The Bible is the inspired word of God, containing truth and guidance for every believer. However, digging into God’s word and properly understanding it can feel overwhelming. With different translations, books, passages and interpretations, how can you be confident you’re getting the right meaning?
Interpreting the Bible correctly is crucial for following Jesus wholeheartedly. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you learn how to interpret the Bible for yourself.
Key Takeaways for Interpreting Scripture:
- Pray for God’s guidance and illumination of His word
- Examine the historical and cultural context
- Look for the plain/literal meaning first
- Note the literary style and device
- Compare multiple translations and versions
- Understand the whole passage, not just isolated verses
- Check commentaries and resources to expand perspective
- Seek trusted teachers who follow sound principles
- Be willing to put in consistent effort to keep growing
With the right strategies and God’s Spirit to lead you, you can understand and apply the Bible with much greater insight. Let’s explore each of these principles in more detail.
Pray for God’s Guidance and Illumination
Before opening your Bible, it’s essential to begin with prayer. Ask God to grant you wisdom and clarity as you study His word. As Psalm 119:18 (NKJV) says, “Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law.”
Every time you approach Scripture, start by humbly asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate His truth to you. The Bible cannot be properly understood in isolation from God. In 1 Corinthians 2:14 (NKJV), Paul writes, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
To discern the meaning of Scripture, believers need supernatural help from the Spirit who inspired it. So pray for His guidance into God’s word before your study time.
Examine the Historical and Cultural Context
Since the Bible was written thousands of years ago, in languages and cultures very different from modern day, considering historical context is crucial. God spoke His eternal truth into specific ancient settings. To fully understand the intent of the human authors God inspired, you must transport yourself back into their historical situation.
Here are some key questions to ask about the historical and cultural context:
- Who wrote this passage and when?
- What was happening socially and politically at this time?
- How would the original audience have understood this?
- Are there customs, figures of speech or nuances that have different meanings today?
For example, in Ephesians 6, Paul urges slaves to obey their masters. By digging into the original context, you learn Paul wasn’t endorsing slavery. Rather, he knew transforming hearts was more powerful than political uprising, and wanted believers to live out the gospel even in harsh conditions.
Historical study will take some extra effort, but it’s vital for applying the Bible accurately. Utilize study Bibles, Bible dictionaries and commentaries to get all the background you need.
Look for the Plain, Literal Meaning First
The Bible was written to everyday people, so we should start by seeking the plain literal meaning of the text. Look at what the words would have meant to the original audience. Unless it’s clearly utilizing allegory, poetry or a symbolic genre, take the passage at face value first.
In Matthew 13:18-23 (NKJV), Jesus tells a parable about a sower and different soils. He then plainly explains that each component has a symbolic meaning. The seeds represent the word of God. Since Jesus interprets this parable plainly, we know it’s meant to be understood allegorically.
But many other passages were intended to be taken literally. For example, the detailed accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the Gospels. We start by reading these plainly as historical records of real events.
Seeking the literal meaning recognizes that God communicated His truth in normal language. We shouldn’t overly spiritualize or allegorize passages that were meant to be understood plainly.
Note the Literary Style and Devices
Since the Bible contains history, poetry, prophecy, letters, and more, it’s important to notice the literary style. Is the passage plain historical narrative? If so, we interpret it literally.
Or is it poetry filled with vivid imagery and metaphor, like the Song of Solomon and Psalms? Poetry should not be interpreted in the same straightforward way as history. Recognize figures of speech that convey deep emotion.
Does the passage use hyperbole or dramatic language to underscore an important point? For example in Matthew 18:8 (NKJV), Jesus says to cut off your hand or foot if it causes you to stumble. He didn’t intend this literally, but used hyperbole to strongly warn believers to remove sources of temptation.
When studying Scripture, note the genre and literary devices used to discern the intent and emphasis of the author.
Compare Multiple Translations and Versions
Since no Bible translation is perfect, studying Scripture across different translations and versions brings greater clarity. Comparing translations helps you identify the full meaning of the original text.
