Understanding Scripture is essential for every Christian. But what the best way to do that?
Often in a small group or Bible study, the leader may ask, “What does this verse mean to you?” Unfortunately, leading with this question can short-circuit the crucial steps toward understanding the meaning of those verses! So, what should we do? Here is a helpful three-step method for investigating the meaning of any Bible passage: C.I.A.
But First: A Super Creepy Example
Before we get to the C.I.A. method, let me illustrate how the question “What does this mean to you?” doesn’t allow healthy interpretation to happen.
If someone were to ask you, “What does the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ mean to you?” You might be reminded of your childhood, or the songs your mother taught you, or think it’s just a sweet little poem about dancing children.
In fact, “Ring Around the Rosie” illustrates the importance of literary and historical context. The little poem arose in 1665 in London during the plague known as the Black Death that killed so many children. Each verse details a feature of the disease and its treatment. From the “ring” of roses (the small rash children go) to the “pocketful of posies” (to remove foul smells of the disease) to the “all fall down” (reference death)! When put into its proper literary and historical context, this poem is a tragic account of the effects of the plague and not just a rhyme about your pleasant childhood.
By analogy, it is possible to misinterpret Scripture without a proper method. Scripture analysis begins with what the author meant to communicate to his original audience before applying that text to our own time and lives.
One More Note: What Do We Call This?
The technical names for properly interpreting Scripture are hermeneutics and exegesis. Hermeneutics is the broad term for studying the principles of interpretation. Exegesis is the practice of bringing out the real meaning of the text. It seeks to answer, “What did the author intend to communicate to his original audience?”
If we consider biblical interpretation as a bridge with one side being when the author wrote and the other side as present-day:
- Exegesis first crosses the bridge from today to “back then” to determine the author’s meaning to his original audience in the original setting.
- Once that is established, we can cross back over the bridge to the current day, bringing sense, meaning, or intention into our contemporary context.
Now that we understand the big picture of studying Scripture let us consider our three-part “C.I.A.” method: Context, Interpretation, and Application.
1. C: Context
The context addresses both the literary context and the historical context of the passage.
The literary context seeks to understand the words and terms in their original language and fundamental meaning. After determining the meanings of words and phrases, we expand our investigation to adjacent verses, paragraphs, and even chapters before and after our passage.
For example, in 1 John 4:7, John writes, “everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” To avoid misinterpreting this verse to mean that “love” is the only evidence for being in the right relationship with God, consider the context with other verses from the same book! Our relationship with Jesus rests is also validated by our (1) belief in Jesus (1 John 5:1) and (2) keeping the commandments (1 John 3:24).
Another aspect of literary context is knowing the genre of the writing. Genre refers to literary style, form, or content. For example, you don’t read news articles the same way you read song lyrics. And the same is true of the Bible. Scripture has many different genres in both the Old Testament and in the New Testament, including
- Historical narrative
For example, reading Revelation without understanding the features of apocalyptic writings will be confusing.
The second type of context is the historical context.
- Who wrote the book?
- When did they write it?
- Where does it take place?
- Why and to whom was it written?
- What were the cultural-political-religious-economic factors that may have affected the writing?
For example, Paul’s letters addressed first-century Christians' specific spiritual needs while living in different cities and cultures. Also, the apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation to Christians during the Roman Emperor Domitian’s persecution (in A.D. 51–96). The book of the Revelation was a comfort to persecuted believers because it promises Christ’s return to establish his reign on earth and destroy his enemies.
It should be evident that context is essential to getting Scriptural interpretation right. As you read the Bible, you will probably bump up against some challenging passages. In those circumstances, consider consulting a study Bible or commentary.
2. I: Interpretation
The “I” in C.I.A. stands for “interpretation” or “What does the passage mean?” When interpreting Scripture, there is only one meaning of the text. And that is the author’s intended meaning to his original audience. This definition often surprises people. But to correctly interpret Scripture, you have to assume the plain, simplest, and most straightforward meaning of the text.
Most of the time, you don’t have to make this more challenging than it has to be. For example, “The Golden Rule” in Matthew 7:12 states, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” Jesus’s command is expressed in plain language as easily understood by the original audience as it is to contemporary people. There is no need to interpret it in any other way than in the text's straightforward literal meaning.
3. A: Application
Lastly, the “A” in the CIA is for “application.” A given passage has only one interpretation. That is the author’s intended meaning to his original audience. But there is often some universal truth or “eternal” principle behind it that can be applied to our contemporary world today.
For example, the tenth commandment is, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex. 20:17).
The universal command not to desire another person’s spouse or property is as understandable and applicable today as three thousand years ago. But few of us have neighbors with oxen and donkeys in their yard. And if they do, we are probably not covetous towards them. But oxen and donkeys are not the points. By interpreting this commandment in its proper historical context, we discover a universal principle not to be jealous of other people’s possessions, like their new truck, phone, or house addition.
Investigation Leads To Discovery
Correctly interpreting Scripture draws us into a deeper relationship with God. The more we investigate the Bible properly, the more we discover and come face to face with God. As a result, we will love him more as his Word saturates our lives.
Stuart, Douglas, and Gordon D. Fee. (2014). How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 4th ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan