The Accurate Interpretation of Scripture

Biblical Sermon Outline

By Pastor Ron Jones, D.D.,


The Bible can be made to mean anything people want it to me if they do not commit themselves to interpreting it accurately. And when they approach the Bible with a desire to justify their own beliefs and experience, they can misinterpret it to say just about anything they want. But that is not how God who gave people the Scriptures intended for them to read it.

As Christians, God expects us to treat the Scriptures as his Word and be careful and serious about interpreting it properly.

2 Tim.2:15
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

Paul desires that Timothy be the kind of leader who is engaged in “correctly handling the word of the truth.” This word of truth is “the word of God” (II Tim. 2:9).

The man who “handles the word of truth correctly” does not change, pervert, mutilate, nor distort it. He interprets it carefully so that he allows the Word of truth to reveal what it means by what it says.

So we as Christians are responsible before God to interpret his Word carefully so God can speak through it as God intends whether it be to bless the believer or to open the heart of the non-believer.

If we are going to do this we need to understand some fundamental principles of interpretation.

We are going to look at three fundamental principles of accurately interpreting the Bible.

1. The accurate interpretation of the Scriptures must be based on seeking the author’s intended meaning revealed in the text.
2. The accurate interpretation of the Scriptures must be based on using an historical grammatical literal approach to the text.
3. The accurate interpretation of the Scriptures must be based on letting Scripture explain Scripture and developing doctrines based on all that the Bible says.

Let’s look at the first point:

1. The accurate interpretation of the Scriptures must be based on seeking the author’s intended meaning revealed in the text.

The goal of interpreting a literary work is discovering the meaning the author intended when he wrote it. The author had a meaning, which he willed to convey when he wrote the text. That meaning can be discovered in the text itself.

This principle is called “Author Intentionality.” This is true for all literary works including the books of the Bible. It is this and only this that creates a solid basis for judging whether an interpretation of the Bible or any literary work is accurate, valid or sound.

E.D. Hirsch, Professor of Education and Humanities at the University of Virginia, wrote in his book, Validity in Interpretation (p.26) that the only norm to judge the validity of an interpretation is the author’s meaning. He states,
“As soon as anyone claims validity for his interpretation (and few would listen to a critic who did not), he is immediately caught in a web of logical necessity. If his claim to validity is to hold, he must be willing to measure his interpretation against a genuinely discriminating norm, and the only compelling normative principle that has ever been brought forward is the old-fashioned ideal of rightly understanding what the author meant.”

This is the traditional approach to interpreting fiction and non-fiction literary works. There may be many proposed interpretations, but there is only one accurate or valid one – the one that gives the author’s intended meaning based on the text.

When an author writes, he has meaning he intends to be conveyed in the words and sentences in the text to the readers of the text. The readers need to read in such a way that they try to discover what the author means by what he says.

The basic question that all readers should be asking whenever they read books, magazines, or any text is “What does the author mean by what he says?”

The author is the one who gives meaning to the text. This is the traditional approach to analyzing literature and was used for hundreds of years.

In opposition to this approach there has risen in the last fifty or so years, another approach that has challenged “author intentionality.”

This approach says, “No, it isn’t the author that determines the meaning of the text, it is the reader.”

In this “reader-centered view” the reader determines the meaning, the meaning of a text comes not from the author, but from the reader completely independent of the author.

In this view, the text can have a variety of different interpretations that are even contradictory as long as they are plausible.

This is the dominant view that is being taught in university and colleges today.

This view is also the one behind the statement, “The Bible can have a variety of interpretations.”

Hirsch’s book, Validity of Interpretation, was written to show why this “reder-centered view is not valid and to re-establish author intentionality as the only view which is objective enough to give a valid interpretation.

This is the proper method used for interpreting the books of the Bible as well.

This is what conservative Christian Biblical scholars, Bible teachers, and pastors accept and practice.

