A basic model for handling Scripture faithfully - extract from 'Bible Exposition'


Biblical interpretation is a complex activity that stretches our minds and hearts. Any description of it that makes it sound like a straightforward thing that involves simply applying a few simple principles to a passage in order to come out with the ‘right’ answer is massively over-simplifying. However, it is also the case that when biblical interpretation has gone significantly wrong in word ministry we can often track the problem back to some fundamental principles that have either been ignored or never properly learned. We can perhaps draw an analogy with sport here. When an elite sports team starts playing badly their coach can often be heard saying that the way to put the problem right is for the team to go back to the beginning and to start doing the basics right all over again. What’s presented here is a model that you may well have seen before in one form or another. It, or something like it, is often presented in teaching on the basics of biblical interpretation for word ministry. In the particular form presented here it is drawn from David Helm’s book Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Crossway, 2014).

Let’s build the model in stages.

In any faithful ministry of the word we want the biblical text to speak to us now.

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We want God to speak through the word that he authored back then because we believe that it is also his living and active word for us in our lives now. However if we jump straight from the text into application to us in the here and now things often go astray. We can imagine, for example, that an instruction in the Old Testament to avoid eating certain foods is a direct instruction to us. Or we might see the description of the ‘fire of burning coals’ that the disciples see on the shore alongside Jesus in John chapter 21 verse 9 and draw out the message that we must burn with passion for Jesus (and at least one of the Crosslands faculty has heard someone make that point forcefully in a Bible study on that chapter).

Instead, in seeking to hear the voice of God speak to us now through Scripture it will often be the case that the long way round is the right way round.

Even at this early stage in our thinking about biblical interpretation we might imagine someone provocatively asking whether we’re about to make the task of hearing God’s voice in Scripture difficult in ways that will end up taking the Bible out of the hands of ordinary believers who’ve not taken formal courses in biblical interpretation. Now of course God has constantly spoken to countless ordinary believers through his word, and continues to do so. But we can respond to this objection that biblical interpretation is being made too difficult in two ways.

First, think of the nature of Christian discipleship. The task of biblical interpretation is not some clinical task that we ‘do’ to Scripture. Instead it is the spiritual task of learning to listen to God speak in the way he has spoken. Disciplining ourselves in this way is simply one aspect of our life-long calling to submit our stubborn wills to God’s will. Biblical interpretation is therefore one further aspect of our life of discipleship with Christ. Now in discipleship in general it is rarely the case that the route to the desired outcome is the easy one. We often grow in joy in Christ through the Lord’s discipline of putting us through hard times in which we learn to rejoice. We learn joy by going, as it were, the long way round. Christ now sits at the Father’s right hand in glory only because he was willing to be humiliated in suffering and death in the flesh. He was granted glory only at the end of a route which took him, as it were, the long way round in order to attain it. Very rarely in the Christian life, therefore, do we receive some spiritual benefit by taking the shortest possible route in order to grasp it. It is not a surprise that the same turns out to be the case with discerning God’s voice in Scripture.

Second, think of the nature of God’s acts for us in the world. God has chosen to reveal himself most clearly not directly in front of our eyes in the here and now, but back there and then in the very particular life of Jesus in the ancient world. And God has chosen to bring about our salvation not in some general sense but through the very particular and one-off events that he brought about in the life, death and resurrection of his Son. Indeed this is sometimes called ‘the scandal of particularity’. If we want to know God and if we want to be saved we simply must go ‘back there and then’ to grasp things that he did long ago and far away. Thus, this basic model for biblical interpretation, and all that will follow from it, is not some arbitrary principle of interpretation imposed on the Bible by self-proclaimed experts in order to make it unnecessarily difficult. Rather, this is a model we arrive at by reflecting on the nature of discipleship, and on the nature of God’s acts of revelation and salvation.

This then is the first step in taking the right ‘long way round’ from the text to us now: we must listen to the message it was delivering to ‘them/then’: that is to the original hearers in their context. We can call this the step of ‘exegesis’. That is a term made up of two Greek words meaning (literalistically) ‘drawing out’  -  that is, we are seeking at this stage to draw out what was being said in the original context. For example, in a study of Galatians this step of exegesis would lead us to ask such questions as: what precisely was the problem in the churches in Galatia that Paul was wanting to sort out through his letter? It may not initially seem to us to be a problem that we have, but we want to see it for what it was. What exactly did Paul say in order to deal with that problem? It may not be what we would have said in response to that problem, but we want to see his words for what they are.

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As we’ll come to see, this task of exegesis is a difficult one to discipline yourself to stick to in the midst of the pressures of busy ministry.

