We enjoy watching the Seattle Mariners baseball games. We DVR them so we can zip through and watch a game in about half the time compared to watching live. One of the things that amazes us about their home field, T-Mobile Park in Seattle, is the work the grounds crew does in preparing the field for each game. The grass is mowed/rolled in such a way as to create beautiful, symmetric designs. They, of course, have laser guided mowers that not only cut the blades of grass but roll them in a certain direction to create the patterns on the field. When I mow our lawn, without the aid of a laser to guide my mower, I try to keep my eyes on an object in the direction I am headed in order to mow a straight row with which to start.
Paul gave his understudy, Timothy, a challenge regarding how to study Scripture that incorporates this same principle, He wrote: “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15 KJV). The word “dividing” (orthotomeo in the Greek) means to “cut straight.” It was used of stonemasons, farmers plowing fields, and tent makers (who needed to cut material straight so the pieces fit together evenly). As we study a passage of Scripture, we are to interpret it accurately by using the proper principles of interpretation (referred to as hermeneutics) and to be guided by the author, the Holy Spirit (our “laser” guide!). Jesus promised before He left the earth that God would send us the “Spirit of truth” who would come to “guide us into all the truth” (Jn. 16:13). So, as you read and study Scripture, say to God, “Open my eyes that I may behold the wonderful things from Thy Law” (Psa. 119:18), and then apply some basic rules of interpretation:
Use a Literal, Grammatical, Historical Approach. Take the Bible to mean exactly what it says, i.e., taking it at face value whenever it is at all possible. “If the literal sense makes good sense, use no other sense, lest it result in nonsense!” Unless something is obviously a figure of speech, parable, or symbol, regard it as literal.
Study the Background. Interpret in light of the historical, geographical and cultural background. Events took place at certain times in history in unique cultures. Investigate to see who wrote it, to whom and why?
Study the Individual Words. Words can change their meaning over a period of time. Our English translations can be a bit misleading at times. It is good to examine the Greek or Hebrew word and what meanings it has. Words may have a different meaning in the biblical setting than in our modern culture.
Examine the Context. Every Scripture has only one primary interpretation, although it may have many practical applications and possible additional prophetic revelation. Examine the immediate context (verses before and after), intermediate context (the paragraph or chapter), and the distant context (the whole book itself with the entire Bible in view). Many verses (or phrases), if taken alone–out of context–can lead to doctrinal error. “text without context is pretext!”
Compare Scripture with Scripture. Interpret each passage in light of the Bible’s teaching as a whole; i.e., “interpret Scripture with Scripture.” “The best commentary on the Bible is the Bible!” The premise for this is that the Bible does not contradict itself. It is essentially one revelation–a book with 66 chapters–giving one message about God and His plan of redemption for mankind through Jesus Christ. Heresies and false doctrines “seem” to have biblical authority because those who teach them use Scripture, but they only use certain passages (usually out of context) while ignoring others. It is called “Scripture plucking!”
Determine the Author’s Intention. The author of each book had a purpose in writing. It is not just an academic treatise. If the author doesn’t tell you his purpose (as John did for his gospel…Jn. 20:30,31), read, reread, and watch for recurring words, phrases and ideas. Keep in mind who the author was writing to or about. Check your conclusions with the “experts,” but don’t go there first.
Handle Special Interpretive Problems with Care. Learn to recognize “types,” “figures of speech,” “poetry,” and “prophecy.”
Recognize Dispensations. One cannot really understand Scriptures unless he realizes that God has progressively revealed Himself in distinct stages which we call “dispensations,” when God has dealt with people through different external forms at different periods of history–although salvation by grace through faith has remained the same in every dispensation.
Distinguish between Standing and State. Distinguishing between our position in Christ and our every-day practice (condition) is essential in order to understand our security in Christ. Our standing (position in Christ) is permanent, our state (condition) may fluctuate from day to day or even moment by moment.
Distinguish between Israel and the Church. God has a special program for Israel, which will be carried out just as Scripture prophesies, which is distinct from His program for the Church (which began at Pentecost). The church has not replaced Israel! This is a critical premise for proper interpretation of Scripture. The kingdom (Millennium) promised for Israel will still take place.
If we will apply these principles of interpretation and approach God’s Word with a mind subject to God, we will be able to “Rightly divide the Word of Truth” and be “approved workman who are not ashamed” (II Tim. 2:15).