Much of the Bible is straightforward and clear, but when you consider all 66 books, it is a big, challenging library of material. What are some principles that can help us understand and correctly interpret the Bible—the message God has recorded for us?
A while back the teens in our congregation submitted a list of questions for a teen Bible study. There were lots of interesting and important and deep questions, and one in particular caught my eye.
A teen asked, “How do we know that we are interpreting the Scriptures correctly? How do we determine the correct interpretation of a particular scripture?”
This is an important question and a big subject, but I believe the basics can be boiled down to three points.
This assumes you have already proven that the Bible is true. If not, our booklet Is the Bible True? can help you examine those foundational issues.
But once you accept that God inspired the Bible, how can you know what it means? There are a lot of interpretations of the Bible and a lot of scholars and individuals who come to different conclusions. How can you know you are right, rather than just accept something because your parents do or the church you attend does?
The Bible shows we can test and prove all things—we can fairly and carefully check to make sure the things we believe are true (1 Thessalonians 5:21; Acts 17:11).
So what does the Bible tell us about the basics of how to understand—to correctly interpret—the Bible?
Point 1: “Your Word is truth”
Jesus Christ said this in His prayer to the Father in John 17:17. The Word of God refers to the Bible. So the first foundation is that what the Bible says is true.
We turn to the Bible to interpret itself. All Scripture—Old and New Testament—is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), and it all fits together.
We don’t have to know what Hillel or Augustine or Martin Luther or Billy Graham said the Bible says. We can go directly to the Bible itself.
For example, if we want to know what the Bible says about the Kingdom of God, we can look at all the different verses that talk about “kingdom of God,” “kingdom of heaven,” kingdom,” “kingdoms,” “king,” king of kings,” etc., throughout the Bible.
Studying all these, we see that the good news of the Kingdom of God was the message Jesus preached (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus will return to earth to take over the “kingdoms of this world” and become King of Kings (Revelation 11:15; 19:16). Righteous resurrected saints, no longer flesh and blood, will inherit this Kingdom and help Christ rule (1 Corinthians 6:10; 15:50; Revelation 5:10).
The Bible does not say that the Kingdom of God is figurative or that it is the Church. Daniel describes it clearly as a powerful, world-ruling, eternal and real kingdom:
“And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44).
(For a study of what the Bible teaches about the Kingdom of God, see our booklet The Mystery of the Kingdom.)
The Bible—not religious scholars or traditions or anything else—is the source of understanding the Kingdom of God. (This is not to say that it can’t be helpful at times to use biblical reference works; see “Bible Study Tools: Where to Start” and “Bible Software: Tools to Maximize Your Study.”)
But what about when a verse is hard to figure out or seems to contradict what another verse says? If there weren’t examples of difficult scriptures, there wouldn’t be as many interpretations! So how do we figure out difficult scriptures?
Point 2: “Scripture cannot be broken”
In John 10:35 Jesus was saying that the Bible is a unified whole, that it all fits together. Apparent contradictions mean we need to do more study. Clear scriptures help us understand less clear scriptures.
Using the Kingdom of God as an example again, what about a verse that is sometimes used to say the Kingdom is figurative—just in our hearts? In Luke 17:21 Jesus said, “For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”
Think about this for a minute. Was Jesus really saying that the Kingdom of God was in the hearts of the unbelieving Pharisees He was talking to? This statement is actually a poor translation from the original Greek and can be translated “the kingdom of God is in your midst.” Closer inspection reveals Jesus was actually referring to Himself being among them as a representative of God’s Kingdom.
Study this further in our article “‘The Kingdom of God Is Within You’—What Did Christ Mean?”
The fact that “Scripture cannot be broken” reminds us that when we run across a scripture that doesn’t seem to align with other clear scriptures, we need to do more work and study. We need to consider the context, maybe study other translations, make sure we understand the historical setting and look at any other background information we need to put it all together.
But will understanding these two points—knowing that God’s Word is truth and that it can’t be broken—solve every problem? No—at least not right away.
The Bible is a big, daunting book, but God wants us to come to understand it, bit by bit. We don’t come to understand it all at once, and no one understands it all. There are some prophecies that we may not fully understand until they are happening!
So the third point is the essential key to understanding the most important things. How can we know what to study first and how to keep growing in understanding?
Point 3: “Give me understanding, and I shall keep Your law”
This passage from Psalm 119:34 highlights two things we should do. We must pray for understanding—and then do what we understand.
The Bible wasn’t written just to give us academic knowledge; it was written to change our lives!The Bible wasn’t written just to give us academic knowledge; it was written to change our lives! We must focus first and primarily on what God is saying to us. We must then apply what we learn, and God will bless us with more knowledge and understanding.
In every type of learning, we start with the basics. And so we need to understand the foundations of Christianity. As we do what we know to do, we can ask for more understanding. When we don’t understand something, we can make a list of our questions and prioritize them. Which ones most affect what we do—how we relate to God? Which ones might be trivia questions that can wait? Which ones will take more time, so we can put them on our list to dig into later, as we have time?
There is more to this subject of understanding the Bible, of course. For example, by saying that we don’t need to know how the great religious leaders interpret a scripture, I don’t mean it is wrong to look at commentaries—or to search online or to ask a minister!
The point is, we must look at all other sources in the light of the Bible. Our Life, Hope & Truth website can help you find the relevant passages, but we don’t want you to think of an article as the source of truth. It should direct you to the Bible—the real source of truth. Don’t believe us; believe your Bible!
While these points might be simple, the effort involved can be challenging. But the payoff—the benefits of properly interpreting Scripture and correctly understanding God’s Word and His will—are awesome, priceless and eternal. Thanks to the teen who asked the question!