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Bible Dictionaries

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

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The Bible is no ordinary book. It is the written Word of God, communicating God’s purposes to the people of the world. But since those purposes are based on God’s values, not the values of the world, only those whose minds are instructed by God’s Spirit can properly understand them. The Spirit of God is the true interpreter of the Word of God (1 Corinthians 2:10-12).

The work of the Holy Spirit

Just as the Spirit of God inspired the writing of the Scriptures in the first place (2 Timothy 3:15-16; see INSPIRATION), so the Spirit helps Christians to interpret and apply those Scriptures (1 Corinthians 2:13). As they understand the circumstances in which the Holy Spirit inspired the original writings, the same Spirit can apply the meaning of those writings to them today. If Christians want the Scriptures to have a relevant message for them, their first duty is to find out what the Scriptures mean. God has given the Holy Spirit not to make Bible study unnecessary, but to make it meaningful.

To help Christians towards a clearer understanding of his Word, God has given to his church teachers, people specially equipped by the Spirit for this task (1 Corinthians 12:8; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11-14; see TEACHER). Nevertheless, Christians have a duty to test what their teachers preach or write (1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:21), and if they are to do this satisfactorily they must know how to interpret the Scriptures.

Background and purpose

Because the world of the Bible was different from the world today, readers should learn whatever they can about the geographical and social features of the Bible lands. In particular they must understand the historical setting of the books of the Bible. They will understand the messages of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament letter-writers only as they understand the circumstances in which the writers wrote. They will need to know who the writers were, when and where they wrote, and what purpose they had in writing (e.g. Micah 1:1; Micah 2:1-3; Haggai 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 1:1-2; 1 Corinthians 1:11; 1 Corinthians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-6).

Some books clearly announce their subject and purpose (e.g. Nahum; Galatians), but others require readers to work through the material to find its central theme (e.g. Ecclesiastes; Ephesians). They may also have to consider what sources the writer has drawn upon and how he has used them in developing his message (e.g. Luke 1:1-4). As they understand a book’s overall purpose, they will have a better understanding of the stories and teachings within the book (John 20:30-31).

Kind of literature

Among the many forms within the Bible are prose narratives, poems, wisdom sayings, laws, visions, letters, genealogies and debates. Readers must interpret whatever they are reading according to the kind of literature it is. People in Old Testament times recognized the differences between a teacher of the law, a prophet and a wisdom teacher (Jeremiah 18:18) and interpreted their writings accordingly (see LAW; PROPHECY; WISDOM LITERATURE).

Unless people are reading the Bible in the original languages (Hebrew in the Old Testament, Greek in the New), whatever they are reading is a translation (see MANUSCRIPTS; SCRIPTURES). The words and expressions that the original writers used have to be understood in the context of their ancient cultures. Like other languages, the languages of the Bible contain idioms, word pictures and symbolism, and readers will misunderstand the writer if they interpret literally what he meant as a symbol or figure of speech.

In this respect it is particularly important to understand the features of apocalyptic writing (e.g. parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah and Revelation) and the characteristics of Hebrew poetry (e.g. Psalms and many of the prophets). (For details see APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE; POETRY.)

Words and their meanings

Although readers must bear in mind such matters as background, purpose and literary form, their main concern is with the words themselves. This does not mean that readers must carry out a word by word study. In any language the unit of meaning will vary, depending on the style of the writer and the kind of writing. In some places much may depend on one or two words (e.g. Galatians 3:16), but in others one central idea may be built up over several lines (e.g. Psalms 118:1-4).

A word’s meaning is decided by the way the writer uses it in the sentence, paragraph or book, not by the way it developed out of other words in the long-distant past. A word may have different meanings in different contexts (e.g. ‘sinner’ in Ecclesiastes 2:26; Luke 7:39; Galatians 2:15), and it is possible that none of these is directly related to the word’s linguistic origins (or etymology). Also, words change their meanings over the years. The meaning of a word in the Old Testament may be different from its meaning in the New, and different again from its meaning today (e.g. see HOLINESS; PROPHET).

Progressive revelation

The writing of the books of the Bible was spread over more than a thousand years, and throughout that time God was progressively revealing his purposes. He made known his purposes for the human race not in one moment at the beginning of history, but stage by stage as he prepared people for the fuller revelation that came through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2; 1 Peter 1:10-12). There is therefore a basic unity to the Bible; it is one book. Although readers may understand each of the individual Bible books in its own context, they must also understand each book in the context of the Bible as a whole (see BIBLE).

It is therefore important to understand where each book of the Bible belongs in the developing purposes of God. This is especially so in the case of Old Testament books.

By interpreting a book in relation to its place in God’s ongoing revelation, Christians will avoid two extremes. They will not treat the book as if it is merely an ancient document of historical interest, but neither will they try to ‘christianize’ the book by giving ‘spiritual’ meanings to its details. The Old Testament exists as Scripture in its own right (2 Timothy 3:15-16) and Christians should recognize this. But because of their knowledge of the New Testament, they may see added significance in the Old (cf. Leviticus 16:1-28 with Hebrews 9:6-14). (For further details see QUOTATIONS; TYPOLOGY.)

However, the Christians’ knowledge of the New Testament does not change the meaning of the Old. The Old Testament revelation might have been imperfect, but only in the sense of being incomplete, not in the sense of being incorrect. It was like the framework of a building still under construction. The fuller revelation in Christ does not correct the Old Testament revelation, but develops it and brings it to fulfilment (Hebrews 10:1; 1 Peter 1:10-12).

Accepting the Bible’s authority

Even when readers allow for variations because of the progressive nature of biblical revelation, they will still meet cases where different statements or ideas appear hard to reconcile (cf. Matthew 27:46 with Luke 23:46; cf. John 10:28 with Hebrews 6:4-6). It is dangerous to ‘adjust’ the meaning of one or the other to force it into some neatly ordered scheme of theological interpretation that people have worked out. In reading the Bible Christians need patience. In some cases answers to problems may come later, as their understanding of the Bible increases; in others they may not come at all.

Christians must also respect the authority of the Bible. They must allow the Bible to say what it wants to say, regardless of what they would like it to say. They come to the Bible as those who learn, not as those who want to make it do things for them. Their first duty is not to bring isolated verses together to ‘prove’ their beliefs, but to accept the revelation in the form God gave it and to submit to its teachings. As they allow it to change their thinking and behaviour, they will have a better knowledge of the will of God and a greater likeness to the character of Christ (John 13:17; Romans 12:2; Colossians 3:10; Colossians 3:16-17).

Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Interpretation'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​i/interpretation.html. 2004.
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