The Work of Interpretation-pt.3

This final piece in this little series is meant to help someone who has done the above steps of word work and sentence (syntax) work to now work on the historical information necessary in order to really understand a verse/passage when everything is pulled together.

Our church just finished studying our Lord’s entrance into the Temple during His first months of ministry. He walked in and, upon seeing the sellers and their wares, makes a rope from other ropes laying around. He then begins to drive people out, threatening them with harm (John 2:13-22). In studying this event, I had to do a lot of historical research. I wanted to understand what Jesus saw as He entered the Temple and why that catalyzed His zeal. I found out, through the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and a Jewish scholar turned Christian, Alfred Edersheim, that since the Old Testament never taught a person to exchange their blemished animal for an “unblemished” one, then these sellers and money-changers in the Temple, lead by the High Priest Anna himself, were simply running a very deceptive and lucrative scam meant to secure relationship with Rome and fatten Annas’ pocketbook. If found that Annas was known for his extortion and the priests were known for their use of force to gather “tithes” for the Temple. Once having understood all of this, the entire passage came alive. Then, comparing that with God’s original design for the Temple, a place where God would dwell and men could approach Him in fellowship, it even made me upset!

Therefore, since the Scripture was written in real language in real time with real people, we have to understand the historical setting of the passages we are studying. Most sound commentaries make use of extensive historical works. Some don’t. If the Bible is treated as only devotional material meant to simply make you think ‘happy thoughts’ to get you through the day, then a person who does that simply does not understand the Bible, no matter what they say.

When coming to a passage ask yourself:

  • About whom is the passage speaking?
  • Where did he/she live?
  • Were they at war with anyone?
  • What was it like living there?
  • What year(s) are represented in the text?
  • What age is the person being talked about?
  • Is he/she married?
  • Are they believers?

There are many questions that should be asked of a passage. These are  just a few. When you are able to reconstruct the passage historically, you will be able to assess the meaning of the passage better.

For instance, Paul wrote in Colossians 1:15:


He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.


When did Paul write that? Who were the Colossians? Where did they live? Why would they need to know that Jesus is the invisible God and the firstborn of all creation? Were they a Roman colony?

Many times, questions like these can be answered from reading the book many times over. From the book we learn that Colossae is a location on the map (1:2). The audience of the letter were saints and faithful at that (1:2). However, it would appear that they needed ongoing teaching from the Apostle Paul concerning the person and nature of Jesus Christ, since that takes up the bulk of the letter. It would also appear that they were being taught some erroneous doctrine from somewhere and that may have been what caused Paul to write this letter in the first place (2:8, 18; 3:1-4). It would also appear that Paul wrote this letter from prison (4:10). That would help us to date the letter. If we could learn when Paul was in prison, we could then know when he wrote this letter.

Much of the historical setting can be ascertained from the letter itself. However, the letter will not tell us the location of Colossae nor the population at the time, for example. One of the best places to turn at this point for information like that would be a Bible encyclopedia.

A Bible encyclopedia will give you information about many people, places, events, practices, cities, as well as a myriad of other information from scholars who have done the hard work of research. They will then collect that into a volume in encyclopedia fashion for your access. A Bible dictionary is similar to an encyclopedia as well. However, as you would guess, it deals with words and terms in the Bible that can be ascertained and read for understanding. Again, this is usually the fruit of the labors of able scholars. Having this information is necessary in order to comprehend the situation from which Paul is writing and to whom Paul is writing.

For example, if we look under the heading “prison” in The Harper’s Bible Dictionary (Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985, p. 824), we find out the condition from which Paul was writing. There is even further reference for more specific information at the end of the article that tells me to look under “Paul.” Also, in the same book, we find out a little more about Colossae (under the heading “Colossae,” p.175).


Once you have done your “word-work,” “sentence-work,” “historical-work,” you can pull it all together. One note here, though, is that these things can take time and patience. But the discovery is worth it! Simply understanding this text is the goal. Once the text is clear, it is powerful. God works through the understanding of the text. We do not need to add to it, or remove anything from it. It stands on its own.

