Understanding what the Bible means

‘What saith the scripture’? In this second article we consider a number of principles that help us correctly to understand the meaning of Scripture.

1. Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy

Understanding the meaning of the words used in the Bible is vital. The story about the farmer who complained about a preacher referring to the Hebrew and Greek, saying, ‘If the Authorized Version was good enough for the apostle Paul it is good enough for me’ still needs to be explained to some people. Thankfully there are today many helpful biblical reference books available. We need to understand important doctrinal words (propitiation, justification) and ecclesiastical words (baptism, bishop) whose meaning is obscured in the AV. The principle extends to all Bible study. 1 Tim. 5. 17 says, ‘let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honour’. The word‘rule’ here is better translated ‘take the lead’ – elders should not be dictators –while the word ‘honour’ in Greek has a double meaning. It can mean ‘honour’, Rom. 12. 10, but it also means ‘price’, Matt. 27. 9; Acts 5. 2. Which meaning is right here? Is this verse saying that some elders should be financially recompensed for feeding their flock?

2. Scripture is its own interpreter

We must compare scripture with scripture. This question must be decided on other grounds, such as context. A text taken out of context is a pretext. To answer the elders question, look at the next verse. ‘You shall not muzzle the ox that treads the corn’, and ‘the labourer is worthy of his hire’, refer to remuneration. Perhaps ‘double honour’ means that both sorts of honour are due to an elder who sacrifices his income to help God’s people. The immediate context is frequently decisive. Whether ‘when that which is perfect is come’, 1 Cor. 13. 10, refers to the completion of the canon of scripture or to heaven is dependent upon what Paul means when he writes two verses later, ‘then shall I know even as I also am known’. The broader context is also important. Just reading the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, we might get the idea that the Corinthians had set up Peter, Paul and Apollos fan clubs within the assembly. However, Paul later writes, ‘Now these things I have figuratively transferred to myself and Apollos … that none of you may be puffed up on behalf of one against another’, 1 Cor. 4.6; 1 Cor. 11. 19 also suggests that the Corinthians were making factions around gifted individuals within the assembly. Rather than repeatedly naming and shaming the individuals, Paul has substituted his own name and Apollos’ to teach against preacher worship.

3. Scripture cannot contradict itself

Is an idea consistent with biblical truth or does it contradict other verses in the Bible? This teaches an important lesson. We cannot fully understand parts of the Bible until we understand the whole, nor can we understand the whole until we understand the separate parts. How then can we understand the Bible? ‘Meditate day and night!’

4. Literary context

Understanding the type of literature we read is important. For example, when Psalm 19 says that God has set a tabernacle in the sky for the sun, it is not making a scientific observation; it is using poetic license. Just as we tell little children that ‘the sun has gone to bed’, so too poetry employs picturesque imagery when describing the sun ‘leaving its house’ after a day’s work. Likewise prophecies sometimes employ symbolism. We are not to take the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ in Revelation chapter 12, verse 1 literally,and not all points in a parable have to be explained. What does the donkey in the parable of the Good Samaritan mean? Nothing! Other special literary types include proverbs and laments.

5. Asking the right questions

Everyone approaches the Bible with questions. Many only try to prove what they already believe. Instead, we need to listen to the questions the Bible raises. Instead of reading 21st century preconceptions into what a passage is saying, we must ask how a biblical author meant to be understood. Wemust try to ‘think biblically’ by reading the entire Bible regularly. A verse a day will not keep the devil away. We need to ask questions of the text. Rudyard Kipling’s six serving men who taught him all he knew (their names were How and Why and When and Where and What and Who) need to be put to use.What is the point of this passage? What circumstances prompted this epistle?To what sort of people was the Lord telling the parable? How would I have felt if I had been in the place of this woman? Sometimes difficult questions arise in our Bible reading. Seek God’s help in prayer as you meditate and remember:the bumps are what we climb on.

6. Line upon line

Often recurring words and ideas help us workout what the point of the passage is. Scripture emphasizes important truths by repetition. This is not only true in a case like Hebrews 11where ‘faith’ is mentioned twenty-five times, but even more so in narrative sections of the Bible. Historical narratives teach their lessons by selecting incidents that repeatedly emphasize a point. For example, in 1 Samuel we notice David’s trust in God by repeatedly refusing to kill Saul or exalt himself to the throne. 7. Rightly dividing the wordIn addition to repetition, we need to notice natural division. 1 Corinthians 13is about love, but what does it teach about love? By dividing up the chapter we learn different lessons about love. Rightly dividing the Scripture helps us notice sub-points that develop variations upon the main theme or subject changes that introduce new themes.

Quick Quiz

  • Does 1 Corinthians 3. 16-17 teach that Christians should not smoke?
  • What is the point of Romans 6. 23?
  • How do we find God’s will from scripture?