Module 4 – How to interpret a passage

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How to interpret a passage

This is the script to lesson 4 – How to Interpret a Passage.. Please feel free to download this script if required from our downloads page to help with your studies

Module Info

Now you have gathered all the facts.  You have all your questions and now you must start answering them.  And in answering those questions you will discover what the passage means.  Gradually you will move from merely knowing what is in the passage to knowing what it means.  At this point you may use other books.  You may not use a commentary.  There is a place for a commentary later on when you have deduced everything and you have come to your conclusions.  Then you check with commentaries to see what they say.  If you go to commentaries straight away, you are missing what God may be saying to you specifically.  And so do not go to a commentary at this point; that would spoil everything.  However you should know which books to go to.  [These books are designed for English-speaking readers; there may be equivalent ones in other languages.]

There are many, many books that I could recommend to you, and it would just depend on how far you want to go as a student.  And if you were prepared to learn the Greek alphabet, I could give you another list of books where you could find references to the Greek words.  But I am not going to give you that at this point, because I know that ninety percent of those listening to me would not be prepared for that.  What I do want to give you is a list of what I count to be the most basic books that you should have in order to understand the background to any given passage, and also be able to answer those questions that you have been storing up.

First of all you need a good concordance that will help you to understand what the Greek and the Hebrew words mean.  Assuming that you do not understand any Greek or any Hebrew, you must have a Strong’s Concordance.  You could have a Young’s Concordance, but I personally prefer a Strong’s Concordance.  It is very exhaustive: for example, it references every place in the Bible where the word ‘the’ is mentioned.

You should have Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.  That will refer you to the Greek words.  But they are not written in Greek characters; they are in plain English, and the Dictionary will tell you exactly what the words mean.  Many times you hear me say ‘the Greek says, the Greek says, the Greek says’.  Well now I have told you where I have got it from.

You need a good Bible.  I use the New American Standard version of the Bible.  I would also advise you to get as many translations as you possibly can.  I have thirty-six English translations of the New Testament.  Not all of them are good, but they all have their part to play.  And reading the passage over in many different translations enables you to really feel what is there.  High on the list of those translations is the Amplified Bible.  The Amplified Bible will often give you in brackets the exact rendering of the Greek word.  I do not recommend the Amplified just for reading.  But for a student who wants to find out the exact meaning of words, then you will find the Amplified Bible high on my list.

You also need a Bible Dictionary.  A Bible Dictionary is more like an encyclopaedia.  It will cover all the places in the Bible, all the people and all the biblical concepts.  I have a number of dictionaries.  I even have one that has five volumes running into thousands of pages.  But the one that I find is really the best is the Unger’s Bible Dictionary published by Zonderland.  It is one volume and it really covers everything that you are going to need.

You will need a Handbook of the Bible.  That is where you find all the maps and other significant background details.  There are many handbooks to chose from, but one of the best is Eerdman’s Handbook to the Bible.  In that book you will find plenty of maps.  I would also recommend that you get hold of a good Bible Atlas simply to find your way around in Bible Land.  I know my way around Israel better than I do around New Jersey.  I have never been to Israel but I know my way around there because I have studied and re-studied the maps.  I think all of you should be familiar with the land of Israel.

Those books should be your bare minimum.  If you do not have a library already, begin by buying these books.  You will find that from them you can get many of the answers to your questions.  So we will assume that you have gone to your various reference books to answer the questions that you have not yet been able to answer yourself.  You are then going to put all the information together.  Now you can take the passage and in another paragraph describe it with much more understanding, because now you know what is actually being talked about.

In fact, now you have actually interpreted the passage.  You know not only what is there but also the answers to all your questions. You are in a position to be able to say, ‘This is what it is saying.  This is what it means.’  And remember to check your conclusions in the context of the whole book.  That is why you read the book through all those times to begin with.  Now you are saying, ‘This is the meaning of this passage in the light of the message of the whole book’.

