How to interpret Biblical content is one of those questions that even seasoned theologians still ask sometimes. I mean, there’s a lot of deep stuff in the Bible!
Before you can correctly interpret Biblical content, you need to know the different categories of content. (HINT: because different content is interpreted differently.) Click here to find out more.
Once you know the different kinds of content, you’re ready to tackle interpreting it. Fortunately, the basic rules of interpretation are pretty simple.
Rule #1: KISS (Keep it simple, silly.)
No, this doesn’t mean you should go around kissing everybody you meet. (Cause that would be gross.) This means that the best method of interpreting the BIble is to take it literally. Just take it at face value.
Most of the Bible says exactly what it means. There is an exception in the case of poetry (which we’ll get into later), but for the most part, if it says “don’t steal” it means DON’T STEAL. This is pretty-straightforward, but you’d be amazed at the academic gymnastics some people do to keep from having to obey the Bible. If they can interpret it differently, they don’t have to obey it (or so they think).
The truth is, at the Last Judgement, we’re going to be evaluated according to our obedience to the commands that are in the Bible, so you’d better believe God meant for us to read them, believe them, and obey them.
Take the Bible literally, unless it’s obviously using figurative language.
Rule #2: Context is key.
If I told you that my friend Matthew loved spiders, you would accept that as a fact and move on with your life (although you might think he was a bit weird). But if you were standing next to my friend Matthew when I said that and saw the horrified look on his face, you would know that I was making a joke. 😉
This is why you need to know the context of any passage you’re studying. Without context, you have no background, no starting point. You have no way to judge whether a verse is supposed to be encouraging or a warning.
Context is all the background stuff: who the author was, who he was writing to, what time period it was written, what was going on in world history at the same time…. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff there!
At the very least, you should understand each individual verse as a part of the entire chapter that it’s in. Too many people randomly open the Bible and read a couple verses, say “that’s dumb” and toss it aside.
But when you’re watching your favorite TV show, you don’t just flip on for a couple seconds, say “that’s dumb” and leave. You stay long enough to figure out what’s going on. That’s called “finding the context.” (Trust me, a couple seconds of an NCIS show make absolutely no sense, which is the extent of my NCIS watching. That’s why I don’t know anything about NCIS. Because I don’t stay long enough to find out the context. 😉
Rule #3: Watch out for idioms.
No, not idiots. Idioms. These tricky little buggers are a special part of speech that every language has, and they’re notoriously difficult to transliterate.
Idioms are a phrase that mean something entirely different than the actual words that make it up. For instance: “by the skin of your teeth,” “the pot calling the kettle black,” “put your foot in your mouth,” and “it’s raining cats and dogs.” We know what all of those phrases mean, but if you tried to figure it out by the literal meaning of each of the words you’d come up with something entirely different.(Other languages have idioms too: my Cuban friends tell me there’s a phrase in Spanish, “clean only where the mother-in-law sees,” that roughly means to spot clean only the things that look dirty.)
Idioms are often found in the poetry category of content. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Click here to find out.
Rule #4: Watch out for figurative language.
Figurative language creates a word picture so you can better understand something. A lot of the doctrines in the Bible deal with spiritual things that we can’t see, so it uses figurative language to connect the abstract idea to something concrete in our world to give us an anchor point.
Pastors do this all the time when they use illustrations in their sermons to get a point across. It is comparing something new to something you’re already familiar with to give you a better idea.
There are a few specific kinds of figurative language:
- Similes: a comparison using the words “like” or “as.” They connect an idea with something similar. (Eg: “The stove was as hot as a wildfire.”)
- Metaphors: implied comparisons that don’t use the word “like” or “as.” They often make a more direct statement than similes. (Eg: “He was lone wolf.”)
- Hyperbole (“hyp-ER-bowl-EE”): Your crazy uncle is probably fond of hyperbole. In fact, I know fisherman are. 😉 Hyperbole is making a very strong statement by exaggerating certain elements to convey the depth of the experience. (Eg: “My heart thumped more wildly than elephant stampede.”)
- Personification (also called “anthropomorphism.”): giving human characteristics to un-human things. Most examples of this in the Bible are used to explain God. God is hard for our tiny human brains to comprehend, so He uses figures of speech to compare Himself to something we understand (like saying “He holds the world in His hand,” or that “His ear is open unto their cry.”)
Rule #5: Remember that parables are like Aesop’s fables.
Did you read Aesop’s fables as a kid? They were great! It was a story with a moral, told on purpose to teach you something. Jesus used this method of teaching often. Nowadays, we call them parables.
It is important to remember that a parable has one specific moral.
People try to make parables into allegories sometimes and assign all sorts of special meanings to everything in the story, but parables are like Aesop's fables: there is one central lesson to each parable. Don’t hurt yourself trying to find out the significance of every single tiny detail. If you know the moral of the story, you’ve successfully interpreted the parable.
There you have it! Five easy rules for interpreting Bible content. Congratulations!
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