the Spirit Watch

How To Study And Understand The Bible For Yourself :

Part 3 - Interpreting The Passage

by Rev. Rafael Martinez, Co-Director, Spiritwatch Ministries

Once the Big Idea, passage topic and passage theme have been gathered from good observation of a Bible passage, you can then seek a balanced interpretation in light of your study. The main objective of the interpretation of Scripture is Christian nurture and perfection (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The perfecting of the saints is the intended purpose of Biblical writing and the nurturing of Christ-centered faith in God is the reason for the writing of the Good Book! Observing what the Bible says now must be followed through with the critical task of interpreting what it means. This is how we actually find out "what the Bible says" about anything.

Such an understanding can only come after discovering what it is saying in the first place. This is why the meditative, focused method of observation is an absolutely essential first step to real Biblical interpretation. Letís continue our study of 1 John 2:3-5 and determine its proper interpretation from the following five principles:

The actual interpretation of a Bible passage's text involves four basic steps:

1. Observing or describing the passage as literally as possible - Each Bible passage's writer had a conscious purpose in writing them: we must therefore respect the unity and coherence of the thoughts they expressed within them. We are striving to enter into the inspired thoughts of Paul, Moses, James and Habakkuk when we closely study the passages they write so as to see what they're about (the "Big Idea's" passage topic) and how the writer wanted us to view that topic (the "Big Idea's" passage theme). We must allow the flow of passage content to set itsí own agenda of concerns and priorities and not bring our own preconceived notions to it! Youíve already done this in the first step if you've spent the time observing what you'll find in the verse(s).

2. Interpretation is based in part on detail drawn from context of the passage. Observation of a passage's content must be balanced with the context of the verses themselves. Interpret passages in keeping with what you know about their context in the Bible as a whole. The simplest definition of what Biblical context is involves an understanding of how the passage in question fits into the entire unity of the Biblical canon itself. The meaning of a verse is derived from literary wholes Ė whole books, chapters, paragraphs, stories, poems. This unity of an entire portion of Scripture assures that the proper interpretation of a single passage is faithful to the writer's intent. Interpretation is further enhanced by understanding the original historical/cultural context surrounding the passage. This involves contextual details such as who the passage's author was, who his intended audience would be, when and where the verses were written, etc. We'll discuss this a bit more shortly.

Again, to illustrate using the passage of 1 John 2:3-5, by just reviewing the second chapter alone, we discover that the apostle John is writing to three different groups of believers. He mentions, in a tender, warmly interpersonal frame of reference those he calls "little children," "fathers," and "young men." (v. 1, 12-14, 18, 28). The tone of the writing of the chapter is that of the aged apostle writing admonition and encouragement to groups of Christians he loved tenderly as his spiritual children and family. This is an edifying perspective which he writes from throughout 1 John. So we can deduce from just these observations alone that the passage was written from the heart of a Christian leader seeking to lay down principles for spiritual life he knew were vital to their spiritual life. A reading of the entire book of 1 John bears the strongly didactic, teaching content of the apostle's writing.

3. Determine whether a given detail is descriptive or prescriptive. Does the Bible passage's detail merely present or describe something? Or does it appear intent on compelling us to follow or proscribe it? What do we see the verse as saying to us? Is it both? Is it compelling us to godly practice and discipline or telling us of a Godís work of grace among men? Once you have grasped what you've been told, the question then to be grappled with is what are we meant to learn or meant to understand from the experience, observation or principles presented to us. Repetition, contrast of details and quotation of other Bible passages and prophecy will provide more detail to help us examine these questions.

Study of the chapter and the verses in question together reveal the apostle John's strong emphasis on the necessity of Christian disciples' to "know" certain crucial spiritual truths that he was writing to confirm them in ("My little children, these things I write unto you" - verse 1). To John, knowing God and genuine Christian fellowship with other believers is closely linked with the need to know and understand the vital spiritual teachings John relates. This is repeated over and over throughout the chapter, and the knowledge John highlights is primarily prescriptive, calling believers to ensure "that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you" which in turn would ensure theyíd "continue in the Son, and in the Father" (v. 24) John's teaching is a call to remembrance of the things he'd already taught them - it is literally a review of the basics of Christian teaching he had impressed them with.

4. Interpret a passage in light of what you know about it's genre. Each literary genre's characteristics as seen in Bible passages carry with them expectations and rules for interpretation unique to each of them. We need to once again remember that the Bible is written in ordinary, human language that is inspired of God yet composed through man. Story/narratives should be approached in terms of setting, characters and plot. Didactic exposition offers easier approaches by way of its systematized teaching that can be cross referenced easily to other propositions made in other passages. Lyric poetry should be divided into the theme and variations it offers, and it's figurative language interpreted as needed. We'll discuss this a bit more also shortly.

As we have seen, John's writing in 1 John is a compassionate yet uncompromising exhortation of Christians to a steadfast Christian life of authentic, Christ-centered faith. It brings forth portions of Christian teaching and doctrine that are expounded upon in other areas of 1 John as well as the New Testament. Verse 1 is echoed in the thought of Hebrews 7:24-27, verses 3-5 are a parallel to John 14:18-21 and verse 6-11 can easily be recognized as drawn from the spirit of Jesus' own words in John 15:4-11. This is a didactic exposition, straightforward teaching of the apostle that can easily be seen handed down in the other New Testament texts. So our interpretation will be centered around the timeless spiritual absolutes of Christian truth found here. We wonít be interpreting this as if it was a parable of Jesus or a lament of Jeremiah.

