Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at email@example.com.
Warren Wiersbe, the long-time pastor of the Moody Bible Church in Chicago, once preached a sermon entitled: How “To Get More Out Of Your Bible.” I transcribed it (as fast as I could) while he spoke. He was giving a simple lesson in Biblical hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation) that was designed to be helpful to Christians of any age. I took the sermon and added some touches and principles of my own and have given this Bible lessons to Christians all over the world.
We’ve all heard someone say: "You can interpret every verse in Bible many different ways!" Not so! There is only one correct interpretation for every verse—and that is, “What did the Bible writer have in mind when he wrote what he wrote.”
Before I share the principles of interpretation, let me remind you that our attitude in approaching the Bible is critically important.
We must be Christians.
Paul wrote that an unsaved cannot understand spiritual things (1 Corinthians 2:14). The Bible was basically written for the heart. The Bible was written not just to make us smart; it was written to make us like Jesus.
We need humble hearts.
It's when we're humble that God speaks to us (James 4:6). After all, He calls us lambs--not giraffes, elephants or lions. Much of the Bible was written out of deep suffering. We dare not approach it with a proud and arrogant heart. We can't come to Bible to learn and then obey just what we want (John 7:17)!
Our Bible study must be consistent (Psalm 119:97 and Acts 17:11).
A high I.Q. is no guarantee to understanding the Bible; this is a spiritual matter.
The Holy Spirit is God's provision for comprehending God's Word.
He is our spiritual teacher. After all, He is the one who wrote the Book (John 14:26 and 2 Timothy 3:16).
We need to be on close, intimate terms with the Holy Spirit.
One of greatest problems with Christians today is that we are too busy. “It's in quietness that we find strength,” says Isaiah.
“It’s better to come apart and rest awhile before you come apart.”
The “ABC” Principles Help Us to Interpret the Bible Properly
“A”: THE ACCURACY PRINCIPLE: BE SURE THAT ALL PERSONS, PLACES, OBJECTS AND EVENTS ARE ACCURATELY IDENTIFIED AND DEFINED BEFORE INTERPRETING A PASSAGE.
A lady said: "I can't believe that the Bible is true because it’s impossible to carry Noah's Ark around in wilderness for forty years." She had the wrong ark!
Be careful about identifying people and places. There are ten different Simons in New Testament; four men named John; and three named James. In Acts 12 James has his head cut off. Days later Peter is miraculously released from prison. He says, “Now go tell James I'm out of prison.” Hadn’t James had his head cut off? The first James is the Apostle. The second is James the half-brother of Christ.
The Herod who tried Jesus Christ and the Herod who murdered the babies were two different Herods.
We must be careful to know the correct meanings of words. In the King James Bible Hebrews 13:5 is translated: "Let your conversation be without covetousness." That seems simple enough to interpret. It obviously means, "Don't talk about money." But when this passage was written the word “conversation” meant lifestyle, or behavior. The proper interpretation of this verse is, "Let your lifestyle be without greed."
In the same version, 1 Peter 3:1 is translated,"Let the husband be won by the conversation of his wife." Most men will never be won to Christ by the talking of their wives. But, they well be won by observing the Godly lifestyles of their wives.
You Say, “Well How Can I Know All Of This? I've Never Been To Seminary Or A Bible Class?”
The best way is to buy some good Bible tools, dictionaries, translations, and commentaries. If you want to fix a car, you need tools. If you want to build a house, you need tools. If you want to properly study the Bible, you need tools.
I’m not saying that you can't get a spiritual blessing from the Bible without books. I am saying that you'll get a greater spiritual blessing from the Bible with books.
Of course, you don’t have to buy all of these tools as books anymore, most of the answers you need are easily found on the internet.
In prison in Rome Paul wrote to Timothy, "It's cold; bring my coat before winter, and bring my books, and especially the parchments." Paul wanted his books.
If we fail to make proper observations with accuracy regarding people and places, then we can rest assured that our Biblical interpretations will usually be inaccurate.
I think you'll appreciate a little essay by a ten-year-old boy which illustrates what can happen when we violate the Accuracy Principle.
The cow is a mammal. It has six sides, right, left, and upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With it, it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk. The head is for the purpose of growing horns, and so that the mouth can be somewhere. The horns are to butt with. The mouth is to moo with. Under the cow hangs the milk. It is arranged for milking. When people milk the milk comes and there is never an end to the supply. How the cow does it I have not yet realized. But it makes more and more. The man cow is called an ox. It is not a mammal. The cow does not eat much but what it eats it eats twice so that it gets enough."
“B”: THE BACKGROUND PRINCIPLE: Be sure to understand the context and the background of the passage before interpreting any THING.
Enemies of the Bible say, "You can prove anything by the Bible!" Now, that's true if you take things out of their context. Psalm 14:1 says, "There is no God!" But the whole verse says, “The fool says in his heart there is no God.”
It's a very serious offense to take verses out of the Bible and twist them and turn them. We study every verse in light of the whole chapter; every chapter in light of the entire book, the book in light of entire Bible. Martin Luther said, The Bible is like a tree. See whole tree, not just leaf. Don't read the Bible by verses, read it by paragraphs, books and chapters.
