Showing posts with label Interpretation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interpretation. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

IBS-14 That’s really what it said! Beliefs and mystery


The Big Idea: Can we take the Bible literally (which at times seems hard to understand) and trust it to be God’s Word?

Simple or Hard?

The Bible is simple. The Bible is hard.

Can it be both? Turning a light on is so simple a 5 year old can do it. With a massive power outage, specialists reinstate it by a pretty complex process. College professors teach electrical engineers the complexities of energy. The Bible has that kind of duality.

A five year old hears “Jesus loves me” and understands. “Love” in the Bible is complex. Inductive Bible Study is not for the lazy. It can be hard work. Like a multi-faceted diamond, fresh angles emerge studying the same passage repeatedly.

The Bible is not a mystical book, nor a fairy tale. It speaks to man from the heart of God, though it covers over a thousand years and numerous civilizations. The truths it contains apply to multiple cultures and generations because it is the divine Word from God to man. It is not intended to be a secret for a select few. God wants you to understand and know Him.

Belief and mystery

You need not know Hebrew and Greek to understand the Bible. With desire to know and walk with Him, God gives the wisdom and understanding to discern His Word.

The unfolding of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple. Psalm 119:130 (NASB95) Also see Acts 4:13

The Bible is the inspired Word of God. It touches thoughts and guides actions. It is not fabricated to make a point. Some spend massive energy discounting the stories and miracles. Take God at His Word, trusting even the mysterious. What is your perspective? 95% mystery and 5% literal? Or 5% is a mystery and 95% literal?

The Bible speaks of mystery till we’re in heaven. It also says dullness accompanies unbelief.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. I Corinthians 13:12 (NASB95)

Colossians 2:2 and 4:3 and numerous other passages state “God’s mystery… is, Christ Himself.” Believe His Word and submit that which you struggle with to Him.

Moving from Observation to Interpretation

Having observed the text gives you a head start. Observation bleeds over into Interpretation smoothly.

1. Review your observation notes.

2. Does the Bible passage state purpose? i.e.” _____so that_____”

3. Revisit the theme of the chapter and book you are studying.

4. Describe what the verse says in your own words.

5. Explain the most obvious point it appears to be making.

6. Contemplate where God shows up. What does it say or show about Him?

Don’t make this hard. The Bible has clear lessons throughout, especially when we sync passages with the rest of the Bible. Scripture interprets Scripture. Pray for God to guide and simply believe.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6


This is fourteenth in a series called Practical Starter Guide for Inductive Bible Study.

Up Next: Where Can I Find That?
Previous post: The ABC's of Interpretation
Table of Contents 



1. If you had to take a wild guess what percentage you think is literal and that which remains a mystery, what might you suggest? Does your presupposition help you study the Bible or hinder it?

2. In spite of Inductive Bible Study being hard work, are you enjoying putting in the time to do it? Do you find inductive study rewarding or frustrating?

3. Pray asking for God to guide you in your studies that His Word will become even more precious to you!

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

IBS-13 The ABC's of Interpretation


Big Idea: Use the acronym ABC to understand the meaning of the Bible.

What could it mean?

The Star Trek: Next Generation episode, “A Matter of Perspective,” (S3E14) has Riker on trial for the murder of a scientist. The courtroom, created on the holodeck, recreates the scene from each person’s perspective. Truth wins based on indisputable evidence at the end.

Today’s culture values relativity. Everyone has a right to their opinion, believing truth is relative to each individual’s point of reference. Everyone experiences life filtered by personal experience. However truth is fixed, not a moving target. It can be determined.

The Word of God expresses truth in cultural and temporal ways but its Biblical truth is timeless unalterable truth. The Holy Spirit with careful Biblical study guides us to truth. The Bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16)  who moved humans by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21) to write the words. Start with prayer. Who better to ask than the author?

Interpret a passage more easily using the A-B-C’s.

