Lesson 9: The Practice of Biblical Interpretation | Biblical Foundations for Living

Lesson 9: The Practice of Biblical Interpretation

Lesson Eight showed that one must consider historical, literary, and grammatical factors in order to properly interpret any communication. Since the last book of the Bible was written 1,900 years ago, one must attempt to place a passage of Scripture in its historical, literary, and grammatical context in order to determine the author’s intended meaning.

[Historical = why, when, where; literary = forms, figures of speech; grammatical = languages, grammatical units.


Remember that “context is king.” Context is the main thing that tells us what a certain word or idea or sentence means. Words do not have meaning “in themselves.” It is only in the context of other words that a word takes on a specific meaning.]

It is not enough for one simply to know the principles of interpretation. One must put them into practice . Lesson Six taught that God has revealed truth about Himself so that men might know His will and do it. To that end, this lesson is devoted to the practice of biblical interpretation. We will apply the principles learned in Lesson Eight to a chosen passage of Scripture in order to demonstrate how one should interpret the Bible. The passage we will study is 1 Corinthians 14:18 19:

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

This lesson will show that in order to determine the author’s intended meaning of a passage, one must:

1. Study the words of the passage.

2. Study the sentences of the passage.

3. Study the paragraphs of the passage.

4. Study the book containing the passage.

5. Correlate the passage with other Scripture .

[As you can see, Bible interpretation takes time and effort. Finding the meaning of a passage is often no easy task. This explains why so many false/incorrect views and interpretations abound–the interpreter is not doing the work necessary to come to the proper conclusions. We must not be guilty of laziness when it comes to interpreting Scripture.]

I. Study the Words of the Passage.

A. Choose words to study.

1. Choose the key words in the passage.

Key words are those that indicate the topic of a passage. The passage at hand has to do with “ tongues .” Therefore, it would be helpful to know something about this word.

2. Choose unfamiliar words in the passage.

The occurrence of unfamiliar words should be rare in a modern translation. In our passage, the author prefers that his readers speak words that are

intelligible .” If this word is unfamiliar, one should look up its meaning.

B. Define words in the passage.

1. Consult an English dictionary.

When we want to know the definition of a word, we usually look it up in a dictionary. However, a dictionary offers several possible meanings for a word based on the word’s usage in contemporary communication. Therefore, one must determine which, if any, definition is appropriate for the word being studied.

2. Consult a Bible dictionary.

[Vine’s Expository Dictionary of NT Words is a good one. There may be several potential meanings listed, that is, several that fit the context. But the author meant only one thing. The job of the interpreter is to get to that meaning.]

A Bible dictionary defines words as they are used in the Bible. A particular word may have several different usages throughout the Bible; however, as we learned in Lesson Eight, a word has only one meaning in a given context. Therefore, one must choose the definition most appropriate to the passage at hand. For example, we have chosen to define the word “tongue.” A Bible dictionary lists two primary uses of this word in Scripture: 1) the word is used literally of the physical organ of the mouth and 2) it is used of spoken languages . Which definition fits the passage at hand? Note that the author writes about “speaking in tongues” (indicating a language) rather than “speaking with tongues” (which would indicate the physical organ).

Most Bible dictionaries, however, do not define every word used in Scripture. Because “intelligible” is a rare word, it is not found in most Bible dictionaries.

3. Consult a Bible concordance .

A concordance lists the verses in which a given word is found. Once the student locates the desired word in the concordance, he can look up the verses in order to find the word’s usage elsewhere in the Bible. The concordance indicates that “intelligible” is used again in the same chapter we are studying:

Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?   1 Corinthians 14:9

Thus, “intelligible” refers to words that allow the listener to “know what you are saying.” Intelligible words are words that one can understand .

Note: Be sure to consult an exhaustive concordance, one which lists every word in the Bible and every verse in which a particular word occurs.

[Young’s or Strong’s are the most popular. They are referenced to the KJV. You can do the same thing with computer programs which are faster and easier.]

II. Study the Sentences of the Passage.

A. Study the structure of each sentence.

All sentences are made up of parts of speech that give each word a function in the sentence. Nouns describe persons, places, or things, while verbs describe action or being, etc. Even seemingly insignificant words such as “to” perform a function. For example, the author of our passage states:

I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others.

In this verse, the word “to” indicates the author’s reason for preferring words that are understandable: so that others may be instructed.

B. Study the relationship of the sentences to one another.

The relationship of sentences to one another is indicated by the use of words which communicate such a relationship. For example, in our passage the author begins the second sentence with the word “but” to indicate a contrast with the first sentence:

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church . . . .

Although the author has the ability to speak in languages that some might not understand, the purpose of speech in the church is to instruct others by speaking understandable words.

[Is this the way charismatic services are usually conducted? No. Usually many people are speaking in tongues all at once with no interpreter. This is not the biblical pattern.]