We can take some verses out of context from the Book of James and say that we must work to earn our salvation: "Faith without works is dead." But, before we latch onto that interpretation we had better read whole chapter. The theme of James is that there is no saving faith unless it changes your life.
Nothing is sacred about the verses. The Bible was written in paragraphs. The verses were put in by a French printer named Stephanus who was fleeing persecution in Paris to safety in Lyons. It is said that every time the wagon hit a bump Stephanus marked a verse. For example Acts 21 ends with a comma.
Be certain to identify who's speaking to whom. The Bible says, "All that a man has will he give to save his life." God never said that. The devil said that!
Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." To whom is Paul speaking? Saints? Sinners? Gentiles? the Church? Christians? Non-Christians? How we answer this question makes all the difference in the world in interpreting this passage.
Commands in one culture don't necessarily carry over to another culture. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that women should not have short hair. Is that a command for women today. I think not. This is a cultural issue. Prostitutes in that culture wore short hair for advertising. There is a culturally relevant principle here for any age or culture: abstain from all appearances of evil.
Commands to individuals are not the will of God for us. God told Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. He doesn’t tell us to do that.
Not all the promises in the Bible are for everyone. Some promises are universal: “Whoever believes in Jesus will be saved” (John 3:16). Some are personal: God promised to protect Paul in his journey from Athens. He doesn't promise that to missionaries. God told Hezekiah that he heard his prayer and extended his life for fifteen years. He didn't promise that to you or me! Some promises are conditional: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”
The Bible is not a book of divination. We can get into trouble by taking verses out of context and using them to try to find personal messages for guidance and decision making (divination). A man was trying to find God's will. He decided to open his Bible and place his finger on a verse and do whatever it said. He shut eyes. Opened his Bible and placed his finger on a verse and read: "Judas went out and hanged himself." He decided to try again. He shut eyes, placed a finger, opened his eyes and read: “Go and do thou likewise."
I know of a man who tried the same thing. He placed his finger at random in the Bible and landed in the Book of Jonah: “Jonah went down to the sea and got into a boat.” The young man joined the navy
Try to get a blessing out of 1 Chronicles 26:18: “At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar (KJV).
Use your cross references. The best commentaries on Mark are Matthew, Luke and John. The best commentary on Hebrews is Leviticus. The best commentary on Ephesians is Colossians.
After feeding the 5,000, Matthew tells us that Jesus made His disciples get into a boat and leave! Why? Matthew doesn't tell us. But John 6 does. They were trying to make Him King.
C: THE COMMON SENSE PRINCIPLE: USE YOUR SANCTIFIED COMMON SENSE WHEN YOU READ BIBLE AND LOOK FOR PLAIN MEANING FIRST.
The Bible is a piece of literature. Read prose as prose and poetry as poetry. Psalm 60:8: "Moab is my wash pot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe." No one takes this literally. Does this mean that God washes His face and has shoes? No! A good interpretation is, “Just as a slave cares for shoes and washes pots, so will Edom be reduced to menial tasks.
Psalm 91:4: "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” Does God have feathers and wings? No, it is a picture of God’s protection.
When Jesus says, "I am the Door," use your good sense. He's not made out of wood.
The A.B.C. Principles are remarkably simple, easy to use and remember. Let me illustrate the need for the ABC principles with one of my favorite stories.
Once upon a time, there was a preacher who boasted that he could preach on any text with only five minutes of preparation.
One Sunday morning he asked for a verse. A woman in the front row raised her hand and said, “I want you to preach on the verse in Genesis: “And eight did Milcah bear."
He’d was unfamiliar with that verse and asked her to repeat it. She did. So, he called for a hymn and while the congregation sang, he worked in his head on a sermon.
When the song slowed to a close he stood and shouted, "And eight did Milkah bear. What a passage this is for Christian encouragement!”
“Eight!” he shouted! “Look at the Christian Cooperation. Not one or two! Eight of them all working together!
“Milk!” he shouted! Look at the Christian Consecration. These Christians are going all out! They’re not just leading that bear around the corral. They are milking it!
“Finally, “Bear! Look at that Christian courage! This is no goat or Bossy the cow we are talking about. They are milking a bear.”
Later at home after Sunday lunch he opened his Bible to Genesis 22:23: “And Bethuel begat Rebekah: these eight Milcah did bear to Nahor, Abraham's brother (KJB).
In other words, eight (children), did the woman whose name was Milcah, bear (give birth to).
If he had followed the Accuracy Principle he would have known that Milcah was a mother--not a verb.
If he had followed the Background Principle he would have known that the passage was about a mother and her children—not milking bears.
If he had followed the Common Sense Principle he would have known that no one milks bears.
May I share a final word or two? Don't let difficult passages deter you! Mark Twain said,"It's not what I don't understand about the Bible that bothers me; but what I do understand." The true test of Bible studentis not how much you learn but how much you live.
Luke 24:32: "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?"
The proof that you learn from the Bible is not a big head but a burning heart.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.