Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Bible Interpretation

The Big idea: Interpretation is not every individual's opinion, but rather systematic examination of the text. The Holy Spirit will guide us to the Bible's intent. 

Interpretation: What does it mean?

"Well, that's just YOUR interpretation!" 

Or, "You can interpret that however you'd like."

Ever heard this? It gives the idea that interpretation is up for grabs, relative to the person. The Oxford dictionary definition of the word means the action of explaining the meaning of something. There may be alternative explanations of the significance for some verses in the Bible but we can be confident that the timeless truths and core of who God is and what He seeks to communicate is sound, true and good. Controversy is human based not God based. God, by His Holy Spirit, will help us find him and know him through our sincere study of the Word.

God's intention is not related to our subjective thoughts, current mood or pet projects. It is grounded in the entire work of God through the Bible with Christians from various times and places in sync. That synchronization is the work of the Holy Spirit.

In Inductive Bible Study there are three parts to the sincere study of the Bible.

  • Observation (What does the Bible passage say)
  • Interpretation (What does the Bible passage mean)
  • Application. (Why does the Bible passage matter)

So here we go!


Always start with prayer. Ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. This is God's work from the Holy Spirit and that same Spirit works in our lives and the lives of other believers to guide us into all truth (John 15:26). Christians may have differences on a few complex or obscure passages in the Bible, but it will not derail everything we know about God and his relationship with us. The timeless truths, the core message of God to man, will remain the same.



The work you did in observing the text will be the foundation, the groundwork, for interpretation. Differentiating what the author said, who the audience is, and observing the time and place are a couple factors to good observation. All of these should be looked at first and primarily in the Bible, not external commentaries, devotional guides and study Helps. This sets the stage for the Interpretation phase. Often the transition between making observations and the interpretation phase merges a little. It gradually becomes a focal shift when you interpret. Check out my blog, Observation: What does it say here.



Imagine running into the same friend two months apart.  You ask how they are doing. The first month the word "lousy" comes out of their mouth and two months later, "amazing." The first month they had a stuffy cold, had a fight with a family member and just scraped up their car. Two months later they had just gotten engaged and got a bonus at work. Though you asked the same person the same question their answers were totally different. The difference? Context.

Examining the Biblical context for a passage is also critical to understanding it. You cannot isolate one verse to determine the full meaning. You need to be like a scripture spy, gathering information about the book of the Bible, the author, the setting, the historical context and the culture. Ask yourself how the text mattered to the audience in their context.

Think of the verses of the Bible like a puzzle. Each one is a piece that fits into the full picture. There are numerous sub themes and many key words through the Bible. However together all of them form the glorious picture of God and His relationship to mankind.


We should always make the Bible our primary source. Your first observation work is with the text. But the rest of the Bible is important for background, common words and themes, and so on.

You may find a key word study helpful for your text. You will ask yourself how this word is used in other parts of the Bible. A concordance or electronic Bible word search is helpful. A dictionary in your language is useful. Another blog post will address how to do a key word study.

Another relevant focus may be a character study. In Galatians 4 we learn about Hagar and Sarah from the book of Genesis. In that case it is helpful to find all mentions of each woman throughout the Bible. Ask if there is a person to explore in your text. Again, how to do a character study will be a future blog post.

Make an outline of the chapter or the text you are studying. Is making a list useful for this particular passage? Consider charting comparisons and/or contrasts if that is relevant to the text. A drawing is useful sometimes such as with the armor of God. I made an interesting drawing once from the Gospel according to Luke chapter 16 about Father Abraham and the rich man.


This is not complex. I like to ask myself  two questions whenever I study a text.

  • What do I learn about God here?
  • What do I learn about human beings here?

These two questions may prompt you to other observations. Is this talking about Satan, the influences of the world, about men, women or children? Does it talk about how we should treat people?

Other questions will also direct you toward the meaning of the passage.

  • Why did God include this in the Bible? 
  • Why did the author say it the way he did?
  • Why did the people respond as they did?
  • How can this move me more toward who God wants me to be?
  • What universal principle, belief or value is in this passage? What might it's timeless truth be?


You may have been asked this question in a Bible study. Every person in the group does not give new meaning or separate truth to that verse. If a ball is red, but someone says it means yellow to him, or represents granite to him, does that make the ball red no more? Of course not. The ball is still red and does not change.

In the same way the Word of God does not change. It reflects God and His intent, coupled with the words the Holy Spirit moved a human being to write. We must believe God is behind the Word and in the Word. We must believe God's intention is to communicate well with us. We seek God's intent for us when we seek the meaning, the interpretation, of the Bible.

"…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation." 2 Peter 1:20 (ESV) 

I love how the Passion Translation expresses this verse. "You must understand this at the outset: Interpretation of scriptural prophecy requires the Holy Spirit, for it does not originate from someone’s own imagination." I Peter 1:20 (TPT)

Significance is the understanding of the meaning in various contexts, and it will vary. Thirty years ago a verse in Isaiah became special to me and inspired me while I was going through a very difficult time. Years later when I was working in West Africa as a nurse, the verse took on a completely new significance. Now it still brings great comfort to me, but I feel it's weight deeper still. It is like a diamond that has multi-facets, and I keep discovering more uses for it. Does this mean God's Word changed? Does this mean I missed the correct interpretation at the beginning? Not at all. It is about the change the verse has on me in significance and personal experience.


Sometimes interpreting God's Word seems scary. You might feel afraid to make a mistake and misinterpret the Bible. If you keep God at the center of your studies and have the core belief that it is true and reliable, you do not need to worry. Keep close to the Holy Spirit and find yourself in fellowship with other believers. God will guide you and you can be confident His Word will make a difference in your life.

Up Next:  Bible Application

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