When we read and study the Bible, we need to ask and answer the question “what is God saying?” or “what does this passage mean?” We can just read the Bible and guess what we think it means or how it applies to us. When we do this, we will interpret the Bible through the glasses of our own worldview. Instead we need to follow certain principles so that we properly understand God’s Word. Here are seven principles we must follow or lenses we must look through, to properly understand God’s Word. (Many of these principles apply to other texts you will read too).
1. The simple understanding is often the right one
We need to be careful to not overcomplicate God’s Word. The Bible is a book that is meant to be understood and communicate truth. God isn’t trying to hide the truth from us or cloud it in mysterious words when He gives us the Bible. And so, we need to understand God’s Word in a simple and literal way, allowing God’s Word to clearly speak as it does. Often the simple and clear understanding that we see in a passage is the right one. However, unfortunately because of our preconceived ideas and thoughts, we seek to misinterpret passages that we don’t like. When we stray away from the simple meaning, with fancy arguments, we too often miss the meaning God intended.
I find it helpful to read God’s Word like an 8 or 9-year-old. How would they understand the passage and what is being said? How would they interpret it? What would their simple understanding of the passage be? This is most likely the meaning and message the author wanted to convey. Let the Bible speak in the simple ways that it does!
2. Know the original purpose of the text and narrative
When studying the Bible, we need to dig hard and find the authors intention and purpose in writing to the audience he was speaking to. In a previous article, we saw that we need to understand the 3 audiences in every text, and this is an extension of that lesson. To understand what the text meant to the audience the author wrote to, we need to understand that audience. Also, at times in certain passages a separate audience is actually being spoken of in the narrative of the text. Therefore, we also need to understand what the narrative and elements of the story meant to them. Once we do this, we can then see what the passage means for us today (the third audience). When a passage is applied to us, the general-purpose God wanted to achieve to the original readers should be the focus of our application.
To understand the text and narratives original purpose and meaning, we need to understand the historical context. The Bible contains historical people, places, perspectives and past events. We must think about these three historical elements to understand a passage. Because of these things, there is a disconnect between us and the original audience, and therefore a huge chasm between us and properly understanding the text. We must remove this chasm if we are to properly understand the passage.
a) Historical People - Each book of the Bible is written to and speaks about particular people who had a different culture to ours. We must understand these people, their culture, philosophies, how their civilisations worked, etc. Knowing this will help understand what the author is saying and why. However, we must be careful to not remove parts of the Bible that we don’t like by saying that these things were just for the culture back then. God never changes. God’s Word is timeless and the principles He gave back then are still relevant today.
b) Historical Places - The people in the narratives and those who the texts were written to people who lived in a particular place. When we understand these places and the geography they lived in, the passages come to life.
c) Historical Perspectives and past events - We need to understand events of the past so that we can see the impact these events would have had on the people in the biblical narrative or text. The past events and perspectives of the time will often bring to light the meaning of the text and what the author is addressing. We need to put the aspects of the biblical text into the historical perspective if we are to understand the author’s purpose.
3. The language of the text shows its meaning.
To understand the Bible, we need to look at original language. The Bible was written in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. Our translations try to bring out the many nuances of these languages, however, at times this can be missed or difficult to convey into English. Sometimes we need to look at the original language or use resources to help us understand exactly what the author intended. We need to realise that there is another chasm between us and the text, because of the language and translation. Looking at this will help us to remove the chasm.
Also, we need to look at the language and grammar used by the author and ask questions about it. The author has chosen particular words to convey the intended meaning. We need to look at the key words, repetition, conjunctions that show the flow of the passage, theological words, etc. We need to study and think about these things and ask why the author used them. When this is done, the intent and meaning of the text is revealed.
Finally, the language doesn’t just show what the text means, but also what God or the author is feeling. We need to see the pathos of a passage when we study it, as well as the meaning. The language can help us discover the emotions and heart behind a passage. This is part of what the author is wanting to convey.
4. The flow of the text reveals its meaning
When we study the Bible, we need to think about the literary context of the book by looking at its structure, flow, argument and wider context. Every passage comes within a book, and each book comes within a storyline and is part of the 66 books of the Bible. We must understand how these parts fit together to understand the particular passage we are studying. Furthermore, the flow and argument in a book needs to be understood to correctly interpret the passage you may be studying. The author has chosen particular arguments, a certain structure and a purposeful flow to convey the intended meaning.
5. The teachings and doctrine of the Bible is consistent
The Bible is consistent in the doctrine that it teaches and it doesn’t contradict itself. Therefore, as you study the Bible, you need to study passages that relate to the one you are reading and study the doctrines that come up in your passage throughout the rest of God’s Word.
Remember that the Bible is a 66-section book that tells one story. The best resource for understanding the Bible is the Bible itself.
Often the questions we have or things we fail to understand will be answered as we keep reading and studying. We need to not just pick random verses and seek to understand them, but examine the whole of the Bible and what it says on an issue, before we come to a conclusion. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. If you come to a conclusion about a passage that doesn’t fit with the rest of the Bible, then you have come to the wrong conclusion. Sometimes certain passages of the Bible are difficult to understand. When this happens, you need to remember that the clearer passages interpret the less clear passages.
6. Pray for understanding
This is the key rule to understanding God’s Word. Don’t forget that you are reading God’s Word and by the Holy Spirit, He gives insight (John 14:26, 16:13, 1 Corinthians 2:14-16). Without God working, we are hardened to the truth and cannot understand it. As we read the Bible, God’s Spirit is there with us, and we can seek for the insight we need to understand. We need to seek for God to help us understand and apply the passage in a right way. Psalm 119:33-34 says “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.” We need to pray like this and seek insight and understanding from God.
7. Meditate and think until you understand
This is really what we are doing in many of the other points. We need to think and chew over God’s Word if we are to understand it. Psalm 119:27 says “Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works.” This is what we must do when we study and meditate on the Bible. To help us do this, we need to ask questions about the passage, record observations and try to say the passage in our own words. You may also find it helpful to record a journal of the things God is teaching you and prayers you are praying from the passage. Finally, you may want to look at other resources and commentaries to reaffirm that your understanding of the passage is correct.