This is an article about Bible interpretation to help the Christian with daily Bible reading and proper interpretation.
Written by Franklin Martin
There is a saying that goes, "If the Bible can mean anything, then it really means nothing." If the biblical text gains its meaning based on the individual interpretation of whoever reads it, then who are we to say that anyone is wrong or right based on how they interpret any passage of scripture? How can anyone fit the category of false prophet? By what standard or by whose interpretation? There, therefore, has to be a standard of interpreting scripture by which we are able to determine if someone is practicing exegesis (meaning to draw out of the text) or eisegesis (meaning to read into the text). In other words, there is one way to interpret scripture, but many ways to apply it.
There is a very simple method called inductive Bible study. It is extremely helpful with proper hermeneutics (the art and science of interpreting scripture). Inductive Bible study focuses on three basic steps:
Before looking at these steps, I want to emphasize the importance of absolute dependence upon the Holy Spirit to give us understanding of the Word. However, throughout history, God through his Spirit has distributed gifts to the church and has used Spirit-filled men to bring wonderful truths that have helped with the advancement of God's Kingdom. Let us be careful not to limit the Holy Spirit to one way of bringing illumination.
Let’s get started!
OBSERVATION: We come to the text and observe what is taking place—this is just reading what is in front of you.
INTERPRETATION: The next step is interpreting what you have just observed. This requires a deeper understanding of the surroundings I.e., the historical data, cultural customs, original language, and very important, the context of the reading.
APPLICATION: How does this apply to me, the reader?
So, let’s unpack each one.
This one is straight forward—you are just assessing the situation. What is happening? Let’s use a scenario. A man walks into a meeting that you are conducting with a group of people. The man says to you, "This is nonsense!!" So, you are observing the situation; there is a man, and he is addressing the group by making the remark, "This is nonsense!!"
Moving to the next step, interpretation. You must now interpret this information and the situation. At this stage you could be speculating by asking your group, “What do you think he means by what he said?” This is very common in Bible study groups—what does this passage mean to you? Your group might respond with a few suggestions, but what we want to understand is what the messenger meant by his remark, "This is nonsense!!” After we observe, we then want to interpret the situation so that we can understand what it means, and from there we can determine how it is applicable to us. Of course, with this hypothetical situation we have the messenger in the room, so we can just ask him what he means by this statement. However, if we decide not to allow the messenger to give us the true meaning of his statement, and we choose to speculatively interpret the information, we might come to the wrong conclusion, thus leading to a wrong application. Let’s assume, for example, you turn to your group and say, “Well, I think he might have a problem with us gathering here.” Now I apply that information to us as a group and respond by saying, "Well, sir, we have the right to be here. What is the problem?" The man in turn might say, "What are you talking about? I don’t have a problem with you gathering here. It's none of my business. I just think it’s absolute nonsense that I should have to ask for your permission to enter the building." So, here we can see that the wrong interpretation led to the wrong application, and in fact, your application then becomes senseless. It then becomes obvious that the correct application, although it can be done in various ways, becomes dependent upon the correct interpretation, which can only have one meaning, the meaning and intention of the author or speaker to the original messenger, whether written or oral.
Now let’s use a biblical text and apply the inductive Bible study method.
Matthew 10:38: “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
We see that whoever is not willing to take up his cross is not worthy to follow “me”, a specific person.
Disclaimer! This will not be an extensive interpretation, but a very basic interpretation of the text just for illustrative purposes.
We might start by asking who wrote this passage. Who is talking? Who is the audience?
By answering these questions and understanding who the “whoever” is, we would then also find out who the “me” is in this verse. We mostly find these answers by reading in context. So, the “me” is Jesus and He is saying that if anyone is not willing to take his cross and follow Him, then they are not worthy of Him.
The next question would be what “cross” means here. Is it an actual “cross” or is it figuratively speaking?
Many people assume that “cross” has a metaphorical meaning referring to our “problems” or “burdens”. In other words, take your “problems” and follow me.
Here is where we apply the concept of the intention of the original speaker to the original messenger. What did Jesus mean and how did those he spoke to understand the message?
A little historical background would be extremely helpful in this situation because the original audience lived in the first century under Roman occupation. Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment enforced by the Roman government. The accused was forced to carry their cross to the destination where they eventually would be put to death by crucifixion (the same method used for Jesus’s death). Anyone in those days understood that carrying a cross was a symbol of death. The original audience understood this to mean that if anyone is not willing to lay down his life and follow me he is not worthy of me. In the next verse Jesus expands on this idea: ”Whoever finds his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
The final step is application: How is this applicable to me, or how am I to apply this today in my life? I hope by now you can see that the correct interpretation is a very important and necessary step—the correct application is contingent upon the correct interpretation of any passage of scripture.
So instead of forming my own interpretation and limiting “cross” to “burdens” and “problems”, I can discover the true intention of the author/speaker by applying these three steps and thus benefiting from the correct application. This allows us all to have the same interpretation because we are allowing Jesus to speak, and like obedient followers of Christ, we then are obedient to His Word. We, too, apply the understanding as the first century audience. The application might look different, but the interpretation is the same—one interpretation with many applications.
2 Timothy 2:15: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed rightly handling the word of truth."