5. Seek the literal meaning, not a symbolic unless absolutely necessary. Determining of literal, normal meanings of words phrases and sentences is the norm in all human communication. Scripture is written from this perspective although the usage of Biblical metaphors and allegory is a dominant feature of Bible poetry, proverbs, parables and prophecy. A balanced view of Biblical symbolism and metaphor mustnít obscure the truths conveyed by the Bibleís literal content. Selective Bible allegorizing and spiritualizing of passages is not "Bible teaching!" This has been a grave error in much Biblical interpretation across the centuries by many people. Unless a Biblical passage is clearly and unmistakably allegorical, it should not be allegorized! To do so is to violate the intent, objectivity and integrity of Scriptural truths as penned by their authors.

In 1 John 2, the references to allegorical symbolism are sparse indeed, but should be noted. The believers John writes to weíve noted are identified with endearing terms such as "little children" "fathers" and "young men." These are very likely references to Christians of various levels of spiritual maturity, an idiomatic way of speech used by other New Testament writers when referring to believers (1 Peter 1:14; 1 Cor. 4:15, Acts 2:17, Hebrews, Phil 3:14-15). Jesus is called an "advocate with the Father," and this evokes the role of Jesus as both divine Mediator and High Priest as recognized by the early church (1 Timothy 2:5-6 and Hebrews 10:10-17).

This symbolism, as seen here, adds a greater, richer dimension to the teaching that John has already laid out in just verses 3-5, and it is a symbolic point of reference drawn from Scripture only that have a direct bearing upon the proper interpretation of the Scripture. The audience of John, some of the very first Christian disciples, were hearing consolidations and expansions of spiritual insight by the revelatory work of the Spirit as resident in that blessed apostle. An important point here is that symbolism in any interpretation of Scripture should be directly tied to Scriptural reference points only. To go beyond this can become an exercise in subjective confusion that draws its authority solely from the opinions of "teachers" who would have their understanding accepted as the standard of orthodoxy.

So how can 1 John 2:3-5 be understood? A good interpretation of it could be summarized:

The apostle John is making a strong statement of contrasts in these passages that bears out his review of how to recognize oneís true standing before God. A professing believerís confession of a true knowledge of the Lord Jesus is revealed by their commitment to a lifestyle that honors His commandments and who will be perfected by His Spirit-bestowed Love. This is in sharp contrast to those who donít embody this passion in their lifestyle, and these are people John calls self-deceived persons who donít walk in truth who therefore are falling short of Christian perfection. 

In contemporary language, John speaks of professing Christians who can "talk the talk" but not really "walk the walk" as all too painfully real people we see in our church circles week in and week out (they may even be us). He then, however, contrasts this sad state with the blessed believer who practices whatís been preached to him of the words of Jesus and who exhibits the fruit of a deepening adoration of God evident in their own words and deeds.

This interpretation is drawn from a careful hermeneutical practice I've striven to follow which has been established in one way or another by believers across time, waiting on God to reveal truth to them from His Word. Knowing the Father by His Word as led by the empowering Spirit of Godís ministry of teaching is a spiritual constant that Heís supplied as part of His provision for living a consecrated Christian life. 

My own encounter with His enablement to provide this is a precious gift which I am certain the Living God offers to all of those who would seek His truth, if they would but persist in hearing His voice through His Word! This is the secret of Christian living Ė a dedication to personal encounter with God. It is the birthright of all of Godís children, that they would come to know and encounter their Heavenly Father through the pages of His written Word as He provides it to us through the pages of Scripture.

I would contend that this manner of meditative study should be a norm of Christian life that would kindle the relationship to God that so many yearn for but never quite seem to achieve. It is at the heart of a personal walk with God, and it directly challenges the grain of the modern, lackadaisical and casual Christianity that seems to dominate the hearts and lives of too many people entrusted with teaching authority in the church today. Bible study that changes lives is becoming more and more difficult to find. Evangelical culture has too long enshrined one of two paralyzing trends that undercuts this: rote recitation of curricula leaflets or shallow and even casual "Bible studies" in Sunday School and fellowship times that are more socializing than study. This is why so many supposedly "mature" believers today are actually still spiritual babes who find the Bible confusing, perplexing and even boring!

I would further contend that this is one of the major reasons why the Christian Church is in the state it is in today. The dire need for a renewed vision and passion for the Christian life has never been greater in our world but how great is the spiritual drift of religion that has no basis in the encounter with Jesus Christ that should energize oneís spiritual walk! A professing Christianís grasp of Godís Word is directly dependent upon his or her personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ for it is the infilling presence of His Spirit that makes it possible to have such intimacy with God and to enjoy the inconceivably vast riches of His teaching power. And that grasp of the Word is made sure by dedicated study principles and practice that we've shared here.

Now that we've observed and interpreted Scripture, the final step is to grapple with how to take it to heart through application. We now go to our final article to discuss how we apply Bible truth we've studied out of the Word to ourselves.

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