Bible Engagement: The Journey – A Framework for Understanding & Interpreting Scripture

Contributed by: Emily Paterson, Diocese of Auckland

Being able to understand and interpret scripture is an important skill in Christian leadership – not only for our own personal growth as a disciple of Jesus, but also for teaching others. This is a training session on how to use the framework of a ‘journey’ for understanding and interpreting scripture in context. Created for developing young leaders or equipping your youth leadership team, this one hour session will give them a fresh approach to reading and teaching from the Bible.

You will need: Whiteboard, Whiteboard Markers, slides with questions & example answers – click to download.

Introduction

The Bible is God’s communication with us. It is applicable to all people everywhere no matter their culture/time/situation etc.

 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-19

However, sometimes the Bible is difficult to understand and interpret for our everyday life. It can be really hard to see how stories or words written thousands of years ago could have anything to say to us and be applicable to our lives at this point in time!

Being able to understand and interpret scripture is a really important skill. It helps us grow as disciples, as we read the Bible and understand it, we come to know more of God and we are able to hear what he has to say to us in this time and space.

Being able to understand and interpret scripture is also an important skill in leadership. Because as Christian leaders, we often have the opportunity to teach from the Bible – whether that’s teaching a Sunday School lesson, leading a Bible Study at Youth Group, leading a devotion, preaching or doing a short talk!

If we are going to teach from the Bible then we want to be able to understand a passage and interpret it well, so that we can be confident to pull the actual truth out of a text and not just develop something that sounds nice but might not actually be correct!

Today we want to offer you a tool that you can use to help you read, understand and interpret scripture for our context today – that will help you as you grow as a disciple, and will also better equip you as a leader.

Interpreting the Bible is similar to embarking on a JOURNEY. We journey from the town of the Biblical audience (for whom the scripture was originally written for) to our town today! In that journey we think about what the passage meant to the original audience, what differences we have to the original audience, and what underlying principles are in the passage that apply to all people no matter what their time or space, how this relates to the wider story of the bible and how it relates to our life today!

This session uses Philippians 2 as an example – you are welcome to replace this with any other passage you want your group to focus on.

Read PHILIPPIANS 2:1-11 together

1. The Text in their Town

Draw ‘their town’ on the top of the whiteboard and write answers to the questions in section 1 in it.

What did the text mean to the biblical audience?

Here we think about the original context of when the Bible passage was written, and observe what it says to the original audience.

Think about:

  • What kind of writing is it? (Letter, History, Poetry, Prophecy, Gospel etc.)
  • Who is the author? Who is it written for?
  • Where are they? Why is this being written?
  • When was it written?/Where does it sit in the Biblical Story? (before/after Jesus? what is happening with the people of God at that time?)
  • What is happening? /What is being said?

EXAMPLE – Philippians 2

Letter written by Paul, to the Philippian Church (Church that Paul began when he visited Philippi)
Written while Paul is in prison. (During the time of the Early Church, After Jesus.)
Paul is writing to thank the Philippians for the gift they had sent him.

Summarise the meaning of the passage for the biblical audience in one or two sentences (be specific, use past-tense verbs, don’t generalise or develop theological principles yet!)

EXAMPLE – Philippians 2
Because the Church is united together in Christs love, Paul is encouraging the Philippians to live in unity with one another, being of one Spirit and one Mind. He wants them to follow the example of Jesus in their relationships with one another, and adopt an attitude of humility not looking out for their own interests, but to the interests of others.

2. The Width of the River

Draw the River across the middle of the whiteboard and write answers to the questions in section 2 in it.

What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?

This is when we think about the differences between us and the biblical audience

We are separated by all sorts of differences – culture, language, situation, time and often covenant (OT vs NT) from the Biblical Audience.

That is why we can’t just move straight from the meaning in the Biblical context to the meaning in our context…we need to identify these differences and see how far removed we are from the original audience

The width of the river will vary from passage to passage – sometimes there will be heaps of differences, sometimes there won’t be so many…

What is different between us and the biblical audience of Philippians 2? (culture, language, situation, time, covenant)

EXAMPLE – Philippians 2
We are not living in Philippi, in the time of the Early Church
We don’t know Paul personally
We didn’t send a gift to Paul

3. The Principlizing Bridge

In the middle of the river, draw a bridge and write answers to the questions in section 3 in it

What is the theological principle of this text?

This is probably the most tricky part of the process. It is when we try to uncover the meaning of the text.

Theological principles are principles that are applicable to all of God’s people at all times, no matter what their time/place/situation/culture/language. So while the specifics of a particular passage may only apply to the particular situation of the biblical audience, the theological principles revealed in that text are applicable to all of God’s people at all times. Basically we are looking for the ‘main theological point’ of the passage – that applies to both the original audience and us.

Step One

To determine what this is…we start by looking at the SIMILARITIES between the situation of the biblical audience and us..

What are the similarities between us and the biblical audience of Philippians 2?

EXAMPLE – Philippians 2
We also belong to the Church, we are also in relationship with Jesus
We also have to live in relationship with other Christians

Then we return to the meaning for the Biblical Audience that we developed in step one. Keeping in mind our similarities, identify any broader principles reflected in the text that would apply to both them and us.

Think about ‘What does this passage tell us about God?’ or ‘What does this passage tell us about who we are or how we are to live as God’s people?’

Theological Principles should be:

  • Reflected in the text
  • Timeless
  • Not culturally bound
  • Correspond to the teaching of the rest of scripture
  • Revelvant to both the biblical audience and us today

EXAMPLE – Philippians 2
As members of Christ’s body, the Church, we are called to live in unity with one another, and follow Jesus’ example of humility looking to the interests of others rather than our own.

4. The Biblical Map

At the end of the bridge, draw a ‘map’ with the Bible on it, and write answers to the questions in section 4 in it.

How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?

Is your theological principle consistent with the rest of scripture?
How does the rest of scripture add to the principle?
What does New Testament insight add to this? (if looking at an OT passage)
Fine tune your principle if needed.

EXAMPLE – Philippians 2

Throughout the Bible, the people of God are encouraged to live in humility with one another. Jesus talks of how he came to ‘serve rather than be served’ and the Church is often encouraged to live in humility with one another. See Micah 6:8, Proverbs 3:34, Luke 14:11, Ephesians 4:2, Colossians 3:12, 1 Peter 5:5, Romans 12:3.

5. The Text in Our Town

On the bottom of the whiteboard, draw ‘our town’ and write answers to the questions in section 5 in it.

How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?

How does this apply in a real-life situations today?

For most passages there will usually only be a few (often only one) theological principle that is relevant to all Christians today. However there will be lots of ways that principle could be applied. This is because we are all different and will all find ourselves in different life situations.

So what are some ways that this could be applied?

EXAMPLE – Philippians 2

What would it look like for our group to live in unity and humility with one another, following the example of Jesus?

  • Making sure other people have been served before serving yourself
  • Making sure other people are given opportunities, not just ourselves
  • Being willing to do the jobs that no one else wants to do
  • Not complaining when things don’t go our way
  • Being willing to hang out with or work with others on the team (even if they annoy you)
  • In a disagreement, being the first to say sorry and admit your wrong-doing (not holding grudges)
  • Using your time to help others, not just focusing on your own needs
Source: This session is based on chapter 2 ‘The Interpretive Journey’ of ‘Grasping God’s Word’ by Duvall & Hays