How to Study Your Bible: Interpretation
Written by: MacArthur Jr., John Posted on: 04/10/2003
Category: Christian Living
"How to Study Your Bible: Interpretation"
Well, we are continuing in our series on how to study the Bible, or how to get the most out of your Bible. We've laid down a
lot of preliminary things to elevate your confidence and whet your appetite with regard to studying the Scripture. We've
talked about who can study the Bible with effectiveness, who can truly and rightly interpret Scripture and we told you that
the Word of God says that only those who are born again, only those with a strong desire, who are diligent, who are pure
and holy, who are obedient, and prayerful are able to rightly divide the word of truth. And so we depend upon the work of
the Holy Spirit in all of those areas, the Spirit who gives us new life, the Spirit who plants in us the hunger for the truth, the
Spirit who grants to us the diligence and who cleanses us from sin and drives us toward holiness, the Spirit who works
obedience in us, the Spirit who prompts us to pray is behind all of these requirements and qualifications for the study of
Now, given that we understand the importance of the Word of God that it is in fact the Word of God and we've endeavored
to say that in a number of ways in the last couple of weeks, and given that our lives are right before the Lord, we belong to
Him, we have this desire, this diligence, this holiness, this commitment to obedience and prayerfully approach the Word of
God...how are we then to study Scripture? How are we to get a grip on this book? It seems so formidable. It's such a thick
book, such a long book, in fact 66 books make up this one book. There are so many details and since every word,
therefore every phrase and every sentence and every paragraph, every chapter, every book itself is of such vital importance,
how are we ever to be able to grasp the fullness of the Word of God? What format do we use? What approach do we use
for effectively studying the Bible?
And I want to share with you just some of the basic things that are essential in coming to grips with an understanding of the
Word of God. Some of them will be familiar to you and some of them perhaps will be new to you. Suffice it to say by way
of a little bit of an introduction, one of the grave problems in the church today is a misunderstanding of the meaning of
Scripture. As I said to you this morning, we...and even last Sunday night...we expect unbelievers to misinterpret Scripture,
don't we, because they are natural and they cannot understand the things of God. The Bible in its truth is closed to them for
the Bible is only understood by those who are taught by the Spirit of God. And since they are void of the Spirit and void of
the life of God, we don't expect unbelievers to come up with the right answer.
But it is also true that in many cases there are believers who for a number of reasons misinterpret Scripture. They come to
Scripture with their presuppositions and force the Bible to conform to those presuppositions. They come to the Scripture
with their predigested theology and their understanding of doctrine perhaps from the past and they want to force the Word
of God into that. Or perhaps they are enamored by some prominent teacher or prominent writer and they sort of line up with
that individual and they want to affirm what he says or what that group says without regard for a careful understanding of
There has been, obviously, severe damage done to the work of God, severe damage to the church of Jesus Christ by
misinterpretation of Scripture. And there are so many misinterpretations of Scripture under the name of Christianity that most
non-Christian people assume that there is no right interpretation of the Bible. Is that not fair to say? Most non- Christian
people would say, "Well it's everybody's own interpretation, that's obvious because there are so many views." And that is a
rather strange thing because for the most part if you are, for example, a Muslim, you are locked in to a pretty clear cut
common view of Muslim authoritative writings. And they're pretty much universally accepted and understood in the same
way. If you are a Mormon, there are not a lot of variations in how the scriptures are interpreted and what doctrines are
believed. If you are a Jehovah's Witness, the same would be true. If you're in Christian Science, or any other of the quasi-
Christian cults, there is much greater uniformity, even within the Roman Catholic Church there is much less confusion about
what the church teaches than there is in evangelical and true Christianity.
And one of the reasons why during the Dark Ages the Roman Catholic Church didn't want the people to have the Bible, one
of the reasons why they never put the Scripture in the hands of the people for the period of time from say 500 to 1500, the
period known as the Dark Ages, was because they were afraid that if the people got a hold of the Scripture without the skill
and the preparation to rightly interpret it, they would misinterpret it. And we understand that fear because that, in fact, is the
case. While they still had a responsibility to put the hand...the Scripture in the hands of the people, it was a correct
assumption that when given the Word of God people would come up with all kinds of misinterpretations. However, on the
other hand it was an incorrect assumption that only the church could be the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, only the
Roman Catholic system had the right to be the interpreter. That too was a wrong assumption. The right assumption is you
give the Word of God to the people and then you teach the people how to rightly divide the truth. You don't keep it back
from them. But it is true that the Bible in the hands of people can be the source of truth or the source of confusion, even
within the framework of the church.
