One of my joys as a pastor and preacher is to help the church read the Bible. My methods of teaching and preaching are an attempt to model what I want others to practice in their Bible reading. Before getting into the nitty-gritty, I offer a few opening thoughts. First, as a general practice, Redemption Hill Church is encouraged to stand when the Word of God is read before the sermon. There is nothing magical in the act of standing, but standing is a sign of reverence before God’s Word. I do not know many churches that remain standing, but the practice helps place a focus on what God has said instead of what the preacher is about to say. Standing is not a principle for reading the Bible, but reverence is a disposition of the heart that every Christian should have when reading the Bible.
Second, because I preach expositional sermons, the church is learning to have its nose in the Bible at all times. I do not attempt to tell many stories. I do not use props. I do not “co-preach.” I do not tell jokes for effect. I will admit that my preaching is vanilla. I am not looking to become a celebrity pastor or star preacher. If I share a story, it supplements a point from the Bible. A goal I have every Sunday morning is not to be a distraction from the Word of God. But I want hearts and minds to be focused on God’s Word.
My approach to preaching the Bible is to trace the logic or thought process from the primary passage on Sunday. I do not want to invent a point or take away from what is emphasized. God is always the focus.
The principles of biblical interpretation are called hermeneutics. In academia, the field is called hermeneutics. It’s a large field in academia. For example, when you approach a painting, you attempt to interpret the meaning of the painting. When there is a major cultural event, the goal is to interpret the event to understand its meaning. In this sense, all people are engaged in hermeneutics.
When reading the Bible, the goal is to interpret what is written. The goal is to learn the meaning of the text. The question becomes, how do you interpret a passage in the Bible? What any reader of the Bible needs to do is employ several interpretive principles to discover the meaning of the text.
The following are six basic principles for interpreting the Bible. There are additional principles, but if you use these, I am confident you will understand what God is saying through his Word.
Principle #1: Literary Context
The surrounding literary context is key. Context is king! When I took a hermeneutics class in Bible college, my professor used real estate as an analogy. A real estate agent knows that location is the most critical factor for selling a home. You will hear Location! Location! Location! The same principle is true for reading the Bible. Context! Context! Context! A good Bible reader is aware of the surrounding literary context. For example, you will see this verse hanging on the wall in some Christian homes.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.– Philippians 4:13
Good Christian people quote this verse for various reasons. Yes, it’s a verse that can bring comfort for the person going through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). However, this verse is often used out of context. Ask yourself this question. Can you do anything because of the strength that comes from Christ? Can you bench press 400 lbs? Most likely, you cannot, no matter how many times you quote Philippians 4:13. So, you can’t do all things. What is this verse about? When you read Philippians 4:13 with the literary context, you realize it is about being content. God allows you to be content in your life no matter the circumstances. Therefore, the application of Philippians 4:13 is that Christ provides strength to a Christian regardless of the circumstances.
Principle #2: Genre
The next principle that is worth noting is genre. There are many books in the Bible with various genres. And some books in the Bible might have multiple genres. Therefore, the genre of a book in the Bible will inform how you approach and interpret that book or passage. For example, your approach to reading the New York Times will be different from your approach to reading the comic strip Peanuts.
The Book of Revelation is a different genre than the Book of Romans. Revelation is apocalyptic literature, and Romans is a letter. Likewise, the Book of Psalms is different from The Book of Isaiah. Psalms is a collection of poems/songs, and Isaiah is a prophetic book. The Book of Genesis is primarily a historical narrative, but poetry is sometimes woven into the narrative. Without doing a deep dive into all the differences, the genre of a book will help determine how a passage is to be approached and then interpreted.
Principle #3: Authorial Intent
There is a debate in the United States about how lawyers and judges interpret the constitution. Here is the question of the debate. Is the constitution a living document that is malleable to the issues of the day, or is the interpretation true to authorial intent? The latter option is commonly called originalism. But what about the Bible? How are we to interpret Holy Scripture? The answer is a little of column A, and a whole lot of collum B. Allow me to explain.
