egypt which points to our deliverance from the world system. Or, consider the life of Joseph who was sold by his brothers, falsely accused and then raised to be the second in command. These and many other details of Joseph’s life provide the type and anti-type for Jesus.
The Bible touches on many subjects such as history, science, philosophy, biology, archaeology, astronomy, sociology, finance, art, and architecture but at its core, it is none of these. Try to understand what you are and are not reading. It is a book about the theology of God and our relationship with him answering the big questions of life.
Although it contains discussions of these other disciplines, it is not predominantly about those subjects. When reading consider what is the literary genre: poetry, wisdom, eschatology, prophecy, history, narrative. Understanding this principle will assist your understanding.
A Divine / Human Book
We know that our Lord is fully God and fully man so it should come as no surprise that the word of God is also divine and human. Repeatedly, the Bible gives us insight from a heavenly perspective and then switches back to an earthly viewpoint. And when the Scripture presents a narrative of what occurred, the Lord is not necessarily placing his stamp of approval on it.
Takeaway: Proper understanding requires us to be engaged in both the spiritual and the natural planes. Only then can God’s Holy Spirit guide us into all truth.
Law of First Mention
Give careful attention to the first time a word or idea is used in the scripture. God introduces things in seed form and builds on the concept throughout the balance of scripture. As an example, consider the use of “dominion”, “shame”, “blood” or “cover” in the garden story and notice how those words take on fuller meaning as we move forward.
Agendas Not Welcome Here
All too often people will approach the Bible with an agenda. They are looking for a defense structure to support a pre-conceived notion. Related to this is reading the Scripture through a denominational or creedal lens – we dismiss things that fail our religious dogma test, or filter out difficult passages that don’t mesh with our worldview.
We may also consider a personal revelation in place of agenda. Be cautious not to “read into” other unrelated passages a revelation received about something else.
Takeaway: Study of God’s Word should inform our theology or revelation of God – not vice versa. His word is not to be understood through our theological bent. We must take our theological understanding/revelation of God and submit it to the clear teaching of scripture.
Old Testament God is Harsh and Judgmental?
Lastly, but extremely important: Don’t make the mistake of thinking, “Since I’m a Christian, the Old Testament is not relevant to me”. The gospel message is firmly rooted in the Old Testament, it is the same God in both.
When Jesus appeared to two believers on the road to Emmaus who were puzzled about all of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, this is what is written concerning the encounter “…beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
I hope these tips will aid you in your desire to go deeper in the Scriptures; they have been invaluable to me.