Dr. Herbert J. McClain DD, Ms.D
Many things in the Bible are easy to understand. Some are more difficult. As you begin to study the Bible on your own, the following 10 guidelines should help you. If you consistently follow these guidelines throughout your study, you will not only increase your understanding of the Bible, but you will also avoid many errors of interpretation. You will also gain confidence and joy as you continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).
1. Always Pray for the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. Remember that the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible. He understands it. He knows what it means, and He knows how you should apply it in your life. He is the best Teacher you will ever have. Pray for wisdom. Pray for understanding. Pray for insight. Always seek His guidance first. He is THE Teacher.
2. Study Each Passage in Its Context. The “context” is the setting in which a verse is found. The specific context is formed by the verses which come before and after a passage. The general context is formed by the entire chapter in which a passage is found, the book of which it is a part, the other writings of the author, the Old or New Testament in which the passage appears and the message of the Bible as a whole. The context is also formed by the customs and culture of the people to whom the Bible was first written. If you take a passage out of its context, you can make the Bible say almost anything you want it to say. You can use it to justify evil, support a pet theory, condemn some innocent thing you don’t like or develop a doctrinal idea that is totally out of harmony with the rest of the Bible.
3. Interpret Each Passage Literally Unless the Context Makes It Clear that a Literal Interpretation Is Not Intended or When a Literal Interpretation Would Be Out of Harmony With Other Teachings In the Bible. For the most part, the Bible is written in ordinary language using ordinary words and ordinary grammar. Most passages are clearly intended to be interpreted literally. However, there are some passages which are clearly not intended to be taken literally. When you are unsure whether a passage should be interpreted literally or not, interpret less clear passages in light of those which are more clear, earlier passages in light of those which are later, and Old Testament passages in light of the New Testament.
4. Pay Careful Attention to Grammar and to Each Word in a Passage. Look carefully at the grammatical structure of each sentence. Pay close attention to the tenses of verbs, singulars and plurals, introductory words, connecting words and word order. Study each word to determine its meaning. Remember that a word may not mean the same thing every time it is used in the Bible. This is particularly true when the word is being used by different authors or in different contexts.
5. Always Try to Determine How the First Readers of the Bible Understood a Passage. What did the passage mean to people who first read the Bible? How would they understand it? If you don’t try to learn how the original readers understood a passage, you may try to make the Bible teach something which neither the writers nor the first readers even thought about.
6. Recognize the Different Types of Literature in the Bible. There are at least six different types of literature found in the Bible: history, poetry, prophecy, gospel, epistle, and the apocalypse (the book of Revelation). Each type has a language or style or form that is different from the others. It is important to recognize these differences so that you can interpret each passage appropriately. (Lessons 6 through 11 provide a more extensive study of each of the six literature types.)
7. Pay Careful Attention to Unusual Expressions or Figures of Speech. The Bible writers often use creative ways of bringing their message to their readers. For example, they frequently use such figures of speech as allegories, similes, metaphors, hyperbole, parables, personification, anthropomorphisms, etc. Be alert to these as you read and study. (See Lesson 4 for a study of figures of speech in the Bible.)
8. Learn the Basic Message of the Bible as a Whole Before Getting Overly Involved in Controversial Passages. Learn the Biblical foundation for the main teachings of the Bible before spending a lot of time on the more difficult or controversial passages. There will always be passages in the Bible on which believers differ. Start with the ones on which they agree!
9. Ask Six Familiar Questions When Reading a Passage.
• A. Who were the first readers? Who was the author?
• B. What is the general subject the author is talking about in this passage?
• C. When was the passage written? What were the times or circumstances when it was written?
• D. Where in the Bible is this passage found? Is it found in the Old Testament— or in the New Testament? Is it found in a poetical passage such as the Psalms, in a historical section—or where?
• E. Why is the author writing about this subject at this point?
• F. How is the author trying to make his point? Is he using ordinary language? Is he using a parable, poetry, a figure of speech? Is he presenting his own thinking or the ideas of someone else?
10. Find the Basic Meaning of a Passage Before Seeking to Apply It to Your Life. Your first task, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is to understand the basic meaning of a passage. After you have done that, you should then seek the Spirit’s help in applying the truth of the passage to your personal life. A text may have multiple applications but it usually has only one essential meaning.