Walking Through the Psalms

During 2022 I have been enjoying a slow walk through the book of Psalms. I have been working through the book one Psalm at a time. I have shared the journey via YouTube and sought to convey a detail and a point of application from each Psalm to help others enjoy reading the Psalm. I will attach the playlist below this post.

As we are now at the halfway point in the year, I thought I would pull together some reflections:

  1. Slowing down and pondering a Psalm allows you to appreciate the artistic crafting contained within a Psalm. For instance, if I look at the short five verses of Psalm 70, I notice the key terms repeated in the first and last verses: haste, O God, deliver me; O LORD, help me. Actually, while I knew that Psalms can give a sense of completion by using similar terminology at the beginning and end, I have been surprised by how often that occurs. And the use of inclusio, or “bookends”, is only one of many types of artistry to be found in the Psalms.
  2. Scribbling on the text of a Psalm allows you to notice the flow of thought more easily. Again, sticking with Psalm 70 as a simple example, there are two movements within the body of the Psalm. In verses 2-3, the repetition of “Let them…” shows David’s concern regarding those opposing him. He wants God to deal with them. Then verse 4 has the repetition of “May…”, which points to the positive request and anticipation. David knows that seeking God leads to good for his people. Judgment of them; the blessing for us.
  3. Study intensity does not preclude devotional impact. I remember Gordon Fee writing about the need for exegesis and devotion. He noted that just as a church does not need an exegetically precise pastor who is lacking in devotional warmth as he studies his Bible in sermon preparation, the people in the pew should not be devotionally warm while being exegetically imprecise in their personal Bible times. Sometimes we fall into the trap of separating technical study from devotional reading. But when I scribble on a printout of a Psalm, note the structure, the parallelisms, the imagery, and even when I turn to a technical commentary to probe a specific issue, none of this precludes the devotional impact of the Psalm. The end goal should be that the Psalm speaks to my heart, affects my life, and potentially gets shared as an encouragement to someone else.
  4. Simplicity in Psalm study is sometimes where we find the treasure. Some of us set the bar very high for our Bible engagement. We think we have to plumb the depths and find high-level technical insights in every study. But in Psalm 70, the bottom line is straightforward. David starts the final verse with an extra line before returning to the terms that bring the Psalm full circle as they repeat the opening ideas from verse 1. What is the additional line? “But I am poor and needy.” The enemies of David need to be judged. God’s people have reason to rejoice in God. David is poor and needy. So, hasten, O God, deliver and help me. The bottom line that we can take away? “I need God.” It is not high-level original thought, and I will not get a PhD for noticing it, but it might be just the thought I need as I walk with God today.
  5. Short Psalms do not have to mean brief study. Psalm 70 is just five verses long. It is essentially a repetition of the final verses of Psalm 40. So, with it being brief and recently studied, does that make it a quick cursory study? It does not have to mean that at all! God’s Word can always be a fruitful chew! I understand the benefits of a quick read and simple study – we all need those too. But there is nothing to say that a brief Psalm must not linger longer than a few minutes in our minds and hearts. Meditate on God’s Word, day and night – that even sounds like a healthy Psalms idea!
  6. Some Psalms point overtly to Jesus; every Psalm points to God’s character. Some Psalms clearly point beyond themselves to the coming greater son of David. In other Psalms, the connection to the coming Messiah is less overt. But every Psalm points to God’s character, which is an excellent focus for your heart. It is never too big a step from God’s goodness, grace, mercy, and blessing to the fulfilment of God’s great plan in the coming of Jesus. You don’t have to force a detail to make the link explicit. But do make sure you are enjoying the God who is revealing himself through this beautiful book.
  7. Say what you see – the Psalms ask to be prayed or sung. As you read through Psalms, you may find a tune already in your mind. For example, Psalm 34 and Psalm 68 seem to strike up several songs because of songs sung in my church growing up or today. Other Psalms may feel very unfamiliar in their wording. Yet, often they offer the very words my heart wants to be praying to God. That feeling of profound contemporary relevance is not rare when spending time in Psalms. So let the words work in your heart and then let the words work on your lips, whether you are singing God’s praise or crying out to God in prayer.
  8. Share what you see – the Psalms are asking to be passed along. There is something incredibly transferable about the blessing of Psalms. The simplicity of application, the power of the imagery, the brevity of the written context – it all means you have something to share with others in conversation or with friends via text message. Psalms is a book that joins you in the most secret place of suffering or struggle, and yet it is a book that can spill out to others in the everyday activities of life. Share what you are blessed to see.

