“They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense (interpretation) so that the people understood the reading (Neh. 8:8).
To interpret means to explain something not understood; to define; to explain words by other words in the same language (Noah Webster’s dictionary 1828).
There are two basic forms of interpretation. First, is the literal interpretation: what did it mean for the original recipients? Second, is the modern interpretation: what does this mean today? Let me show you how to apply the two with a passage in 1 Corinthians 1:12b…
“Each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’, or ‘I follow Apollos’, or ‘I follow Cephas’, or ‘I follow Christ.’”
The literal interpretation concerns the Church of Corinth. Paul established a Church at Corinth on his second missionary journey. When he left, divisions arose. There were four major divisions in the Church. Some adhered to Paul as their “figurehead”. Others placed Apollos on a similar pedestal. Some looked to Cephas (Peter). And there were those who emphasized an unhealthy kind of “Christ only” attitude –one that rejected all forms of leadership. Paul’s lesson in this passage (vs.10-17) is clear: division is a sin and it dishonors Christ.
The modern interpretation is similar. Even though we do not have leaders like Paul, Peter, or Apollos; and even though we are not the Church of Corinth, we are to resist division in our Churches. Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Calvinist, Dispensationalist and other distinctions may be okay but we must not let them puff us up over and against one another. We believe in Jesus Christ. And we are to serve Him while still submitting to our God-given leaders.
We are not opposed to leadership, so long as it breeds harmony. But we are all Christian. We have one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, and one Father (Eph. 4:5-6). We find unity when we give our allegiance to Christ and His Word.
Keys for executing accurate interpretation …
Look for the concept/principle. What does this mean in light of the overall concept taught?
Look for reoccurring words or phrases. How does the meaning fit the “flow” of reoccurring words or phrases?
Look for contrasts (such as light/darkness, above/below, dead/alive, put on/put off). Does the meaning fit the “theme of contrast” in the passage?
Look up word definitions. Do the words mean something different than what our modern English portrays? (Use Greek and Hebrew study tools such as Strong’s Concordance/Dictionary, Vines Dictionary, and Greek and Hebrew Lexicon. For beginners, I recommend the “Nelson Key Word study Bible”).
Is the verse a command, a statement, a dialogue, a narrative, a question, a prophecy (the tone)? We asked this question when establishing the “immediate context”. Does my interpretation beat to the same drum of the immediate context?
Cross reference similar Bible passages. The Bible does not contradict itself. If I have derived a meaning that contradicts another obvious doctrines in scripture, then my interpretation is wrong. The Bible fits together cohesively, from front to back. When I run into difficulties I must use caution and work carefully through the steps of accurate Bible interpretation.
Tricky forms of literature
The Bible is a book with words and sentences. These words and sentences have meanings. Though the Bible is a spiritual book that must be interpreted with the help of the Holy Spirit, understanding the language and literary structure in a given passage is the gateway through which the Holy Spirit will guide us.
In the Principle of Context, we went over some of the various literature structures in the Bible -Poetry, Wisdom, Prophetic, etc. Like a building with a structure, the literary form is the structure in which the words were written. Let’s consider a several unique literary structure that will determine how we interpret a given passage…
Phenomenological Language: Phenomenological language is a technical term for language that describes what appears to the naked eye. Instead of describing the technical reality of a thing, this kind of literature/language simply describes what it sees. The weather forecaster does this every morning when they talk about the sunrise and the sunset. The sun doesn’t literally rise or set, it stays in its place as the earth rotates and moves around the sun. The weather forecaster isn’t wrong by using this language and neither is the Bible. The Bible speaks of the sun rising and setting (Ecc.1:5), of the sun standing still and the moon stopping (Jos.10:13a), and more.
Metaphoric Language: Metaphoric Language is a term for language that uses a metaphor to explain or teach a lesson. We use language like this all the time. Terms like “ballpark average”, a “blanket of snow”, and “blind as a bat” are all metaphors that are widely understood. The Bible talks about the wise being a “fountain of life” (Pr.13:14); we are clay and God is the potter (Isa.64:8); Jesus referred to Himself as the “bread of life” (Jn.6:35); and almost every parable is a metaphor with a singular concept that is being taught. When Jesus called Himself the bread of life, was He teaching that He is actually a piece of bread? No. It was a metaphor used to teach a spiritual concept: as bread sustains us physically, only Jesus can sustain us spiritually.
Personification: Personification is a term for language that describes inanimate objects in human terms. We say things such as the burger was “calling” my name, the wind was “howling”, or the story leaped off the page. The Bible talks about creation singing and dancing (Isa.55:12) and the heavens speaking (Ps.19:1-3). Does this mean that creation is actually singing? No. It is a literary form used to paint a word picture in the mind of the reader.
Anthropomorphic Language: Anthropomorphic Language is when God, who is an invisible Spirit, is described in human terms. God is described as having human features such as eyes and hands (Ps.34:15, Ex.7:5); as having human actions such as resting and relenting (Gen.2:2, 2 Sam.24:16); and as having human emotions such as jealousy and sorrow (Gen.6:6, Ex.34:14). This is a gracious act of God, stooping down and explaining Himself to us in terms we can understand -just as a father would to a little child. In reality, God is Holy, other than us, Spirit, invisible, and incomprehensible. We should thank Him for using terms that are understandable.
Hyperbolic Language: Hyperbolic Language is a term for language that purposely exaggerates to make a point. We say things like, I wanna kill him, or, I’m starving. Do we actually mean that we want to commit murder or that we are literally starving? No. We are exaggerating our language to make a point. Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds (Mk.4:31). It would seem that Jesus was wrong because the mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed. But when we know that Jesus was using hyperbolic language, then it makes sense. Jesus was exaggerating to make a significant point: that a little faith goes a long way. There are many places in scripture where hyperbolic language is used.
Parallelism: Parallelism is a form of literature that emphasizes a point by repeating it and/or contrasting it with a different but similar sentence. This literature is common in Proverbs, Psalms, and the Prophets. An example of this is in Job 38:16…
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea; or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Each line of this verse is saying almost the same thing. A point is being made by repeating it with similar but different language. Many of the difficult passage in the Bible us Parallelism. If we could identify when it is being used, it would guard us against wild interpretations.
Understanding these literary forms have been instrumental in my personal study. Complicated passages become simple when I’m able to identify which literary structure to interpret it from. Like understanding how to take an engine out of a car, a wheel off of a bike, or a faucet off of a sink, these literary forms have shown me how to draw out the literal interpretation from various passages. They are literally metaphors, parallels, personifications and more. I am able to understand what it means by what it say