1. Verify the APPARENT.

a. Simplicity. Usually Biblical truth is easily apparent. God wants us to know Him. He doesn’t fill the Bible with booby traps.

b. Literal. Allegories, parables etc were used by ancient writers but not in every chapter and verse. Consider the literary style of the book. For Poetic, Prophetic and Apocalyptic styles keep literary device in mind. Historical Narrative is usually literal.

c. Stated purpose. Often the Bible identifies why it was written. The author states it clearly or Jesus tells us directly. Look for these statements. 

It seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. Luke 1:3-4 NASB95

I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God. I Timothy 3:15 NASB95

2. Verify the BIBLE as a whole.

a. Themes throughout the Bible. Many key themes run throughout; love, sin, redemption, light….

b. Cross References. Scripture Interprets Scripture. Cross references show other places that are similar. Often found in the margin in a study Bible or in other resources, follow the trail.

c. Word Study. Through a concordance and other tools, examine the word use in other places.  Check it in the original language for translation and usage. (How to do that is for another blog post)


3. Verify the CONTEXT.

a. Paragraph, chapter, book. Look at the passage comparing paragraphs in the chapter, chapter themes, book themes, etc. What is stated around the verse?

b. Author, audience. Review the writer and who they addressed. Background of author.

c. Timeline, period, circumstance. Familiarize yourself with backdrop of the writing; period world powers, civilizations, lifestyle and culture.


4. Verify with DISCERNMENT.

a. Warning. An obscure verse/passage, especially out of context, cannot create new “truth.” It must line up with the rest of Scripture and the historical church God has led.

b. God focused. Seek God. Keep Jesus primary. Seek the Holy Spirit. Elevate the Bible as writings to us from God. Assume it’s God infused and true.

c. Timeless truth. Ask the meaning to people in Biblical times. Ask what the timeless truth is that transcends time. Ask what that timeless truth is for us today.


This is thirteenth in a series called Practical Starter Guide for Inductive Bible Study.

Up next: That's Really What it Said!
Previous post: Chapter Theme
Table of Contents 



1. What is a verse you find confusing? Have you tried anything to understand it better?

2. Does this give you a fresh idea to explore the meaning of a passage? We will be unpacking these suggestions over the next several weeks.

3. Pray for God to open your eyes to learn how to find understanding.

I pray that the glorious Father, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know Christ better. Ephesians 1:17 GW

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Scripture Interprets Scripture


The Big Idea: When the Bible is confusing, ask yourself how it links with the rest of God's Word which is one big storyline. God with us. 

On a bright summer day we were sitting on lawn chairs in the backyard under a big shady tree. She wanted to talk about many burning questions regarding how to understand the Bible.  "Why do some Bible verses seem to contradict each other," she mused. "How can you know the right way to read it? I love the Bible and I believe it is the Word of God. But sometimes it confuses me!"

We read the Bible for comfort, wisdom and guidance for how to live a Christian life. But a lot of casual readers, and even seasoned ones like my friend, run into passages scratching their head. I don't mean they are confused with every single verse. Admittedly there are indeed passages that are a little hard to understand. That is just being honest. Communication, especially between generations and cultures, always takes a bit of work. All of us know there are days when our spouse says something or our parents try to explain something and we look at them blankly, wondering what they mean.


An important principle is to have Scripture interpret Scripture. The Bible itself should be your primary source for understanding. God's Word, though written by many human authors from various backgrounds over about 1400 year's time has one main story to tell; that of God reaching out to know and be known by humans. There are a number of sub themes under that story but they are in sync with each other. In spite of so many authors and such a long period of time, it is remarkably cohesive from Genesis to Revelation. This is because the same Spirit of God moved each author in what message to write.

Inductive Bible study aims to get us digging in the Bible. The primary goal is to explore as much as we can primarily in the Scripture passage without going to other sources right away. If you do it properly you should probably read a passage many times in a study period. Each time look for something else. Underline. Diagram. Look for repetitive words and word relationships such as cause and effect, opposites, and so on. Look for location, movement and time periods. You will find yourself looking at a verse in a whole new way when you hunker down with a passage.

The more you get to know your Bible you will discover when reading that a verse or passage will trigger another passage saying something similar. Or you will want to dig more into the back story. For instance Jesus talks about Old Testament characters like Noah and Jonah. Who were they? Look up where the reference is that mentions them.


