Workshop on Interpreting the Bible
Preached by Mike Aiken
Today’s class is for any Christian who wants to dig deeper into God’s word so that he or she can understand it better, apply it to their own life and teach others. Ezra 7:10 describes Ezra the priest’s relationship with God’s Word: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (ESV). Though each of us has different gifts, different levels of education, and different occupations etc., as believers in Jesus Christ, we have the same Lord who used his word, the Bible, with the Holy Spirit, to bring us to faith in Christ (1 Th. 1:5,6). We love the Lord and we love his word. This morning I want to help equip you to know how to study your Bible better so that you understand what it means by what it says. People often tell me they don’t understand the Bible or that it is difficult for them to understand.1 I am assuming you have encountered this as well. This morning I will show you some common principles for interpreting the Bible correctly which are in accord with Scripture itself. We will also look at some tools which can help you interpret Scripture correctly. Because our time is short, I will be condensing and summarizing large amounts of material. I want you to leave this morning encouraged and eager to read and study the Bible with more vigor and to have more confidence as you teach it to others or lead a small group.
I. Laying the Foundation for interpreting Scripture2
The first things we need to see is the story God has placed each of us in. There is one true story about this world. Because of God’s revelation to us we know the answers to the big questions in life- where we came from, what our purpose is, why things are so messed up and where we are all heading in the future. Theologians have called this redemptive history. The Christian world and life view is what this true story is and it is nicely summarized with four words: (1) Creation, (2) Fall, (3) Redemption and (4) Consummation.3
Genesis 1-3 lays the foundation for reading and interpreting the Bible. Creation- All things were created by God and God created humans to have dominion over his creation as his image bearers (Gen. 1:26-28). As image bearers Adam and Eve were like God in that they reflected his holy character and they ruled over his creation with God and under his direction. All that God created was very good (Gen. 1:31).
Fall- God gave his image bearers one command and that was to not eat from the tree of good and evil. God stipulated that if they ate from this tree they would certainly die (Gen. 2:17). In Genesis 3 we see how sin entered the world and why all people are sinners and naturally rebel against God. It was because our first parents decided to disobey God and eat from the forbidden tree. Sin is what has brought alienation between God and man and this is why things are messed up in this world. Adam represented all of us and we are born sinners because of Adam.
Redemption- The good news is that God’s plan is to redeem his fallen image bearers. Though that image is marred by the fall it is not obliterated and will be restored by God himself through the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). The seed of the woman will conquer the seed of the serpent (Satan). This is the first mention of the gospel and is the promise of redemption through the seed of the woman. The rest of the Bible records the history of redemption and gives us more details of who this conqueror (messiah) will be from the seed of the woman. We know it is Jesus who is the God-man who conquered sin, death and the devil by his death and resurrection. According to Jesus all of the Old Testament points to him (John 5:39,46; Luke 24:25-27,44-47; 1 Pet. 1:10-12).
Consumation- The apex of redemptive history is the first coming of Jesus in his life, death and resurrection on behalf of his people. By grace through faith in Jesus we are God’s possession, forgiven and indwelt by the Holy Spirit who is changing us and restoring God’s image in us (Col. 3:10). We, along with the rest of God’s creation, are longing for the consummation when we will receive our new resurrected bodies and all of creation will have the curse removed and be in a glorified state (Rom. 8:18-25). This will occur at the second coming of Jesus Christ, whom we love, and who will bring about new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:11-13; Rev. 21:1-4). We will worship and serve our Triune God for all eternity and our God will bring this all about through the person and work of Jesus.
II. Principles for interpreting Scripture
Context is crucial for all proper interpretation, whether its individual word meaning or understanding the overall message of any given passage of Scripture. Understanding the Bible like the original readers is what we are trying to do every time we study Scripture. We are trying to overcome “gaps” we have in history, culture and language when we read and study Scripture.4
Scripture interprets Scripture. With the gaps of history, culture and language mentioned above, Scripture often sheds light and gives us understanding and helps us interpret correctly.
The Holy Spirit’s illumination cannot be overemphasized. Without the Holy Spirit we cannot correctly understand Scripture and accept it as God’s word (1 Cor. 2:14). Our prayer is for the Spirit to open our eyes and give us understanding (Psalm 119:18).
III. The Practice of interpreting Scripture
Read the Bible
Read the Bible repeatedly. This is a bird’s eye approach. Have a plan for surveying the Bible from beginning to end.5 If you are studying a book of the Bible or a smaller passage it is very helpful to read it as many times as you can and to read it in different translations.6
Read the Bible as Jesus did.7 As we learned earlier, Jesus saw the Bible as pointing to himself (see point under redemption) and we should do the same when reading the Old and New testaments.
Study the Bible- Use good questions and write down questions you have.
“Four Foundational Questions”8 for understanding the Bible.
- What do we learn about God?
- What do we learn about people?
- What do we learn about relating to God?
- What do we learn about relating to people?
Applying the Bible
- What does God want me to think/understand?
