Helpful Rules for Interpreting the Bible

bullet

1. The Bible is a spiritual revelation. Spiritual things must be spiritually discerned.

bullet

2. The Bible must provide the keys of interpretation which are necessary to properly extract its meaning.

bullet

3. All the texts on a given subject should be brought together before a conclusion is drawn as to meaning.

bullet

4. All Scripture has a purpose. Each specific part of a prophecy or scripture must have a specific fulfillment or meaning.

bullet

5. Any interpretation of a Bible text should take into account the context of that text. What is being said in the verses that surround it? What is the overall meaning of that section of the Bible?

bullet

6. Old Testament stories and prophetic utterances can and should be applied to modern situations. But the Levitical laws should not be used for governance guidelines in the New Testament dispensation; instead the Mosaic laws should be used as types and parables with a symbolic interpretation when being applied to the present.

bullet

7. A prophecy or other Scripture can have several fulfillments.

bullet

8. There is often a local, literal application of a prophecy which symbolizes a future, worldwide application.

bullet

9. The chiastic structure of a certain chapter, verse, or book of the Bible can be taken into account to help discover meaning that God has placed there.

bullet

10. Everything revealed in Scripture is meant to be understood, and used to Godís glory. The entire divine revelation awaits our demand and reception.

1. The Bible is a spiritual revelation. Spiritual things must be spiritually discerned.

Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

While most parts of the Bible can and should be taken literally, the existence of figurative, symbolic, metaphorical communication must be expected and respected. Passages which are literal, and can be understood literally just as they are written, often also can be interpreted metaphorically, indeed are meant to be interpreted metaphorically. This is a simple truth easily overlooked or resisted.

 

Jesus used a Scripture about a "shepherd" to know what would happen to His own life. Jesus quotes the prophet Zechariah 13:7 in Matthew 26:31:

Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, "I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad."

Yet Jesus was a carpenter, not a shepherd. He used the Scripture about a "shepherd" symbolically. Symbolically He was a shepherd. He called Himself the "Good Shepherd." In applying the Bible symbolically, Jesus sets an example for us as Bible students.

 

The apostle Paul used the term "Jerusalem"--the name of a literal earthly city--to refer symbolically to Heaven:

But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.

He used the term "Israel" to refer to--not just literal descendants of Israel (Jacob)--but symbolically to all believers, as in Romans 9:6-8:

Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.

According to Jesus in Mark 4, the key to interpreting all parables is found by taking apart the parable item by item and finding symbolic significance in each item. What does the sower symbolize? What does the seed symbolize? What do the weeds represent?

 

The mysteries God has hidden in the natural world, the parables of Jesus, the elements of the Mosaic tabernacle, even the well known stories from the Old Testament all yield truth when treated according to the pattern Jesus taught in Mark 4. When the disciples seemed unable to comprehend the meaning of the parable of the sower, Jesus goaded them with these words:

And he said unto them, Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?

He here makes plain that the extended explanation given of this parable is a key to understanding all others. And not only parables, for the meaning of the Greek word translated "parables" a wider meaning which can include any form of symbolism.

 

 

The Key to Interpretation Found in Mark 4:13

 

PHYSICAL LAW

PARABLE ASPECT

SANCTUARY TYPE

THE SPIRITUAL TRUTH WHICH THIS LAW, ASPECT OR TYPE SYMBOLIZES

Sower

The one who speaks Godís word

Seed

The word of God

Stony ground

Cold hearts

Weeds

The cares of this life and the deceitfulness of earthly riches

Good ground

A fruitful, receptive heart

   

The veil in the Temple being torn, opening the Most Holy Place

Jesusí flesh torn, ushering us into the presence of the most holy Father

Abraham sacrificing Isaac; Isaac willing

The Father offering His Son; the Son willing

Two physically similar, functionally different human brain hemispheres; the connected spinal stem

The similar, yet functionally different Father and Son; the Holy Spirit

Atomic structure: Proton, neutron, electron

The Godhead: Father, Son and Spirit

 

 

2. The Bible must provide the keys of interpretation which are necessary to properly extract its meaning.

So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

 

In rule one we considered the spiritual and symbolic nature of the Bible. But in containing symbolism, the Bible does not leave itself wide open to any whim of the interpreter. The symbols of the Bible explain themselves.