Let’s look at John the Apostle’s intent, what he was trying to convey by what he wrote in his Gospel.

This is John’s general intent of the book he has written. John wants his readers to know and understand what he is writing about. Each word, each sentence he writes conveys meaning.

v. 30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.
v.31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John gives what he is trying to convey to his readers – that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Therefore, every word and statement in the Gospel will be consistent with that intent.

Paul also reveals his intent in writing to Timothy.

1 Tim.3:14-15
v.14 Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that,
v.15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

When interpreting a literary work, the right question is “What did the author mean by what he wrote?”

When interpreting the books of the Bible, the right question is “What did the Biblical author mean by what he wrote?”

The question that is often asked, “What does this Bible passage mean to me?” is irrelevant. It does not matter what this passage means to me. It only matters what Paul meant when he wrote it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is only important what God said when he used the prophets and apostles to write down his Word.

The Holy Spirit inspired the original authors to write down what God wanted to reveal to the original readers of the original text. The Holy Spirit does not inspire us today to discern a different meaning than the original author wrote to the original readers for the original situation that they were in.

As later readers we can apply the text to our lives as we understand the original meaning which is what God wants to reveal to us, but we don’t try to discover another meaning that was not originally there.

Thus the task of interpreting involves the interpreter at two levels. First, one has to understand the text as it was understood by the readers when it was originally written. Then he or she must try to understand its significance for today and apply it to our lives today.

As a Bible teacher, I must first carefully interpret the meaning of a book of the Bible according to what the author meant at the time that he wrote it.

Then, and only then, do I have the right to proclaim its significance and its application for today.

Let me show you an example from the writings of Paul.

v.26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,
v.27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
v.28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul is speaking to Christians in Galatia in his letter about what their identity as Christians if they have trusted Christ.

They have become children of God. They have been baptized into Christ. There is no racial, gender or social distinctions in Christ that make anyone more valuable than another.

So as interpreters we would discover the meaning of the author in the text for the Christians he is writing to. Once we have done that then we apply it.

In this case, we can apply this to our lives by understanding that because we have trusted the same Christ in the same way, the same truths apply to us.

We have become children of God. We have been baptized into Christ. There is no racial, gender or social distinctions in Christ that make anyone more valuable than us.

This is an example of how we are to first interpret carefully what Paul meant to those reading his letter at the time and then apply it to our lives some 2000 years later.

So, we should only care about what the inspired author meant. That is the only thing that matters. It is an objective standard not a subjective one.

Meaning first, application second.

Let the author speak first!!!

So how do we as interpreters specifically discover what the author means by what he says in the text he has written?

This brings us to out second point.

2. The accurate interpretation of the Scriptures must be based on using an historical grammatical literal approach to the text, which is the only way that the author’s intended meaning can be discovered.

How do we discover and understand the author’s intended meaning of the Scriptures?

We need to use a historical grammatical literal method.

This applies to all ancient texts.

The historical grammatical literal approach to a text involves understanding five things about a text.

1. The literary genre
2. The historical background
3. The grammatical usage
4. The literary context
5. The literal and figurative usage (while giving priority to the literal meaning of the text)

Let’s briefly look at each one.

1. The literary genre

Genre refers to the kind of literary work it is.

The sixty-six books of the Bible can be categorized into six major genres:

1) Historical narrative
Genesis and the first half of Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Jonah, and Acts
2) Law: the last half of Exodus; also Leviticus, Deuteronomy
3) Wisdom: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes
4) Poetry: Psalms, Song of Solomon, Lamentations
5) Prophecy/Apocalyptic: the major and minor prophets, and Revelation
6) Biography with narrative: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
7) Epistle/letter: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, Jude

Each genre has unique characteristics that help the reader and interpreter to understand what the author’s general intent and specifically what the author means by what he says.

Books are never published in a vacuum. An author doesn’t write a book and say “Guess which genre it is in.” Books are always published and advertised according to their genre and the kind of genre the author writes in. This is the way it has always been even in ancient times.