The church has come up with all kinds of very strange doctrines because of misinterpretations. In fact, bizarre kinds of things
have occurred in the life of the church because of a misinterpretation of the Word of God. Cults have risen, as you know,
throughout history because of misinterpretation. Very often misinterpretation categorically codified and defined by singular
people like Mary Baker Eddy in the case of the Christian Science, or special vision, supposedly, come to Joseph Smith in
the case of the Mormons. And those being then the interpretation or the appropriate interpretation of Scripture. But not just
through those mystical means, there still are today many Christian people who...who offer an interpretation or an
understanding of Scripture that is utterly inaccurate. Their influence varies, some of those people never get any influence
outside their own house for which we can be thankful, to some degree. Others of them have wide influence, they're printed,
they're put in books, their books are widely distributed and the chaos reigns from pillar to post. We really understand that.
We know there is much confusion.
In fact, I've told you many times, I don't need to point it out again except to comment on it very briefly, that we live in a time
in the framework of evangelicalism where to say this is the right interpretation and all these are wrong is viewed as
unspiritual, unloving, ungodly because even Christians have come to the conclusion that almost anything goes in interpreting
the Bible. We're supposed to tolerate people who believe on the cross, for example, that Jesus became a sinner and had to
go to hell and suffer for His sins. We're supposed to be able to embrace those people as our Christian brothers and tolerate
that. We're supposed to be able to embrace as Christians those people who believe that one is saved by baptism and apart
from being dunked in water one cannot go to heaven. We're supposed to embrace people who believe that they make a
contribution to their salvation, that it is grace but it is grace cooperating with human works that effects redemption. We're
supposed to embrace those people and call them our brothers and sisters and to do anything less than that is ungodly and
unloving and unbiblical and not Christlike. We're supposed to embrace people who completely misrepresent and
misunderstand the significance of inspiration, who do not understand that the Bible is the end of all revelation and who
misinterpret the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and we're to embrace them unequivocally and without question and to question
their misinterpretation of those things and somehow to undermine the unity of the church. That's the mood of today and it is
not a mood in which careful Bible interpretation is likely to flourish, is it? Because careful Bible interpretation is by nature
divisive because if you come to a right conclusion about the Scripture then everything else is wrong. And so it's not a time for
this from the standpoint of the mood of Christianity today, but it certainly is a time for this from the standpoint of God who
commands us to know His Word and to rightly divide it. We are called to a proper understanding of Scripture so that we
can truly understand God's message, so that we can put it into practice, believe it and live it.
We are also to understand God's Word because when believing it, living it, and putting it into practice we therefore bring
upon ourselves the fullness of God's blessing and we have the opportunity to give Him the glory His name is due. Any
misinterpretation of Scripture, any misunderstanding of Scripture short circuits God's intended purpose for it. And you
cannot justify that on any grounds whatsoever. So we are commended again to the study of the Bible.
Now let's just talk about some basic things that are necessary. And I'll review one that I gave you a week ago and then we'll
go on to others. To understand the Scripture the first thing you have to do is read the Bible. Now that may come as a shock
to you but it's where you have to start. Most people don't know what the Bible means because they don't know what it
says. And maybe there are people who sort of stand at a distance from Scripture and say, "Boy, I could certainly never
figure this deal out so I'm not even going to try." Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps if we asked people who
have some familiarity with the Bible...what would be the most difficult book in the Bible, what would be the hardest book of
the Bible to understand? They would probably say Revelation...probably most people would say that the book of Revelation
is hard to understand. I know many preachers who throughout the life of their ministry would never preach on the book of
Revelation because they don't think they can understand it. That's because they have abandoned the proper hermeneutics to
interpret it because if they interpret it with the right hermeneutics they have to interpret it literally and if they interpret it
literally it goes against their historic theology. And they really don't want to do that so they just don't know what to do with
the book of Revelation and they leave it out. But most people would say it's probably the most difficult book to understand.
