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Basic rules and principles of Bible interpretation

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Rules for effective Bible study

Text: 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21

Just as Surgeons, Lawyers, Accountants, Engineers etc., have rules that guide and govern them while they practice their professions. So it is with the Preacher and Teacher of the Word of God. If a surgeon breaches the rules of his engagement this could lead to loss of life, if a lawyer breaches their rules, they might end up losing a case, if an engineer does not follow their rules, whatever they are constructing will end of being compromised and eventually resulting in loss of life.
So it is with the teacher and the preacher of the word of God. There are rules and principles of Bible interpretation one needs to abide by. If one breaches these rules and principles, Peter cautions that, “…those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16). Therefore, In order to “correctly explains the Word of Truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15), there are some basic rules and principles a preacher and teacher of the Word of God needs to be familiar with.

Rule 1:
Put yourself in the times and place of the writer, considering the circumstances and the purpose of the passage.
(a) Commentaries are valuable here for supplying background, history, time, people and customs
(b) Specific examples.
The Zealots wanted to be free from Roman domination (Mt. 5:39-41)
The Pharisees and Sadducees on the contrary were very congenial to (of common interest with) the Government of Rome.
(c) The Pharisees had their legalism and so did the teachers of law (Mk. 7:1ff)
The Bible is addressed to various categories of people in different situations.

Rule 2:
Study the context to ascertain the primary purpose and meaning of the passage.
a) In studying the spiritual gifts, it is important to do so in the context of 1 Cor. 12, 13 & 14 and not just one of the chapters.
b) Regarding 1 Cor. 14:19, some people say Paul is against tongues but in the context of v.18, we see that Paul is for tongues. All may pray in tongues (1 Cor. 14:14-15) but some have the gift of tongues (12: 30). Proper context of 1 Cor. 12, 13 & 14 shows the importance of exercising the gifts in LOVE. It does not give love as a substitute for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Both the fruit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit are needed to day.
1 Cor. 12:31; 13:1).
c) Think of many other Bible Texts that are usually interpreted outside of their proper contexts. Write them down.

Rule 3:
Distinguish between the plain and figurative language especially when absurdity follows the literal sense. Look for keys that would indicate if a passage is figurative.
a) Gen. 49:8-12 is figurative. Judah is not a lion’s whelp.
b) Any descriptions of God, which gives Him attributes of man or beasts are figurative because God is Spirit (John 4:24)
cf. “Your arm is endued with power”
“He will cover you with his feathers” (Ps. 89:13)
c) Mark 9:43 “If thy hand offends thee, cut it off”
Cutting hands may frighten thieves but only Jesus can transform them by giving them a new heart and a new Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17; John 1:11-13)
d) Luke 14:26, “Hate not his father, bother, mother, and sister”…is not literal. It means, the disciple is to love Christ and place Him number one in his life – no competition.
e) Matt. 21:43-44, is not literal stones. Christ is the stone, if you do not fall on Him, He will fall on you.
f) Can you think of other Bible texts, which are not literal? Write them down in your note book.

Rule 4:
Do not spiritualize everything.
a) Matt. 1:1-17; Acts 13:13, 14. Give us a historical account and not a deep spiritual truth. Do not spiritualize it.
b) Do not force a spiritual truth on every text.
c) Can you think of other texts where some preachers have forced spiritual truth? Write them in your notebook.

Rule 5:
Seek the literal meaning first and then seek the Spiritual meaning.
a) In Gal. 5:9, First explain the meaning of yeast (leaven) and what characteristics it has. Look in other verses containing the word. (Apply concordance). Then determine the spiritual meaning i.e. sin.
b) In Rev. 5:1-5, No one was able to open the scroll. Why? Because of sin.
c) In Matt. 16:11, 12, Give a clear explanation of the yeast (leaven) of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
d) Matt. 23:23, Plainly this text does not prohibit tithing but affirms it.
e) Can you think of other text where literal meanings should be sought first? Write them.

Rule 6:
Refer to parallel passages often.
a) Parallel texts help to clarify meanings. After all the Bible is the best explainer of itself.
b) Jude 20, with 1 Cor. 14:13-14, building up your most holy faith, praying in the Spirit or praying in tongues.
c) John 3:22; 4:2, Jesus did not baptize, but rather His disciples. Jesus commissioned them to baptize and He oversaw it. If you read only John 3:22, you will come to a wrong conclusion.
d) Can you think of other texts that complete others and therefore it is advisable to take them in parallelism? Write them in your notes.

Rule 7:
The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Compare them at every point.
a) Psalm 22:1, With Mark 15:34
b) The Law of the Sabbath is not repeated in the New Testament. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Sabbath.
“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you REST… (Sabbath). Matt. 11:28-30 (NIV)
c) In the OT Christ is concealed as a SHADOW; but in the NT Christ is revealed as The REALITY.
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival. A New Moon celebration or Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the REALITY, however is found in Christ.” (Col. 2:16-17 (NIV).

