In Christianity in Crisis (pp219-225), Hank Hanegraff uses the acronym LIGHTS to explain the basic rules of interpreting and understanding God’s Word. I will also use this convenient device, but in my own words.
The L stands for the literal interpretation of Scriptures. Take the Bible at face value while still making allowances for clear metaphors and other figures of speech. Even parables have a directly literal meaning behind their picturesque story. Jesus taught us how to interpret parables in Luke 8:5-8; 11-15: While there is a central theme – plant God’s Word deeply in your heart – each major element represents a specific event, item or people; the seed is God’s Word, the hard wayside is a hardened heart, the birds represent the devil and his demons, the rocky ground is superficial acceptance of God’s Word, etc. This method holds true for all parables – a central theme plus details.
I must add that there are deeper spiritual truths than are obvious by a strict literal interpretation, such as the Bride of Christ. But even these deeper truths will not be contrary to the basic literal reading, but will, instead, bring a more complete understanding. For example, the Millennial Kingdom of Christ is a literal Kingdom on earth where Christ will rule in person, not some “spiritual” kingdom established by the Church, as the a-millennial end time view teaches. These truths are the deep things of God which can only be received by the teaching of the Holy Spirit (1Corinthians 2)
Which is the next letter, I, the illumination of the Holy Spirit. John 16:13 tells us that He will guide us into all truth. What He reveals will not contradict whatever else He has already said in the Holy Writ, which rightly divided will not contradict itself (2Pet. 1:21; 2Tim 2:15). For those who worship in churches that believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit are operational today, as I freely admit to believing, take heed: God may bring you fresh revelation or prophecy, but it WILL NOT contradict or supercede that which is already given. His Word is eternal.
The G in LIGHTS is the grammatical principle, the understanding of what a word means in the original Greek or Hebrew, and how the sentence was written. While this is not absolutely necessary to understand the Bible, there are times when it can be very helpful in clearing up a question. Revelation 3.10 is an example of a verse better understood when the Greek is examined. For those who haven’t studied the original languages nor have time to seriously do so a number of dictionaries and grammaries can be consulted, such as Strong’s and Vine’s.
H is the historical context of the writer. While Scriptures may be largely understood without a working knowledge of the times they were written in, there are some passages that become clearer or deeper with that knowledge. Some teachers mishandle 3John 2 by not recognizing that this was a standard form of greeting in letters during the first century – it is not God’s guarantee of health and wealth to all believers. Commentaries and Bible dictionaries can be of much help in this area, as can books such as Manners and Customs of the Bible.
The next letter is T, which reminds us that God has anointed some to be teachers of His Word (Eph 4:11). They can often provide much insight into Scripture, especially for those who do not have the time or know-how to do original studies on their own. But we must still examine what we are taught, searching the Scriptures like the Bereans, to insure that the teaching is correct. Even God-called teachers flub it occasionally, and there are many wolves in sheep’s clothing who call themselves Christians and are not.
Finally, the S stands for Scriptural harmony. As discussed under I, nothing in God’s Word will contradict any other, so if it seems to conflict, then either we misunderstood what is said or else we do not have all the information necessary to correctly interpret the passages. Every verse must be considered in its immediate context, for it is rare that a verse stands alone. It must also be related to the whole book in which it’s written, for the author had a purpose and specific theme in his writing. Furthermore, we must compare Scripture with Scripture, for God’s Word will tend to interpret itself if we let it.