Basic Bible Interpretation

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Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
October 4, 2009

Basic Bible Interpretation
2 Peter 1:20-21 & Selected Scriptures


The past several weeks we have been examining the importance of the Bible. Two weeks ago we examined 2 Peter 1:16-21 and the Bible as the basis for our beliefs. (See: The Basis for Belief – 2 Peter 1:16-21) Peter makes clear in those verses the difference between false religions and philosophies and what he was giving to them. He states, 16 “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”– 18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. 19 And [so] we have the prophetic word [made] more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is [a matter] of one’s own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

False religions and philosophies are based in the myths and musings of man. Their foundations are not tied to truth, actual reality. By contrast, Peter and the other apostles were giving eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus Christ. They were accurately reporting what they saw, heard and touched. They were present to hear Jesus’ teachings and see His manner of life. They all saw him arrested with John also being present at His crucifixion. They all saw, heard and could touch Him after the resurrection. They all saw Him ascended into heaven and heard the angel tell them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). That is why these men that were so timid and afraid after Jesus’ arrest that they hid themselves could suddenly became so bold after the resurrection that they were willing to confront face to face the very same Sanhedrin that had condemned Jesus only a few weeks earlier (Acts 2-5). That is why these men were willing to suffer hardship, persecution and martyrdom in taking the gospel message around the world.

But Peter also is clear that the Bible is more than eyewitness accounts of what God has said and done. It is also God’s word for its origin is not in man but in God. As Peter stated it here, it did not come by an act of human will, but only as men were moved by the Holy Spirit could they speak from God. God so superintended the writing of His word that each human writer put down exactly what God wanted though they were still able to express it according to their own style. The basis of our belief system as Christians is in the truth, the word of God, and not the speculations of religious men.

Last week I expanded on the practical importance of the Scriptures. To claim that you believe that the Bible has its origin in God will do you no good if you will not apply that truth to your life. You must develop a Biblical mindset and live accordingly. This is done by learning the word of God the then doing what it says. It is not so much about being able to quote a lot of verses, though that will certainly help, it is rather more about the quest to know what the word of God says about any subject that comes up and then following it. A Biblical mindset is characterized by striving to be transformed by the renewing of your mind having it cleansed by the word and Spirit (Ephesians 5:26). (See: Developing a Biblical Mindset)

This morning I want to expand on 2 Peter 1:20-21 for one more week and talk about the basics of proper Bible study. I want to do this for three reasons. First, it is very difficult to develop a Biblical mindset if you do not know how to find the information you need in the Scriptures and then figure out what God is actually saying in order to apply it to your life.

Second, as we continue in our study of 2 Peter the apostle gives strong warning about false teachers. The key to being able to protect yourself from them, and they are common in our society, is to have the ability to compare what they say with the truth of the word of God. You should do that with any teacher including myself. Be like the Bereans who were noble minded and received Paul’s message with great eagerness, but also examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul was saying was true (Acts 17:10-11).

Third, Peter says in verse 20 that “no prophecy of Scripture is [a matter] of one’s own interpretation.” Since interpretation is not a matter of one’s opinion, then we need to know how to properly interpret it. Paul told Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). How do we handle the Bible accurately so that we will know the truth with confidence?

Wrong Methods

Before we get to the correct method of Bible study let me briefly mention some wrong methods that are common approaches to the Bible. I will summarize them in three broad categories, but please understand that there are many subdivisions within these broad categories.

Allegorical is probably the most common. This approaches the Bible as stories that have a hidden meaning. It was a common way people in the ancient world told moral tales such as Aesop’s fables. It became common among the Hellenized Jews who sought to bring the Old Testament into harmony with Greek philosophy. In the second and third centuries allegory became common if not dominate as Gentile Christians began to ignore the historical sense of the text and the progress of revelation through time and tried to make the Old Testament a “Christian” document. They then went further believing that any passage had multiple interpretations. Roman Catholicism continued this later practice interpreting Scriptures in three ways: 1) Allegorical – typology. 2) Tropological – moral. 3) Anagogical – church glorifying. It should be also pointed out that within Roman Catholicism the final meaning of any Scripture is not determined by the text itself, but on the basis of church tradition and councils. Many other churches use similar methods of interpretation and many also have a final authority in something other than the Scriptures themselves.

Allegory can get quite fanciful. For example, it was common to interpret the Song of Solomon as an analogy of Jesus and the Church. John Gill does this resulting in very strange conclusions such as Solomon’s compliment of his beloved eyes being like a dove (1:15) ending up being a reference to ministers of the gospel as the eyes of the church (John Gill, An Exposition of . . . Canticles, pp 125-126).

