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How to Study the Bible & Feed Yourself

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By Ralph Sorter


        When God speaks, how should man listen?  If a book claims to be an inspired revelation from God, we must approach it with reason and intelligence to decide whether it is from God.  When we conclude that it does indeed come from God, we need to understand what it is that God said.  From there, by faith, we must accept it and follow it with all confidence and submission.

        If a message is really from God, we may be sure that it is unfailingly true in the sense that He meant it.  It will give us knowledge that sends a shaft of light into our darkened understanding.  It will show up most fully at times when life throws it’s toughest curves, and when we encounter our highest responsibilities.

        Biblical interpretation is simply reading it so as to grasp fully and accurately what the author had in mind when he wrote.  We may not understand the reason he wrote it, or all the implications of it; but if we discern what he had in mind when he wrote, then we have fulfilled the purpose of studying the text.  The principles you use to approach Bible interpretation is called “herme­neutics.”  This is a class in basic hermeneutics.  Basically, correct Biblical interpretation looks at the text’s words, grammar, context, historical circumstances, and it’s harmony with all other Biblical truth.

        Let’s look at some basic principles in Biblical interpretation.

1.      Recognize the meaning of the words.
      One of our first tools in interpretation would be both an English dictionary and a Bible dictionary.  As we investigate the meaning of a word, we must look from the view of the author, giving attention to his uses during his time and geography, and the text’s subject matter.  For a thorough investigation of the meaning of the word, search out the original meaning in the Hebrew or Greek language.  A person who does not know Greek or Hebrew can still learn the meaning of the words by using a Strongs Exhaustive Concordance or Young’s Analytical Concordance and Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. If you do not possess Bible reference works, you can find help in understanding word meanings in other translations.  The older translations use some obsolete words that may be unclear to the reader.  To gain understanding you can read the same verse in several other translations to clarify the meaning.
      a.  If the author explains himself, that explanation is sufficient and final, and must not be                           departed from. 
      b.  Etymologies of translation words must not be substituted for etymologies of those                              translated.  [et·y·mol·o·gy (µt”…-m¼l“…-j¶) n., pl. 1. The origin and historical                                            development of a linguistic form as shown by determining its basic elements, earliest                            known use, and changes in form and meaning, tracing its transmission from one                            language to another, identifying its cognates in other languages, and reconstructing its                              ancestral form where possible.]  2 Cor. 12:2-4
      c.  The degree of force a word has is greatly affected by the connection it has with other                              words and the purpose of the author at the time.
      d.  Words may be used either literally or figuratively.  Figurative uses designate something          quite different from what they usually mean, but suggest some vivid association or comparison between the two.  Rev. 17:7; 17:9-13
      e.  Figurative meanings should be applied if the ordinary, well-established meaning fits the           passage.  Jn. 6:53-58
      f.  Remember that adjectives describe nouns; adverbs describe actions.

2.      Interpret the grammatical structure of the sentences.
      Understanding grammar is an important part of interpreting the words in any sentence.  Words are the bricks and boards used to build the “sentence” house.  Grammar is the design by which they are put together to make it a house instead of a heap.  What the author thinks and feels is expressed by the grammar he chooses.  There are many things to look for in grammar, such as:
      a.  Is the sentence a statement, a question, or a command?
      b.  What is the subject of the sentence?  Heb. 6:4-6
      c.  What noun does the pronoun refer to?  Rom. 1:20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 32
      d.  What is the modifier modifying?  Rom. 2:8
      e.  Is the expression of the noun singular or plural?
      f.  Is the clause in the sentence expressing a purpose or a result?  Rom. 1:28

3.      Read in the light of the context and abide by its guidance.
      Many a false interpretation has resulted from taking a passage out of it’s context.  To prevent this, give careful attention to the paragraph, section, chapter, or book in which any expression occurs.  Here are some wise rules to follow in discerning context:

a.       Understand the subject which the author is speaking about, and do not apply his words to something far from his thought.  Matt. 12:22-32

b.      Follow his course of thought throughout the text.  1 Thess. 5:4

c.       Find his purpose for each word or phrase.

d.      Grasp the feeling with which he puts emphasis on certain subjects in the text. 
Eph. 3:13-*20

e.       See his mental picture or his opposing contrast so that the exact sense of his words are seen by the way they fit what he has in mind.  Phil. 1:21-25

One of the very best methods for learning the context of a passage is to make an outline of the book, section, or passage.  Chapters are often convenient portions; but important sections may continue through more than one chapter or not end where the chapter does.  Outlining is simply comprehending the content of the section in the way it relates to the rest of the text.