The Almighty does not consult with the traditions of men in establishing the meaning of symbols. He has superintended the use of words in the Bible so that whatever words are used symbolically are explained in other places in the Bible.

 

Jesus said that when the Psalmist referred to a stone that some builders rejected, they were referring to Him. Thus a "stone" can represent Jesus.

 

The apostle Paul tells us that when Abraham was given the promise of a "seed," God was promising him the Messiah. The apostle John uses the word "seed" to refer to the Holy Spirit. Thus we can conclude that the word seed can refer, symbolically, to God the Son, God the Spirit, or, generally, simply God.

 

This is a simple rule when faithfully applied. With the modern explosion of print and electronic concordances surveys of any given symbol throughout the Bible should unlock the meaning of the symbol. "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."

 

God spoke to Job out of a whirlwind to tell him he was not as smart as he thought. God asked Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Well might God ask of any Bible interpreter today, "Are you using the foundations I have laid in the Bible in your interpretation?"

 

Jesusí disciples were often puzzled by things He said. They did not utilize the simple principle of the rule before us. They refused to attempt to unlock the symbols. Shouldnít they have known that stony ground referred to the stony hearts of some men? Hadnít they read in Ezekiel about hearts of stone that were not supple toward God? Shouldnít they have seen their Masterís--and their own--coming persecution when Jesus told a parable about a vineyard ownerís struggle with his vineyard keepers? Hadnít they read about essentially the same parable in Isaiah 5?

 

While this rule is often overlooked and disrespected in seminaries, those who use it--who let the Bible be their teacher, who go to it as students--will gain surpassing wisdom. They will be enrolled in the highest school in the land.

O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Thy commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, For Thy testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Thy precepts.

 

 

 

3. All the texts on a given subject should be brought together before a conclusion is drawn as to meaning.

Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.

These are the words Jesus spoke to Satan after Satan had quoted part of Psalm 91 to Jesus. By this response Jesus teaches the principle of looking intently throughout the entire Bible before arriving at an authoritative interpretation of a Scripture, as we also learned in rule two.

 

This same principle is alluded to by the prophet Isaiah where he is asking, "To whom shall He (God) teach knowledge? and to whom shall he make to understand doctrine?" From a rhetorical question like this we should expect to find an answer. What is required of those who want to know "doctrine?":

...they that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.

The first attribute necessary is striving for maturity. We cannot be content with just milk, simple surface reading, when it is time to grow. More will be revealed to us as we advance in the individual purpose God has for us.

"For whoever has, to him shall more be given..."

"If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God..."

Our maturity in God will be like the method of Bible study mentioned immediately after the weaning Isaiah alludes to:

For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:

Isaiah here refers to the principle of surveying a doctrine from all angles and all parts of the Bible. From here a little, from there a little, comparing Scripture with Scripture, line upon line, comparing various portions of the Bible and coming to a reasoned conclusion.

 

Such a search would include:

bullet

Searching the meaning of words and their origin using concordances and other appropriate tools.

bullet

Seeing where similar passages are used

bullet

How many times is a certain word used in the passage being studied, and how many times elsewhere?

bullet

The ancient rabbis followed the science of gematria, adding up the numerical value of Scriptural words and seeing what meaning the Holy Spirit may have used this way. Jerry Lucas has revived this study among Christians with his book Theomatics, which takes passages from the Bible and shows that the numerical value of the passages is related to the meaning of the passage. One example among many is in Genesis 14:14 where the number of servants born within his house is listed as 318, and the numerical value of Eliezer, the steward of Abrahamís house is 318.

bullet

Another Biblical phenomena that seems to transcend the limitations of the human personalities of the men who wrote the Bible, and thus acts as an independent check of sorts, is that of chiastic patterns which appear throughout the Bible. A chiasm is perhaps better illustrated than explained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is Leviticus 14:51 displayed in a way that reveals a chiasm:

 

I. And he shall take the cedar wood, and the hyssop, and the scarlet,

A. and the living bird,

1. and dip them in the blood of the slain bird, and in the running water,

a) and sprinkle the house seven times:

b) And he shall cleanse the house

2. with the blood of the bird, and with the running water,

B.  and with the living bird,

II. and with the cedar wood, and with the hyssop, and with the scarlet:

 

Notice the correspondence of I with II, A with B, 1 with 2 and a) with b).

