As I struggled to watch my beloved football team losing a playoff game, my young son sat beside me. As he often does, he began a string of questions. “Who are they playing, Daddy?” In a moment of depressed sarcasm, I replied, “A bunch of lousy cheaters!” After a few more questions he got up, went back to play with his toys, and my team lost the game. A few months later, my son again sat beside me while watching a sporting event. This time he phrased the question a little different: “Dad, who are the lousy cheaters this time?”
In his six-year-old mind, any team playing against Dad’s team were “lousy cheaters.” He hadn’t understood the that the tongue-in-cheek label didn’t apply in every context. He heard the words, but he failed to grasp the meaning.
That error in understanding was easy to correct and, ultimately, carries no eternal consequence. The same cannot be said when it comes to understanding God’s Word and communicating its truth to your children. If you miss the meaning of God’s Word and pass on a faulty meaning to your children, the consequences can be devastating. Our goal in this brief series is to help you avoid that tragedy.
In the last post, we looked at the example of Ezra, who “set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). This verse makes it clear that biblical hermeneutics produce fruit that blesses the lives of those we have spiritual influence over. This is especially true in parenting. The people who have a front-row seat—the closest look at how God’s Word transforms and guides our lives—are our children (as I mentioned in the first post, in this series, I’m using “hermeneutics” in a broad sense, referring to the entire process of taking the Word of God from the pages of Scripture, understanding its meaning, applying it to one’s life, then passing its truth onto others).
Last time, we looked at the importance of having a heart firmly set on the task. Today, we’ll look at the practical steps of biblical hermeneutics. If you’re going to faithfully teach the Word of God to your kids—or anyone else you have the privilege of discipling—you have to make sure you’re “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
First, it’s critical to understand that studying Scripture is not a task reserved for pastors, theologians, and scholars. It’s an endeavor that every Christian is called to and should be equipped for. You don’t need a formal theological education to teach God’s Word to your children. In describing what qualifies someone to study the Scripture, John MacArthur writes:
Who can study the Bible? You must be the right who or the how won’t matter. Are you born again? Do you have a strong desire in your heart? Are you diligent? Holy? Self-controlled? Prayerful? If you are, then you can open the pages of the Bible and God will reveal His truths to your heart. When your life is right, then the method of how to study the Bible will become productive and life-changing as you implement it.  John MacArthur, How to Study the Bible, 2009 ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2009), 99.
If you’re committed to faithfully, prayerfully studying Scripture, you can do it. You have the Holy Spirit-enabled ability, and you can be assured that you’ll see fruit from that study in your life and parenting. With that in mind, let’s look at the process.
Read the Word
It seems obvious, but this simple step is overlooked far too often. The foundation of effective, biblical hermeneutics is to simply read the text. Observe what it says. Notice what it doesn’t say. Leave your preconceived notions behind and simply observe the words of the text.
Bible study begins with reading it. But quite frankly, a lot of people never get to that point. They sort of nibble at it, but they never really read it. They may read a lot of books about it, but they don’t really read the Bible. There is no substitute for reading the Scripture. We must be totally committed to reading it because that’s where it all begins. How to Study the Bible, 108.
If you want to begin a new habit of studying God’s Word, of understanding what it says and being able to pass it on to others, start by building a habit of reading the Word. And don’t just casually read it. Eliminate distractions and focus on the text. Read it prayerfully and read it repeatedly. Make observations. You might even want to write your observations down, to further fix Scripture in your mind.
Pay attention to the sentence structure. Who or what is the subject? What are the verbs? Is there a direct or indirect object? Is there a command given? Who’s speaking? Who’s being spoken to? Often this feels like stating the obvious, but overlooking the obvious often leads to bad interpretations.
You’re unlikely to find any single step of Bible study that can better improve your understanding than increasing the amount of time you spend simply pouring over the text.
Interpret the Word
Once you’ve read and re-read the text, move on to interpretation. There’s an axiom that John MacArthur has repeated many times: “The meaning of Scripture is the Scripture.” He elaborates on this principle in his book How to Study the Bible:
There are some people who don’t interpret the Bible; they just apply it. They read it and go directly to applying it without interpreting it. They simply don’t bother to find out what it really means. Our first foundation was to read the Bible. That will answer the question: What does the Bible say? The second foundation, interpret the Bible, answers the question: What does the Bible mean by what it says? We have to interpret the Bible. We can’t take the Bible like an aspirin. It is not a tablet. We can’t just say, “Well, I had my devotions, and I was reading along, and I just decided this is what it means.” No. You have to know what it means. How to Study the Bible, 115-116.
John makes a key point about interpretation that must not be overlooked. The goal of studying Scripture must not be discerning what the text means “to you,” as though your subjective, private understanding has weight or authority. The goal of interpreting Scripture must be discovering the meaning that God intended—the authorial intent of the text. He wrote it; He’s the authority on what it means. You can’t live out the truth of Scripture, and you can’t properly teach it to your children, if you don’t get the meaning right. Remember, the three most important keys to interpreting God’s Word are: context, context, context!
First, you must seek to understand the Scripture in its literary context. In this step, it’s best to work from near to far. Seek to understand the words within the sentence, then the sentence within the paragraph, the paragraph within the chapter, the chapter within the book, the book within the testament, and then within Scripture as a whole.
Next, work to understand what you’re reading within its historical context. Each word of Scripture was revealed by God in a specific historical, cultural context. It was given with a specific meaning. What Scripture meant in the context it was delivered is what it means today. It does not carry a different meaning for you—or your children—living in the twenty-first century than it did when first delivered.
Lastly, look to interpret Scripture in light of its theological context. John MacArthur has referred to sound theology as the hedge that protects the student from error. The Reformers often referred to the analogia scriptura—analogy of Scripture. Simply put, Scripture does not contradict itself because God does not contradict Himself. If we are going to rightly interpret Scripture—and rightly teach it to our children—we must understand every passage in light of the whole counsel of God.
Taking the truth of God from the pages of Scripture and applying it to the hearts and minds of our children is a process. We must have our hearts set on the task, committed to accurately handling the Word of truth. Then we must diligently study it, working to rightly understand God’s intended meaning.
Only then can we hope to obey its teaching. That’s where we’ll pick it up next time.