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The Bible: Understanding Its Message

The Psalmist, affirming the Old Testament as God’s Word, wrote, “Your word is a lamp to my feet, And a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). Later in this same Psalm he wrote, “The unfolding of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple” (vs. 130). Solomon wrote, “For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching is light; And reproofs for discipline are the way of life” (Prov. 6:23). So David wrote, “The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.” Obviously God has revealed Himself to us in His inspired Word that it might give light to our innate blindness. However, for the Scripture to give us light, it must be understood properly, then believed and applied in faith. But for man to understand the Bible properly, he must have two things: (a) he needs the illuminating work of the Spirit of God, and (b) he needs the proper method of interpretation for without the right method of interpretation, one is left on a sea of uncertainty.

Its Illumination

    The Need for Illumination

Though the Bible is a pure light that can direct our paths and bring us into an understanding of God and His salvation in Christ, man needs special enablement from God due to the Bible’s spiritual dimension that raises it above man’s natural abilities. “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11). Furthermore, Adam’s fall into sin and his consequent spiritual death rendered man incapable of comprehending the truth of Scripture. Simply put, the “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14). This means a special work of God is needed to make the Scripture understandable to both the natural man (unsaved) and to the saved. As seen in the way Jesus opened the eyes of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the work of illumination is necessary to enable us to comprehend the Word of God (cf. Luke 24:44-45).

    Definition of Illumination

Illumination can be defined as “the special ministry of the Holy Spirit whereby He enlightens men so they can comprehend the written Word of God.” Illumination begins with the pre-salvation work of the Spirit to bring demonstrable proof of the claims of the gospel that people might trust in Christ (cf. John 1:9; 16:8-11; 2 Tim. 1:10; Heb. 6:4). Generally, illumination is used in reference to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in enabling believers to understand the Scripture (Eph. 1:18; 3:9).

    Explanation of Illumination76

The doctrine of illumination must not be confused with revelation and inspiration. The following differences need to be understood:

(1) Revelation refers to the content of God’s truth as it was revealed to the Old Testament and New Testament authors of Scripture.

(2) Inspiration refers to the accurate transmission of that content to men, first verbally (as with the prophets) and then in written form.

(3) Canonization refers to the recognition and collection of those inspired books into a canon, the Bible.

(4) Illumination refers to understanding of the Bible’s message to believers. Unbelievers can only experience this work as it pertains to His convicting ministry in relation to the gospel message (John 16:8-11).

As the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit is the believer’s means of spiritual illumination. Four New Testament passages focus on this ministry of the Spirit; these are John 16:12-15; 1 Corinthians 2:9-3:3; Ephesians 3:16-19; and 1 John 2:20 and 27. The essence of these passages is as follows:

(1) As the Spirit of truth and God’s special anointing, He is our Teacher. This is not a privilege for a select few, but is available to all believers since He indwells all believers. The teaching ministry of the Spirit is thus guaranteed to all believers.

(2) Since indwelling is limited to believers, unbelievers can only experience the illuminating ministry of the Spirit in the matter of convicting and convincing them of the truth of the gospel message (John 16:8-11). This does not mean they cannot achieve a high level of understanding of the Bible, but its truth remains foolishness and they do not welcome it.

(3) As the extent of the Spirit’s illumination, it encompasses the whole council of the Bible, Genesis to Revelation and salvation to things to come.

(4) Several things can hamper the Spirit’s ministry of illumination. Carnality (1 Cor. 2:1-3), indifference (cf. Heb. 5:1f with 1 Pet. 2:2), tradition and preconceived ideas (Mark 7:7-13), ignorance (Mark 12:24; Luke 24:25-32; “foolish” in vs. 25 is the Greek, anohtos, “not understanding”), and poor methods of Bible study or interpretation (cf. Paul’s exhortation in 2 Tim. 3:15).

(5) The purpose of the Spirit’s ministry is not to focus on Himself, but to disclose to us the glories and sufficiency of Christ and, as a result, to glorify Him (Eph. 3:16f; John 16:12-15).

