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A Guide to Interpreting ScriptureContext, Harmony, and Application
By Michael Kyomya
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Michael Kyomya
All right reserved.
A preacher once said, "I am not bothered by the various interpretations of this Bible passage. I only care about what the Bible says." Like that preacher, many people think that interpretation is simply an academic exercise that can be divorced from what the Bible actually says. This is a misconception. We cannot know what the Bible says without interpreting it.
Lack of interpretation in reading the Bible can cause severe problems, which have led many people astray. For example, how do we interpret the title "Son of God" ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of John? Some groups teach that since Jesus is the "Son" of God, he must be less than God. They fail to recognize that the gospel writer is using the word "son" in a different way from the way it is used today.
Even some well-meaning preachers and teachers have stumbled and misled others because of their lack of interpretation. They preach exhilarating sermons that are interpretatively wanting and hollow. I remember one such sermon. An influential preacher was preaching on Genesis 13:10 in which Lot chose the "low" lands of Sodom and Gomorrah after Abraham gave him a choice of where to live. This preacher made much of the term "low" lands. To my consternation he said that "low" in the Bible connotes evil. Thus low land is evil, while high land is good. According to the preacher, this was why Lot's choice proved to be calamitous.
Many in the audience were very impressed by this unique interpretation, but unfortunately it was rooted only in the preacher's fertile imagination. There was no evidence from the Bible to back him up. Clearly, the plain or "low" land was not evil because it was low but because the people living there were evil and ungodly. After all, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in the low valley of Hebron, and it was fine (Gen 13:18; 35:27; 37:14).
Flawed interpretations of the Bible are widespread in the church. That is why it is so important that we learn how to interpret the Bible. We do well to remember what our Lord said about the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection:
You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead - have you not read what God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living. (Matt 22:29-32).
The Sadducees knew the verse that Jesus quoted. They had read it before, but they did not know its interpretation and they went astray.
When Paul talks of the tragedy of the Jews' rejection of Jesus, he says:
Brothers and sisters, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. (Rom 10:1-3)
This whole tragedy had bad interpretation at its core.
We should also remember Paul's exhortation to Timothy: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15).
Today, many people show great zeal for God and zealously preach and teach the word of God, but lack skill in interpretation. It behoves us to pay close attention to this issue because "then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching" (Eph 4:14). We should be like the people of Berea in the book of Acts, who were commended because they were "of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).
It is interesting to note whose teaching the people of Berea were checking: It was that of the great Apostle Paul! He was teaching and preaching to them, and they were checking whether his message concurred with the word of God. We need to be Bereans today and check all the preaching and teaching we hear, whether it comes from an eloquent and famous preacher or an acclaimed scholar or teacher. We need to be on our guard and to make sure that what they say concurs with the Scriptures. To be able to do this we need to know how to interpret the Scriptures correctly. This applies to all of us - preachers and teachers, students of the Bible and ordinary believers. We all urgently need to learn more about interpretation.
Some years back, some groups disdained biblical and theological training, scholars and theologians. I am happy that such thinking is becoming more and more a thing of the past, because the concept of training is not of the devil; it is of God. Rather than reject all of scholarship, we need to distinguish between good and bad scholarship. God has used, and continues to use, good scholarship and theology to promote the gospel. Remember, even the Bible translation you use is a product of hard work by scholars and theologians.
Anyone who disparages teaching or training has no right to be teaching and training others. If you are teaching others, why should you not be taught and trained? Proverbs 12:15 reminds us that even "the wise listen to advice". Mark 4:34 says that the apostles were trained and taught: When Jesus "was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything" to them. Jesus could have breathed all knowledge into his disciples, but he chose to train and teach them for three years.
Training in the Bible and theology is crucial because without it church growth will be stunted and the church will go astray. And training in how to interpret the Bible is vital because all preaching depends on interpretation, all teaching depends on interpretation, all theology depends on interpretation. The rapid growth and mushrooming of churches in many parts of the world creates a crying need for trained leaders who will be able to nurture them.
This book deals with the need for interpretation, the definition of interpretation, the foundation of interpretation, approaches to interpretation, some principles of interpretation, and some hindrances in interpretation. It also considers the matter of application, which is the logical and necessary step after interpretation.
The three appendices deal with a few specific issues. The first looks at the interpretation of Wisdom literature such as the books of Proverbs and Psalms. The second deals with interpreting figures of speech, and the final one lists additional resources that can help you to interpret Scripture.
Excerpted from A Guide to Interpreting Scripture by Michael Kyomya Copyright © 2010 by Michael Kyomya. Excerpted by permission.
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