This is true for secular works and Biblical works.

2. The historical background

In any ancient document, to understand it, we need to understand the historical background.

The historical background is the historical circumstances that surround the author and the literary work.

An author wrote a document at a particular time for a particular person or people in particular circumstances. That’s the historical background.

Who can fully understand a book about Abraham Lincoln without understanding something about the Civil War and the circumstances surrounding his presidency?

Who can understand what the Bible says about King David without understanding something about the times and culture within which David lived? Who can understand the Gospels and Acts without understanding something about the culture and politics of the Roman Empire in the first century?

3. The grammatical usage

Grammar is the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed. It shows how words and their component parts combine to form sentences.

When authors write they need to be understood, so they write using the words and structures of the language they are communicating in.

To properly interpret what they mean by what they are saying, we have to look at the grammatical structures of the sentences.

This is true of all literary works in whatever language they occur.

And it is also true of the Bible.

Also included here is the ability to use the original languages to determine the true sense of a word. In the case of the Bible that means understanding Hebrew and Greek.

The average Christian does not need to know Hebrew and Greek to interpret the Bible accurately, but he or she needs to be reading and listening to those Bible teachers and scholars who do know the languages enough to interpret it accurately. And they need to make sure that their interpretation is in agreement with those Bible teachers and scholars who know the original languages.

One thing I do as a bible interpreter: When I come up with an interpretation of a Bible passage or verse, I always check it with other Bible teachers and scholars that I trust who know the original languages to make sure it is in agreement with at least some of them.

4. The literary context of the work

Understanding the literary context of a literary work involves understanding the author’s purpose for writing and his flow of thought, how each paragraph fits into what he is saying in the whole work.

The author of any literary text has a purpose for writing and seeks to develop that purpose as he writes the sentences and paragraphs of his work.

Therefore, every word in a text is part of a sentence, and every sentence is part of a paragraph, and every paragraph is part of a chapter, and every chapter is part of the whole work.

This is context.

Above all else, therefore, one must learn to recognize units of thought, whether they be paragraphs (for prose) or lines and sections (for poetry).”

As we saw earlier when John the Apostle wrote his gospel he wrote with a purpose in mind and focused all that he wrote toward that purpose.

Each sentence has to be understood in light of the context of the work.

5. The literal and figurative usage of words (while giving priority to the literal meaning of the text)

There is some confusion about what we as Christians mean when we say that the Bible needs to be interpreted literally.

The reason there is confusion is because there is a difference between literal interpretation and literal meaning.

The literal meaning of a word is the normal, plain meaning of a word. The figurative meaning of a word is the word used symbolically.

The literal interpretation of a text means that the interpreter gives the literal meaning of a word priority and seeks the literal meaning first.

If the literal meaning doesn’t make sense given all interpretive factors or there is a clue in the text that the word or phrase is being used figuratively or idiomatically then the figurative or idiomatic use is accepted.

As Earl Radmacher, former President of Western Seminary, used to say, “If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.”

The literal interpretation never proposes that there is no figurative speech in the Bible; it only says that the literal meaning is given priority.

Literary analysis of any written work involves interpreting literal and figurative language.

We understand the literal meaning of the books of the Bible by first seeking to understand the normal, common, plain sense meanings of the words and the grammar of the sentences in which they are expressed and then seeking to understand any figurative meanings of words and phrases when literal sense does not makes sense or fit the context.

This is what we mean when we say as Christians, we interpret the Bible literally. The words and sentences of Scripture should be understood literally, i.e. in their usual, normal, and ordinary usage of that day.

Dick Mayhue, Professor of Theology at the Master’s Seminary, in his book, How To Interpret the Bible, writes,
“Good interpretation employs the normal rules of literary interpretation. Interpret the Bible as you would any other kind of literature. It is the “literal” method in that it takes the text at face value. Yet it recognizes figures of speech and provides the only honest way to interpret the reality portrayed by symbol or imagery.”

