I’ll Take Hermeneutics for $1,000, Alex: 5 Bible Study Principles for Interpretation

Bible reading is profitable for the soul. Cracking open your Bible every day is essential and necessary to understand and hear God’s word. But let us not confuse it with Bible study. Study is much different than reading. Studying a passage forces us to slow down and ask questions of the text, whereas reading simply informs us of general things in the text. Over the next several weeks I hope to present some Bible study tips to help you get the most out of your study. Note that I said study–not reading! There are five general principles I believe can aid your study of the word. They will be presented below and over the next several posts will be dealt with in a more comprehensive fashion.

bow to your king, King context

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Context is king,” on more than one occasion. It is absolutely true and vital for both the interpretation and the application of Scripture. In our post dealing with context, we will explore three main areas of context: (1) the immediate context – this is the surrounding verses of the passage you are studying. (2) the book context – this deals with the reason behind the author’s writing of the book. It speaks volumes on interpretation. (3) other author writings – authors had particular phrases, words, and concepts that they used in their writings. Most New Testament authors wrote more than one book and so their language may have spilled over in these other writings. It is important to look at these other writings when determining how certain words are used.

the background information station

Like context, background information is vital for correctly understanding Scripture. As Westerners, we have the habit of reading Scripture through our cultural lenses. This tends to be a great travesty in the area of hermeneutics and yields false interpretations. In our post dealing with background, we will consider the cultural nuances that help us interpret Scripture accurately, particularly in the Gospels and parables.

Discover Diagramming joys

They’re hard, they’re a lot of work, and no one likes to diagram—ever! But diagramming a passage will help you understand the syntax like nobody’s business. When you understand the main subjects and verbs of a clause you will have a better overall understanding of the structure of a passage. And seeing a visual representation takes a step further, especially as you are dealing with multiple sentences. In our post on diagramming, we will examine three different types of visuals that will help understand the syntax of a passage: line diagramming, text flow diagramming, tracing (AKA, arcing, or bracketing).

Original language blues

The Bible was written in three different languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. The goal, therefore, is to get back to the original authorial intent. What did the author mean when he used this particular word? Why did he choose to use that particular structure? These are questions that good word studies can answer. But be careful not to fall into the pit of word study fallacies. All of this will be discussed in our post on word studies.

structural masonry

Applying the hermeneutical principles can often be a daunting task. As overwhelming as it can seem, there are rules, or a structure, if you will, that guide these principles. When the proper foundation is laid the rest of the rules are a bit easier to manage. In our microwave-instant generation, we have tendencies to skip straight to the results without actually preparing the ingredients. Imagine a construction company attempting to build a skyscraper without a blueprint! It would all be guesswork and disaster would certainly follow. Interpreting God’s word is a much more serious thing and skipping the instructions results in spiritual disaster. For more on bad hermeneutical principles, see my earlier post on ways you may be interpreting Scripture wrong. In the final post, we will see how this structure works and how each of the principles is built upon each other.

Bible study is work. No great Bible teacher got to be great or understand the things he understands without first putting in the work. As we embark on this journey together it will be important to keep in mind that the methods presented are not exhaustive. They are simply there to get you started and hopefully continue to spur you more and more towards deeper study.

How To Properly Claim Scriptural Promises

In times of grief, temptation, trial, or any other life-altering event God’s Word can be a firm foundation and a comfort for Christians. The myriad of Biblical characters who have banked on God’s promises to them are plentiful and examples of how we too can call upon God in our time of need. Unfortunately, many Christians claim these promises without realizing that the promises they are clinging to is not actually a promise that is relevant for the situation. In other words, just as Scripture can be taken out of context and misused, so too, can certain promises remain null when taken out of its proper setting.

Philippians 4:13 is a prime example of faulty claim-promising: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Most Christians use this as their default promise when they find themselves in tight situation. But this verse was not written in a vacuum. It has a context and should not be claimed outside of its context. Claiming promises on faulty premises in reckless in the least and dangerous at the most. While God holds His word on the same level of His Name He does not honor promises that were not meant to be promises. Many people have no doubt shipwrecked their own faith claiming promises that they should not have tried to claim, usually as a result of a careless reading of the text, but most times because of blatant false teaching. In this post I hope to share some steps in correctly claiming a promise of God that is relevant to the current situation and that does not violate the hermeneutical process. We will use Philippians 4:13 as our example verse.

Step 1. Context

All Scriptural promises have a context and just as we interpret a passage according to its context, so too, must we apply a promise to its context. Our example verse has a context. When we read that we can do all things through Christ we must first understand that ‘all’ has its own context. There are four aspects of context that need to be examined: immediate context, the verses surrounding the passage, the book context, and the theme of the book. Examining the entire context of Philippians 4:13 we learn a few things.

  1. The immediate context of all things consist mainly of the state of contentment that Paul is in. He explains that he has been in every possible situation–hunger, fullness, poverty, abounding. His declaration of being able to thrive through them is his usage of ‘all things.’
  2. Paul’s plight and his learning to be content has come as a result of being a witness of the gospel. Verses 14 and following make this abundantly clear (remember, the context includes all the verses surrounding the passage). All of Paul’s situations were during his ministry and this is precisely how he applies the ‘all things.’
  3. Zooming out a little further we notice that the book of Philippians belongs to a group of epistles (church letters) categorized as the Prison Epistles. This means that when Paul wrote this he was in prison, probably much like the one pictured below or under house arrest. This is important as it can affect interpretation. When we apply the principle in the text we must take this into consideration.
  4. Finally, we must consider the reason for the epistle. By using his own circumstances and hardships Paul’s reason for writing seems to be a demonstration of a life lived worthy of the Gospel Calling, The theme of a book should always be kept at the front of the mind when reading. It can help shed light on a lot of cultural nuances.

