Principles of Interpretation – How to Study the Bible
(Adapted from the “Prove All Things” Workbook by Betty Miller)
Interpretation of the Scripture should be done in the light of certain principles. We must view parts of the Bible in relation to the whole; otherwise the Bible will seem to contradict itself in some places. Since the Bible is the work of one mind–the mind of the Lord–it does not in actuality contradict itself.
When we cannot understand something that seems to be a contradiction, the lack is not in God’s Word. Rather, it is because of human limitations or a lack of full knowledge. If we find something hard to understand initially, we should seek the Holy Spirit for illumination. Generally, revelation on difficult issues will come to us little by little, as we continue to seek the Lord and have an open heart. As we read more of His word, we gain a bigger picture of His heart and purposes. Our “spiritual vocabulary” is increased. As our “vocabulary” is expanded, we find that it becomes increasingly easier to understand God’s Word. As you regularly apply the following principles to your Bible study, you will find that knowledge and wisdom will come easily to you. The Holy Spirit wants to share the treasures of God’s Word with those who esteem Him. However, these treasures will never be grasped by one who is determined to fly through the Bible in a superficial manner. God hides His greatest treasures from those who would misuse them, or who are not willing to seek Him for them. He does this both to protect His Word, and to protect the shallow seekers from receiving truth they are not ready to act upon.
The most important principle to remember in studying God’s Word is that it can only be understood with the help of the Holy Spirit. Those who approach the Bible without the Holy Spirit to teach them, may gain some insight into their lives, but will receive no life-changing revelation. There are cultists and atheists who know the Bible better than many Christians. Why are some able to read of God’s Word, and yet bear no fruit in their lives? The answer is simple: Because, they are not open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance as they read the Word.
Therefore, it is absolutely crucial that we acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit and ask Him to lead us into all truth and to make the mysteries of God’s Word known to our spirit.
“A scorner seeketh wisdom, and findeth it not: but knowledge is easy unto him that understandeth” (Proverbs 14:6).
“Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you.” (John 16:13-14).
“But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:10-14).
Bible Study Tools
Some of the first things that you will need for effective Bible study, are the right tools. A good concordance is a great help in studying the Bible, and probably your most important tool. (A concordance is a listing of where all the same words appear throughout the Bible. For instance, if you wanted to study the topic of “fire” or “the fear of the Lord,” you could refer to your concordance and find every verse where that word or phrase is listed in the Bible). Most Bibles have small concordances in the back of them so you can look up different topics to get a broad view of that subject. However, you will need a larger one, such as Strong’s, to research a topic thoroughly. “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance” is an excellent tool, as it also includes a dictionary in the back of it, giving deeper meaning to the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic words that the Bible was originally written in. Every serious student of the Bible will want to look up the original meanings of the words from time to time. “Young’s” and “Cruden’s” also are good reference works.
The serious Bible student will also want to invest in dictionaries and commentaries for additional help in understanding the Word. We recommend Bible dictionaries such as, “Vine’s,” “Boyd’s,” and “Wilson’s.” Some of these are available through our Chapel Bookstore.
Commentaries should be used only sparingly. After referring to a commentary, ask the Holy Spirit if that particular interpretation is correct, or if there is more revelation on that subject that God still wants to show you. Commentaries can be very helpful, but it is often too easy for people to look upon them as though they were the Word of God itself. Even the most anointed man or woman of God can be wrong, (or just shallow) in their understanding or interpretation of certain subjects. Also, there is a great joy to be had in receiving revelation over a Bible passage, directly from the Holy Spirit. You may find the same conclusion by referring to a commentary, but these can also rob you of the joy that comes from making those discoveries on your own!
On the other hand, by no means are we advocating that all students toss out their commentaries! God placed teachers in the body of Christ for our edification, and we would be wise to learn from them. The point we are making is that we should first direct our questions to the Holy Spirit, and then to man. When commentaries and other teaching tools are esteemed properly, they can be most helpful and useful. We will address this subject again, later in this article.
First Principle of Biblical Interpretation
The primary rule of Biblical interpretation is this: We must interpret any scripture by other scriptures. This means, that by referring to other verses about the same subject, we can get a more complete picture of that subject.
The science of interpretation is called hermeneutics from the Greek word hermenuo, which means “to interpret or explain.”
Let us use the incident in Acts 4:18-20 as an example of how to use scripture to interpret scripture where there seems to be a contradiction:
“And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”
This scripture describes the day when the council of elders in Jerusalem, which had authority over all religious matters, ordered Peter and John not to speak any more of Jesus or of the things He had done. The apostles knew the Old Testament writings told them to submit to authority. Yet, we find them saying they have to speak about the things they saw and heard to be right in the sight of God!