Devotional/Mystical is the second common method. It also has been around a long time in various forms, but it became very strong in the Medieval period with people such as Hugo, Richard of Victor and Bernard of Clairvaux and then in the 17th century by the pietists such as Spencer, Francke and Bengel. The emphasis was to make the Bible spiritual food for edification, but it often resulted in excessive typology and allegory. This same weakness is still found in modern times and aggravated by emotionalism which is more common in certain groups such as the charismatics.

While the effort to make personal application of the Scriptures is good, the interpretation of it by one’s feeling about it is bad. The most common example of this are “Bible studies” in which people get together and tell one another what a passage means to them without anyone actually studying the passage. I still remember getting together with some folks who were telling each other what Daniel 7:1-8 was talking about and none of them had bothered to read through to the end of the chapter and found out that verses 15-27 explain in detail the meaning of verses 1-8. Too many Bible studies are full of devotional thoughts among people who are Biblically ignorant.

Rationalism is the final method I will mention. This is the approach of those who are theological liberals and value their own thoughts over God’s revelation. Whatever is not in harmony with the materialistic paradigm of their scholars is to be rejected. God has not and does not intervene directly in the affairs of men nor foretells the future. No Scriptures are certain and so can be rearranged and changed to fit the scholar’s views, which are superior to the “crude” thinking of the ancient people that wrote them.

It is rationalism that has rejected Genesis 1-11 as an historical record and replaced with all sorts of ideas to try to harmonize it with evolutionary thought. The Jesus of the rationalists is not the God-man, but an ordinary man who was a great ethical example. It rejects the authorship of the books of the Bible in favor of later unknown authors, editors and redactors because that fits their preconceived ideas better than having actual prophecy come true.

The Grammatical – Historical Method.

The correct method of Biblical interpretation is called the grammatical-historical or literal method because primacy is given to the language and historical settings of the writings as the means of determining what was meant by the writer. This is the approach taken to understand any other historical document. You must understand the possible definitions of the words and the grammar in which those words are linked together in order to understand the meaning of what was being communicated in its historical context. The literal method is not wooden, but interprets each type of literature accordingly whether poetry, didactic, wisdom, prophecy, apocalyptic or historical narrative. Figures of speech are recognized and interpreted accordingly whether simile, metaphor, analogy, personifications, hyperbole, synecdoche, zeugma, paradox, oxymoron, metonymy or any other type of speech.

This method accepts God as He reveals Himself as well as His actions and interventions in the lives of men as they are described. Genesis 1-11 is accepted as historical narrative which describes actual historical events. It accepts prophecy as true, both those already fulfilled and those yet to be fulfilled. It accepts that Jesus is the God man as described in the gospels who lived a sinless life, taught the people what God revealed, performed many miracles, willingly died as the sacrifice for man’s sins, then rose from the dead on the third day and ascended to heaven on the fortieth day. Our precious hope is Jesus’ return to gather His people to be with Him forever in heaven. This is the method we use here at GBC.

Be careful to make sure the grammatical-historical method is being followed, for there are those that revert to other methods in order to make the text fit into their theological system. That is why the thousand years mentioned six different times in the prophetic narrative of Revelation 20 can be turned into an unknown long period of time by those who reject the prophecies about the future blessing of the nation of Israel and replace it with the church.

Preparation for Bible Study

Before proper Bible study can even take place there must be proper preparation for it. The first is to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. While anyone can do the academic work needed to study the Bible, only those who are in a proper relationship with God can understand the things of God. Paul speaks about this in 1 Corinthians 2:12-16 saying, “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, 13 which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual [thoughts] with spiritual [words.] “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. 15 But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. 16 For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.”

The reality is that though preachers and teachers can proclaim and explain it is the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand God’s word and its application. Those who are not true Christians do not have the Holy Spirit and that is why the various divinity schools around the nation can turn out PhD graduates that are still clueless about the message of the Bible. They have the intellectual ability, but without the spiritual ability it is foolishness to them. They then use their intellectual ability to twist the Scriptures to something more to their liking. A lot of religious people like that, for as 2 Timothy 4:3-4 warns, they want teachers that will tickle their ears according to their own desires and so turn from the truth to myths. They want to be religious, but they do not want to follow the true God.