1. Start with Prayer. Ask the Holy Spirit that moved the authors of the Bible to write the Scriptures to guide you.

2. Check a cross reference. Many Bibles have notes in the center with correlating verses.

3. Check a concordance or electronically a word search for key words repeated. You may want to do a special study on a key word. Explore a person or place mentioned using these tools. See all the other places it is mentioned in the Bible.

 4. Read the verse or passage in a number of Bible translations. There are times, but not all that often, a word is used in the original language only once in the Bible with a meaning or background unclear. Understand God has not left the people of God missing a very important concept for thousands of years because of that word. Check on verses with similar themes and phrases. Interpret from the body of the whole. Interpret the obscure based on the known.

5. If you did not start your study looking at the context, do so now. Ask yourself who the author is, who he wrote to, how many chapters there are, the theme of the book, and what kind of genre the book is.

6. Look at the context and theme of the chapter before and after the passage you are concerned about.

7. Do not base a whole doctrine on one isolated verse or passage in the Bible without correspondence with the rest of it. Remember you want to know what God is saying to the people of God. This is about what God means and not about a new doctrine or mind-blowing idea you can come up with.

8.  Be cautious with allegories. Much of the Bible needs to be read at face value in sync with other Scripture. The whole Bible is not an allegory. It is a very practical book with stories of real people learning to trust God and inherit eternal life.

9. Do not interpret the Bible by your life experience. In a roomful of people, each one may have a different idea how to live out a passage, or a different way of expressing what it means, but you should never have multiple interpretations of a Bible passage. The Bible is not relative to experience. Rather our life experiences should be lived in light of the guidance of the Bible.

10. In light of Biblical themes that span the Old Testament and New Testament, always examine the Old Testament as foundational and the New Testament as the fulfilled understanding.

Keep hungry for the Bible. Let God's Word build into your life a heart to please Him.

Up Next: Biden's Bible

Previous Post: Instruction Manual Fiasco

Check out a more recent, concise post of mine on this topic. IBS 19 Scripture Interprets Scripture


1. Do I tend to feel lost when reading the Bible or frustrated with the meaning? Talk to God about your concerns. Expect Him to guide you. 

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

Previous Post: 5 Steps to Finding Biblical Timeless Truthes

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Five Steps to Finding Biblical Timeless Truths

The Big idea: How can we find the essential truth that the Bible is saying when the culture is so different from ours today?

Do you have a favorite Bible verse? One where the Bible really connects with your time of need?  You know God loves you. You look to it for inspiration and guidance. You know there are moral absolutes in it such as the Ten Commandments. Yet the Bible was written in a historical time period and culture totally different from ours. Though the Bible contains 66 books written over a period of over 1000 years, there are consistently a couple of main themes and a central message. These are timeless truths that transcend time. The central message is that God loves you and wants a relationship with you.

A timeless truth is a big idea. But it is more than that. It is the core value stripped down to the simple basic principle. It transcends time and place.


Some of the Biblical writings are descriptive and some are prescriptive. At times it describes people of the Bible,  their setting or story. It describes life. There are lessons to learn from them. But descriptive writing is different from prescriptive sayings such as commands to follow, promises of God and ways to think and act. Some of it is also predictive, telling us what to expect and what will always be true.


As Christians we believe the Bible is the Word of God. We are convinced that God the Holy Spirit moved godly people to write down the very words we read. People sometimes say, "I don't get that."  A friend who has gone to church and loved Jesus for a long time recently sheepishly asked me why the Bible seems to say different things, or how two different Bible translations can appear to say something somewhat different. What about you? Have you ever wondered how to get to the heart of the matter in a passage? What about if it seems to contradict other things said in the Bible? 

The Bible has core values and principles consistent throughout the Bible. But it is written by human beings in a given time period and a specific cultural setting. Often the same theme is reviewed in a later time frame. For instance, Moses may have introduced a concept, Jesus expanded on it, and then the Apostle Paul explained it to non Jews. So we may have a basic idea given in the Old Testament that is further explained. At times when the audience is totally different in two places, a concept or command is given and we need to dig a bit to understand the context. We have the job to find the timeless truth in a given setting in the Bible: the basic message that transcends time and culture, and applies to our world today. This is the work of interpreting and understanding God's Word so it applies to our life.

