The Key to Taking the Guesswork Out of Interpreting the Bible: Discovering Original Intent – Part 2

Although there are many possible barriers to correctly interpreting the Bible, one glaring and common error repeated today is the failure to discover original intent. The misrepresentation of what the Bible says and means in large part flows from this one error. What many pastors and theologians have failed to recognize is that the Bible was not written to us in our present day. It was written to certain people at another period of time in the past. Correctly using the principles of interpretation eliminates the guesswork and shines a light on the original intent.

I sum up Part I of last week with a quote from a 19th century theologian, Milton Spencer Terry:

“When we find that in the explanation of certain parts of the Scriptures no two interpreters out of a whole class agree, we have great reason to presume at once that some fatal error lurks in their principles of interpretation.”1

Such an error substantially misses the point that what God has revealed to us originated first with the original audience for which it was intended.

Today, I want to discuss the process and principles of interpretation of how we determine original intent.

The Process

The Bible is a big book with many parts, people and events. Basically, when you piece it altogether, it’s a history book. If we approach the Bible as a history book, all we have to do is follow the story. Just like if we followed the story of your life – where you lived, people you lived with, the circumstances and events you experienced, the customs you learned, your best successes and worst failures – everything about your life – we would see the story of your life unfold.

That’s what the Bible is – a historical drama that unfolds before our eyes. Keep it simple.

So, like any book, we would start at the beginning. The beginning is Genesis chapter one. But in my experience, the most direct way to start is beginning with the life of Abraham in Genesis chapter 12. Because, as you will see, the Bible is most easily grasped by reading about this man, who is one of the most important men of the Bible. Without understanding his story, you simply cannot understand what the Bible says and means.

As I explain in Book One, Discover the Story of Your Biblical Heritagewe return to the beginning chapters of Genesis later in our study as we complete our pilgrimage through the Bible.

The process of finding the original intent approaches the Bible as a history book, beginning with the life of Abraham. We won’t just read about Abraham’s life, but we will be transported back to his time as if we were walking beside him – listening in and watching his life – what God said to him and how he responded. We will experience the drama as it unfolds from Abraham to his son Isaac and his grandson, Jacob. We will be enveloped in the whole panorama of history of Abraham’s family down through the centuries. We will find the original intent as this history book is progressively revealed.

In the Covenant Heritage Series, I take you step-by-step and help you through what would appear to be a disjointed maze. I shine a light on the next path ahead so you can find your own way through it. And at the end of the story, you will see the whole picture. It will make sense. You will be able to put the pieces of the Bible puzzle together.

The Principles of Interpretation

Along the way, we use and apply time-tested principles of interpretation to help verify and prove what the Bible says and means. No tricks or slight-of-hand tactics – just straightforward, no nonsense methods of analysis that you would use to make sense out of any letter, newspaper article or book. By consistent and objective application of these principles, we have the best chance of arriving at the Bible’s original intent.

So, what are these principles? Basically, there are two main ones.

The first principle of interpretation is this: The Bible must be read, studied and interpreted in its context. For example, what does John 3:16 mean?

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

In other words, to understand what John 3:16 says and means, you might want to ask the following questions:

  1.  What preceded John 3:16?

a.  Who was speaking?

b.  Who was being spoken to?

c.  What was the subject matter?

2.  What followed John 3:16?

a.  Who was speaking?

b.  Who was being spoken to?

c.  What was the subject matter?

3.  Suppose you wanted to know what the word “world” (Greek: kosmos) meant in John 3:16. You might ask:

a.  Does the context of John chapter 3 reveal anything about “world”?

b.  Does the context of the entire Gospel of John shed any light on how he used the word “world”?

c.  Does the rest of the New Testament reveal anything about how “world” is used?

The principle of context gives you important information to help you more accurately make a correct interpretation.  And the wider the context you consider, the more accurate your analysis and conclusion will be.

I will show you how to apply the principle of context.

The second principle of interpretation is this: Let the Bible interpret itself. It is very common, for example, to find the New Testament quoting from the Old Testament. Often, going back to a quote in the Old Testament sheds light on the New Testament.

As an illustration, the Apostle Peter is writing to people which were “scattered” or dispersed in certain areas (I Peter 1:1). To find out who they were, you might want to go back to the Old Testament. For example, in Deuteronomy 28:63-65, God warns Israel that disobeying Him would eventually result in God scattering them into other lands. The Old Testament may help us to determine who Peter was writing to many centuries later.

In I Peter 2:9-10, he also refers to his audience by quoting from the Old Testament:

“But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.”

Using a concordance or perhaps a side-note column in your Bible, you can find where these quotes came from and who they refer to. Does that give you clues about who Peter was writing to?

All we are doing is letting the Bible interpret itself. That’s what you will learn how to do in the Covenant Heritage Series and what I will be training you to do in the Bible Mastery Boot Camp.

We will use these principles of interpretation regularly to take the guesswork out of knowing with certainty what the Bible says and means. You will discover its original intent. When you get that, then you can begin to see how the Bible may apply today to you.

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Lawrence Blanchard, ND, MDiv

1 Milton Spencer Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 161.

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