The first time that you dare to say ‘it means this’ you will feel very threatened.  We have been brought up to believe that we are not supposed to interpret the Bible.   Others do it for us, and we go to meetings and we sit with pencil poised to see what the preacher says.  And we never check him out.  In fact in much of today’s Church teaching, if you dare to check him out you are in rebellion and out of submission.  So we are all imprisoned and afraid to dare to say ‘I believe it means this’.  There are times when I find all the evidence on a certain passage, I check it in the context of the whole book, and I come up with a conclusion that may differ from everything that I have read in commentaries.  My conclusion may be a little daring, but I put it forward as a working theory.  And I say to myself ‘I believe this is what it means’.  And as I read in other parts of the Bible and I listen to other preachers I keep getting indications that I was either right or wrong.  And so I am challenging you: please dare, please dare to begin to say ‘this is what God is saying’.  Do not, however, become stubborn and stupid.  If somebody blows a hole in what you believe it means, then praise God that you have learned something.  Be humble enough to accept the correction.

With that in mind, then, let us go back to Ephesians Chapter 2 and do some interpreting.  Now we noted on side one of this tape that Verse 19 begins with the words ‘so then’.  And we noted that that is either a summary or a climax that the whole chapter, or even the whole book, has been moving towards.  So we will begin by going back over the whole of that chapter to get the feel of what that ‘so then’ means.

As you go back, remember that Paul talks in the first verses of how, being joined to Jesus Christ, we have been resurrected to sit in the heavenly places in Christ.  Verse 8 says, ‘By grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.’  Then Paul goes on in Verses 11 and 12,

  • Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “Uncircumcision” by the so-called “Circumcision”, which is performed in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

Does that ring some bells with you?  We have noted already that Verse 19 uses the term ‘strangers’.  So we can begin to feel now what Paul is saying.  He is talking about Gentiles who were once upon a time outside of Israel and therefore strangers to the community that is the depository of God’s promises.  And that fits in with the whole message of the book.  We have already seen on tape 1 that Paul is speaking to the ongoing dialogue, if you can call it that, between Jews and Gentiles.  And this particular passage is obviously addressing that issue.  So when he says here ‘once you Gentiles were strangers’ we are beginning to get our bearings.  Then in Verses 13, 14 and 15 he goes on,

  • But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace. [He] made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances. [He did this so] that in Himself he might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace.

I was raised on the idea that ‘He Himself is our peace’ meant that Christ was our peace in our hearts.  It was only when I began to exegete this passage that I realized that that is not what is being said here.  It is true that Jesus is our peace in our hearts, but that is not what Paul is saying here.  He is saying that Jew and Gentile have been brought together in Jesus Christ and there is now peace.    And Christ has made one new man.  So now there are three kinds of people in the world: there is the Jew, there is the Gentile, and then there is the new man, who in Jesus Christ is made up of both Jew and Gentile.

Verse 16 says that Christ died to reconcile both Jew and Gentile to God in ‘one Body’ (that is, the Church).  At the cross He put to death all the enmity and anger that exists between nations.  Then in Verse 17 Paul quotes from the Old Testament, Isaiah Chapter 57 Verse 19.  And he goes on in Verse 18, ‘For through him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.’  Now Verse 19: ‘So then’ – see how he is leading up to the climax – ‘you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you have been built together.’

We need to remind ourselves that this is figurative language.  We have got to find out what this ‘being built together’ is.  Paul says ‘you were once strangers and aliens’, but something has happened.  Now the word ‘alien’ in the Greek means ‘that which is of a different quality or nature than something else’.  So he is saying, ‘You Gentiles, at one time you were of a different nature. You did not belong in God’s community because you had the wrong kind of nature. You were wrong at heart. Your nature was wrong, you were an alien.’  But then the word ‘stranger’ is another very interesting word.  For example, I am not an American citizen but I live here and I have settled down beside Americans.  But where identity documents are concerned, I am not really one of them.  That is the meaning of the word ‘stranger’.

In Ephesus there were Gentiles who actually attended the Jewish synagogue.  They observed all the Jewish customs, but they were not Jews.  They sat at the back of the synagogue and they were called ‘those who fear God’.  You will remember that often in the Acts when Paul addressed meetings, he said ‘you men of Israel and you who fear God’.  He was addressing the men who sat at the front who were the true Israelites, and those Gentiles at the back who went along with everything but did not wish to become full Jews.  They were called ‘the strangers’ or ‘the God-fearers’.  I learned that from a Bible dictionary.  You see, I am not that brilliant; I just know how to read.

