A Bible scholar walks into a friend’s kitchen and sees a magnet fixing a diet plan to the refrigerator door. It reads, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you . . . to give you hope and a future’ ” (Jer. 29:11, NIV). Is his dieting friend interpreting Scripture correctly? The first principle of interpretation is “Read contextually.” The Bible scholar thinks to himself, “Does he know that Jeremiah spoke to Israel’s leaders in exile in Babylon? That a word spoken to the nation of Israel isn’t necessarily a personal promise to individual Christians?” The scholar worries: “Does my friend think God promised to prosper him through this diet plan?” Or does the scholar’s training drive him mad? “Maybe my friend simply wants to remember that God is for His people,” the scholar reasons, “even him.”
We confess that the Bible is God’s Word, but unless we read and interpret it properly, our confess ion is a mere formality. Sound biblical exegesis is essential if we hope to know and act upon biblical truth. Sound interpretation has two elements: the technical and the personal. From the technical side, we must first read the Bible according to the grammar and lexicon of the day. It is not sufficient to know what words like flesh, covenant, judge, talent, slave, or justify mean today; we must know what they meant in that day. Second, we must read texts in their literary and cultural contexts.
The frequent command “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14) illustrates both principles. In the West, we naïvely assume that this kiss is something for first-century people to do, but not for us. But we can’t simply disregard a command; we must investigate. When we do, we find the “kiss” entailed a ritual touch of cheeks, not lips, and that it was always man to man or woman to woman, not man to woman. Culturally, the kiss demonstrated friendship, kinship, and affection. Therefore, to obey the command in our culture, we assess how we show loyalty and affection, and practice that. Sound exegesis discovers that the kiss itself is not Paul’s concern. Rather, he wants believers to show loyalty and affection in ways that suit each culture.
Serious readers have a threefold question about Bible interpretation: what did it mean, what does it mean, and how does it apply? The question feels most urgent when disciples ask, when do I interpret a statement literally and when do I interpret it figuratively? When must we obey a command literally and when must we not? We answer these questions by studying a passage in its cultural context.
Take the question of head coverings and long hair for women (1 Cor. 11:2–16). Are head coverings the issue in itself, or are they a sign of something? Traditionally, many Christians have taken the prescription for head coverings to be permanently binding. Even today, many insist that the abiding principle of male authority in the home means that women should cover their heads in church. Others, however, argue that hairstyles vary immensely between and within cultures, and they carry variable symbolic weight. America’s first presidents wore wigs, and until 1915, most had prominent facial hair. Greco-Roman portraits show that respectable women covered their hair and wore it up, not loose. Today, godly married women ask how their appearance can show respect for their husbands.
A second way to grasp the meaning and application of the Bible is by following the progression of thought in a passage. For example, a woman once told Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” (Luke 11:27). This praise for Jesus’ mother seems odd, but in that culture people believed that women could find greatness by bearing a great son. She meant to bless Jesus by blessing Mary. Jesus’ reply is intriguing: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (v. 28). The term rather suggests that Jesus means gently to correct her. Rather means “yes, but there is more.” Her praise is commendable, yet she subtly diminishes womankind by assuming that a woman finds greatness through connection to a great man. While that is not entirely false, a woman finds true greatness by becoming a faithful disciple. In this case, sound exegesis requires resources. Any thorough commentary will address the cultural factors in Luke 11. Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias are also great aids.
Proper exegesis in this case also requires that we note the subtle shift marked by the word rather. Careful readers watch for terms that signify a shift in thought. When a passage contrasts ideas, draws conclusions, or makes concessions, we often see terms like but, or, furthermore, yet, since, for, because, then, therefore, so that, and many more.
Biblical discourse frequently makes the main point clear by placing it first or last in a passage or by repeating it (Ps. 103:1–2; James 2:17, 20, 26). But we must read carefully to see how the passage reaches or develops that main point. For example, the theme of Romans 3:21–4:25 is justification by faith alone, but the role of 4:1–8 is not immediately obvious. The phrase just as David also speaks (4:6) shows there is some connection. Reflection shows what the connection is: knowing that one statement of justification by faith won’t be enough, Paul illustrates his point through twin heroes of the faith, Abraham and David. The lesson: not even Abraham, with his amazing deeds, was saved by works. And even David, with his terrible sins, was forgiven and justified by faith. If these two are justified by faith alone, all believers are.
