"I saw another angel coming down from heaven...
and the earth was illuminated with his glory."
Revelation 18:1

Of Elephants and Bible Study

Ever wonder how there could be so many different viewpoints among those who read the Bible? Although differences of opinion may arise from varying perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds, we shouldn’t be coming up with opposite viewpoints.

Interpretations of scripture could be likened to 3 blind men describing an elephant. The first attempts to describe it while touching its trunk. The second does the same while touching its side. The third tries to describe it while holding its tail. We are blind when it comes to spiritual things. Our understanding of God and eternal truths comes from evidence we find in nature and the Bible. To get an accurate viewpoint, we must examine the entire body of evidence.

Cutting off parts from the body of truth does it violence. Separating out a few scriptures to support a certain theory makes chopped meat of the words of inspiration. It’s only if we leave the message whole and intact that we allow it to live.

For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart. Hebrews 4:12

Just as living creatures move and have power, truth can move and work in our hearts. A dead message doesn’t have that power. Bits and pieces of scripture cut off, taken out of context, and patched together don’t provide the same kind of inspiration as the whole, natural truth. We must study the entire message for truth to come alive. 

Jesus’ comparison of truth to grains matches the same idea (Luke 8:5-15). Many wish to extract the part they like and discard the rest. This often results in a “one extreme or another” phenomenon. Some individuals promote an all-bran style of Bible interpretation, teaching a works-based religion burdened with obligations and spiritual tests. This approach limits the Holy Spirit’s influence by failing to focus on a personal relationship with Christ. It can result in little natural joy or humor, apart from forced smiles, and causes individuals to doubt their worthiness.

But some enjoy this approach for the false sense of sanctity it gives through the belief that good works or words prove holiness. This puts the cart before the horse and results in cheap grace, since it’s easier to wear certain clothes or eat certain foods than to be transformed in spirit. Adherents are often motivated by perceived social advantages in communities where displays of religious devotion are admired (2 Corinthians 10:12, 1 Corinthians 13:3-13). Despite Jesus’ warnings on this (Matthew 6:1, etc.), it is rampant among Christians.

But many more want an easy-to-swallow, “white bread” message. They emphasize “grace” while conveying the idea that we are saved in our sins rather than from our sins. They teach that following God leads to prosperity and luxury while ignoring verses that suggest the possibility of suffering for God’s people. They forget that Jesus said:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it: and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul? What can a man give in exchange for his life? Matthew 16:24b-26

There’s little lasting joy in this group either, since they remain captive to temptation and enslaved by physical or mental addictions. They serve a powerless God who can’t rescue them from themselves. They make excuses for their infirmities and fail to understand true freedom. When they talk of joy and happiness they are often seeking sensory excitement. This kind of religion leads to restless dissatisfaction instead of renewed strength (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11; Proverbs 27:20, 22).

Both camps try to justify their course by pointing to the fallacies of the opposite extreme. Both use the same Bible to “prove” their different viewpoints. But for true spiritual nourishment, we need the whole kernel of truth. God’s mercy and his justice lead to repentance and turning away from evil: 

Behold the goodness and severity of God. Toward them that fell, severity; but toward you, God’s goodness, if you continue in his goodness. Otherwise, you will also be cut off. Romans 11:22  

I’m not saying we should never eat refined wheat, but the principle exemplifies how to find spiritual balance and avoid typical pitfalls in Bible study. It demonstrates the importance of considering everything said on any topic in the Bible. 

We don’t have authority to refine the scriptures to suit our wishes (Revelation 22:18-19). Your pastor can’t get you into Heaven, only Jesus can, so we must seek to understand his way from the Word of God. 

Citing verses to support a theory isn’t enough if it’s not in line with the Bible’s comprehensive teachings on a subject. You don’t want to cut off the elephant’s trunk and separate it from the great body of evidence, or refine out the part of your choosing…

Otherwise known as cherry picking.

The only way to understand the Bible is to compare scripture with scripture to let it explain itself. You must find the burden of evidence through multiple texts to confirm any doctrine. A viewpoint shouldn’t be based on a few verses that contradict others on the same topic. 

The Bible requires the same logical and methodical study as scientific research to come to accurate conclusions. Yet that isn’t hard to do. Revelation 1:3 is among verses that indicate God intends for his Word to be understood by ordinary people, when it says, “blessed is he who reads.” You don’t need a theology degree to understand it. People without formal training or degrees sometimes reach more accurate conclusions in Bible study due to lack of institutional biases. 

