To grow in understanding on HOW to Rightly Divide the Word of God, the following scripture information is crucial to learn so we do not inadvertently misinterpret what God wants us to know.
Recapping key verses in what we covered in Part I,
2 Timothy 3:16:
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness”
2 Timothy 2:15
"Study to shew (this is Old English for the word show) thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth (this is Old English for the word needs) not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth"
2 Peter 1:20 -21
20 "Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation"
21"For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost"
"Ye (you) shall (absolutely shall not) not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought (take away) from it, that ye (you) may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you"
To further our understanding in how to rightly divide the word of God, and avoid private interpretations, (meaning our own personal ideas of what we think the Word says) we need frame our thinking with enlightened information.
First, if we compare current ‘versions’ of the Bible side by side- we will see for ourselves how words have been changed here and there. In some cases, we see whole paragraphs or sections eliminated or added. To help us study the word in as close to the originally inspired word as we can, we have to go back to where the written format began so we can see how errors in translation can (and have) crept in.
Original text was written in what is called cuneiform. Cuneiform was a way of writing based upon characters that are wedge shaped. We do have evidence of some earlier attempts at writing but it was the Sumerians who developed the (written) art in an efficient form. Their language was pictographic -- each sign was a simplified picture of an article (of information) that the scribe had in mind. Eventually the scribes reduced the complexity of a pictographic system by combining several pictures into one.
Sumerian texts were written on clay tablets by using a reed stylus pressed into wet clay -- the resulting wedge-shaped marks are called "cuneiform" (from the Latin cuneus, "wedge-shaped").
Historical studies show that many written languages were derived from cuneiform. Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Greek, etc, all can be traced back to this style of writing. One commonality that is of importance here is this: early writings did NOT have chapters, verses and punctuation as we know it today. This is a key point to remember when you study the Word of God. (This key point alone is one to remember when you later study the magnificence of Jesus and his keen knowledge of the word of God!)
Biblical written sentences (as we know them today) would be essentially called a ‘run on sentence’. Chapter numbers, verse numbers and punctuation marks were added to the translations of the bible much, much later by scribes.
There is historical understanding that these additions started before the 1500’s, but the real visual appearance and constancy in evidence in the written form came in with the chapter division being first applied to the Hebrew in the second edition of Bomberg's Bible in1521. The numbering of verses was first adopted for the Sabionetta Pentateuch, 1557. These were added by typesetters for easier reference.
Why is this relevant to our study of the word today? You will see that at times, as you work the word, there are places in the word that may ‘not make sense’ because you have just finished one ‘chapter’ and are ‘starting another’. If you are starting a ‘chapter’ and it appears to ‘not make sense’ or sounds like ‘you came into the middle of a sentence or thought’… chances are, you did!
By remembering that chapter headings and numbers were added way later by scribes translating from language to language, you can essentially ‘eliminate the chapter numbers from having any significance’ in the content of the word. The only purpose they serve is a quick reference on where to find a verse.
A great example of this is in: John 7 and John 8. John 7: 53 does not end the chapter in context. If you read right into verse 1 of Chapter 8, that, should be the last verse for Chapter 7. John chapter 8 – content wise, starts with what we know as verse 2.
This brings us to the next set of key points to know and frame our thinking when we study the word for accuracy. To avoid private interpretations and ‘wrong dividing’ of the word we need to know and apply the following:
- Avoid private interpretation- by understanding the word/language at the time is was written
- Understand the culture at the time
- Interpretation of God’s meaning and intention happens first in the verse
- Interpretation of God’s meaning and intention happens next in the context (of all that is written before and after a verse)
- Interpretation of God’s meaning and intention can be seen where it was used before in the Word.
Let’s take a look at this one by one:
1. Avoid Private Interpretation by understanding the word/language at the time is was written.
Languages and use of words (their meanings) change over time. The way people spoke in the time before and after Christ lived were a bit different than how we speak today. We cannot always take the words in the bible at face value usage of how they may be in our modern day English. If you are working the word (studying it) and come across a verse that does not make sense because you are applying 21st Century English definitions to what was originally Aramaic text, there can be an unintentional private interpretation happening.
