8. Interpretation, Illumination and Application
1. We’ve completed the basic study of “How we got our Bible.” We’ve gone from God’s inspired revelation to the actual Bible translations we read. The following study is a very simplified summary of how the Christian can use the Scripture so that it affects his/her life.
a. Interpretation – The process of a reader seeking to understand the meaning of a scripture passage.
b. Illumination – The process of the Holy Spirit helping the reader understand and apply biblical truth.
c. Application – The process of a reader putting into practice the truths and principles he/she has learned in the Bible.
There are three basic approaches to Bible interpretation:
A. Different Approaches to Interpretation
1. Used by cults. Cults use the Bible to try to prove views they already have. The real authority of their view is always some single leader who has his or her ideas in writing. The cult considers those writings as equal in authority (actually greater) than the Bible. They then lift some biblical verses out of context to support their views.
2. Misunderstood by liberal scholars. Scholars who don’t accept the authority and inspiration of scripture interpret the Bible in purely human terms. They feel free to call the Bible “wrong” on issues if society’s standard is different. They also take the liberty to water down statements that they deem unacceptable (The seriousness of sin; the need to trust in Christ for salvation, etc.). On other non-doctrinal issues, however, much of their research is correct and very valuable.
3. Taken literally in its historical and grammatical contexts. Conservative Bible scholars who take the Bible at face value consistently arrive at the same interpretations on major issues. Some detailed interpretations will always vary, but the major messages are clear. “Literal” interpretation simply means “take it as it was meant.” A figure of speech is taken that way. A grammatical form is assumed accurate. What a term or phrase meant at that time in history is worth researching and then understood accordingly. This view lets the Bible speak for itself.
B. The Basic Process of Interpretation
To understand a particular portion of Scripture, it is often necessary to have other related information. Here’s a summary of some of the basic steps that help a reader understand scripture.
1. Read widely – There is no substitute for the continual reading of Scripture. By reading widely throughout the Bible a person gets basic knowledge that will help them understand individual passages.
2. Observe carefully – We must learn to read carefully to notice what is actually said. Observation is the crucial skill basic to interpretation (See Howard Hendricks, Living By The Book, Moody Press. 1991, for a more complete description of the process of observation).
3. Know the context – The context of a passage means the scripture that surrounds it. To understand a word or phrase one must read the whole sentence or verse. To understand a verse one must read and understand the paragraph. The paragraph likewise makes sense in the larger context of the chapter or section. And then the entire book or letter and even the Bible as a whole is the larger context yet.
4. Understand the type of literature – A proverb, a parable, a psalm, an epistle (letter), a narrative (story) and prophecy are all different types of literature. God used all of them to teach truth and principles. But they each teach truth differently. For example, a parable is not a literally true story. The reader must understand that and look for the principle Christ was teaching. An epistle of Paul’s, on the other hand, teaches doctrinal truth and applications much more directly.
5. Study the structure of the passage – An outline of a book or passage is very helpful – (Make your own outline, borrowing perhaps from someone else). Outlining shows the logic and the direction of a writer’s thought. In the epistles especially, look for key structural words that indicate purpose (that, in order that), reason (for, because), conclusion/effect (therefore, so, then). These key words help you to outline and thus understand the writer’s thought.
6. Study the significant words and phrases – A concordance helps you find uses of the same word in other parts of scripture. This may help you understand what it means in the passage you’re studying.
7. Study Bible doctrine – By studying the various Bible doctrines topically (God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Angels & Demons, Man & Sin, Salvation, Church, Prophecy) we are better able to understand certain passages or verses that are related. By understanding the doctrinal truth involved, the passage makes more sense and our interpretation won’t stray from doctrinal truth taught elsewhere.
8. Use Bible Background resources – A Bible dictionary is a basic tool that gives background information on every person, place or event mentioned in scripture.
C. Bible Interpretation Recommended Resources
1. A Study Bible – For basic background to each book and helpful explanations on many verses. Many are available today with notes written for specific audiences. Here are several recommended well written study bibles for a wide audience.