Because the working of the Holy Spirit is necessary to be able to properly understand the Scriptures, the second preparation for Bible study is prayer. Jesus rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees in John 5:39 because they searched the Scriptures thinking that in them they would find eternal life, but they ignored the witness of the Bible that eternal life is in Jesus Christ, and so they were unwilling to come to Him. They approached Bible study with a proud attitude rather than the humble attitude of seeking God’s revelation and will regardless of where that would lead. We need to come to the Bible with the same attitude as David in Psalm 19 or 119 with a love of God and anticipation in our request that He will use it to restore our soul, make us wise, make our hearts rejoice and enlighten our eyes. We come to the Scriptures asking the Lord to search our hearts and reveal to us any wicked way in us that we might be able to confess it and receive His forgiveness and cleansing (Psalm 139:23-24; 1 John 1:9). We also ask Him to give us wisdom (James 1:5) that may both understand the truth of His word and apply it properly in our lives.

Because we approach the Scriptures as God’s children humbly seeking His will, our approach to Bible study will be to discover the various facts within a text and then to come to logical conclusions based on those facts. This is inductive Bible study and is called exegesis for we are seeking to bring out the meaning of what we read. This is in contrast to coming to the Bible with an idea already in mind and trying to find all the facts in a text that will support that idea. This is deductive Bible study and is called eisegesis for it is reading into a text our previously conceived ideas. This is also called proof-texting for it is searching the Scriptures for proof of what you want to believe while ignoring context and the evidence against that belief. Tragically this latter approach is common not only among liberals, but also among those who claim to be believing.

Proper Biblical Interpretation.

How then can we interpret the Bible with some confidence that we are understanding what God communicated? The name for this process is hermeneutics, but we can just call it proper Bible study. I teach an eight month weekly class on it every few years, so today we will just be looking at the very basics of it, but I will also give you some resources so that you can learn to do this for yourself, or plan to take the class when I offer it again next year.

Proper Bible study has three major parts to it. The first is gathering all the facts from the text possible. This is observation and answers the question, what does this say? Second is to seek to understand that text in both its literary and historical context. This is interpretation and answers the question, what did it mean to those to whom it was first written. There is only one correct interpretation to any given text. Third is to personally obey the principles taught in the text. This is application and answers the question, how does it apply to my life? There can be many applications to any given text.

Observation begins with simply reading the text in order to set the context. To properly study any particular passage whether chapter, paragraph or verse, you will need to first be familiar with the book that it is in and where it fits within the flow of that book. It is good to read the whole book several times paying particular attention to the passages before and after the one you will be studying in depth. It is also good to keep a pad of paper next to you to write down notes & questions that come to mind as you read through the text. You will seek to answer those questions later after you have become familiar with the book and the context of the verses you will be examining. It is even helpful to read it in a couple of different translations so that you gain a better idea of the flow of the text and the possible meanings of the Hebrew or Greek text underlying the translation.

Since I mentioned translations, let me quickly summarize the types of English translations and which ones are good for particular uses. The first type of translations are the literal ones in which the original languages are translated into English as word for word as much as possible. Word order is rearranged to make sense in English and some extra words may be added to try to give the sense of the original. These are very good for Bible study because the give as little interpretation as possible. Bibles of this type include the King James, New King James, New American Standard, English Standard Version, Darby’s and Young’s Literal Translation. Some of these also footnote textual questions.

The second type of translations use a method called dynamic equivalence. Instead of a word for word translation, they seek to translate thought for thought. The major problem with this is that it involves a lot more of the decisions about what a text may mean which is interpretation, not just translation. This means they are not as good for in depth Bible study since there is a higher degree of interpretation in them. However, this does allow more freedom to put together an English version that is easier to read. The primary example of this is the New International Version.

The third type of translation is a paraphrase. This involves rephrasing the text into something more understandable to the intended readers. This makes a very readable English version for the targeted group, but they are extremely poor for Bible study because of the high degree of interpretation. Some of these versions are not even translations but rewording of some English version. The original Living Bible is an example of this, but many of the newer versions claiming to be dynamic equivalent translations are so full of slang they should also be put in this category. An example of this would be The Message, which I do not recommend. Neither do I recommend any of the other translations I have not mentioned.

Making sure you understand the context is next and is critical to understanding any particular passage. How does the passage fit in with the surrounding passages, the book it is in, and within the scope of all Scripture? What type of literature is it? An accurate understanding of any particular passage depends on an accurate understanding of its context. It is a simple fact that much of the theological error existing in cults today is because passages of Scripture have been taken out of their context. The first rule of proper Bible Study is that context is king!

Next is the lexical study. Carefully define important and unfamiliar words so that you have an accurate understanding of each term. If possible, search out the original Greek or Hebrew word and discover its meaning. That can be done with a lexicon or dictionary and is very easy to do with modern computer programs for Bible study. You cannot understand the meaning of a passage if you do not accurately understand the meaning of its words

Next note the grammatical points such as which words are verbs, participles, adverbs, nouns, adjectives and prepositions along with their respective tenses, moods, cases, person and number. This is followed the syntactical study identifying the key aspects of the sentence structure such as the main thought and supporting phrases for each sentence. Note also things such as repeated words, cause and effect statements, commands, figures of speech and how the thoughts in the passage are linked together.

You wrote down initial questions when you were reading through the passage. Now, because your careful observations of the text, you will come up with many more questions. Start with the who, what, when, where, why & how questions such as: Who is doing what? What event is taking place and what are the circumstances surrounding it? When does it take place? Why did the author include this passage? Where does the event take place? etc. Also write down any additional difficult questions that you think of and seek to find answers to them through further study, helpful books or discussing them with others. You may not find answers for all your questions, but the more you ask questions, the greater your knowledge and understanding of Scripture will grow.

The final step in the observation phase is to compare the passage you are studying with any related passages. These would include parallel passages that speak about the same event such as in the synoptic Gospels and 1 & 2 Kings compared with 1 & 2 Chronicles. It also includes passages that speak about the same subject such as Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12-44 and Ephesians 4 which all speak about spiritual gifts and the body of Christ. You can also compare passages that use the same words to gain a better understanding of those words.

Interpretation is the next phase of proper Bible study. This is striving to understand what the text meant to those to whom it was originally written. What you think it personally means to you is immaterial at this point. Understanding God’s intention for those to whom it was written comes before any application. There is only one correct interpretation to a text.

Proper interpretation may require you gather additional information about the history and culture of those mentioned in the passage and the geography of the places mentioned. All of this information plus that gained through the observation phase are complied together to answer the question of what God was communicating to those to whom the passage was written.

It is helpful at this point to paraphrase the passage in your own words keeping it simple, but accurate. You can then expand with comments about the meaning of it.

Application is the final phase of proper Bible study. This phase answers the question, how does it apply to me? This requires both an understanding of the passage and the principles of truth within it followed by a commitment to obey them. A passage can have multiple applications. Questions for self examination in applying a passage would include the following. How should its truths affect my attitudes including what I think about God, other people, my circumstances, and about the way I look at my life in general? How should these truths affect my knowledge of God? How should its truths affect by behavior including needed changes in habits and speech? How should this truth affect my relationships with God and others? Does it correct or confirm my motives in life? Should there be a change in any of my values and my priorities in life? Do these truths confirm my character or challenge me to change anything about it?

Realistic Bible Study

Now before anyone is overwhelmed by all these various steps and what may seem to be an incredible amount of work to accomplish it, let me assure you that proper Bible study is not really that difficult. It is realistic for you to be able to do it on a regular basis because most of the things I have talked about we do almost automatically with anything else we read in life. We may not formally identify everything, but we know what they are from our own continued usage of language. If we are praying and walking in the Spirit, we will understand the vast majority of the Bible as we read it. Use these steps when you do not understand what you read, when a question arises about a text, or you are simply striving to make sure you truly do understand the passage in depth.

I also want to encourage you that you live in an exciting time because there are so many Bible study aides now available, many of them on computer programs very inexpensively. It only takes a few moments to get information that used to take hours to find. That is one reason I have the list in the back for those who would like to purchase a basic Bible study software package very inexpensively. I have also placed back there a sheet about different types of Bible study aides. I have also placed in the back some Bible study outline forms as a help to you doing your own studies.


We have a firm basis for our beliefs because God has revealed Himself to us in the Bible. He has done His part in communicating to us in His written word enabled by the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. However, it is up to us to read and understand the Scriptures so that we might know Him and follow His will. If we humbly come to the Scriptures we will come to love them the same way King David expressed it in the Psalms. It can take some hard work, and there are things that are difficult to understand as Peter said in 2 Peter 3:16. There are also questions that we have that God has not answered yet. The secret things still belong to God, but what He has revealed to us belong to us and our children (Deuteronomy 29:29). The only real question is whether we will make it a priority to know and live by what God has said in His word. If so, then we will receive the blessings of having our souls restored, our hearts rejoicing, our eyes enlightened with His wisdom. If not, then we suffer the natural consequences of our pride, arrogance and ignorance.