1.      Take into account all relevant historical circumstances.
      The meaning of the passages is affected or limited by answers to these questions:
      a.  Who wrote this?  Prov. 30:8-9
      b.  To whom was it written?  Deut. 7:16; Lk. 18:22; Lk. 23:43; 1 Tim. 5:23
      c.  What is the author writing about?  What was his purpose?  Ps. 119
      d.  When was the passage written?  2 Tim. 4:6-8
      e.  Under what covenant was it written?  Gen. 12:3; Lev. 19:3,30
      f.  What were the personal circumstances at the time?  2 Tim. 4:9-13; 4:21
      g.  What did the author know about the readers to whom he wrote?  1 Thess. 1:2-3, 6-8
      h.  What related facts did he suppose to be familiar to his readers?  2 Thess. 2:1-5

2.      Interpret in harmony with parallel passages and in the light of all Bible teaching on the same subject.
      a.  Any true statement must be consistent with all related passages.  Here is where the                            Bible is different from other books.  If we correctly understand the passage, it will                            never conflict with other passages.  1 Cor. 14:34; 11:5; Acts 2:17; 21:9
      b.  Passages which are hard to understand, or are capable of more than one meaning must                                 be interpreted to agree with those which are clear and definite in meaning.  1 Jn. 5:16;                         Matt. 12:31-32
      c.  Every verse must be allowed to stand on its own and never completely contradicted by                           another.  2 Cor. 12:2
      d.  Every passage must be read as fully as possible in its own context.  Matt. 18:19-20
      e.  One passage cannot be a guide to, or limitation on the meaning of another verse unless                      they treat the same subject.  The same words may be prominent in two passages and                          still not be on the same specific subject.  Such as “faith” in Rom. 10:17 and 14:23.
      f.  True understanding of any Bible subject comes by observing and comparing all the                             statements relating to that subject; in other words, investigating all the truth of the                                  subject.  1 Pet. 3:21

            Now let’s take a look at some special language forms.

1.      Metaphor.
      The word “metaphor” comes from two Greek words:  meta = over, phero = carry.  So, a metaphor is the relationship between two things being carried over from one category to another.  The relationship between things in one category is the same as the relationship between two things in a different category.  Some synonyms for metaphor are:  figurative, allegorical, symbolical.  A common example of a metaphor is: “Watch him.  He’s a sly old fox.”
      Pick out the metaphor in the following verses and describe the symbolical meaning as it is used in the verse.
      a.  Jn. 1:29 ______________________________________________________________
      b.  Jn. 3:3-5  _____________________________________________________________
      c.  Ps. 24:4  _____________________________________________________________
      d.  Ex. 7:3  ______________________________________________________________
      e.  S.S. 4:15  _____________________________________________________________
      f.  1 Jn. 1:5  _____________________________________________________________
      g.  Jer. 2:13  _____________________________________________________________
      h.  Deut. 32:42  __________________________________________________________
      i.  1 Cor. 11:24  __________________________________________________________
      j.  1 Cor. 5:6-8  __________________________________________________________
      k.  Jn. 2:19  _____________________________________________________________
      l.  Rom. 6:4-6  ___________________________________________________________
      m.  Rev. 3:16  ____________________________________________________________
      n.  Jn. 15:5  _____________________________________________________________
      o.  Acts 2:20  ____________________________________________________________

