Three Skills to Arm Your Exegetical Arsenal
(Originally sent out as an article under Eagles' Simply Proclaim)
If there’s one truly fundamental thing that holds a biblical message together, it would be sound exegesis. At the very least, we must do our best to ensure that we’re drawing the right messages from the Scriptures—which is harder than it seems!
As I grow and gain more experience in biblical interpretation, I have found that there are verses in the Scriptures that I have not been interpreting correctly. I've tried my utmost to improve that, and here are the three key skills I've needed to build up:
- Mental Time Travel
We're not talking Back to the Future, but historical empathy. The Bible contains God's eternal Word, but it was written for a particular audience in a particular time. Imagine scholars thousands of years in the future studying a modern political cartoon or newspaper column—they will have to know the mindset and culture of our time before they can accurately decide what it means.
That's the situation we face with the idioms and genres of Scripture. For example, the books of prophecy contain many idioms that sound strange to modern ears, but would have had a sharp impact on their original readers.
If we don't consistently ask ourselves how an early Israelite or first-century Christian would have read a biblical passage, we are bound to read our present-day context into the Scripture—and come away with erroneous ideas of what it says.
For instance, at one point Jesus says: "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles" (Matthew 5:41). This sounds odd, and it is not immediately clear why someone would force us to go with them in daily life.
But it we research the custom of the first century, it makes perfect sense. Judea was a Roman province, and any Roman soldier could legally conscript locals for forced labor—including carrying their equipment for them. The maximum distance they could be forced to was one mile, but Jesus drives home the need for His followers to act more generously and graciously to anyone (even their enemies) than they would normally do.
This isn't an easy skill to acquire—one needs great sensitivity to realize that not everything meant the same way then as it does today.
The preacher is as much a student of history as theology, and we need to build the right questions of historical context into our Bible studies. Bible dictionaries or introductory books to the Scriptures are great resources for this.
- The Role of Grammar
If Scripture were a body, the grammar of the Hebrew and Greek languages are its connective tissue. A key area to look out for is the use of conjuctions—words that link the main points with other points, conditions and smaller details. These include words like "for," "and," "but," "or" and "so"; or "so that," "that," "while," "when," "just as" and "if".
For instance, Paul writes to his friend Philemon: "So if you consider me a partner, welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me" (v. 17, emphasis added).
The entire letter is Paul asking for Philemon's forgiveness of Onesimus, his former slave who had run away and been brought to Christ by Paul's ministry. Because Paul was Philemon's friend, he wrote on behalf of Onesimus—and he used their friendship as a substantial point.
In other words, Philemon was to welcome Onesimus in the same way he would have Paul himself—out of their shared relationship. Paul was (in today's language) calling in a favor.
Conjunctions matter! By tracing them, we can help bring out the arguments Scriptural authors used, and help us interpret their words better. You can never know grammar too well, be it for English or the original Scriptural languages.
- Reading Books, Not Verses
The Introduction to the ESV Reader's Bible explains this point well. Headings, chapters and footnotes can be helpful, but were not in the original inspired documents included in the Bible.
Each book of Scripture was therefore viewed as a unified whole and often read that way. [...] First-century churches commonly read aloud an entire letter from Peter or John or Paul when assembled together for worship.
Atomization of the Scriptures can prevent us from encountering the chapters and verses of the Bible in the larger context of the documents that contain them. We miss out on the flow of the argument, the arc of the story, and the broader context of individual verses. (1)
It may seem surprising at first, but reading the overall flow of the story—without headings, chapter or verse divisions—does help us to interpret the Bible more accurately. By reading each book of the Bible in full and in its context, we acknowledge that the biblical writers never intended for verses to be quoted in isolation. Instead, they stand in a wider contextual flow that makes sense only in larger units.
Matthew 18:20 is an example of how 'atomization' leads to missing out on the true meaning of a verse. It reads: "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them."
Many believe it to highlight the importance of Christian fellowship, and Christ's promise to be present at even the smallest meeting. However, if we read the whole passage as a unit, we find that this verse actually concludes Jesus' discourse on how to deal with sin within faith community (vv. 15-20). If verse 20 is dealing with the importance of fellowship, it would certainly not fit well with the verses that came before it!
This should prompt us to rethink our interpretations of Scriptural passages, and help us towards better biblical exegesis.
We do need external resources besides Scripture to help us with good exegesis. That said, we can make the best of them and accelerate our growth as interpreters of God's Word by simply taking note of these skills and improving on them.
So what are some simple skills or techniques that you use for your exegesis while preparing for your sermons? I'd like to hear from you, so let me know; I read every comment.
(1) ESV Reader’s Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), Introduction.