These Gentiles were tolerated by the Jews, who put up with them but who were quick to remind them that they were not true Jews.  It was as if the Jews were telling them ‘you are sitting in the presence of the light, the true light of the Old Testament, but you are not one of us’.  And so Paul is saying to them ‘at best you Gentiles were strangers; at worst you were aliens, on the outside completely, of the wrong nature’.  But then he tells them, ‘You are no longer sitting in the congregations. You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens.’  Citizens of what?  Citizens of the true Israel.  That was what the whole issue was about.  They may be strangers among Israel and aliens on the outside, but in Jesus Christ they have become true citizens of Israel.  And he describes them as ‘fellow citizens’.  Fellows to whom?  Who are these saints?  Well the saints are all the other members of the true Israel.  The word ‘saints’ means ‘the separated ones’.  They are separated unto God, with their full citizenship papers.  They are no longer strangers.  Their nature has been changed and so they are no longer aliens.  They are full members, along with all the other separated ones, the saints, of God’s household.

I went through my various translations of the Bible to find out what ‘household of God’ meant.  The Wycliffe translation, which was done in about AD 1300, says ‘you are the housemates of God’. Another English translation says ‘you are no longer outsiders, you are insiders’.  So these Ephesian Gentiles have come right into the inside, and they are now housemates.  They live there along with God.  And still answering my previous questions, I note that the phrase is in the present tense: ‘you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are fellow citizens’.  So this is my very first deduction, applied to us as present-day Christians.  We who once were on the outside, who once could walk into the Church but not be part of it, have now received our citizenship papers and are full citizens of the kingdom of God.  We are God’s housemates, and insiders, in the Israel of God. This is happening right now as a present tense experience

Now we note in Verse 20 ‘having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets’.  We have already asked in what sense the apostles and prophets are to be thought of as the foundation.  We also ask the question, ‘What is an apostle and what is a prophet?’  That could be a study all by itself.  We need to be careful that we do not become carried away and forget what we are doing.  We are not being ‘topical’.  There is another way of doing Bible Study, and that is the ‘topical’ method.  For example, we take every mention of the word ‘prophet’ or ‘apostle’ and see what it means in order to build up an idea of what a prophet or an apostle is.  I suppose that has its place, but it has dangers too. We are in danger of getting verses out of context.  And we may end up in a massive study on apostles and prophets that has nothing really to do with what we are talking about in our present study.

We find that the apostles were the special messengers that were sent into all the world to preach the gospel.  They were the ones who gave us the original teaching of the New Testament.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote their Gospels, and other apostles wrote the Epistles.  The foundation of all our teaching and understanding of the Church comes from the apostles.  They are New Testament.  Prophets are Old Testament, and in them is all the foundation teaching of the Old Testament.  The word ‘prophet’ means ‘one who speaks forth on behalf of God’.  And as they spoke it forth, they wrote it down.  Even David, who was a king and a psalmist, was also a prophet.

So here Paul is saying that the Ephesians have been brought into God’s Kingdom.  They are now full citizens of the Church, the foundation of which is all the teaching of the New Testament (‘the apostles’) and all the teaching of the Old Testament (‘the prophets’).  Notice the interesting order of words there.  He says ‘built upon the foundations of the apostles and the prophets’.  I questioned that for a long time.  Why did he not say ‘prophets and apostles’?  If prophets are Old Testament then surely they should have come first.  I realized that the only way to understand the message of the prophets is by first of all understanding the message of the apostles.  I did not get that answer for two days.  I chewed it and pondered it and tugged at it for a long time until I realized it.  And you can do the same.  Answers come as long as you are asking questions and as long as you believe that the answers will come.  If you have an open mind to receive the answers, you will get them.

Now Paul says that Jesus Christ is the ‘cornerstone’.  A cornerstone, I discovered from a good dictionary, is the stone that holds the whole building together.  It is the stone from which all dimensions in the building are measured.  So everything in the building has to measure correctly from the cornerstone.  Take that stone out and the whole building collapses.  So Paul is saying that this building, into which all those with citizenship in God’s Kingdom have come, has as its foundation the apostles and the prophets, but the One who holds it all together is Jesus Christ.  He is the One from whom everything is measured.  That tells me that the only way I shall ever understand the Old Testament is by reading it in the light of Jesus Christ.  He is the measurement of the Old Testament.  He is the interpreter of the Old Testament.  Take Jesus Christ out of the Church and the whole thing crumbles.  Christianity in its inception and its continuance is totally supernatural.  It hangs entirely upon Jesus Christ and His resurrection.  He is the cornerstone.

