Do you ever get frustrated when reading a parable of Jesus? Do you ever get annoyed when you hear two people arguing over a passage? Have you ever wondered if there was a way to understand a passage of the Bible without having to call your pastor up all the time? Today, I want to help solve a few of these issues, and encourage you in your Bible reading to stay focused, and apply yourself. You can learn the Bible, and you have the Holy Spirit to help you.
There was a long period growing up where I didn’t know how to read my Bible. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a right way to read it! I could remember the Bible stories, but was too young to understand how the pastor interpreted the verses. At 11, I had memorized all the names of the books of the Bible (in order!), which helped me find my way around it, but didn’t do much in terms of helping me read it. I could quote to you Romans 8:28, Philippians 4:13, and John 3:16, but when I tried to read chapters instead of single verses, I found myself overwhelmed with huge paragraphs. I was overwhelmed with highly detailed parables and references to things in the Old Testament that I knew nothing about. How do you sort through this mountain of words?!
It was very common during my youth group years, to encounter pastors and leaders who didn’t clearly open up the Bible and teach a passage. Often I would hear messages that were based around a single verse, or related more to my own life experiences. But, here’s the thing: I rarely heard teaching that connected my life experiences back to the Scripture. It was almost as if the Bible was background music instead of the center of attention. The sermons were more like therapeutic exercises instead of a means to educating students in the Bible, and more importantly, as the means to worshiping God in Spirit and truth (Jn. 4).
When I turned seventeen, I started discovering theologians and pastors who did teach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible, and their teaching enabled me to look more closely at each book and understand it. Men such as John MacArthur, Chuck Smith, Chuck Swindoll. Greg Laurie, John Piper and others like them knew how to rightly divide a passage and break it down. Then I discovered there were many pastors like them who are in our communities! That isn’t to say up until this point I didn’t meet godly men who could teach the Bible, it’s that they were in short supply.
Now, at twenty two, I teach junior high and high school students on a weekly basis. I hear the questions, concerns, and see the confusion on their faces when a passage doesn’t make sense. Even I still get confused when reading the Bible! But, that doesn’t mean I should blame the Bible and let everyone have their own interpretation. The problem isn’t with the Bible, it’s with me. I need to examine more closely what a passage is saying, not give up and try to find my own meaning in it.
The Apostle Peter says this in second Peter:
And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21 ESV)
According to Peter, Scripture has authority over our lives. It tells us the truth about who we are and who God is. The authority of Scripture does not come from my own interpretation of it, its authority comes from God because God has spoken in it. So, in order for us to submit to the authority of Scripture, we need to understand what it is saying. The Apostle Paul told Timothy to, “rightly divide the word of truth,” to, “immerse yourself in [the things I have taught you],” and to “entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Learning and teaching the Bible is serious business.
Today, I want to share with your four helpful methods to understanding a passage correctly:
1) Context is key (immediate)
You interpret a passage by looking at the surrounding verses and pericope(s). Example: Philippians 4:13. How does verses 11-12, and 14 affect what Paul is saying in verse 13?
2) Context is key (broader)
You interpret a passage by its placement in that particular book of the Bible. Are you reading Philippians 4:13? How does Philippians 4 relate to what Paul said in chapters 1-3?
3) The Bible as a story (Biblical theology)
Where does this passage fit in the storyline of the Bible?
4) The Scripture interprets itself (Also called, “The Analogy of the Faith”))
Is there another passage that helps clarify what I’m struggling to understand in the passage I’m reading? You can interpret the unclear by the clear.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll give further examples and apply these methods by breaking down passages. Today, let’s begin with the first method:
1) The Immediate Context
Think about some movie lines you may know by heart:
“I’ll be back.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator Franchise)
“Go ahead, make my day.” – Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry)
“You can’t handle the truth!” – Jack Nicholson (A Few Good Men)
These quotes are so famous, that most people know them and don’t even know where they came from! In fact, I’ve never seen any of the movies listed above. But, unless you have seen the films, you have no idea what those quotes actually mean in context. They may have a ring of truth as individual quotes, but they don’t tell the whole story. You actually have a higher risk of using these lines in ways the writer never intended them to be used (quoting them to mean whatever you want them to). In the same way, you may know a single verse out of a book of the Bible (say John 3:16), but until you read John chapter three (the “immediate” context), and the book of John itself (the “broader” context), you won’t fully understand the message of John 3:16. You run a higher risk of using your opinion to guide you instead of Scripture.
Here is John 3:16 by itself:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV)
This verse is amazing! It sums up the story of salvation perfectly. However, Jesus was making this statement as a part of a longer discussion with Nicodemus (a Pharisee). In fact, by looking at the broader context, we see that these words were either spoken by Jesus, or are commentary written by John with Jesus’ statement ending in verse 15 (The translators of the ESV begin new quotes at verse 16, hinting that the Greek indicates it’s either Jesus or John speaking).
The part is connected to the whole. If we read this verse by itself, we run into interpretive issues:
1) What does Jesus (or John) mean by “gave His only Son”? Who is the son of God, and how did God give Him? Give Him to whom (or what)? By reading the rest of the book, you understand this refers to the crucifixion and resurrection (Jn. 18-21). In Romans 3:30-27, we read that God the Father “put Him forward as a propitiation [atoning sacrifice/satisfaction for sin] by His blood to be received by faith.” God put Jesus on the cross, according to His plan for our salvation (Acts 2:42ff).
2) What does it mean to “believe” in the Son? What exactly should I believe? As we see later on, it’s trusting in Christ for forgiveness of sins and eternity in God’s kingdom (Jn. 21)
3) What is eternal life? (Eternity in God’s kingdom, as referenced earlier in chapter three).
With these questions unanswered by just reading verse sixteen, you end up causing more problems than providing a solution. That’s why context is so critical: it is the key to unlocking a passage’s fuller meaning. Since today we are examining the immediate context, let’s look at verse 14 and on to verse 18 (the immediate context can refer to John 3, or even the whole book of John. For today we are only covering the verses around 3:16):
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:13-18 ESV)
As you can see, Jesus is talking about Himself being “lifted up,” for salvation from the consequences and power of sin. The lifting up refers to the crucifixion How do I know this? Jesus here is recalling a situation from Numbers 21:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:4-9 ESV)
Just as the Israelites were saved from snake venom by looking at the pole, Jesus is our salvation, and by gazing (believing) in Him do we live. Knowing the context can lead you to another passage that helps shed light on what the passage you were reading was saying! See how much of a difference that context makes?
Practically: Next time you get stuck on a passage of the Bible, try reading the surrounding verses. Ask yourself: who is speaking here? What was the writer saying before this? For a litmus test, try reading Philippians 4:13. Then go back and read verses 11&12. Do verses 11&12 affect the way you read verse 13?
For His fame,