A great example of much misunderstanding of spiritual truths is right here:
In the Gospel of John 10:30- the English translation (even in the King James version) reads: “I and my Father are one”. Christ is speaking here – and many people who have not taken the time to really go back and research the Word for right dividing – come to think that this means that Christ and God are one in the same; they interpret this to mean they are singular in entity. From our English definition of the word ‘one’ (being or amounting to a single unit or individual or entire thing, item, or object rather than two or more; a single) – we can see how if you take this literally, it can allude to that understanding.
Here is where the problem is though: when we research back to earlier manuscripts (written before the King James Version or any other current version of the Bible)- that word ‘one’ is actually the Greek word ‘hen’—which means: One in Purpose or Unity in Purpose! Wow! What a different meaning this brings to this verse.
To better understand the use of the word ‘hen’ we can look at marriage. A marriage is a union of two distinct and separate individuals. They each have their own life, beliefs, understanding, ideas, etc. However, when they are married, they make a commitment to each other – and have a joint union for a single purpose- they become ‘one’ with their commitment.
So, correct understanding of John 10:30 “I and my Father are one” is that they also are two distinct and separate life forces. Jesus was a man that lived on earth. God is spirit. Together, they are united (hen – or ‘one) by the commitment to uphold God’s word. To uphold the spiritual principles and truths laid out for us by God. When we come to take the time to really study each word of the written bible, we begin to tap into the inherent spiritual power and knowledge that God has in store for us!
2. Understanding the Culture at the Time
When we begin to look at the written word of God and study the cultures and customs of the people at the time the word was written- you begin to have a new appreciation for the magnitude of God’s word, and the awesome examples of the people who lived during those times. In some regions of the world, there are some cultural practices from Biblical times that are still prevalent today.
In our Western society – we do not typically apply Eastern cultural habits. This can cause a misunderstanding and misinterpretations when we come to study the word. There is a lot of significance and impact in God’s word when we understand the importance of what was given to us by God as it relates to the customs and cultures of the day. Once you understand the Word from a historical point, you can then see how to apply it to life today- without any private interpretation.
Luke 7:44 a 44(a) “And he (Jesus) turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet”
This part of scripture has a cultural custom that we in the may not understand. In Eastern Culture it was standard to wash ones feet before entering into a home. The cultural significance for this was due to the fact that most people’s feet were exposed to the elements of the dust, dirt and dung that would be thrown out into the streets.
In biblical times, many cities and villages did not have modern day plumbing and waste disposal like we do today. This ‘garbage’ would be collected and then thrown out into the streets at the end of the day. Passers by who walked in the streets would be exposed to this waste material. As they walked, it would get onto their feet (most did not have shoes or had open toed sandals). As a custom of respect, upon entering a home, a washbowl of water would be set up so that the feet could be cleansed before entering into the house.
In this one act, there is actually a double significance. The first is the literal washing of the feet. (The cultural custom). The second is that in the Bible- the usage of the word feet- refers to our thoughts. By washing their feet before entering a home, they were also washing the dirt, debris and dung off their thinking. This is a figure of speech- and the Bible is loaded with them!
3. Interpretation of God’s Meaning and Intention Happens First in the Verse
Sometimes, the verse is very easy to understand. Take for example Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”. This is very straight forward. God created the heaven and earth in the beginning – this says what it means and means what is says without question. There are other times where we have to look at the verses carefully. If it does not make sense right away – reread it. Once and awhile our reading gets sloppy and we can inadvertently transpose letters – and think we read one thing, when what is written is another. An example of this is the word “throughly". Most people read this as “thoroughly’. There is a distinct difference in these two words. The difference means a great deal when it comes to the word of God.
It has been estimated by great Biblical Scholars that 85-92% of the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation interprets itself right in the verse.