From all of this information we understand that Paul, the apostle, is writing to the church in Colossae, a Roman town in Asia Minor, near to the towns of Laodicea and Ephesus. The prison in which Paul was at this point, most likely, was during his first imprisonment and it was a more relaxed imprisonment than his second, final, imprisonment. His final imprisonment was final because he was beheaded while there. Thus, he would have been in prison under different, more stringent, circumstances. Paul’s first imprisonment would have ended around 62 AD. Thus, this letter, written while in his 2 year imprisonment, or confinement, would have been written in 61 AD, or so. While in Prison, Paul received word from Epaphras that the church loved the truth and was committed to love (1:3-9). However, it appears that he also heard of the influence of myths, Jewish traditions, and the like promoted by some and distorting the truth about the nature of Jesus Christ. Concerned, Paul writes to them and gives the letter to Epaphras, along with Tychicus and Onesimus (Philemon 1-10). They are to read this letter, and send it on to other churches. In our verse, 1:15, we see that Paul further explains that Jesus Christ is God. In fact, He is the “image,” or “pattern,” of the true God. Thus, Christ represents a God whom no one can see. In fact, Jesus is actually His Son, as the OT speaks of Him (Psalm 2:7). This Son of God is the firstborn of all creation. That is, He, like the OT laws of the firstborn, is preeminent. He is the heir of all things and receives all things from His Father. With this information, we are able to appreciate, even adore, Christ more. This is fantastic, and seemingly incredible, truth. A Man, as He appears, is the heir of all things. And yet, this Heir, died for His inheritance. This assaults the idea that He is an angel, or a created man. He is none other than the eternal Son of God and, as such, He is God. Only God can accurately represent God. 

I realize that this is a simplistic little series that takes time to learn and perfect. However, because of the reality of inerrancy, we are bound by this method of study. We study the Scripture the way it was given-real people, in real time, with real language.

The Work of Interpretation-pt.1


Over the last couple posts, we have seen that we must interpret the Scripture the way that it was given-in real live history, by actual people who lived, written down in known grammatical languages, given by the true God, and understood by the original audience. Many perceive the Scripture the very opposite of the above. They consider the Bible to be void of historical content, written by men but with a distinctly Platonic spiritual component, given by God and thereby must possess an almost mythological meaning, and only meant for the enlightened to understand. When we compare the two premises, we see that the second more resembles a pagan, mystical understanding of the Scripture rather than a sound, verifiable understanding of the Scripture. Some would continue to see the Scripture as having double-meaning which, to them, means that words don’t really mean what they say. Funny thing is, they seem to possess the actual “second meaning” of any given passage.

What I have attempted to establish is that there is only one meaning in every verse and the effort needed to discover that meaning is rational, sound, and logical. It is guided by rules and produces the mind of God in that text. It is clear, coherent, and at the same time spiritual and heavenly in the sense that it represents heavenly truths or instructions. We do not need to add anything to Scripture in order to embellish its meaning so that it would give off a glow. We must study it by way of sound, objective processes in order for the text itself to instruct US. This process looks like work, and it is. But the text of Scripture demands this.

First of all, since God gave His truth in words, we have to understand these words. These words were written down at a point in time, in a fixed way, using the language employed with meanings of the day. For example, we would not expect Matthew to write, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2) and have it mean anything other than what Matthew meant for it to mean to himself and the original readers. After all, he was writing down what Jesus said.

However, knowing all of this, the question comes, “How do we discover this meaning?” What I would like to outline over the next couple posts is a method of study that I use (to which I owe a tremendous debt to The Master’s Seminary for instructing me in this process and exampling it at every turn) and it has been proven to cause the meaning of the text to become clear and plain. That does not mean that there is no depth. Rather the depth of Scripture becomes available only when the text is clear and the meaning plain (understood). What I am also going to explain is also the method that is borne out of the conviction of the text being the copies of an inerrant autograph. Again, if every word in Scripture is inerrant and accurate, then we must understand every word. Words do not exist in a vacuum. They exist as part of a context. That context itself has a broader context that has a beginning and ending. Every word has meaning and purpose. The definitions, arrangement, and relationship of every word to another is what conveys meaning. Once all of that has been determined, the meaning of every verse becomes plain.

