Interpreting the Bible Accurately - Session 1 Principles of Scriptural Meaning

By Ron Jones ©Titus Institute 2010

Scripture quotations are from the ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Today we begin a four-week study on "Interpreting the Bible Accurately." If we are to understand what God desires for us to know in the Bible, we need to carefully interpret it using sound principles of interpretation.

When people do this, they avoid the error that comes when they try to make the Bible mean what they want it to mean rather than what God wanted it to mean. The Bible can be made to mean anything people want it to me if they do not commit themselves to interpreting it accurately. They can approach the Bible with a desire to justify their own beliefs and experience and can misinterpret it to say just about anything they want.

Throughout the history of the church, there have been many people who have re-interpreted the Bible to bring it in agreement with their views about life and morality. Today, it is in the evangelical church as the church is re-interpreting the Scriptures according to modern views about marriage, the role of women, sexuality, gender identity, and even salvation, justification, and discipleship.

If people want to get rid of the parts of the Bible that they don't like, they simply reinterpret it to mean what they want it to mean. But that is not how God who gave the Scriptures intended for them to be read and understood. As Christians, God expects us to treat the Scriptures as his Word because that is what it is nd to be careful and serious about interpreting it properly. If we are going to do this, we need to understand some principles of interpretation.

In our four-week series we will be focusing on Principles of Interpretation that will help us interpret the Bible Accurately. The principles have been used by faithful and careful Bible interpreters from the beginning of the church until today and can keep us from imposing our own views and biases on the Scriptures and can help us discern when others are falling into that trap.Our study is divided into three main points:

W1 Principles of Scriptural Meaning

W2 Principles of Scriptural Consistency

W3 Principle of Scriptural Covenants

W4 Principles of Scriptural Application

These are four categories of principles of interpretation that I am going to give you so you can interpret the Bible properly.

Today we begin with Week 1.

W1 Principles of Scriptural Meaning

But before we look at the first principle, I have two preliminary propositions that form a Biblical foundation for proper interpretation of Scripture and using these principles profitably. If any one of these is violated, it doesn't matter what principles you try to use, your interpretation will be in danger of being wrong. We are going to touch on these briefly.

Preliminary Propositions:

1. The foundation of proper Biblical interpretation is the inspiration and inerrancy of all of Scripture.

Jesus and the apostles taught that all of the Bible is true and without error in all that it affirms about any subject.

All of the Bible is true and without error.

Note: See Titus Institute Website for the following information on the Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture:

The Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture:

The Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture - Teaching Outlines

Since the Bible is true and without error, the Bible cannot make mistakes and cannot contradict itself.

If the Bible is true, then that means we cannot interpret a particular passage by saying that the author made a mistake. This is important in accurate Biblical interpretation as we will see next week.

2. Personal experience must not interpret Scripture, but Scripture must interpret personal experience.

Human beings are intellectual, emotional, psychological and physical beings who understand very little of the human mind and of the world around us. There are all kinds of things we can experience as human beings. We cannot always identify what it is.

We need the Scriptures to be our guide to what is true and what is not, to what is evil and what is good. Because somebody claims they had an "out of body experience when they were near death or that they died and went to heaven and then came back and want to tell people about it, doesn't mean it is true. In fact, it is not true. Those experiences are not taught in the Scriptures. That's all I want to say about this, but it is extremely important.

So now let's look at the principles of proper Biblical Interpretation.

All of these principles could be called the Historical Grammatical Literal Interpretation of Scripture.

W1 Principles of Scriptural Meaning

Let's begin with Principle #1.

Principle 1: The Goal of Biblical Interpretation is to Discover the Author's Intended Meaning Exhibited in the Text of Scripture.

The goal of interpretation is discovering the meaning the author intended in a text of Scripture. The author wrote a text that has a certain meaning. We want to discover what the author intended that text to mean.

If I email someone or text someone, I want them to understand the meaning of what I was communicating. If they misinterpret what I wrote, then they misunderstand the meaning I intended and communication has failed.

Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard write, "When we communicate, we seek to convey a message to others. Implicitly, those who hear or read that message will seek to understand its meaning. We usually say that communication succeeds when the meaning received corresponds to the meaning sent." (Klein, William W., Blomberg, Craig L., Hubbard Jr., Robert L., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN, 2004, p.169)

The Bible is communication from God himself through the inspired author of the Biblical text. The author is communicating God's sacred Word by the power of the Holy Spirit. People don't get to decide what they think it means. They must seek to discover what the author himself meant by what he wrote as he was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The authors of the Bible were prophets and apostles and their close associates, men called by God to speak and teach his revelation by the power of the Holy Spirit. What the author meant is what God meant because God is inspiring the author to write what he wrote.

