Christians are called to be people of the Book. The Word of God is meant to be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). But reading, studying, and applying the Bible to our lives isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always done faithfully. People often misread and misinterpret Scripture, and then end up misapplying Scripture in a multitude of ways. Because we live in a fallen world, and have fallen minds, there is plenty of room for error when it comes to interpreting the Bible. The Word of God is perfect, but our human ability to understand it will not be perfect until we get to heaven. What this means is that until that day we must work on our ability to “rightly handle the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
The goal of this post is not to give a comprehensive guide to Bible interpretation, but merely to give four basic questions that can be asked of any passage of Scripture (Old or New Testament). I believe that answering these questions of a particular Bible verse or passage will go a long way in helping a believer discover the meaning of a text and its significance for their lives. Here are the four questions:
1. How does this passage fit into the larger context of the biblical book of which it is a part, and what is the book and passage’s role in the big story of the Bible?
This first question is intentionally broad and is meant to help you get your biblical bearings when you are reading and studying a particular passage of Scripture. It’s meant to help you see the forrest for the trees, and keep the larger context of the Bible in mind as you read and study. Here are some more detailed questions to help you answer question #1.
- Which book of the Bible is this passage in, and what is the major purpose for which that book was written and included in God’s Word?
The reason this question is important is because understanding the context of the biblical book as a whole will help us understand each verse or passage in that book. The introduction to a biblical book in a study Bible is a great place to turn to discover the purpose and role of a particular book of the Bible.
- How does the purpose of the book and the passage fit into the big story of the Bible?
As I mentioned in last week’s post, every passage of Scripture ultimately ties together to tell the big story of the Bible, which is Creation → Fall → Redemption → and New Creation. When studying a verse or passage of Scripture it’s helpful to understand where you are in the Bible’s overall story, and which part of the story that verse or passage is highlighting. How does the passage you are reading or studying contribute to the Bible’s big story?
2. What are the principles this passage teaches about God, man, sin, and salvation?
This question is meant to help us discern the principles being taught in God’s Word. By answering this question, we are trying to discover what the biblical author originally meant to convey in the text. If parts of the text seem unclear to you, try reading the corresponding notes in the bottom half of your study Bible. More detailed questions:
- Does the passage teach us something about who God is and what God does?
- Does the passage teach us something about who man is and what God expects man’s behavior to be?
- Does the passage teach us something about man’s fallenness and sin?
- Does the passage teach us something about God’s plan to save the world from sin?
3. How do the principles taught in this passage point out my sins and shortcomings of which I need to repent?
Once we have discerned the principles taught in the text, we need to measure our lives by them. After all, following Jesus in discipleship involves learning to observe all that he has commanded us (Matthew 28:20). We need to look for the ways we don’t measure up to those principles so that we can repent of our shortcomings and sins and bring our lives into better alignment with God’s Word. Further questions:
- Does this passage give a command I need to obey? Do I need to repent of not obeying that command faithfully?
- Does this passage give an example I need to follow (from the life of a faithful Bible character, for instance)? Do I need to repent of not following that example faithfully?
- Does this passage give a truth I need to believe? Do I need to repent of not fully believing in this truth?
4. How do the principles in this passage lead me to trust in Christ for forgiveness of sin, and model my life on His perfect example?
Discovering the principles taught in a text and then repenting of all the ways we do not measure up to those principles should lead us to see why we so desperately need the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we are faced with our sin, we should be driven to Christ to seek the forgiveness made possible through his sacrifice for sin on the cross. Furthermore, we need to realize that where we have failed to live up to the principles in God’s Word, Christ has perfectly lived up to them. All of the principles we discover in the text of Scripture are perfectly exemplified in the life of Jesus. He perfectly obeyed the Father in all ways. This means that we don’t just trust in Jesus for forgiveness when we fail to live up to the principles of God’s Word, we also look to Jesus as an example of what it means to live up to the principles of God’s Word. Ultimately, the goal in reading, studying, and applying the Bible is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29).
- Confess to God the ways you have not lived up to the principles in the passage you are studying, and trust that because of the cross of Christ God will forgive you.
- In what ways does Jesus perfectly exemplify the principles in the passage you are studying? Ask God to conform you to the image of Christ in these areas.