WEEK FIVE:

EXPLORING

THE WORD

 

DAY 1

CHECKING THE FACTS

Whenever we read a controversial article online or watch a mind-blowing video on YouTube, the first questions we have to ask these days are: Is this true? Is this real? Did this really happen? In a world of Photoshop and less-than-reliable news sources, it’s both natural and wise to do some “fact checking”.

The same is true when it comes to studying the Bible. Many claims are made about what the Bible teaches—and impressive passages are often cited to support these claims. But we should never accept these claims at face value. We should always do our own “fact checking” to make sure the biblical evidence supports the claims.

This goes for our own interpretations of the Bible too. It’s important to always check the facts in the passage we are studying, to make sure our interpretation and application flow out of the facts. This is why observation—the first step of Bible study—is so important. If we don’t pay careful attention to the facts it can lead to serious misinterpretation and destructive application. 

Another key reason “fact checking” is so important is when we don’t take time to read a passage carefully, we are in danger of missing the rich nuances, insights, and application that only come from a careful reading of the passage.

Here’s an example. Last week we studied Philippians 1—where the Apostle Paul makes this famous statement:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Philippians 1:21

This sounds very inspirational—but what does Paul actually mean?

If you observed the chapter carefully last week, you probably know the answer. When Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison—and he didn’t know if he would be released or executed. His one passion was for Jesus to be honored in his life—whether he lived or died. Once we understand this context, his statement takes on new force and power. This is not the proclamation of a leader who is sipping cool drinks by the seaside. It’s the statement of a Roman prisoner in chains who doesn’t know from one moment to the next whether he will live or die.

Once we understand where Paul is when he makes this statement—and the danger he is facing—it opens the door to a whole new level of insight and application for our lives. This is the kind of rich insight we miss when we simply flip open our Bibles in search of a random inspirational verse for the day. Understanding Paul’s circumstances leads to a whole new level of application for our lives. For example: How would I respond in that situation? Am I willing to give my life for Christ? How strong is my passion for Jesus? Is the Holy Spirit calling me to make any changes in my life in light of this passage?

As we study the Bible, the first step is observation. We need to do good detective work and check our facts and assumptions. Only then are we prepared to move on to the next important step—interpretation.

DAILY RESPONSE

  • Take 20-30 minutes and carefully read Philippians 2-4. Practice your observation. Put on your detective hat. Ask the six reporter’s questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Jot down any facts or clues that suggest what’s happening in their lives. Remember to “listen in” to Paul’s side of the “conversation”. Feel free to theorize but remember to always support your theories with facts. Here are some practical guidelines:

    • Remember, your assignment is to write only the facts and clues—NOT to interpret or apply those facts to your life.

    • Only use the Bible (no Study Bible notes, references, Bible Dictionaries, etc.) 

    • Jot your facts and clues in your journal to share with your Life Group this week.

  • Did anything speak to you personally in these chapters—even though you were not trying to apply them to your life? If so, write a prayer to God based on this insight.

 

DAY 2

READ IT LIKE ANY OTHER BOOK

Last week we introduced a three-step process for reading the Bible: observationinterpretation and application. Now that we’ve tackled observation, it’s time to take a deeper dive into the second step—interpretation. It’s important to remember that interpretation is not about figuring out how a passage applies to our lives (that comes later). The goal of interpretation is to understand the author’s message for his original audience.

In order to do this, biblical scholars have identified certain “rules” or principles to help us. For the most part, these rules are simply common sense—but they are extremely important.

Think of interpretation like a game. As with any game—whether it’s football, Monopoly or Solitaire—there are rules that govern how the game is played. These rules give the game structure and meaning. Without rules, any game would quickly devolve into chaos and confusion. The same is true when it comes to interpreting the Bible.

This week, we will introduce “Seven Rules of Interpretation.” These rules will guide you as you learn to interpret the Bible for yourself.

Today we will focus on just the first rule—but it’s one of the most important. (Make sure not to miss this!)

RULE #1

If you want to understand the Bible—which is unlike any other book—you have to read it like any other book. 

Read that again—this time aloud. It’s sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, the principle is sound—and the reason is simple. The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it was also written by real people for real people. In the same way that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man, so the Bible is both 100% divine and 100% human.