 

Bullinger says that chiasms offer a stately and dignified presentation of a subject, and that they are "always used in the most solemn and important portions of the Scriptures."

The items on this list are just meant to be suggestive. The point is that there are a variety of ways to search into the meaning the Holy Spirit has placed within the text of the Bible. A serious student will not be content with an explanation of a text from just that text alone as a "proof text." The Bible says that every fact must be "established by two or three witnesses." This rule applies well to Bible study.

Another species of this rule to bring all Scripture together on a given subject, is one deriving from one of the first places in the Bible where an interpretation of a prophecy is given, Genesis 41. Joseph tells Pharaoh that his two widely different dreams really have the same meaning. It is as if God gave the one message in two different ways, one using the picture of cows, one using corn. But the dreamís meaning had to do with years, not cows or corn. This insight from the Bibleís first book can unlock some of the symbolism of its last, the book of Revelation, where there are pairs of symbols which may need to be overlaid to be interpreted.

 

4. All Scripture has a purpose. Each specific part of a prophecy or scripture must have a specific fulfillment or meaning.

bullet

All scripture is given by inspiration of God...

 

bullet

Scripture cannot be broken...

 

bullet

Seek from the book of the LORD, and read: Not one of these will be missing; None will lack its mate. For His mouth has commanded, And His Spirit has gathered them.

Isaiah likens prophecy and fulfillment to husband and wife. Where there is prophecy, there will be fulfillment. "None shall lack its mate." No divorces here.

When Jesus explained the parable of the sower, every aspect of the parable had a symbolic meaning: sower, birds, thorns, shallow roots, good soil. There was nothing added just to take up space or add cosmetic appeal.

Jesus said of the law--we might say the "Bible"--that not one jot or tittle in it would pass until all was fulfilled. Evidently every letter must hold its place and not be neglected. Jesus said there was an "end" to the prophecies about Himself. The word "end" is a translation of the Greek telos, which means goal or fulfillment. Jesus is letting us know that rule number four is established by Him: all Scripture has a purpose.

 

5. Any interpretation of a Bible text should take into account the context of that text. What is being said in the verses that surround it? What is the overall meaning of that section of the Bible?

This rule, while seemingly so obvious that it does not need to be mentioned, is not a "hard and fast" rule. The New Testament writers seem often not to follow it. For instance, Matthew quotes from Jeremiah to give a Biblical context to the massacre ordered by King Herod of the baby boys in Bethlehem at the time of Jesusí birth. The problem here is that the context of the section of Jeremiah he quotes from seems to have nothing to do with the Bethlehem event:

Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were Thus saith the LORD; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the LORD; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy.

So Jeremiah provides an exception to this rule. And how could it be otherwise. The Bible is a spiritual book. Its meaning is not limited to the context of each section. Often prophets did not understand the messages they were given. God who at the same time dwells in and beyond time, is never limited to a specific context.

Nonetheless, there should be good reason for exceptions. The interpretation of any text should start with the context and only with proper cause find a meaning outside that context. The prophecies of Scripture are always to be interpreted according to the rules of right reason:

"Come now, and let us reason together, saith Yahweh."

"And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures."

In other words, right human reasoning is necessary when comparing and interpreting Scripture. It is reasonable to expect any Scripture to be understood in its context except if there is good reason otherwise.

 

6. Old Testament stories and prophetic utterances can and should be applied to modern situations. But the Levitical laws should not be used for governance guidelines in the New Testament dispensation; instead the Mosaic laws should be used as types and parables with a symbolic interpretation in the present.

Unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things, which are now reported unto you by them that have preached the gospel unto you with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven; which things the angels desire to look into.

Paul tells us here very plainly that the prophets were writing for us. It is amazing the extent to which this simple rule is lost in the "historical critical" method of analysis characterizing the seminaries of our day. As long as the "historical critical method" is enthroned, the professors are king. When rule six here is invoked the Bible is placed back into the hands of the "people."

This simple truth gave the "Man of Sorrows" one of His rare moments of rejoicing in the New Testament record:

In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.

"Babes," that is, simple, honest, humble believers can understand these things. Sometimes the wisdom of the "wise" is so smart that its stupid.

Paul also tells us that the stories of the Old Testament are meant for us:

Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.