2.      Parallelism.
      The definition of a parallelism is:  “a language form wherein a second word or phrase is used to define the first.”
      The word “oo” in Hebrew and the word “kai” in Greek means both “in addition to” and also can mean “that is to say.”  Thus, there is an “additive and” and a “parallel and” in the Bible.  It is not always easy to determine which “and” is intended.  As a rule, if two words or ideas are paired together several times by the author, they mean roughly the same thing.  Here are some examples:  “True and faithful; hush and be still; tried and true; sane and sensible.”
      a.  Identify the single word parallels in the verses below:
           Job 12:4  _____________________________________________________________
           Job 12:13  ____________________________________________________________
           Acts 7:17  _____________________________________________________________
           Acts 7:51  _____________________________________________________________
           Dan. 3:7  _____________________________________________________________
      b.  Identify the parallel concepts in the verses below:
           Ps. 104:28-30  _________________________________________________________
           Ps. 33:6  ______________________________________________________________
           1 Cor. 2:10-11 
           Heb. 4:12  ____________________________________________________________
           Eph. 5:19  ____________________________________________________________
c.  Sometimes parallel concepts are scattered in different verses, but always referring to                                     the same thing.  Identify the parallel concepts in the various groups of verses below:

           Group I:  2 Thess. 1:10; 2 Thess. 2:2; Eph. 4:30; Phil. 1:6; Rom. 2:5d
           Parallel concept:  _______________________________________________________

           Group II:  Col. 3:4; 1 Pet. 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:23; 1 Cor. 15:51; 2 Tim. 4:8
           Parallel concept:  _______________________________________________________

           Group III:  Eph. 2:2; Eph. 2:8-9; Col. 2:8; 1 Cor 2:13
           Parallel concept:  _______________________________________________________

           Group IV:  1 Cor. 1:6; 1:17; 1:18; 2:1; 2:6; 2:11; 2:14; 2:16; 2:17
           Parallel concept:  _______________________________________________________

           Group V:  Phil. 1:12; 1:14; 1:15; 1:22; 1:25; 1:27; 1:29
           Parallel concept:  _______________________________________________________

      d.  Sometimes parallel concepts define one another.  This happens when one phrase is                           explained by another that follows it.  An example is in Isa. 53:2 “He has no stately                                   form or majesty...NOR appearance that we should be attracted to Him.”  The passage                                goes on to define several phrases that are parallel concepts (53:3-6):
           “He was despised AND forsaken of men.”
           “A man of sorrows, AND acquainted with grief.”
           “He was despised AND we did not esteem Him.”
           “Our grief’s He Himself bore, AND our sorrows He carried.”
           “Smitten of God, AND afflicted.”
           “Pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities.”
           “The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, AND by His scourging we are                                     healed.”
           “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.”

      Now for an exercise in determining the meaning of any given Hebrew word from the English text.  The Hebrew word will be given.  Write in the meaning in the blank.

Deut. 7:12 “The Lord your God will keep with you His covenant AND (parallel “and”)       khesed which He swore to your forefathers.”  What did the Hebrew word khesed mean?
      __________  ____________.
Dan. 9:4 “Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and  khesed           for those who love Him and keep His commandments.”  Khesed means:
      _________  _______________.
Ps. 75:4 “‘Do not boast,’ AND to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up the kehren.’”  “Horns” being             lifted up meant being ______________.
Deut. 32:40 “Indeed, I lift up My hand to heaven AND sheva, and say, as I live forever.”
      Sheva, or the uplifted hand, to the Hebrew meant __________  _____  __________.
There are three parallel concepts in Ps. 89:1.  What are they?
      “I will sing” is parallel to ________  ______  __________.
      “Forever” is parallel to ____  ______  ___________________.
      “Lovingkindness” is parallel to _________________.  Thus, khesed (lovingkindness)    meant a kind of love that was essentially not a feeling, but being true to one’s friend.   Khesed was keeping covenant.
The entire section of verses in Ps. 89:30-45 embodies parallel concepts.  List them all sixteen          of them.
Identify the three parallel concepts in 2 Thess. 2:13-14:
      “Chosen” =  _____________.
      “The Spirit’s work” =  _________________________________.
      Therefore, the call of God to all the lost is _______  ____________  _______________.

