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Chapter 5
How to Interpret the Bible

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The first step in interpreting the Bible is to read it all by itself, just to know God and understand and put into practice what He says. Let me encourage you to develop the habit of daily Bible reading and prayer. If you read the Scriptures frequently, and for the most part without following other people's comments, you will be able to guide your life by them, and get to know the Author. Instead of skipping around every day, read a book all the way through before starting another book, so you can follow what it says. For a change of pace from time to time, use center references and a concordance, or a Bible software program to study a subject that interests you all through the Bible.

In addition, when others teach you something, instead of automatically considering it right, do as the believers in Berea. Paul praised them for checking even his own words with the Scriptures before accepting them as true. "These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so" (Acts 17:11).

Whenever it is possible, try to decide for yourself what a passage means before listening to or reading someone else's interpretation.

Context

It is important not to base our doctrines on verses taken out of context. No matter how much you trust the person who suggests a doctrine based on a verse here and a verse there, always read the verses preceding and following each passage. Otherwise, you can never be sure you have understood what a verse was really teaching. Clever teachers have used verses out of context to convince multitudes to follow all kinds of strange religions and false interpretations of the Bible.

As a further check, study the other passages in the Bible that deal with the same subject. To find them, use center references and concordances or a computer Bible program which were not set up by the same teachers. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable…" (2 Tim. 3:16). So don't stop with just those verses that someone wants you to see in a particular way. See if that is the way God used them.

I remember feeling very confused one day when a couple who had come to my door showed me a verse in the beatitudes that spoke of the mild tempered ones inheriting the earth (Matt. 5:5). They explained, "The saved will not go to heaven, but will inherit the earth after death." Only after he left, when I read the whole passage, did I realize that just two verses earlier Christ had said, "Happy are those conscious of their spiritual need, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them" (Matt. 5:3). Following the verse he had shown me was verse ten which was very similar, and after that, verse 12 says if you are persecuted "your reward is great in the heavens…"

Obviously the verse they pointed out to me should not be interpreted in a way that would contradict the rest of the passage which teaches that our reward is in fact in heaven. Reading the whole passage, it was obvious that the overall teaching of the passage is that the saved do go to heaven. While inheriting land could be taken in a sense that would contradict the rest of the passage, it should be interpreted to go with the passage, that is, the mild tempered ones inherit land during their life time. If I had not read the verses before and after the one these teachers presented to me, I may well have believed their statement that the saved don't go to heaven. One verse, taken out of context, had been cleverly used to teach me the opposite of what the whole passage clearly said.

Interpret the Unclear in the Light of the Clear

Some verses are just plain hard to understand. They should not be made to contradict the clear teaching of the majority of Scripture.

The rule is: Interpret difficult passages in the light of the clear ones. This is particularly important when unclear passages in the Old Testament, written in a particular moment of history before Christ came, are used to contradict clear passages in the New Testament, written much more specifically for our time. Obviously when the Old Testament passage tells of something that will happen in a later age, this needs to be taken into account, but the principle: "Interpret the unclear in the light of the clear," stands.

Figurative Language

Usually, the Bible lets it be known when it is speaking in a figurative sense. Otherwise, accept the literal meaning. As an example, it is usually not correct to interpret the words "Sons of Israel" to mean Englishmen, Christians, or Jehovah's Witnesses.

Real figures of speech will stand for something similar to the figure, not in opposition to it. You should not believe that "eternal punishment" means "ceasing to exist," no matter how convincing a teacher may be.

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