The word ‘thoroughly’ is only used twice in the Word. The first time is in 2 Kings 11:18. When we read it in the English King James it reads: “And all the people of the land went into the house of Baal, and brake it down; his altars and his images brake they in pieces thoroughly, and slew Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars. And the priest appointed officers over the house of the LORD.”
The Hebrew word actually used here is ‘Yatab’ which means ‘to do good or well”. God tells us that idolatry is wrong. Here, the people of the land went into the house of Baal- and by breaking his images and altars (idols) they were able ‘to do good or well’.
The other place ‘thoroughly’ is used is Exodus 21:19: “If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.” In English, this may not look like there’s a misinterpretation happening.
However, when we go back and look at the Hebrew, you’ll see that the word here thoroughly is ‘Rapha’ – which means ‘to heal, to repair’. In this word study, the end of the sentence actually reads ‘healed, healed’. There is a reason for this and we’ll get into it in the upcoming chapters.
“Throughly" in the English however as used in 2 Timothy 3:17 reads: “That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” Throughly as we read it in the English in this verse, is actually Artios in the Greek. Artios means complete, fitted, completely qualified, with all its needed parts.
Both thoroughly and throughly look similar in English- and even the English dictionary shows they have the same meaning. However, when we take the time to rightly divide the Word of God, we see that occurrences are actually very different words from the ancient Hebrew and Greek. When we rightly divide the word, we get a much deeper understanding of what God wants for us- by avoiding translational errors that occurred over the years.
4. Interpretation of God’s Meaning and Intention Happens Next in the Context (of all that is written before and after a verse)
When we work the Word to rightly divide it, we cannot take a scripture out of context to justify our wordly belief system. We are to come to the Word and adjust our thinking according to what God says. As a workman for God who studies for our own personal growth and learning, it is also important to bounce what others say about the Word- against the Word to make sure there is no private interpretation going on.
If a verse is used alone- we want to read the verses before it and after it- to make sure that the complete content is in harmony with one another. Most of the verses, if not able to stand alone with understanding from within the verse, will be able to be explained by reading the surrounding content. You should be able to see the whole situation being explained within the context.
An often misused verse (taken out of context) is Psalm 2:8. Often, missionary’s use this verse as a sermon.
8 “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession”. This sounds sweet- until you continue to read the rest of the context:
9 “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel”
This reading in the actual context shows a very different element of God’s word- that does not align with the worldly (manly) use of it! Remember- we are not to take God’s word and manipulate it to fit our needs and thinking! We are to go to the word and adjust our thinking according to the truths laid forth in the Word.
5. Interpretation of God’s meaning and intention can be seen where it was used before in the Word.
If scripture doesn’t interpret itself in the verse or in the context, if it’s not a translational error due to our lack of understanding of language or cultural customs, then we go to where the first usage a word was. Often, the first time a word is used in the Bible; it sets the precedence from God for the carry through of the meaning. Sometimes this takes time to research and work out. If God ever changes the meaning of the word, it will be explained.
Sometimes we have to be patient, be diligent and use the research tools that are readily available to us today to open up the scriptures for their fullness!
Remember, difficult verses always have to work with the other verses around it and on the same subject. God’s Word is amazingly perfect! The more you work it, the more you will have revealed to you- the more your personal spiritual walk will be.
God wants us to come to the fullness of the knowledge in his truth. Go forth with this new information and enjoy seeing the ‘mysteries of the Word’ revealed unto you!
The next segment we will get into understanding the importance of “To Whom” the Word was written and how figures of speech are God’s signs to us that what we are learning has even deeper meaning than what it appears on the surface!
Blessed be you in the name of Christ,
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Debbra Sweet is a biblical scholar who served 8 years on the Board of Directors for ACF (The Association of Christian Fellowships) a worldwide biblical research ministry. Debbra Sweet and her husband, Daniel Sweet, have overseen the growth and development of multiple in home fellowships and has been instrumental in helping many people come to the knowledge and truth of God’s Word. She is also the founder of Sweet Marketing Solutions and an author in the Power of Leadership book series.