What do you appreciate about the book of Psalms? What have I missed?

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Resurrection Reverberations

We have recently celebrated another Easter. Almost two thousand of them have come and gone since the first one. Yet, the ongoing impact of Jesus’ explosion of life continues to reverberate in this world of death. 

Since Jesus is still alive today and still actively bringing people to faith, let’s go back to the first Easter and see the pattern and progression of his work. John’s account is fascinating. It also gives us some incredibly intimate and personal moments of transformation and teaching as people met the risen Jesus. This same Jesus is alive today and still leads many through this same pattern and progression.

1. Hearing a report: Peter and John (John 20:1-2)

After the devastating spectacle of Jesus’ brutal death on the Roman cross, the Sunday morning began quietly. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early. She longed to show her devotion to the one who had made such a difference in her life. But the tomb was open and empty. Not understanding the significance of this, but knowing something was not right, she ran to report the missing body. The empty tomb should still unsettle people today – in a world of death and sadness, and something does not fit.

2. Checking the empty tomb (John 20:3-10)

Peter and John ran to the tomb, to the place of death, with John out in front. The competitive lifelong friends were aware of each other as they tried to make sense of Jesus’ death. But the tomb was, indeed, empty. It did not look like a crime scene with body wrappings strewn around the floor. It felt organized, orderly, and obviously, something highly unusual had happened. John saw and believed. Throughout the gospel, this disciple had been especially close to Jesus. It was no surprise that he would respond quickly with faith. But what about others? What about nobodies, doubters, and failures? Keep reading.

3. Meeting the gracious risen Jesus: new faith and family (John 20:11-18)

Mary Magdalene was the last person you would expect to have the honour of meeting the Risen Christ first – especially in that culture. She was a woman of no significance with a cartload of baggage from life. It is beautiful to recognize that Jesus came first to a woman, and a woman with question marks all over her reputation. If we wrote the story of Jesus’ return from the dead, we might have him knocking on Pilate’s door – “Remember me?”  Or perhaps we’d have his silhouette darkening the door of a Sanhedrin council meeting – “I’m back!”  Or maybe we would be less dramatic and have him come to the key leaders of the soon-to-launch church movement. But we didn’t write the story; eyewitnesses did. And the facts were clear: Jesus chose to make this insignificant and baggage-laden woman the first eyewitness!

Please take note of what this passage tells us about Jesus. First, and of utmost importance, she looks for the body lying but instead sees Jesus standing: he is very much alive! Even if we have read this account a thousand times, let us never lose the wonder of this moment and this truth! Second, as we have already underlined, he chose to meet with Mary Magdalene. Perhaps he knew how her tender heart would be breaking at his death after all he had done for her. (Still today, Jesus loves to meet with nobodies burdened by the baggage of life and feeling desperately small in a world of death!)

Third, notice his sensitivity to her: “Why are you weeping?”  And then, fourth, observe his personal connection with her; he spoke her name. (How beautiful it is to see hurting people discover that not only is Jesus alive as a historical fact. More than that, he is sensitive and personal in his desire for connection with them – he knows my name!)  This personal connection leads us to the fifth observation, and a critical one: in v17, Jesus has created a new family and invites his followers to join. For the first time in the gospel, he calls his followers “my brothers.”  He overtly extends his special relationship to them for the first time, “my Father and your Father, my God and your God.”  And Mary is launched with the privilege of reporting this to the others. Not only had she seen him alive, but he had “said these things to her!”

4. Hearing Christ’s commission (John 20:19-23)

The scene shifts from the garden that morning to a behind-closed-doors gathering of the disciples in Jerusalem that evening. The reports were swirling in the conversations and the hearts of the disciples, but then Jesus joined them. Again, notice how his character is not seething and bent on revenge. There is a tenderness and a purposefulness about him. He speaks peace to these troubled hearts. He shows his hands and side – Jesus is far more willing to share evidence of his death and resurrection than most humans are willing to pursue it! He lays out their commission – just as His Father sent him, so now he would be sending them out to spread the news to others. And they would be empowered by the Spirit of God, with forgiveness at the heart of their activity and message.