In his book According to Plan, Graeme Goldsworthy writes,

. . .  the Bible is itself the Word of God. Yet it is a word given through human beings within their own history and culture. God did not suspend the humanity of the biblical authors any more than he suspended the humanity of Jesus. The Bible bears all the marks of its authors. Their language, thought forms, literary styles and forms, and their culture all shape the actual way the messages were given. Graeme Goldsworthy

This means when we read the Bible, we need to take time to discern the author’s message to his original audience. If we don’t, we will misinterpret the message and misapply it to our lives—which can lead to disaster.

What this means is we need to take the time to discern the original author’s mind, follow his logic, and understand his message—before we try to apply it to our lives. If we skip this step, we often simply read our own preconceived opinions, ideas and prejudices into the text—which won’t lead to transformation, and often leads to disappointment, dysfunction, and/or disaster.

This is why in Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, R.C. Sproul writes,

In this regard, the Bible is to be interpreted according to the rules that govern the interpretation of any book. In some ways the Bible is unlike any book ever written. However, in terms of its interpretation, it is to be treated as any other book. The Bible is not to be interpreted according to our own desires and prejudices. We must seek to understand what it actually says and guard against forcing our own views upon it. R.C. Sproul

However, reading the Bible like any other book is not always easy. The first challenge is, often we are not in the habit of reading it in this way. We are used to opening the Bible at random as if it’s a biblical horoscope to find an inspirational word of wisdom, encouragement, or guidance for the day. If anyone approached any other book this way, we would think they were crazy!  But this is often exactly how we read the Bible—and then we wonder why we have a hard time understanding it and applying it to our lives.

The second challenge is the Bible was written a long time ago to people in different cultures with different languages. So, at times, we will need some helpful resources to bridge that historical, cultural, and linguistic gap. Later in this study we will introduce you to some helpful tools to help you do this. But for now, we want to recommend the most important tool to start with: a good Study Bible.

What is a Study Bible? It is simply a Bible (in whatever translation you prefer) that comes with many helpful resources to help you understand and apply the Bible to your life. It includes a brief introduction to every book in the Bible which explains who wrote it, to whom, when, where, why, how the book is structured and some of its key topics. It will also provide some helpful “commentary” on key verses to help you understand the passage. It also includes “cross-references” which point you to other passages of Scripture that address similar topics. At the back of the Bible, you will find several other resources including a concordance (to study key words), a subject index (to study important topics), and a set of maps.

There are a wide variety of Study Bibles to choose from. Some focus on particular topics or audiences (like archaeology, leadership, women, men, students, etc.). Others are designed for general readers. Some are more academic, and others are more practical. Three of the most respected Study Bibles are the NIV Study Bible, the NIV Life Application Bible, and the ESV Study Bible.

A good Study Bible is worth its weight in gold—and it’s the first tool you should add to your toolbox to help you to discover the author’s message for his original audience.

DAILY RESPONSE

  • Today we learned that to understand the Bible, we need to read it like any other book. Is this a new paradigm for you? Does this surprise you?

  • How have you approached reading the Bible in the past? Have you read it like any other book, or have you approached it in a more random way—in the hopes of discovering an inspirational word of wisdom, encouragement, or direction? 

  • Have you ever used a Study Bible? If so, which of its resources did you find most helpful?

  • Write a prayer asking God to teach you how to study His Word in a way that transforms your life and leads to a deep personal relationship with God.  

 

DAY 3

CONTEXT IS KEY

PART 1

William Hordern tells a story in one of his books about a wealthy woman who was touring Europe when she came across a beautiful bracelet. She sent a cable to her husband that read, “Have found wonderful bracelet. Price seventy-five thousand dollars. May I buy it?” The husband cabled her back immediately. “No, price too high.” However, the cable operator failed to add the comma. When she received his cable, it read: “No price too high.” Of course, she rushed out and purchased it immediately! When her husband found out what happened, he sued the cable company for their error—and won!

The point? Little things matter. In this case, something as small as a comma totally changed the meaning. That’s why when we study the Bible, the first step is always to pay close attention to details (observation). Then the second step is to discover the author’s message to the original audience (interpretation).

Yesterday, we introduced the first of the “Seven Rules of Interpretation” to help us discover this original message. We learned that to interpret the Bible, we need to read the Bible like any other book. Now we are ready for the second rule:

RULE #2

When it comes to interpretation—context is key. 

