Diving into the Word 5: CROSS-COMMENTARY

So now that I’m studying the Bible more on my own, how do I make sense of it all? Don’t underestimate the power of repeated, detailed reading of the text. The Bible itself is its best commentator. The Bible itself is its best interpreter. What do I mean by that? I mean that the more you read the Gospels, the more the epistles will make sense. The more you read the Old Testament, the more the New Testament will fit together within its framework. Consider some examples:

The Graveyard of Daily Bible Reading: Many people are committed to reading through the Old Testament until they come to Leviticus – the book of what seems like endless instructions about “irrelevant” offerings and priestly duties. But spend some time reading Leviticus alongside the Book of Hebrews, and you’ll find new meaning flowing from those “dry pages” about offerings. The concepts of priesthood and sacrifice will not only make more sense but will also carry great significance for the Christian in our understanding of Jesus and His work as our high priest.

The Book We Are Scared Of: While Leviticus may bore us, Revelation may just overwhelm us. How am I supposed to grasp meaning in the midst of a swarm of locusts with stingers on them…and dragons, abysses, beasts, trumpets, and fire? Now I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that every section of Revelation is easy to understand. But by doing the proper homework, it is an understandable book. The key to unlocking the SYMBOLS that permeate Revelation’s pages is to read through the Old Testament Prophets. Most images used in Revelation are not brand new to the Bible. They have been used before. LOCUSTS are a central image in Joel. BEASTS are part of a vision in Daniel 7.  Zechariah opens with riders on horses of various colors. And the contexts in which these images appear in The Prophets provide major clues as to the meaning of Revelation’s message to Christians.         

Look at All Angles: One of the benefits of having 4 Gospels recording events in the ministry of Jesus is that we often get to see the same event from at least 3 (and sometimes all 4) different angles. Each Gospel writer is emphasizing certain themes in Jesus's teachings and actions, and sometimes one perspective supplements some additional details in the narratives or the dialogue. These different angles do not mean the Gospel writers are contradicting each other. Supplementation does not equate to contradiction. What it does mean is that these 4 perspectives create a more composite picture of the work of Jesus, since we get a panoramic view. So if you have questions about a scene in one Gospel, consult the other Gospels to see their details and the context in which the event occurs within the other books.

Make Friends With the Cross-Reference: Find a Bible that contains some “cross-references” (usually either in the margin or footer of a page...or through certain Bible apps). These are other passages that use some of the same words and phrases. They may contain clues to the meaning of the text you’re currently studying. Let Scripture commentate on Scripture.  

The Danger: While cross-referencing to look for what the rest of the Bible could tell me about the meaning of my passage is always helpful and sometimes necessary, my FIRST focus should be just in the passage I'm reading. CONTEXT is the first key to interpretation.

     1) Use your 20/20 vision (20 verses before, 20 verses after) to see how the scene/verse you're examining fits into the surrounding passages. If I'm reading the words of one of Job's friends like Eliphaz and forget that he is the one speaking and not God Himself, I may end up with some skewed views on sin and suffering.

     2)Then ask yourself how it fits into the book as a whole. If I'm reading Matthew 6:22-23 and read of an eye either being clear or bad, that sounds like a strange image to be used by Jesus in a context about "treasure." While my 20/20 vision should tell me that this teaching has something to do with material possessions (the subject of the verses before and after), maybe other parts of the same book (the Gospel of Matthew) could help me understand this image better. If I write down my question and read the rest of the book, I find a powerful clue in Matthew 20:15, which says that an "evil eye" is envious when someone else is generous. The conclusion for both passages? A good and clear eye belongs to one who is generous toward others. We have just allowed Scripture to be its own commentator and interpreter.

     3) After looking for clues in the immediate context and the entire book in which your passage occurs, then consult other parallel or connecting passages. So how do I determine if there are legitimate connections to passages in other books? Look for similar VOCABULARY. The passage may be quoting or at least echoing another text. Your passage will contain truth about a biblical topic...but not always the whole truth. Looking for the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) is a vital task for a Bible student before settling on a hard and fast doctrine.

As you read through the Bible multiple times, you'll be surprised by how much more you will see and learn each new time through the Scriptures. And the main reason this happens is because God designed the Canon of Scripture to be its own best commentator. So let it speak.


To His Glory,


Caleb Cochran

Preaching & Outreach Minister

Rockville, MD


Photo credit: diana_robinson / Foter / CC BY-ND