The Method Of A Good Interpreter
“You hit that for which you aim.”
Step 1: Pick A Book
Preferably start with a small one like Philippians, Colossians, 1, 2 Thessalonians or Titus.
If you have some need or problem that you know the book in question deals with, or might deal with, then begin with that book. For example, let’s say you are concerned about the qualifications of elders. Then you will want to study 1 Timothy and Titus. Set out a plan, after the one you will learn here, and study the two pastoral epistles.
If you have a particular question about the meaning of a verse, paragraph, or whole section of Scripture, then begin with the book in which it is found.
If you have more interest in studying poetry or narrative than expositional writing, then start with a book of the Bible that fits your interests. There’s no sense in starting with something that is uninteresting to you at first. I can just hear someone saying, “ It’s all God’s word ya’ know! We can’t just pick and choose what we want. Isn’t that what the false teachers used to do.” The point here is not that some parts of God’s Word are more important than other parts, but that you are either more familiar with certain parts than you are others or you have a greater interest in certain parts over others. That’s O.K. Scholars give their lives to studying certain sections more than others because of their interests. Besides, you will never do an exhaustive analysis of it all anyway!
Step 2: Read It Through to Get the “Big Picture”
Ideally, studying a book of the Bible begins with a broad survey of the book, then focuses in on the details, and then returns once again to a survey of the book as a whole. Some people refer to this as (1) synthesis [“see” the whole] (2) analysis [“examine” the details] (3) synthesis [“clearer vision” of the whole]. We can diagram it as such:
The point is that as we understand where an author starts his work and where he ends it, we are in a better position to evaluate how the author got there. As figure 1 indicates, we begin with an overview and the dark gray color indicates that while the general overall idea can be seen after reading through the book once, we are still a bit foggy in many cases on what certain details mean. But at least we know that we don’t know certain things. Thus we have some intelligent questions to ask. That’s not a bad point of departure for a study of the details. Not too shabby if you ask me!!
Next, we study the individual paragraphs.5 As we do this, and we will show you how, we focus primarily on the paragraph though we are always making some connections to the broader context of the book as a whole. Thus even in this study on the details we never lose sight of the “big picture” that we gained in the first synthetic reading.
Finally, after we have studied all the individual paragraphs we are ready to “tie them back together again” into a coherent whole. Like the fog rolling away under the morning sun, the diligent study of a book in this manner dispels the “fog” in our minds and enables us to see clearly the message of the book.
This is unfortunately where most people fall off the horse [:-(]. For them the Bible is a collection of loosely connected verses with no real beginning, middle, or end. It’s kinda’ like Humpty Dumpty, who while he had the help of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, could not be put back together again! After reading the Bible more or less faithfully for years, they’re still not sure what it says, much less what it means by what it says. And even when they’ve understood the importance of reading and studying a book as a whole, they’ve seldom sat down and thought their way through the entire argument or overall message of the particular book they’re studying. They can take it apart, but they can’t put it back together. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not criticizing just for something to do. Many of these people to whom I refer have never been taught how to read properly for better comprehension and understanding. I hope that if this is true of your Bible reading you will decide to change it by sticking with this course and working at it. God places no premium on ignorance and richly blesses all, who with humble hearts, study his word (2 Tim 2:15; Jas 1:21-22).
Read the book through in one sitting. Focus on the paragraphs and ask yourself some of these questions: (1) What are the various topics represented in each of the paragraphs? Give the paragraph a title; (2) How do they relate to each other? (3) Is there a unifying theme in the book? Record your thoughts on a piece of paper or enter them on your computer. You may want to read through the book more than once. Sometimes I read a book dozens of times over the course of a week or so in order to get a better “handle” on the “big picture.”
Step 3: Pick A Paragraph in the Book
After you have read through the book, paragraph by paragraph, choose one of the paragraphs to study in more detail. Obviously if you are going to study the whole book in detail, start with the first paragraph. Perhaps it was a particular verse that led you to the book you wanted to study. If so, then choose the paragraph in which the verse is found and study it in light of the whole book.
Step 4: Study the Paragraph
A. Read It Several Times
1. What is the connecting word that starts the paragraph? (e.g., therefore, for, because, since, but, as a result, so, so that, at that time, then, now, when, for this reason, etc.)
2. What are the main function words in the paragraph (e.g., therefore, for, because, since, but, as a result, so, so that, at that time, then, now, when, for this reason, etc.)