After examining 1 Peter 2:13-15, that account also seems to contradict what Peter and John did that day in Jerusalem.
“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.”
From reading the above verses, it would appear that the Bible contradicts itself. However, as we study the rest of Scripture, we see that Peter’s instructions in his first epistle do not really contradict his actions as recorded in Acts. We find from the rest of the Bible there are limitations to submission to earthly authority. We will find that we are not to obey earthly authority, civil or religious, if it contradicts God’s authority, which is supreme over all other authority (Colossians 1:16-18).
There are other Scriptures that show us how to know when to obey earthly authority and when not to. Here are a few more of them:
— Words spoken by Jesus and later recorded in Matthew 22:36-38, which told them to love the Lord above all things and all people. Along with that were Old Testament admonitions that the apostles knew well, which said that if someone loves God, he will obey Him.
— Peter’s words in Acts 5:29-33, where it is recorded that he told the authorities that they “…ought to obey God rather than men.”
— The words of Gamaliel, one of the religious authorities presiding at the hearing, when the apostles continued preaching about Jesus. The wise priest and scholar said the men should be left alone, because if something is of God, it will stand (Acts 5:38,39). (In other words, if what Peter and John were saying was not of God, it would not last, but would die out).
Other Principles of Interpretation
Some other guidelines of interpretation are:
1. A second principle of interpretation then is to establish a fact or truth in the mouths of two or three witnesses in referring to Scripture. This means there should be at least two or three scriptures verifying a doctrine, or principle (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 10:28). It takes more than one scripture to prove a doctrine, a point, or a principle. This is where the concordance can be such a blessing to the Bible student. The assistance they give in making a topical study of any subject in God’s Word is invaluable.
2. Another important principle of interpretation is known as: “the law of first mention.” In testing Scripture by Scripture, it is important to look for the place in the Bible that a subject, attitude, or principle is mentioned for the first time and see what it meant there. Again, this requires looking up words or phrases in a concordance.
3. Scripture should always be accepted literally unless it is clearly figurative or symbolic. “Spiritualizing” too much can dilute God’s Word, while “literalizing” too much can bring bondage and legalism. The Holy Spirit is our guide.
For example, in Revelation 12:4, Satan is described as being cast out of Heaven with a third part of the “stars” going with him. To understand what this means, let us first apply the “law of first mention.” Going to the concordance, we find the word stars first mentioned in the book of Revelation in chapter 1, verse 20. We see in that verse the interpretation for stars is “angels, or messengers of God.”
We use the first mention in Revelation, instead of the first mention in Genesis, because Revelation is full of symbolic pictures of literal things, while Genesis is a book describing literal events. We now can understand the interpretation that one-third of the stars means “angels,” and therefore, we understand it was angels who were cast out of Heaven with Lucifer (the dragon) to the earth.
Often, Biblical passages will have more than one meaning–a literal meaning or fulfillment, as well as a spiritual one. We should seek the Lord for the full revelation on a particular passage. For instance, is the initial fulfillment of a certain prophecy all that God wants to do with that part of His Word or is there still a greater fulfillment that has yet to occur? This method of reading the Bible can be potentially dangerous, as many cults and false revelations have sprung from those who spiritualized God’s Word into doctrine far from the Lord’s original intention. However, the opposite danger can also be true, from those who see no new revelation or application to be gained from God’s word, other than what has been previously established. Both extremes can be dangerous, as both can prevent us from seeing the Lord clearly.
However, if you are new to Bible study, the best way to read it is at face value, without trying to determine all the layers of meaning that may be hidden. As we continue to seek God, He will reveal those layers of meaning as we are ready to receive them. Human wisdom can never ferret them out.
4. We should pray and ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate the Word to us before beginning any study. Then we can understand by revelation. The Lord at times may speak a direct message to us from His Word (which will be the application of His Word to our spirits). However, we should avoid using the Bible as a “personal fortune teller.” Some people open the Bible to a page, then point to a verse with their eyes closed, and use that for guidance and direction.
Sometimes, for “baby” Christians, God will give them a message that way, but continued use of that method amounts to fortune-telling, (much like reading tea leaves), and the enemy will get involved sooner or later. The best way to get answers from God is to spend time daily in prayer and studying the Word; then in our times of study, the Holy Spirit will make the Bible alive to us by highlighting a certain verse, passage, or topic that will speak to us.
5. Trust God’s Word above all else. We must believe fully in the integrity of God’s Word and give it first place, if we are to know the God who wrote it. A new Christian will not understand the Word as well as a mature Christian, who has studied the Bible enough to get an understanding in his or her spirit of the way God thinks and acts.
Let’s look at some scriptures from the Word written by four different men who were inspired of God. Their writings covered a period of time ranging over about 1,500 years, yet each of them verify the faithfulness of God’s Word to us.
