Becoming a skilled interpreter of Scripture is not a complicated task. It is hard, but it isn’t complicated. God does not hide the riches of his Word from the simple; he hides them from the proud and ungodly. Right interpretation, then, is first a matter of personal character and piety, and then a matter of methodology. Here are ten basic tips. There is much more to say, of course, but you must start here.
(1) Pursue holiness and humility by faith in Christ. Our character is of first importance in our endeavor to understand and teach the Bible. Without humility and fear of the Lord we cannot grow in genuine knowledge of God’s Word (Prov 1:7). God only guides the humble in rightly interpreting and applying of his Word (Ps 25:9); but he will oppose the proud, self-reliant student (James 4:6; cf. John 5:44). And without holiness, we will not have the spiritual capacity be able to see what’s really in the Scripture (Matt 5:8; Titus 1:13-14). To rightly pursue of holiness and humility, however, we must be born again through faith in Christ (John 3:3), so genuine conversion is a necessary prerequisite to correctly interpreting God’s Word (see 1 Cor 2:10-16).
(2) Pray diligently that God would enable you to understand and believe his Word. Because of our sin, our finitude, and the fact that Scripture is God’s Word, we need his help to rightly understand it (1 Cor 2:10-16). Prayerlessness during Bible study is nothing less than arrogant presumption, for it signals that we don’t need God’s help to understand his Word (John 15:5). Those who love the Scripture pray diligently that God would unlock its treasures (see Ps 119: 12, 26, 27, 29, 33, 64, 66, 68, 100).
(3) Be willing to bring your thinking, feeling, and practice into compliance with the Word of God. That is, be willing to change where Scripture requires you to change and repent where Scripture requires you to repent, no matter the cost (to your theological system, your ego, your wallet, your daily habits, relationships, work ethic, priorities, etc.). As Jesus reminds us, our interpretive abilities are enhanced or hindered to the degree we are willing or unwilling to do God’s will (John 7:17). The Psalmist rejoiced that his obedience to God’s Word enabled his growth in knowledge of God’s Word (Ps 119:100). As David Gibson wisely observes, “Reinterpreting the Bible to mean something different is always a moral exercise before it is ever an intellectual one” (Living Life Backwards).
(4) Discipline yourself to read through the entire Bible on a regular basis. In order to understand the various features of the Bible and how the diversity of Scripture fits together into a coherent unity, we need to constantly get a feel of the whole landscape of the Bible. Robert Plummer comments:
In order to understand the Bible, one must read the whole. Thus, it is essential for any faithful interpreter of the Bible to have read the entire Bible and to continue to read through the Bible regularly. Can you imagine a teacher of Milton who admitted to having read only portions of Paradise Lost? How foolish it is for a minister of the gospel to seek faithfulness in expounding God’s Word while remaining ignorant of the contents of that revelation (40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible).
(5) Work hard! Spend a lot of time with the biblical text before you visit commentaries and other resources. It is easy, once we’ve engaged the text, to drift toward secondary literature in order to get answers to the tough questions posed by the text. But this is a kind of slothfulness that will not often be rewarded with greater insight into God’s Word. We must spend time with the text and labor to see what’s really there before we move to hearing what other people have seen in Scripture. Disciplining ourselves to spend time with the text will also give us a better handle on the text when we teach it.
(6) Be willing to learn from other excellent Bible interpreters (like in their commentaries and other resources!). We must be careful, however, that we do not isolate ourselves from the wisdom of other excellent teachers! To do so would actually be unbiblical, for God has given us godly men and good books for the sake of better understanding his Word (Eph 4:12). If you are unwilling to learn from other teachers, you are probably more proud than you are skilled at studying the Bible.
(7) Write for the sake of your own clarity and learning. You have to know yourself, but I’ve found that writing forces me to clarify my thoughts, solidify my arguments, develop ideas, and see connections in Scripture. I encourage you to make writing part of your Bible study and reading so that you can train your mind to think more carefully and, thus, see more truth in the Bible.
(8) Regularly read good books on theology, Christian living, church history, and Christian biography. Develop the habit of filling your spare time with good reading rather than aimless entertainment. By reading the works of others, you will become a better Bible interpreter and teacher as you are exposed to their interpretations of Scripture and the illustrations these writers use to better understand the Bible. Reading good Christian books will also broaden your understanding of theology which will help you better answer the theological questions posed by the biblical text. For a list of recommended books, start here.
(9) Keep yourself firmly planted in the local church. We are bound to drift into error if we don’t keep ourselves grounded in the local church and within a community of Spirit-filled interpreters (Prov 18:1). We need the accountability and wisdom of other capable teachers and Bible readers, as well as the correction and rebuke of our friends in order to remain humble, teachable, and holy (see Heb 3:12-15; 10:24-25).
(10) Remain teachable. Remain teachable. Remain teachable. Practically, this means that we should welcome feedback and criticism regarding our interpretations of Scripture. If we are unwilling to hear criticism about our private and public teaching, we not only will remain stagnant in our capacity to teach the Bible to others, we run the risk of leading ourselves and our students astray (Prov 10:17).