5 Keys to Unlock a Biblical Text
A Far Side cartoon once had a funny put pertinent exchange where the first panel showed a man lecturing his dog, saying "Ok, Ginger! I've had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!" The caption read, "What people say." The next panel showed the situation from the dog's point of view, captioned, "What dogs hear." And what did that dog hear? "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah...!"
Is it ever the same with us and God's Word? Apart from understanding the meaning of a Biblical text, there can be no application of the Word to our lives. Conversely, once the Spirit opens the door of insight, we are very prepared to act on what God has said.
Are you? Is that your aim in coming to the Scriptures--life change? If so, then get ready for action because God always opens the door to the one who knocks for that reason. Below are 5 keys that will help you unlock a Biblical text, some basic principles of interpretation.
1. Content - this is the raw material or database. And in it you look for terms, structure, literary forms, and atmosphere. You ask a series of penetrating questions: who, what, where, when, why and how? You look for things that are emphasized, repeated, related, alike, unlike, and true to life. In short, you barrage the text with a variety of strategies aimed at answering the question, What do I see?
2. Context - this refers to that which goes before, and that which follows after. Whenever you study a verse, a paragraph, a section, even an entire book--always consult the neighbors of that verse, that paragraph, that section, that book. Whenever you get lost or confused, climb a contextual tree and gain some perspective. There is usually much more than what you first see at 'ground level.'
3. Comparison - in comparison we compare Scripture with Scripture. And that offers a great safety net because of the best and greatest interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself. The more we compare Scripture with itself, the more the meaning of the Bible becomes apparent. The parts of the Bible that we are studying take on significant meaning in light of the entire Scripture. The use of a concordance will also aid in comparing Scripture with Scripture, so we are able to study biblical characters as well as terms or words; thereby obtaining more full meaning as to what God is teaching.
4. Culture - understanding the culture in which the original text has its context, helps us to more fully understand the meaning of the text. We need to understand the background while the light of truth is shown onto the text. What factors led to the writing of that passage? What influences were on the text? And what happened as a result of the message? If we read the Bible only according to our cultural context, that can or will distort the actual context. As a result, we will sometimes be unable to make proper sense of the passage. Understanding the original culture brings the text to life as well as adds accuracy to our interpretation.
5. Consultation - this involves the use of secondary resources, which can shed light on a text and help us make more sense out of what we're reading. The truth is, thousands of people have walked this road before us. And some of them have left valuable helps. They are like mountain climbers who have left their pitons wedged into the rock, so others can climb up after them. But one word of caution: Never forget the order! First the text of Scripture; then secondary resources. You never want to rely solely on the insight of others, just as you never should rely on thinking you alone have all the answers.
Good secondary resources include: Concordances, Bible dictionaries, Bible handbooks, Atlases, and Bible commentaries. But remember, the use of extrabiblical sources should never be a substitute for personal Bible study.
Dr. B's Personal Perspective
"With pretty much every Biblical text I read, I always start at the same place: Me, God's Word, and something to write on or with. I call it the 'dumping' phase. As I read the passage I write down or dump whatever hits me or comes to me onto the page. Good, bad, or indifference, doesn't matter. I am not trying to craft a message or paper at this point. I'm just trying to glean a basic understanding of the text as it speaks to me. Once I fell I've done this in a satisfactory manner, then I began to consult those 'secondary resources' in the areas where I have real questions. Sometimes those resources simply confirm what the Spirit had already said. Other times they shed light on a subject or thought I had completely missed. My journal and note pages are not near or orderly, nor are they designed to be. They are simply a reflection of what God said that day, at that moment. SOme thoughst are longer, some are shorter. But I believe as with any relationship, the more time you spend with God and His Word, the more He is going to say or give to you.