Step 2. Piecing It Together

Now that we have the immediate context, the surrounding context, and the book context, we can begin to narrow things down,

For this phase it is best to start at the outer context of the spiral and work inward. This is a prison epistle and we must ask if there are situations in which a Christian not in prison for their faith can apply this verse. Since Paul is addressing ordinary Christians in the church, and not to pastors or other leaders he must of had in mind for his audience to put it into practice the things he was speaking to them about. The only influential people he mentions is Euodia and Syntyche, apparently two prominent women within the church that were having a dispute. He exhorts them to reconcile for the sake of the gospel.

We look then at next level on the spiral. It is ministry situational. That is, Paul’s context of ‘all things’ is placed within the context of his own ministry. Can this apply to those not in ministry? Again, considering the overall context and the theme of the book we must wait until the last step before we deem its applicability. But we also note that Paul’s comments are to the church at Philippi. Not everyone was a minister of the church. Most were common workers or slaves. All of this will come into play on the final step of application. But again, the running theme is living a life worthy of the gospel and forsaking worldly recognition as Paul states in 2:10, 3:12-14, 20-21.

We are now at the last part of the spiral. Contentment in all things is the immediate context and this is applied to an individual Christian in particular circumstances. We will look at different ways of application in our last step.

Step 3. Applying the Scripture

Applying the passage personally begins with yet another reading of the context. The natural flow of thought seems to begin at verse 8. I will start at verse 10 because the conjunction ‘but’ (Greek, δέ) provides a transition between the two thoughts.

Philippians 4:10–19 (NKJV)

As we apply Scripture we want to begin to take note of key themes and words which help us to remember the context of the passage. I’ve marked some of them in my own style. The two biggest things we see are the Philippians’ care for Paul during his ministry, and more importantly we see the context and content of ‘all things.’ As Paul recalls ministry hardships he praises the Philippians for sending him aid time and time again. He concludes this section by declaring that God will also supply the Philippians’ needs just as they cared for his. This last verse is also a verse that is taken out of context many times. Despite popular belief, it is not a claim-all promise for God to pay your rent or your credit card bill. This promise is grounded in the context of the gospel ministry and therefore must be applied as such.

Since we are dealing with two separate promises we will have to apply both of them. Starting with the first we remember,

  • ‘All things’ has its own context
  • the context is contentment in all situations
  • the situations include having much, having little, being healthy, being sick
  • Paul’s determination to continue comes from Christ’s own strength, not his

I see two different applications for this verse One for those in a pastoral ministry related occupation and one for those who are in their everyday trades and jobs.

Application 1 (v.13)

As a pastor/teacher you face many challenges day-to-day. More than likely, you are bi-vocational, as many pastors are today. You have the concern to provide for you own family but at the same time you know God has called you to under shepherd a local congregation. The added burden of taking on other people’s problems is taking its toll. You struggle financially because it’s a small congregation. Bills are late, debtors are calling, and inter-congregational fighting has you pulling your hair out. But God has not left you desolate. There are people in the congregation always encouraging you to move forward. Even though you believe you’re at the end of your strength you claim Philippians 4:13, as it is Christ’s strength, not your own, that will allow you to navigate any circumstance in ministry that may face you.

Application 2 (v. 13)

Our daily work should always be considered as ministry because of the command for us to live a life worthy of the gospel. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves and this includes doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, not to please man but to please God. You know most of your coworkers are lost. You begin sharing the gospel with one of them when your supervisor pulls you aside. He warns you that there’s no room at this job for “playing.’ You respectfully address him, explaining that your work quota is met and that you were on your break when you talked to your coworker. He shakes his head and gives you a final warning. The next day at break he overhears you talking again. He decides to give you a “crap” job in order to keep you away from your coworkers. The job is hard and laborious. Over time it begins to take a toll on your body and health. You really want to quit and get out from under the supervisor’s thumb. You’re praying at work one day and Philippians 4:13 comes to mind. You become convinced that this is where the Lord has placed you, and by His strength you will continue to share the gospel with anyone who will listen.

Application (v. 19)

The application here is ministry specific. Most of us have claimed this promise as a means for God to help us in a financial situation. Though it can be applied that way, the promise is rooted in the ministry of giving. Paul recounts in verse 15 at the beginning of his ministry the Philippians were the only church to supply him with his needs. In fact, it wasn’t just his initial need but they sent him gifts over and over. In verse 18 he prays that God will cause them to abound in fruit as their giving is a sweet aroma to God. The language is reminiscent of the Old Testament sacrifices, which when offered in the prescribed way, God saw as pleasing in His sight and in His nostrils as something sweet and precious. It would be proper for us to apply as we are loving our neighbors, pastors, and other Christians by selflessly giving as they have need. In turn, God has promised to supply your need according to His own riches,

Conclusion

Applying Scripture correctly is just as important as interpreting correctly. When we approach the application step in a cavalier manner without considering how it would have applied to the original audience we may find disappointment when that promise is not fulfilled. Always take the time to consider the full context before applying Scripture. If you are practicing regular hermeneutics with the Observation, Interpretation, Application process this step will be a little less tedious, as you will already have the necessary background and context information.

May God bless you richly as you study His word.