B. Notice the Structure. For example:
Notice that some paragraphs begin with a general statement and then more details are given as you read along. This can also be the relationship between paragraphs. One paragraph may be general in nature followed by another which attempts to unpack some of the generalities of the first paragraph by giving examples or details that “flesh out” what is meant earlier.
This is the case, for example, in Romans 12:1-2. In these two verses, which make up a paragraph, Paul urges Christians, in light of the mercies of God, to offer their bodies as living sacrifices, not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. These are three powerful, yet general statements that clamor to be filled in as it were. The rest of 12:3-8 as well as the entire section of Romans running from 12:3-15:13 is an exposition of the details of the kinds of things Paul had in mind when he made the comments in 12:1-2. It is important to realize that 12:3-15:13 does not exhaust the particulars that could fall under the general statements found in 12:1-2, but that they are concrete examples of the kind of things he was thinking of.
Another good example of a general statement followed by the specifics is in Matthew 6:1-18. Jesus first says, in 6:1, that his disciples should be careful not to do their righteous acts before men in order to be seen by them. Then in vv. 2-4 he discusses giving, in vv. 5-15 he talks about prayer, and in vv. 16-18 he finishes off with some comments about fasting. Thus the kind of “acts of righteousness” Jesus was referring to included giving, prayer, and fasting. All of them are to be done with pure, God-centered motives, as 6:1 implies.
If we recognize that a paragraph or group of paragraphs hang together on the basis of a movement from the general to the specific, then we are in a better place to understand each of the various comments: we now have a framework in which to look at some of the details at the sentence level.
Some paragraphs work in the opposite direction. They move from the specifics to the general statement. See for example 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 which works through several specific problems in the church including (1) food sacrificed to idols; (2) Paul’s apostleship; (3) warnings from Israel’s history; (4) Idol feasts and the Lord’s Supper; (5) the freedom of the believer. All this is understood, though, in light of the general statements found in 10:31-11:1: “Do everything to the glory of God and the benefit of others!”
Some paragraphs demonstrate that their central meaning is really an effect from a previous cause. That is, “because of that, this is true.” This is the case in Romans 2:1 with the use of the “therefore.” See also Ephesians 2:11-22. Anytime you see “therefore” you must ask yourself, what came before (or ahead) to give rise to this effect. Then ask yourself how that is so. For example, you might ask yourself how the unification of Jew and Gentile in one new man—discussed in Ephesians 2:11-22—is the effect from Ephesians 2:1-10 which talks about doing good works as a result being saved by grace. Many brilliant discoveries have been made by those who ask such questions.
This is where an author will use the same terms or concepts repeatedly. This should be noted and taken into account when identifying the “big idea” of the paragraph or book. Compare the use of “heavenlies” in the book of Ephesians (1:10; 3:15; 4:10; 6:9).
The Bible is also full of contrasts either implied or made explicit through the use of words like “but” and “nevertheless.” An example of an implied contrast comes in Mark 11:27-12:44. The entire scene takes place in the temple. There are seven separate yet well connected paragraphs in this section. The first six concern the attempts of the religious leaders to trap Jesus. The last paragraph speaks about a poor widow and the selfless manner in which she gave money to the temple. When seen in the light of the previous paragraphs—which focus on this “temple scene”—it becomes clear that Mark is not just making a statement about the widow’s faith, but he is implicitly criticizing the religious leaders for their lack of faith, and the reader is to understand that this lack of faith is connected to issues like money! (See also the implied contrasts between Nicodemus and the woman at the well in John 3 and 4.)
Ephesians 2:1-10 is a paragraph built around one great contrast: the sinfulness of man on one hand, and the abundant grace of God on the other. The contrast comes in v. 4. After Paul has said in vv. 1-3 that we are dead in sin, he then begins v. 4 with “But God being rich in mercy…” The question we need to ask at this point is, “How is the mercy of God contrasted with my helpless estate?” In other words, what are the details of the contrast?
A paragraph that is built around the idea of comparison is Hebrews 5:1-10. The “so also” in verse 5 gives it away. The question we must ask ourselves, then, is “what are the similarities the writer wants us to see between Christ and the High Priesthood.
C. Examine Key Terms
We use words in a number of ways, including referring to objects and concepts, e.g., car, plane, boat, grace, mercy, science, etc. Words can function to simply point to something and/or they can also communicate feeling and emotion. The same word can point to an object and also convey an emotion or feeling at the same time. We also use words and language in a performative way, that is, to get things done, e.g., the parent who says to their teenager, “Be home at ten!” We will discuss this last usage in another lesson.