(6) The Spirit uses those whom He has gifted with the gift of teaching in His ministry of illuminating others (Rom. 12:7; 1 John 2:27). 1 John 2:27 does not mean we do not need teachers. Otherwise, why would the Spirit give this gift? In the context, John was speaking of discerning truth from error.

Ryrie adds an important note about illumination and revelation.

The experience of illumination is not by “direct revelation.” The canon is closed. The Spirit illumines the meaning of that closed canon, and He does so through study and meditation. Study employs all the proper tools for ascertaining the meaning of the text. Meditation thinks about the true facts of the text, putting them together into a harmonious whole and applying them to one’s own life. The end result of the illumination ministry of the Spirit is to glorify Christ in the life, or to promote healthy doctrine—teaching that brings spiritual health and wholeness to the believer’s life. Illumination is not concerned merely with understanding facts but with using those facts to promote Christlikeness.77

Historically, Protestant evangelicalism has affirmed that the Bible is the canon of Scripture, that it is our supreme authority in matters of faith and practice, and that the canon is now closed, but that God is still speaking today and that He does so by means of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit through this completed canon. But a new proposition is being promoted today which states that God also speaks to His people today apart from the Bible. Most within the evangelical community would also add that, though He speaks apart from the Bible, He never contradicts what is in the Scriptures. But doesn’t this new position threaten the sufficiency and finality of the Scripture? Many conservative scholars believe that it does.78

Its Interpretation

If you will note, in the outline used here, interpretation has been placed on a level with illumination under the heading “Understanding the Bible.” This is because the illuminating work of the Spirit goes hand-in-hand with the interpretation of Scripture. Although illumination is assured for believers, it does not always guarantee accurate interpretation. And if the interpretation is wrong, so will be the understanding of the passage in question. Many people approach the Bible with a false mysticism. Their attitude is, “The Holy Spirit will show what this means.” But then they proceed to butcher the text and come up with some off-the-wall idea that completely misses what the Spirit is saying based on solid principles of Bible study or exegesis. The word that comes to mind here is abuse. In a chapter entitled, “Handling the Scriptures Accurately,” Swindoll writes:

Ours is a day of abuse; sexual abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse. But what about biblical abuse? By that I mean being deceived by the improper use of Scripture. Who of us has not witnessed someone twisting Scripture, forcing it to mean something it does not mean?79 Those who don’t know better start believing it with all their heart, only to discover later on that both the interpretation and the application were fallacious … perhaps dangerous to their spiritual health and growth.80

It is because of this very problem that the Apostle Paul, in a section where he was warning Timothy against false teaching that can lead to the ruin of the hearers, said, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (emphasis mine). Paul had in mind the important principle that we must correctly handle the Word of God in both its analysis (exegesis) and in its presentation (exposition) since Timothy was faced with the foolish interpretations of false teachers (as we often are). But the main emphasis is on the study and interpretation of the Word of God. What’s involved here? Is this a matter of sincerity or of theology?

Now this has nothing to do with sincerity. Many, perhaps most, people who mishandle the Word are very sincere. And it really has little to do with theology. Some who have their theology fairly well in place can still mishandle Scripture. It also has nothing to do with personality. There are gifted teachers dripping with charisma who can sway an audience and hold them in the palm of their hand, yet be guilty of mishandling Scripture. It certainly has nothing to do with popularity. Famous, highly visible personalities in Christian circles who can draw large listening audiences can (and often do) mishandle Scripture. So let’s put to bed, once for all, the idea that if a person just “loves the Lord,” he or she will be preserved from mishandling Scripture. No, even those of us who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and affirm the importance of sound doctrine can be guilty of biblical abuse.81

Christians need to learn the basics of sound Bible study. Sound Bible study is that which is based on the fundamental principles of interpretation that will protect the student from Scripture abuse and that will provide a check on his or her own wild imagination. The following lists several important principles that are basic to the interpretation of Scripture.

    The Plain or Normal Method of Interpretation

The word literal is avoided here since it often leads to wrong ideas that must be later corrected. Rather, I am using the terms plain or normal to express the proper method of interpretation. By plain or normal we mean the words of Scripture are to be understood in their normal meaning just as we normally understand words in our normal, everyday communication. When we read the newspaper or a recipe in a cookbook, how do we read those words? We understand them according to their literal or normal meaning. If the recipe says two cups of flower, you don’t symbolize that to mean, a great quantity to be chosen at your discretion. If, however, it calls for a pinch of salt, you understand it to be somewhat symbolical of a very small amount.

