Principles of Biblical Interpretation

The Missouri Baptist Convention has published a new resource called The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith. The 275-page book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in print from the MBC. But we also want to make each of the 16 chapters available online. This post features the middle portion of Chapter 8: Principles of Biblical Interpretation.

Previously: Kept With Eternal Chains: When Angels Desert


In the same way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them committed sexual immorality and practiced perversions, just as they did, and serve as an example by undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 7)

As we wrestle with the identity of Jude’s angels, it may help to consider some basic principles for interpreting Scripture. Biblical hermeneutics is “the science and art of understanding, translating, and explaining the meaning of the Scripture text,” according to Wayne McDill, author of 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. In 2 Tim. 2:15, Paul commands Timothy to engage in hermeneutics: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.”

McDill offers seven principles for “rightly dividing” (KJV) the Word of God:

(1) Identify the kind of literature your text is for insight into its meaning.

Bible scholars call this the genre of the text. Is the text law, history, wisdom, poetry, narrative, epistles, prophecy, apocalyptic, or something else? All genres are not created equal when it comes to conveying divine revelation. Carefully discerning the genre of a passage, or an entire book, is key to understanding. The genre of Jude is that of an epistle – a letter written to a general or specific audience conveying greetings and instruction.

(2) Consider the context of the passage for a better understanding of its meaning. What is the historical setting of the passage? Who is the intended audience? What are the social, political, and religious situations that the Holy Spirit and the human author seek to address? Jude likely is written in the mid 60s A.D., when Israel is about to experience God’s wrath at the hands of the Romans, and when the early church is on the cusp of great dangers from false teachers.

(3) Read the text for its plain and obvious meaning. “A common and persistent myth about the Bible is that its real meaning is hidden behind the surface message,” writes McDill. “Even though the Bible uses symbolic or figurative language, most of it is clear to the reader. Even when you do not know about the people, places, and events in question, you can grasp the point of the text.” While Jude alludes to apocryphal books and employs graphic images to describe the lifestyles of false teachers, his message is plain to the reader: Now is the time to take a stand for the Christian faith.

(4) Try to discern the writer’s intentions when he wrote the text. Luke, for example, tells us he has “carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:3-4). In the case of Jude, the author makes it clear that he intends to warn his readers about false teachers who have infiltrated the church, and to spur them to earnestly contend for the faith.

(5) Look carefully at the language of the text for what it reveals about its meaning. The words of the text are all we have of the writer’s thoughts, says McDill. If he hadn’t written it down, we wouldn’t know what he was thinking. So we should carefully examine the author’s words and phrases, and how he constructs his message. Jude uses strong language to characterize false teachers. It may help if we study these terms in the original language using lexicons and word-study books. In addition, Jude often organizes his thoughts in groups of three. For example, in calling his readers to remember how God judges the wicked, he lists three lessons from history: unbelieving Israelites, fallen angels, and the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah.

(6) Notice the various theological themes in the text. Though a text generally has one intended meaning, it can have a number of significant theological themes – and a variety of applications. When Jude writes about false teachers denying their only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (v. 4), we might draw from this the urgency of knowing sound doctrine concerning the person and work of the Messiah.

(7) Always take a God-centered perspective for interpreting your text. The “theological interpretation” arises from the assumption that the Bible is really God’s means of making Himself known to us, notes McGill. What it says about Him always is central to every text. “The Bible was not given by God to tell us about ancient religious people and how we should all try to be like them,” he writes. “It was given to tell us about the faithful God whom they either served or denied. Their response is not the central message; God’s will and his involvement with his creation are. Even texts that give instructions as to how we should behave reveal something about God.” Jude’s epistle, while warning of false teachers and calling believers to contend for the faith, ultimately points to a sovereign God who is holy, loving, faithful, and just.

Next: Eternal chains in darkness