3.      Allegory.
      An allegory is an extended metaphor.  A metaphor has one idea being compared with another.  In an allegory a series of related ideas are suggested.
      Some classic examples is where “Bacchus” came to mean wine.  “Venus” came to mean a beautiful woman.  “Neptune” means something connected to the sea.  “Dirt poor” meant someone as poor as a dust bowl farmer.  “Gay” came to mean a homosexual person.
      Let’s look at some biblical examples.  Identify the meaning we understand today because of the following allegories.
      1 Cor. 5:6  ______________________________________________________________
      Mat. 9:12  ______________________________________________________________
      1 Cor. 3:10-15  __________________________________________________________
      1 Kings 16:31-33; Rev. 2:20  _______________________________________________
      Gen. 11:1-9; Jer. 51:7; Rev. 17:1-6 __________________________________________
      Mk. 14:43-44  ____________________________________________________________
      Rev. 3:15-16  ____________________________________________________________
      Mk. 15:4-5; Rev. 5:6  ______________________________________________________
      Matt. 14:29  _____________________________________________________________

4.      Metonymy.
      A metonymy (meta nahmee’) comes from two words: meta = other, and nomen = name.  In a metonymy an exchange of names is made.  The cause is stated as the effect.  The source is stated for the result.  Or the adjective is stated for the subject.
      Something about a person is used as the name of the person.  A situation may be given a name.  A part of the body is used for a function of another part.  There is an exchange of names.
      a.  First, let’s look at a metonymy of cause.  Write in the blank the understood meaning of                                  the metonymy in the verse.
           “Moses is read every Sabbath.”  Acts 15:21 
                  Moses = ___________________________________
           “The letter kills, the Spirit gives life.”  2 Cor. 3:6-7 
                  Letter = ___________________________________
                  Spirit = ___________________________________
           “The words I speak are Spirit and are life.”  Jn. 6:63
                  Words = __________________________________
           “Salute Urbanus, our helper in Christ.”  Rom. 16:9
                  In Christ = ________________________________
           “Let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.”  2 Ki. 2:9
                  Double portion of your spirit = __________________________________
           It is therefore possible to speak of being “born of the Spirit” when it was the                                            process set in motion by the Spirit that actually did the converting.  See “born                               the word of God...” in 1 Pet. 1:23.

      b.  Now let’s take a look at the metonymy of the effect.  Below are examples of the effects                   are substituted for the actual cause.
           “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Jn. 11:25  (The effect was resurrection and life;                                      the cause is I am.)
           “The Lord is my salvation.”  Isa. 12:2  (The effect was salvation; the cause is the                                    Lord.)
     “He is our peace.”  Eph. 2:14  (The effect was peace; the cause is He.)
           “A dumb demon.”  Mk. 9:25  (The effect was a person without speech; the cause is a                                         demon.)

      c.  Next is the metonymy of the subject.  Here a part is stated, or a description is stated,                              when the subject itself is what is meant.
           1)  Below, the word heart is in reference to the subject (the person referenced in the                                           verse).
                  “Consider in your heart” = Evaluate.
                  “Think in your heart” = As you really do believe.
                  “She spoke in her heart.”  = To herself.
                  “His mother kept all these things in her heart.”  = In her memory.
                  “David’s heart struck him.”  = His conscience.
           2)  Identify the subject in the following phrases:
                  “The house of Israel”  = _____________________________________
                  “The strength of Israel” = ____________________________________
                  “Outer darkness” = _________________________________________
                  “To possess nations” = ______________________________________
                  “Love not the world” = ______________________________________
                  “Whatever you shall bind on earth” = ___________________________

      d.  Finally, is the metonymy of description.  In this case there is some description given                           but the subject itself was meant.  For example, “Neither is circumcision anything, nor                                   uncircumcision” comes to mean it makes no difference what religion or race.
                  State the implied meaning in the following metonymies where the description is                           stated, but the subject is understood.
           “To kiss the hand” = ______________________________________
           “To bow the knee” = ______________________________________
           “To give the right hand of fellowship” = _______________________
           “To beat swords into plowshares” = __________________________
           “Lion lie down with the lamb” = _____________________________
           “Many priests became obedient to the faith” = __________________
           “You are the hope of the ends of the earth” = ___________________
           “The number of names was 120” = ___________________________
           “His enemies shall lick the dust” = ____________________________

5.      Synecdoche.
      A synecdoche (sin neck’ dah key) is when a part stands for the whole, or the whole is stated when a part is meant.  A particular word is used for the general one.  A certain number is used for an uncertain amount.  Special words are used for general ones.

      Some common examples are:
“Are you looking for another set of wheels?” = automobile.
“Hey man, you’re really wrapped in fine rags.” = well dressed.
“We don’t hold classes during the summer.” = school is closed.

