by Brian Franks
It’s an encouragement and a challenge you’ll often hear from the pulpit. Pastors will prescribe it in visitation. It’s often the right answer at the end of a sermon or lesson. Read your Bible.
Certain denominations place a huge emphasis on regular Bible reading, either in the service or at home or both. Indeed, it is a very important discipline and can also be a great joy. However, there are some pitfalls to Bible reading that don’t get mentioned as often as the phrase, ”read your Bible.”
Often, in following the guidance to “read your Bible,” the believer will read a passage and then immediately apply it directly to their life. It is likely it will apply to their life, but without doing more work first, how can the believer know which way it applies to their life?
Biblical interpretation is a process which requires more patience and work to ensure one is on the right track. Below are three critical steps that go a long way toward better interpreting the Bible when you read.
Step #1 – Context
Many times, context seems to mean read the verses before or after the verse in question. However, context should be no less than the whole chapter in which you are reading. Even this is not enough since the chapters we find in our Bibles were added only in the last couple hundred years. In reality, good context for any verse, is the entire book of the Bible in which you are reading. The books of the Bible are the natural breaks the Bible originally provides.
The authors were inspired to write the whole books we find in the Bible, not piecemeal parts. One could argue that books like Proverbs and Psalms and the prophets include collections of standalone sayings, songs, and oracles, which they do. However, they were delivered to us by the work of the Holy Spirit in the form of a distinctly designed compilation.
The order in which these books are arranged does help us understand better. When reading the whole book of Psalms, we find joyful expressions of praise, sorrowful laments of devastation, petitions that demand God to act, prophecies of the coming messiah, retellings of salvation history, and more.
The Kaleidoscope of What God Has Delivered to Us
Selective reading of Psalms reduces the overall kaleidoscope of what God has delivered to us. It’s not all joy or sorrow. Its not always everything tied up nice and neat. It’s not always polite deference. The fullness of prayer and praise in all the Psalms matters and helps us see more clearly. You don’t have to read every psalm and every proverb and every oracle of a prophet to know what is going on, but it sure helps!
It should go without saying that any narrative portions of the Bible like Genesis, Exodus, the history books should be read in full so you get the whole story as well. To neglect this context would be like hearing a sentence or two out of a whole conversation or reading a paragraph out of a novel and thinking you probably know exactly what is happening. Not likely!
For those who have read the whole Bible multiple times through, read it again! You will be surprised what you learn in another reading and what you have forgotten from previous readings. The longer it has been since you carefully read the book, the more necessary it is to read it again.
Indeed, the Bible is the Living Word of God and always has more to reveal to us and plenty to remind us of. I find I have actually remembered wrongly what I thought I knew. Thankfully, we have the blessing of the written Word to always check against our memories.
Step # 2 – The Author
Once you have read the context, the first interpretive question is NOT “now what does this mean in my life?” Rather, it should be “what did this biblical writer, inspired by the Holy Spirit, mean in their day?” This avoids the pitfalls of the first question in which we assume every statement universally applies directly to every circumstance of our lives, without even asking what the author might have meant.
Instead, the question of author intent goes straight to the heart of the issue: “what did they mean when they wrote this?” The problem of course is, how can we possibly know such a thing?
In addition to having read the whole context, which is the entirety of the author’s intended communication to a reader, we have the Holy Spirit. Prayer must be coupled with Bible reading. We ask God for understanding and ask what the human author and the divine author intended.
Commentaries as Biblical Resources
Additionally, there are a plethora of biblical resources such as commentaries that can help answer these questions. Many commentaries are written by people who have spent their lives asking these questions of God and discussing the Word of God with others so dedicated.
You may or may not always agree with the commentaries, but the resource they provide is valuable since the authors of the commentaries have spent a painstaking amount of time seeking such answers.
Taking time to wade through these resources provides far more enlightenment than just reading and guessing what the text means. Often you will find that the author was addressing a specific issue in their time and, once you understand that issue, you can apply things to your life much more accurately.
Step #3 – The Audience
Finally, there is the question, “what did the text mean to the original audience?” Much of what was said of the author applies here as well. How can we know such things? The Bible and scholarly resources can answer many questions. What the text meant to the original audience not only gives great insights in our study, but it makes application to our lives far easier.
In this, we are plumbing the depths of how it applied to the first audience to which the Word was delivered. Sometimes the context will be different, and we will need to make a new application to our situation. Other times it will be extremely similar how it is applied to us and them. However, this step is an important one in the process as it keeps us on the right path.
Deeper Insight, More Confidence
Once we have gone through just these three steps, the ways we will apply the Word of God will be better informed—with deeper insight, more confidence. We will have engaged the Word more deeply, and we will more accurately apply it to our lives.