So how do we find these timeless truths in a passage? I propose five steps you can take.

On a passage way in the old part of Jerusalem today


The Holy Spirit moved the Bible to be written. "For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." 2 Peter 1:21 (NIV) It makes sense to ask this Holy Spirit for wisdom to understand what we read. Prayer should be our first work for finding timeless truths in Scripture.


As you read the passage in question remind yourself what you already know about God. He is almighty and powerful. He loves us and desires a relationship with us. He is righteous and true. Yet He is holy and just. He is always with us, He knows all things and will always be. God never changes and we can count on Him. And so on.

What is the central message of the Bible? What are the subthemes? How does the passage you are looking at fit? Do not take one verse isolated and build a whole new truth or doctrine from it. One verse is not going to negate everything the Bible says and contradict all the other Christians in the church. Consider discussing a difficult passage with a seasoned Christian, and reading what a commentary or two have to say about that passage. A favorite go-to book for me is Hard Sayings of the Bible, published by Intervarsity Press. 


One verse cannot be interpreted in a vacuum. You must observe the whole chapter, the theme or central message of the book or epistle. Is there a key theme stated? Is a key word found throughout the Bible in that verse? What other passages address this idea? A good study Bible is useful with an outline, the author, audience and overall theme of the book broken down for you. Read my earlier blog on Study Bibles here. You will also find a concordance useful to check on other places in the Bible that talk about this.


What was the original setting when this was written. Consider the culture of the author and audience.  Is this in the Old Testament or New Testament?  Is it about the formation of the Jewish people or their disobedience? Is it about the life of Jesus or is the Apostle Paul writing to a cross cultural church he started in another cultural land? Is the audience well versed about God or are they newbies? Step back and look at the full picture. Imagine you are a fly on the wall in Bible times or someone in the crowd trying to hear Jesus.


What is the passage showing or telling us?  Is the passage a description/illustration? Is there background information being given? Is it giving a lesson to learn, a command, a sin to avoid, a promise? Does it say what to do or what not to do? What do you see about God in this verse? What insights are there about mankind and God's relationship to man?  Does it indicate how we should treat each other? Is there a truth about a future time? A truth for eternity?


"This is how we pray with the white lady," a Maninka woman said. "We lift our hands like this and bow our head." I had a good friend, when I worked in West Africa, who was a Muslim. When one of her co-wives was ill (Muslims can have up to four wives) , I prayed for her in Jesus' name. She got better. Having seen Muslim women pray in Guinea I noticed they began their prayers by raising hands. I figured it was a good posture of petition to use with her. I visited my friend a few weeks later. Her co-wife wanted me to pray for a sick friend. "This is how we pray with the white lady," she said as she lifted her hands and bowed her head. I smiled, lifted my hands too and prayed with them.

Visiting with my friend at her place.
It is easy to picture cultural relevance when studying to work overseas.  In my School of Nursing I had cultural sensitivity training. This was the ability to understand how culture effects a patient's understanding and give patient teaching that will be understood and applicable.  In classes on international church ministry similar principles were discussed to apply Biblical principles to another cultural setting. We were not carrying an American gospel message to another land, we were sharing the life of Jesus, culturally relevant and applicable to a world totally different from our own.


Avoid saying this mattered in Bible Times but doesn't apply to us. Remember the Holy Spirit saw fit for everything that got into the story of the Bible. We can learn from those ancient examples given as we pray and reflect on what is there for us.  Remember too, that the Bible is God based, not man based. It is words from the heart of God given to us. One person's interpretation that does not gel with anyone else, and contradicts the rest of the Bible must be suspect. It is not for interpretation in isolation from who God is and the whole story. This might sound like work, but it is worth it.

The Word of God is God. We learn in John 1:1 (NIV) "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Know the Word, know Jesus. It's as simple as that.