by John MacArthur
Every paratrooper knows precisely where he is supposed to land, but no paratrooper will jump without also knowing the surrounding territory. To do otherwise can leave one disoriented and lost, which can have disastrous consequences. In the same way, to randomly parachute into Bible passages, trying to glean spiritual gems devoid of context, can lead to wasted time and stunted spiritual growth.
Regular Bible reading according to a strategic plan is the right foundation for successful Bible study. And the principles of accurate interpretation will take that Bible study to the next level of spiritual blessing and benefit.
Reading God’s Word answers the question: What does the Bible say? But interpreting it answers the question: What does the Bible mean by what it says? Proper Bible interpretation is a critical element of successful Bible study. The reader does not have license to decide what it means. He has to learn what it means.
Paul’s pastoral counsel to his protégé Timothy was clear: “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). He told Timothy to read the text, explain the text (doctrine), and apply the text (exhortation). You don’t read it and jump right into application. You read it, then explain it, and then apply it. That’s what “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) is all about. Otherwise, misinterpretation is the likely result, and misinterpretation is the mother of all kinds of mania.
The Mania of Misinterpretation
Misinterpretation causes all sorts of problems, ranging from ridiculous errors to dangerous heresies. “The Daniel Plan” is a popular Christian weight-loss plan based on the prophet Daniel’s decision to eat only vegetables and water (Daniel 1:12). But this new “Bible-based” weight-loss program completely ignores the fact that Daniel’s diet was meant to display God’s supernatural sustenance in spite of inadequate dietary intake. Worse still, the laughable punchline to the whole story is that Daniel actually gained weight by following “The Daniel Plan” (Daniel 1:15)!
Prosperity preachers teach that John’s warm greeting to “prosper and be in good health” (3 John 2) expresses God’s universal desire for Christians to always be healthy and wealthy. Such “theology” makes a mockery of the hardships, poverty, and untimely deaths suffered by the apostles and those who succeeded them (cf. Hebrews 11:35–38).
Some factions of Mormonism believe that since the patriarchs practiced polygamy, so must we. One group even decided to refuse anesthetic for women in labor since the Old Testament teaches that pain in childbirth is a part of the curse. Jehovah’s Witnesses often refuse blood transfusions due to a faulty understanding of commands to abstain from blood (Acts 15:28–29).
Those misinterpretations cover the spectrum from the ludicrous to the hazardous to the damnable. But they all are the natural extension of a failure to understand what the Bible is really saying, and the context in which it was written. They are misinterpretations that can be easily dealt with by avoiding three major interpretive errors.
Don’t Make a Point at the Price of Proper Interpretation
In other words, don’t make the Bible say what you want it to say. Don’t follow the example of the minister who preached that women shouldn’t have hair pinned on top of their head. His text was “top knot come down” fromMatthew 24:17 (NKJV) where it says, “Let him who is on the housetop not come down.” That’s obviously notwhat that passage is teaching!
Another fatal path is to be like the preacher who says, I’ve already got a sermon; I just have to find a verse for it. He starts with a preconceived idea and then gathers some verses to support it—a case of the tail wagging the dog. True biblical sermons don’t drive the biblical text, they are driven by the biblical text. I know if I try to manufacture a sermon, I wind up forcing Scripture to fit my ideas. But when I try to comprehend a passage, the message flows out of that understanding.
Using God’s Word to illustrate a personal idea actually undermines biblical authority. Start with the text, find its true meaning, and then get out of the way and let Scripture speak for itself.
Avoid Superficial Interpretation
Second, as you study the Bible, be careful not to buy into the modern mantras of “to me, this verse means …” or, “What does this verse mean to you?” Instead, learn what it actually says.
Unfortunately, a lot of Bible studies are nothing but a pooling of ignorance—a lot of people sitting around and sharing what they don’t know about a verse. I am all for Bible studies, but somebody has to study to find out what the text really means so they can lead the others into understanding, and then they can discuss the application. Paul instructed Timothy to put in the hard labor of rightly handling God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15).
Third, don’t spiritualize the straightforward meaning of a Bible verse. The first sermon I ever preached was a horrible sermon. My text was “An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone” (Matthew 28:2). My sermon was “Rolling Away Stones in Your Life.” I talked about the stone of doubt, the stone of fear, and the stone of anger. That is not what that verse is talking about; it’s talking about a real stone. I made it into a terrific allegory at the expense of its plain meaning. On another occasion I heard a sermon on “they cast four anchors…and wished for the day” (Acts 27:29 KJV); the anchor of hope, the anchor of faith, and so on. Those Acts 27 anchors were not anchors of anything but metal.
I call that “Little Bo Peep” preaching, because you don’t need the Bible for those kinds of sermons. Someone can get up and say, “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep”—all over the world people are lost. “And can’t tell where to find them. Leave them alone and they’ll come home”—so they will come home after all. Then you tell a tear-jerking story about some sinners who came home “wagging their tails behind them.” It’s so easy to do, and a lot of people do that with the Old Testament. Don’t spiritualize the Bible; study it to gain the right meaning.
Context Is Key
Avoiding those three errors—conforming the text to your own predetermined agenda, superficial interpretation, and inventing spiritual metaphors out of passages that speak plainly—will create a far safer environment from which to study Scripture. But avoiding error is only one half of the interpretive equation. There are also principles of true interpretation that must be embraced.
Most interpretive challenges can be resolved through studying the passage within its wider context. “God is not a God of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33) and He does not have a problem explaining Himself. The problem is usually with us—whether it be a personal objection to what Scripture says, a cultural gap between us and the text’s original setting, a refusal to obey, or a lack of broader biblical knowledge. Whatever the case, skills in Bible interpretation can be acquired and applied. And I’ll explain how in the days ahead.