What does the text say?


What did the text mean when it was written?

Interpretation answer the question: What does the passage mean?

Interpretation is determining what the book or passage meant to the original hearers or readers.

Interpretation is not what it means to the 21st century reader, but what it meant to the original audience. This involves understanding the author’s viewpoint as well as the viewpoint of his audience. Sometimes this is twofold. For example, in a Gospel one must consider how Jesus’ words impacted the people who heard them and secondly one needs to consider how those words were understood by the first readers.

Interpretation builds on the foundation of observation and thorough observation results in better interpretation.

Observation focuses on what is in the text. Interpretation asks why is this said? What does this mean? “Interpretation is to explain or tell the meaning of something.” (pg. 41, Joy of Discovery).

We have compiled a list of questions which you can ask and which will aid you in moving into the second step of Bible study. You can apply these questions in an overview fashion to the whole book or to specific passages, sections or segments.



Interpretation is not what it means to the 21st century reader.

With interpretation you need to consider:

    • Author

    • Original Reader – the people to whom the book was written

    • Original Hearer – the people that were present when the actual events took place and heard the words that were spoken. (E.g. the people who heard Jesus teach) There will not be an Original Hearer for each book.

    • Historical and Cultural Background.

    • Literary context.

Interpretation Steps

While observation leads to an accurate understanding of what the Word of God says, interpretation goes a step further and helps you understand what it means. When you accurately interpret the Word of God, you will be able to confidently put its truths into practice in your daily life.

Like many other people, you may been taught a system of beliefs before you ever studied God’s Word for yourself. Or you may have formed opinion of what the Bible teaches before you carefully examined the Scripture. As you learn to handle God’s Word accurately, you will be able to discern if what you believe is in agreement with Scripture. If this is your desire and you come to the Word of God with a teachable spirit, God will lead you and guide you into all truth.

As you seek to interpret the Bible accurately, the following guidelines will be helpful.

  1. Remember that context rules.

The word context means: “that which goes with the text.” To understand the context you must be familiar with the Word of God. If you lay the solid foundation of observation, you will be prepared to consider each verse in the light of:

    • The surrounding verses

    • The book in which it is found

    • The entire word of God

As you study, ask yourself: Is my interpretation of a particular section of Scripture consistent with the theme, purpose, and structure of the book in which it is found? Is it consistent with other Scripture about the same subject, or is there a glaring difference? Am I considering the historic and cultural context of what is being said? Never take a Scripture out of its context to make it say what you want it to say. Discover what the author is saying; don’t add to his meaning.

2. Always seek the full counsel of the Word of God.

When you know God’s Word thoroughly, you will not accept a teaching simply because someone has used one or two isolated verses to support it. Those verses may have been taken out of context, or other important passages might have been overlooked or ignored that would have led to a different understanding. As you read the BIble regularly and extensively, and as you become more familiar with the whole counsel of God’s Word, you will be able to discern whether a teaching is biblical or not. Sature yourself in the Word of God; is your safeguard against wrong doctrine.

3. Remember that Scripture will never contradict Scripture.

The best interpretation of Scripture is Scripture. Remember, all Scripture is inspired by God; it is God-breathed. Therefore, Scripture will never contradict itself.

The Bible contains all the truth you will ever need for any situation in life. Sometimes, however, you may find it difficult to reconcile two seemingly contradictory truths taught in Scripture. An example of this would be the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. When two or more truths that are clearly taught in the Word seem to be in conflict, remember that we as humans have finite minds. Don’t take a teaching to an extreme that God doesn’t. Simply humble your heart in faith and believe what God says, even if you can’t fully understand or reconcile it at the moment.

4. Don’t base your convictions on an obscure passage of Scripture.

An obscure passage is one in which the meaning is not easily understood. Because these passage are difficult to understand even when proper principle of interpretation are used, they should not be used as a basis for establishing doctrine.

5. Interpret Scripture literally.

The Bible is not a book of mysticism. God spoke to us that we might know truth. Therefore, take the Word of God at face value - in its natural, natural sense. Look first for the clear teaching of Scripture, not a hidden meaning. Understand and recognize figures of speech and interpret them accordingly.