We’re not yet quite ready to come to us/now. There’s a further step to take. Here is why. The Bible is a book which in the end is about one thing - or rather, one person - and that is Jesus. Therefore we need to understand what God was saying to them/then in the light of Jesus, who is the very centre of Scripture.

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Some versions of this diagram put the symbol of the cross at the top right-hand corner, which is of course a perfectly reasonable thing to do since the cross is so central to our faith. However we prefer to put there, more broadly, ‘Jesus’, since there is more to Jesus as the centre of Scripture than simply the work of cross - however (literally) crucial that work is. This step is sometimes called the step of ‘theological reflection’. That means simply: reflecting on how the message you’re your exegesis has discerned ought to be interpreted within the context of the whole of Scripture, and especially with regard to what those Scriptures say about Christ. This is most obviously crucial for the Old Testament. If you’re preaching on an Old Testament passage that speaks about animal sacrifices in the temple then the message of that text as it comes to us must be interpreted in light of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice of himself on the cross and the consequent demand in the New Testament that we offer our whole lives as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). Yet theological reflection is often also needed for the New Testament. Say you’re speaking on the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12). In order to apply them well to your hearers you will need to think about how the Gospels present Jesus as the one who truly exemplifies the first half of each verse and as the one who has therefore now already experienced from the Father the blessing in the second half of each verse. It is particularly at this stage of ‘theological reflection’ that the fruits of your studies in biblical theology and doctrine should come to bear. The less informed a biblical interpreter is in these two aspects of theology, the weaker their biblical interpretation will be at just this point. 

It is only now that we can complete the journey from the text to us, in thinking through the application of the text to us in the here and now.

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 It is here that we ask about the specific transformative impact that God wants to have on us now as he speaks this text into our lives. Application is crucial and often not easy to do well. It ought never be a brief after-thought added onto the end of a sermon in the last few minutes. For these reasons a whole unit is devoted to application later in this module, and so we will leave further discussion on it till then. 

Let’s stand back and take a look at this diagram as a whole. If we discern its message for the minister of the word, we could put it negatively as a warning, like this: Don’t rush to relevance. (We owe this phrase to a former colleague of one of the Crosslands faculty.)

Say I’ve got to give a talk to the church youth group on Friday evening, and my time for preparation is limited in the midst of a busy week with many demands pressing in on me. In my preparation it’s very tempting to read the passage a couple of times and pick out a couple of favourite words or themes that I know I can easily make relevant to the audience (for example:  “Look, the passage talks about grace  -  I can immediately think of lots of ways in which I can make grace relevant to the teenagers”). As I do this, I can easily tell myself that, in avoiding diving too deep into the ‘them/then exegesis’ on the left-hand side of the diagram, I have ensured that I will have a relevant message to speak into the lives of my hearers today.

However…  if by the end of this module you have become convinced of just one thing, we hope it is this: the Bible-teacher who regularly rushes over exegesis and theological reflection in order to get to relevance will often give Bible applications in their teaching that may sound relevant but are often only superficial. They lack a cutting edge of ‘bite’ that gets under the skin of modern culture and cuts into the details of the lives we lead and the ways of our hearts.

Disciplining yourself to dive deep into the ‘them/then exegesis’ is difficult. Every step along that way can make you feel as if you are burying yourself deeper into ancient Israel or ancient Corinth and so getting further away from having a relevant message to present to the people where you live in the twenty-first century. However we need to steel ourselves and trust the Lord’s wisdom. His wisdom is that, if we truly grasp the message of his word in all its ‘back-there-and-then’ particularity, we will discover there a message that is deeply and transformatively relevant to our hearers now. In other words, if we do a good job of ‘going the long way round’, it’s not the case that we’ll end up with complicated and irrelevant applications. Instead the opposite should be the case: we’ll regularly have richer, sharper and more perceptive application. If at this stage you’re not quite sure how that can be, then stay alert as you work through these units, as we’ll be wanting to demonstrate the truth of this point regularly.

One influential writer on preaching, Haddon Robinson, puts this same point this way: ‘Basic to perceptive application is accurate exegesis.’[1] Note that he does not say that ‘basic to accurate application is accurate exegesis’. That would be almost too obvious to need saying. Instead he says that the kind of application that accurate exegesis is necessary for is perceptive application. You may well come to this module already convinced of that. If so, we want to deepen your convictions about this principle and develop your skills in putting it into practice.

If you would like to study the full module on Bible Exposition you can purchase it here.

[1] Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages 3rd ed., Baker Academic, 2014, p.87.

Beth Butler