For example, in Psalm 1:1 (NKJV), the man who delights in God’s law is called “blessed.” But in the NIV and ESV, he’s described as “happy.” Seeing both terms helps you better understand the meaning of true satisfaction in walking with God.
Some important translations to utilize are:
- NKJV – Directly based on the original Hebrew and Greek, yet in modern English
- NIV – Dynamic thought-for-thought translation in contemporary language
- ESV – A more literal word-for-word translation
- NASB – Very literal reading of the Hebrew and Greek
- The Message – Paraphrased version that conveys ideas and tone
Comparing 2-3 versions gives you a more thorough appreciation of Scripture. If a passage is unclear, seeing it translated differently often brings clarity.
Understand the Whole Passage, Not Just Isolated Verses
It’s vital to interpret verses in the context of the whole passage. Reading single sentences in isolation can lead to misunderstanding Scripture.
For example, Paul writes in Philippians 4:13 (NKJV), “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Taken alone, this seems to mean believers can accomplish anything through God’s power.
Yet in context, Paul was saying he’d learned to be content in every hardship and circumstance through Christ’s strength. He wasn’t claiming unlimited power to fulfill every desire. Considering the setting prevents distorting the real meaning.
When you read a verse, be sure to understand how it fits with the surrounding paragraphs and chapters. Dig into the overall flow of thought to prevent taking sentences out of context.
Check Commentaries and Other Resources to Expand Perspective
While personal Bible study is essential, we all have blindspots that keep us from seeing the full meaning. That’s why consulting commentaries, study notes and other resources is tremendously helpful.
Comparing your own interpretation with Bible scholars throughout history expands your perspective. Renowned thinkers often shed light on historical context, original language meanings, and cultural nuances you can miss on your own.
Some excellent free resources to utilize are:
- Enduring Word Commentary by David Guzik – Verse-by-verse explanations
- Bible Gateway – Multiple commentaries, versions, and study tools
- Blue Letter Bible – Excellent language tools and commentary
- Desiring God and Ligonier Ministries articles
Don’t just rely on your own understanding. Leverage the wisdom of seasoned teachers to get a well-rounded interpretation.
Seek Out Trusted Bible Teachers
One of the best ways to grow in understanding Scripture is learning from those who’ve studied it deeply. But be discerning, as many distort God’s word to fit personal agendas or unbiblical beliefs.
Seek teachers who:
- Have extensive Bible knowledge and walk closely with God
- Relate passages to the overall message of Scripture
- Don’t make the Bible solely about them and their ministry
- Apply doctrines like grace and sin consistently, not selectively
- Don’t major on minors or obscure disputable issues
- Admit when they don’t know something rather than speculating
Humility is key – don’t just seek teachers who validate your opinions. Iron sharpens iron, so listen to challenging Biblical perspectives to refine your own.
Commit to Ongoing Effort
Growing in Bible understanding is a lifelong journey that requires patience and consistency. At times you’ll struggle to grasp key passages. That’s normal. Even the disciples failed to understand parts of Scripture until Jesus explained it personally after His resurrection (Luke 24:45).
The Psalms and Proverbs took time for believers to comprehend. Peter acknowledged some of Paul’s teachings were difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16). But with ongoing effort and God’s guidance, Scripture becomes clearer.
Interpreting the Bible accurately takes hard work. It’s simple enough for a child yet deep enough to spend a lifetime without fully grasping it all. Stay humble, prayerful and persistent in seeking God’s truth. Keep digging into the word with the right heart and right tools, and your life will overflow with greater understanding, purpose and joy.
Understanding the Bible accurately requires utilizing sound principles guided by God’s Spirit. With prayer, contextual study, literal interpretation, multiple translations, reading in context, research, and quality Bible teachers – you can grow exponentially in comprehending and applying God’s word for life transformation.
May this overview equip you to handle the word of truth rightly (2 Timothy 2:15), so you can fulfill the ultimate purpose of God’s word – to know Jesus Christ intimately. He is the living Word of God we must seek above all else. As you dig into the Bible with wisdom and humility, may you encounter Jesus on every page, being transformed into His likeness from glory to glory.