A Bible scholar walks into a friend’s kitchen and sees a magnet fixing a diet plan to the refrigerator door. It reads, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you … to give you hope and a future’ ” (Jer. 29:11, NIV). Is his dieting friend interpreting Scripture correctly? The first principle of interpretation is “Read contextually.” The Bible scholar thinks to himself, “Does he know that Jeremiah spoke to Israel’s leaders in exile in Babylon? That a word spoken to the nation of Israel isn’t necessarily a personal promise to individual Christians?” The scholar worries: “Does my friend think God promised to prosper him through this diet plan?” Or does the scholar’s training drive him mad? “Maybe my friend simply wants to remember that God is for His people,” the scholar reasons, “even him.”
We confess that the Bible is God’s Word, but unless we read and interpret it properly, our confess ion is a mere formality. Sound biblical exegesis is essential if we hope to know and act upon biblical truth. Sound interpretation has two elements: the technical and the personal. From the technical side, we must first read the Bible according to the grammar and lexicon of the day. It is not sufficient to know what words like flesh, covenant, judge, talent, slave, or justify mean today; we must know what they meant in that day. Second, we must read texts in their literary and cultural contexts.
The frequent command “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14) illustrates both principles. In the West, we naïvely assume that this kiss is something for first-century people to do, but not for us. But we can’t simply disregard a command; we must investigate. When we do, we find the “kiss” entailed a ritual touch of cheeks, not lips, and that it was always man to man or woman to woman, not man to woman. Culturally, the kiss demonstrated friendship, kinship, and affection. Therefore, to obey the command in our culture, we assess how we show loyalty and affection, and practice that. Sound exegesis discovers that the kiss itself is not Paul’s concern. Rather, he wants believers to show loyalty and affection in ways that suit each culture.
Serious readers have a threefold question about Bible interpretation: what did it mean, what does it mean, and how does it apply? The question feels most urgent when disciples ask, when do I interpret a statement literally and when do I interpret it figuratively? When must we obey a command literally and when must we not? We answer these questions by studying a passage in its cultural context.