Consider what is being said in the light of its literary style. For example, you will find more similes and metaphors in poetic and prophetic literature than in historical or biographical books. Interpret portions of Scripture according to their literary style.

Some literary styles in the Bible are:

    • Historical - Acts

    • Prophetic - Revelation

    • Biographical - Luke

    • Didactic (teaching) - Romans

    • Poetic - Psalms

    • Epistle (letter) - 2 Timothy

    • Proverbial - Proverbs

    1. Look for the single meaning of the passage.

Always try to understand what the author had in mind when you interpret a portion of the Bible. Don’t twist verses to support a meaning that is not clearly taught. Unless the author of a particular book indicates that there is another is meaning to what he says, let the passage speak for itself.


    • Thorough observation results in better interpretation.

    • Observation focuses on "What does the text say?"

    • Interpretation builds on that and asks "Why is this said?"

    • For more information and examples of how to build your interpretation on your observation see section on "Building".

Interpretation Questions

1. What is the historical context of this book or passage?

- Who is addressed?

- From the text, what do you see are the author’s / reader’s concerns, questions, emotions, characteristics, convictions, strengths and weaknesses.

- What cultural issues need consideration?

- When did the events occur?

- Determine whether the issues addressed apply to the local situation in the author’s day or universally to all believers. Are they temporal or timeless?

2. How does the type of literature affect my interpretation?

3. In the Epistles, determine from the text what questions the believers were asking, and what struggles they were encountering.

This is like listening to one side of a phone conversation. For example, in Paul’s letters, we know what Paul says but we must do some thinking as to what the congregations may have been asking or thinking that would result in Paul responding as he does.

4. Interpret the elements of structure and composition.

- What elements of composition or structure are used in this book or passage?

- How do these affect the understanding of the author’s intended meaning?

5. Pay careful attention to the context.

- How does this passage fit in with the overall message of the whole book?

- What is its relation to the surrounding paragraphs?

6. Is this literal or figurative language? Interpret accordingly.

7. Bombard the text with WHY questions.

8. Ask meaning questions.

- What is the meaning of this word, phrase, statement, passage or theological concept?

- What did it mean to the author?

- What did it mean to his audience?

To develop this, one should:

- Ask, “how is this word, term or concept used in context of this passage, in the rest of the book, and in other writings by the author?”

- Look it up in Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Word.

- Look it up in a concordance.

- Look it up in other word study book.

- Look it up in a dictionary of your mother tongue.

After doing all this then relate your findings back to the original context of the passage you are studying.

9. Does the author give his own interpretation?

- Does he state why he wrote the book?

- Does he interpret his use of symbols?

10. What is the significance of any quoted Scripture?

Look up the passage quoted and observe their context. Why does he quote this passage:

- to prove a point?

- to illustrate a truth?

- to support the author’s argument?

- to contribute to the emotion of the passage?

11. What is the significance of the observed:

- Repeated words, phrases, ideas, themes

- Key words and themes

- Who, what, when, where, how

- Connectives

- Questions and answers

- Emphatic statements

- Summary statements

12. Interpret:

- Figures of speech

- Commands, advice, promises, warnings, and predictions

- Atmosphere, moods, emotions

- Illustrations

- Lists

- Contrasts

- Comparisons

- Author’s logic

13. Consult Bible dictionaries, concordances, encyclopedias, atlases and historical background resource materials for unanswered questions or more information.

14. Write out a summary statement of the book, a division, a section, a segment or a paragraph:

“It seems that the author is saying….”

15. Read the book or the passage in another translation.

16. Have I committed one of the 20 reading errors? (See the following page)

17. Summarize, meditate, reflect on the material you’ve observed and interpreted.

- Does your proposed interpretation agree with the rest of Scripture?

- The New Testament interprets the Old Testament and clear passages are to shed light on the unclear and obscure passages.

18. Consult a commentary.

- Do this last. Use the commentary as a tool, not a crutch.

- Dialogue with the commentary.

- What did you learn from the commentary?

- Do you agree or disagree with the author’s conclusions?

19. If you’re having difficulty, then ask yourself if you need to backtrack and do some more observation.

20 Reading Errors

1. Inaccurate Quotation : A Biblical text is referred to, but is either not quoted the way the text appears in any standard translation or is wrongly attributed.

