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How to Study the Bible (part 2): Interpretation and Application

This is second article in a crash course on how to study the Bible. Here is a link to part 1: Preparation and Observation


As we began looking at how to study the Bible, we started with the steps preparation (humility, prayer, and trust) and observation, which includes looking, thinking, and asking questions. In this post, we will look at two more crucial steps for properly studying the Bible: interpretation and application

Interpretation: Context, Canon, Covenants, and Christ

To observe is to ask, “What does the text say?” Interpretation is asking, “What does the text mean?” In this step, we meditate on our passage to understand its meaning in light of Scripture’s overarching message. To do this, we need to keep in mind several interpretive principles:

  1. Each and every word of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that the Bible is God’s authoritative Word. As the very Word of God, it is completely trustworthy and reliable in all it communicates to us (see 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet 1:21).
  2. The main message of Scripture is clear and can be understood by the ordinary reader. This is not to say that every reader will understand every detail, nor that there is no need for pastors, scholars, and tradition to help us in understanding God’s Word.
  3. The literal or natural sense of text is the correct interpretation. This means that we should interpret Scripture as we would any other piece of literature, following the rules of grammar, syntax, and language.
  4. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself. Scripture is internally consistent, presenting one coherent body of truth that does not contradict itself. We should interpret difficult passages in light of clear passages, and interpret individual Scriptures in light of the totality of Scripture. This means if you’re interpretation of a passage runs contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture elsewhere, then your interpretation needs adjusting.

This brings us to several interpretive “lenses” we should use when reading the Bible.

Context

As we meditate on a particular text, we must read with the author’s original intention and audience in mind. Our interpretation should be consistent with the theme, purpose, and structure of the paragraph and book we’re in. For example, Philippians 4:13, in context, isn’t about being the greatest and most famous basketball player, but about being content and having joy in any and every circumstance (Phil 4:10-13). Lifting verses out of their immediate context is a sure way to find yourself in heresy land.

As you seek to understand a passage in its context, consider questions such as the following: What does this teach me about God? What do I learn about myself and others? What is this text teaching me about relating to God and others? Am I ignoring the context to come to a more pleasing and less-offensive interpretation?

Canon

Not only do we understand our text in its immediate context, but also in light of the whole canon of Scripture. We must pay attention to the redemptive-historical context and, as mentioned above, let Scripture interpret Scripture Scott Swain summarizes this well:

Ultimately, Scripture is a single book, written by one divine author, concerning one central subject matter (Christ and covenant), and with one ultimate aim (the love of God and neighbor). Therefore, if we wish to understand what God is saying in a given text, we must attend to the ultimate context of his self-communication, Scripture as a whole (Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, 129).

When studying an Old Testament passage, we need to see how it relates to Jesus and the New Testament (more on this below). We do this by asking questions like, is my text quoted or alluded to in the NT? How do Jesus and the NT writers understand this passage? When interpreting a passage from the New Testament, we must meditate on if and how our passage alludes to or fulfills a passage in the Old Testament. This implies that we must be immerse and fluent in the OT. If Paul considered it a matter of “first importance” that the death and resurrection of Jesus happened “in accordance with” Israel’s Scriptures, then so should we (1 Cor 15:3-5).

Covenants

One of the most important concepts in Scripture is covenant. Covenants are formal agreements between two or more persons that involved promises, requirements, and stipulations that had to be kept for the covenant to be upheld; they provide the backbone for God’s redemptive plan. Throughout the Bible, God established relationships with particular people and particular times through covenants (Creation, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, New Covenant). In order to properly interpret a passage, it can be very helpful to understand what covenant is operating at that particular time in history.

Looking through the lens of “covenant” helps us as we seek to apply Scripture to our lives. For example, since we no longer live under the Mosaic covenant, the civil and ceremonial laws given to the nation of Israel don’t directly apply to those under the New Covenant (e.g., Lev 19:19). It also keeps us from the dangerous mistakes of expecting material blessings as a result of our obedience (Deut 30), or thinking that America is God’s nation like Israel was (cf. 2 Chron 7:14). So, when interpreting a text, especially from the Old Testament, you must ask which covenant a particular passage falls under and where that passage fits in the biblical storyline.

Christ

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, showing them that they were all about himself (Luke 24:13-49; cf. John 5:39). Therefore, in light of Jesus’ claim, we must understand how our text relates to Christ and his kingdom in order to understand it properly. This step is a non-negotiable for the Christian reader.

As Glen Scrivener helpfully puts it, Jesus is patterned, promised, and present from Genesis onward. As the OT progresses, we see Jesus as the true and better son, temple, sacrificial lamb, prophet, priest, and king. Not only is he patterned in the OT, we see promises and prophecies concerning him ever since the garden. We hear over and over about a coming king who will bring peace, blessing, reconciliation, and victory. All of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). Finally, Jesus is also present throughout the Scriptures because he is God. Scrivener writes, “Jesus unites the Bible. He is not absent from the Old Testament, sitting on the bench, awaiting his fourth quarter winning play. He is the player-coach-manager directing all things.”

So, as we read the Bible, especially the OT, we need to ask: How is this text pointing toward Christ? How is this text fulfilled by Christ? It’s only in light of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection that we can properly understand the Scriptures, what Richard Hays calls “reading backwards” (cf. John 2:22; 12:16).

Application: So What?

After we have prayed, read, observed, and understood what the text means, we then need to ask what does it mean to me? In application, we must remember what Scripture is for: conforming us to the image Christ and equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:15-17; Rom 8:29). Scott Swain is helpful (and convicting!) here:

As interpreters, we are always making decisions either for or against the truths, promises, and commands of a given text. There is no neutrality here. We are either in the process of further embracing Scripture’s truths, promises, and commands or we are in the process of distancing ourselves from them. We are either bringing ourselves into further conformity to God’s word or we are slowly drifting away from that which we have read and heard (cf. Heb. 2:1–4). (Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, 134).

In order to apply a passage, we need to ask questions like, What does God want me to understand? What does God want me to believe? What does this passage tell me about what I should desire? How should I live in light of what this text is teaching me about God or myself? What does God want me to do? And just as we depend on the Holy Spirit for the steps of preparation and observation, our response to and application of Scripture must always be in complete dependence on Him.

Every Step is Important

We often want life hacks, instant answers, and quick fixes to our problems. As a result, we can be tempted to skip over any number of these steps.

We can forget preparation by not coming to the text in humility, acknowledging our biases, or relying God for understanding. Instead of putting forth effort to observe, actively read, and ask questions of a passage, we can drift into idleness and expect God to give us “fresh words,” forgetting he has already spoken to us. It’s also easy to skip proper interpretation, and treat the Bible simply as a fortune cookie or how-to manual, ripping verses out of context, and ignoring the parts we don’t like. Or, we can either ignore application altogether or make the mistake of jumping straight to application, ignoring the context, covenants, and Christ, and making the Bible primarily about us and what we have to do to earn favor with God.

Let’s remember to approach the Scriptures with prayer, in humility and faith; let’s seek to be active readers of the text, asking questions, and thinking over what has been written. When we come to interpretation, let’s strive to understand our passage through the lenses of context, canon, covenant, and Christ. Finally, let’s never forget to respond appropriately to what we read and apply it to our lives (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

In our third and final post, we will list recommended resources for how to study the bible

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