- Ryrie Study Bible (available in KJV, NKJV, NASV, NIV) Moody Press.
- The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan.
- Application Study Bible, Tyndale Publishers
2. Concordance – For finding words or topics elsewhere in scripture
- Young’s or Strong’s (KJV) or NIV or NASV Exhaustive Concordance. Also, any Bible software program contains a basic concordance feature in which you can search for a particular word and it will show all uses of that word in a particular Bible version.
3. Bible Dictionary – For background information on geography, history, culture, etc.
- New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Moody Press.
- New Bible Dictionary, Tyndale.
4. Bible Doctrine – For topical study of major areas of truth
- Survey of Bible Doctrine – Charles Ryrie, Moody Press.
- Basic Theology – Charles Ryrie, (more detail), Victor Books
5. Bible Commentary – Bible commentaries explain (interpret) the Bible verse by verse. Commentaries are available on single books of the Bible (more detail) or on the whole Bible (less detail).
- Bible Knowledge Commentary (2 Vols.), Walvoord & Zuck, Victor Books.
Anyone who reads the Scripture can see the words and study the facts like any other literature. But the Bible is unique in that God inspired it to teach us ad change our life (2 Timothy 3:16). God was at work in producing the texts of scripture and He is also at work in the mind of the believer who reads it and desires God to use it to affect his life. The Holy Spirit who indwells all believers (Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 12:13) is active in this process which is sometimes called illumination. Illumination is necessary for the Bible to change lives.
A. Definition: The ministry of the Holy Spirit helping the believer to understand and apply the truth of the Bible (Charles Ryrie).
1. Illumination is the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-15; 1 Corinthians 2:10; 1 John 2:27).
2. Illumination is the Holy Spirit’s work in believers (1 Corinthians 2:10-15; Ephesians 1:18) and not in some mystical power of the words of scripture.
3. In illumination, the Holy Spirit will use our study and meditation, not only to help us understand scripture, but to apply it to our lives.
4. The Bible reader’s accuracy, honesty and spiritual life can all affect the Spirit’s ministry of illumination (1 Corinthians 3:1-3).
5. The Spirit uses those with the gift of teaching/exhortation to help in the process of illumination (Ephesians 4:11-13; Romans 12:7).
So when we read and study scripture, it is important to consciously remember the Holy Spirit’s “illuminating” ministry in our life and to ask God to teach us. Illumination does not guarantee that we will always interpret/understand scripture accurately. God uses our skill, knowledge and integrity as well.
It has often been said that “a passage has one interpretation but many applications.” In other words, there is only one true meaning. God doesn’t “speak out the both sides of His mouth” and mean two different things at once (Example: Ephesians 4:25 means “Don’t tell a lie”). But the applications are many (Examples: Tell the truth on tax forms, to your spouse, to your boss, etc.).
A. Key Passages
1. James 1:22-25
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (v.22- NIV).
2. Titus 1:1
“…The knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness” (NIV).
B. The Process of Application
1. Meditate on the scripture.
Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:1,2 tell us to “meditate” on the word of God “day and night. The process of spiritual growth involves “thinking biblically”. We must reprogram our minds to see our life and choices from God’s perspective. A rushed 3-minute scripture reading or devotional book doesn’t amount to much meditation and reprogramming time. Memorizing scripture is a great way to allow God’s truth to “soak in” (Psalm 119:11)
2. Relate the meaning to myself.
Once we know the biblical principle, we must relate it somehow to our own life. To do that we must understand our own needs and weaknesses (1 Timothy 4:16; Romans 12:3). We must be honest and ask God to “search our heart” (Psalm 139:23,24). It’s easy to apply scripture to sinners around us but harder to explore our own areas of need. Our spouse, children and friends can probably help. How do they think I need to apply this principle?
3. Practice the truth
This is the action step. This is where we actually change our thinking or behavior based on God’s word. God intends for us to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:2).
The step of practicing truth requires the Holy Spirit’s power. Once we know what to think or what to do differently, we must consciously ask for God’s help and then step out in obedience depending on the power of the Holy Spirit within us. That’s what it means to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16) and “be filled by the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).