    Justification for the Plain, Normal Method of Interpretation

(1) The very purpose and nature of language supports this method. This is how we communicate in everyday life. God gave us language for the purpose of communicating with each other and with Him. Ryrie writes:

Two ramifications flow from this idea. First, if God originated language for the purpose of communication, and if God is all-wise, then we may believe that He saw to it that the means (language) was sufficient to sustain the purpose (communication). Second, it follows that God would Himself use and expect man to use language in its normal sense. The Scriptures do not call for some special use of language, implying that they communicate on some “deeper” or special level unknown to other avenues of communication.82

(2) The need of control and objectivity. Only the plain method of interpretation provides a check on the minds of men. The allegorical or spiritualizing method of interpretation leads to all kinds of abuse with one person seeing one kind of hidden meaning and another person seeing something entirely different. When interpreters disregard the normal meaning of words and look for supposedly hidden meanings, the true meaning of the Bible is lost; the Bible is abused; imagination and speculation go wild as the interpreter arbitrarily assigns this meaning and then that meaning to the text without any solid historical, grammatical, or lexical foundation for his interpretation.

(3) The example of the Bible itself. A precedence for interpreting the Bible in this manner can be seen in the way Old Testament prophecies like Psalm 22, Isaiah 7:14; 53:1-12; Micah 5:2 have all been fulfilled literally or according to their plain meaning. To this someone might argue, “Aren’t some prophecies of the Old Testament fulfilled in a spiritual or typical sense in the New Testament?” To this question Ryrie says:

To be sure some prophecies of the Old Testament are given a typical fulfillment, only seven are cited as examples of a nonliteral hermeneutic. However, of the approximately twenty-four prophecies to which the New Testament gives a typical fulfillment, only seven are cited as examples of a nonliteral hermeneutic (and, of course, not all agree that these seven prove this). The seven are Matthew 2:15, 18, 23; 11:10; Acts 2:17-21; Romans 9:24-26; and Galatians 4:21-31. Remember, however, that we are not just comparing seven out of a total of twenty-four, but seven out of a total of hundreds, for almost all Old Testament prophecies are clearly fulfilled literally in the New Testament. To be sure, the New Testament may use the Old Testament in ways other than fulfillment, but I am here speaking of prophecies and their fulfillments. This is a strong support for the literal hermeneutics.83

    Principles of the Plain, Normal Method of Interpretation

(1) We must interpret the Bible grammatically. This is in keeping with the fact of verbal (words) plenary (full) inspiration. Every word of the Bible is important and though some words will hold more importance than others, all the words and sentences are a part of God’s communication to us. “Only grammatical interpretation fully honors the verbal inspiration of Scripture.”84 Grammatical relationships are vital to sound interpretation because thoughts are expressed in words which stand in relationship to each other to express complete thoughts.

If we neglect the meanings of words and how they are used, we have no way of knowing whose interpretations are correct. The assertion, “You can make the Bible mean anything you want it to mean,” is true only if grammatical interpretation is ignored.85

The hallmark of the Reformation was a return to the historical, grammatical interpretation of Scripture. This was in direct opposition to the approach to the Bible that had been in vogue for hundreds of years—the view that ignored the normal meaning of words in their grammatical sense and let words and sentences mean whatever the readers wanted them to mean.86

So, what is grammatical interpretation? Grammatical interpretation is the process that studies the text of Scripture (exegesis, the critical analysis of the text) to determine four important things: (a) the meaning of words (lexicology), (b) the form of words (morphology), (c) the function of words (parts of speech), and (d) the relationship of words (syntax). This means it is necessary to study the tenses of verbs, nouns and pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and the ways these words are structured.