2. Twisted Translation : The Biblical text is retranslated without the accordance of sound Greek scholarship.

3. The Biblical Hook : A text of Scripture is quoted primarily as a device to grasp audience attention, then is followed by a non-Biblical message (Most folks would probably even dismiss it as too dubious had it not been preceded by Scripture.).

4. Ignoring the Immediate Context : A text of Scripture is quoted, but removed from the surrounding verses which form the immediate framework for its meaning.

5. Collapsing Contexts : Two or more verses which have little or nothing to do with each other are put together as if one were a commentary on the other.

6. Over Specification : A more detailed or specific conclusion than is legitimate is drawn from a Biblical text.

7. Word Play : A word or phrase from a Biblical translation is examined and interpreted as if the revelation had been given in that language.

8. The Figurative Fallacy : Either mistaking literal language for figurative or mistaking figurative language for literal.

9. Speculative Readings of Predictive Prophecy : A predictive prophecy is too readily explained by the occurrence of specific events.

10. Saying but not Citing : Saying that “the Bible says such and such,” but not citing a specific text. This is often indicates that there may be no such text at all.

11. Selective Citing : To substantiate a given argument, only a limited number of texts is quoted: the total teaching of Scripture on that subject would lead to a conclusion different from that of the writer / speaker.

12. Inadequate Evidence : A hasty generalization is drawn from too little evidence.

13. Confused Definition : A Biblical term is misunderstood in such a way that an essential Biblical doctrine is distorted or rejected.

14. Ignoring Alternative Explanations : A specific interpretation is given to a Biblical text or set of texts which could well be or have been interpreted in quite a different fashion, but these alternatives are not considered.

15. The “Obviously” Fallacy : Words such as “obviously, undoubtedly, certainly, all reasonable people hold that….” and so forth are substituted for logical reasoning.

16. Virtue by Association : A person associates his / her teaching, either wholly or mostly, with the teaching of figures accepted as authoritative by traditional Christians and not by merit of sound Scriptural teaching itself.

17. Esoteric Interpretation : The interpreter assumes that the Bible has hidden esoteric (private, secret, only meant to be understood by “the select few”) meanings which are open only to those who are initiated into its secrets. The interpreter declares the significance of Biblical passages without giving much (if any) explanation for his / her interpretation.

18. Supplementing Biblical Authority : New revelations from post-Biblical prophets either replaces or is added to the Bible as authority.

19. Rejecting Biblical Authority : Either the Bible as a whole or texts from the Bible are examined and rejected because other “authorities” (eg., reason or other revelation) do not agree with them.

20. World View Confusion : Cultural misinterpretation and / or misapplication of Biblical passages.

Taken from James Sire, Scripture Twisting , p. 155 ff. , IVP

Points to consider for Interpretation

    1. Does the author give his own interpretation? Does he interpret his use of symbols? Does he state why he wrote the book?

    2. When the author quotes Scripture, look up the quoted passages and observe their context. Why does he use this passage? Does it prove a point, illustrate a truth, support the author's argument or contribute to the emotion of the passage?

    3. Have I taken into consideration the type of literature and how it should be interpreted?

    4. Is this literal or figurative (Figures of Speech) language? Interpret accordingly.

    5. Have I committed one of the 20 reading errors? (See "A Brief Definition of 20 Reading Errors")

    6. Read the book or passage in a different translation.

    7. Interpret the Scripture in a simple fashion. Do not treat the Scripture in a mystical fashion. Interpret the Word of God in a natural, normal sense as you would any other book. This means that you do make allowances for different types of literature, figures of speech and elements of composition.

    8. It is very important to do thorough observation first. You must gather facts before making conclusions. Use material gained in observation to back up your interpretation. If you're having difficulty with interpretation, go back and do more observations.

    9. Consult Bible Dictionaries, atlases and historical background resource material for unanswered questions or more information.

    10. Consult a commentary. Do this last. Use the commentary as a tool, not a crutch. Dialogue with the commentary. What did you learn from the commentary? Do you agree of disagree with the author's conclusion?