In order for the Bible to apply to our lives it must be understandable. To understand the Bible we need to know how to study it. To study the Bible we need a tried and tested methodology. Here’s a thumbnail sketch on how to understand and apply the Bible.
Pray fervently. The Holy Spirit is the One who reveals and illuminates truth. We need Him to interpret His Word. Without Him we lack understanding (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:14). As we seek to understand and apply the Bible, prayer should be interlaced throughout the process.
Use several translations. English Bibles are translations from Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek documents. Different translation philosophies (formal equivalence/word for word, dynamic equivalence/thought for thought) result in slightly different renderings of a text. To glean from a variety of translations, consider using the NIV, NLT, NRSV, ESV, GNB, and the MSG.
Check out the writer. Who wrote the book? Where was he? When did he write it? Why did he write it? To whom did he write it?
Examine the setting. To discern how the original audience understood what was written to them requires a basic knowledge of their geographical location, history, politics, customs and culture.
Look at the immediate context. Read what precedes and follows the text under consideration. See how the content of what went before the text and what came after the text, relates to the text.
Investigate the book context. The meaning of a text flows out of its broader context. Understand the purpose, theme(s), section/divisions and flow of thought in the whole book. Ask, “Why did the human author write this book?” and “How should the text be understood in the light of the purpose and theme of the book?”
Give thought to the whole-Bible context. The long term plan should be to read the Bible repeatedly. Aim to compare scripture with scripture. Look for cross-references (other texts that relate to the text being studied). In due course the Bible should exposit itself.
Be aware of the literary genre. The different literary genres of Scripture have different characteristics that require different interpretive techniques. For example, Hebrew poetry doesn’t use rhyme but uses parallelism (the use of synonyms and antonyms to build ideas around other ideas).
Identify figurative language. The Bible uses both literal (words/phrases used according to their proper meaning or precise definition) and figurative (words/phrases that are not literal) language. There are more than a dozen different types of figurative language used in the Bible (e.g. allegory, hyperbole, anthropomorphism, metaphor, personification, paronomasia). To interpret figurative language literally, or literal language figuratively, will corrupt the meaning of the text.
Do word studies. Words are the basic building blocks of the Scriptures. Because the Holy Spirit inspired the words we must carefully unpack the meaning and intent of the words. Use an expository dictionary/lexicon to understand how words are used in a particular context.
Read footnotes and commentaries. Profit from the scholars, theologians and experts. Use multiple sources to avoid theological bias. Take advantage of study Bibles. Consult Bible dictionaries, almanacs, handbooks and commentaries.
Search for Christ. Is the theme of Christ implicit or explicit in the text. Ask, “How should this text be understood as a witness concerning Christ?”
Apply, Apply, Apply! God is more interested in how we act on His Word than in what we know about the Word. The goal is to interpret Scripture in order to apply it. When we fail to apply and obey the Word, we fail in our interpretation of the Word.
A final thought. Understanding the Bible begins with the reality that there is one Author, with one message, and one meaning. That’s not say that the message isn’t multi-faceted, because it is. And it’s not to say that the meaning isn’t nuanced, because it is. But it is to say that our understanding and application of the Bible must be consistent with God’s intended message and meaning.
R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, Inter Varsity Press, 2009.
Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible, Moody Publishers, 2009.
Stephen H. Wheeler, Fish the Bible! Understand Scripture and Apply it to Life, 2012.
© Scripture Union Canada 2017