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Bible Interpretation: 10 Steps to Interpreting Scripture

Bible Interpretation: 10 Steps to Interpreting Scripture

Does reading your Bible intimidate you? With so many different interpretations, and many presented by brilliant scholars, how can we ever know which is correct? Or do we each get to decide truth based on what feels right?

If so … won’t the text simply mirror our pre-conceived thoughts? That’s not faith—at least, not in God. That’s making ourselves and our faulty and often deceived wisdom the criteria for truth.

Most of us are far too aware of our limited knowledge—our lack of omniscience—to do that. But that leaves us with an important question: How can we be certain what we’re reading is what God intended? If only there was some way to correctly discern Scripture!

Good news! There is. Though all human interpretation will always hold some degree of error, there are ways we can minimize this. The following ten basic Bible study application tools can help.

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  • 1. Interpret and discern verse or passage's meaning based on context.

    1. Interpret and discern verse or passage's meaning based on context.

    We’ve all likely had someone overhear a portion of our conversation and arrive at false conclusions. We also know how often public officials and personalities are misquoted. But perhaps the most comical example occurred when, while daydreaming in high school, the teacher called on us and we gave such an outlandish response, the classroom launched into laughter.

    If you’ve taken literature classes, you understand how context can change the meaning of a particular word, sentence, or phrase. The same holds true for Scripture. For example, you may have heard someone use Luke 6:37, which says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” to counter a particular teaching regarding a behavior. But when we read Jesus’ words in context, we realize He’s not saying don’t address sin, but instead to make sure we’ve taken a hard look at ourselves first. We’re to evaluate the plank in our own eye—that sin, attitude, motive, and misconception—that’s distorting our vision. Only when we’re certain we’re able to “see clearly” should we attempt to address the speck in our friend’s eye.

    The jest of His message in Luke 6, then, seems to be that we should not be so focused on everyone else’s wrongdoing that we become oblivious to our own; rather, we should evaluate ourselves first. Then, if God calls us to lovingly admonish someone, there’s a greater chance God truly is the one leading—rather than our pride or “offense.”

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  • 2. Interpret and evaluate a verse or passage based on the overall messages and truths of Scripture.

    2. Interpret and evaluate a verse or passage based on the overall messages and truths of Scripture.

    The Bible is unique in that it contains sixty-six individual books of seven different genres, and yet they all tell one cohesive redemptive story. We see Jesus—our need for Him, the promise of His coming, His life, or power—threaded through every narrative, gospel, and epistle. The Old Testament reveals our need for a Savior and tells us Jesus is coming. The New Testament reveals God’s redemptive power unleashed once He came. And throughout each page, God reveals His heart, character, plans, and promises.

    And just as one understands individual words in relation to their sentences and paragraphs, each verse and passage of the Bible points to or falls within Scripture’s overall message. When discerning a particular verse or narrative, then, we can ask ourselves a few basic questions:

    • What does this passage reveal about the human condition?
    • What does it show about God—His nature, His heart, and His plans?
    • How does this passage indicate mankind should relate to Him and/or one another?
    • How does this passage point to Jesus?

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  • 3. Watch for repeated words and phrases in Scripture.

    3. Watch for repeated words and phrases in Scripture.

    My respect and awe for Scripture increased tenfold once I became a novelist. As I write, a phrase an old editor used to say repeats through my mind: “Make every word fight to be there”. His point—don’t waste page space on anything unnecessary. Good writers select those verbs, anecdotes, and details that reveal their point or deepen the narrative. Repetition is avoided—unless it’s necessary.

    When words are repeated, in any literature (Scripture included), there’s a reason. Consider each repetition—first within a particular sentence, then a passage, and then a book—a call to pause for further evaluation.

    Take 1 John 1:5-7 for example:

    This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.

    In this short passage, John, the author, repeats light three times and darkness twice. If we were to continue reading, we’d see John expand on his contrast between light and dark and a life of obedience versus one of sin.

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  • 4. Research historical context surrounding the Bible passage and the original audience.

    4. Research historical context surrounding the Bible passage and the original audience.

    Consider Romans, a doctrinally rich book that reveals God’s holiness, man’s depravity apart from Him, and the redemption we have in Christ. Through Paul’s writings to the ancient Romans, we receive a clear presentation of the gospel. Considering this, one might assume Paul wrote to evangelize a group of nonbelievers.

    But Paul was writing to fellow Christians. These Roman believers didn’t need to learn how to receive Christ; they needed to understand how to rest in Him. The Jewish believers who were holding tight to circumcision needed to realize the Old Testament law hadn’t and couldn’t save them. They came to Christ the same way their Gentile brothers and sisters did—through faith. And the Gentile believers, who were being pressured into following the law, needed reassurance and the reminder that their salvation wasn’t dependent upon anything they had or hadn’t done but instead on what Christ had done for them.

    Understanding the historical context adds depth and beauty to this ancient letter, reminding us of the saving, transforming, and preserving power of grace.

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  • 5. Research the background and ministry of the biblical writer.

    5. Research the background and ministry of the biblical writer.

    Consider Genesis, known as the book of beginnings. Written by Moses, a Hebrew prince turned shepherd turned liberator, we see a historical narrative revealing Creator God to a people who likely had no concept of Him. They’d spent their lives enslaved in a foreign land whose people worshiped everything from the sun and earth to beetles!

