Interpretation (What does it mean?)
To understand the Bible after observing it, reading it, you have to remove some barriers or obstacles. We have to cross some bridges to get to the understanding of truth. How do we go from then and there to here and now? To bridge the gap, we have to overcome: the Communication barrier, the Cultural barrier, the Literary barrier and the Language barrier?
That’s all part of the dedication to context…We have to work to step into the author’s shoes and determine his original intent. A biblical text can never mean what it never meant. There’s only one true meaning to every text, though as we’ll find today, more than one application to us, in the here and now today.
e.g. Phil. 4:13. Most people read and understand that verse as if Paul were only writing to them only – today. We think “all things” means everything. We can do anything we want to do and overcome anything in front of us if we have and somehow tap into the strength of Christ. Sounds good. Do I need or want this job or promotion? God will give me the strength. Will my son be able to strike out a hitter in his ballgame when he needs to?.... This verse is often misapplied, because it inspires people and is perfect for any moment you need success. It’s misapplied, because it’s misunderstood.
Paul’s not talking about “anything.” What’s the context? Paul’s suffering in jail in Rome and writing Philippians who need to learn joy while in suffering or hard circumstances. Paul’s not talking about jobs, promotions, school or ballgames. He’s talking about survival and the bare necessities of life needed, that God will provide in order to survive and spread the gospel (1:12 on). Never forget that Scripture was God’s Word to other people before it became God’s Word to us. Context shapes meaning, which is why it’s said that “context is king” in biblical hermeneutics (laws or science or interpretation).
There are certain presuppositions, assumptions we take into Bible study which will help us know and understand this book. Step up to the 1st bridge this way..
- The Bible is inspired (2 Tim. 3; 1 Pet. 1). The Bible is reliable.
- The Bible is unified. The Bible is diverse.
The Communication barrier: the best place to begin to interpret scripture and overcome this 1st barrier is to read and study a passage in it’s most literal sense, because in basic communication, the literal sense is common sense. I’m asked, do you take the Bible literally? Absolutely. Literal (Latin = letter) is to interpret and accept words in the most plain, face-value meaning they have in the normal way that people communicate.
Use the figurative sense if the expression is an obvious figure of speech (e.g. Rev. 3:20- Jesus as the door, Jo. 10) or the details of dreams (Joseph and Daniel).
Use the figurative sense if a literal interpretation goes contrary to the context of the passage, the context of the book, or the purpose of the author (e.g. Song of Solomon as church, vs. intimate marital relations).
Use the figurative sense if a literal interpretation involves a contradiction of other Scripture. Remember that Scripture will never contradict Scripture. Compare Scripture with Scripture… use cross-references! The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture (analogia scriptura). The single best, easiest study tool to use in most Bibles, is the marginal or study notes that have cross-referenced verses.
Use the figurative sense if a literal meaning is impossible, absurd, or immoral (Jo. 6:53-55, Jesus as the bread of life or living waters). We have to figure out the difference btwn ‘literal and figurative’ language.
The Cultural Barrier: language is a big part of that, but before we go there. We have to get into the historical- cultural context- the time and culture of the author and his readers, including the social, geographical, (the when and where )topographical (maps), and political factors that are relevant to the author’s setting.
Get to know the author, a great part of our good study Bibles today are the thematic biographical sketches we get before the beginning of each book. …Jo. 20:31. The religious and social studies part is very helpful (Jo. 4:9- Samaritan women and the Good Samaritan in Lu. 10).
The Literary Barrier: we have make distinctions, understand the differences genres or literary styles in the Bible as we would with any other form of communication (figures of speech vs literal). Rev. doesn’t read like 1 John even though the same human author wrote both right?
We need to know the rules involved with different genres. Old Testament…
Narrative (history) – this reads like a story and stories follow a certain structure (scenes, plot and characters). A good story like OT narrative has elements: setting, conflict, climax and resolution.
Law – straight forward commands (absolutes, “You Shall not”). It is what it is but again context, context, context, because you have to study the difference between moral (10 Comm.), ceremonial and civil law as you find in Israel (Lev. And theocracy).
Poetry – verse as in Psalms (Psa. 23). Most of that is found in the wisdom lit. where you find contrasting lines and parallelism, which is big in the Heb. Where lines often appear in pairs or threes that relate to each other in specific ways. There may be as many as 9 types. They’re very illustrative and emotional - were originally written to music (Psa. 103:15). Simile- Pro. 11:22. Look for themes in Psa. 5 W’s.
Prophets – major and minor (volume wise) with the now and later components of prophecy which has two components: fortelling (predicative; Joel) and forthtelling (proclaiming or preaching forth truth into a person or a group like Isa., Jer. And Eze.).
Wisdom – Pro.; Ecc. Big on parallelism, contrasts, Prov. (general statements, probabilities, axioms not promises/ 15:27).
Letters (epistles) – exposition or explanation of doctrine; reasoned arguments like a lawyer in a courtroom making a case (Paul- Romans). Much of our theology and doctrine comes from these letters to churches.
Grammar is very important here. Individual words, phrases or clauses (object or subject – nouns and verses). Chapters and verses are connected by words (conjunction), transitional words to watch for like; because, therefore, and, and but. Those are flags, big clues to following phrases that help you understand a whole argument. Define words and terms (double meanings; e.g. ‘justify’ between Ro. 4 and Ja. 2).
For those of you that want to go deeper in your Bible study, doctrine, develop your theology a great place to start are letters because they appeal to our sense of structure. They’re well-organized and in some ways self-explanatory.
Gospels - similar to OT narrative in some ways. Two components at work in the Gospels: the teachings of Jesus and stories about Jesus. Synoptic and John. There is theology and doctrine here (John) but when in doubt- big rule, interpret the narrative with the didactic (straightforward teaching). Much of Paul’s writing is didactic, it explains things. It’s been said, ‘the gospels record what Jesus did and the epistles tell us the significance of what he did. So let the obvious and clear explain or interpret the less clear, the explicit explain the implicit. Case study- Jo. 20:19. Did Jesus vaporize or beam through the door like so many think? No.
Parables – short stories with imagery and metaphors that point to a larger truth behind them. Don’t exegete the images for detailed doctrine. Look for the main point in each.
Revelation ( apocalyptic) – predictive, cataclysmic events, very symbolic. Clues for interpretation is don’t carried away with the symbols but look at the 5 W’s , the structure of the book and it’s parallels to OT. Finally, we have the language barrier. Word study helps us bridge that gap.