Author: Ron Graham

Bible Authority

Handling the Word Aright
—How to interpret the Scripture

This lesson looks at six simple principles that help us to read, study, and understand the Bible well, and to handle the word correctly.


1 Keep in mind the Bible’s main Purpose.

When we study the Bible, we ought to study it with the purpose God has in mind. I once saw a man use a bottle to hammer a six inch nail into a solid piece of timber. However a bottle was not designed for that purpose. If you keep the right purpose for Bible study in mind, and keep to that purpose, your Bible study will be profitable and enlightening.

Purpose statement 1~ Acts 20:32 Paul stated the main purpose of God’s word this way: "I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified"

Purpose statement 2~ 2Timothy 3:15 Paul makes another purpose statement when he tells us that the scriptures are "able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus"

Purpose statement 3~ 2Timothy 3:16-17 Paul continues to describe the purpose of the scriptures, calling them "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work".

Purpose statement 4~ James 1:21 James tells us to "Receive the implanted word which is able to save your souls" and so the ultimate purpose of Bible study is our eternal salvation.

Purpose statement 5~ Romans 15:4 One more example of how the scriptures show us their purpose: "Whatever was written in earlier times was written for our learning, that through patience and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope".

2 Keep in mind the Bible’s main Person.

The Bible is a collection of sixty six books and letters, written at different times and places, in various literary styles, by many different authors, for many different reasons. They are not even all in the same language, the Old Testament books having been originally written mainly in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Koine Greek. Within the covers of the Bible you will find documents that differ widely, yet these are all agreed witnesses to one and the same central Person.

The one central theme running through the whole Bible is the story of Jesus Christ God’s Son and our Saviour.

Person statement 1~ John 1:1,14 John calls Christ the Word. "In the beginning was the Word... and the Word became flesh...". The Bible is the word of God, and Christ is the central message of the Bible, hence his title, the Word.

Person statement 2~ John 5:39, Luke 24:27 Jesus said himself, "Search the scriptures... it is these that testify of Me" and "He explained to them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures"

Person statement 3~ 1Corinthians 15:3-4 Paul understood the scriptures in the same way, for he says "...that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised the third day according to the scriptures".

note It is worth remembering that the Bible has...

Your Bible study will be well guided by that simple "map" of the Bible.

3 Keep in mind a statement’s main Point

Someone has said, "A proof text out of context is a pretext". In a later lesson, "What is this thing called context?" we discuss context in more detail, but for now we will just look at some simple examples.

Example 1~ Matthew 24:17 There is a story (which I doubt is true) that a preacher became concerned that the ladies were getting too fancy with their hairdos, so he preached on the subject and took as his text, "top not go down".

Eample 2~ Colossians 2:20-22 I am a teetotaller (don’t drink anything alcoholic) but I would never support the practice with this verse, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch" because Paul was making a point against such decrees.

Example 3~ John 3:7 A reincarnationist (who believes that when your body dies you are born into another body) once pointed out to me that Jesus said, "You must be born again". Had he examined the context, he would have seen that Jesus was not talking about reincarnation at all.

Example 4~ Acts 19:27-28 In this passage we find praise for the pagan goddess Artemis or Diana: "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" It is clear however that the Bible is not making this claim itself, but is merely recording what Diana’s followers shouted.

Example 5~ 2 Kings 21:13 "I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish..." Women sometimes quote this in jest to “prove” that a man should help with the dishes!

Example 6~ Romans 9:12 If I wanted to encourage old people to help young people, I could not quote, "The older shall serve the younger" because the verse has nothing to do with that topic.

note A Bible statement may be used to show something other than its native point. However any point that is derived or inferred from a statement must be obvious and natural, not dubious or forced.

The following examples illustrate this...

Example 7~ Genesis 1:27 "God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." We can infer from this that human beings are superior to the animals; that God has a special purpose for man; and that man and woman are equal in God’s sight.

Example 8~ 1Timothy 5:18 Paul quotes the law, "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain" to support the view that a labourer is worthy of his hire (cf 1Corinthians 9:6-4)

Example 9~ Mark 12:26-27 Another example of a “necessary inference” is seen when Jesus quotes God saying to Moses, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" and infers that "He is not God of the dead but of the living" and that "the dead rise again."


4 Don’t interpret the Bible arbitrarily

Sometimes we encounter arbitrary interpretations of Bible passages —interpretations that stem from a person’s own thoughts and feelings instead of comparison with other scripture.

Peter’s warning

Peter warns us that "No prophecy of scripture is for one’s own private interpretation; for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2Peter 1:20-21).

Those who spoke from God did not speak their own arbitrary thoughts and feelings. Nor should we interpret the prophets’ words in an arbitrary manner; making them say what we wish, rather than what they meant.

Distinctions without difference

One kind of arbitrary interpretation makes distinctions where there's no difference. For example, in Luke 2:22-24, you find the terms "the Law of Moses" and "the Law of the Lord". Are these two laws as some say?

"When the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord as it is written in the law of the Lord..." (Luke 2:22-23a).

The commandments for purification, dedication, and offering are all found in the same writings of Moses. The law of Moses was the law of the Lord.

One law: Ezra was "a scribe skilled in the law of Moses... learned in the words of the commandments of the Lord and his statutes to Israel... the scribe of the law of the God of heaven" (Ezra 7:6,11-12).

One law: Ezra was asked to "bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel... they read from the book, from the law of God" (Nehemiah 8:1,8).

Reading things into scripture

Another kind of arbitrary interpretation is reading into a scripture what isn't there.

For example people often quote "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, yes and forever" (Hebrews 13:8) to prove that Jesus still grants special gifts of the Spirit like he did for the apostles and for Cornelius.

The statement "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever" does not imply that Jesus still cooks fish for breakfast as he once did (John 21:8-14). Likewise it does not imply that Jesus grants Holy Spirit baptism today as he once did.

Another example is inserting the word “only” into passages like "By grace you have been saved by faith [alone] " (Ephesians 2:8), and "The just shall live by faith [only] " (Romans 1:17).

In the same chapter that Paul quotes "The just shall live by faith" he also says, "We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith" —not faith only (Romans 1:5).

Comparing scripture with scripture we find James saying that we are, "justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). So the arbitrary reading of “alone” into faith passages produces error.

5 Don’t misuse language.

We have all had the experience of saying something, only to have our words twisted around to mean something we did not mean. Although we expressed ourselves correctly, the hearer took our words wrongly.

Language has to be understood properly. Somebody reads on the honey jar, "If honey has solidified, stand in hot water", so they stand in hot water and burn their feet.

Jokes aside, some people "twist the scriptures to their own destruction" (2Peter 3:15-16). People should use the language of scripture properly so as not to distort its meaning.

Eat, drink, be merry

Here's an example. Jesus told a story in which a man quotes the scripture, "Eat, drink, and be merry" and yet he is called a fool (Luke 12:17-20). That’s because this scripture was written with irony in the face of futility (Ecclesiastes 8:15).

The last two verses of Ecclesiastes, by contrast, show how we are to approach our lives. "Fear God and keep his commandments" (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). The rich fool did not use the language of scripture properly.

This is my body

Here's another example. When Jesus said, "This is my body...this is my blood..." (Matthew 26:26-28), he was using language in the same way you do when you point to a photo of your uncle and say, "This is my uncle Fred". Is your uncle a piece of cardboard with a picture on it?

Language has figurative elements, and we must not improperly interpret them literally. Language has literal elements, and we must not improperly interpret them figuratively.

Angels shall bear you up

Here's one more example. Satan quoted scripture to Jesus, "His angels... shall bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone". (Matthew 4:5-6, Psalms 91:11-12).

This was meant to be an encouragement to trust God, but the devil subtly twisted it into an incitement to test God.

6 Don’t be an instant expert

You might observe that those who are quick to give an opinion are often those who have learned the least. Those who have learned much realise how little they know.

Some scripture is "hard to understand" (2Peter 3:15-16), and we should not rush in to interpretations of the hard passages. We should prayerfully study until we are equipped to handle such passages aright.

Foolish controversies

Paul instructs Titus to "shun foolish controversies" (Titus 3:9). Such controversy is usually one entered into by people who really don’t know what they are talking about, yet think themselves experts.

Paul speaks of the man who "is conceited and understands nothing, but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife..." (1Timothy 6:4).

Again Paul speaks of men who have "turned aside to fruitless discussions... in which they make confident assertions, even though they don't know what they are talking about" (1Timothy 1:4-7).

In contrast, James advises us that "in humility" we should "receive the implanted word" (James 1:21). It follows that we should pass it on to others in a similar humble and gentle spirit allowing for our own weaknesses.