5. Checking the living evidence: faith and worship (John 20:24-31)

The account continues in the same room, but eight days later. Now is the moment for Thomas to receive the unfortunate label that has stuck ever since. The rest had seen Jesus’ hands and side, but Thomas had declared that his belief would need the same evidence. Notice how the chapter began with disciples running to check the evidence of an empty tomb. It ends with another disciple seeking proof of the resurrection – our faith is founded on fact. 

So, Jesus joined them again, and his focus settled on Thomas. Notice that Jesus did not rebuke the doubter; instead, he offered evidence. And Thomas’ response has echoed down through the centuries, “My Lord and my God!”  (I am glad that Thomas got to speak the punchline of the whole Gospel of John!)

Jesus offered evidence to Thomas. And Jesus also gave hope to all who would not have the same direct opportunity to reach out and feel the wounds. It is possible, even blessed, to believe based on eyewitness testimony and the preponderance of historical evidence. Actually, the whole of John’s gospel was written to invite people to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and by believing, to have life!

6. Meeting the gracious risen Jesus: commission reminder – what kind of fishing? (John 21:1-14)

The final chapter of John continues the expanded presentation of the Great Commission. Already we have seen Matthew’s “All authority . . . given to me . . . Go!” (In John, that sounds like “As the Father has sent me, even so, I send you…”)  We have seen the “I am with you always . . .” (In John: “Receive the Holy Spirit…”). But what about the specifics of what disciple-making will look like – the bringing people in and then building them up element of Matthew’s Great Commission? Here comes John 21, with Jesus tenderly and graciously meeting his followers again. This time, by the Sea of Galilee.

This passage is filled with gentle reminders of their commissioning. The adrenaline of those weeks in Jerusalem had faded. Now seven disciples were out in a boat trying to catch fish again. Jesus gently reminded them of his first encounter with some of them, back at the beginning, in Luke 5. He had called them to fish, not for fish, but people.

As they came to shore, he gently reminded them of another earlier lesson. As they worked with Jesus, he could provide necessary provisions by the Sea of Galilee. He had done it before: bread and fish for thousands. Even today, we need these reminders. If we have met the Risen Christ, then there is a calling on our lives, a calling to fish for people and join Jesus in his mission to draw people to himself out of this dark world.

But there was another reminder there, too: the charcoal fire strategically placed to cook the breakfast and pull Peter’s heart back to that night in Jerusalem.

7. Commission clarification for Peter (& John): feeding family and following faithfully (John 21:15-25)

We know from the other Gospels that Peter had already met with Jesus alone on Easter Sunday. But his failure to follow Jesus during the trials may still have echoed in his hurting heart. Or perhaps the echo was in the estimation of the others. In chapter 20, we see Jesus come to the nobody and the doubter, but what about the failure? If we fail, are we finished? Another tender conversation follows, with Jesus offering three opportunities to Peter to declare his devotion and three affirmations of his commission to feed the flock. Peter had declared his loyalty even unto death, but he had not made it through the night in his own strength. But now, Jesus offered Peter the privilege for which he longed – the opportunity to live for Jesus and, eventually, to die for Jesus.

Peter and John walked along the beach and, ultimately, towards their deaths, with Peter out in front. The competitive lifelong friends were aware of each other as Peter tried to make sense of Jesus’ words about their deaths. One would face martyrdom for his master. The other would suffer the challenges of growing old and dying. We are all on one path or the other. Some of us will be killed for Jesus. Others of us will grow old and die following Jesus. Either way, the instruction Jesus gave still stands. For now, we are to fish for people and feed the flock. And how can we follow faithfully to the end? “Follow me.”  Simple. Keep your eyes on the risen Christ.

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That same pattern and progression are still at work today. In a world of death, something does not fit. As people hear about Jesus, they are invited to check the empty tomb. Hopefully, as they gather evidence, they will meet the risen Lord personally. He still loves to come to nobodies, doubters, and failures. And as we meet him, we discover life in the relational bonds of the Trinity and find the purpose for our lives in this world. We are here to fish for lost people and feed God’s people. And as we keep our eyes on the living Christ, we are empowered to live for Him and eventually die for Him – confident that death is not the end of the story!

Evaluating Exegetical Options

When you are making sense of a passage, you will often have to evaluate several options. Perhaps two or three possibilities quickly emerge to make sense of a detail in the text. Maybe different commentators offer different explanations. If you take biblical study seriously then you will face this frequently. How can we evaluate the options and weigh the evidence in support of each?

