Three Tips to Help You Interpret Your Bible Effectively
Scripture can be difficult to understand, to say the least. Our Bible is 66 books, written by a smattering of authors, with writings whose original authorship dates back as early as Israel’s time in Egypt (~1500 BC) and as late as the first century AD, and was written in three different languages. Reading and understanding the scriptures is critical to a growing relationship with Christ and effective evangelism. Below I’ve given us three tips to help us properly interpret the scriptures.
As an example, I’ll be using the commonly misunderstood Matthew 18:20 – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”. Spending the last year and a half somewhat isolated because of the Covid 19 Pandemic, I’ve seen this verse thrown around to justify a number of positions related to the gathering of people together. This verse is sometimes used to imply that the Holy Spirit isn’t present or active unless more than one person is present. We’ll be using the three Bible reading tips to understand what this verse really means, and hopefully learn more about responsibly interpreting scripture for ourselves.
TIP 1 – UNDERSTAND THE NARRATIVE
The Bible was written for you and I, but wasn’t written to us or about us. The Old Testament was written about the nation of Israel and their covenant relationship with God, and was written to ancient near-East Semitic peoples. The New Testament was written about the new covenant in and through Jesus Christ, and was written to Greek speaking Semitic people living under Roman rule. Scripture wasn’t written as a list of theological points and one liners: most of scripture is narrative. The Bible is the story of God’s relationship to His creation.
Where in the narrative of scripture is Matthew 18:20? Matthew is in the New Testament. This means we are meant to be learning about the life of Jesus, the New Covenant in His blood, and the Kingdom of God that is here and the Kingdom that is coming, as those are the main themes of the New Testament. The Matthew 18 passage is related to these narrative lines, we just need to figure out how.
The book of Matthew is one of the Gospels: one of four historical accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. In Matthew 18, Jesus is speaking to His disciples. It takes place soon after Jesus heals a boy possessed by a demon, and before His triumphant entry into Jerusalem, setting into motion His arrest and crucifixion. This passage is set amongst a few stories and sayings where Jesus is teaching His disciples about the Kingdom of God. Narratively, this is what we need to be aware of: Jesus is teaching His followers about the Kingdom of God.
TIP 2 – READ THE WHOLE PASSAGE
The Bible wasn’t originally written with chapters and verses. This means we can’t read verses in isolation, but need context. The easiest way to help build your understanding of a verse is to read the whole passage.
Matthew 18:20 belongs to a short passage that starts in Matthew 18:15, and ends with our verse in question. The passage is this:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”
This passage is titled “If Your Brother Sins Against You” In many translations to help us understand the theme of the passage. This means that verse 20 relates to this theme of approaching another believer that has sinned against you, and how the church is to go about disciplining this person. Therefore our final verse is most likely not a general statement about the nature of the presence of God, but is a statement about how the Holy Spirit is involved in church discipline.
TIP 3 – SCRIPTURE IS THE BEST CLARIFIER OF SCRIPTURE
There are 283 direct quotes of the Old Testament in the New Testament, and many many more references. The Old and New Testament are a continued narrative, which means often times when we seek to understand a passage we need to look elsewhere in scripture. Keywords or phrases can help a lot, as it’s easy to look them up in a Bible app or online. Many digital versions of Bible translations have a concordance built into the text, so clicking on a keyword or phrase takes you to a list of passages that address the same issue or narrative line. This can bring us an incredible amount of clarity and understanding as we read the scriptures.
Are there any keywords or phrases in Matthew 18:15-20 that can help us search for other related passages? I see “one or two others”, “two or three witnesses”, “two of you”, and “where two or three are gathered”. “Two or three” seems like a theme of the passage, and we can find it in the Old Testament!
The book of Deuteronomy spends a great deal of time outlining the Law of Moses, which was the set of civil, ceremonial, and moral laws given to the nation of Israel by God Himself. Deuteronomy 17:2-7 tells the people of Israel how to punish idolatry and how to bring a charge against someone who has served other gods. We find our key phrase in verse 7: “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness” In Matthew 18:20, Jesus is referencing this part of the Old Testament Law of Moses! Jesus is building off an Old Testament passage that the listeners (His disciples) would have been well aware of.
In light of this connection to the Law of Moses, what is Jesus revealing to us in Matthew 18 about the way the Kingdom of God works? Jesus is alluding to the function of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The point of the last verse in the passage is to teach us that when we bring a charge against a fellow believer, the Holy Spirit will act as our third witness. It’s not about the Holy Spirit “showing up” when we gather together, as scripture clearly teaches that the Spirit dwells within us from the moment of salvation.
If we are truly compelled by scripture and trust that it is the inspired Word of God, then our goal should always be to understand what it teaches purely. Reading passages out of context and not putting in the work to understand them can lead to all sorts of misunderstanding and error in our view of God and the Kingdom. I pray that as we all dive into the scriptures this week, that we earnestly seek to understand them for what they are meant to be! I pray that we seek the will of the Lord in His Word, and grow every day into the image of Christ.