7 Keys to Unlocking the Bible's Message
How to Study the Bible for Yourself
Written by Rob Armstrong
Written by Rob Armstrong
The correct meaning of a passage is always the original author’s intended meaning.
a) The Bible is God’s message and revelation to man. Each passage was intentionally written with a deliberate and objective meaning that is meant to be understood. We must remember that it’s not what I think it means, or what you think it means, that determines the meaning of Scripture. There may be many ideas or opinions, but there is really only one correct meaning and that is the author’s intended meaning.
b) One of the most important truths that we can ever learn is that only Scripture is God’s Word. This is true of no other book, sermon, teaching, personal insight, poem, hymn or song. Nor is this true of any modern ‘prophecy’, ‘revelation’ or ‘word from the Lord’, etc. The Bible is uniquely and exclusively
“God-breathed.” (2 Timothy 3:16)
c) The original writers of the Old and New Testaments were exclusively chosen and empowered by God to communicate God’s meaning to us (2 Pet.1:20-21). What they wrote is exactly what the Holy Spirit wants us to read, study, and understand. Our part is to carefully and prayerfully study the biblical text, word-by-word and verse-by-verse, in order to learn the original author’s intended meaning which is the only meaning given and endorsed by God Himself.
In order to understand the author’s intended meaning, we must interpret each passage in a normal, literal and straightforward manner following the accepted principles of language, grammar and literature.
a) In order to communicate clearly, the authors of Scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit, followed the normal commonsense principles of human communication, literary expression and grammar. As readers, we are to interpret and understand what the author has written by applying these same principles. This means that we take each passage in its plain sense, allowing the author to speak for himself, without placing our own slant on it.
b) We must also avoid interpreting the text in an allegorical or mystical way. This approach to Bible study, which is sometimes referred to as ‘spiritualizing Scripture’, typically overlooks or ignores, the plain sense of the biblical passage. The obvious meaning (the author’s meaning) is set aside in order to make the text fit into a theological or personal viewpoint. This practice has led to many erroneous and contradictory interpretations.
c) Like all good writers, the authors of Scripture sometimes use metaphors, similes and hyperbole, but always to communicate an actual, literal and objective meaning.
In order to understand the author’s intended meaning, we must pay close attention to the literary context of each passage.
a) It has been observed that a word or phrase out of its context has no real meaning, only a potential meaning. In order to understand the meaning of a word or sentence, we must consider the meaning of the words and sentences around it.
b) Each verse in the Bible has been written in connection with the verses and passages that are found both before and after . Correct interpretation can only occur as we consider every statement in light of its literary setting. Always remember the phrase, “Context determines meaning!”
c) Regretfully, we often hear passages quoted without any regard for their context. This practice is both irresponsible and unethical because it ignores and misrepresents the author’s intended meaning (God’s meaning). This is no small matter and yet it has become all too common in the Christian church today.
In order to understand the author’s intended meaning, we must pay close attention to the historical and cultural context of each passage.
a) Every book in the Bible was written at a specific time in history and must be interpreted (understood) in light of its historical and cultural setting.
b) Asking Who? What? Where? When? and Why? questions will help us constantly focus on the historical and cultural setting, as well as the author’s intended meaning. Using a study Bible, a Bible dictionary or a reliable commentary (or Bible study guide/workbook) can also be helpful in learning about the norms and practices that were evident at the time a book was written.
In order to understand the author’s intended meaning, we must pay close attention to the genre and subject matter of each passage.
a) In literature, genre refers to a particular style of writing used to communicate a particular type of subject matter. Some examples of biblical genres are Biography, History, Poetry, Prophecy, and Instruction. Each genre in the Bible is unique and fits the author’s intended purpose for writing. For example, the poetry and songs found in the Psalms are very different forms of literary communication than the didactic and instructional writing found in Paul’s letters to the New Testament churches. Nonetheless, both styles of writing are effective forms for communicating truth.
b) As you study, keep in mind that a particular book of the Bible may contain more than one genre and may deal with more than one subject. For example, the book of Exodus has a large historical section (chapters 1-19) followed by a large legal section (chapters 20-40). Peter’s letters, on the other hand, contain both instruction and prophecy.
c) Paying attention to the literary context (described under Key#3 above) and following the author’s logic, reasoning and line of thought almost always makes the genre and subject matter quite obvious.
In order to understand the author’s intended meaning, we must pay close attention to where each passage or section being read fits on the timeline of Biblical history.
a) Each book of the Bible was written at a specific point in biblical history.
b) All of the Old Testament books were written before Christ’s first coming and were specifically written to people living under the Law - during the period of time when the Nation of Israel was under the legal and moral jurisdiction of the Old Covenant and the Law of Moses.
c) The first three gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), which are primarily historical and biographical, were written about the life of Christ who lived His entire life during the period of the Old Covenant and the Law. For this reason, with very few exceptions, the teaching of Jesus (as well as the teaching of John the Baptist) in these three gospels is specifically directed to the Nation of Israel who Jesus (and John) were addressing. Note: The jurisdiction of the Old Covenant and the Law did not end until Christ died on the cross (Romans.10:4).
d) The Gospel of John is unique among the four Gospels. One of the last books of the Bible to be written (in approx. AD 90), John is written to both Jews and Gentiles to show how a person receives eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ alone (John 20:30-31).
e) Like the other New Testament (NT) books, the NT letters were written after the resurrection. These letters were specifically directed to churches and individual believers living in the period of time which we refer to as ‘The Church Age’ or ‘The Age of Grace’. All believers today are living in this time period. For this reason, the NT letters are of particular value and relevance to us.
f) Most of the book of Revelation (as well as small sections of several other NT books) deal specifically with future events such as Christ’s reign on the earth, etc.
In order to understand the author’s intended meaning, it is usually necessary to compare other biblical passages that address the same subject matter.
a) A particular truth may not be fully explained in just one verse or passage in Scripture. Therefore, it is important that we reference (cross reference) any other similar or parallel passages written about the same subject. Note: When comparing parallel passages, we must make certain that these passages are addressing the exact same topic.
b) As a general rule...
The Old Testament (OT) foretells the events of Christ's coming through ceremonies, sacrifices, types and prophecies.
The four Gospels record (tell the story of) the events of Christ’s first coming through eye-witness accounts, first-hand historical narratives, and biography. The events that were foretold in the OT are fulfilled and documented in the four gospels.
The New Testament (NT) Letters explain and interpret the meaning and purpose of the events of Christ’s coming, through the teaching and writing of His Apostles and representatives. The NT letters are instructional and interpretive. As a result, they explain the meaning and purpose of the OT and the Old Covenant (the Law of Moses), as well as the four NT Gospels and the Book of Acts. This is especially true of Paul’s letter to the Romans which provides a comprehensive explanation of God’s gift of salvation and of the Christian faith. A study of Romans is the foundation for all Bible study.