Guidelines for Interpreting the Bible


January 22, 2014 by Chris French

This week on the blog we’re talking about How to Study Your Bible. If you’re just joining us so far we’ve talked about:

How to Read Your Bible
Bridging the Gaps in Your Study

Today we’re going thru a couple of guidelines that will help you get to the meaning of the text.

There are several different types of literature in the Bible. Picture yourself in a How to Study the Biblebookstore. You’ve got the poetry section, fiction section, biography section and others. You wouldn’t walk into the poetry section and read those books like you would the biography section. The poets are using figures of speech to get their point across.

“Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue;” doesn’t mean she’s drooling nectar or that she’s hiding some honey and milk in her mouth. It’s poetic language. The author is trying, pretty vividly, to help us understand that her kisses are very sweet! By the way, that selection didn’t come from the latest romance novel, but from Song of Solomon 4.11.

Unlike a book store there aren’t any signs in the Bible that tell us which section we’re in. So we come to our first guideline for getting to the true meaning of the text.

Read the Bible as literal until you have reason to read it figuratively. 

You won’t get very far into Song of Solomon or Revelation before you realize they’re Rev. 12speaking figuratively. Unless you’re cool believing that a red dragon tried to eat a baby on the moon, but the child was caught up to God’s throne and was saved (Revelation 12). If you follow this principle the problem won’t be finding the figurative language it’ll be understanding what it means. Which brings us to our 2nd guideline for getting to the real meaning of the text.




The text HAD to mean something to the original readers before it can mean anything to me.

There are a couple of parts of the Bible that talk about the future. It’s easy to jump to what those texts are saying to me bypassing what they meant to the original hearers. For example, Revelation was written to a group of Christians who lived with the fact that if the government found out who they were they would break down their door, drag them out and execute them in some horrific fashion. Revelation was written to tell these Christians to stay faithful no matter what happened to them. Revelation means something to me, but I’ve got to understand what it meant to them before I start trying to apply it to myself.

Our third and final guideline to get to the real meaning of the text is that the passage I’m studying will not contradict any other passage in Scripture. 

For example, when Peter denied Jesus did the rooster crow once or twice? Matthew, Luke and John all say once, but Mark says twice!

Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times” (Matthew 26:34).

“Assuredly, I say to you that today, even this night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times” (Mark 14:30

Then He said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:34).

Jesus answered him…“Most assuredly, I say to you, the rooster shall not crow till you have denied Me three times” (John 13:38).

Lucy, we got a problem! Did the rooster crow once or twice? There’s no contradiction here. Mark tells us that the rooster crowed after Peter’s 1st denial (Mark 14.68), but roosterthen it crowed after his 3rd denial too. If you’re reading a passage and it seems to contradict another passage look at the timeline. Could both events have happened? If not, could we be talking about two separate events? Maybe a different person, place or things is being considered. There are several men named Simon in the New Testament. Just because one dies when Jesus is a baby doesn’t mean Simon Peter can’t be one of Jesus’ disciples. Maybe we’re talking about a different time period? Maybe one author is fleshing out what the other one mentioned.

The Bible will not contradict itself. If you run into a passage and you’re having trouble figuring out how everything went down ask yourself some of those questions above. AP has a great article on some of the questions you should ask. You can read it here.

If you follow the three rules of interpretation you’ll get to the real meaning of the text.


One thought on “Guidelines for Interpreting the Bible

  1. […] talked about this in Guidelines for Interpreting the Bible, so here’s a quick refresher. You should read Scripture literally until you have reason to […]

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