1. Referent: To what does the term actually refer?
First try and nail down that to which a word actually refers. Matthew quotes Zechariah 9:9 (primarily) in 21:5 of his gospel in order to set up Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The referent for the term “king” in the quotation is “Jesus.” That is the person to whom the citation points. He is the referent.
2. Sense? What is the sense? What feelings are evoked in the use of this term?
The use of the term “king,” however, in Matt 21:5 functions at another level beyond that of just identifying Jesus. It carries with it a certain sense and evokes certain images in the mind of the reader that if they are missed his/her interpretation has been incomplete or perhaps even wrong. The term “king” connotes ideas of victory, grandeur, pomp, and the like. While both the OT and Matthew envision Jesus’ kingship ultimately in this fashion, here his “kingship” is juxtaposed with ideas of gentleness and peace (regarding riding on a donkey, see Judges 5:10; 1 Kings 1:33; cf. Rev 19:11). The irony is profound and should not be missed by failing to ask, not only who the term “king” refers to, but also what sense the term “king” in this context is intended to evoke in the reader. Notice that the other part of Zechariah 9:9, namely, “righteous and having salvation” has been omitted in Matthew’s citation so that emphasis can be placed upon the humility of this king and the guilt of the religious leaders for their violent treatment of him (see Matt 21:23-46).
3. Define Words and Concepts
When you run across words or expressions that you are not clear about, consult the notes in the NET Bible for help. If nothing is written on the term in question then look at parallel passages to help determine the force and meaning of terms. Make sure that any meanings for words acquired outside the passage under consideration really do fit in the context of the passage being studied. Sometimes a good English dictionary is all one needs to clarify a word, though the same caution applies here as well. We will cover the use of concordances for word studies in a subsequent lesson. The important point here is to see words first in their immediate context.
For example, Paul says in Philippians 1:19 that he knows that his deliverance will be affected through the prayers of the Philippians and the help of the Spirit of Christ. The Greek term translated deliverance is the same Greek word used most commonly to refer to spiritual salvation. As translators, we know that Paul was already “saved,” so that what he means is not spiritual salvation, but delivered or saved if you will, from death in his upcoming trial. Now if I were studying along in my Greek Bible and decided that every time I saw the word for salvation (swthriva) it must mean initial, spiritual salvation, I would have a hard time with Philippians 1:19 because now I'd have to admit that the one who had been an apostle for 30 years wasn’t even a Christian! Obviously, this is ludicrous. So when you cross reference to other passages and you see similar English words or concepts, try and discern if the word or idea you're cross-referencing bears the same meaning as the word you're studying in your primary passage.
D. Summarize the Argument
This is one of the hardest phases for new students to grasp. Up to this point you have read the book through a few times. Then you read your paragraph through a number of times. Then you looked for any structural clues to help you see how the paragraph hangs together (e.g., general-specific, cause-effect). Finally, you attempted, having “seen” the overall movement of your paragraph, to interpret certain words—to understand their referent and sense. Now you must summarize the message of the paragraph as a whole. Beginning students tend to want to include too much in their “big idea” or they are so general that basically any text in the Bible could fall under their summary. Don’t be discouraged if this is difficult at first. We will be doing these in the rest of the lessons and before no time at all you’ll be an expert showing others how to do it!
As we said above, a summary of the idea can be broken down into two parts: (1) subject; (2) complement. Some people refer to these as topic and theme, subject and predicate, etc.
1. Subject: What is he talking about?
2. Complement: What does he say about what he’s talking about?
In these examples we will assume that the book and paragraph have been read several times and the context is fairly well understood.
1 Peter 1:17-19
1:17 And if you address as Father the one who impartially judges according to each one’s work, live out the time of your temporary residence here in reverence. 1:18 You know that from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors, you were ransomed—not by perishable things like silver or gold, 1:19 but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, Christ.
What is his main assertion in this paragraph (actually it’s three verses from a larger paragraph)? Peter seems to be commanding his readers to “live in reverence” (v. 17). The rest of the material is structured around this command and offers a two part rationale for living a reverent life. Verse 17 indicates that since (i.e., “if”= since) we call on an impartial judge, we must live our lives in reverence. Verse 18 provides yet another reason for living a life of reverence, namely, because we have been ransomed by the precious blood of Christ. Let’s show that now in terms of a subject and complement.