Now I did not come to those conclusions in just one hour.  As I pondered the phrase ‘Jesus Christ the cornerstone’, I wrote down in my notebook every thought.  And as I had other thoughts, maybe when I was riding the subway, I would write those down too, because I carry my book with me wherever I go.  And gradually I would build up an understanding of what is really there in this phrase.

Also at the end of side one of this tape we noted the passive tense.  Paul says ‘having been built, indicating that someone else had done the building.   There are other examples of the passive tense. In John’s Gospel Chapter 1 Verses 12 and 13 we find that we who are born again are not born of blood or the will of men but by the will of God.  God does the re-birthing.  Or in John Chapter 3 Verse 4, we cannot re-birth ourselves.  Jesus says there that to be born again we need to be born of the Spirit.  God does it.  We cannot put ourselves into the Kingdom of God; we are put into it. Again, in First Corinthians Chapter 12 where Paul speaks of entering into the Body of Christ he says that we were baptised into the Body by the Holy Spirit.  We cannot baptise ourselves in water. Someone else has to do it for us.  Someone has to take hold of us and plunge us into the water. (If we are baptised in some other way, still someone else has to do it.)  The Holy Spirit took us and plunged us into the Body of Christ.  He did it.  All we can do is surrender to God.  The miracle must take place by the operation of the Holy Spirit.  It is in the passive tense.

So the Ephesians have been built. They were stones that the Holy Spirit has picked up and built into this building.  What I discovered also is the nature of the building.  In Verse 21 Paul says, ‘In Him the whole building being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord.’  This building, the figure of speech that he is using, is a holy temple.  So I go to my Vines Dictionary and I discover that in Greek there are two words for ‘temple’, whereas in English we have only one.  It is very, very important.  The first word for ‘temple’ means the whole temple.  That includes all of the gates, the altars, the outer court.  But there is another word for ‘temple’ which is naos in Greek, and that word means the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary, the innermost place where the glory of God was to be found.  Now which of those two words is used here?

To find that out, you could use an interlinear Greek New Testament.  But you could also go to Strong’s Concordance, and beside the word ‘temple’ there will be a little number which will refer you to the back of the book.  You look under that number and it will tell you which Greek word is used in that context.  Having done all of that, you will find out that the word used here in this passage in Ephesians is naos.  So Paul is saying, ‘In Him the whole building that is being fitted together is growing into a holy naos in the Lord.’  Now, I have just discovered from my dictionary that naos means the Holy of Holies where the immediate presence of God’s glory dwells.  So Paul is saying that the Ephesians are being built into the actual building in which God’s glory now dwells.  He is talking about all of these individual Christians as though they were bricks.  And he says,

  • Each one of you is being built together, being fitted together, and as you are being fitted together, you are becoming that holy naos. You are becoming that innermost sanctuary, where the glory of God dwells. Each one is fitted to the brother or sister next to you, and as you are fellowshipping together, built together by the Holy Spirit, so you become that holy temple in the Lord.

Notice that Paul also says ‘is growing’.  So the building is not yet complete.  That means that every time a person is born again, another brick is being built into this holy naos which is the Holy of Holies upon earth today.  ‘Holy’ is almost the same word in Greek as ‘saints’.  It means ‘set apart’.  And so here in the midst of the world there is a company that is set apart.  They are distinct to and different from the world.  They are the dwelling place of God; they are the Holy of Holies upon earth.

Notice that Paul says ‘a holy temple in the Lord’.  The expression ‘in the Lord’, I discovered, could be better rendered ‘in union with the Lord’.  In fact, most translations of the Bible give that impression.  It means to be in union with, tied into.  And so every person who is a brick in that Holy of Holies is in a vital union with the Lord.  Why?  Because He is the chief cornerstone.  We are back again to that idea.  As the chief cornerstone, He holds it altogether.  Apart from union with Him the building would collapse. And so, if we apply all this to ourselves as present-day Christians, the only way that we can describe ourselves is as people who are in a vital union with the Lord and in a vital union with one another.  The result is that God dwells on earth in us.  And notice that it is in the present tense.  It is a fact here and now.

