I don’t always read the Bible literally, but I always take it seriously.
The Bible is one of the all time best selling books. You own a copy of a good translation, but like many others you still wonder, “Can I really understand what it says?” In short, yes. Yes, you can read the Bible and have a clear understanding of what YHWH is speaking to you. God intended for us not only to read the Bible, but to read it for life! What does it mean to read the Bible for life? Reading the Bible for life doesn’t just mean extending our days on earth, but reading our Bible so that our lives will be transformed and renewed.
2 Timothy 3:14-17 You, however, must continue in the things you have learned and are confident about. You know who taught you 3:15 and how from infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 3:16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 3:17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work. (NET)
This passage makes clear that the mark of a Christ-follower is that he finds personal meaning and life through reading and living out the Scripture. Reading the Bible is without a doubt a matter of life. But now what? Yes, we may all agree, the Scripture is a good guide for living, but isn’t reading it all a matter of opinion and perspective? Can’t we all just read into it what we want? Is YHWH really speaking to me? If so, how can I even know what He is trying to say? We must have confidence that God is speaking to us right now through His Holy Bible.
But the ability to read, understand and apply the Bible, does not mean that all the text is read the same. Poetry is not the same as history. History is not the same as teaching. Therefore, I don’t always read the Bible literally, but I always take it seriously. So how can we discern between these different literary types and make a right application?
Hermeneutics is the word that describes the many methods we can use to understand the Scriptures so that we can apply God’s Word to our daily life, have a sense of meaning, and live our lives for His purpose. Hermeneutics is the principles of Scripture reading that enable us to understand the text and context of what God is saying and to faithfully apply His truth to our lives. God not only inspired the content of the Scripture, He was also sovereign over the context of history. That means He chose the time, people, language, and methods for a specific reason. Therefore, as we understand each of these hermeneutical contexts, we gain a stronger base for understanding the Bible text itself. Learning to hear what God is saying means that we develop good habits that will guide us to a faithful interpretation of YHWH’s Word. Below are the five key hermeneutical principles that each Christian should learn and begin to practice in daily Bible reading.
First, Rely on the Holy Spirit
As we seek to understand the meaning of God’s Word and apply it to our lives, our first and greatest goal should be communion with the God who wrote it. Hermeneutics is not about an academic exercise so that we can feel superior to others, or so that we can gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Rather Hermeneutics is about a personal endeavor to plumb the depths of God and immerse ourselves in His revealed glory.
Second, Explore the Context
What we have outlined so far is that we must have a passion for seeking God when we read the Scriptures. Passion, however, without the guidelines of Spiritual illumination and Scriptural direction leads to certain destruction of the soul. We must seek to provide guidelines form Scripture that will serve as Spiritual boundaries for the enthusiasm we all share for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Bible text stands above our own limited ability to properly grasp and apply its full meaning. Therefore, we must always read the Scripture with great respect and in awe of the God who wrote it. The context of each passage should never be ignored. God inspired the words used by the writers, God chose a certain time in history to make his revelation and God chose a certain people to first hear His Word. Each element of His Divine Narrative is important because each is a part of God’s self-revelation. A good hermeneutic does not mean that we are in complete control of the Bible. A good hermeneutic means that we now have the ability to gain insight into the Bible so it can have proper authority and control over us.
Third, Identify the Meaning
Take all that you have discovered and, with continued reliance upon the Holy Spirit for illumination, identify the meaning of the passage. As you work it out, here are a few guidelines to help you along the way.
- Meaning is always consistent with YHWH: God will never say anything that is against His own nature.
- Meaning comes from all Scripture: God speaks only truth, so every part of Scripture has meaning for your life.
- God wants you to know the meaning: YHWH spoke His Word so that you could know and follow Him, not to confuse or mislead you.
- The meaning is the meaning: A passage always means what it says, so unless you have a compelling reason, don’t change the clear teaching.
- Allow for Paradox: The above notwithstanding, there are passages in scripture that seem paradoxical; unsolvable puzzles that have no obvious solution. There are passages that create more questions than answers. There are teachings about our Father that encourage mystery over answers. Allow paradox to exist. Enjoy the paradox and know that God is greater than your understanding.
Fourth, Compare Your Results
Once you have determined the meaning of a Bible passage, take time to compare what you have discovered with what other Christians over the centuries have learned as well. Find trusted friends who are filled with the Spirit and practice sound hermeneutical values. Ask them to share their experience, give advice and direction on a passage. Use study aids, commentaries, and the like, but don’t put this step before the others. It is very tempting to use a study aid as a crutch. How often have you been confused on the meaning of a passage and instead of going through the right hermeneutical process, you simply read the footnote in your Bible and take it as God’s truth. This is the worst possible method of Bible study and will handicap the your ability to learn and apply God’s Word to there life.
Finally, Apply the Word to Your Life
As you seek to apply the Word of God to your life, you must remember that there is only one right meaning to the text, but unlimited applications to your life. Let the Bible speak to your experiences, but make sure that your experiences do not distort the purpose of God’s Word. Here are a few important ideas to always keep in mind as you try to faithfully apply God’s written Word to your life.
- Don’t Ignore the tough stuff: The passages you like least, are probably the ones you need to hear most, so don’t ignore the tough truths of Scripture and don’t be afraid to apply them to your life.
- Learn to rightly apply all truth: All truth has meaning, but not the same application. In other words, just because a passage has a different kind of application, does not mean that it is any less true. Every Scripture must be understood literally in the sense that God was did not inspire any part of Scripture without having a sincere purpose. However, the application of each passage will vary depending upon the style and context of each passage.
- Let Scripture interpret your life-experience: Let Scripture be the filter for your experiences, don’t let your experience filter the Scripture. We each have experiences that help form our view of life and the world around us. When we approach Scripture there are two ways we can handle these experience. We can either use our world view as the filter through which we interpret Scripture or we can use Scripture as our filter by which we can interpret our experience. These two approaches could be no more opposed than evil and good! By using personal experience as the filter to Scripture, the first approach makes our individual experience the source of revelation over the spoken Word of God. When a person says that their experience is the rule by which Scripture must be understood, they are saying that God is working greater in their life than in the Word itself. In stark contrast, the second approach makes Scripture superior to our experience and elevates the revelation of YHWH above our individual perspectives on life. The higher authority of Scripture brings great solace to our lives, as it helps us to live beyond our circumstances and realize that God’s written Word is the everlasting testimony of salvation, not just salvation from hell, but salvation from loneliness, isolation, and confusion. Every experience is valid in the sense that if we experience something, then it is real to us. However, just because we experience something and just because that experience is valid does no mean that our experience is good, bad, or necessary for others. Scripture, when used properly, will serve as our guide to every experience and provide the proper perspective to help us determine the nature of our daily encounters.
- Don’t get confused: Let the teachings of the clearest passages interpret the meaning of the more confusing or paradoxical passages.
- Don’t make rash decisions: Don’t make life decisions based on unclear or unsupported conclusions. Seek the whole counsel of Scripture.
- Enjoy the mystery: Scripture is designed to help us enjoy God; and often the greatest pleasure we find comes in the mystery of the infinite Divine. Don’t be afraid to embrace and apply the mystery to your life.
Hermeneutics is all about reading the Bible for life transformation. This article is based on lesson one of my twelve week series on Foundations in the Bible . I hope to have this available soon through a standard publisher. In the meantime, if you are a student of the Bible, a teacher, or a brand new believer wanting to learn about God’s Word this article should give you a simple place to start learning and practicing good hermeneutics and to start reading the Bible for Life!