Does reading your Bible intimidate you? With so many different interpretations, and many presented by brilliant scholars, how can we ever know which is correct? Or do we each get to decide truth based on what feels right?
If so … won’t the text simply mirror our pre-conceived thoughts? That’s not faith—at least, not in God. That’s making ourselves and our faulty and often deceived wisdom the criteria for truth.
Most of us are far too aware of our limited knowledge—our lack of omniscience—to do that. But that leaves us with an important question: How can we be certain what we’re reading is what God intended? If only there was some way to correctly discern Scripture!
Good news! There is. Though all human interpretation will always hold some degree of error, there are ways we can minimize this. The following ten basic Bible study application tools can help.
1. Discern a verse or passage’s meaning based on context.
We’ve all likely had someone overhear a portion of our conversation and arrive at false conclusions. We also know how often public officials and personalities are misquoted. But perhaps the most comical example occurred when, while daydreaming in high school, the teacher called on us and we gave such an outlandish response, the classroom launched into laughter.
If you’ve taken literature classes, you understand how context can change the meaning of a particular word, sentence, or phrase. The same holds true for Scripture. For example, you may have heard someone use Luke 6:37, which says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” to counter a particular teaching regarding a behavior. But when we read Jesus’ words in context, we realize He’s not saying don’t address sin, but instead to make sure we’ve taken a hard look at ourselves first. We’re to evaluate the plank in our own eye—that sin, attitude, motive, and misconception—that’s distorting our vision. Only when we’re certain we’re able to “see clearly” should we attempt to address the speck in our friend’s eye.
The jest of His message in Luke 6, then, seems to be that we should not be so focused on everyone else’s wrongdoing that we become oblivious to our own; rather, we should evaluate ourselves first. Then, if God calls us to lovingly admonish someone, there’s a greater chance God truly is the one leading—rather than our pride or “offense.”
2. Evaluate a verse or passage based on the overall messages and truths of Scripture.
The Bible is unique in that it contains sixty-six individual books of seven different genres, and yet they all tell one cohesive redemptive story. We see Jesus—our need for Him, the promise of His coming, His life, or power—threaded through every narrative, gospel, and epistle. The Old Testament reveals our need for a Savior and tells us Jesus is coming. The New Testament reveals God’s redemptive power unleashed once He came. And throughout each page, God reveals His heart, character, plans, and promises.
And just as one understands individual words in relation to their sentences and paragraphs, each verse and passage of the Bible points to or falls within Scripture’s overall message. When discerning a particular verse or narrative, then, we can ask ourselves a few basic questions:
- What does this passage reveal about the human condition?
- What does it show about God—His nature, His heart, and His plans?
- How does this passage indicate mankind should relate to Him and/or one another?
- How does this passage point to Jesus?
3. Watch for repeated words and phrases.
My respect and awe for Scripture increased tenfold once I became a novelist. As I write, a phrase an old editor used to say repeats through my mind: “Make every word fight to be there”. His point—don’t waste page space on anything unnecessary. Good writers select those verbs, anecdotes, and details that reveal their point or deepen the narrative. Repetition is avoided—unless it’s necessary.
When words are repeated, in any literature (Scripture included), there’s a reason. Consider each repetition—first within a particular sentence, then a passage, and then a book, a call to pause for further evaluation.
Take 1 John 1:5-7 for example:
This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.
In this short passage, John, the author, repeats light three times and darkness twice. If we were to continue reading, we’d see John expand on his contrast between light and dark and a life of obedience versus one of sin.
4. Research historical context surrounding the passage and the original audience.
Consider Romans, a doctrinally rich book that reveals God’s holiness, man’s depravity apart from Him, and the redemption we have in Christ. Through Paul’s writings to the ancient Romans, we receive a clear presentation of the gospel. Considering this, one might assume Paul wrote to evangelize a group of nonbelievers.
But Paul was writing to fellow Christians. These Roman believers didn’t need to learn how to receive Christ; they needed to understand how to rest in Him. The Jewish believers who were holding tight to circumcision needed to realize the Old Testament law hadn’t and couldn’t save them. They came to Christ the same way their Gentile brothers and sisters did—through faith. And the Gentile believers, who were being pressured into following the law, needed reassurance and the reminder that their salvation wasn’t dependent upon anything they had or hadn’t done but instead on what Christ had done for them.
Understanding the historical context adds depth and beauty to this ancient letter, reminding us of the saving, transforming, and preserving power of grace.
5. Research the background and ministry of the biblical writer.
Consider Genesis, known as the book of beginnings. Written by Moses, a Hebrew prince turned shepherd turned liberator, we see a historical narrative revealing Creator God to a people who likely had no concept of Him. They’d spent their lives enslaved in a foreign land whose people worshiped everything from the sun and earth to beetles!
So Moses began at the beginning. Through the creation account, he revealed Elohim, the all-powerful, all-knowing, sovereign beginning of all things. We see this holy God beckoning mankind to Himself, as He did through Moses, inviting His people to godly living. When humans fail to live up to His standard, God remained faithful and true. Nothing, not even man’s sin and rebellion, can thwart His plans.
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SOURCE: Crosswalk, Jennifer Slattery