When you stop to think about it, this rule just makes sense. Who would ever pick up a novel, a biography or even a poem and just start reading random sections? No one would do that. It would be ridiculous. And yet this is often exactly how we approach the Bible. If our goal is to read the Bible like any other book, we have to read it in context.

Context is not a hard concept to understand. We deal with it all the time in our culture. For example, think how common it is for famous politicians, athletes, or celebrities to claim they were quoted “out of context”. What do they mean? They are claiming their statement has been twisted, distorted, or misunderstood because it didn’t include what they said before and after their statement. We understand this, it’s common sense. 

But common sense is not always common when it comes to interpreting the Bible. For example, it’s not uncommon for someone to quote the Bible or cite a passage to support their interpretation of a verse—without paying attention to its surrounding context. When we do this, we are in great danger of misinterpreting or misapplying the Bible—or just missing out on rich insights simply because we didn’t read it in context.

When it comes to interpreting any kind of literature, it’s important to remember that words, sentences, and even paragraphs only have meaning in their larger context. Take the word “shot” for example. What does it mean? The answer depends on whether you are in a hospital, sitting at a bar, or playing a game of basketball. This is just the way language works. Context changes everything. And the Bible is no different.

When reading the Bible, there are seven different “levels” of context we need to take into consideration when studying a passage. Take a look at this diagram below.

This may look complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple. Let’s use this diagram to help interpret a passage you studied recently:

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. Philippians 1:3–5

In this passage, Paul says he is thankful for their “partnership in the gospel”. But what does he mean by the word “partnership”? Just like with the word “shot”, it depends on the context. So, let’s check this out.

If you look at the diagram to the left, you will see “Word”—in the inner circle. That’s where we will start. Let’s put the word “partnership” in that circle as the key word we are trying to interpret. As you move out the diagram, the next level is “Sentence”. So, let’s look at the word “partnership” in the context of its sentence: “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now”. In this particular case, this sentence doesn’t really give us any clues. Neither do the next two levels (Paragraph and Chapter).

But, if we move to the next level (Book), which in this case refers to the whole letter of Philippians, we suddenly catch a break. When we get to chapter four, we find an important clue. Here Paul thanks the Philippians for their recent financial gift to support his ministry—and he says they have often done this in the past. So now we begin to understand what Paul means by their “partnership in the gospel”. They have supported him financially over the years—which in turn has helped him share the gospel with more people, just like we would support a missionary today.

At this point, we could stop at this “Book” level of context. We have discovered what Paul means by “partnership”. However, if we want to learn more about what Paul is teaching on this important topic, we can continue out to the next level (Author) and research the rest of his letters to see what else he teaches about financial partnership.

Or, we can continue even farther out the diagram and compare what Paul teaches on financial partnership with what the rest of the New Testament and Bible teach on this topic. If we do, this will help us to understand Paul’s teaching in the larger context of the New Testament and the Bible.

Most of the time, we don’t need to use all these levels of context to discern the author’s message to his original audience. The most important thing to remember today is that if we want to understand the Bible, we have to read it like any other book—and that starts by reading it in context.

If we don’t, we can end up making costly mistakes—like the cable operator who forgot that fateful comma.

Now, it’s your chance to practice.

DAILY RESPONSE

  • In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul makes a very famous statement.

 

I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13, NASB

 

  • The question is, what does he mean by “all things”? Your assignment is to discover this by studying this verse in its “chapter” context (Philippians 4:10-20).

    • Here are some simple guidelines:

      • Step One: Start with Observation

      • Read Philippians 4:10-20. Put on your detective’s hat. Stick to the facts of who, what, when, etc. Jot down as many clues as you can uncover.

    • Step Two: Move on to Interpretation

  • Now that you’ve observed the facts, interpret Philippians 4:13 in light of its context (4:10-20). What is Paul’s original message to his original audience? Trace his thoughts. Follow his logic. What do you think he means by “all things” in context?

    • Only use your Bible for this exercise (no study resources).

  • Jot down your observations, thought process, and conclusions in your journal so you can share them with your Life Group.

  • Write a prayer to God for your own life based on your interpretation of this powerful passage.

