Interpretation the Inductive Way

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.”

Immediate Context

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?”

Broader Context

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.

Check Commentaries

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.

1John_Gospel of John

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.

Propitiation 

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

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 4.

Figuring out the “Firstborn” in Colossians 1:18

Author Andrew B. Perrin In Col 1:18 Paul describes Jesus as “the firstborn of the dead.” How can this be when Lazarus was resurrected before Jesus (John 11:44)? To understand what Paul meant here, we must investigate the meaning of the Greek word behind the English word “firstborn.”

Step 1: Make the Switch to Greek and Establish a Preliminary Definition

FiguringOutFirstborn

The easiest way to pinpoint the Greek word translated as “firstborn” is to use The ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament. This resource aligns the English translation with the corresponding Greek text. When we look directly below the English word “firstborn” in this resource we find the word prōtotokos.

From here we can use a Greek lexicon to formulate a working definition. If using print resources, take note of the number 4416 in the reverse interlinear, and look this number up in the Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary appended to Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. In Logos Bible Software, I simply double-click on prōtotokos in the reverse-interlinear and am directed to the appropriate entry in my preferred Greek lexicon, which is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testamentand Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). Both resources tell us that prōtotokos refers to birth order—in the first century, this signifies rank, or status.

Step 2: Briefly Track the Word through Greek Literature

Since the New Testament was written in a Greek culture, investigating how words were used in other Greek writings is an integral component of our study. Through concise survey articles, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNTA) plugs us into this Greek context.

Looking up “firstborn” in the Table of English words in TDNTA directs us to the article on page 965. In Logos Bible Software, this resource is a double-click away. TDNTA states that prōtotokos is rare in Greek literature; in its place authors often used the synonym prōtogonos meaning “first in rank.”

In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, prōtotokos was applied to humans (Gen 38:6) and animals (Gen 4:4), both of whom God uniquely claimed as His own (Exod 13:2). The term also functioned as a national designation for Israel as the object of God’s special favor (Exod 4:22). Closer in time to the New Testament, Philo, a Greek Jewish Philosopher (20 BC–50 AD), described Cain as a prōtotokos since he was very literally the first human physically born (Gen 4:1)—who had a special rank as Adam’s heir. In all of these usages, the term denotes the special rank of the “firstborn” in relation to others.

Step 3: Survey the Usage of the Word in the New Testament

We can narrow the scope of our study by focusing on the New Testament uses of prōtotokos. This can quickly be done using Logos Bible Software’s speed search, or manually by looking up the word “firstborn” in Strong’s and counting all of the occurrences listed with the number 4416. Both methods reveal that prōtotokos occurs eight times in the New Testament.

Six of these occurrences refer directly to Jesus. At the most basic level, Jesus is described as Mary’s “firstborn son” (Luke 2:7). Just as Philo referred to the physical birth and rank of Cain, Luke refers to Jesus as the first child of Mary.

In Col 1:15 Paul states that Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation.” Paul may be referring to Jesus being the “first” eternal, divine being made flesh and born into the created order. Paul may also be referring to Jesus’ rank as head of creation. Jesus is the preeminent one who entered into the created world (Heb 1:6). The phrase “firstborn of the dead” occurs twice (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), alluding to the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, not the timing of the resurrection. Because of this event, Jesus is the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom 8:29).

Step 4: Revisit the Passage to Find the Meaning of the Word in Context

Assuming that theology is conveyed at the level of single words is a danger associated with word studies. However, the true indicator of the author’s intended meaning is how the word fits within the immediate context; for us this is Col 1:15–20.

Paul’s use of prōtotokos twice in this short section suggests that the “firstborn” is an important concept for the passage as a whole. The wider context of other New Testament writers, like John, who affirm Jesus’ pre-existence and eternality, also helps us understand what Paul is saying and not saying by this term.

Although Paul’s first usage of prōtotokos evokes the idea of rank and chronology, the second occurrence of “firstborn of the dead” refers to the idea of rank and not chronology. We know this precisely because Lazarus was raised from the dead—making Col 1:18 about the “special status” of Jesus. Col 1:18 extends this priority from creation to re-creation in light of resurrection. As “the firstborn of the dead” Jesus is the resurrected one that guarantees new life for those who follow Him. This understanding is the basis for Paul’s message of reconciliation that is fully dependent on Jesus’ preeminence as prōtotokos (Col 1:17, 20).

Bible Study Magazine delivers tools and methods for Bible study, as well as insights from respected Bible teachers, professors, historians, and archaeologists. Take over 30% off the cover price—subscribe now!

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Originally published in print, Vol. 1 No. 3.