    So Moses began at the beginning. Through the creation account, he revealed Elohim, the all-powerful, all-knowing, sovereign beginning of all things. We see this holy God beckoning mankind to Himself, as He did through Moses, inviting His people to godly living. When humans fail to live up to His standard, God remained faithful and true. Nothing, not even man’s sin and rebellion, can thwart His plans.

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  • 6. Read verses and passages in different translations.

    6. Read verses and passages in different translations.

    Some words and phrases make zero sense when translated exactly. Imagine having the following conversation with someone from another language. She asks you how you’ve been, and you reply, “Hanging in there.” Translated exactly, she may envision you swinging from a tree branch.

    Every language has its own idioms, hyperboles, and euphemisms that, when expressed in a different tongue, can result in confusion. Bible scholars must decide, then, when to translate word-for-word versus conveying the general thought. Some translations, like the ESV, focus more on a word-for-word translation; others, like the CEV translate thought-for-thought; and still others, like the CSB, attempt to merge both. Because of this, it’s helpful to read the same verse or passage in numerous translations. This often provides a more thorough understanding of the word’s definition.

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  • 7. Look up the original Greek or Hebrew words and what they mean in what context.

    7. Look up the original Greek or Hebrew words and what they mean in what context.

    Language is constantly evolving, and thus definitions change over time. One word, like “screen”, can mean numerous things based on how it’s spoken. This is true for Hebrew as well, and although scholars do their best to find the English equivalent, the depth of some meanings are lost in translation.

    Consider 1 Timothy 2:1, for example. In the NIV, we read, “I urge you, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—” A simple reading clearly reveals what Paul is saying here. And that’s the beauty of Scripture. It’s written so all, regardless of reading level, can receive God’s message. But consider how your appreciation for Paul’s exhortation might increase were you to investigate the meaning behind the Greek word, pakaleó.

    Translated as “urge”, this word means to beseech or entreat and has the connotation of someone walking closely beside another as an advocate or helper. In the Greek army, paired soldiers called Paracletes stood back-to-back so that no one could come at them from behind. It’s as if Paul is saying to Timothy, the pastor facing persecution outside of his church and division and false teaching within, “I urge you to do this. I know this won’t always be easy—” like when he prayed for his persecutors, perhaps? “—But I’m standing with you!” 

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  • 8. Read Bible commentaries.

    8. Read Bible commentaries.

    When I get stuck on a passage and feel uncertain as to what God might be trying to say, I like to read the thoughts of others smarter and more educated than myself. Numerous Bible sites host commentaries written by brilliant theologians such as John Calvin, John Wesley, and other greats, allowing readers to evaluate different viewpoints on a particular verse or topic. If we find our interpretation differs from everyone else’s, there’s a good chance we’re wrong.

    Many times, these commentators will list other related passages as well, showing how a particular verse or doctrine fits into Scripture as a whole. Some will even present interesting historical facts. For example, during the time of Esther, the queen (think Vashti) was “secluded from the public gaze” (Jamieson Fausset Brown). 

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  • 9. Pay attention to conjunctions in Scripture.

    9. Pay attention to conjunctions in Scripture.

    The Bible is such a large book, one that can be understood as a whole but is most often read and understood in sections. I rarely read all of Matthew or Romans in one sitting; therefore, it’s easy to miss the connections individual verses or chapters have to one another. Whenever we see words such as for, since, or because, we know the writer is connecting his point to something stated previously.

    For example, Romans chapter 12 begins with, “Therefore, I urge you … to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice …”  Had we read Romans 1-11, we’d understand Paul meant because of God’s holiness, our sinfulness, and the redemption He provided through His death and resurrection, we are to offer ourselves back to Him. This doesn’t change the meaning of Romans 12:1, but it does add weight to Paul’s statement and likely our desire to obey it.

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  • 10. Read other related Bible passages.

    10. Read other related Bible passages.

    Using Romans as another example, when we read through it, we find a rich history of God’s redemptive message woven throughout the Old Testament. Paul discusses everything from creation, the law, the symbolism revealed through the story of Abraham, and more. He also quotes or references numerous other passages, like Isaiah 52:5, Psalm 51:4, and Genesis 25:23. By taking time to read these different narratives and verses referenced, which can often be found in your Bible’s footnotes, you’ll gain a broader and deeper understanding of the text and topic.

    Scripture is a living yet timeless, life-changing book preserved through numerous generations by a God who is constantly revealing Himself and His will to the people He dearly loves. Whenever we approach His Word with an open and expectant heart, whether we evaluate each word or simply ponder the meaning of a passage, we’ll encounter Him. And that’s when life change—freedom, healing, and growth—occurs.

    Jennifer Slattery is a writer, editor, and speaker who’s addressed women’s groups, church groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of six contemporary novels and maintains a devotional blog found at She has a passion for helping women discover, embrace, and live out who they are in Christ. As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she and her team partner with churches to facilitate events designed to help women rest in their true worth and live with maximum impact. Visit her online to find out more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event, and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE to stay up to date with her future appearances, projects, and releases. When not writing, reading, or editing, Jennifer loves going on mall dates with her adult daughter and coffee dates with her hilariously fun husband.

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