Verse 22 says, ‘In Him you also.’  Paul is being specific now.  He has been talking about a general fact. He has been saying that this building up of the Church is true all over the world.  But now he applies it specifically to the Ephesians.  So he says ‘you also’. Remember, in our questions we asked what that meant.  ‘You also are being built together’.  Who are the ‘together’?  The Jew and the Gentile.  The Gentiles are being built into one new man, as we saw earlier in the chapter.  Verse 22 continues, ‘a dwelling of God in the Spirit’.  We would expect to see this, because we have just seen that the Holy of Holies is where the Glory of God dwells.

Now I can understand that Paul had a particular reason for saying ‘a dwelling of God’, not ‘the dwelling of God’.  If he had said ‘the dwelling of God’ it would have meant the only one.  But he was addressing the Ephesians and saying, ‘All you people there in Ephesus, you are a dwelling of God. But also the people in Corinth are a dwelling of God, and the people over there are a dwelling of God too.’  And so the indefinite article ‘A’ tells me that each little tiny community of Christians, wherever it finds itself, is a dwelling of God.  God lives in those Christians by the Holy Spirit.  As more and more people are born again into the Kingdom, more and more bricks are gradually laid.  And that temple, which does exist in the mind of God, has become a final reality.

Now we can conclude our study of this passage by writing a paragraph that sums up all that we have discovered in our interpretation.  It would be something like this:-

  • The Gentiles have been built into the new man or the holy temple along with the Israelites. Gentiles now have a new status, and they along with all believing Jews form a new Israel which is the dwelling of God on earth. This is the ultimate Holy of Holies, and there is such a Holy of Holies to be found in every town where Christians are gathered.

It has taken me about twenty minutes to say all this.  But to prepare and study it took me probably a number of weeks.  I want you to know that.  I find that the greatest problem that most people have is that they do not believe that they can do a Bible Study in this way.  They have already convinced themselves that they cannot do it.  They have put up barriers and have said, ‘I could never do it like that.’  Why not?  They have never tried.  Perhaps when they look at all of the questions they say that they are confused.

If you are you confused, it is of your own making.  You should hear what I have to say on Tape 4 side 2 from the Book of Proverbs.  That speaks of the creative power of your tongue that you form today.  You create today all of your tomorrows.  You must dare to believe that God will tell you what His Book means.  You must dare to believe that you have a normal brain that the Holy Spirit can renew.  And you must come to the Word of God believing that you are going to hear it.  Stop all of this nonsense talk that you are different, that you are very humble and do not understand anything.  You are a regular member of the Kingdom of God.  There is no elite, no hierarchy, to which the mysteries are entrusted.  Christianity is the religion of light.  It is open, self-revealing.  Everyone from the very newest Christian can hear what God says, interpret it and understand it, and still be very submissive to all that everyone else is saying.

If you insist on the barrier, you will never achieve this.  A journey of a thousand miles seems formidable, but it begins with one step being taken, and another, and another, and another.     Someone said that at this rate they would never read the Bible at all.  They would be stuck on one passage for the rest of their life.  You will be surprised how much you can take in – more than you ever imagined – as long as you begin by reading a whole book at a time.  And begin to feel the greatness of the Bible, and get the great sweep.

As you properly analyze one passage, you will find that great parts of the Bible will just suddenly open up to you.  We shall see that on the next tape when we learn to how to correlate.  We have talked about the relationship of a passage to a book.  Now we are going to go on to see its relationship to the entire Bible.  We correlate the whole together.  That is more difficult, but it will become easier as you do this one thing properly.  And so I am asking you to take heart, and to know that God can speak to you as well as He speaks to me.  All you need is eyes in your head, a tongue in your mouth that will not stop questioning, and a pencil in your hand.  And write, write, write your questions and your answers as God gives them.  And then dare to bring it all together and say ‘this is what God is saying’.


Other Projects

Module 12 – The fingerprint of God

Module 11 – Jesus Lord of the mind

Module 10 – Setting your mind on Christ

Module 9 – Wise worker

Module 5 – How to correlate a passage
Module 3 – How to observe a passage