(2) We must study the Bible historically. As Enns points out, “The historical context is important as a framework from which to interpret the Scriptures. Every book of Scripture was written in a historical context that should be understood in order to help interpret the book accurately.”87

(3) We must study the Bible contextually. Every passage and all the words and sentences in that passage have a context. Take the passage out of the context, and you will miss its meaning and you may abuse the passage. “Words and sentences do not stand in isolation; therefore, the context must be studied in order to see the relation that each verse sustains to that which precedes and to that which follows. Involved are the immediate context and the theme and scope of the whole book.”88

(4) We must interpret according to the analogy of Scripture. This simply means, while always keeping in mind the context, etc., we also need to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. If an interpretation of a passage contradicts other plain passages of the Bible, then something is wrong with the interpretation. Included here is a recognition of the dual authorship of the Bible.

The dual authorship of the Bible makes it necessary not only to know the human author’s meaning but also God’s. God’s meaning may not be fully revealed in the original human author’s writing but is revealed when Scripture is compared with Scripture. We must allow for a sensus plenior which allows for a fuller (though directly related) meaning in the mind of the divine Author of Scripture. We cannot say that the human authors of Scripture always understood the full implications of their own words. When we compare Scripture with Scripture, we can discover the fuller intention of the divine Author.89

(5) We need to recognize the progressive nature of God’s revelation. God did not reveal Himself or His plan all at once. The promise of salvation is revealed in seed form in Genesis 3:15, but it is expanded and developed throughout the Old Testament until we come to its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ and its full explanation in the New Testament. Once more let me quote Dr. Ryrie:

To be able to interpret plainly and consistently, it is imperative to recognize that revelation was given progressively. This means that in the process of revealing His message to man, God may add or even change in one era what He had given in another. Obviously the New Testament adds much that was not revealed in the Old. What God revealed as obligatory at one time may be rescinded at another (as the prohibition of eating pork, once binding on God’s people, now rescinded, 1 Tim. 4:3).

To fail to recognize this progressiveness in revelation will raise unresolvable contradictions between passages if taken literally. Notice the following pairs of passages which will contradict if understood plainly unless one recognizes changes due to the progress of revelation: Matthew 10:5-7 and 28:18-20, Luke 9:3 and 22:36, Genesis 17:10 and Galatians 5:2; Exodus 20:8 and Acts 20:7. Notice too the crucial changes indicated in John 1:17; 16:24; 2 Corinthians 3:7-11. Those who will not consistently apply this principle of progressive revelation in interpretation are forced to resort to figurative interpretation or sometimes simply to ignore the evidence.90

Since the whole area of biblical interpretation is such an important subject and so determinative on properly understanding the Word of God, a short bibliography is attached to encourage further study in this area.91


76 See article by Dan Wallace, “The Holy Spirit and Hermeneutics,” on The Biblical Studies web site, under Theology/Bibliology. Though this article pertains to the issue of the role of the Spirit in interpretation, it obviously applies to His ministry of illumination as well.

77 Ryrie, electronic media.

78 For an excellent treatment of this issue and what the church is facing today, see The Coming Evangelical Crisis, General editor, John H. Armstrong, published by Moody Press, 1996. Particularly important for the issue here is chapter 4, “Does God Speak Today Apart From the Bible” by R. Fowler White.

79 See Wallace’s article on “Scripture Twisting” under the section, “Prof’s Soapbox,” on our website.

80 Charles R. Swindoll, Growing Deep In The Christian Life, Multnomah Press, Portland, 1986, p. 69.

81 Swindoll, pp. 69-70.

82 Ryrie, electronic media.

83 Ryrie, electronic media.

84 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, Victor Books, Wheaton, 1991, p. 99.

85 Zuck, p. 99.

86 Zuck, p. 98.

87 Enns, p. 176.

88 Ryrie, electronic media.

89 Ryrie, electronic media.

90 Ryrie, electronic media.

91 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, Victor Books, 1991, Wheaton; Robert A. Traina, Methodical Bible Study, Bookroom, The Biblical Seminary, New York (this is a great classic), 1952; Howard G. Hendricks, William D. Hendricks, Living By The Book, Moody Press, Chicago, 1991; Irving L. Jensen, Independent Bible Study, Moody, Chicago, 1963; Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, erd ed., Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1963; Oletta Wald, The Joy of Discovery in Bible Study, rev. ed., Augsburg, Minneapolis, 1975.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Bible Study Methods