There is a four step method to work all of this out (granted, there are variations of this process, especially as it relates to the original languages). Here it is:

  1. Word study
  2. Syntax study
  3. Historical study
  4. Outline/Notes


This process of word study is just what it sounds like. It is the study of words. What words? The words of Scripture. Since the Scripture was written originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, we could learn to study the words of those languages. Although studying these languages would be expected for a pastor or elder, it would not be usually available for most saints. Therefore, most of God’s people rely upon a translation. Yet, given that a person has a good translation, he/she can still do a proper word study. I am not wanting to stud the history of translations, but here are my recommendations. First, I recommend the New American Standard Bible (NASB). It does the best translation work of all the translations, minimizing editorial interpretation. I would then recommend the King James or New King James (KJV or NKJV). Although some of the words are archaic and a stumbling block for modern readers, it does a fairly good job of translation. The manuscript families represented in the KJV is lesser quality than the family of the NASB. However, it still has proven a faithful translation for decades. A good summary work on translations and how to choose one is Dr. Robert L. Thomas’ work, How To Choose A Bible Version. Having accumulated information concerning the deviations from the original language manuscripts, Dr. Thomas gives us a very useful tool in determining which version would suit us best in translation. At the top of the list was the American Standard Version for its literalness (although in awkward Elizabethan English), and the bottom of the list is The Living Bible. For people who want to study the Scripture in the fashion I am suggesting, the NASB (either the 1971 edition or the 1995 updated edition) would be ideal. A new translation, The English Standard Version (ESV), would also be suitable, but it has a higher degree of deviation from sound translation principles than does the NASB.

For our purposes here, we will study Colossians 1:15

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

To begin a word study, it is helpful to design chart, such as below.


word meaning notes miscellaneous


The first column, “word,” is just what it appears to be: the word that you are studying. If we take Colossians 1:15 and fill the chart with it step by step, it would look like this:

word meaning notes miscellaneous
He is
the image
the invisible
the firstborn


Notice that I put the verb “is” with the subject of the verb “He.” That is helpful so that I can keep it straight who is doing the action of the verb or about whom the verb is speaking. At this point, every word gets addressed. Here is what we have:

word meaning notes miscellaneous
He is he is this is referring to a description of the subject, “He.” Refers to “beloved Son” of v. 13.
the image representation/pattern not simply kind of looks like, but exact picture See Hebrews 1:1-3
of with reference to tells me of whom he is the image.
the invisible cannot be seen/we do not see the description of
God God/Father Cannot be the same Person God is invisible.
the firstborn the one born first/the preeminent one The Son is not the first one born. Cain is. must refer to preeminence.
of with reference to
all every/completely
creation everything that is made This must refer to everything in Genesis 1-2.


At this point, I have every word accounted for in the verse. Although appearing tedious, this step is born out of the conviction that every word in Scripture has importance, meaning, and authority (Luke 16:17). Granted, in order to do this, one must spend some time. However, that is exactly what the Lord would have us do-spend time in His Word.

Also, since the Bible was written in 3 other languages, it is a good idea to have reference works that help in translation of these words. One such works is Vines Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. This collection has a good listing of the English words and their Hebrew or Greek definitions as used in the Bible. For example, the word “image” has a large entry and a portion of it says,


“1.  ( *0 , 1504) denotes “an image”; the word involves the two ideas of representation and manifestation. “The idea of perfection does not lie in the word itself, but must be sought from the context” (Lightfoot); the following instances clearly show any distinction between the imperfect and the perfect likeness…” (no copyright)

The entry goes on to explain the variety of contexts that use the word “image,” including our passage above. it is very useful. Granted, there are more technical works out there, but this is a good starter for most.

Next post, I will show the subsequent step from the word study step. We can call it the “Syntax Step.” It is the relationship of each word to the other in a verse or sentence.


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