The fundamental question we need to ask is "What did the author mean by what he wrote?" We should not be asking "What does this verse mean to me?" or "What does this verse mean in terms of 21st century cultural views?" No. But we should be asking, "What did Paul or Peter or John mean by the words they wrote?" That is what God meant!

Author's Intended Meaning Derived from the Text

The author's intended meaning is exhibited in the text he wrote. We do not need to go back to the author and ask him what he meant. We couldn't anyway. We need to look at the text and see what it says and how it says it. The clues to its meaning are in the text itself.

This leads us to our next principle.

Principle 2: A Biblical text has only one meaning which is the author's intended meaning exhibited in the text.

Levels of Meaning Approach

Some say that there are levels of meaning in a Bible text, the literal and the spiritual. The spiritual meaning is often allegorical. The allegorical is often the hidden meaning that the Holy Spirit has to reveal to us. This is not true.

Reader Response Approach to Meaning is Wrong!

Some say that an ancient text must be interpreted according to modern views. Ancient views of reality were not always correct and so they must be re-interpreted according to a feminist view or a post-modern view or the like. This also is a wrong view.

All these ideas of interpretation are wrong. A Biblical text has one meaning, the meaning of the author at the time he wrote it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

When God communicated in written form, he expected his words through the prophet or apostle would be understood and followed.

Exodus 34:27

And the Lord said to Moses, "Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel."

When God told Moses to write down these words, he expected the Israelites to understand what Moses wrote and inspired Moses to write it down accurately. And God held the Israelites accountable for understanding his words.

2 Corinthians 13:10

For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.

Paul expected them to understand what his meaning is in the words of this letter and he is holding them accountable for it.

So, the author's intended meaning as exhibited in the text is the meaning of the text itself not what we think is the meaning or we want to make the meaning.

Some people say, "Well, the Holy Spirit revealed what this text means to me" and then proceed to explain what the Holy Spirit supposedly revealed without any regard to careful interpretation. The Holy Spirit does not go against the normal use of language and interpretation, but uses human language and interpretation to communicate God's Word. The Holy Spirit does not reveal one interpretation to one Christian and another interpretation to another Christian. He would then contradict himself which is impossible because he is God!

A Biblical text cannot have two meanings or levels of meaning. However, Biblical prophetic texts may have two references.

1. A Biblical prophetic text may have one direct reference to the future messiah.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

31"Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."

This is talking about the coming of the messiah and his restoration of his people Israel into his kingdom during the millennial period. This has not happened but will happen in the future. This is a direct reference to the future messianic kingdom. The other kind of prophecy in the OT we see is a double reference.

2. A Biblical prophetic text may have an immediate reference to a type of messiah and a future reference to the messiah.

God creates situations and institutions in the OT to illustrate or picture events in the NT. They are physical realities that picture spiritual realities which are explained in the NT. They do not affect the meaning. They are types and analogies that illustrate. A type is an event that occurs in the OT in the life Israel or a significant person like King David which used as a foreshadowing or picture of the future messianic event in the life of the messiah as explained in the NT.

Prophetic texts in the OT have one meaning but may have two references, a present immediate reference (type) and a future messianic reference (Jesus) in one verse or it may move from an immediate reference to a future messianic reference in several verses.

Psalm 22:1-2 a Psalm of David 1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

David - Type (Illustration) of the coming messiah, Jesus

Matthew 27:46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Meaning: a cry of anguish at the perception that God has abandoned him. Immediate present reference (type): David Future messianic reference: the messiah, Jesus

How do we know this is a messianic reference? Because the Matthew, an apostle writes that it is under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Types in the OT are identified in the NT for us to understand.

The Apostles of Jesus Christ were given special knowledge of the Old Testament passages that pointed to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit which we do not have. Matthew was able to discern the types of Christ in the OT because of this supernatural revelation and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. We do not have this revelation and inspiration of the Holy Spirit so the NT must tell us what is a double reference or type and what is not in the OT.

So, we should identify types in the OT by what is identified in the NT.

So, there is one meaning of a text.

How do we discover the meaning of the text which is the meaning of the author which is the meaning God intended?

This brings us to the next principles.

Principle 3: A text of Scripture must be interpreted according to its historical, grammatical, and literary context.

Context, Context, context!

When people communicate whether it is by speaking, writing, or another way, there is a context in which they do it which gives meaning to what they are communicating. The context is the situation, background, environment and relationships that surround the communication. When Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death." What kind of liberty was he talking about? Liberty from prison? Liberty from a difficult boss? Liberty from a relationship gone bad? or liberty from oppression from the British king?

If we don't care what the author meant, then we can make that quote mean anything we want and apply any way we want.

