It is no secret that I am a big advocate of Bible reading. If you believe, really believe that the Bible is the word of God, then you want to engage the Bible as much as possible. Hearing the Bible taught and preached is very important, but you need more. You need to read the Bible. Many people have a Bible reading plan, but not everybody sticks to it consistently. Each person needs to find a personal Bible reading plan that is right for them, one that will help them stick with their reading and not give up. But even if we do all that, there’s something else we need. I think it’s a proper goal not only to read the Bible more, but read it better. How do we read our Bibles better? One way is to follow some guidelines that we may already be doing intuitively and partially, but need to do intentionally and fully.
The first guideline is to discover the biblical writer’s intended meaning. God moved every biblical writer to write what they wrote to the people they wrote it to for a specific purpose. The book they wrote has a message and every part of the book has a purpose that works to communicate that message. It often takes some mental work to grasp the writer’s meaning. Discovering the writer’s meaning is to discover God’s meaning. If we desire to hear from God in the Bible, it is imperative that we grapple with the writer’s meaning within the scope of the whole Bible. Discovering the Bible’s meaning is a lifelong process as we grow in our understanding of specific passages and the Bible as a whole.
The second guideline is that texts must be understood by their common meaning, which includes literary devices like metaphor and symbolism. The Bible is beautifully written and is replete with figurative language. Figurative language is usually, but not always obvious. So, we understand the Bible according to the literary devices used. That being said, we must resist spiritualizing or moralizing a passage beyond its basic literal meaning. We do not want to read into the text what is not there, but read out of the text what is actually there. We must always grapple with how to best understand the meaning of every passage.
The third guideline is that context is critical to discovering a text’s meaning. There are three kinds of context: literary, historical and cultural. While all three are important, the literary context is most important. You can find the historical and cultural context in study Bibles or Bible dictionaries. The literary context is the sentences, paragraphs and sections surrounding the passage you’re reading. If you are reading straight through a book, you already have a sense of the context. Failing to consider the context is one of the biggest reasons people misunderstand and therefore miss apply the Bible.
The fourth guideline is that texts must be interpreted according to their literary genre or type. All literature, whether in the Bible or outside the Bible are written according to the conventions of a specific literary genre or type. We cannot interpret law, history, poetry and prophecy exactly the same. Each kind of literature has its own way of communicating its message. Understanding what kind of passage we’re reading goes a long way towards a good understanding that passage. A good study Bible will help you sort out and understand what kind of passage you’re reading.
The fifth guideline is that the progress of revelation is important to keep in mind. God reveals his plan of redemption progressively throughout the Bible. We cannot give a text an interpretation that has not yet been revealed in the flow of redemptive-history. As we seek to understand the unfolding plan of God in Scripture, we must discover who the passage we’re reading is addressed to and how that impacts the meaning. If a passage is written to the Children of Israel, it may have a different application to the Church.
The sixth guideline is that our interpretation must be Christ-centered without forcing Christ into passages in a way he is not being revealed. Jesus himself said that all the Bible is about him and the salvation he brings (Luke 24:25-32; John 5:37-40). Understanding how God is revealing Christ in any given passage throughout the Bible takes careful work. We want our Bible reading to be meaningful but also truthful.
We can be confident in the insight, wisdom and encouragement we find from Bible reading as we read thoughtfully according to these guidelines. As we engage the Bible in a deeper way we will inevitably come across passages that challenge our preconceived notions about what the Bible says. We always go with the Bible. In this way we can be assured that God is speaking to us and that we are growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).