Jesus used Scripture written by Isaiah 700 years before His time to refer to thing happening in His days on earth:

Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.

It seems evident, then, that the Old Testament stories and prophecies can and should apply to modern situations.

 

 

7. A prophecy or other Scripture can have several fulfillments.

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

The word of God is "living." It grows. (Not so much that it grows, but that our understanding of it grows!) When a small plant puts out a leaf and later a bloom and later a flower, the presence of the flower does not mean that the leaf was wrong. In its time the leaf was the most prominent feature of the plant, but later the flower became the most prominent. So it is with the word of God.

When Peter quoted from the prophecies of Joel on the Day of Pentecost, he said Joelís words were being fulfilled. But Joelís words about Godís Spirit being poured out on all flesh refers most fully to the final church at the end when Jesusí coming is imminent. That doesnít mean Peter was incorrect when he quoted Joel.

 

Another prophecy with obvious multiple fulfillments is that of Matthew 24. Many scholars say it was fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the Romans demolished Jerusalem. While much of that prophecy was fulfilled at the destruction of Jerusalem, it will have its complete fulfillment at the end of time before Jesusí return. Jesus spoke the words of Matthew 24 in response to the question of His disciples, "What shall be the sign of Thy coming and the end of the world?" Surely we can expect that the words Jesus spoke were meant to answer that question, and thus we can be sure that its words apply most completely to the end.

 

That a prophecy can have several fulfillments does not mean that prophecy can mean anything. Should it surprise us that history repeats itself? The same powers of good and evil--Satanís angels and Godís angels--have been engaged in a great controversy that has extended for thousands of years, with the passing of hundreds of generations. Similar historical conflicts arise with similar results. Prophecy is often written in a diffuse, general way as to allow it to have fulfillments in many different eras.

 

8. There is often a local, literal application of a prophecy which symbolizes a future, worldwide application.

This is a more specific application of rule six, that Old Testament prophecy can speak to us in modern situations. Most prophecies were given in a specific literal geographical context. They were written before the era of mass communication which has made us a global village. So it is helpful to try to understand the literal geographic and historical context. Most spiritual truths in the Bible have a literal reference point. "First the natural, then the spiritual."

Paul teaches this principle forcibly when he chastises the Corinthians for not understanding the resurrection better because of the physical nature of stars and animals!

A major class of examples of this rule revolve around the nation of Israel from the Old Testament. Tremendous promises were made to her, promises of fame, power, wealth, influence. But these did not materialize. Israel failed. Yet the promises are still written in the Bible.

They are fulfilled by the spiritual Israel, the true believers in Christ. Thus the fulfillment is worldwide, for there are believers everywhere. It is spiritual, not physical, because the believers do not make up a specific, visible group. It is future because the true Israel of God has not yet fully received their glorious kingdom (except by faith!)

 

 

9. The chiastic structure of a certain chapter, verse, or book of the Bible can be taken into account to help discover meaning that God has placed there.

The nature of chiasm has already been discussed in rule number three dealing with taking all the Scripture on a given topic and then assessing it, but it is listed as a separate rule here because of its power to those who have seen it.

Both modern and ancient studies have shown the remarkable patterns of organization characterizing many parts of the Bible. The God who invented DNA and the diversity of perfect, intricate, symmetrical design in nature has brought this same talent into His creation of His word.

Holy Spirit authorship should give assurance that there will be remarkable structures of organization in the words of the Bible.

Below is an abridged summary of Revelation 12:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this one example of chiastic structure, taken from scores of others that have been found, is a barometer of the wealth of meaning God can place within the structure of a verse or chapter. It is almost certain that John the Revelator was not aware of this structure when he wrote. This is an area where the Bible explorer can find precious treasure.

 

10. Everything revealed in Scripture is meant to be understood, and used to Godís glory. The entire divine revelation awaits our demand and reception.

Daniel fasted and prayed to understand Scripture and was rewarded by Heaven. The Bible says that the things revealed "belong to us." When a new car belongs to us we take pretty good care of it. We know it inside and out. That is Godís longing for us and our relationship to Scripture. By faith, the meaning of all things revealed awaits the diligent, persevering student. The heavenly treasures await our demand and reception:

'Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.'

No good thing will the Lord withhold from one who is seeking. Let us be honest, eager, sacrificial students that the reward of Heavenly revelation will be ours.