      What is the “whole” idea meant in the synecdoches stated below?
“The evening and the morning were the first day.” = ________________________________
We speak what we know.” = __________________________________________________
“They have taken away my Lord.” = _____________________________________________
“Preach the gospel to every creature.” = __________________________________________
Ten thousand words.” = ______________________________________________________
“I have lived under this roof ten years.” = _________________________________________
“As an everlasting priesthood.” = ________________________________________________
“I will pay back seven times for your sins.” = ______________________________________
“I would rather speak five words understood than...” = ______________________________
“From the four corners of the earth.” = ___________________________________________
“That all the world should be taxed.” = ___________________________________________
“Until the gospel reaches the ends of the earth” = ___________________________________

      Now let’s look at some critical synecdoches.

Matt. 10:32-33  “Whoever confesses me before men, him will I confess before My Father.”
      “Before men” refers to public confession.
      “Before My Father” referred to passing through the judgment without trouble.
      “Confesses” means to accept Christ freely and openly and all the duties He may assign.                          The part of being saved was used for the entire process of salvation.  “Confess” means to          convert to.
      We know this to be the case because Paul used a parallelism in Rom. 10:9-10 showing that “belief” and “confession” were referring to “calling upon His name” which meant convert             to Christ.

Gal. 3:2  “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law or by the hearing of faith?”
      Obviously, “hearing” was only the very first part of coming to Christ.  But the part,         “hearing” was put for the entire commitment to Christ.  One got the Spirit not by simply          hearing, but by believing and obeying what was heard.  The source of the hearing was the    key idea in that passage.
      “Did you receive the Holy Spirit by being a good Jew or did you get it by responding to             the gospel?”  “Hearing” meant responding to the gospel.  It was by response to Christ that            one is saved, not by being a good Jew or a good citizen of Rome, etc.

Acts 16:31  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.  You and all your      house.” 
      “All your house” was a synecdoche for anyone who seeks it.  Belief was the most frequent employed synecdoche for one’s total response to the gospel.  Belief was not in contrast to             deeds.  Belief was in contrast to status.  That is, belief in Christ was the determiner of salvation.  One was saved by faith, not by man’s ideas of what was right.  But obviously faith was merely foundational.  It provided the correct basis for obedience which also saved.  See Heb. 5:9.

2 Pet. 3:9  “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
      “Repent,” paralleled with Acts 3:19 yields the understanding of “turn again.”  This means           a change of mind is sufficient to lead to a change of life.  The best description is simply   “giving to God.”  “Surrender to Christ.” 
      Repentance is sometimes used as a synonym for belief.  Sometimes it was demanded     because of a previous belief.  Acts 2:37-38
But when used as a synecdoche, it means to return to a good relationship to God through           Christ.  It was used as the summation of all the responses demanded of God for             salvation.
      It was not meant to suggest that hearing was not necessary, or that belief was not           essential, or that confession was “works righteousness.”  Repentance was a word used to          sum up all the steps to salvation.

1 Pet. 3:21  “They were saved through water.  Baptism now saves you also...”
Acts 2:38  “Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins.”
Acts 22:16  “Now get up, be baptized and wash away your sins.”
      In these cases it was not meant to imply that faith or repentance was not necessary.        Baptism was used as a summation of the rest of the steps of salvation.  He did not mean      that baptism without faith saved.  Baptism was a synecdoche for returning to God in full         repentance.

Jn. 3:16  “...that whosoever believeth on Him (synecdoche for all that is required to get into           Christ) shall not perish (synecdoche for all the punishments in store for the lost) but have      everlasting life (synecdoche for all the blessings of one being in Christ.”)
      “Eternal life” was one of Jesus’ favorite phrases summing up all the blessings of the New            Covenant. 
That synecdoche included all the other specific blessings:  Remission of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit, being part of the body of Christ, being raised from the dead, having a new kind of body, passing through the judgment safely, heaven.
Many times the simple words: “reward,” “crown,” and “spiritual blessings” are a synecdoche for all.

“Lake of fire” was a synecdoche for all punishments for evil.
“Second death” was a synecdoche for all punishments for evil.
“Lamb’s book of life” was a synecdoche for all conditions to be saved.

(Material adapted from:  Basic Principles of Bible Interpretation, by Seth Wilson, Learning From Bible Books, by Lynn Gardner; Elementary Hermeneutics, by Mont Smith.)

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