Can We Know What The Bible Means?

The question of whether we can know what the Bible means or not is not a new one. The question has come up often when controversy arises. But the answer is simple, yes, we can know what the Bible means. How? We must follow sound principles of Biblical Interpretation.

First, let’s look at how not to interpret Scripture. We don’t go through Scripture acting as if it were written today to today’s audience. We don’t go through Scripture looking for buzzwords and then take things out of context to twist meanings.

So how do we know what Scripture means?

Here are some basic steps.

  1. Observe the passage in our own language. Who is the passage written to? Where was it written? Etc.
  2. Observe the passage in the original language. Are there any nuances of Greek or Hebrew words that might not be conveyed in the English text?
  3. Study the historical and cultural contexts of the day. The purpose of this is that we want to know what a particular passage would mean to the original audience.
  4. Determine the plain meaning of the passage in its original context.

This is not difficult in many cases in Scripture. Yes, there are some passages that are more difficult than others but this is the exception and not the rule. It is not arrogant to say that we can understand the original meaning of the text, nor is it impossible. If it were impossible, what would the point be?

People who say that we cannot know the original meaning with 100% certainty usually say so because the plain meaning and interpretation of Scripture does not mesh with something they want to happen in their life or in society. In other words, they don’t want to see the light.

Another thing to note, and this is important, is that any given passage only has one correct interpretation. Let me say that again, there is only one correct interpretation of Scripture. There can be any number of applications for a passage, but only one correct meaning.

Let me close with an example.

On September 2nd, 1776, General George Washington wrote a letter to the Continental Congress. That letter was written in a different time and culture to a different recipient. Yet, we can interpret that letter with 100% clarity. The army was demoralized and, in Washington’s opinion, underpaid. He recommended the possibility of land being added as an incentive for enlistments.

There is no question to the meaning of this letter from Washington. In the same way, we can look at the books of the Bible, many of which are letters themselves, and interpret the text with 100% clarity.

Is Baptism Part of Salvation?

I have heard it argued that people take the third chapter of John’s Gospel, the story with Nicodemus, and use it as a claim for baptism being necessary for salvation. The claim is that water birth in the chapter is actually baptism. However, a simple and logical look at the passage will show us that this is not the case at all. Let’s take a look at John 3:1-6


Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.


John 3:1–6, ESV

Verse 1: We are introduced to Nicodemus and that sets the stage for the conversation he is about to have with Christ.

Verse 2: Nicodemus is searching for truth and tells Christ he knows that He is of God.

Verse 3: Jesus said you cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless you are born again.

Now, we need to stop for a minute because this is key. Born again. Born a second time in some way. Nicodemus understood that Christ meant a second birth but he does not understand how this is possible which brings us forward.

Verse 4: Nicodemus, confused by the born again, asks if we are somehow to reenter the womb.

Verse 5: Jesus answers saying that you must be born of water and spirit.

Now, the spirit is the second birth, the water is clearly the first birth. That is the logical progression Jesus is following. Yes, Nicodemus, you were born the first time of water (womb) but this new birth, the born again, is a spiritual, not physical, birth.

Verse 6 further confirms this interpretation by saying flesh is born of flesh and spirit is born of spirit. Water is interchanged with flesh but spirit remains. Why? Because water is talking about physical birth, not baptism.

That is the full context and proper interpretation of this passage. It has nothing to do with baptism and baptism certainly is not required for salvation.

A Response To: “Be Careful Using The Bible”

An article titled “Be Careful Using The Bible” was published this week on the United Methodist news site. The article is troublesome as it shows a clear lack of exegetical and hermeneutical understanding that is so rampant in liberal circles. Moreover, it shows how an improper understanding of the Bible and improper Biblical interpretation can lead to justifying sinful actions.

The article was written by Rev. James R. McCormick who is a retired United Methodist pastor from Cumming, Georgia. His abuse of Scripture in the commentary is deplorable and this article is a response to the misuse and apparent misunderstanding of Scripture.

The premise of the article is this:


In studying the Bible, it is necessary to realize that often God is cited as supporting whatever values are normative at that time in history. Those are “timely” standards — standards valued for a time — but not necessarily “timeless” standards that are applicable for all time and all circumstances.

This, of course, is true for some things found in Scripture such as the civil laws given to Israel to govern Israel. That was for a specific time and specific people. However, this principle is not true for the moral standards that we find in Scripture. Moral standards are timeless.

We see the error of this thinking in the examples that are given. The first being Abraham and Hagar.


Remember that the Bible affirms Abraham having sexual relations with Hagar, Sarah’s maid, in order to produce his first son, Ishmael. Only later did Sarah produce Isaac, through whom Jews trace their ancestry.

I must ask Rev. McCormick, where in Scripture does it affirm Abraham having relations with Hagar? Where does it state that this is ok? It does not say anything of the sort. This was Sarah’s idea, not the Lord’s plan. In fact, we see in Scripture the opposite of affirmation for this act, we see the consequences of the sin as it tears the family apart and causes division. In no way was this a moral standard for that time to take multiple wives. In fact, this actually affirms the moral standard we see throughout Scripture that marriage is for one man and one woman.

Rev. McCormick tries the same tactic with the 1,000 wives of Solomon. Again I must ask, where is this affirmed in Scripture? Where is this sanctioned? It is not.

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How To Study The Bible

I am often asked, how do you study the Bible? How do you know that your interpretation is correct? Are there rules to follow? Are there tools to use? Where do I begin? All of these are very good questions, and all of these questions have good answers that follow them. This post is not meant to be an exhaustive look at how to conduct Bible Study. This is simply a brief overview of the topic.

The Bible was written in three primary languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. It was also written to various people groups in various cultures spanning over 1,000 years and none of those were cultures and people that are still present today. This is known as the gap of Biblical Interpretation. In order to arrive at a proper interpretation, we must close this gap and find the original meaning of any passage in Scripture that we wish to study. So how do we accomplish this?

First, you must become familiar with your passage in your native tongue. To do this, you must read the passage in several English translations. Preferably, a few translations that are essentially literal and one that is dynamic equivalent. Dynamic equivalent translations, such as the New International Version, do not necessarily follow the literal translation of a passage and add in commentary-like supplements in phrasing and word usage to help the reader understand the meaning. Essentially literal translations are just that, translations that are as literal as possible compared to the original. Translations that I recommend are the English Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, and the, Christian Standard Bible.

The second step is to look at the original languages. You need to find words, using a concordance and lexicon combination or Bible software such as Logos Bible Software, that are key to the passage. Then you need to look up the corresponding Greek or Hebrew word to find out what the author meant by using that particular word.

The third step is to understand any historical and cultural contexts that may be applicable when looking at interpreting a passage. Where was this written? When was this written? To whom was this written? Were there any significant events going on at that time that might be alluded to in the passage? Were there any geographical features that need to be taken into account? These types of questions help give insight to things that are not plain in the text itself.

When you look at these steps, the next thing to do is to figure out, what did this mean to the original audience? How would they have understood this passage?

When following these rules, you are well on your way to framing proper interpretations of Scripture. We can know what Scripture says with confidence. Remember, there is only one possible interpretation but an unlimited number of possible applications.