This feels like a preacher’s concern. Of course, it should be. I suspect too many preachers don’t wrestle with their passage enough to notice different exegetical possibilities. But it should not be just a preacher’s concern. What about the people in your church? Where will they get a taste for really wrestling with the biblical text and coming to thought through and informed conclusions?

The approach I use is not a formula guaranteeing results. It is not spreadsheet-based with automatic formulae. It is a guideline that helps me weigh evidence. If I have level 1 evidence then it will generally be given more weight than level 2 or level 3 evidence. At the same time, if I have evidence at several different levels, it may outweigh evidence at a higher level. This is a guide, not a formula. I still need to subjectively do the weighing, even when the guide gives me an indication of the relative weight.

So from most valuable down to the least valuable:

Level 1. Syntactical Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option that is found within the passage’s own structure or grammar.  This is the internal contextual support for an understanding of the passage.

Level 2. Contextual Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in the context of the passage.  The closer the context, the higher the value (immediate context is stronger than section context, which is stronger than book context, which is stronger than same writer context, etc.)

Level 3. Lexical Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in the specific meaning of words used.  Since the meaning of a word is determined by the company it keeps, this category actually overlaps with both syntactical and contextual evidence, but a lexical argument lacking in syntactical or contextual support can sit here at level three.

Level 4. Correlational Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in more distant biblical support where the same word or concept appears.  After all, a different writer may be using the term in a different way.  (Remember that a distant passage that directly influences your focus passage, such as an Old Testament section that is quoted, is highly significant and may be considered as a form of contextual or level 2 evidence.)

Level 5. Theological Evidence – this is support for an interpretational option found in theology, rather than elsewhere in the Bible.  This is like correlational evidence, but the correlation is with a theological creed or system.

Level 6. Verificational Evidence – this is support for a position found in “experts” (i.e. commentators, authors, sermons, etc.)  It is easy to fall into a false reliance on published books. Simply because a published name agrees with a position is of minimal value.  It is so much better to integrate their arguments into the five categories above. That way the commentary becomes a conversation partner rather than a shortcut that always determines your understanding. Much better to weigh the evidence and come to an informed conclusion, rather than reading a commentator and come to someone else’s conclusion.

Remember, this is a guideline, but I think it is helpful.  It pushes us to look for understanding within the text itself and within the context. 

I do see a lot of people who either don’t wrestle with the meaning of the text in any meaningful way or else are too quick to accept the conclusions of others – either their preferred system of theology or their favourite commentator or preacher. Looking up a passage in two or three commentaries does not equate to exegetical effort.

We have to recognize the spiritual gravitas and countless other personal and ministry benefits that only come from diligent exegetical labour.

Christian Living Reoriented

There is a well-worn path in evangelical Christianity.  It begins with the presentation of wonderful news – that God has done everything necessary, in Christ’s death on the cross, to make it possible for us to receive salvation.  All we have to do is trust in Christ and we are saved.  To put it another way, we don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done it for us. 

The path then makes a surprising turn.  Having trusted in Christ for salvation, we soon find the path turning steeply uphill as we discover that living the Christian life is another matter entirely.  Living as a Christian is presented as a list of disciplines, activities, new habits to start and old habits to kick.  The sunny days of gospel invitation give way to storm clouds of pressure and obligation.

A superficial reading of the Bible only seems to reinforce this idea.  After all, there is plenty of instruction and lots of commands directed at believers. 

But a more careful reading of our Bibles will yield a more helpful set of directions.

The gospel is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17).  That faith is both pioneered and perfected by Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).  And as Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The Christian life begins by faith, and is to continue by faith.  The way we “get on” is the same as the way we “got in” – by faith in Jesus.  (See Galatians 3:1-3 for Paul’s critical evaluation of the idea that we are to grow to maturity by our own flesh effort instead of by faith!)

I would like to illustrate what this means and then suggest three areas where we may need a reorientation of our perspective.

Illustration – An actively engaged faith. Imagine a couple dancing at their wedding.  We are the bride of Christ, he has won our hearts and we are his.  And now we are invited to live by faith, with our gaze fixed on him and our every move lived in response to his loving leadership.  Just as in a dance, there are three options and two of them are bad.  We can imagine that living by faith means being uninvolved – hanging like a dead weight as he leads the dance.  That will never be a pretty sight.  Or we might assume that we must play our part and fight to express our own leadership on perhaps 50% of the steps.  Again, not pretty.  The beautiful way to engage the dance is 100% active, but 100% responsive.  We fix the gaze of our hearts on him and follow his every lead.  Fully involved, but completely responsive.  That makes for a beautiful married dance.