There are three main contexts we need to be concerned about in Interpreting the Bible Accurately:

3.1 Historical/Cultural Context

3.2 Grammatical/Lexical Context

3.3 Literary Context

These three contexts you can understand by reading a good conservative commentary.

Let's look at the first one:

3.1 The Historical/Cultural Context

What is the historical/cultural context of the writing?

The Bible is a set of ancient books containing God's revelation given to prophets and apostles to communicate it to their readers by writing it down.

As in all ancient books, we need to understand how the original writers and readers would have understood the words at the particular time in history and in the particular culture in which a particular book was written.

The OT was written for the Jewish nation primarily and needs to be understood in that historical and cultural context. The NT was written for the early church of Jesus Christ in the first century and must be understood in that historical and cultural context.

Question: What would the original readers have understood Paul was communicating when he wrote the letter to the Romans or Corinthians?

We need to interpret the Scripture in harmony with the historical and cultural context of the writing.

1 Corinthians 8:4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "an idol has no real existence," and that "there is no God but one."

Paul talks about what the early Christians should do in regards to eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. To understand Paul's instruction, we need to understand what that custom was all about.

Where do we go to find out the historical and cultural context?

Conservative Bible Commentaries

Paul is referring to a custom that was a part of their culture.

3.2 The Grammatical/Lexical Context

What is the grammatical/lexical context?

This context refers to the meaning of words and sentences and the way they are put together grammatically to convey meaning.

This would involve the original language of the text.

For most of the OT, that is Hebrew language. There is a small amount of Aramaic text. In all of the NT, that involves the Greek language. Within the original language, we need to understand the grammar which involves nouns, pronouns, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs and verbs, including the tenses of verbs and much much more. All this has to be taken into consideration in careful interpretation.

The Lexical Context refers to the words used by the author.

Words only have meaning in the context they appear in. Words may have more than one meaning and may have one meaning in one context and another meaning in another context. It is the context that tells us which meaning of a word is intended by the author.

We see this all the time in the English language today.

Modern Example:

"Cool" - 8 meanings for "cool" in Webster's dictionary beginning with "moderately cold"- the 8th meaning given is the one we hear most often the slang meaning which is very good or pleasing.

God uses the everyday language of Hebrew and Greek to convey meaning. There are different meanings for many words in Hebrew and Greek as in all languages.

This means "the same word may have a different meaning in two different contexts."

NT Example:

The Greek word for "flesh" has several different meanings in the NT:

1. The human body

Romans 1:3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh

2. The sinful nature

Galatians 5:16-17 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

3. The human nature

John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us

3.3 The Literary Context What is the literary context?

Literary context involves two main issues: 3.3.1 Genre 3.3.2 Purpose and Flow of Thought

3.3.1 Genre What is the genre of the Bible book you are interpreting?

Genre is the kind of literary work it is. The Bible is made up of Books of various genres.

Old Testament 1. History or Narrative (includes Law) 2. Poetry 3. Wisdom 4. Prophecy

New Testament 1. Biography 2. History 3. Epistles (formal letters) 4. Apocalyptic/Prophecy

Each of these books and their genres have their own way of expression and that has to be taken into consideration to determine the proper meaning.

OT Example:

The Book of Proverbs which is part of Wisdom Literature contains proverbs. A proverb is not an absolute truth that occurs in every case, but is a general statement of what is true. A proverb is a general statement of the way things are, not the way they are in every case absolutely. That is the nature of a proverb.

Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

That is generally true, proper training of a child will endure all of his or her life. But this is a proverb and when Solomon wrote it and God through him, he did not mean for it to be taken absolutely, but as a general truth to motivate us to do it. It generally happens, but is not necessarily in every case.

The books of poetry are filled with figurative expressions that paint a picture of the truth of God, but are very different from prose.

OT Example:

Genesis 1:1-9 Historical Narrative in prose prose language describing that God created the earth and how he did it prose language is non-poetic language, we see it in all non-poetic books of the Bible

Job 38:4-11 Truth in poetic figurative language Same truth but poetry paints a picture using analogy Here God is like a master builder

All of these genres in the Bible are non-fiction genres.

Non-fiction genres intend to convey reality not fantasy. Even poetry can be non-fiction such as songs like America the Beautiful and Star-Spangled Banner which are intended to convey the reality of America in vivid language.

3.3.2 Purpose and Flow of Thought

What is the purpose and flow of thought in the book?

Surrounding context starts with the passage itself and slowly works outward. Sentence ? Paragraph ? Chapter ? Book

We need to interpret a book, chapter, paragraph or sentence in harmony with its context. When a writer writes or a speaker speaks there is a flow of thought involved in what they are saying. This is so important in interpreting what anyone is saying in any communication we have with people today.

