Interpreting the Bible correctly is crucial for every Christian. As 2 Timothy 2:15 (NKJV) says, we must “rightly divide the word of truth.” With so many denominations and disagreements over theology, it’s clear that not everyone interprets Scripture accurately.
So how can we be sure we’re understanding the Bible as God intended? While we can never perfectly comprehend God’s Word, we can get closer through careful study and reliance on the Holy Spirit. Here are 7 key principles for interpreting Scripture:
The Bible is God’s love letter to humanity. Through its pages, we come to know the very heart and mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:16). Understanding Scripture is more than an academic exercise – it’s essential for living out our faith.
But the Bible was written thousands of years ago, in different languages and cultures. Some parts are straightforward to understand, while others are complex or obscure. With the right approach, however, anyone can discover the life-giving truths contained in God’s Word.
Here are 7 essential rules for interpreting the Bible accurately:
- Pray for illumination from the Holy Spirit
- Consider the context
- Compare Scripture with Scripture
- Understand the genre
- Watch for hyperbole and figures of speech
- Determine the author’s intent
- Apply personally before teaching publicly
Let’s explore these principles…
1. Pray for Illumination from the Holy Spirit
Before approaching Scripture, we must begin with prayer. As born-again believers, we have the Holy Spirit living inside us to guide us into all truth (John 16:13). 1 Corinthians 2:14 states, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”
We cannot interpret the Bible accurately without the Spirit’s illumination. Pray for Him to give you wisdom and reveal Christ through the passage you’re studying. Ask Him to remove any prejudices or preconceived ideas that would twist the text’s meaning.
As Psalm 119:18 (NKJV) expresses, “Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things from Your law.” Lean fully on the Holy Spirit to be your Teacher as you seek to understand His Word.
2. Consider the Context
To interpret any passage correctly, we must understand the context – the surrounding circumstances that prompted its writing. There are several layers of context to consider:
Historical Context – What was happening culturally and politically when the book was written? For example, understanding Roman occupation helps explain Jesus’ parable of the minas in Luke 19:11-27.
Biblical Context – How does this passage fit with the rest of the Bible? Compare its teaching with other Scriptures on the same topic.
Literary Context – Read several chapters before and after the passage to grasp the bigger picture. Don’t isolate verses.
Grammatical Context – Recognize how key words function in the sentence structure. Is the topic indicative, imperative, interrogative?
By understanding the context, we avoid distorting the original meaning. We let Scripture interpret itself rather than imposing our own ideas.
3. Compare Scripture with Scripture
God’s Word is consistent. Therefore, we should always clarify difficult passages by comparing them with clearer ones. The Bible is its own best commentary!
For example, a puzzling verse like Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not lest ye be judged”) is balanced by 1 Corinthians 5:12 which tells us to judge those inside the church. Through cross-referencing, we gain a fuller understanding.
When studying a doctrine, collect all relevant Scriptures. Don’t base theology on an isolated verse. Comparing Scripture prevents faulty interpretation and brings the Bible’s unity into focus.
4. Understand the Genre
The Bible contains different types of writing – history, poetry, prophecy, letters, and more. To get the full meaning, we must understand the genre.
History – Describes people, places, and events. Genealogies establish historical connections. Details matter.
Poetry – Uses imagery, metaphors and emotive language. The Psalms express experiences and emotions.
Prophecy – God’s message for the future or a current situation. Often in symbolic language.
Letters – Teach doctrine and correct error in a pastoral manner.
Gospels – Claim historical truth about Jesus as God’s Son. Biographical with theological purpose.
Apocalyptic – Revelatory literature depicting future events. Features symbolism and vivid imagery.
When genres overlap, prophecy may contain historical events while letters include doctrinal poetry, etc. Recognizing the style helps us grasp the message.
5. Watch for Hyperbole and Figures of Speech
Not everything in the Bible should be taken literally. Scripture contains many figures of speech:
- Hyperboles exaggerate to make a point – phrases like “gnashed their teeth” or “heart leapt for joy.”
- Similes compare two things using “like” or “as” – “Our iniquities rose up against us like an enemy.”
- Metaphors represent something as something else – “You are the salt of the earth.”
- Personification attributes human qualities to non-human things – “All creation groans in labor pains” (Romans 8:22).
- Anthropomorphisms assign human body parts or emotions to God – “The eyes of the Lord…” or “grieved His heart.”
Recognizing hyperbolic and symbolic language prevents misinterpreting passages that aren’t meant to be taken literally.
6. Determine the Author’s Intent
When studying a passage, it’s crucial to determine the author’s intent – the main point or purpose of his writing. Here are key questions to uncover intent:
- What was the situation when it was written?
- What problem needed to be addressed?
- What theological arguments did the author make?
- What response did the author want to elicit?
- How does this fit with the book & the Bible’s overall message?
Don’t impose your own ideas. By sticking close to the author’s intended meaning, you’ll have a solid basis for interpretation.
7. Apply Personally Before Teaching Publicly
After doing your best to accurately interpret a passage, take time to reflect on how to apply it personally. How does this truth affect your attitude and behavior? Let it sink deep into your heart before teaching others.
James 1:22 (NKJV) warns, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” We must be doers, not just studiers. Only when Scripture transforms us can we share it with humility.
Prayerfully consider how God might be calling you to act upon your new understanding. As you live out the passage, you’ll begin to fully comprehend it.
In Summary: Rightly Handling God’s Word
Interpreting the Bible accurately requires commitment and discernment. By applying these 7 principles, you’ll be well on your way to “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 NKJV).
Always rely on the Holy Spirit to guide you. God promises that if we seek Him with our whole heart, we will find Him and encounter His life-giving words (Jeremiah 29:13). Be encouraged that the Spirit who inspired Scripture will also illuminate it for you!
As you put these keys into practice, you’ll grow deeper in discernment. With careful exegesis and enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, you’ll uncover the inexhaustible riches of God’s Word.