In Jn.6:28-40, Jesus uses both literal and figurative meaning as he explains his role as the giver of eternal life (literal meaning) using the metaphor “bread of life.”

This passage is to be interpreted literally, yet using both the literal and figurative meaning of words.

So the literal interpretation of Scripture means that we give the literal meaning priority, but when it is necessary we interpret the words figuratively as well.

This brings us to our third and final point.

3. The accurate interpretation of the Scriptures must be based on letting Scripture explain Scripture and developing doctrines based on all that the Bible says.

Every time speakers speak and writers write they do not say or write everything that there is to say or write on a particular subject. So in order to understand them properly, we have to take all that they have written on a particular subject into consideration.

To understand what Isaiah says in chapter one, we need to look at chapters 2-66.

When I preach I make all kinds of statements that could be misunderstood if someone does not understand what I have said on the same subject in other sermons.

This is what communication is all about.

So what Isaiah or Jeremiah, or Paul says in one place should be explained by what each has said in other places.

But the Bible is unique because it is inspired by God and God is the author of truth and therefore the Bible throughout all its books teaches one unified and consistent body of truth.

Because this is so we need the writers of Scripture to explain each other in terms of this consistent system of truth taught throughout the Scriptures.

We also need to see that the NT explains the OT and the OT explains the NT. And the OT writers explain other OT writers and the NT writers explain other NT writers.

Let Scripture explain Scripture and develop doctrines based on all that the Bible says.

Let me give two Scriptural examples dealing with doctrine.

1) Accurately interpreting what Jesus meant when he called himself the “Son of Man”

What did he mean?

Let’s first, look in the NT.

Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."

The term “Son of Man” seems like a very humble and lowly reference Jesus makes of himself, almost like I’m just a man, a son of man. But when you look at other passages, you discover it means that plus much more.

v.6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . ." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home."
v.7 And the man got up and went home.
v.8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.

Jesus uses this title when he exercising God’s authority to forgive sins. This shows it means more that just “I am a humble man.”

For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.

That is divine – God is the only Lord of the Sabbath

v.63 But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God."

v.64 "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."

So Jesus is unpacking this reference to himself so that its full meaning can be understand.

The “Son of Man” has divine power and authority.

So to understand it we have to look throughout Matthew and the NT.

But it is the OT that helps us bring his meaning into full understanding for it is an ultimate reference to Daniel’s vision of the future messiah in Dan.7:13-14.

v.13 "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.
v.14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

So we find out that the title Jesus used of himself does not emphasize Jesus lowly and humble state of being as man, but rather that he is the messiah, the God-man wielding divine authority to bring his kingdom into the world.

Let me give you another dealing with doctrine.

2) Interpreting what Jesus meant when he said, “Ask me anything in my name and I will do it.”

v.13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.
v.14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

Note: The context reveals that the purpose of Jesus answering their prayers in his name is to glorify God the Father so whatever a Christian asks has to be consistent with bringing glory God the Father.

1 Jn.5: 14-15
v.14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
v.15 And if we know that he hears us--whatever we ask--we know that we have what we asked of him.

The request also has to be consistent with God’s will. The Lord will grant whatever we ask that is consistent with bringing glory to the Father and in agreement with God’s will.


We have seen
An accurate interpretation of the Scriptures must be based on seeking the author’s intended meaning revealed in the text,

it must be based on using an historical grammatical literal approach to the text.

It must be based on letting Scripture explain Scripture and developing doctrines based on all that the Bible says.


What does all this mean?

If you misinterpret the Scriptures,
you can be trusting the Lord for something that he has never promised,
you can feel guilty about something the Holy Spirit is not convicting you about,
you can be basing a decision in life on something that Lord has not revealed,
you can be saying to others “the Lord showed me this” and it is not true.

That’s why it is important.