We have many excellent books on Bible study methods. Together they answer our common questions. For example, when reading history, we should prefer literal interpretation of Scripture wherein a mountain is a mountain. Yet the teaching of Jesus and the prophets bursts with metaphor, exaggeration, and irony. Jesus asked loaded questions, expecting answers, while refusing to give a straight answer to half the questions people put to Him. Jesus interpreted some parables (Matt. 13:3–43) but lets us puzzle through others (v. 37). Likewise, Revelation occasionally offers hints on the proper interpretation of its symbols (for example, Rev. 12:7–12).
Moses and Paul had a linear, propositional style, but Jesus and most prophets love poems, parables, and analogies that arrest us with their vividness or strangeness and invite us to think. When we read them, a mountain might be a place of rebellion. In that spirit, Jeremiah 51:25 calls Babylon, a city located on a vast plain, a “destroying mountain.” Similarly, while most narratives spell out their message, others stretch out for pages without doing so. If we keep our eye on the style or genre of each book, these things become clear. In His wisdom, God chose to hand us cardinal truths such as “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). But He lets us wrestle our way to other principles.
Occasionally, Jesus chose to be cryptic as a rebuke to those who refused to hear His word or heed His signs (Matt. 13:11–17; see Amos 8:11; John 8:45). Yet the Bible isn’t elitist poetry that intends bafflement. God gave us His Word so we could believe in Him, love Him covenantally, and follow Him. John said he recounted Jesus’ signs “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).
As we consider rebukes and faith, we enter the personal angle of interpretation. The prophets and Apostles knew their words would encounter rejection and deliberate distortion (Jer. 36:23; 2 Peter 3:16), not just ordinary misunderstanding. Therefore, God tells us that if we read the Bible correctly at the personal level, we will know Him and be conformed to Him. Since He “practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness,” we should too (Jer. 9:24; 22:3). We should become more like God in our character and practices (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:32–5:2).
The personal angle explains why the Bible, unlike other books, tells us how to read it. Jesus says we must read holistically, looking for His suffering and glory (Luke 24:25–27; Heb. 2:9; 1 Peter 1:11). Paul says Scripture will “make you wise for salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). The Psalms command God’s people to meditate on the Word to find life (Pss. 1; 19; 119). Proverbs encourages readers to treasure wisdom and find blessing (Prov. 2:1; 7:1). James 1:22 says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Paul says we are to read for the spirit rather than the letter of the law (2 Cor. 3:6).
Scripture also tells us how not to read. Jesus often chided Jewish leaders for misreading Scripture, asking, “Have you not read?” (for example, Matt. 12:3–5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 23:31). Jesus did not question their literacy or reading habits. They read Scripture, but failed to grasp its meaning. On four occasions, they missed Scripture’s testimony to Jesus. Once, they followed the law’s letter and missed its intent.
In Matthew 19, the Pharisees asked, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matt. 19:3). Jesus replied, asking them if they had read that God created mankind male and female, to become one flesh (vv. 4–6). Yet many Pharisees misread, turning regulations intended to restrain divorce into grounds for easy divorce. They missed God’s plan—that husband and wife should remain together.
In Matthew 12, the Pharisees again misread when they charged Jesus with breaking the Sabbath by permitting His disciples to pluck grain from fields as they traveled. Had they not read how David and his companions ate consecrated bread, which was unlawful, because they were hungry (v. 3; see 1 Sam. 22)? If they had read Scripture correctly, they would know that God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (v. 7; see Hos. 6:6). That means true human need outweighs temple and Sabbath regulations. Further, “One greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6). That is, if priests are permitted to serve in space that represents God’s presence, then disciples may do anything necessary to assist Jesus, for He is God’s presence.
These cases of misreading demonstrate that sound exegesis requires more than proper methods. We cannot do justice to Scripture unless we realize, as Augustine said, that its final purpose is to increase “the twin love of God and neighbor.” Christians read Scripture well when they seek this for themselves and others, and so make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18–20). May we so read and become “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).