Two main principles for understanding the Bible

I have taught seminary students for over three decades. If there are two principles for biblical interpretation that I have hammered out over and over again, it would be these two: 1) Let the scriptures interpret the scriptures; and 2) Do not take verses / passages out of context.

Just think of the first words of III John:

“This letter is from John, the elder.

“I am writing to Gaius, my dear friend, whom I truly love.

“Dear friend, I hope all is well with you and that you are as healthy in body as you are strong in mind.” (III John 1-2, NLT)

At first glance, you might think that there isn’t much to exeget. And you would be right. It’s a pretty generic greeting, using the standard niceties of the day between two good friends: “I hope you are as sane in body as you are strong in mind. It was like a standard, “Hello, I hope everything is going well with you and your family,” or, “I hope you are doing well.”

But some have taken it to mean something more. That this is not a greeting, but rather a statement or an affirmation: If you are sane, you will be sane. If you are in good spiritual health, you will be in good physical health. And not only in good physical health, but also materially well off. It is, of course, the “health and wealth” gospel. And that is of course not what John was saying. He wasn’t trying to say anything theologically prescriptive at all. He would just start a letter with a common greeting of the day. We know this because the same type of greeting was widely used in letters and correspondence during this time. He knew Gaius was doing well spiritually, so he just opened up saying, “I hope and pray that you will feel / act as well as I know you do with Christ.”

This is where our principles of interpretation come in. First, let the scriptures interpret the scriptures. If John were to say something as meaningful and provocative as ensuring health and wealth if you walked closely with Christ, that would be a major doctrine, not to mention an overarching principle taught clearly throughout the scriptures. Nevertheless, it is not the case. So that should get everyone to be careful not to read too much into an opening greeting like this, especially something as drastic as the idea of ​​health and wealth being tied to your relationship. with Jesus.

God can certainly bring the material blessing. He can certainly heal us. But it is also true that some of the greatest saints of the Bible facing all kinds of persecution, poverty and hardship. So that should make us stop here before we read anything other than a greeting in the opening lines of III John.

Next is our second principle. In addition to letting the scriptures interpret the scriptures, we must make sure that we never take a verse out of context. Again, III John is a good example. John is writing to resolve an internal problem within the church regarding a major personality conflict with a man named Diotrephes. There is nothing in the letter about the problem of pain, or evil, or poverty, or how a walk with God brings success or wealth. So reading that in the greeting wouldn’t exegesis, which finds out what the text itself says, but eisegesis, which is in addition to what the text itself says.

I can take verses out of context and say whatever I want. I can tear up one verse here, another from there, string them out of context and say things that are … well, crazy. For example, here are three verses, each taken out of context. Put them together and you get:

Matthew 27: 5 – “Judas went out and hanged himself.
Luke 10:37 – “Jesus said, ‘Go and do the same. “”
John 13:27 – “What you’re about to do, do it quickly. “

Not a good message.

The context of III John is clear. This is a personal letter, opening with a common greeting of the day, to address a particular issue that John was writing about to his friend Gaius.

So whenever you read the Bible, remember these two big ideas: Before you ask yourself the question of how to interpret a particular section of the Bible, you might want to read everything the Bible has to offer on it. the subject. And second, make sure that everything you read, say a letter like III John, is read in the context of III John’s entire letter.

Class adjourned. ??

James Emery White

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and principal pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To take advantage of a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can browse past blogs in our archives and read the latest news on church and culture from around the world. Follow Dr White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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