Rule 8:
Never form opinions from isolated passages or detailed parts of a passage. Do not admit a doctrine, which is not in agreement with the general teaching of the Bible.
a) Some cults take Ps. 104:35 to teach the wicked people will be annihilated/destroyed completely at once. But a study of Rev. 14:9-11 advocates for a continued suffering of the wicked forever. If there is everlasting life for the righteous, then, there must be everlasting torment in Hell for the wicked. (Mark 9:47-48)
b) 1 Pet. 4:6, with Gal. 3:8; Heb. 4:2; 9:27. Did Jesus preach to the dead and gave them a second chance? This is a very obscure verse. It does not give complete truth or understanding. Could it be speaking of the righteous in Hades, waiting for the shed blood of Christ? What does the whole counsel of God (The Bible) teach? Does is advocate for a second chance for salvation after death? Certainly no, (Heb. 9:27; 2 Cor. 6:1-2). There is no second chance after death. Therefore the meaning cannot be otherwise!
c) How would you interpret 1 Sam. 18:10? Do evil spirits come from God? Base your answer on the general teaching of the Scriptures (the whole Counsel of God).
d) Can you think of any other difficult texts in the Bible that must be treated in the proper context of the teaching of the Scriptures as a whole? Write in your notes.

Rule 9:
Study the Bible history and Customs.
a) Acts 10:9, Went upon the roof to pray. Here, it means the roofs were flat.
b) Matt. 3:12, Whose fan is in Christ’s hand? This expression is to do with a customary event or activity of the Jews. Bible customs are not common sense. They must be taught in order to be known.
c) Prov. 19:13, “A continual dropping.” Houses with flat roofs always have leaks.

Rule 10:
Look for types in Scripture, but do not base your doctrines on types.
a) A person. One whose life illustrates some great principle or truth of redemption.
Adam – Rom. 5:14; Melchizedek – Heb. 5:6; Aaron – Heb. 7:11; Isaac – Gal. 4:28; etc.
b) An event – 1 Cor. 10:11; describing experiences of Israel. E.g. Deliverance form Egyptian bondage. The wilderness journey. The conquest of Canaan.
c) Types around things. E.g. The veil of the tabernacle – Heb. 10:20; Brazen Serpent – Num. 21. Cf. John 3:14-15.
d) Ritual types. This includes the offerings, the priesthood, the tabernacle and its furniture, and the Passover.
e) Examples. Gen. 22:10-14. Abraham offering Isaac, corresponds to God offering Christ.

NOTE: Isaac was not sacrificed. He was only a type. Jonah 1:17, Jonah in the belly of the fish corresponds to Christ in the heart of the earth. Jonah never experienced death he was only a type. Do not base your doctrines on types.
f) Can you think of other types in the Bible? Write them down.

Rule 11:
Compare Bible Translations. (Insist on the literal ones)
a) No translation is perfect, that is why we study the original languages. Use several translations when doing Bible study.
b) Rom. 8:28, Is the most misunderstood and applied text. All things do not work together for good…as is commonly quoted. The Greek “God works together for good in all things.” Therefore Praise God for the good He can bring out of all things.
c) James 2:19, is translated, “There is one God.” Greek “God is one” is very clear and definite. It’s alright in the Amplified, ESV Bibles. (The LORD is One, Deut. 6:4)
d) Col. 1:16, He created all things. Greek “Through Him all things were created.” We need to know how to use these principles.
e) Can you think of any Bible translation that is unreliable?

Rule 12:
Check Bible Commentaries, Dictionaries, Lexicons (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) and Word Studies.
a) These tools are good in giving historical facts and background, finding the Greek and Hebrew word in a given passage and the meanings thereof.
b) For DOCTRINE, some of them are not the best especially if the doctrine is divisive, controversial, prophetic or of Spiritually discerned nature.

Rule 13:
Hold Bible teachings above teachings of men.
a) Check any Bible teaching by the general principle and teaching of Scriptures not isolated verses
b) Do not follow traditions, philosophy previously thought in ideologies, or church doctrine if they are clearly in violation of the Bible. Ponder on the current teachings, about anointing today.
c) Can you think of any other teachings, which have hermeneutical problem nowadays? Write them in your notes.

Rule 14:
Read the Bible prayerfully, humbly, openly, honestly, reverently, patiently, enthusiastically and constantly.
a) Watch your attitude as you approach the Word of God.
b) Be willing to do God’s will as He reveals it to you through the written Word.
c) Always be aware of the overall purpose of the Bible. (2 Tim. 3:15-17). I.e. For salvation and for sanctification of the believer through the benefits thereof.

Rule 15:
Be filled with the Holy Spirit.
a) The Holy Spirit is the primary Author, the Real Author of the Bible. (2 Pet. 1:20-21)
b) Without the help of the Holy Spirit, the natural man finds Scripture foolish
(1 Cor. 2:12-16)
c) Pray and ask for divine help as you study the Word of God (Psalm 119:18).

NOTE: If you will forget all the above principles, please make SURE that you DO NOT forget this one, “SCRIPTURE INTERPRETES SCRIPTURE.”

Appendix: Five Basic Rules of Hermeneutics.
(You need to know these)
1) Read the verse and take the words in their usual ordinary sense
2) Take the words in the sense in which the setting of the phrase indicates
3) Take the words in the sense in which the context indicates
4) It is necessary to take into consideration the objective of the book, or passage in which the obscure words or verse occur.
5) Consult parallel passages. Consider the following categories;
a) Of words
b) Idea
c) General teaching
d) Figurative language, purpose and meaning of figurative expression.
Look for any clue in the relationship of phrases to fully understand the point being discussed.

Note: compiled by:
Pastor Amos Odur Acila,
Deliverance Church, Entebbe.
March 2007.

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