Surrounding Verses: What is the author talking about in the surrounding verses? Each verse is connected to the surrounding verses, which are connected to the passage as a whole.

Surrounding Chapters: How does the verse fit into the flow of thoughts and purpose of the book? These passages make up chapters and are surrounded by more chapters which make up the book.

Surrounding Books:

How does the verse fit into the overarching flow of the Scriptures as a whole? This is the topic of next week's lesson.

Even the individual books in the Bible are tied to one another. We can't simply plop down, open to a random verse, pluck it out of the surrounding context, and be confident we understand it fully. The biblical context of any verse or passage is extremely important. We need to make sure that we understand the big picture of both the Bible itself and the specific book within the Bible that we are studying before we dive into the details of one verse or passage.

NT Example:

Matthew 3:11 What does John the Baptist mean when he says that Jesus will "baptize with fire"?

There are two views, fire of cleansing or fire of judgment. Which one fits into the flow of thought of John? Well, we need to look at John's flow of thought, at what he has been talking about. We need to look at the statements he has made previously and after that statement. The flow of thought is that messiah is coming and he is bringing judgment.

Clues to flow of thought are in Matthew 3 v.12 "burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (which is eternal punishment in hell)

The context and flow of thought is that fire refers to the fire of judgment and hell. John the Baptist is speaking of the first and second coming of Christ as one ministry of Christ (which we know occurs at two different times.)

Principle 4: Interpret the Bible's statements literally, that is, in the usual, normal, and ordinary usage of language of that day.

We accept that the Bible is to be interpreted literally which is what we apply to any written work.

Literal interpretation (as applied to any writing) is the method, which understands the meaning of a sentence to be in the usual, normal, and ordinary conversation and writing of that day. Literal Interpretation would include the use of figures of speech, metaphors, similes and the like.

There is plain literal and figurative literal.

Plain literal is taking the words and sentences to mean their plain sense without a metaphorical expression or any fictional elements unless they are indicated by the author somewhere in the context.


Matthew 2:3-6

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6"'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'"

The Israelites took that prophecy as a plain literal statement of where the messiah would be born.

Figurative Literal

There is also figurative literal. Literal Interpretation would include the use of figures of speech. Figures of speech are expressions of normal, everyday usage and are part of a literal approach to Scripture.

There are metaphors, similes, types, and the like. The Bible is full of these as is any literature.

1. Similes A simile is a comparison in which one thing resembles another in one or more characteristics and they are compared using the word "like" or "as."

Matthew 10:16 Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Jesus compares his disciples and unbelievers among whom they will minister to lambs and wolves, lambs being weak among wolves who are powerful and desirous of destroying them.

2. Metaphors Another figure of speech is a metaphor. It is also a comparison in which one thing resembles another in one or more characteristics and they are compared except "like" or "as" are not used.

Matthew 5:13

You are the salt of the earth.

Matthew 5:14

You are the light of the world.

3. Personifications This is the ascribing of human characteristics or actions to inanimate objects or ideas or to animals.

Matthew 10:16

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

4. Anthropomorphisms This is the ascribing of human characteristics to God.

Matthew 3:12

5. Hyperbole - Exaggeration for emphasis

"I'm so hungry I could eat a horse!"

More on this in a minute.

To interpret the Bible literally means to understand that the authors used both plain language and figures of speech. The key is determining which is which.

How do we determine what is figurative and what is not?

Let me give you two principles which are based on understanding the context:

4.1 If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.

"makes sense" = "fits the context and does not contradict other Scriptures"

NT Example:

John 12:19

So the Pharisees said to one another, "You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him."

It does not make sense to say that the intelligent Pharisees are saying that the whole world is looking at Christ and following him. That does not make any sense.

They must be using "hyperbole" = exaggeration for emphasis.

4.2 If plain sense doesn't make sense, then seek the figurative sense if it does not contradict the rest of Scripture.

Matthew 5:29-30

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Does it make sense to say that Jesus wants us to cut out our eyes or cut off our hands if we sin with them based on all Scriptures about Jesus' teaching? No.

Would that contradict other Scriptures? Yes.

So, it must be a figurative statement which it is.

This is hyperbole. Jesus is exaggerating in order to teach us how important it is to deal with fleshly desires in our lives. We need to be strong and decisive.

If the plain sense and the figurative sense seem to contradict other Scriptures. Stop and seek further study.

There might be a time when you can't figure out how to interpret a passage because both the plain sense and the figurative sense don't seem to be appropriate because it seems to contradict other Scriptures.

Stop and seek further study.

More on this next time.