Yet at the beginning of this book it says in chapter 1 verse 3, "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the
prophecy and heed the things which are written in it for the time is near."
You want a blessing? Read Revelation. Listen to what it says, understand what it says, and put it in practice. Now I believe
that the book of Revelation can be understood, it can be understood if you just read it, it's very clear what it says. It's only
when people get mystical about it that it becomes confusing. Obviously there are some elements of the prophecies there that
we will never understand until they actually come to pass, but that's true of all prophecy, but the message of the book,
exalting Jesus Christ, speaking about the glorification of the saints and the judgment of the ungodly is very clear in the book
You start by reading the Bible. I suggested to you that the way to do that is to read the Bible on a repetitious basis. Turn in
your Bible, if you will, to Isaiah chapter 28 and I want to just set down a principle here that I think is very basic and very
important. Isaiah chapter 28, I suppose that if you were to ask the Jews of Isaiah's day where they were on the scale of
spiritual maturity, they would put themselves fairly high, having received the oracles of God, having the law of God, and
having the various holy writings that had been granted to them and the words of the prophets that had come to them and
certainly included in that is the preaching ministry of Isaiah. The people of Israel would have fancied themselves as students
of the revelation of God, students of the Old Testament revealed Scripture. They would have fancied themselves as those
who had the knowledge of God, and the wisdom of God, and understood God and His truth.
But that was not the way God viewed it. God viewed them not as mature but as utterly immature. He viewed them not as
adults in terms of understanding but as infants in terms of understanding. And so Isaiah speaks to them in that sense in
chapter 28 verses 9 and 10. "To whom would He teach knowledge and to whom would He interpret the
message?...speaking of God...those just weaned from milk, those just taken from the breast. For he says...verse 10...order
on order, order on order, line on line, line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there. Indeed He will speak to this people."
Now when God went about to speak to His people Israel through the prophet Isaiah, He had to speak to them as if they
were just infants, as if they had just been weaned from the breast, as if they had just been weaned from milk. They were
infants and they had to be treated like infants. And how do you teach an infant? How do you instruct an infant in knowledge?
How do you teach a child when they're in their infancy, when they're just beginning to have the capacity to learn?
You teach them this way. "Order on order, order on order, line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there." The bottom
line, repetition...simple repetition. Repetition, over and over and over and over again is how little ones begin to learn. That's
how God's people have to learn. You come into the Kingdom of God, as it were, according to Matthew 18, if we can
spread this metaphor across to the New Testament, you come in as a child, you are a child of God and you have certain
childlike characteristics. One of them is that you need to learn the truth of God and you have to learn it by repetition. It's true
of anything you learn, you learn it by repetition.
Even as a student in seminary, I go back to the days when I was endeavoring to pass exams in seminary and show my
proficiency in the various course work that I had to do, and perform at a level so that I could get the grade I wanted to get,
proceed toward my graduation. And I found that the only that I could really retain what was necessary to retain was by
constant memorization, constant repetition in my study. That's how we all learn. You learn by repetition, over and over and
over and over.
And as you read the Bible, that is what will happen. I suggested to you that with regard to the New Testament in particular,
you read it repetitiously. Read the same section every day for thirty days. Take about seven chapters or so, sometimes a
little more, maybe a little less if you're reading a book like Philippians that only has four chapters, then read four chapters
every day for 30 days. If you're reading a book like John, divide it into three sections of seven, read seven for 30 days, the
next seven for 30, the next seven for 30. In two and a half years you can do the entire New Testament that way. That
repetitious reading will cause you to remember what you have read.
Now you say, "Well as I go through the Old Testament, do I do the same?" No, just read through it in a narrative fashion.
