How to Interpret the Bible

Paul tells the evangelist Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15, 

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

One of Timothy’s primary responsibilities was to teach the church the word of God. In this verse, Paul urges him to work hard and to “rightly (divide) the word of truth.”

The New English Translation says, “(teach) the message of truth accurately.” In their notes, the translators say, 

Accurately is a figure of speech that literally means something like ‘cutting a straight road.’ In regard to the message of truth, it means ‘correctly handling’ or ‘imparting it without deviation.’”

So as one charged with teaching the word of God, Timothy was to be very careful that he taught it accurately.

But in order to teach the word of God accurately, one must first understand what the word of God says. This means, one must know how to properly interpret the word of God.

Jesus used three tools when interpreting Scripture. I believe these tools remain relevant for us.

How to Interpret the Bible: If the Bible Commands, We Must Obey

In Luke 10:25, a lawyer tests Jesus with the question, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it,” to which the lawyer responds by identifying two essential commands:  love God and love our neighbor. Jesus responds in verse 28, 

“You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”

Obeying these two commands will lead one to inherit eternal life.

Obeying the commands of Jesus is the mark of true discipleship.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Obedience to the will of God separates pretenders from true believers. If we want to go to heaven, we must obey the will of God.

“If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15).

Saying, “I love you Jesus,” but not obeying His commands is like saying, “Lord, Lord.” Like faith and works, love needs obedience in order to be alive.

“Now by this we know that we know Him if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this, we know that we are in Him” (1 John 2:3-5)

If you want to know whether or not you abide in Jesus, then determine whether or not you keep His commands. And like John 14:15, notice that one’s love for God is expressed by keeping the word of Christ.

So when we attempt to discern the will of God by properly interpreting Scripture, our chief guides are the commands of God.  I cannot:

  • Please God without keeping His commands.
  • Love God without keeping His commands.
  • Have a relationship with God unless I keep His commands.

Therefore, if Scripture commands, I must obey.

How To Interpret the Bible: Examples from Scripture are also a Guide

In Matthew 12:1-8, Jesus legitimized the use of example in interpretation. The hungry disciples pluck heads of grain and are accused by the Pharisees of violating the prohibition of work on the Sabbath day Jesus defends His disciples by citing two examples from the Old Testament.

  • He cites David and his men eating the showbread in 1 Samuel 21:3-6.
  • He highlights the priests who offer sacrifices on the Sabbath — Numbers 28:9-10.

In His response to the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus demonstrates that the use of example is a perfectly acceptable form of interpretation. Pairing commands with examples seem to be a reasonable hermeneutic for properly understanding the word of God.

Examples from the Old Testament

Examples from the Old Testament are used extensively throughout the New Testament in order to illustrate and guide.

  • 1 Corinthians 10:1-12: Paul says the children of Israel were “baptized into Moses,” partook of spiritual food from the same source of us, and yet rebelled against God by their idolatry, sexual immorality, and lack of faith.
  • The writer of Hebrews in chapters 3 and 4 brings up the same example and concludes in 4:11, “Let us, therefore, be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience.”
  • To argue in favor of supporting those who preach the gospel, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” extracting from the example a transcendent principle.
  • Jude warns us against being led astray by using the examples of the children of Israel, the fallen angels, and Sodom and Gomorrah; a few verses later, he says false teachers “have gone in the way of Cain, have run greedily in the error of Balaam for profit, and perished in the rebellion of Korah” (1:5-7, 11).

Although many of the commands from the Old Law no longer apply to us, we are urged to take to heart the examples of the Old Testament.

The Examples of Jesus and His Apostles

The New Testament urges us to take to heart the examples of Jesus and His apostles.

After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus says in John 13:15, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

Peter urges us to bear with poor treatment, “because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

Paul and his companions earned their own living while among the Thessalonians and did not accept help from the church “not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us” (2 Thessalonians 3:9).

Using examples from Scripture as our guide means we are using Scripture in the way it was designed to be used.

How To Interpret the Bible: The use of Inference

Jesus used inference when answering the hypothetical question of the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-33. 

As you may recall, the Sadducees floated a hypothetical scenario involving a man, his wife, and his seven brothers. If the man dies, his seven brothers marry his wife in succession upon the death of each one, and finally, the wife dies. So which man will her husband be in the resurrection?

To answer, Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6, and chides the Sadducees for missing the meaning of “I am”: “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” What’s fascinating about Jesus’s interpretation is that it requires inference.  

He does not say, “I was the God of Abraham,” implying that Abraham is dead and not alive; He says, “I am the God of Abraham.” The Sadducees should have inferred Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob though they were dead, were in fact alive because God uses the present tense. In failing to draw out God’s meaning, Jesus says these men “are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.”

To be clear:  He rebukes them for not drawing the right conclusion based on inference.

Paul Used Inference

When Paul reflects on the promises to Abraham in Galatians 3, he observed, “(God did) not say (to Abraham), ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ.” Here is another example of an easily overlooked inference. The difference between the plural and singular, though subtle, affects the conclusion drawn from the passage.

This illustrates how easy it is to draw a faulty conclusion from inference. The Jews inferred the promise was to all of Abraham’s descendants while Paul says it was to Christ alone.

Some Inferences are Necessary

In some cases, there is one conclusion that can be drawn from an inference. For example, Galatians 5:4, 

“You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”

In the Galatian churches, there were some Gentiles who decided to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. From the verse, we infer these folks had been believers in Jesus prior to their embrace of the Old Law.

  • Paul says they “have become estranged from Christ” — “alienated from Christ,” or “severed from Christ.”
  • And he says they “have fallen from grace.”

One cannot fall from grace unless they were in grace and one cannot be severed from Christ unless they were once united with Christ.

This inference leads us to one conclusion: these folks had been, at one time, Christians.

When there is only one reasonable conclusion that can be reached by inference, we call this necessary inference.

But not all inferences are necessary.

Sometimes there are a variety of possibilities, a number of possible inferences we can draw. In such cases, we have to weigh out which inference is most likely based on the broader context of the chapter and book. And, sometimes we must also take into account other passages from other books in the Bible to help us narrow down which inference is most likely.  

So in some cases, only one conclusion can be drawn from inference, while in other cases, we may need to consider multiple possibilities when using inference.

Inference is indispensable when interpreting sophisticated communication, but we must use it carefully and guard against drawing a single conclusion when more than one interpretation may be possible.

Following God’s commands, imitating the examples we find in Scripture, and inferring the meaning of a passage are tools we utilize when staking out the borders of the kingdom of God. 

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