- What does God want me to believe?
- What does God want me to desire?
- What does God want me to do?
A Test Case: 1 Corinthians 10:1-22
ESV 1 I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
What is the wider context of this passage? This section starts with 8:1ff and takes up the question of whether it is proper to eat meat that has been offered to an idol (cf. 8:1-4). This subject is continued all the way till 11:1.
In 10:14-22, how does 10:1-13 relate to it (this is the narrower context)?
What words in 10:14-22 do you want to know the meaning of?
v. 16 “participation” (ESV) this comes from the Greek word koinonia and in this context can mean participation or sharing. Here it means “the common possession or enjoyment of something” (Gingrich, p. 439). “The share which one has in anything, participation; w. gen. of the thing in which he shares . . . in the benefits of Christ’s death” (Thayer, p. 352). Charles Hodge explains, “It is here assumed that partaking of the Lord’s Supper brings us into communion with Christ. If this be so, partaking of the table of demons must bring us into communion with demons. This is the apostle’s argument” (An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 185).
v.16 “body of Christ” (ESV). Is this Christ’s physical body or is it referring to the Church?
v. 17- What is the “one body”? The Church?
v. 18- “participants” (ESV)
vv. 19-22- what activity is Paul not wanting the Corinthian believers to participate in? Demon worship at the heathen temples (v. 20b) How were the Corinthians compromising? It seems some were participating in idol worship at the idol temple (v.21).
Look at the four foundational questions about God and people above and answer them as you read 10:1-22.
- God- His character?
- People- God’s image?
- Relating to God- Praise and thanks?
- Relating to people- How to interact and relate to others?
- What does God want me to think/understand?
- What does God want me to believe?
- What does God want me to desire?
- What does God want me to do?
IV. Recommended Resources
The ESV Study Bible (a must have for every leader, teacher, or anyone who wants to have a better grasp of Scripture plus a plethora of information not found in any other study Bible. Written by a wide range of world renowned scholars.)
Asking the Right Questions by Matthew Harmon (I highly recommend this source for every believer who wants to have a doable way of studying Scripture without all the technical jargon. It is clear, concise but deep and gospel centered in its approach to Bible study.)
Knowing Scripture by R.C. Sproul (This is a book I have taught from and continue to go back to it for much practical help in how to study Scripture correctly. The new revised edition is helpful in its update on reference works for Hebrew, Greek and sources to use online as well as software for Bible Study.) Chapter 6 in the expanded 2016 edition is excellent for giving a list of many resources even free online sources as well as software for Bible study. I highly recommend this book.
English Standard Version (ESV), New International Version (NIV), New American Standard Bible (NASB) and Christian Standard Version (CSV) are the four I use the most. There are other good translations such as the New King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version and the New Living Translation.
Hebrew and Greek
For Hebrew word studies I like the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament by Archer, Laird, Harris.
For Hebrew word definitions I like the lexicon (dictionary) by William L. Holladay. For those who haven’t had Hebrew, W.E. Vine’s Concise Dictionary of the Bible is good and it also gives Greek meanings as well.
For Greek I would recommend Vine’s Expository Words of the New Testament if you do not know Greek. Some Lexicon’s for Greek are linked with Strong’s Concordance, so that Strong’s number is cross referenced in the lexicon (dictionary) such as Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament.
The Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible by Herbert Lockyer with F.F. Bruce and R.K. Harrison is a nice one volume work. The New International Standard Bible Encyclopedia is a great 4 volume work.
It is always best to get individual commentaries by authors who have specialized in a particular book or books of the Bible. If you wanted to get a great set the Expositors Bible Commentary set is very good. To find the right individual commentary for any given book of the Bible takes time and research. For learning about Old Testament commentaries consult Old Testament Commentary Survey by Tremper Longman III. For New Testament Commentaries consult New Testament Commentary Survey by D.A. Carson.
The two I own and use are Bible Works and it costs about $400. It is outstanding for studying the text and doing both Hebrew and Greek exegesis. The other one is Logos and I have the latest edition which is Logos 7. The version I have is about $1,200. The plus of Logos is all the books you can own. Logos is also difficult to learn and use.
Online Bible Study Helps
BibleGateway.com by Gospel Communications is a good one to check out. You will find many Bible translations in English and the ability to do key word searches. It also offers a New Testament commentary from IVP.
e-sword.net is another free one you can consider as well.
Sproul also mentions Bible Study Tools by Crosswalk.com. “This website offers many of the most popular English Bible translations. In addition many older (public domain) commentaries, dictionaries, encyclopedias and lexicons are available.”9
For Greek word meanings check out www.regreek.com
Some of my favorites are Crossway, P&R, Banner of Truth Trust. Other great ones are Zondervan, Baker, Eerdmans, and Lifeway. No matter who publishes a book or who the author is we need to be like the Bereans who examined what Paul said by the Scriptures to see if it is the truth because Jesus made it clear that God’s word is the standard of truth (John 17:17).