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Interpreting the Bible

As a family of churches, we have been exploring the New Testament sermon called Hebrews. Using Hebrews as an example, below is one way you can begin interpreting any passage in the Bible.
(Portions of this post have been adapted from Matt Smethurt's How to Study Your Bible in 2020 and Garrett Kell's Every Book of the Bible in One Word)

Hebrews shows us how serious theology is sincerely practical. As the early church began facing suffering, and with it, the temptation to flee from Jesus, Hebrews was given as a direct and passionate exhortation, helping readers cling to Christ by showing who He is from a range of perspectives: for those wanting to know their sin is forgiven, Jesus is the perfect and permanent sacrifice; for those seeking protection and spiritual service, Jesus does both better than the angels; for those desiring to hear from God, Jesus is the best word God has ever given. The author goes back to numerous Old Testament names, events, and experiences as he contrasts the stunning reality of Jesus with the shadows that came before Him.

1. Observe the Text
  • What are repeated words or ideas?
  • Who is writing? Who is talking?
  • Where is this passage taking place?
  • Are there contrasts? Comparisons? Lists?
  • What figures of speech are present?
  • What verbs are used? Are the actions past, present, or future?
  • Are there quotes from other parts of the Bible? Where are these quotes from?
  • Are there words that indicate a mood, tone, or emotion? 
  • Are there any linking words such as “but”, “therefore”, “because”, etc.?
  • What are the roles and actions of God in this passage?
  • What are the roles and actions of people in this passage?

2. Investigate the Original Audience
As a family of churches, we are approaching Hebrews with the following assumptions:

  • What Hebrews Is
    • The book of Hebrews is neither a book nor a letter but a sermon most likely preached and written before the destruction of the Jewish Temple (which happened in 70AD). The traditional title “To the Hebrews” reflects the early church’s belief that this sermon was given to Jewish Christians.

  • Why Hebrews was Written
    • This sermon was preached and written to the Jewish Christians in Italy with explicit evangelistic goals (the author wants to see more people trust Jesus, especially the Jewish people who had yet to see Jesus as the fulfillment of their history) and with the intention of helping new Christians stay committed to Jesus. Remember these reasons as we explore Hebrews throughout 2020.

  • Who Wrote Hebrews
    • Although we cannot determine with full confidence who preached/wrote this letter, we can eliminate some candidates like the Apostle Paul, who represents the most popular choice throughout church history. With a closer look at the grammar and use of the Greek language, we can see this person did not speak, write, argue theologically, or communicate like the Apostle Paul. 
    • The author was probably well known to the community he is addressing, and he was probably a second-generation Christian. The use of the Greek language tells us that the preacher/author was well educated. Lastly, the preacher was an expert in the Old Testament; no other NT book sources the Old Testament like the book of Hebrews.

  • What Hebrews is About
    • Jesus is the supreme message of God and the fulfillment of all the Old Testament types; Jesus takes the people of God out of the shadows of the Old Testament types and fulfills the promises of God. We respond by seeing Jesus as more excellent than all the shadows that have come before, and as the central focus of our faith, leading to our endurance (the words “better,” “more,” and “greater” appear a combined 25 times in Hebrews). 

  • How Hebrews Applies to Us
    • The historical resurrected Jesus is significant, present, powerful, dynamic, and relevant to all of life, as opposed to modern ideas of Jesus, which present a small, nondescript, powerless, and static being.
    • Jesus is better than any spiritual experience, teacher, leader, political strategy, social movement, accomplishment, gift, adventure, or religious and philosophical activity. He is worth following, even at the cost of your acceptance, social inclusion, or life.

With this background information, you’re better prepared to ask:
  • Does the surrounding context clarify any confusing words or phrases?
    • It’s best to examine the “nearest” context—other verses in the same chapter or other chapters in the same book—before consulting “farther” passages or outside resources.
  • How would I paraphrase this passage in my own words?
  • Why did the biblical author write this particular passage?
    • Why did he feel it necessary to include?
  • Is my interpretation consistent with what I noticed in the observation stage, or have I made leaps based on prior assumptions?
  • Do other passages of Scripture fill out my interpretation?
    • Let clearer Bible passages help you understand less clear Bible passages
  • Where does this passage fall in redemptive history?
    • How does it fit within the Bible’s story as a whole?

Remember, the Bible is God’s communication to human beings about Jesus Christ.
Here’s a simple way to think about the Bible and how it relates to Jesus:
  • Old Testament (Genesis - Malachi): Anticipation
  • Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John): Manifestation
  • Acts: Proclamation
  • Epistles (Romans - Jude): Explanation
  • Revelation: Consummation

3. Application
  • What’s something I learned about God?
    • His character, His plan, His priorities, His promises, His desires, His ways?
  • What’s something I learned about myself? My neighbor? The world?
  • What’s the sinful condition on display in this passage?
    • What aspect of human sin or brokenness is most evident?
    • What aspect of God’s grace is most evident?
  • How does the gospel - the stunning news of what God accomplished in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to reconcile rebels to Himself - affect my understanding of this passage?
  • How do I need to change my thinking or living based on what I’ve learned?
  • How should I be praying in light of this passage?
  • Is there an encouragement or promise here that I need to meditate on?
  • What implications does this passage have for the way I engage my unbelieving friends?
  • How does this passage apply to my brothers and sisters in Christ? How does it speak to our life together as a church?