Any time you open the Bible searching for answers about who God is, you will find them. That’s what the whole thing is about! But it is possible to read God’s Word in ways that lead to misunderstandings about who God is and how He has called us to live.
Let me show you what I mean.
In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul wrote, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”
How did Paul ask us to handle God’s Word? Rightly! Which means that it is possible to handle God’s Word wrongly. We will all make mistakes in this area. It is, after all, the divinely inspired, holy Word of God (no pressure!), but Paul’s advice still sticks—we need to do our best to handle God’s Word well.
My personal Bible study has been greatly impacted by the discovery of hermeneutics. (Try saying that three times fast!) Hermeneutics is just a fancy word for how we interpret Scripture. It’s not a formula for how we study God’s Word but what we do with what we study. Here are six rules of hermeneutics to apply when you read the Bible.
Rule #1: We let Scripture interpret Scripture.
It is essential for us to interpret a passage in light of what the rest of Scripture says on the topic rather than plucking out isolated verses here and there. A correct interpretation is always consistent with the rest of Scripture. (For more on this, check out Jen Wilkin’s excellent post “Beware the Instagram Bible”.)
How do we know what the rest of Scripture says? We read it, dedicating ourselves to being lifelong students of the whole Bible.
Rule #2: We pay close attention to context.
Every word in the Bible is part of a verse.
Every verse is part of a paragraph.
Every paragraph is part of a book.
Every book is part of the whole of Scripture.
Because this is the case, no verse in Scripture should be divorced from the verses around it.
The Bible is not a quilt, made up of pieces that stand alone. It is a tapestry.
We don’t pick and chose the parts that are inspired. We don’t obey some but not all. The Bible is not a quilt, made up of pieces that stand alone. It is a tapestry. Every thread is needed to help us see the completed picture of the God whose image we bear.
Rule #3: The goal of Scripture is for God to reveal Himself.
God has given us His Word in order to reveal Himself.
Proverbs 8:17 makes this radical promise: “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.”
How do we seek God diligently? It’s not some mystic maze of trick mirrors and blind corners. We seek Him through His Word.
Rule #4: Interpret Scripture literally unless you have a reason to believe it’s figurative.
Literal means free from exaggeration or embellishment. Figurative means it’s a metaphor or word picture. When we handle God’s Word “rightly,” we assume words mean what they say and are not a picture for something else.
Rule #5: Think like the original hearer.
As we read, we consider the audience a passage was originally written to. All of God’s Word is made up of text written by an actual person with a specific audience in mind. As we consider context, taking a beat to think about that original audience is helpful. A good study Bible can make that process super easy. (I like this one and this one).
As you read, realize a passage cannot mean something to us today that it was never intended to mean to the original audience.
Let me show you what I mean.
We’ve all heard plenty about the Proverbs 31 woman. And let’s be honest, we kind of hate her. (Am I right?) Let’s consider the listener and see what shifts. Verse 1 says, “The words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him.”
Who was the original hearer? King Lemuel. This was not originally communicated as a list for how to be the perfect Christian woman. It was wisdom whispered in the ear of a boy by his momma. We know all Scripture is God-breathed and useful (2 Tim. 3:16–17), so certainly this passage matters, but considering it as wisdom not a list of mandates matters too, right?
The Rule that Matters Most
The rule that matters most as we seek to interpret God’s Word well is this one . . .
Always take a God-centered approach.
Because of our sinful, broken, inward-focused nature, we tend to read the Bible and default to one question: What does this say about me?
The Bible is not primarily a book about who we are. It is primarily a book about who God is.
Here’s the rub (and it’s a BIG one), the Bible is not primarily a book about who we are. It is primarily a book about who God is. Sure, God uses His Word to mold and shape us but it’s by the process of studying Him, not by studying ourselves that we learn to bear His image. We need the Holy Spirit’s help to flip our approach upside down and ask first, “What does this tell me about God?”
Let’s run to the deep well of God’s Word together in 2018, but let us not drop down our buckets hoping to know ourselves. (Blech!) Let us open up our Bibles hoping to know God.