The Bible is a living document because it continues to speak. The Bible lays down timeless principles applicable from one generation to the next. God’s Word transformed 8th-century readers just like 21st-century readers of the Bible. In this sense, the Bible is still living. However, the meaning of the Bible and particular passages are not malleable. The words which derive meaning continue to transform hearts and minds.
The Bible should also be interpreted with the goal of understanding the authorial intent. Why did Paul write to the church at Ephesus? The intent is essential to discern. The intent helps inform the meaning of the words. If the authorial intent is not essential, then the interpretation of the passage might be up to the whims of the reader.
Principle #4: Theology
You should also read the Bible with the aim of learning theology. The word theology is a fancy word that means the study of God. There is no more noble goal in life than to learn about the Creator of the universe. The Bible consists of ancient texts that tell us about God. These texts have been divinely inspired and tell us about God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ. There are 66 books in the Protestant Bible, and each book reveals God’s plan of redemption. As you learn about God’s plan of redemption, you are learning about theology.
A good question to ask is, does the Bible say anything and me? The answer is absolutely. The primary area in which the Bible speaks about humanity is its moral corruption and its need to be reconciled to God. Therefore, the lens through which we read the Bible is God’s redemption plan for humanity. But, of course, there are other themes in Holy Scripture. Within the greater theological theme of God’s plan of redemption for God’s elect are topics such as marriage, church, government, and friendship, to name a few themes. In short, the Bible is thoroughly theological. We read about God and his plan of redemption. And we also read about what it looks like to flourish in various areas of life.
Principle #5: The Plain Meaning of the Text
Here is another important principle. The Bible is clear to understand (perspicuity). You don’t need a four-year degree to ascertain the meaning of Romans 3:23 (For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God). I am not saying that everyone can understand the depth of Romans 3:23, but a person can easily understand the gist. I know of some people who push back and point to several complicated passages in Scripture. The Book of Revelation can be a daunting book to interpret. However, over the centuries, people from all around the world, speaking different languages, and coming from various cultures, have been learning the Bible. If the Bible is clear, generally speaking, then it’s easy to know the plain meaning of any given passage. Under this point, I will add two subpoints to aid in determining the plain meaning of the text. First, do not read your presuppositions or preconceived ideas into the text, but allow the text to speak to you. Everyone comes to the Bible with a bias, but it is best to suspend your bias and allow God’s Word to shape what you believe. The second subpoint is to allow Scripture to interpret itself. It’s incredible to consider how 66 books written by various authors in different generations all contribute to the most significant storyline of the Bible – God’s plan of redemption. We can see the greater storyline of the Bible as Scripture interprets Scripture.
Principle #6: Christology
My last principle technically falls under principle four, but I think it is worthy of its own space. Here is the principle: Every passage in the Bible points to Christ. A classic story that will help to make the point is in the book, The Soul Winner by CH Spurgeon. Spurgeon tells when an older minister listened to a younger minister preach, and after the sermon, the more senior minister makes a comment to the young minister about his sermon.
“If I must tell you, I did not like it at all; there was no Christ in your sermon.” “No,” answered the young man, “because I did not see that Christ was in the text.” “Oh!” said the old minister, “but do you not know that from every little town and village and tiny hamlet in England there is a road leading to London? Whenever I get hold of a text, I say to myself, ‘There is a road from here to Jesus Christ, and I mean to keep on His track till I get to Him.'” “Well,” said the young man, “but suppose you are preaching from a text that says nothing about Christ?” “Then I will go over hedge and ditch but what I will get at Him.”
After telling the story, Spurgeon urges his readers to ensure that no matter the context, and no matter the audience, and no matter the passage, Christ must be preached.
If the entire Bible is about God’s plan of redemption, and Christ is the pinnacle of redemption, then it should not be a shock that every passage of the Bible points to Christ.
The Bible is not as daunting as some people think. Yes, it takes more time to learn some passages than others. But the Bible is clear and sufficient. It tells us everything we need about God and what it takes for us to be reconciled to God. These principles can help you approach the Bible with conviction and confidence. I pray God’s Word will transform your heart and life.
Shawn Powers is the lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church. You can follow him on Twitter at shawn_DSM.