With that image in mind, let me suggest three wonderful gifts that God has given us for living the Christian life.  These are three gifts that perhaps we need in order to reorient our perspectives and enjoy them to the maximum:

Gift 1 – The Bible.  The Bible is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  But we tend to view the Bible as a book about us.  We read it looking for the instruction or the encouragement that we need to live our lives.  We settle for the idea that it is an instruction manual for life and then read through it looking for something that will help us.  Our unspoken feeling is often that it is not a very well-organized manual for twenty-first century living.  Our disappointment can lead to us neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Bible is so much more than a manual for life.  It is primarily and ultimately a revelation of the heart of God, culminating in the mission of Christ. (See John 5:39, for example, where Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for daily Bible time spent pursuing life for themselves, but neglecting the revelation of God’s Son.)  When we sit down with a cup of coffee to read the Bible, or listen to it on the way to work, or take a few minutes at lunch time to ponder a few verses, we should come to it with a simple prayer, “Lord, please show me your heart as I read this now. I need to know you. Please show me you.”  Coming to the Bible looking for God’s heart and character, looking for God’s plan that leads to Christ, looking for Christ himself – this is the best way to engage with this relational prompt given to us by God.  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Bible is a fantastic gift from God to help me do exactly that.

Gift 2 – The Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the Holy Spirit as being there for us.  We might focus on the Spirit as a means to experience excitement and miracles for our own sake, or we might reduce the Spirit to a mere source of power as we strive to live as we are supposed to live.  Again, our disappointment with either the miraculous or the empowering work of the Spirit may remain unspoken, but may also lead us to neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Holy Spirit is able to work miracles when he chooses, and he is gloriously empowering.  But the primary passion of the Spirit is to point our hearts to Christ (see John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:14, Romans 5:5.)  When we wake up in the morning, why not begin the day by greeting the God who has not slept, but has been keeping watch over us, “Good morning, Father – thank you for your good heart and your love for me.  Good morning, Lord Jesus – thank you again for all you did for me on the cross, that you are alive today interceding for me.  And Holy Spirit, make me sensitive to all the ways you point me to trust in God’s good heart today, help me to keep my eyes on Jesus today.”  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Holy Spirit is a glorious gift from God to help me continue to do exactly that.

Gift 3 – The Body of Christ.  The Church is a relational prompt, given by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the church as being there for us.  What can I get out of it?  Is it serving my needs?  How easily we become consumers of services offered by the church, reducing our participation to that of a critic posting our negative reviews for others to browse.  Our disappointment with the church is often not kept hidden, and too easily we can neglect this gift from God.

In reality, the local church is a God-given gift, a community where believers can love and be loved in a way that is different from the world around us (see John 13:34-35).  Instead of looking to church as a consumer, ready to evaluate and offer a negative review, let’s see church for what it is.  Who can I love, encourage, and pray for today?  Who can I serve in practical ways?  What responsibility can I take on that will give me the opportunity to point people to Jesus?  When I preach, how can I point listeners to the goodness of God in Christ (instead of pointing them to their own failure and their need to try harder)?  When I teach the children’s class, how can I point them to Jesus so that they might find life to the full?  Who can I send an encouraging text message to today?  Who can I love, and serve, and encourage?  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The local church is a community of faith strugglers like me, encouraging each other to look to Jesus day by day. “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Why Humility Makes Sense

Last time I wrote about genuine humility in Bible interpretation (click here to go there). We live in a time when there is an increasing pseudo-humility, and a decreasing genuine humility in biblical interpretation. Why does humility make sense?

Increasing Pseudo-Humility – As truth apparently becomes more personalized, people can sound increasingly gracious if that is the tone they choose (there is a militant version of it too, which is also dangerous). The gracious tone and pseudo-humility sound like this: “I can’t tell you what this means to you, but my personal interpretation, for me, is this…” If anyone ponders whether this is a humble approach to the Bible or not, they will end up thinking about the horizontal dimension. That is to say, I don’t insist that my truth must also be your truth. Horizontal.

Decreasing Genuine Humility – But what about the vertical dimension? After all, if the Bible is God’s Word, then humility in interpretation should be evaluated vertically. Beneath the shroud of pseudo-humility lies an incredible arrogance. It says: “I have sufficient knowledge of every relevant subject, and have no worries about being culturally conditioned, so that I can evaluate the content of the Bible and sit in judgment over what it should mean in the realm of ‘my truth.'”

So why does humility make sense? Three quick facts to anchor our hearts as preachers and as readers of the Bible:

1. I am not God. Seems obvious, but in a fallen world, it certainly bears repeating! What I actually know is an infinitesimally small fraction of all there is to know. I am so shaped by my environment and culture, and yet incredibly unaware of how much my values reflect that reality.

2. God is God. He always has been and always will be. He is very good at being God. (Included in this statement of the obvious, but worth stating nonetheless, is that God is a wonderful communicator…why do we think we should sit in judgment on his inspired Scriptures?)

3. God is humble. It is easy to think that God values humility in us because it serves the pride in him. Dictators demand subservience. But the Bible reveals a God to us who is anything but a demanding dictator. His other-centred, self-giving and self-sacrificing nature appreciates humility in the human heart for the right reason. It is not to crush us, it is to lift us up and embrace us. God values humility in us because it resonates with who he is.

Let us be and help others to be humble and gracious. Vertically, we sit under the teaching of God’s Word with humility. Horizontally, we can speak of the meaning of God’s Word with gracious attitudes but also with boldness. This is what our “subjective truth” world desperately needs.

Handling God’s Word With Genuine Humility

Hermeneutics matters massively for us preachers.  It also matters for the people to whom we preach.  How we interpret the Bible makes all the difference in every aspect of faith and life. 

When hermeneutics is taught, you will typically find some standard elements.  There will be a foundation in bibliology – establishing the unique nature of the inspired Word of God.  There will usually be a set of general hermeneutical principles – guidelines that work whatever passage we may be studying.  Then comes the special hermeneutical principles – guidelines for each specific type of literature or genre.

I want to suggest that we need to include humility in our hermeneutics.  I don’t just mean humility that we may be misinterpreting a passage – although that is always helpful.  I mean humility as a foundational attitude. 

Humility or Hubris?

We live in an age when many believe it is not right to claim any definitive interpretation of a text.  Most people in our increasingly subjective age dismiss the idea of authorially intended meaning that retains any authority.

Many will see this subjectivity as a source of genuine humility in biblical interpretation.  Bombastic declarations of a definitive biblical interpretation have always been the antithesis of humility, have they not?

The logic of this position seems to make sense.  After all, people will say, there are many interpretations out there in the wider church world.  Furthermore, nobody has the right to claim to be right in their interpretation and thereby critically evaluate the interpretation of others.  And so, the logic goes, we are free to make of each text what we think best in our context.

Many people will feel this approach is the epitome of humility.  In reality, the tone may feel humble, but the core posture here is hubris, not humility.

Any Fixed Points?

Let’s be simplistic and imagine two marks in a diagram.  One represents the Bible.  The other represents you or me.

The Bible is a fixed point.  I know the Word of God is active, but hear me out.  The biblical text is an objective and fixed point.  God inspired the Scriptures so that every word in the original manuscript of each document is precisely what he wanted it to be.  We may release new translations, but the original text does not move.  And it still has absolute authority. 

We are not fixed points.  When I come to the Bible, I bring all sorts of assumptions.  My culture, my place in time, my worldview, my experiences, etc., will all influence how I understand the biblical text as I read it.   

Human nature, and the tendency of our time, is to subject the Biblical text to my subjective evaluation.  So the Bible becomes “unfixed” while I sit fixed in my position as the evaluator.  Chronological arrogance creeps in.  I start to evaluate what the text should mean in light of my great cultural insights.  Rather than acknowledging my arrogance, I can avoid the problem of sounding proud if I simply declare my interpretation to be personal to me. Then I won’t tread on any toes by declaring it to be the truth for anyone else. 

The reality is that the Bible is not subject to us; we are subject to it.  We are the moveable ones in the diagram.  Swayed by every wind of fashionable thinking, we don’t know as much as we might think we do.  So wherever we live in the world, or whenever we live in history, we are subject to evaluation by the Bible.  The Word of God comes against our assumptions.  It speaks against the spirit of the age.  It opposes the arrogance of our minuscule knowledge. 

On a horizontal level, our tone toward others may be humble.  But vertically, our subjective approach to God’s Word is the height of arrogance. 

Humble Hermeneutics

So what does it look like to interpret the Bible with humility?

  1. Let us be humbly thankful for God’s Word.  What a privilege we have to read, in our language, an accurate translation of the Bible.  What an honour it is to have this gift from outside of our world.  What a blessing to be able to read God’s self-revelation – we would be grasping in the dark without it.  What an encouragement it is to have God shepherd us through His Word.  He knows what we need and works in our specific circumstances, by His Spirit, and through His Word.
  2. Let us be humbly responsive to God’s Word.  Instead of arrogantly evaluating the Bible against what I think I know to be true, let’s humble ourselves.  Humbly respond to God’s Word as He challenges your thinking, beliefs, attitudes, habits, and every possible aspect of your life. 
  3. Let us be humbly confident interpreting God’s Word.  As we carefully apply a sound hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures, we can confidently assert the meaning of the text.  Always humbly recognizing that we could be wrong, or there could be a better way to state it, we can speak the Word of God as God’s Word.  This does not mean our tone should become bombastic or unloving.  But let’s not settle for the pseudo-humility of subjectivity in our Bible reading.

We need a humble hermeneutical approach to the Bible as we prepare to preach. Our hearers need to learn that same posture and approach. We live in an era of subjective pseudo-humility. Let’s pray that God will raise up generations with a genuine humility in handling God’s Word and a courageous willingness to respond to it and proclaim it!

Details, Details!

There are details, and then there are details. There are textual details in your preparation. And there are textual details in your presentation. After all, every passage is made up of lots of details. There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, names, quotations, allusions, grammatical constructions, figures of speech, and on the list goes. Whatever kind of passage you are looking at, it is built with the basic building block of details.

1. Details in Sermon Preparation. We should begin the study process with an interest in every detail. To study a text is to try to figure out why each detail is present, what it is intended to do, and how they all combine to convey a message. It might also help to notice what is not included. Exegesis is more than the study of details, but it can never be less than that.

The Bible is not written with padding to reach a word count – it wasn’t written by procrastinating students! The Bible is not a cheap paperback, overly elaborating every incidental detail to give the impression of a complex plot. The Bible is sparing in detail, precise in its writing.

Our job as Bible students is to see and interpret every element of the text. We can’t springboard off a keyword and ignore the rest of the passage. We must make sure our understanding of every detail coheres. If one detail is left untouched, we can’t be confident that we have grasped the message as a whole. So we scour the text, moving back and forth between analysis of details and synthesis of the whole passage in its broader context. We alternate between microscope and binoculars.

As we study the text we start to recognize that some details serve a more significant role in communicating the message of the text. Some details are important in making our passage unique. Other details are “load-bearing walls” in this passage. Every detail matters, but not every detail carries equal weight in a passage. It is only through careful study that we can identify which is which.

2. Details in Sermon Presentation. When it comes time to deliver our sermon we are limited by time and motivated by purpose. What is our purpose when we preach? It is not to present every avenue of inquiry that we have pursued in our study. It is not to download all of our accumulated information to our listeners. Our purpose is tied to our main idea and its application in the lives of our listeners. Therefore we select which details to highlight in order to effectively communicate this passage to these people.

This selection process involves an evaluation of the passage. In light of the study, what are the critical “load-bearing” details in the passage? It also involves evaluating our listeners. Are there details that may distract our listeners, or would our failure to pay attention to a detail come across as evading it, or as a mistake on our part? Some details can be explained quickly and easily, others take more time, but we will never have enough time to explain every detail as much as we might like.

Preaching is not as simple as following a formula. It isn’t simply study a passage, write a message and deliver it. We need to be meticulous in our study, but selective in our sermon. We need to treat every detail like the treasure that it is – an inspired word in God’s Word. And we need to preach God’s Word in a way that honours the words, but always seeing them as part of the coherent message of the passage as a whole. We need to pray for wisdom to see the passage as the original author intended, and to hear the message as our congregation will hear it presented. May we all grow in the varied skills it takes to handle all these details!

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This resource may be helpful for you or others on the subject of studying Bible passages:

Word Studies 2 – Identifying Key Terms

This week we are pondering the specific skill of word study in preaching.  Today I’ll focus on identifying key terms, then tomorrow we can consider the actual processes involved.

So how do you identify words to define more carefully?

1. Prayerfully read and study the passage.  Sounds silly, but until you get some decent familiarity with the passage, you can’t start identifying words.

2. Recognize that not every word is equal.  All words are equally inspired, but not all words are equal in a passage.  You might assume this is obvious.  After all, a weighty word like justified or righteous must be worth studying, while a normal word like in or of is obvious, right?  Sometimes wrong.  A “weighty” word may not be a key term in a particular passage (it may be given in the build up to the point of a prayer, for instance), while an obvious word may be the key to the whole section.

