The statement, “You’ll get out of it what you put into it” applies to studying Scripture. The time you put into observing a text directly benefits your interpretation of the text. In a previous article, I provide five helpful questions when observing a text. They include,
- What is the context of the passage within the book?
- Who is speaking to whom?
- When are they saying it?
- What are they saying and why are they saying it?
- What is this passage’s message to its original reading audience?
These questions lay the groundwork for six more questions. While observation questions help you answer, “What does the text say?,” the following interpretation questions help you determine “What does it mean?” Answering the interpretation questions reveals the richer depth, breadth, and beauty of a text when it is applied.
Do We Need to Look to Scripture to Define a Statement or Word?
While reading a text, you will often want to know what a word or statement means. Hebrew and Greek word studies are helpful. However, don’t underestimate the descriptive power of using Scripture to define a word for you.
In John 17, Jesus prays the night before his crucifixion. By doing so, He provides us with His definition of eternal life. In verse 3, Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Though other passages explain eternal life as eternity with Jesus, Jesus defines it as something richer. It’s knowing God intimately. That’s the Greek word in verse 3 translated as “know.” It means to know intimately through shared experiences. Those experiences are part of God drawing, adopting, and conforming us.
Letting Scripture define how a word is used, adds exactness to our understanding. It also provides depth and emotion. God stirs us with the words he uses. As a gifted artist, he paints a picture for us. It’s the message he means for us to grasp.
What Is Being Said about God’s Nature, My Nature, and the Gospel?
Since God’s aim for our salvation is to know Him intimately, he wrote Scripture with that end in mind. German theologians call Scripture the heilsgeschichte, the history of salvation. God purposed Scripture, as a whole, to reveal the big themes of his holiness, our sinfulness, and his amazing grace in saving us. Therefore, when studying a text, it’s good to ask the following questions.
- What is it saying about God’s nature?
- What is it saying about my fallen nature?
- What is it saying about God’s grace seen in the gospel?
- What is it saying about who I am and all I have in Jesus?
Answering these questions leads to precision in exegesis and worship. The answers appear in our prayers. They also overflow in our conversations, both with fellow Christians and those God draws to be saved.
Is There a Doctrine, Correction, Instruction, or Promise?
This question reminds us to look for what God promised to provide in Scripture. Second Timothy 3:16–17 and 4:1–2 say that God breathed Scripture to rebuke, correct, train, and exhort us. Then in Psalm 119, two words appear repeatedly in the psalmist’s praise. He thanks God for his precepts and promises. Precepts appears 21 times. It covers the doctrines, corrections, and instructions that God provides in his Word. Then there are God’s promises. The psalmist thanks God for them thirteen times.
Therefore, when interpreting a text, look for what God has already promised to provide. Look for his doctrines, correction, instructions, and promises. This may be the easiest question to answer as you interpret a passage.
How Is this New Testament Passage Used in the Old Testament?
If you’ve ever bought a print or portrait, you realize how important the frame is. It accentuates the picture. That’s what the Old Testament does for the New Testament. We see this especially in Matthew, Hebrews, and Revelation.
Matthew carries more Old Testament references than the other gospels. He does so to spotlight Jesus as the promised Messiah. Hebrews also uses a lot of Old Testament passages. Doing so reminds us that Jesus is our sacrificial lamb and true High Priest. Then, there’s Revelation. It hosts over 550 Old Testament references. Bridging what’s been with what’s to come, God displays his sovereignty. Seeing it we rest in him.
Therefore, look for the Old Testament promises, prophecies, and practices. They will add so much to what God means with what he says in the New Testament.
How Does this Old Testament Passage Point to Jesus?
We not only can look back from the New Testament to the Old Testament, we also can look forward from the Old Testament to the New Testament. This includes more than seeing the prophesies and practices of the Old Testament fulfilled by Jesus. It’s seeing the gospel story of the New Testament illustrated repeatedly in the Old Testament. Once you start seeing it, you can’t stop.
One who helped me see this is Timothy Keller. In his book Preaching, Keller opened my eyes to how the lives and experiences of Old Testament characters point to Jesus. 1 Soon, I learned to see it for myself. I saw it in Joseph. He was the favored son—rejected by his own, falsely accused, and persecuted—who ascended to the right hand of Pharaoh to save Jews and Egyptians alike from the famine God knew was coming. What a picture of our salvation in Jesus.
Therefore, when interpreting the Old Testament, ask, “How does this passage point to or picture Jesus?”
What Is God’s Timeless Message for All?
This last question helps you articulate what you’ve learned. Though it’s challenging, take all you now know about the text and write it in a single present tense statement. This exercise helps you check both your observation and interpretation. Using Paul’s metaphor in 2 Timothy 2:15, it tests how well you’ve cut the text.
In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul exhorts Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” Paul was familiar with the Greek term translated “rightly handling.” It means “to cut straight.” Being bi-vocational, Paul worked with Aquila and Pricilla as a tent maker. (Acts 18:1–3) He had to cut each tent piece correctly. If he didn’t, it wouldn’t fit. The tent would not work.
Writing out the interpretation helps you check your cut, your interpretation. Reading it, you ask yourself, “Am I seeing this correctly?” One way to check it is to ask, “Does it stand beneath the full weight of Scripture?” Again, to test their tents, to see if each piece had been “cut rightly,” they tested them. With all pieces sewn together, they set up the tent. If it didn’t stand, something went wrong. That meant backtracking each step to find the mistake.
After writing your interpretation in a single sentence, test it. See if it stands beneath the full weight of Scripture. Does the whole of Scripture attest to the truthfulness of your interpretation? If it does, praise God. Ask Him to help you see how he wants you to apply it. If not, praise God that he’s revealed it to you quickly. Ask Him to work with you at re-cutting it, or a previous piece, correctly. Once secure you have interpreted the passage “rightly,” you are ready to apply it.
- Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Ages of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 77–78. ↩