A Few Basic Principles of Biblical Interpretation

Bible Interpretation, Literary Devices, and Figures of Speech

“What about Jesus’ telling His followers to pluck their eyes out?” Doesn’t such a statement seem, initially, at least, to mean something other than what was said?” This is a good question. In this instance Jesus used a literary device called a hyperbole, an intentional exaggeration to emphasize an important point. Before considering that device, though, let’s think about another common literary element—the metaphor.

  • In John 10:9, the Master Teacher declared, “I am the door.”
  • In John 15:5, He told His disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

What does Jesus appear to say in these passages? Certainly not that he is a panel of wood with hinges or that He is a plant and His disciples are literal branches that are a part of that plant! This fact is self-evident. Reading a bit more—even just reading the rest of what Jesus says in each of these two verses—gives us insights that assist us greatly in correctly interpreting the Lord’s words. Here are the verses in their entirety.

  • John 10:9: “I am the door. If anyone enters in my Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”
  • John 15:5: I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”

Now let’s discuss hyperboles. In reality, the intended meaning typically also is obvious. In Matthew 5:29-30, Jesus is speaking.

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.

Jesus says something similar in Matthew 18:8-9.

“If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.

In both of these examples, the Master Teacher obviously was not telling His followers literally to pluck out their eyes or to sever hands and feet, but to be willing to go to great lengths to avoid giving into temptation. He conveyed this idea skillfully and forcefully by using appropriate exaggeration. The context helps us to know this, as well as the extreme nature of the instructions themselves. Moreover, since we have every indication from Scripture that hell is a real place, it makes sense to take extreme measures—although not foolish ones—to avoid it. The passage appears to mean what it does mean—but the use of a hyperbole signals us not to interpret the exaggerations literally.

To reiterate, the point here is that taking a passage at face value, according to its apparent meaning, generally points us in the right direction with regard to the actual meaning. (There are exceptions, of course. Here is one; here is another. We can cite Proverbs 22:6 as yet another; it is a general principle, not a hard-and-fast promise that has absolutely no exceptions.)

When considered fairly and in their proper context, literary devices typically will not derail us. In fact, taking a passage at face value involves taking into account any literary devices or figures of speech used. Here is a helpful article on the subject.

Keep in mind we are recommending asking what the passage appears to say as an initial step. We must study further and learn all we can. This includes but is not limited to examining information related to the textual context of a passage and other Scriptures that address the same themes. It also means exploring relevant historical, geographical, and cultural information. Once we learn what a passage meant in the time period in which it originally was written, we are more fully equipped to understand what it means for us today.


Once we learn what a passage meant in the time period in which it originally was written, we are more fully equipped to understand what it means for us today.


I briefly should explain some of the factors involved in this principle. Historical accounts in the Bible should be seen for what they are—historical accounts in which an unchanging God acted with specific people in history. This doesn’t mean every promise God gave someone in Scripture is ours personally. For example, God promised to make a great nation of Abraham and his descendants, and Abraham was old and childless when God first appeared to him. God gave this promise to Abraham; He hasn’t given it to any one of us. In Genesis 22:1-19, God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The Lord has not told us to sacrifice our own children!

So you see, we must be careful when we are tempted to apply specific promises in Scripture that were given to specific people, or specific instructions that were given to specific people, to us today. At the same time, Abraham, and countless other saints and sinners in the Bible as well, provide both negative and positive examples from which we can draw lessons and principles that challenge and edify us today. Here and here are two articles highlighting various principles from Abraham’s life.

Having said all of that, we still should not be surprised when a passage means exactly the same thing for us today that it did for those to whom it was directly written.

  • In relation to God’s moral law, we actually should expect it to. While the Old Testament’s ceremonial law was phased out at the dawn of the New Testament era of grace, God’s moral law still applies.
  • Also, God never changes.

Principles of Biblical Interpretation: A Summary

  1. Taking a passage at face value, according to its apparent meaning, generally points us in the right direction with regard to the actual meaning.
  2. Taking a passage at face value involves taking into account any literary devices or figures of speech used.
  3. Asking what the passage appears to say is an initial step. We must study further and learn all we can.
  4. Study the textual context of the passage, including the immediate context and the larger, book context.
  5. Study other Bible passages that address the same theme or themes. It is noteworthy that in the second temptation described in Matthew 4:1-11— the one where Satan tempted Jesus by quoting Scripture—Jesus resisted Satan’s attempt by quoting Scripture back. Actually, He quoted Scripture in response to each of the temptations Satan threw at Him.
  6. Relevant historical information may shed light on a passage.
  7. Relevant geographical information also may provide interpretative insight.
  8. Relevant cultural information can help us correctly interpret Scripture as well.
  9. Once we learn what a passage meant in the time period in which it originally was written, we are more fully equipped to understand what it means for us today.
  10. Historical accounts involving God’s interactions with specific people should be seen for what they are. Not every promise or instruction given to a specific person in Scripture applies to us today.
  11. We still can derive principles from the lives of Bible characters that help us live faithfully for the Lord today.
  12. Seeing God act in history in the lives of people back then helps us understand God’s character and what He expects of us today.
  13. Remember that while the Old Testament’s ceremonial law was phased out at the dawn of the New Testament era of grace, God’s moral law still applies.

This is not an exhaustive list, but a start. Here is a very helpful article on mistakes to avoid in interpreting the Bible.

This page is part of a larger article.

 

Copyright © 2017 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All rights reserved.