From “How to become a Christian”: Chapter 2 – What is the Bible? How did it come to be written and why should we believe it?
We can get ourselves into an awful mess by not knowing how to interpret the Bible. However, we can avoid most of those problems by adopting the following approach as our starting point. This is often referred to as “the golden rule”. That is to simply take everything that is said at its literal, ordinary, face value meaning unless the words used, or the context, clearly indicate that you are meant to do otherwise.
Most of the time the Bible simply means exactly what it is saying in plain and literal terms. That, therefore, is how it should usually be taken. However, there are other times when the Bible is obviously using metaphors, analogies or other figures of speech. Or it may be presenting us with a type or pattern. You need to recognise devices like that or you will miss part of the meaning.
However, even when the Bible is using a figure of speech, the message being conveyed is still the truth. Even in our own everyday language we instinctively know when to take a thing literally and when devices like metaphors or analogies are being used. For example, if someone said to you “It is raining very heavily” you would know that that is a literal, face value statement which means exactly what it says. There is no literary technique or device being used there. It is plain speech.
If however that person said “It is raining cats and dogs”, you would know instinctively that in the English language that is a figure of speech. It is obviously not to be taken literally, because there are no cats or dogs falling from the sky. However, that does not mean that the statement is untrue. It is still true that it is raining heavily. It is simply that the speaker has chosen to use a figure of speech to express that fact more vividly. Thus, in both cases, it is literally true that it is raining heavily.
Now let’s look at some examples of different types of speech from the Bible: When Jesus said to a woman who was caught in adultery “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more”, He was just using simple direct speech. He meant exactly what He said and there were no figures of speech involved.
However, when Jesus said “I am the door” or “I am the vine and you are the branches” He was using figures of speech. Yet the meaning that He is conveying in those phrases is still true. Therefore it is not literally true that Jesus is a door, but it is true that He is “the” door. He means that He is the only way that we can get to God or find salvation.
Likewise, He is not literally a vine, and we are not literally branches, but it is factually true that He is what that figure of speech meant. It means He is the one and only source from which we can obtain eternal life. Apart from Him we cannot have that life, just as a branch cannot live unless it is attached to the vine.
If you apply the golden rule of interpretation as your starting point throughout the Bible, you will save yourself from a lot of mistakes and problems. Everything in the Bible is true. You simply need to use common sense and read everything in context in order to get the proper meaning.