Eugene Peterson, best known for his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, has died at age 85. One of Peterson’s lesser known works, Eat This Book, includes this challenging word: “The practice of dividing the Bible into numbered chapters and verses … gives the impression that the Bible is a collection of thousands of self-contained sentences and phrases that can be picked out or combined arbitrarily in order to discern our fortunes or fates. But Bible verses are not fortune cookies to be broken up at random. And the Bible is not an astrological chart to be impersonally manipulated for amusement or profit.”[1]

Peterson was right, but his challenge raises a serious question: How can we know we are interpreting Scripture correctly? Perhaps more important, since most pastors—including this one—often preach topical sermons with collections of verses from different books of the Bible, how can we be sure they are getting it right?

Accurate Bible interpretation is a big subject so I’m boiling it down to five steps anyone can take toward accuracy. The steps are a summary of the study method Haddon Robinson teaches in his book, Biblical Preaching. They are so simple anyone with a high school education can use them.

First, read a paragraph or better yet a chapter at a time. Note any questions you have about it. Are there cultural, historical, grammatical, geographical references or vocabulary you don’t understand? Is it poetry, history, story, wisdom literature, or prophecy? Each literary type has associated interpretive guidelines. We do not interpret poetry for instance with the same level of specificity as law. Jot down your questions to look up later.

Why whole paragraphs? Paragraphs as opposed to individual verses, are complete units of thought. Later translations like the NIV and ESV identify them in the typeset. But most important, read complete thought units, not just verses.

Second, ask: What’s the subject? What’s the author talking about? Example: In Ephesians 6:10-20, the Apostle Paul is talking about spiritual warfare, our struggle “against the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world…” That’s his subject, the main thing he’s addressing in the paragraph.

Third, ask: What’s the compliment? In other words, what is he saying about the subject? In our passage he’s saying, “Be strong in the Lord … put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand…” He could have said, “Run away!” But he didn’t. He said to take a stand. That’s the compliment.

Fourth, ask: What’s the context? What is said about the subject in the sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and rest of the book that precede and follow that paragraph? What about the rest of the Bible? Do we see Jesus, Peter, or any of the other writers addressing spiritual warfare? Can we—keeping the contexts of their comments in mind as well—legitimately apply their insights and knowledge to Paul’s? This is where many Bible interpreters get in trouble. Context is king. “A text without a context is a pretext,” someone said. Context is even more important than vocabulary because it gives shading and a frame of reference for individual words.

Fifth, ask: What principles do I see emerging from my analysis? One of the most prominent in Ephesians 6:10-20 is that God expect us to stand strong in the battles, not to run away. Courage, faith, fortitude, and above all preparation, “putting on the full armor,” are supporting principles but taking a stand seems to be the main one.

You may need to answer some of your questions from step one before you can take that fifth step. Most good study Bibles, like the NIV Study Bible or The ESV Study Bible etc. will help as will a good online resource like BlueLetterBible.org.

We should never read a text of scripture and ask: What do you think it means? That invites us to use the Bible simply as a mirror to reflect what we feel in the moment. We don’t find its meaning in ourselves, we find it in the text as the authors wrote it. Ask, “what did Paul mean? What did Luke or John or Matthew or Moses mean?” That’s the way to interpret the Bible or any other text. Then we take that meaning and build bridges for how it might apply in our time and culture. The NIV Application Commentary is structured like that. It’s easy to read and a good addition to any Bible study library.

These five steps will take anyone who uses them to a deeper level of understanding than most people ever develop about the Bible.

And what about your preacher? It all boils down to trust. Has he demonstrated over time that he knows and respects the Scriptures well enough that he will not turn a text into a pretext and make it say something the Bible never said? No one gets it right one hundred percent of the time, but if he’s following these principles he’ll be close.

[1] Pg. 101. Quoted from John Stonestreet’s Breakpoint Facebook post of October 22, 2018.

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