The Bible is the information source for the Christian faith. As the word of God it reveals God’s eternal truth to us about spiritual reality. It is the basis on which Christian unity can be found, but when some religious leaders are asked why there are divisions despite using the same book, the answer is usually, “It’s all a matter of interpretation.”
But is it true that people can’t understand language the same? And if so, why in the world are you even reading this article? No, understanding the Bible, just like understanding the newspaper, a text book, a novel, or even an ordinary conversation isn’t rocket science. We do it all the time. In this short space, let me list a few of the most important tools we use everyday to understand signs, contracts, and everyday chats.
Context. Understanding words, sentences, and phrases always depend a lot on the context of a conversation or the situation. So also with understanding the Bible. If you want to understand a verse, you need to know what came before and what came after. Some of the biggest mistakes men make in Bible interpretation come from not paying attention to context.
Background history. This is part of the context principle, and it can be very important to understanding Scripture. For instance, to understand the Gospel stories that include Samaritans it’s important to know the history between the Jews and Samaritans, full of prejudice and resentment. To understand why the Roman governor Pilate caved-in to Jewish pressure to crucify Jesus, it’s useful to know the political history between them (the career ruining mistakes Pilate had made, that the Jews held over his head).
Understanding metaphors. Metaphors are powerful ways of getting across important teachings and meanings. To understand the parable of the sower, for example, the reader needs to understand a little about ancient farming methods. To understand Daniel and Revelation, it’s useful to know what horns, beasts, and certain numbers meant to middle-eastern people of the day.
Type of literature. Different sorts of literature are interpreted differently. No one reads a newspaper like poetry. No one reads a letter like you’d read a proverb. Each kind of literature is supposed to be read differently. Poetry uses symbols and metaphors to communicate ideas. History is understood as what literally happened. Law is understood as what is expected of us. Read God’s word according to its literary kind.
Let the Bible interpret itself. Here’s one of the easiest but most overlooked principles of Biblical interpretation; if you read the whole book, it often explains itself. God, the real author of the Bible, knows better than anyone what He means—so, let Him interpret His own words. Misunderstandings are bound to occur if we stop reading too soon.
Harmony. This is related to letting the Bible interpret itself. All of the Bible is God’s word, and to really understand what the Lord is saying we must consider the sum of the Bible and not be satisfied with just some of it. Critics of the Bible, who are so are quick to allege contradictions, try to make their cases by majoring on some verses rather than the sum of God’s word. Some Bible teachers emphasize one set of scriptures, while ignoring passages related to the same subject; doing so gives only a partial story. This is especially important on the subject of salvation. Harmonize passages that speak about the same things, get the whole story, and understand what God is saying.
Direct command. Such statements leave “no ifs, ands, or buts” to the hearers. These are absolute expectations, not soft suggestions. When God gives one of these, the hearer is expected to simply obey. Consequences follow for failure to comply. Context will, of course, come into play, so that we’ll know who has been commanded and who is therefore expected to obey. But understanding the Bible alike means understanding the expectations of a direct command.
Approved examples. These can teach and command, also, by providing Bible-endorsed actions or precedents by godly men and women. We “watch” and follow these examples, knowing that they are deeds or practices approved by God, leading to eternal life.
Necessary inference. It’s a fancy name, but the explanation is not so complicated. When, for example, the Lord said, “Go…,” He included or inferred that those who go should also raise the support to travel (by whatever means are available), evangelize (through preaching, teaching, brochures, newspapers, door-knocking, etc.), and support their families.
Silence. Although silence doesn’t always teach, it does especially when a specific command is being given. When God specifically commanded a cappella singing, for instance, His silence on all other sorts of music in worship eliminated all the other varieties of music. So also with bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper (eliminating steak and water), preaching the Word in worship (eliminating politics), and being baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (eliminating Buddha or Mohammed).
The fancy name for all this is “hermeneutics” and you might think from the name that it’s tough, academic stuff; but it is something we do everyday. You can understand the Bible, and we can all understand the Bible alike. Let’s use our common sense and the principles above and come to know the Lord better.