Always look for the valid meaning of the text when interpreting the Bible.
The primary consideration for understanding the valid meaning of Scripture is the context of each passage.
By exploring the five contexts listed below, one can arrive at a valid and accurate understanding of Scripture and make appropriate applications.
The valid meaning of a text could be based on either a literal, metaphoric, or symbolic understanding. The important issue is to arrive at the valid meaning based on careful research of contexts. This is especially important if a less expected meaning is chosen. Scripture is to be treated with great care as God’s Word (II Timothy 3:16-17).
Careless interpretation of Scripture leads to incorrect beliefs and misguided living.
The following contexts should be considered when looking for the valid meaning of a text:
1. Historical – This includes background issues from culture, geography, and the over-all historical setting. This consideration will help distinguish primary and secondary distinctions when applying Scripture. Primary application is the one intended for the original recipients. Secondary applications are the legitimate applications of the text to our lives. Scripture was not written to us, but for us.
- Question: Is there anything in the culture, geography, or history of this Bible book or passage that will help in understanding the meaning?
2. Grammatical – This is concerned with word meanings in their immediate context. Avoid word-study fallacies by giving priority attention to the immediate contexts of the words. Context determines meaning (see: Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson; Biblical Words and their Meanings, Moises Silva). Most important issues of interpretation surface when one considers the words and phrases of each verse in order and in context. Let the words of the text lead to the interpretive questions (who? what? where? when? why? how?).
- Question: Does the meaning of specific words or phrases in the original language help in understanding the meaning?
3. Immediate – Individual verses should be considered in the contexts of their chapters and the purpose of the book as a whole.
- Question: Does the flow of the chapter or book of this passage aid in understanding its meaning?
4. Theological – The Bible unfolds in a unified, complementary, and supplementary way. It is important that individual interpretive conclusions of each text are in harmony with Scripture as a whole. At this point, some distinctions should also be made about the prophetic movement of Scripture centered in Jesus Christ. We must understand the flow of redemptive history. The Old Testament sacrificial system, for example, is no longer required because we are under Christ’s final sacrifice.
- Question: Does the teaching of Scripture in other places add to a proper understanding of the meaning of this passage?
Be careful not to take Scripture out of context simply to prove a point or support an idea. The Scripture must be taken in its normal sense unless otherwise specified. Scripture is a completed progressive revelation. Some of the things God did and required at earlier times, He does not do or require now. We must be careful not to apply our assumptions to Scripture unless they are in agreement with the clear teaching of properly interpreted Scripture.
5. Contemporary – There are many commentaries, introductions, and works of theology available to help us. What are others saying? It’s wise to consult with other Bible teachers. (see: New International Commentary on the Old and New Testaments; Tyndale commentaries, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary series; New American Commentary; The NIV Application Commentary series; Old Testament Commentary Survey by Tremper Longman III; New Testament Commentary Survey by D. A. Carson).
- Question: What are others saying?
Application: How does this apply to my life?
Application of God’s Word is not optional. Bible application is a mark of spiritual maturity illustrated in the lives of godly men and women.
- James 1:22 “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
- Hebrews 5:14 ‘”But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”
- Ezra 7:10 “For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”
- Matthew 7:24-27 ““Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
God’s children should have as their goal the application of Scripture to every area of their lives (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) based on accurate interpretation. Application of the Bible must first be personal before we extend it to others.