For over 50 years, Precept has helped millions of people around the world know God deeply through knowing His Word. We believe the Precept Bible Study Method is key in discovering the truth for yourself in Scripture.
This method centers around three components, which often overlap in practice: observation, interpretation, and application.
In this blog post, we’re going to focus on Interpretation—building upon the foundation of observation to determine what the passage you’re studying means.
After diligently observing, you now know what the book you are studying says. But undoubtedly, you have lingering questions because you still don’t know what certain things mean. And you want a correct analysis. You want truth—nothing less.
Why is it important to interpret the Bible?
Interpreting the Bible carefully and accurately is key to truly understanding—and applying—God’s Word. Only once we’ve understood what the original author intended to communicate to his original audience can we properly discern how to apply the text to our own lives.
But where to begin? At this point in your study, you have done the essential—observation—and now you can build from there!
How do you interpret Scripture?
Here are seven basic principles that will help you interpret the Bible accurately.1
1. Remember that context rules.
As you seek to know what something in Scripture means, ask yourself a few questions:
- Is my interpretation of this particular section of Scripture consistent with the theme, purpose, and structure of the book in which it’s found?
- Is my interpretation consistent with other Scriptures about the same subject, or is there a glaring difference?
- Am I considering the historical context of what is being said?
For example, Mark 10:4 says, “‘Carry no money belt, no bag, no shoes; and greet no one on the way.’” Is this verse telling all believers not to bring extra money or shoes with them and to refrain from greeting strangers as they travel? When we examine the context more closely, we see that Jesus gave these specific instructions to seventy of His disciples whom He sent out as missionaries, not as a blanket statement to all believers everywhere for all time.
2. Always seek the full counsel of the Word of God.
You should never build a doctrine off one or two isolated verses. For example, Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” Taken alone, this passage could be used to teach that delighting in the Lord is a formula for receiving everything we want! But when we read Scripture as a whole, consulting other clear passages on this subject, we understand that God does not give us everything we want, but He does freely give us all that we need—Himself.
As you read the Bible regularly and become more familiar with the whole counsel of God’s Word, you’ll be increasingly able to discern whether a teaching is biblical or not.
3. Remember that Scripture will never contradict Scripture.
What do you do when you come across a passage of Scripture that seems to contradict another? It’s important to remember: Every word of Scripture is God-breathed. That means Scripture never contradicts itself! In instances when it appears to, here’s a good principle: “The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture.”2
When we encounter seemingly contradictory truths in Scripture, our responsibility is to diligently handle God’s Word and to bear in mind that the Bible was inspired by an infinite God—and we are finite creatures! We’re called to humbly believe His Word, even if we can’t understand or reconcile it at the moment.
4. Do not base your doctrine on an obscure passage of Scripture.
An important principle of biblical interpretation is that Scripture is clear in matters pertaining to salvation, yet some teachings of Scripture are not as easy to understand. For example, 1 Corinthians 11:10 says, “Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” Because the meaning here is not clear, we should not base a doctrine on it. Our doctrines should be based on the clear repeated teachings in Scripture.
5. Interpret Scripture literally.
Take God’s Word at face value, in its natural, normal sense. As you learn to recognize figures of speech, literary devices, and literary styles, you’ll be able to discern the meaning of the passage you’re studying most accurately.
For example, the book of Proverbs is full of maxims that are often true or generally true. However, they are not promises or prophecies. Proverbs 22:6, then, which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it,” does not mean that if you raise your child “right” then they will become believers. Rather, the verse acknowledges a common reality: godly parenting can play a key role in developing children who become godly adults.
6. Look for the author’s intended meaning of the passage.
Always try to understand what the author had in mind when you interpret a portion of the Bible. Our interpretation of a passage of Scripture must never be one that would be totally foreign to the author who wrote it!
For example, in Philippians 4:13, Paul declares, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Did Paul mean that through Christ we can run marathons, pass a difficult math test, and become President of the United States?
A closer look at the verses surrounding this one reveals that Paul is referring to being able to withstand both poverty and prosperity, remaining content regardless of his financial situation because of Jesus’ strength. To accurately interpret this verse, we must consider the entirety of Paul’s argument, carefully seeking to follow his thought process.
7. Check your conclusions by using reliable commentaries.
Commentaries can help you examine the conclusions you’ve come to in your study and weigh them against others’ interpretations. While you should not simply accept what a commentator says without checking their interpretation against Scripture, commentaries can be a helpful safeguard for you in your own interpretation.
Reading and understanding God’s Word is a process—it’s no wonder God encourages us in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
But with the Holy Spirit’s help, we can handle the Word with diligence, understanding not only what it says but also what it means—plus, how to apply its life-changing truths to our lives.
At Precept, we know studying the Bible can be challenging. That’s why we’ve got tried-and-true resources to help you in the lifelong process of discovering truth for yourself. Here are three:
Precept workshops will help you get more out of your Bible study—from Essentials of the Precept Bible Study Method to How to Study the Psalms, there’s an online workshop coming up that’s perfect for you. Register today!
Precept Bible study groups meet virtually and in person all over the world. Find a group, and start learning how to discover truth for yourself, but not by yourself, today!
Need help choosing a Bible study that will help you study inductively? With more than 250 unique titles covering every book of the Bible—from book studies to topical studies—Precept has a study that meets you where you are!
- For a more in-depth look at each of these principles, check out How to Study Your Bible by Kay Arthur, David Arthur, and Pete De Lacy (Harvest House Publishers, 2010).