Subject (What he’s talking about): The reason Christians are to live a life a reverence before God
Complement (What he says about what he’s talking about): is because he is an impartial judge and because he has ransomed us with the precious blood of the lamb.
Now obviously these examples assume that you have defined such words as “reverence” and “ransomed.” What’s most important here is to see how the subject/complement was formulated. In the case of a command, look for supporting rationale or the manner in which the command is to be carried out. Let’s look at another example, this time in narrative literature.
2:13 Jesus went out again by the sea. The whole crowd came to him, and he taught them. 2:14 As he was going along, he saw Levi, the son of Alphaeus, sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” He got up and followed him. 2:15 As he dined in Levi’s home, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 2:16 When the experts in the law and the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why is he eating with tax collectors and sinners?” 2:17 When Jesus heard this he said to them, “It is not the strong who need a physician, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
Subject: The kind of people Jesus came to save
Complement: includes tax-collectors and sinners
E. Correlate the Passage
Preliminary caution: Do not do this until you have a good understanding of what your paragraph is all about. Do not go on a train ride through all the other passages in Bible-land before you have sufficiently understood the paragraph you’re presently working in. You cannot compare what you do not understand.
Method: Look for other passages that handle the same or similar themes. We touched on this concept above in our discussion concerning defining words and concepts. While each passage must have the right to speak on its own, cross-referencing to other passages can help one better understand the meaning and significance of the passage their presently studying.
1. With Other Passages in Books by the Same Author
When you study a passage, say for example, Titus 2:11-15, you should read and think about other passages having to do with similar themes such as the grace of God, salvation, unrighteousness, self-control, godliness—passages like Romans 3:21-31; 1 Cor 15:10; Gal 5:16-26; 6:9-10; Ephesians 2:8-10; Phil. 2:11-12; etc.
2. With Other Passages in Bible
Matt 5:16; Luke 1:47, etc.
3. Tighten up Your Subject/Complement If You Need To
If, after you have cross-referenced other related passages and found that they shed particular light on the meaning of your passage, alter your subject/complement as you see fit.
Step 5: Relate the Paragraph to Your Original Synthesis of the Book
As pointed above, the initial step in Bible study is to synthesize the message of the whole book. After you have done that, you are ready to dive into the details, all the while never losing sight of the message of the whole book. But, after you have synthesized a book, and then studied one of its paragraphs in detail, you need to relate the message of that paragraph to your original synthetic message of the book as a whole. This will enable you to see if your original synthesis needs tweaking.
Step 6: Apply the Message
In the process of application the first thing you must do is to think about what sort of application follows from the truth(s) taught in the paragraph. Then you must apply the passage in theory first to think through the ramifications of what you’re going to do. For example, if I read about the need for prayer (cf. Eph 6:18) in a believer’s life and decide that I need to grow in this area, I must decide in principle what I will do. This could include reading books on prayer for encouragement and, of course, setting aside a time and place to pray. I may want to evaluate my prayer time as I go, to see if I’m really doing what the Bible commanded and in the way that it commanded it (remember our little discussion above on Matthew 6:1-18). Reflection is good, very good in fact. Now that I (you) have some idea of the impact that applying a particular biblical truth to my life has, I can then go about actually doing it. Finally, but in no way to be regarded as least, whenever you apply the Bible, try and think about it in terms of fostering relationship with God and people and against the spiritual forces of evil.
B. Practically (Ephesians 6:18)
Recognizing that I am in a battle with spiritual forces, I will establish a daily prayer time in which I will pray for friends and family.
Each day between 6:30-7:00am I will praise God and pray for my family, other Christians, the lost and myself. I will need to develop a list of people and things to pray for before I get to my prayer time.
The important thing about applying the Bible in the long haul is that I attempt by the Spirit of God to do things that are attainable. Saying that I will pray for three hours a day is nice, and some people are at the place where they can do that, but this is usually not the place to start out. Try setting aside 15 minutes, or 30 minutes a day and build your life around that. There is an odd mix of the human and divine in the Christian life, but attempting to do the impossible (and God can do it) all the time usually leads to defeat. Set a time for prayer which will work for you. You will learn a lot about yourself as you begin to apply the Bible; strengths and weaknesses will appear.
5 While we will study words and sentences, the basic unit of study will be the paragraph since it provides enough context in which a sentence functions so as to give us some reasonable idea as to what that sentence means. The NET Bible has clearly marked each paragraph by indenting the first line. If we find that a paragraph is simply too long for a beginner to work with, we may use less verses to make it more manageable.