The meaning of any Scripture will be consistent with what comes before and after it. Words in the Bible, as in other literature, convey meaning according to rules of grammar. Since a sentence is the basic unit of intelligible discourse, and the paragraph is the framework for expressing a complete thought, the paragraph is the basic unit of Bible study.
First, read the entire paragraph to see a verse as a part of the whole thought. Some translations (ASV, NKJV, ESV) show paragraphs by indentation, verse numbers in bold print, and/or double space, while others use a symbol (¶ in KJV) to show paragraphs.
Second, determine how words are being used. Bible words should be taken in their normal sense unless the author is using a figure of speech. For example, Revelation is written in figurative language (Revelation 1:1), so when it talks of dragons, serpents, harps, and stars falling to the earth, these represent ideas beyond the literal.
Third, determine general or specific application. If an explanation is specific to a single person, then it does not apply to people today. Paul commanded Timothy to bring the cloak, books, and parchments he had left at Troas (2 Timothy 4:13). Obviously, this was not a general command that requires all Christians to journey to Rome with warm garments and study materials. Three types of commands directly intended for today include the following:
- Universal commands (Matthew 5:19, 22, 28, 31–32; 19:4–9; John 3:16; 4:14; 8:34; Romans 10:13; Galatians 5:4; 1 John 2:2; 3:4, 15; 4:15);
- Instruction to the church (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15–16; 1 Corinthians 14:35; 1 Timothy 3:15; 1 Peter 3:15);
- Commands given to groups to which we belong (Ephesians 5:22–33; 6:1–3; 1 Timothy 2:8–12; Titus 2:1–10; James 3:1; 1 Peter 3:1–7; 5:1–3).
Practice careful examination to avoid taking verses out of context. To quote out of context is to remove a passage from its surroundings in a way that distorts its meaning.
D. A. Carson is often quoted for this famous statement: “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” (Carson attributed the quote to his father, Tom.) Man is ever prone to this. One rabbi is said to have satirized his rival by saying, “When Rabbi Eliezer expounds, he begins by saying, ‘Scripture, be silent, while I am interpreting.’” If we twist verses to fit theories instead of adjusting beliefs to fit Scripture, we facilitate our own destruction (2 Peter 3:15–16).
Start a study of the Bible today. It is the most important book. —Allen Webster