Many of us might have heard many a time in the church claiming that “this is what the Bible says” and so and so. Some people take the biblical text that was written to address specific people group in the particular time and history literally and apply the text the same way that was applied to the original audience. On the other extreme, people try to find some relevance from the original text and make the verse and message of their own. After all, it is God’s Word that is relevant to all generation! For example, Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” On the other hand, there are people out there in the churches who preach that the Sermon on the Mount regarding the teachings of Jesus on divorce and his call to be perfect like the Father does not apply to us. Is this what the biblical interpretation all about?
Taking both these cases, we need to be careful of what we make up of the meaning of the biblical text and apply it in our time to make the message still relevant for us. Bad interpretation can crush people’s faith and shatter their hope. Biblical interpretation is a pivotal job to get across the true meaning of the text to the target group without squandering the meaning that was intended for its original readers. Only proper interpretation can determine the intended meaning in the text.
What then does good interpretation look like? It is necessary that we understand historical, literary, grammatical, and theological context well before we interpret the biblical text. Without having proper knowledge of one of the contexts, our interpretation can become misleading and obscure and, to the extreme, even heretic. Let’s outline them.
A. HISTORICAL CONTEXT
i. Original Audience: We need to know who were the intended audiences when the book was written.
ii. Social Situation: When was this written and how was their social situation, culture, lifestyle looked like? What was the purpose of this writing? What happened in the history?
iii. Purpose: In other words, what might have motivated the writer to write the book? If we have answer to these basic questions, we can move along and work on the literary and grammatical area.
B. LITERARY AND GRAMMATICAL CONTEXT
Pay close attention to the specific genre of the text. We simply cannot interpret the poem as a narrative and prophecy as an epistle. Scriptural context is another area that demands our attention. Look for language issues like word-meaning. The meaning of the word changes over time. A certain word might have utterly different meaning in the past than we use and understand it in our time. Writing styles are also important, since the Bible is comprised of 66 different books that was written by about 40 different authors over period of 1600 years. So, it is obvious that the writing style and meaning also vary from the time of its writing to in our present day. One more important thing to look for is the word-repetition. Repeating words should trigger us to look into the text deeper and carefully, as the author is saying something important that he wants his audience to know.
C. THEOLOGICAL CONTEXT
Once we move from the historical, literary and grammatical context, we need to work on the text in its theological context to determine the application of the text. We need to do biblical theology in its framework: (i) Creation (ii) Fall (iii) Redemption and (iv) Consummation. Biblical theology helps us to see the progressive history that how God has revealed himself to humanity and also teaches us about his redemptive work throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament. The biblical theology seeks to understand how epochs of the Old Testament have pointed toward the fulfillment of the promise in the life and work of Jesus Christ. The biblical theology thereby encourages us to know the intended meaning of the biblical text by understanding whether the biblical text points toward something in the New Testament or back to the Old Testament. For instance, Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
From here on, we can see what the author’s message was for his audience back in the history. Today, our context is completely different than the time the book was authored. Next, we are not the original audience; however, we can now know the centrality of the message and apply it to our time without claiming or making the verses as our own.