The following is a list of words used to connect sentences, along with their intended significations:

Word Signification

but contrast

just as comparison

because, for reason

therefore, then result

that, so that, in order that purpose

then, so conclusion

III. Study the Paragraphs of the Passage.

A. Determine the boundaries of each paragraph.

Just as words are logically arranged to form sentences, sentences are logically arranged to form paragraphs. A paragraph begins a new thought that contributes to the overall theme of the passage in which it is contained. Since the boundaries of a paragraph can be difficult to determine, one should keep the following facts in mind:

1. A new verse is not necessarily a new paragraph.

The original manuscripts of the Bible did not contain verse markings. These were added later to help locate passages of Scripture. Therefore, verses may or may not begin a new paragraph. Most modern translations either indent the text at the beginning of a new paragraph or place the number of the verse that begins a new paragraph in bold type.

2. Literary form affects paragraph structure.

As seen in Lesson Eight, the Bible contains various forms of literature: letters, poetry, narratives, etc. These literary forms may group sentences differently. For example, the book of Psalms is poetic . Therefore, the sentences therein are grouped according to the structure of Hebrew poetry. Most modern translations arrange the text to reflect such structure.

B. Determine the message of each paragraph.

Remember, the message of a given paragraph will support the overall theme of the passage in which it is found. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:18 19 forms a new thought supporting the author’s argument that only understandable words are to be spoken in the church. The preceding paragraph (verses 13 17) contains illustrations which show the folly of speaking in unintelligible languages. The following paragraph (verses 20 21) challenges the readers to think maturely on this matter.

IV. Study the Book Containing the Passage.

A. Read the entire book.

One should read the entire book through in one sitting. This enables one to follow the author’s flow of thought and to notice other factors which will aid interpretation. For example, a reading of 1 Corinthians reveals that the Corinthian Church had a number of problems, of which the tongues issue was only one. The book indicates that the root of these problems was pride , which resulted in a lack of love for others (chapters 8 13). This knowledge will help one better understand the situation in Corinth with regard to tongues.

B. Determine the author of the book.

In most cases, the author is identified in the book itself.

Paul, called to be an apostle . . . .   1 Corinthians 1:1

C. Determine the recipient(s) of the book.

Again, this is usually stated in the book.

. . . to the church of God in Corinth.   1 Corinthians 1:2

D. Determine the purpose of the book.

This is either stated in the book or implied by other factors. Paul implies the purpose for the book of 1 Corinthians in two places:

[S]ome from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.   1 Corinthians 1:11

Now for the matters you wrote about . . . .   1 Corinthians 7:1

Paul had been informed about issues in the Corinthian church to which he responded with the letter of 1 Corinthians. Tongues was one such issue.

As always, in those cases where the author, recipients, or purpose of a book is unclear, consult a commentary and/or study Bible.

V. Correlate the Passage with Other Scripture.

Because God is its ultimate author, the Bible does not contradict itself. Its teachings are consistent throughout. This means that one can compare Scripture with Scripture to determine the meaning of a passage. Other portions of Scripture may contain helpful background material or shed further light upon the passage being studied.

[In other words, one part of the Bible often explains another part or parts. This concept is called "the analogy of Scripture.” Remember also that clear teaching should inform unclear teaching.]

A. Study related passages .

In Lesson Eight, we learned that the overall context of the Bible covers both content and time . That is, one must correlate both the message and the chronology of Bible passages.

1. Compare the content of related passages.

Survey the verses listed in a Bible dictionary, study Bible, concordance, or commentary to find any passages that contain information related to your passage. For example, in looking up references to the word “tongue,” an interesting passage in the book of Acts comes to light:

When the day of Pentecost came, they . . . began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.   Acts 2:1 6

From this passage we learn that “speaking in tongues” refers to languages that were understandable to the hearers.

2. Compare the time of related passages.

Consult a study Bible or a commentary and you will see that the events of the book of Acts happened before the writing of 1 Corinthians. In the case at hand, the speaking in tongues on the Day of Pentecost preceded 1 Corinthians by approximately 25 years. Thus, since Acts 2 occurred first, it defines the purpose for speaking in tongues rather than 1 Corinthians.

[I[In other words, we learn what speaking in tongues is all about in Acts.

Regarding the time context of a passage, note that there is a large difference between the OT and the NT, especially regarding religious practice. OT passages are often not directly applicable to NT believers (e.g., we don’t sacrifice or go to the temple periodically), and vice versa. So be careful about cross referencing between the OT and the NT.]b>

B. Develop and apply related principles.

1. Develop principles from the passages.

As noted above, the events of Acts preceded the writing of 1 Corinthians. Further study of the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” reveals that Acts 2 is the first recorded occurrence of such in the Bible. Therefore, the original purpose for tongues is clearly set forth in Acts 2: to communicate a message to others in their own language.

By the time 1 Corinthians was written, the practice had apparently degenerated to the point that unintelligible speech was considered to be a gift from God (1 Corinthians 12 13). Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth sought to correct this and other errors. The teaching of 1 Corinthians 14 on tongues is consistent with the original purpose set forth in Acts 2. This is why only words that “instruct others” are deemed by Paul to be appropriate for a church service. Thus, the principle of “edifying” or “building up” others is taught in this passage (1 Corinthians 14:4 5).