Humble, prayerful individuals who seek truth are more likely to understand it than those who study scripture with earthly motivations (John 7:17-18). The example of what happened in Jesus’ day should serve as a warning to those in every generation. The people said in John 7:48, “Have any of the rulers believed on him, or of the Pharisees?” They looked to their leaders and teachers instead of looking to the Bible as the guide. Thus, they missed recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. 

Our world hasn't changed. Many today aren’t willing to accept anything besides what pastors and professors teach. They place their souls in the hands of erring mortals instead of letting God reveal himself to them through the Bible. This is why false doctrines have thrived throughout Earth’s dark ages. 

I’m not saying education should be discouraged, or that educated individuals can’t learn from the Bible. Martin Luther’s story reveals that those who study religion in large institutions sometimes have a genuine desire for truth. Education can be a great blessing if committed to God’s service. Many Pharisees from Jesus’ time came to believe in him. And Paul the Apostle, a highly educated pharisee, became one of the most active Christians in history (Acts 22:1-10).

But spiritual things are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14). To study the Bible without biases and tradition-based thinking, your heart must be softened by God’s grace through prayer. It takes courage to maintain unpopular positions for which you could face criticism. Yet God promises to provide for those who follow him (Matthew 6:28-31). It’s crucial to have a prayerful and humble spirit when approaching Bible study. As it says in John 7:17, “If anyone is willing to do his will, he will understand the teaching....” 

Many traditional interpretations are solid and shouldn't be thrown out. But at the same time we hold firmly to those way marks, we should be receptive to new truths. Yet fanciful interpretations should be avoided. New ideas must harmonize with other biblical teachings and principles. New understandings should make sense in the context of what God has revealed in the past.

Studying the Bible is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, finding matching patterns to see a picture emerge. Following are several principles of scriptural interpretation that can enrich your Bible study experience. I’ve named them to make them easier to remember;

The self-interpretation principle: 

Always assume the Bible will interpret itself. Look for other verses to help explain any passage you don’t understand. The Bible itself must provide confirmation of any interpretation through comparison of scriptures.


The multiple verse principle:

Never try to establish a truth on just a few verses. Study multiple verses on the subject throughout the Bible to get a clear view of what it’s teaching. You can use concordances or searches to find verses with the same word or term. Margin or center column references, in some printed Bibles, may also help you find connecting verses.

The symbolisms principle: 

Items like numbers, animals, and objects in the Bible have symbolic meaning. You can often find deeper meaning if you study the symbols by looking for other verses that help explain them. For example, Revelation 17:15 says that waters in the Bible symbolize “peoples, and multitudes, and nations.” Also, symbolic passages shouldn’t be taken literally, and those with factual details listed should be. For example, Revelation’s descriptions of hellfire are symbolic, rather than literal. But Genesis’ stories of Creation and the Flood are historical records with dates and time stamps. I’ve gone into more detail on these in the following book.


The original language principle:

It can help to look at the original Hebrew or Greek words in Strong’s Concordance, which is readily available online. You can find any verse in the concordance by searching for the verse reference with the word “Strong’s,” for example “John 3:16 Strong's” You can also see the original sentence structure with English interpretation if you search for a verse with “text analysis.” 

Nevertheless, we must be careful not to assign mystical power to the use of original languages, which can lead to pride and putting power in the hands of a few people. The Bible teaches that its message must be interpreted in local languages and nowhere encourages the idea that the use of Hebrew is proof of superiority (1 Corinthians 14:9, Matthew 28:19, 20).

The dual meaning principle: 

Prophecies often have 2 or more interpretations that may apply to different time periods. Don’t dismiss the possibility of a passage having multiple interpretations and applications. God packed messages for people of different ages into one small book (Mark 12:27).

The positive-negative principle:

This is based on film photography, how images contain both a positive and a negative image. Many Bible stories and prophecies can be seen as symbolizing positive or negative elements, depending on how you look at them. For example, the marriage of King Solomon to multiple women is negative but represents Jesus’ spiritual marriage to believers in the positive. Though Solomon was disobeying God’s will (Deuteronomy 17:17-19), and thus bringing sorrow into his life (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11), God’s mercy found a way to show us a picture of Jesus through that.


The Jesus Principle:

Perhaps the most important principle is understanding that glimpses of Jesus are hidden throughout the Bible in a myriad of ways. As he explained of the scriptures in John 5:39, “these are they which bear witness of me.” This is also shown in Luke 24:27, where it says, “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them all the things in the scriptures about himself.

Reading the Bible is an amazing journey that can lead you into a closer relationship with God. And it’s the only book that by reading it, you get to meet the author. So, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll take a chance on the adventure of studying the Bible for yourself.

Bible verses revised from ASV.

Top image (elephant) by Nataly Aks from FreeImages

Second image (bread) by Elke Rohn from FreeImages 

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