Author Pete De Lacy
The Bible often says exactly what it means, but that is not true all the time. When interpreting the Bible, we must seek the author’s intended meaning, not our own, imposed on the text. To do this, we need to remember that context rules. What is context, and how do we determine it? Everything is said in an immediate context, the verses preceding and following. Then there is a broader context. For the Bible, the broader context is the rest of the book we are interpreting, then other writings by the same author, followed by the New or Old Testament, and finally the whole Bible.
Let’s turn to 1 John 4:8 (NASB) and apply this principle: “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
First John 4:8 says “God is love.” The immediate context of this phrase includes verses 7–9. (Read these verses.) The immediate context of the passage also leads us to 1 John 4:10 (NASB): “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”
Now we see what “love” is, but we are still left with the question: How is “love” connected to the “propitiation for our sins?”
To examine the broader context of 1 John 4:8, read 1 John chapter 4, then the entire book of 1 John. Now turn to John’s other writings, such as the Gospel of John, to see what else he says about “God is love” or what he says about “God” and “love.” As you do, ask the five “W” questions and the one “H” question: who, what, when, where, why and how.
When we expand the context to the Gospel of John, we see that John 3:16 (NASB) helps explain 1 John 4:10: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The propitiation for our sins was so that those who believe will have eternal life.
Research what other Bible students have understood about the passage by checking commentaries. This will help you to see if you’re on track or not. If your interpretation has never been presented by a biblical scholar before, it’s likely that you’ve misinterpreted the text. God spoke to us that we might know truth. Take the Word of God at face value—in its natural, normal sense, letting the passage speak for itself.
Even though commentaries are very helpful, Scripture is our best commentary on Scripture because it can’t be “broken” (John 10:35). Commentaries should be used to inform our interpretation, not define it.
When John says “let us love one another” (John 4:9 NASB) it’s pretty plain and easy to understand. This is not always the case. When figures of speech such as metaphors are used, they must be handled accordingly. It’s important not to take one difficult to understand verse and use it to define others. Let the clear, repeated teaching of Scripture inform the obscure. “Let us love one another” and “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” are clear enough to inform our interpretation of the rest of Scripture.
To better understand the word love, we can do a word study using Bible software, but we must be sure that context determines how we apply the definitions in dictionaries and lexicons to the text. Likewise, we can run a search for the phrase “God is love,” or search for every time “God” and “love” occur together.
We all have sinned (done wrong) by God and other people. Sin puts us out of right relationship with God, making us subject to his wrath. Propitiation is the act that appeases God’s wrath and enables us to be brought back into right relationship with Him. In the ancient world, the sacrificial death of an animal brought people temporarily back into right relationship with their God—it was a temporary propitiation for their sins. Jesus’ death brings us permanently back into right relationship with God—it is the eternal propitiation of our sins. See the different ways “propitiation” is used by reading: Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17, 1 John 2:2; 4:10.
To learn more about the Inductive Bible Study Method, go to Precept.org
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