Interpretation Guides

Interpretation Guides

James Gunn

“How can I except some man should guide me?” replied the Ethiopian to Philip’s question, “Understandest thou what thou readest?” The illustrous Chancellor had every reason to praise God for the guidance given him by the Evangelist Philip on the occasion of his conversion and baptism. Since that early day many believers have been thankful for the help and the instruction provided by others.

Spiritually minded men throughout the centuries not only have sought to guide their fellow-Christians in the study of the Holy Scriptures, but they have discovered through their own efforts certain principles, the use of which gives direction in Biblical studies. Let us consider some of these:

The Control Of The Holy Spirit:

We have already emphasized the importance of reliance upon the leading of the Holy Spirit, but so great is the importance of this point we must notice it again. It is the Holy Spirit Who inspired the Bible; it is, therefore, He Who interprets it. Since He, the Divine Author, also indwells the believer, there ever is available the necessary illumination. “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,” (2 Pet. 1:21). “The anointing which ye have received of Him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you,” (1 John 2:27). “When He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth,” (John 16:13). Let us ever depend upon the Spirit of God for the interpretation of the Word of God.

The Rules Of Grammar:

Every one cannot be an accomplished grammarian; yet, since many of the rules of grammar are exceedingly simple, and these simple rules provide a key to understanding, every Bible student should apply them. Let us notice how essential are:

THE MEANING OF WORDS. There are but few large words in the Bible, for the Bible was written for the common people. Notwithstanding its blessed simplicity, there are words the meanings of which are difficult to some. It is good practice always to keep a good English Dictionary at hand. Unfortunately, the dictionary is not consulted as frequently as it should be.

THE CONSTRUCTION OF WORDS. With words we build sentences, and with sentences we build paragraphs. Occasionally our attention is drawn to the fact that in the Greek language there was no punctuation. Now while this is true, we are thankful to God for spiritual men who were so well acquainted with both Greek and English that they translated the New Testament out of the one into the other, inserting the punctuation where it is necessary. That some mistakes were made in this work is conceded, but since these are few, it is imperative that we read our English translations according to their punctuation. Much of the sense of Scripture is lost by failing to notice the clear structure of a sentence.

THE USAGE OF WORDS: Here we enter a slightly more difficult field, for words by usage sometimes lose one meaning and take on another; for example, the word “let” in 2 Thess. 2:7. When the King James Version was translated, it meant “to hinder,” but in our day, it has the sense of “to permit.” The Bible student should secure an English Greek Concordance, such as Strong’s or Young’s, in order to discover the usage of important words throughout the Bible.

The Law Of Context:

It becomes very obvious that, if we interpret the Word of God under the guidance of the Spirit of God, we interpret it according to its context. The whole tenor of the book in which a statement is found may lend a suggestion to its meaning, so also may the immediate background. The statements of Scripture are not of isolated meanings. The entire Bible is carefully and intricately bound together into one homogeneous and harmonious whole.

Let the word “faith” illustrate for us the law of context. As we shall notice, its meaning differs according to the immediate background. In Gal. 1:23 the doctrine of the gospel is suggested by the word, “That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed.” In Rom. 3:3 apparently the word means faithful, “Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?” In Heb. 11:1, it means trust or confidence, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

In order to impress upon our minds that the context definitely governs the actual meaning of words and statements, let us use another example, the thought of salvation, expressed both in the noun and verb forms. In Heb. 2:3, salvation embraces in a most comprehensive manner the glorious blessings offered in the gospel. In Eph. 2:8, salvation indicates the personal enjoyment of present deliverance from spiritual death. In Rom. 5:9, this wonderful thought appears in a future aspect, declaring that those now justified will be saved from the wrath that will descend upon the world after the rapture of the Church. In Pet. 3:21, salvation is for the believer; through identification with the Risen Christ he is saved from the corruption of the world. One more reference will suffice to show that we must interpret Scripture according to the context. In Jas. 5:15, to be saved apparently means to be healed.

The Law Of Comparison:

We have space enough this month to consider another very important rule in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, the law of comparison. This rule is equal in importance to that of the law of context. In 1 Cor. 2:13, we read about the comparing of spiritual things with spiritual. This statement has been explained as the fitting of spiritual language to spiritual truths, and without doubt it contains such a thought; nevertheless, there lies in it the suggestion that one passage in the Spiritual Word, the Bible, should be compared with another passage. We shall endeavour to demonstrate that such comparisons are most profitable, and that time spent in this exercise produces gratifying results.

Let us compare a passage in the Old Testament with the same passage as it is quoted in the New Testament. In Eph. 4:8, we have a quotation from Psa. 68:18. A comparison of these two is most interesting and enlightening. Psalm 68 is a processional song written probably by David for the occasion of the bringing of the Ark to Zion, 2 Sam. 6. The Psalm recounts the exploits of God over Israel’s foes in the wilderness and in the land. Those that subdued Israel into captivity and slavery are now captives themselves, the captives of an exalted and enthroned Lord. This exalted Lord on the other hand distributes the spoils of war among those who often had been rebellious in the wilderness. These facts illuminate the teaching of Eph. 4. They reveal the triumph of Christ over the captor, Satan, and the glory of Christ in resurrection and ascension, as well as the grace of Christ in bestowing, as the spoils of Calvary, gifts upon men.

In a similar manner comparisons may be made when an Old Testament passage is quoted several times in the New Testament as; for example, the statement by the prophet Habakkuk, “The just shall live by his faith.” This word is found in the epistles to the Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. The comparison here shows that in each epistle we have a development of the subject of justification; in Romans, we are justified by blood; in Galatians, we are justified by grace; while in Hebrews, we are justified by faith.

It becomes imperative with students of the Word that they also learn to compare passages that are similar in the different epistles. Frequently passages that appear strikingly parallel, when carefully compared exhibit certain vivid contrasts as; for example, the two passages, Phil. 2:9-11, and Col. 1:20-22.

It is felt that the diligent application of these principles in our study of the Divine Word will help us to understand what God intends in His Inspired Revelation.

The Law Of Contrast:

This rule may be considered of less value than the former rules, notwithstanding, it has its place among the principles of interpretation. In the writings of the apostle John many contrasts are encountered; darkness and light (1 John 1:5-6), hatred and love (1 John 2:9-11), righteousness and sin (1 John 3:7-8), flesh and Spirit (John 3:6), The usefulness of the law of contrast is seen when John 3:36 is carefully examined. It is generally accepted that the clause, “He that believeth not the Son,” means unbelief, but closer scrutiny shows that to believe not forms a perfect contrast with to believe, it is a positive refusal to believe. Mere unbelief may result purely from ignorance, but disbelieve is as much an act of the will enlightened by knowledge as is belief. Surely here, by the law of contrast, we see the responsibility of man to the claims of the Saviour, and the dreadful solemnity of a positive rejection of His demands.

In the will of the Lord we shall lock into other principles of interpretation, and also intimate certain clearly defined methods of Bible study.