Seven Levels of Context.png
 

DAY 4

CONTEXT IS KEY

PART 2

Tim Tebow is most known for two things: his football career and his faith. As a sophomore in college, Tim was the starting quarterback for the University of Florida Gators football team. His performance was so electric that he dominated the highlight reels on ESPN. He went on to become the first college sophomore ever to win the Heisman Trophy—one of the most coveted athletic awards in all of sports. By the end of his college career, he had broken records for both career passing efficiency and rushing touchdowns for the Southeastern Conference.

In addition to his success on the field, Tim Tebow became known for sharing his faith in Christ in many creative ways. One of the most popular was to write Bible references on the “eye black” under his eyes during games. One of his favorite verses is Philippians 4:13—the verse you studied yesterday.

I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:13, NASB

This is one of the most popular verses in the Bible—and it has been claimed by everyone from aspiring athletes and students to daring rock climbers and entrepreneurs to help them achieve their goals. The question to consider today is: What did Paul really mean when he says he can do “all things” through Christ?

Did he mean that Christians have no limits?

Did he mean that football players can excel on the field if they trust in God?

 

Did he mean that we can achieve whatever we want in life if we trust God enough?

If you studied this verse in context yesterday, chances are you know the right answer. To interpret this verse, we need to remember the Second Rule of context, which is: 

RULE #2

When it comes to interpretation—context is key. 

The context for Philippians 4:13 is actually financial generosity. In this passage, Paul is thanking the Philippians for their recent financial support. He shares that though he’s thankful for this, he has learned how to be content in whatever situation he finds himself—whether well fed or hungry. Then he says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Here Paul is not saying he can accomplish any goal he sets his mind to because Christ is with him. What he’s claiming is he can face whatever circumstances come in life—whether good or bad—with deep contentment because of the power of Christ.

This is a powerful truth—and one that we desperately need to hear!

This is one great example of why it is so important to read the Bible in context. When we take passages out of context, it can lead to serious misunderstandings that can lead to real life problems. For example, in this case, it can lead us to claim a promise God never made—and to miss the promise God did make.

Fortunately, Tim Tebow understands this. In 2009 he was interviewed by BP Sports. This is what he said:

A lot of people know Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—but a lot of people don’t interpret that verse the right way. Most people think it means I can do anything . . . on the football field, or I can make a lot of money. But that’s not exactly what it’s talking about there. It’s [saying] I can be content with anything. When you’re a Christian, you can [be content] because God has put you where you are. That’s really a different view.  . . . I know that I have Christ in me, so I can do whatever He wants me to do, and that’s how I approach everything. Tim Tebow

Amen.

The Apostle Paul would be proud.

If we want to grow and be transformed by the Word, we need to read the Bible like any other book—and that means reading it in context.

DAILY RESPONSE

  • Take a couple minutes and review your journal notes from yesterday’s assignment to interpret Philippians 4:13. How did you do? Were you able to figure out what Paul meant when he said he can do “all things” through Christ?  

  • Here’s today’s assignment. Study Philippians 4:19 (another famous promise). Paul promises that “God will meet all your needs”. What does he mean? What is Paul promising—to whom—and under what conditions? Put on your detective’s hat and study this verse in context (Philippians 4:10-20). Jot down your observations, thought processes, and conclusions in your journal so you can share them with your Life Group.

  • Have you ever claimed a “promise” in God’s Word—only to discover later that it wasn’t a promise? If so, what was the “promise” and how did you realize you had misinterpreted it? What impact did this have on you?

  • Today we studied two powerful passages: Philippians 4:13 and 4:19. Write a prayer to God based on one or both of them. 

 

DAY 5

THE FINAL FIVE

So far, we’ve learned if we want to unlock the power of God’s word, we need to diligently observe and verify what the Bible says (observation). We’ve also learned, once we’ve collected our data, we need to follow the “Seven Rules of Interpretation” to discover the author’s message (interpretation).

Do you remember the first two rules?

RULE #1

If you want to understand the Bible—which is unlike any other book—you have to read it like any other book. 

RULE #2

When it comes to interpretation—context is key. 

 

Today we will cover the final five rules of interpretation, which will prepare us for our final step of Bible study—application. 

RULE #3

Always compare Scripture with Scripture.