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – 1) Write down all the verses mentioned. 2) Count how many times “Bible,” “Scripture,” or “word of God” are mentioned. 3) Pick a Bible passage to study in depth with your parents – you can use the Bible Study Sheet as an aide.


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. Why can we be confident in making the Bible the basis of our beliefs? What is a Biblical mindset and why is it so important? Define each of these Bible study methods and explain why they are wrong: Allegorical; Devotional/mystical; Rationalistic. What is the grammatical – historical method and what are its distinctives? Why can only genuine Christians do proper Bible study? Who is it that actually teaches a Christian? What is the importance of prayer in Bible study? What should you pray for? What is the difference between exegesis and eisegesis and which is the proper approach. Why is it helpful to read several different translations? Which translations are best for Bible study and why? What is the importance of context? How can you make sure you understand the context? What is a lexical study & why is it important? What is the importance of identifying the type of literature, parts of speech and sentence structure of a passage? How is answering the who, what, when, where, why & how questions helpful? Why is a comparative study important? How would you gain an understanding of the necessary history, culture and geography? What are some self-examination questions that would help you apply your Bible study to your life? Apply these proper study methods to a passage of your choice. Share what you learn with someone else.

Sermon Notes – 10/4/2009

Basic Bible Interpretation – 2 Peter 1:20-21 & Selected


2 Peter 1:16-21 Peter & the other apostles gave ______________accounts of the life & teachings of Jesus

The origin of the Bible is in ________, not the myths, fables, stories, musings or speculations of man

A Biblical mindset is characterized by striving to be ________________by the renewing of your mind

It is very difficult to develop a Biblical mindset if you do not know how to _____God’s word for yourself

The key to protecting yourself & others from false teachers is comparing their teaching against the ______

Biblical interpretation is not a matter of one’s _________. We must handle the word of truth __________

Wrong Methods

Allegorical – the Bible is a collection of stories that reveal a ______________meaning.

Arose in Gentile Christianity, continues in Roman Catholicism, orthodox & mainline denominations

Devotional/Mystical – the _____is spiritual food for edification, often uses excessive typology & allegory

Seeking to apply the Bible to life is good, but interpreting it by one’s own thoughts & feelings is ______

Rationalism – Whatever is not in harmony with a _____________ paradigm is to be rejected.

The approach of theological ____________in rejecting Genesis 1-11 as history and the miracles of Jesus

The Grammatical – Historical Method (also known as the literal method)

Primacy is given to the language & historical settings to determining the _____________of the writer

Word definitions & grammar are put in their historical _______with literary types interpreted accordingly

It accepts God as He _________Himself & His will, Genesis 1-11 as history, prophecy & miracles as true

Some theological systems will selectively use various ______________as needed to support their system

Preparation for Bible Study

Be a _________________. 1 Corinthians 2:12-16

It is the __________________ that enables us to understand God’s word and its application

Pray – _____________ sins (Psalm 139:23-24; 1 John 1:9), ask for ____________(James 1:5)

Humbly seek to _______what the Scriptures mean, not try to make the Bible back up pre-conceived ideas

Proper Biblical Interpretation

Observation – What does this ________?

1) ___________- become familiar with the book in which the passage you are studying occurs.

Helpful to read several times, in different versions. Write down your questions as you read

________translations strive to render word for word as possible – KJV, NKJV, NAS, ESV, DBY, YLT

Dynamic Equivalence strives to translate ___________________ – NIV

_________________ – strives to make it more understandable to the reader – original Living Bible

2) Set the __________: how does the passage fit in with surrounding passages, its book, all of Scripture?

3) Lexical Study: Carefully ____________ important and unfamiliar words

4) _____________Study: identify type (verb, noun, adjective, etc) & respective tenses, moods, cases, etc.

5) Syntactical Study: identify type of literature & sentence ________- main thought & supporting phrases

6) ____________: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? and any other questions that come to mind.

7) _____________ with related passages: Parallel events, topical similarity, use the same words / phrases

Interpretation – What did this mean to those to whom it was ___________ written?

1) Gather information on the _________& culture of those mentioned, geographical features of places.

2) _______________ the passage in your own words – keep it simple, but accurate

Application – How does this apply to ______________?

This requires an understanding of the passage, its principles of truth and a commitment to _______them

Ask self examination questions: How does it _____my attitudes, knowledge, behavior, relationships, etc

Realistic Bible Study

We do most of these things nearly automatically with most things we read

Use these steps formally for what you do not understand, when a question arises, to understand ________

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