3. Recognize that your time is restricted.  It would be great to do a full chase on every term in a passage.  Actually, hypothetically it might be great in your study phase, if you had infinite time.  But in reality studying every word equally will distract you from the force of the passage in your study, and it will certainly confuse people in your preaching.  For instance, in Ephesians 1:15-23, I would cover the first 47 words fairly briefly.  Why?  Because I want the focus to be on the point of the passage, which is what Paul is actually praying from the end of v17 onwards.  If I give detailed explanations of faith, Lord, love, saints, prayers, God, Father and glory in my sermon, people will be numb by the time I get to Paul’s actual request.

So how to identify key terms?

A. Look for repeated terms.  In Ephesians 3:1-13, the term mystery is repeated and seems important. (Dynamic equivalent translations may hide repetition of terms, prefer formal equivalence for focused study.)

B. Look for structurally important terms.  Down in verse 8, grace was given to Paul with the results being the rest of verses 8-10.

C. Look for key connections or little words.  In this passage, the as, of verse 5 feels significant when the passage is read carefully (even better, when the passage is broken down to a phrase by phrase structural outline, or disagrammed if you have that skill from Greek).  Incidentally, once you start looking at the structure of epistle text like this, a good formal translation needs to be the working text, not a dynamic equivalent text.

D. Look for key terms in the wider context.  A term may only be used once in the passage, but be critical in the flow of the book.  For example, stewardship in verse 2 is important in the flow of Ephesians 1-3.

E. Look for key terms that are missed by the other guidelines.  Here’s the catch all.  It forces you to keep looking and observing the text.  In this case, it allows you to notice that glory in verse 13 is massively significant.  Doesn’t look it structurally, but actually Paul digressed in verse 1, so completing that thought in v13 is a big deal here.

Five Looks and Two Options

This post is building on the previous two.  Yesterday I shared “Five Looks” approach to Bible study to illustrate a discussion on Monday’s post.  The issue raised on Monday was do we preach the main thought of a text, or a biblical theology prompted by the main thought of a text?  The question really focuses in on step 4 of the “five looks” – Look Forward.  How does looking beyond our focus text help us in the process of interpretation?

Some would say that we must read all of Scripture through the lens of later revelation, and that consequently all preaching must progress the story to its full conclusion.  I beg to differ, while asking for careful hearing so that I am not just dismissed as being somehow outside the pale of someone’s definition of orthodoxy!

It is important to consider a text in its biblical context.  This includes what comes later, as well as what came before.  However, we should not explain a text in light of later revelation such that the text itself, as inspired originally, is left stripped of its value.  The human author did not know the later revelation, so why must we require later information in order to interpret the text as it stands?  The progress of revelation matters greatly, but we need not immediately read a passage through a later lens.  We look at a passage in its context of the progress of revelation, but then progress the story beyond that if necessary and helpful.  We do not need to meld the latter with the former into one “super-interpretation” (although I would call such a process actually a diminished interpretation).  Rather we should do one, then the other, recognizing that the order matters.

Study, understand and preach a passage in its context (recognizing where it fits in the progress of revelation).  If necessary, develop the greater story to its culmination.  If you like, using the “five looks” approach presented above: step 4 carefully understood is important in our Bible study, but in preaching we should preach the fruit of steps 1-3, plus 5, adding in 4 if necessary and helpful.

Look Look Look Look Look

Perhaps you have come across the “Five Looks” approach to Bible study?  It is a clear and helpful approach credited to Andrew Reid of Ridley College, Melbourne.  Here is a brief synopsis:

1. Look Up – We need to receive the Bible as the word of God.  This implies a commitment to prayer and faith.

2. Look Down – We must recognize the Bible as the work of human authors.  This implies careful consideration of the deliberate communication as designed by the human writer. So, exegesis is about considering and understanding the text itself, while also adding in two more looks…

3. Look Back – We need to see a text in its biblical context by looking back to what has gone before, and:

4. Look Forward – We need to see a text in its biblical context by looking forward to what comes after the text.

5. Look Here – Finally it is important to apply the text today and consider it’s application in today’s world.

This is a helpful approach.  Tomorrow I will add a post commenting on this approach to Bible study in light of my post from yesterday.  Feel free to comment in the meantime.