2. Apply the principles to your life.

[A[A passage has only one correct interpretation, but may have several legitimate applications. This is what makes the Bible timeless. Our main task is to discern eternal, unchanging principles taught in the Bible and apply them to our lives. Principlizing is especially important when dealing with narrative sections of the Bible. Remember the description vs. prescription idea.]b>

Activity which directly builds up or contributes to the building up of others is to be our primary concern in the church. Preaching, teaching, singing, etc. is to be done for the edification of others, not self glorification.

Suggested Bible study tools:

A. Good Bible translations: New International Version (NIV), New American Standard Bible (NASB), King James Version (KJV), New King James Version (NKJV)

B. Study Bibles: NIV Study Bible, Ryrie Study Bible

C. Bible dictionary: Unger’s Bible Dictionary

D. Bible concordance: Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance

E. Bible commentaries: The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 2 volumes; Bible Study Commentary, 49 volumes; Everyman’s Bible Commentary (multiple volumes); Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 volumes

F. Bible encyclopedia: Baker’s Encyclopedia of the Bible, 2 volumes

G. Bible doctrine resources: Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie; Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns

H. Bible handbook: Halley’s Bible Handbook

I. Bible atlas: Moody Atlas of the Bible

Recap & Review

In this lesson, we have learned that in order to determine the author’s intended meaning of a passage, we must:

1. Study the words of the passage. Choose the key and unfamiliar words and define them by consulting an English dictionary, a Bible dictionary, and an exhaustive concordance.

2. Study the sentences of the passage. This includes both the structure of each sentence and the relationships between the sentences.

3. Study the paragraphs of the passage. After determining the boundaries of each paragraph, determine the meaning of each.

4. Study the book containing the passage. Read the entire book to become familiar with it and to determine its author, recipients, and purpose.

5. Correlate the passage with other Scripture. After studying related passages, noting the content and time of each, develop and apply principles from them.

[L[Let me reemphasize that Bible interp. is no quick and easy task. Pastors and teachers spend years honing their skills so they can better interpret the Bible. The better you are at things like grammar and syntax, the easier it will be for you to implement these steps. Think about that when you are studying grammar in English class.]b>

Learning to Live It

The following exercises will help you put into practice the material learned in the last two lessons.

1. One Protestant denomination refuses to have paid preachers on the basis of 1 Timothy 3:3 (“not a lover of money”). Is this a proper interpretation of this verse? How does 1 Timothy 5:17 18 relate to this issue?

no; It clearly teaches that pastors are to be paid for what they do.

2. You find out a friend is seriously dating and planning to marry an unbeliever. While pointing out passages like 2 Corinthians 6:14 17 to her, she responds by quoting 1 Corinthians 6:12 (“Everything is permissible for me.”). Is her understanding of this passage correct? What does the context indicate? What should you tell her?

no; that this is a Corinthian slogan (hence, italicized in the NIV), not Paul’s words–Paul argues against it; that her interpretation is incorrect and that she should end the relationship based upon 2 Corinthians 6:14-17; you could use that slogan to validate anything.

3. Some people teach that Deuteronomy 22:5 (“A woman must not wear men’s clothing.”) indicates that women today should not wear pants. Is this a valid interpretation? How would an understanding of men’s and women’s dress in that period help? Does an understanding of the original audience help? Does a knowledge of the other commands in chapters 21 22 contribute to a proper understanding of this verse?

no; both wore similar clothing; Moses is writing at a time when there were no such things as pants; yes–if Deuteronomy 22:5 is applicable to us today, so are the other commands in chapters 21 and 22, such as stoning rebellious sons (21:18-21), building a parapet around your roof (22:8), mixing seeds (22:9), mixing plowing animals (22:10), and mixing fabrics (22:11)

4. Some parents read Proverbs 22:6 (“Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it.”) and consider it an absolute promise from God that if they rear their children correctly, they will turn out well. Did Solomon intend for this to be interpreted as a guarantee? Are proverbs guarantees? (Does an apple a day always keep the doctor away?)

no; no (no)–Proverbs are general truths, not absolute ones.

5. Some people take Paul’s statement in Acts 20:20 (that he taught “from house to house”) as a biblical example of door to door evangelism. Was Paul referring to door to door evangelism here? How would an understanding of Paul’s normal evangelistic practice help? Does a knowledge of his original audience help? Does the context provide any helpful information?

no; Paul did not practice door-to-door evangelism. Rather, he went to the synagogue and into the marketplace.; yes–Paul is speaking to the Ephesian pastors; yes–He is speaking about edification, not evangelism. Furthermore, the houses spoken of were probably house-churches.

6. People in the charismatic/healing movement take Isaiah 53:5 (“By his wounds we are healed.”) to mean that when Christ died, He secured a life of perfect health for His children. Does this passage teach that? Is the context talking about physical sickness as the problem to be healed? If they are correct, what do we do with the clear teaching of 2 Corinthians 12:7 8 that Paul had a constant physical ailment which God would not remove?

no; no, spiritual sickness; Paul either was not a believer or if he was, he lacked the faith to be healed.

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