And when you're done, go back and read through it again. And then go back and read through it again. You cannot
remember the vast volume of detail and the wideness of the Old Testament. But I remind you of this, that the themes of the
Old Testament and the themes of the New Testament are very clear and there are not that many of them. Do you remember
what I told you were the basic themes of Scripture? First of all, Scripture is God's self-disclosure. It tells us about God. So
as you read through the Scripture, you can start at Genesis and read right through the Old Testament, noting in your mind
everything that is true about God. And you'll find things repeated again and again and again, that God is wise and God is
powerful and God is the creator and God is a judge, and God is just and God is merciful and demonstrates loving kindness.
You see it here, you see it there, you see it here, you see it there. And so there is a repetition of that throughout the Old
Testament. Every book doesn't unveil some brand new kind of revelation heretofore never known, but rather unfolds in a
new way in a new environment in a new context in a new experience the character of God so that you are hearing about
God over and over and over and over again.
Secondly we said that the Bible points out that God has a law which man violates and as a result of that he suffers the
cursing of God. Violation of God's law, disobedience to God brings cursing. That is clear in the Scripture. You'll start in
Genesis and you'll see it immediately in the Fall. You'll see it again and again and again and again as you go through the
record of the Old Testament. Everywhere you go you're going to run into the same basic theme, illustration after illustration
Thirdly we said that to those who keep the law of God and obey the law of God there is promised blessing. You will see
that repeated again and again and again. Where there is the honor of God, the worship of God, where the sinner recognizes
his sin and comes to God and seeks to glorify Him and honor Him, believes in Him, trusts in Him, and obeys Him, there will
be blessing. Repeatedly in the Old Testament that record is unfolded.
The fourth great theme of the Old Testament is there is a Savior coming. Man is in desperate need. He is guilty before a holy
God because of his sin. He can't do anything about it himself. Someone must come to pay the penalty for man's sin. That
someone will come and that is the Savior. When you're reading in Genesis, you will read about one who will come and
bruise the serpent's head, you will read about a ruler who will come who will be Shiloh, as it were, who will bring peace. As
you move through you will read about the sacrificial lamb, you will read about a day of atonement. You will read about a
scapegoat that bore away sin. All of that picturing the coming Savior. And then the psalmist will begin to identify the Savior
and even quote what the Savior will say when He hangs on the cross. And then you will read the prophets and they will
predict things about the Savior, about His birth, about His life, about His death, about His resurrection, and so it goes. And
the Savior will be that recurring theme again and again and again and again, the one who is to come, the one who is to come.
And finally, the final fifth great sweeping reality of the Old Testament is that history will end with God establishing an earthly
kingdom in which His glorious Savior will rule and reign. You will find that again and again and again and again. God will
take back the earth. Paradise will be regained.
Those are the five great themes that sweep through the Old Testament, and, of course, through the New Testament as well.
So when you read the Old Testament, just keep reading and reading and reading, you can hang everything you read on
those five hooks. So there is repetition. There are just those few themes in the Bible. Those themes obviously have various
shades and significances and nuances and they break open into a myriad of truths but they all are built around those themes.
Reading the Bible will put you in touch and make you familiar with those themes and the man explicit statements about those
themes, the many illustrations of those themes in the history that God has recorded for us in the Old Testament.
Another thing about the Old Testament in your reading is that the Old Testament is simple. And I say that in this sense. The
Hebrew language is simple. It is a concrete language. It is not an abstract language like Greek. Greek has many abstractions.
Greek is a language of cognition where Hebrew is a language of action. The Hebrew language is very specific, very
concrete, very clear. And most of the terminology has very concrete and obvious significance. You should be able to read
the Old Testament and understand what is going on. You may run across a word you don't understand, you may run across
a ceremony you don't understand, you may run across a historical event that maybe is a little bit confusing to you, but in
general the language of the Hebrew is simple and straightforward. And as you read through the Old Testament continually,
and I would suggest that you read mostly in the same version, occasionally reading a different version for just a little bit of a
nuance of understanding, but mostly in the same version so that you increase your familiarity with the text. Read the
Now as you read, and this is what I've always done, as you read keep a little bit of a log alongside your reading and note the
things you don't understand. Note the things you don't understand. Don't get bogged down in your reading with everything
you don't understand as you're just reading through. Keep reading and start making a list, put down a little list for each book
you're reading, put down the chapt
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