Moses: “…Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” (Numbers 23:19).
David: “The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shall preserve them from this generation for ever. …Thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name” (Psalms 12:6,7; 138:2).
Jeremiah: ” …I will hasten my word to perform it” (Jeremiah 1:12).
The Apostle John: “The scripture cannot be broken…Thy word is truth” (John 10:35; 17:17).
It takes trust that God wants to open up His Word to you, and faithfulness in studying it, and waiting on Him to gain true understanding and knowledge (John 6:51,52,60,66; Hebrews 5:12-14). It does not make any difference what things look like; if God said it, He will do it. Although what we see happening is beyond our personal experiences with God, we should still choose to believe God’s Word in spite of our lack of understanding
“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
In addition to the Bible itself, we can and should use and appreciate the writings and works of godly men and women throughout history. They were raised up by God to teach others the knowledge of His Word and to lead others in faith (Ephesians 4:11-15; 2 Timothy 2:2).
One example of a Christian work outside the Bible that has lasted for more than two hundred years and has been invaluable to many is the classic, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” by John Bunyan. This is a very good book that gives a graphic picture of the overcoming Christian walk through this world.
However, even in listening to men and women of God or in reading their works, we must prove what we hear to be scriptural. That is every Christian’s individual responsibility.
“And he said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that hear shall more be given” (Mark 4:24).
“Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20).
“Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Matthew 12:33-35).
“Proving” Those Behind the Pulpit
There are some practical guidelines that we can use for “proving” or “testing” those who teach or preach:
1. Notice the words of their mouths. Jesus said that the mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart (Matthew 12:34).
2. Notice their lifestyles.
3. Notice the fruits of their spirits (Galatians 5:22,23).
If we can see drastic problems in these areas, we need to seek the Lord to see if He really wants us sitting under this person’s authority. On the other hand, do not expect perfection in any leader. No man or woman has all the truth or is to the place where God is not working in them any longer. There was only one perfect man: Jesus Christ. Men will fail at some time or other. Only God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus will never fail us.
If we put our leaders up on pedestals as “stars” or “heroes and heroines,” our expectations will sooner or later turn to disillusionment, and then we will be tempted to judge them harshly. However, it is proper to respect them and look to them as godly role models and as examples, when we see Jesus demonstrated in their lives.
Here are some more “don’ts” concerning our right attitudes to leaders:
— We should not exalt spiritual leaders as persons, but we should honor and respect their offices in Jesus and listen to them. – We should not put them above God. – We should not expect them to do our praying for us. – We should not expect them to make decisions for us. Check out any counsel with the Word, and remember that we are individually accountable to God for our personal choices and decisions. Our leaders may help us come to right decisions based on the Word of God, but we should not take their counsel as God’s final Word. – We should not refuse all of a teaching or all of their advice simply because it is not possible to agree with part of it. We should accept what is right and throw out the rest–if we know it is not right. However, if the part we cannot accept is something we may not yet understand, then we would be wise to lay it aside for the time being and study to understand it. – We should not have an unteachable spirit so that truth cannot be received when it comes in different teaching or preaching styles or in a different type of word usage. – We should not accept a teaching if it does not glorify Jesus and His kingdom. However, a “hard word” that glorifies God and His Word can be God’s correction to us, when it is motivated by love for us. Test the spirit (attitude) of the person delivering that word.
In conclusion, then, principles for interpreting the Bible are:
1. Let Scripture interpret Scripture. 2. Prove an interpretation in the mouth of two or three witnesses. 3. Find the first time a certain subject is mentioned in Scripture and study that for its fuller meaning (the law of first mention). 4. Take the Bible literally wherever possible and as it makes sense. Consider it from the standpoint of God’s power, ability, and character. 5. Gain familiarity with the Bible as a whole. In other words, get to know the “forest,” not just what some individual “trees” look like. 6. Do not handle the Word of God deceitfully (2 Corinthians 4:2). In other words, we should not make it say just what we want it to or what someone else has told us it says. And, do not use it as “fortune telling.”
As we continue to study the Bible and feed on it’s riches daily, we will find that God’s Word will indeed make us strong and wise. As we fill ourselves with it, it will naturally flow through us to feed a world that is starving for manna from heaven. Those who make it their life goal to walk intimately with the Holy Spirit through God’s word and through prayer will find that there is no greater delight that can be given to man. The costly and glorious treasures that are found within God’s Word are the only things that can satisfy the deepest hunger in all of us.
“Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David” (Isaiah 55:1-3).
“O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day. Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts. I have refrained my feet from every evil way, that I might keep thy word. I have not departed from thy judgments: for thou hast taught me. How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:97-104).
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).
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Betty Miller has written several books on other topics as well. To view titles or purchase those books visit our bookstore.