One of the most important rules of interpretation is to compare Scripture with Scripture. Since we know the Holy Spirit inspired all the Scriptures, we know that the Scriptures will never contradict themselves. So, when we are interpreting a passage, we need to compare its teaching with the rest of Scripture to develop a balanced understanding of the Bible’s teaching on any particular topic. This leads to greater insight and understanding. But it is also providing a great system of checks and balances to make sure our interpretation is on track. If our interpretation of a passage violates the clear teaching of Scripture in other passages, we know we need to go back and revisit our conclusions.

One good way to practice this skill is to use cross-references (a feature in your Study Bible). If you don’t know how to use this system, do a quick Google search on this topic. It’s fairly simple. It is also helpful to build your own cross-reference system. It’s easy to do. Whenever you discover a verse that reminds you of a similar verse on the same topic, put a mark (+) in the margins next to both verses with the scripture references. Over time this is a great way to build your knowledge of Scripture.

Always Compare Scripture with Scripture.

RULE #4

Let the clear interpret the less clear.

Some passages in the Bible are black-and-white, but others are less clear or even obscure.  When it comes to interpreting the Bible, it’s important to put more weight on the clearer passages and use these to interpret the less clear passages.

When living out our Christian life, we should never base our doctrine or lifestyle on an obscure passage. For example, in I Corinthians 15:29, the Apostle Paul makes a passing comment about certain people who are “baptized for the dead”. He doesn’t tell us who these people are or who they are being baptized for. He also doesn’t explain why they are doing this and he certainly doesn’t endorse or recommend this practice. Therefore, it would be unwise to base our doctrine and practice of baptism on a single obscure reference.

Let the clear interpret the less clear.  

RULE #5

Pay attention to the genre.

Genre refers to different types of literature. There are many different genres in the Bible including history, laws, poetry, proverbs, prophecy, biography, parables, and letters. As with any other piece of literature, we need to interpret each passage in the Bible according to its genre. For example, some genres use more literal language—such as histories, biographies, and letters. Other genres use more symbolic language—such as poetry, proverbs and prophecy. When King David describes the Lord as his “shepherd”, “rock” and “light” (Psalm 23:1, 18:2, 27:1) he is using poetic language. He doesn’t intend for us to interpret these descriptions literally—but he does expect us to take them seriously.

Pay attention to genre.

RULE #6

Check your interpretation with reliable resources.

Once we have finished our study and drawn our conclusions, it’s a good practice to compare our interpretation with reliable scholarly resources. A good place to start is with your Study Bible. However, keep in mind the notes and articles in a Study Bible are limited due to its size. Next week we will share many resources to help you study your Bible. But remember, it’s always good to check our work. If we come up with an interpretation that no one has ever heard of before, chances are we are off track. 

Check your interpretation with reliable resources.

RULE #7

Consider the historical context.

In order to interpret the Bible accurately, we always need to consider where each passage falls in the historical timeline of the Bible. If we don’t, we can get very confused. When considering historical context, it’s important to recognize that God did not reveal His entire plan of salvation all at once. He revealed it progressively over time (in theology this is called progressive revelation). For example, God gave Israel many types of laws for different reasons. Some of them apply to us today while others were specifically for Israel in the time period when they were written. Some laws flowed out of God’s unchanging moral character (such as the Ten Commandments)—and therefore will never change. Other laws were temporary—such as the laws regarding circumcision, the Sabbath, the priesthood, the temple, the sacrifices and food. Some of these laws (e.g. circumcision, the Sabbath, and food laws) were given to set Israel apart from the rest of the world temporarily to create a holy nation through whom the Messiah would one day come. When Jesus came, He broke down the “barrier” of these laws that separated Jews and Gentiles to create one new humanity (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Other laws (e.g. the priesthood, the temple, and sacrifices) provided spiritual object lessons to prepare Israel (and the world) for the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus came, these laws were no longer needed because the ultimate High Priest, Temple, and Sacrifice had come (John 2:13-22; Hebrews 7-10).

So, when we are interpreting Scripture, we always need to consider its historical context.

This may seem like a lot of information to take in, but like all things, with practice it will become second nature.

DAILY RESPONSE

  • Which of these five “rules” of interpretation is most helpful to you, and why?

  • Are there any that don’t make sense or are hard to understand? 

  • Think through the final five “rules”. What kind of problems can you see developing if we ignore them?

  • Read John 4:1-26. How does this passage illustrate the concept of “progressive revelation”? Write a prayer based on Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman.